Sandwiched between the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s two most popular coastal provinces, the Eastern Cape tends to be bypassed by visitors – and for all the wrong reasons. The relative neglect it has suffered as a tourist destination and at the hands of the government is precisely where its charm lies. You can still find traditional African villages here, and the region’s 1000km of undeveloped coastline alone justifies a visit, sweeping back inland in immense undulations of vegetated dunefields. For anyone wanting to get off the beaten track, the province is, in fact, one of the most rewarding regions in South Africa.
Port Elizabeth is the province’s commercial centre, principally used to start or end a trip along the Garden Route, though it’s a useful springboard for launching out into the rest of South Africa – the city is the transport hub of the Eastern Cape. Jeffrey’s Bay, 75km to the west, has a fabled reputation among surfers for its perfect waves. Around an hour’s drive inland are some of the province’s most significant game reserves, among them Addo Elephant National Park, a Big Five reserve where sightings of elephants are virtually guaranteed. Addo and the private reserves nearby are among the few game reserves in South Africa that are malaria-free throughout the year. The hinterland to the north takes in areas appropriated by English immigrants shipped out in the 1820s as ballast for a new British colony. Here, Grahamstown glories in its twin roles as the spiritual home of English-speaking South Africa and host to Africa’s biggest arts festival.
The northwest is dominated by the sparse beauty of the Karoo, the thorny semi-desert stretching across much of central South Africa. The rugged Mountain Zebra National Park, 200km north of Port Elizabeth, is a stirring landscape of flat-topped mountains and arid plains stretching for hundreds of kilometres. A short step to the west, Graaff-Reinet is the quintessential eighteenth-century Cape Dutch Karoo town.
The eastern part of the province, largely the former Transkei, is by far the least developed, with rural Xhosa villages predominating. East London, the province’s only other centre of any size, serves well as a springboard for heading into the Transkei, where the principal interest derives from political and cultural connections. Steve Biko was born here, and you can visit his grave in King William’s Town to the west. Further west is Fort Hare University, which educated many contemporary African leaders. The only established resorts in this section are in the Amatola Mountains, notably Hogsback, where indigenous forests and mossy coolness provide relief from the dry scrublands below.
Tucked into the northeastern corner of the province, the Drakensberg range, more commonly associated with KwaZulu-Natal, makes a steep ascent out of the Karoo and offers trout-fishing and ancient San rock art. The focus of the area is the remote, lovely village of Rhodes. Further east, the Wild Coast region remains one of the least developed and most exciting regions in the country. The poorest part of the poorest province, the region is blessed with fabulously beautiful subtropical coast. From here, all the way to the KwaZulu-Natal border, dirt roads trundle down to the coast from the N2 to dozens of remote and indolent hillside resorts, of which Port St Johns is the biggest and best known. In the rugged, goat-chewed landscape inland, Xhosa-speakers live in mud-and-tin homesteads, scraping a living herding stock and growing crops. Most visitors pass as quickly as possible through Mthatha (formerly Umtata), the ugly former capital of the Transkei – but if you’re following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, the Nelson Mandela Museum in the centre of Mthatha, and Qunu, his birthplace southwest of the town, are obvious ports of call.
The Eastern Cape was carved up into black and white territories under apartheid in a more consolidated way than anywhere else in the country. The stark contrasts between wealth and poverty were forged in the nineteenth century when the British drew the Cape colonial frontier along the Great Fish River, a thousand kilometres east of Cape Town, and fought over half a dozen campaigns (known as the Frontier Wars) to keep the Xhosa at bay on its east bank. In the 1820s, the British shipped in thousands of settlers to bolster white numbers and reinforce the line.
Even for a country where everything is suffused with politics, the Eastern Cape’s identity is excessively political. South Africa’s black trade unions have deep roots in its soil, which also produced many anti-apartheid African leaders, including former president Nelson Mandela, his successor Thabo Mbeki, and Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died in 1977 at the hands of Port Elizabeth security police. The Transkei or Wild Coast region, wedged between the Kei and KwaZulu-Natal, was the testing ground for grand apartheid when it became the prototype in 1963 for the Bantustan system of racial segregation. In 1976 the South African government gave it notional “independence”, in the hope that several million Xhosa-speaking South Africans, surplus to industry’s needs, could be dumped in the territory and thereby become foreigners in “white South Africa”. When the Transkei was reincorporated into South Africa in 1994 it became part of the new Eastern Cape, a province struggling for economic survival under the weight of its apartheid-era legacy and the added burden of widespread corruption.