South Africa is a big country so it comes as no surprise that just like many popular travel destinations worldwide, it has the places that are ‘on’ the tourist radar and those that are ‘off’ the tourist radar. Generally speaking, the first category is filled with the kind of places one can easily find inspiration for your trip online using the myriad of resources available: travel is easy but perhaps not as rewarding.
The second category, the ‘off the radar’ type of places, are not so easy to travel to. Here, you need a bit (or a lot) of local knowledge to make the trip possible. However, the rewards of travelling just a little bit outside of the normal well-worn routes are just magical and will leave an impression on you that will last a life-time.
One (of many) such areas in South Africa is The Eastern Cape. This is a large province to the east (obviously) of the Western Cape (where Cape Town is) and to the west of Kwazulu Natal (where Durban is). It has a very long coastline to the south and to the north, Lesotho, the tiny land-locked mountain kingdom in the middle of South Africa.
The cities in the Eastern Cape are not its highlight, with Port Elizabeth being better known for its car industry than anything else and Mthatha being a large ramshackle town with little to recommend it. However, the beauty of the Eastern Cape comes alive in three key areas:
Because of the Eastern Cape’s size (it takes around 10 hours to drive across it from west to east), and because of its very conflicted history (there was a oft-contested ‘frontier’ between native and settler communities in the Eastern Cape through much of South Africa’s early history), the Eastern Cape hasn’t seen the scale and pace of development that other parts of the country have. It remains in large part a very rural province, with most of the limited income being derived from agriculture or pockets of smaller industries. As such, the towns that service these rural communities are the lynch-pins of their local area and very little changes over time.
For example, you will find that Grahamstown, barring a few suburban housing estates, retains virtually exactly the same townscape that it had when it was first built around 1840. The university there, Rhodes University, which is one of South Africa’s ivy league institutions, is actually housed in one of the old military barracks. The High Street that connects the university to the cathedral is considered one of South Africa’s finest urban vistas and just walking through the town takes you past one of the largest collection of extant Victorian buildings on the planet. Accommodation choices abound: we particularly like to recommend 8A Grahamstown at the higher end of the market or Bartholomew’s Loft at the B&B end.
The same is true of Graff Reinet, which rewards visitors with the long drive through the dusty Karoo with a delightful town, perhaps even better preserved than Grahamstown. An enterprising Swede by the name of Andreas Stockenstrom put this place on the map as far back as the 1700s and many of the old colonial buildings, such as the very impressive Drostdy, are now public museums.
The coastline of this province really is a destination in itself, but not for the usual reason of sitting on the beach and looking at the waves (although that’s a distinct possibility). Rather, the reason to visit the coastline, particularly the section north of East London which is called the Wild Coast, is the wonderful diversity of the natural environment, both marine and terrestrial, and the traditional and low-impact way of life of the locals who live there. The population is sparse, tarred roads almost non-existent and in sections, your car will have to be ferried across the river. From the beaches you can see huge shoals of dolphins whilst behind you, waterfalls crash off small cliffs right onto the beach. Many South Africans of all creeds and colours have visited the Wild Coast once and never left: so pristine and other-worldly is it that you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped off the face of the earth and into a new Eden.
Don’t overlook other sections of the coastline, though: Port Elizabeth, whilst by no means a pretty town itself, has a splendid boardwalk behind the beach, very Californian in style with good food and marvellous sunsets. the section of coastline between Alexandria and the Great Fish River, called the Sunshine Coast, abounds with pretty villages and towns like Port Alfred and Kleinemonde, all based on small rivers, where the bird life in particular is stunningly diverse.
One particular thing that is really worth doing on this coastline is hiking the beach from one end to another (or just a section of it). This follows in the trail of the strandlopers (beachwalkers) in Afrikaans who were a group of people who lived from the spoils of the sea in pre colonial times. The beaches are wide and as you travel from bay to bay, you are sheltered by enormous coastal sand dunes which play host to dune forest and at their bases, mangrove swamps. Many places on the coast also offer horseriding on the beach, either for a gallop or for trekking.
First-time visitors to the Eastern Cape are nearly always attracted there in the first place by the game reserves. Whilst few are as large as the other more famous reserves in Southern Africa, like Chobe, Kruger or the Kalahari what sets them apart is the sheer diversity of biome in which they can be found. There are reserves on rivers, estuaries, in mountains, plains, on beaches and forest which mean that a visit there has so much more to offer in terms of the wildlife beyond the Big Five (although you can see them as well, of course). Another major plus point of the Eastern Cape reserves is that they are malaria-free (sadly not mosquito-free though!) and much easier to get to from Cape Town or the Garden Route (which remain South Africa’s most visited tourism destinations) as flights to Port Elizabeth are under two hours and then the reserves themselves in many cases less than an hour’s drive from the airport.
The majority of reserves in this area are private with a few public reserves, the largest and growing of which is Greater Addo (formerly Addo Elephant Park). Established in 1931, this may in fact be the best national park in the country, not least because of its elephant population which is large and highly entertaining to watch (there are lots of mud baths and watering holes within the park) but also because of the ever-increasing size of the park. By 2020, the park will stretch all the way to the coastline and include a marine park as well as Bird Island, making its size over 3 600 square kilometres. On completion, Addo will be globally unique in housing all seven biomes and the big seven within its borders (elephant, rhinocerous, lion, buffalo, leopard, whale and great white shark). It’s very easy, affordable and advisable to stay in Addo with chalets (self-catering huts – very well appointed) for under R1 800 per night but you can also just as easily stay outside the park in excellent B&Bs and boutique hotels for around R3 500 per night, taking daily trips into the park. Personally, I don’t need to go to other game reserves after I’ve been to Addo for a day!
The private reserves abound in their diversity too: for instance, there is Oceana, a non-predatory game reserve set in coastal dune forest with a private beach onto the Atlantic Ocean. It’s very small scale with only 15 rooms. Alternatively there is the riverine Sibuya reserve, set on its own river which is flanked on all sides by dense forest full of monkeys, baboons and graceful birdlife such as the Great Fish Eagle. Alternatively, consider the heights of Shamwari, a many-times winner of the game reserve of the year award (which is a global award): this five-star park has three lodges inside to tempt you and promises a truly decadent experience of gastronomy, relaxation and game viewing. Most South Africans never set foot inside private game reserves, however, or if they do, it’s for a day drive. Most prefer the national parks or wilderness areas.
Game reserves differ from wilderness reserves in that the former formally manage and stock the reserves with animals. The latter allows nature to take its course to far great degree so whilst it’s rare to find large predators in the wilderness reserves, it’s a much more authentic experience. Visitors on short trips (under two weeks) tend not to have the time to get involved in visits to the wilderness areas as they do require some preparation to visit (accommodation is thin on the ground so you’re encouraged to be self-sufficient in terms of vehicle, accommodation, water and food). However, the experience is truly magical in the sense that you only really achieve that feeling of being totally isolated from the world, at the heart of Africa, in the wilderness. One of the largest wilderness reserves in Africa is the Baviaanskloof and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth and highly recommended.