Eastern Cape Travel
The Eastern Cape province of South Africa stretches from Plettenberg Bay (Plett) in the west to Port Edward in the east, and to the Lesotho border in the north. This land is steeped in the past… It was here that much of South Africa’s history was forged. This is where the 1820 Settlers battled the Xhosa nation in the legendary Frontier Wars and where Nongqawuse’s prophecy in the mid 1850s triggered the dramatic Xhosa Cattle-Killings. Later, in 1918, Qunu, a town in the Eastern Cape, gave birth to one of the greatest of South Africa’s heroes: Nelson Mandela – affectionately known as Madiba.
As one of Africa's rare and unspoilt gems, Eastern Cape travel offers great natural diversity. Discover superb beaches on the Sunshine Coast (the coastal route between St Francis Bay and East London) or travel further north the lush sub-tropical rolling hills and secluded beaches of the Wild Coast (between the Mtamvuna River in the north and the Great Kei River to the south). Venture inland to the vast Karoo to lie beneath unforgettable star-studded night skies and along the way pop into charming, historic towns and savour their warm welcome. The malaria-free status of the region is a terrific draw card for tourists – many parks and private game reserves, such as the Addo Elephant National Park, have restocked with wildlife including the Big Five.
The Eastern Cape province covers an enormous expanse (just under half the size of Germany) and one would need to spend several weeks in the region to appreciate its many charms. Incorporated into the province are the former Transkei and Ciskei homelands – the area is still affectionately referred to by many South Africans as the “Transkei”. Here, while dodging cows on the roads, travellers will find undulating hills peppered with thatched huts – it’s one of the poorest regions in South Africa with many people living off subsistence farming. The former Transkei region is an unspoilt paradise (this is where the Wild Coast is located), but traveling around isn’t always easy, the roads are slow going, much like the vibe. But if you have time enough to get into the “tomorrow-or-maybe-the-next day-groove” you’ll have a scenic wonderland at your fingertips.
Leave the "Transkei" and go a little inland into the Eastern Cape where the barren, beautiful topography of the semi-desert Karoo lures you in to places like Graaff Reinet, the 4th oldest town in South Africa, while further south along the Sunshine Coast (aptly named) you can cavort in the waves that roll onto the spectacular, rugged beaches. If you’re into surfing (or surfers) Jeffrey’s Bay aka J-Bay has one of the greatest right hand point breaks in the world!
Legend has it that the picturesque mountainous region of the Hogsback provided JRR Tolkien with the inspiration to write “The Hobbit”. It’s an area abundant in natural beauty jammed with forests, rivers and meandering valleys – “Middle Earth” come to life, with quirky inhabitants to boot!
Port Elizabeth, East London, Mthatha (Umthatha), Grahamstown, King William’s Town and Graaff-Reinet are the economic hubs of the Eastern Cape. And wherever your Eastern Cape travels take you, Portfolio can guide you to the best, quality and luxury Eastern Cape accommodation in a range of B&Bs, guest houses, farm stays and safari lodges in this South African province.
Port Elizabeth, affectionately known as “The Friendly City” or even as the “The Windy City” by locals, is the second oldest city in South Africa. Its thriving economy is underpinned by the motor industry – you’ll find both a Volkswagen and a General Motors factory in PE. 1.5 million people live in the city, which is the starting point for many safaris into Addo and surrounding game reserves.
The popular Addo Elephant National Park, close to Port Elizabeth, is home to 450 elephants. It is currently being expanded to include many neighbouring conservancies to form a mega-park, which will offer visitors the opportunity to see the Big Five. Aside from the numerous elephants, visitors can see Cape buffalo, many antelope species as well as the rare black rhino, and the flightless dung beetle – a fascinating insect found only in this region. Visit the splendid Amakhala reserve, gasp at the spectacular views from the original Zuurberg Pass, take an elephant-back safari through the bush – enjoy all Addo has to offer. Portfolio offers stunning Addo Elephant Park accommodation at Amakhala.
Welcome to “Buffalo City”, which features South Africa’s only river port situated on the Buffalo River – so named because, in days gone by, the area was packed with herds of buffalo. The natural history museum hosts, amazingly, the last dodo egg in the world, as well as an extraordinary Coelacanth exhibit. This extinct fish was identified by the famous ichthyologist Prof JLB Smith of Rhodes University, in 1939. East London’s temperate climate draws the body-squad brigade onto the sandy beaches – while on the famous waves you can try to spot internationally renowned surfers strutting their stuff.
