The Notebook

Lost in a sea of birds on Malgas Island

Vanessa Stephen heads to this island off Saldanha Bay, Western Cape, to meet its legendary inhabitants: the noisy and delightful Cape gannets

07 October 2018 - 00:00 By Vanessa Stephen


Malgas Island - the island of Mad Geese - is 8ha of uninhabited, flat, blindingly white land, ringed by large, wave-smoothed rocks, near Saldanha Bay.
Its legendary inhabitants, however, are not geese at all but Cape gannets - beautiful, creamy-white birds with a dusting of yellow around the head and neck, the seabird equivalent of an arum lily.
Malgas is one of only six islands upon which they breed but their numbers have dropped rapidly. I headed to the island to spend a week documenting their breeding colony and the predation on chicks and eggs from gulls and seals.
Getting there is the first hurdle. Despite the proximity to the mainland, there's invariably a large swell, and the island has no beaches off which one can safely moor.
There are two ways to get ashore. The first is for the boat's skipper to time the waves right, and get close enough for you to leap like a salmon onto one of the slippery, seaweed-covered rocks.
The alternative is the jetty, built many years ago when Malgas was mined for guano. Here, a ladder needs to be lowered for access. The skipper must perfectly time the swell so that one brave soul can leap onto the lower rungs of the ladder and climb up to the jetty.
We opted for the rickety ladder - which I managed with a 5l water container in each hand.
Safely on the island, we were met by a number of derelict buildings, remnants from the guano-mining age.
One house has been restored and, while basic, it contains beds, a place to cook and a fair number of feathers.
It's only when we rounded the building, away from the crashing surf that the noise hit us. A ceaseless squawking escalated while feathers and a fine, white dust blew in the breeze. The earth was spongy underfoot from years of guano and feathers deposited by 50,000 pairs of gannets.
My first glimpse of the sea of birds was spellbinding. Each pair guarded a spot, where a small mound held an egg or chick, nestled between webbed feet and jealously guarded from impossibly close neighbours.
They're enchanting. Dark-feathered juveniles perched on rocks and flapped their wings when the breeze blew, sometimes lifting into the air for a moment or two.
The nesting birds squawked as we passed by. Here you are an oddity to be examined with curiosity. We had our shoelaces tweaked by a beak or got accidentally walloped by a gannet whose concentration at taking off had been ruined by our unexpected presence - an experience similar to being hit by a pillow.
A constant fine rain of uric acid from birds flying overhead began the work of slowly bleaching our clothes.
Despite the spongy, bleached ground of feathers and hollow bones, it was quite impossible not to fall for their charm as we watched them playing with twigs, expressing outrage at neighbours who misjudged a landing, discovering the joys of flight or - harrowingly - falling victim to lurking predators.
The island is home to thousands of little dramas and one soon gets sucked in to these avian lives.
There's nothing for it but to lower your hat against the aerial splatter and forget the fact that a hot shower is a week and an adventurous boat ride away. Only the now matters.
• 'The Notebook' is about chance meetings and unforgettable encounters people have had on their travels. Mail your story - no more than 400 words - with the word Notebook in the subject line. If published, you win R500. Mail travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za

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