The Eastern Cape is a region of extreme diversity. Pristine beaches rub shoulders with forest-clad dunes, aloes punctuate the sere brown Karoo plains, and the history of Settlers, San and Xhosa communities tells stories of the region’s past. It’s South Africa’s premier malaria-free Big Five safari destination and it’s an adventure junkie’s playground – the highest bungy jump in the world, some of the world’s best surf, great diving, mountain biking and hiking – and it boasts South Africa’s only ski resort.
But it’s not all nature and adrenaline.
THE FRIENDLY CITY
Port Elizabeth (PE) is the gateway to the Eastern Cape – unless you’re road-tripping, that is – but before speeding away from the airport, spend some time in the friendly city, with its art and culture, history and spectacular beaches. A good place to get a sense of the city, and indeed the region, is to start with a walking tour of the city centre.
Marvel at some gorgeous old buildings, including the Feather Market Centre, where wealthy feather barons auctioned off their wares, and ponder the bizarre monument to the mythical Prester John. The walk brings you closer to South Africa’s journey to democracy. It’s called Route 67 to symbolise Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of work dedicated to freedom and democracy. There are 67 spectacular works of public art, and 67 mosaic steps leading up to a giant sculpture of Nelson Mandela, a 470-square-metre mosaic and a 65-metre-high flagpole (you can’t help wondering why they didn’t make it two metres higher) – all this with spectacular views across the bay. If you thought Port Elizabeth was named after some British monarch, you’re wrong: check out the Donkin Memorial, which commemorates the Elizabeth in question – it’s kind of a sweet love story. nmbt.co.za
SUN, SAND, SEA … AND SURF!
The Eastern Cape has some of our best beaches – from fab urban oases in East London and PE to long, lovely stretches of sand and sea between the two, and especially north of East London where the Sunshine Coast segues into the Wild Coast, which has some of the best slackpacking hikes ever. But what is a beach without surf? And if it’s surf you’re looking for, Jeffreys Bay and St Francis Bay are on every serious international surfer’s bucket list.
The coastline between PE and East London gets roughly 320 out of 365 days of sunshine a year and is referred to as the South African Sunshine Coast.
Tsitsikamma is the perfect spot to start an adrenaline-fuelled Eastern Cape adventure. First up, if you’ve got the courage, is bungy jumping off the Bloukrans River bridge, followed by tubing down the rushing waters of the Storms River as it forces its way through steep gorges and past pristine forests – a milder option would be the SUP boarding along more tranquil sections of the river. Or flying from tree to tree on a Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour.
At 217 metres, the Bloukrans River bridge is the world’s highest bungy jump.
Want to put your 4×4 to the test? Then head to the Baviaans-kloof Wilderness, a 192,000-hectare conservation area that’s a World Heritage Site and home to an amazing diversity of habitat types and species. This unspoilt mountainous terrain offers MTB, motorbike and 4×4 enthusiasts a challenge with its steep and stony ‘roads’ and scary drops.
If you’re road-tripping along the N6, pop into Tsitsa Falls and try some rock jumping or kayaking, or, during the winter months, and weather permitting, try skiing at Tiffendell Ski Resort on the slopes of the Ben MacDhui Mountain – the highest mountain pass in South Africa – and Lady Grey offers challenging MTB trails along the often snow-topped mountainous landscape.
And if there’s no snow, head for the impressive sand dunes of the Alexandria Duneveld, where you start with a scenic boat cruise on the Sundays River, and then tackle these awesome dunes on a sandboard. Or you could hike the two-day Alexandria Trail on which you’re likely to spot dolphins and whales, lots of birds, and maybe even the odd bokkie. And there are loads more hikes – the iconic Otter Trail at Tsitsikamma, and lots of great slackpacking options – particularly along the Wild Coast.
The Alexandria Duneveld is the largest dune field in the southern hemisphere and forms part of the 145,000-hectare Addo Elephant National Park
GET YOUR GAME ON
A huge benefit of an Eastern Cape safari and wildlife experience is that you can leave the malaria tablets at home – very important if you have young children (or are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant). Near PE is the Greater Addo Elephant National Park – home not just to elephants but to all the Big Five. Actually, it’s a Big Seven reserve with the usual elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard, but also – as the expanded park includes part of Algoa Bay and some offshore islands – southern right whales and white sharks.
If you want a bit more luxury, roughly halfway between PE and Makhanda (previously Grahamstown) are Shamwari Game Reserve, which is renowned for its conservation initiatives (the Born Free Foundation on Shamwari is home to big cats rescued from captivity), and Amakhala Game Reserve, which is largely owned and run by fifth-generation occupants. Slightly further afield, inland from Makhanda along the Great Fish River, you’ll find Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, which boasts some conservation and community success stories.
The little village of Steytlerville is well known for its Karoo hospitality, traditional food and laid-back atmosphere, as well as a commitment to ‘crossing the cultural divide’ with tours and experiences that allow visitors to experience the community way of life, and its main street is adorned with flags featuring local family crests.
Complementing the breathtaking landscape and mountain views of Hogsback is the Eco-Shrine Centre for Art and Ecology in Hogsback, and the Labyrinth at the Edge is a guesthouse with four hectares of beautiful gardens and the eponymous Labyrinth. And, no, JRR Tolkien never visited Hogsback, but that hasn’t stopped locals claiming it as the inspiration for Middle Earth.
If you’re into pineapples – and views – you’ll be quite taken by the Big Pineapple at Bathurst. Standing 16.5 metres tall, it is the biggest (obviously not real) pineapple in the world. Or visit the Amatola Museum to see what’s left of Huberta – possibly the world’s most adventurous hippo (and perhaps the only surfing one).
ARTS, CULTURE AND COMMUNITIES
As well as an awesome collection of fossils, the Kitching Fossil Exploration Centre in Nieu-Bethesda offers tours to some fabulous rock art sites, and the small towns of Graaff-Reinet and Cradock are filled with lovely old buildings, museums and interesting monuments, including a rather poignant memorial to the Cradock Four.
For more current artistic expression, head to Makhanda, home of the annual National Arts Festival that has been held every year since 1973, with this year’s event held from 27 June to 7 July 2019. And even outside of festival time, Makhanda is home to some great museums. nieubethesda.info, nationalartsfestival.co.za