This is the land of Steve Biko and Nonqawuse, the teenage prophetess. It’s the land of cactus-studded kopjes and thundering blue waves; the land of long-gone settlers and soldiers, of modern-day surfers and sun-worshippers. This is the Eastern Cape, a province where the old blends seamlessly with the new and each twist in the road brings a breathtaking new vista.
The Eastern Cape is not alone in its claim to offering a multitude of diverse attractions; after all, the magic of South Africa lies in its sheer variety. What does make this province special, however, is its effortless juxtaposition of contrasts, creating a colourful tapestry of cultures, landscapes and experiences. The result is a captivating mélange of small-town charm and bustling seaside villages; adventure hotspots and soulful retreats.
So, where to start your Eastern Cape sojourn? Try Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s ‘friendly city’. The gateway to the rest of the province, Port Elizabeth entices sun-lovers with 40km of golden beaches, while bustling restaurants and malls set the pace for the country’s fifth largest city.
East London, too, offers visitors a relaxing combination of inviting beaches with a dash of city vibe. The town also has a notably historical flavour, still bearing the marked influence of the English and German settlers who made the area their home in the nineteenth century. Yesteryear is recalled in buildings such as the City Hall, while monuments like the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance, located close to King Williamstown, pay homage to the heroes of South Africa’s more recent past.
Both Port Elizabeth and East London form part of the Eastern Cape’s Sunshine Coast, the sun-kissed stretch that ensures the province’s enduring popularity as one of South Africa’s top holiday destinations. However, it’s the smaller towns along this coast – Cannon Rocks, Port Alfred, St Francis Bay and Kenton-On-Sea – that embody the true charm and allure of the province. These towns typify South African hospitality: pretty as a picture, their homely feel is complemented by golden beaches and water sports of every description, as well as horse trails, birdwatching, and golf at the Royal Port Alfred Golf Course. You might even be lucky enough to spot whales and dolphins frolicking along the shoreline.
If the Sunshine Coast is quaintly picturesque, the Wild Coast is sheer, untamed beauty. Known as the most pristine and unspoilt of South Africa’s destinations, the area stretching between Port St Johns, Coffee Bay, Kei Mouth, Butterworth and Umtata has a loveliness free of pretensions. Expect a tropical paradise with rolling green hills, dotted with the occasional hut, and beaches without footprints…small wonder the area remains a firm favourite amongst South Africa’s surfing community.
In addition to being one of South Africa’s most scenic destinations, the Wild Coast – and most notably the famed Hole in the Wall at Coffee Bay – is also amongst the most historically significant. It was here that the ancestors appeared to the Xhosa prophetess Nonqawuse, persuading her that the spirits of dead warriors would help her people overcome the British – but only if they killed their herds of cattle first. Nonqawuse’ vision had devastating consequences. With no cattle, the Xhosa starved, and were an easy target for the British soldiers. Today, the area is known as ‘IziKhaleni’, or place of thunder, a reference to the waves’ resounding crash along the shore.
The Wild Coast is also home to former president Nelson Mandela. His hometown, Qunu, is the site of the Nelson Mandela Museum. More exhibits are on display at the Bhunga Building in Umtata (the former capital of the Transkei homeland), and Mvezo, where Madiba was born. Together, the three sites tell the compelling story of Madiba’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’. You’ll also find a variety of gifts bestowed upon the great statesman, as well as a Youth and Heritage Centre in Qunu.
The dusty plains of the Karoo Heartland are poles apart from the dense greenery and turquoise waters of the Wild Coast, but they are no less fascinating. Here, history’s ghosts speak with a soft voice, leaving indelible footprints in towns like Graaff-Reinet and Cradock. Both towns are strongly reminiscent of a South Africa of days gone by; Graaff-Reinet, in particular, is the fourth-oldest town in the country, and boasts more than 200 monuments, most of which date back to the nineteenth century. Buildings such as Reinet House, the Old Residency and the Old Library are especially noteworthy. Graaff-Reinet’s proximity to the Valley of Desolation, another Eastern Cape icon, is a further good reason to visit the town. Located in the Karoo Nature Reserve, at the foot of the Sneeuberg Mountains, the Valley’s dolorite peaks and domes create a truly awe-inspiring landscape.
Cradock, meanwhile, is the centre of the Eastern Cape midlands. No visit to this quintessential dorp would be complete without a visit to the Olive Schreiner House, the childhood home of the author who penned The Story of an African Farm.
Helen Martins is another female artist closely associated with the Eastern Cape. You’ll find her Owl House, a magnificent dreamscape of bizarre forms and fantasy creatures, at Nieu-Bethesda. And, speaking of renowned South African artists, be sure to visit the Walter Battiss Art Gallery in Somerset East, home to the largest collection of Walter Battiss paintings in South Africa.
Mountain Zebra National Park
Need another good reason to visit the Karoo Heartland? Try the Mountain Zebra National Park, an important home not only to the rare mountain zebra, but also to species such as black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, black wildebeest, eland and a number of other antelope.
Those looking for still more history will find it in the Eastern Cape’s Frontier Country. Towns like Alicedale, Fort Beaufort and Grahamstown still bear the scars of early conflicts between the Boers, Brits and Xhosa, and forts and gravestones are scattered liberally throughout these areas. Of course, Grahamstown – one of the first towns to be established in South Africa by the British – has gained modern-day renown as home of National Arts Festival, and the sleepy town undergoes a transformation each July as it becomes a buzzing stage for song, dance and the visual arts.
While the Frontier Country has an undeniably violent past, the village of Hogsback stands out as an oasis of tranquillity. A magical hamlet in the foothills of the Amatola Mountains, Hogsback is rumoured to have provided the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and colourful locals insist that their village is haunted by the ghosts of soldiers and tree divas.
Addo Elephant National Park
While some visitors to the Frontier Country will delight in trying to spot the fabled Hogsback fairies, others will take more pleasure in watching larger creatures. This is, after all, the Eastern Cape’s premier game viewing territory, with malaria-free game reserves like the Addo Elephant National Park, Bushman Sands Game Reserve and Shamwari Game Reserve drawing hundreds of wildlife enthusiasts.
Tsitsikamma National Park
There’s still more communing with nature to be done at the Tsitsikamma National Park. This ‘place of much water’ – part of the Eastern Cape’s Tsitsikamma Region - is known as an aquatic wonderland where whale- and dolphin-watching is a must. Verdant forests are a balm to the soul, but if you prefer your R ‘n R time to have a strong element of adventure, you’re in luck. This region is also home to Bloukrans River Bridge, where you’ll find the world’s highest bungi jump. Measuring a knee-trembling 160m, even the rebound of this jump is higher than its closest rival at Victoria Falls. For a less terrifying, but equally action-packed, experience, try the Otter Trail; a five-day hike between Storm’s River Mouth and Nature’s Valley, which is widely regarded as the finest trail in South Africa.
Tiffendell Ski Resort
Your adventures in the province are not yet over…You may think skiing is an activity more suited to the Alps than the Drakensberg, but visit Rhodes in the Eastern Cape’s Northern region, and you’ll discover a South African snowfest, brought to you by Tiffendell Ski Resort. Once you’ve sped down the slopes, head to Aliwal North, where you can soothe aching muscles in the town’s hot springs. And before you leave, why not take a meander through other Northern Region towns – such as Barkly East and Lady Grey – for another glimpse of South African small-town hospitality.
From the Big Five to battlefields, the Eastern Cape is a destination with something for everyone.
Article courtesy of Avis South African Magazine.
By Lisa Witepski