The Karoo desert is made up of the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo, and in total, its 400 000 km2 extends from Route 62 in the south to southern Namibia in the north, and across to the Free State border. Over the last 250 million years, the Great Karoo has lived many lives – it’s been a glacier, a swampland and even a sea. Today it is a dry, hot semi-desert region popular with paleontologists and sheep farmers. Visitors are attracted to the vast open plains; in spring and summer many people are drawn to witness the myriad of spring flowers that seemingly miraculously carpet the landscape. It’s a bewitching part of the country: with its fiery sunsets and starry skies it’s a landscape that has inspired some of South Africa’s greatest authors such as Olive Schreiner, Athol Fugard and Etienne van Heerden. Places to visit while in the Karoo include Graaff-Reinet, Oudtshoorn, Somerset East, Colesberg and Beaufort West.
The awesome Valley of Desolation is one of the highlights of Eastern Cape travel, as are the spectacular Karoo sunsets! Stroll the streets with their charming historic buildings – as it’s the 4th oldest town in South Africa, there are more national monuments per square mile in Graaff-Reinet than any other town in the country. For those interested in ancient history, the surrounding area of Graaff-Reinet is abundant in fossils and Wellwood farm houses one of the world’s finest collections of Karoo fossils. In town, visit one of the impressive museums or art galleries – for art lovers, be sure not to miss the Pierneef Museum (a notable collection of panels by South Africa’s famous artist, JH Pierneef) and the Hester Rupert Art Museum which showcases contemporary South African art.
Nieu-Bethesda (near Graaff-Reinet)
Travel off the beaten track along a gravel road to this tiny hamlet, famous for the Owl House where eccentric and artistic Helen Martins created a fantasy world of glass, mosaic and cement sculptures. Relatives of her assistant, Koos Malgas, recreate cement and glass owl mementos for sale.
The heart of settler country, Grahamstown (approximately half way between Port Elizabeth and East London) was founded by the 1820 settlers from Britain. The guns are long gone – nowadays Grahamstown is rather a bookish, quaint city (it has an impressive cathedral, so technically it’s a city, though, in reality it’s a town) with Rhodes University forming a large part of the town’s profile. The Grahamstown Arts Festival in June / July is one of South Africa’s premier arts events and draws the crowds for its contemporary and fringe theatre, drama and art exhibitions. Grahamstown is home to some of South Africa’s finest private schools, for example St Andrews and DSG.
In a scenic setting on the edges of the towering Witteberg mountains is the quaint, rural town of Lady Grey. The surrounding mountains are ideal for the intrepid (and fit) mountain biker and hiker; for those who prefer a more sedate Eastern Cape tourism experience, the Joubertpass on the outskirts of Lady Grey is the 3rd highest pass in the country and offers breathtaking views of the ravines and peaks. Visit the Cape Vulture Sanctuary or enjoy excellent catch and release fishing in the surrounding mountain ponds. Rail enthusiasts will be fascinated with the mountain railway line where (though no longer in operation) trains used to work their way back and forth to get up the mountain!
Known today as “King” to locals, King William’s Town (close to East London) was originally established as a mission station on the banks of the Buffalo River in 1826 – but the Xhosa raided the station and carried off the missionaries! Due to its favourable position on the river, the area was resettled and the town that sprung up was named after King William IV – whose reign brought many important reforms to Britain, including the abolishment of slavery. Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement was born in King William’s Town in 1946. During Apartheid, he was tragically murdered in a Pretoria prison cell in 1977 - his grave can be found in King William’s Town in the Ginsberg Cemetery. Today King William’s Town is a thriving city with many shops, schools and factories.
Kenton is everything a holiday town should be – great beaches, charming cottages, good shops and the odd delightful coffee shop. Voted some of the best beaches in the country, Kenton’s endless sandy beaches feature many rock pools which teem with tiny fish, crabs and colourful anenomies. Snorkelling, surfing, fishing, body- and boogie-boarding.
Kenton is conveniently situated close to both Grahamstown and Port Alfred and not too far from Port Elizabeth. Great beach walks, sunshine and sea – all in a pristine setting. What else could you want from your Eastern Cape travel adventures?
Contact Portfolio for all your Eastern Cape accommodation needs, travel advice and online bookings.