Some African Jackass penguins
Some African Jackass penguins

You don't think of South Africa as being a naval nation. It may have a vast coastline and be famous for oceanic pursuits such as whale-watching during the winter months, but even so.

Nonetheless, the country does have a small fleet that comes under the mantle of the South African National Defence Force, the umbrella name for all of its armed forces.

And as the name implies, its role is primarily a defensive one in order to safeguard the country and its people. But the South African Navy and its 6,000 or so active uniformed members also undertake less overtly military activities such as search-and-rescue, maritime resource protection and the like.

The organisation, which was officially set up in only 1922 under the guise of the SA Naval Service, employs the same ranking system as the Royal Navy, to which it was allied until the country achieved independence in 1934.

It also employs 1,300 or so civilians and has about 1,000 reserves, six warships, three submarines and 29 patrol boats among other vessels at its disposal.

So altogether compact and bijou, you might say, particularly when compared with the UK's historically vital, and massive, combative naval force, which played such a key role in establishing the British Empire as the dominant world power of its day.

For example, even after swingeing cuts, the Royal Navy still employs a huge 34,360 or so personnel, has 2,620 volunteer reserves and four times the number of warships as South Africa.

Simon's Town

Anyway, the reason that I'm banging on about this is that, just about an hour down the road from Stellenbosch, about half-way down the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula, is the lovely Simon's Town, which myself and my beloved took it upon ourselves to visit the other day.

Simon's Town just happens to be South Africa's only remaining full naval base, after Salisbury Island in Durban's harbour was shut down 12 years ago following a massive government cost-cutting exercise.

Incidentally, however, the Island is now scheduled to reopen at some unspecified point in the future to act as a hub for anti-piracy patrols on Africa's east coast.

The thing about Simon's Town though is that, apart from a few uniformed sailors, the odd frigate lurking behind yachts in the harbour and, hmmm, a massive and rather unattractive dockyard, you would hardly tell it was the site of a naval base at all - and an important one for both the Royal and SA Navies over the last two centuries at that.

In fact, given its strategically important position, not least as a bridgehead for Britain's first invasion and occupation of the Cape, it's not surprising that Simon's Town remained in UK hands up until 1957, when it was finally handed back to South Africa.

As a reminder of such times, you'll even find a statue of Able Seaman Just Nuisance on a board walkway just off the grandly named Jubilee Square car park. The Able Seaman in question was, in fact, a beer-swilling Great Dane adopted by the Royal Navy during World War II.

But unlike its raucous and often rough-and-ready British equivalents, Simon's Town appears to be actually quite a genteel place, full of pretty Cape Dutch and Victorian buildings, quaint streets and a lovely Marina with shops and restaurants set right on the waterfront.

African penguins

Indeed, behind Cape Town and Stellenbosch, it's actually the third oldest settlement in the Cape. Which means that, like just about everywhere else around here with a bit of history behind it, the 'Simon' in Simon's Town refers to one Mr van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape Colony, who rather modestly named it after himself.

Anyway, another charming attraction a couple of kilometres south of the town is the 3,000 or so African penguins that live in their own fenced-off colony on Boulders Beach. The reserve can be walked to via a pathway from a car park at nearby Seaforth beach and will cost you a heady R40 (£2.75) to get into.

But it's worth every rand because they're just so cute. Also known as Jackass Penguins because of the donkey-like braying sound that they make, even as adults they only grow to about 70 centimetres. And they seem to show no fear when waddling over to look at you standing on one of the wooden boardwalks or viewing platforms.

But sadly, the black and white birds, which are unique to southern Africa, are now endangered after having seen their numbers plummet by 95% since the start of the twentieth century from 1.5 million to about 55,000.

This decline can be blamed on everything from the harvesting of their eggs for sale to reduced fish stocks due to commercial fishing and oil spills. But if not arrested soon, it is, sadly, expected to lead to their extinction as early as 2025.

While most African penguins live on islands off the west side of the South African coast, there are actually only two colonies on the mainland.

There's this one at Boulders Beach, which the penguins suddenly decided to start inhabiting in 1985 despite having never lived there before. And there's another at Stony Point in stunning Betty's Bay on the way from Stellenbosch to Hermanus along the Whale Coast.

So all in all, a rare experience and great chance to meet these lovely charismatic creatures of the sea - and I don't mean the sailors.


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Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband