Port Elizabeth is the industrial centre of the Eastern Cape. In 1820 it was the arrival point for four thousand British settlers, who doubled the English-speaking population of South Africa and have left their trace on the architecture in the town centre. The port’s industrial feel is mitigated by some outstanding city beaches and, should you end up killing time here, you’ll find diversion in beautiful coastal walks a few kilometres from town and in the small historical centre.
However, the main reason most people wash up here is to start or finish a tour of the Garden Route – or head further up the highway to Addo Elephant National Park, the most significant game reserve in the southern half of the country. Also within easy striking distance are several other smaller, and utterly luxurious, private game reserves.
East of Port Elizabeth, a handful of resorts punctuate the R72 East London coast road, where the roaring surf meets enormously wide sandy beaches, backed by mountainous dunes. The inland route to East London deviates away from the coast to pass through Grahamstown, a handsome university town, worth at least a night, and several during the National Arts Festival every July.
A couple of hundred kilometres north from Port Elizabeth, an area of flat-topped hills and treeless plains opens out to the Karoo, the semi-desert that extends across a third of South Africa. The oldest and best known of the settlements here is the picture-postcard town of Graaff-Reinet, a solid fixture on bus tours. Just a few kilometres away is the awesome Valley of Desolation, and the village of Nieu Bethesda, best known for its eccentric Owl House museum. Nearly as pretty as Graaff-Reinet, though not as architecturally rich, the town of Cradock, to its east, has the added attraction of the rugged Mountain Zebra National Park.Read More
At the western end of Algoa (aka Nelson Mandela) Bay, PORT ELIZABETH, commonly known as PE, is normally visited for Addo Park, and not for its own beauty. The smokestacks along the N2 bear testimony to the fact that the Eastern Cape’s largest centre has thrived on heavy industry and cheap African labour, which accounts for its deep-rooted trade unionism and strong tradition of African nationalism. So it may come as a surprise that this has long been a popular holiday destination for white families – but then the town beachfront, stretching for several kilometres along Humewood Road, has some of the safest and cleanest city beaches in the country.
As a city, PE is pretty functional, though it has some terrific accommodation and reasonable restaurants. Although the town has been ravaged by industrialization and thoughtless modernization, one or two buildings do stand out in an otherwise featureless city centre, and a couple of classically pretty rows of Victorian terraces still remain in the suburb of Central, sliding into a revamped street of trendy cafés and restaurants. Holidaymakers head for the beachfront suburbs of Humewood and Summerstrand where there are places to stay plus bars and restaurants. There is little to draw you away from the beachfront, but further afield in New Brighton, you’ll find Port Elizabeth’s most important museum, the Red Location Museum of the People’s Struggle, housed in an award-winning building, and there are also some excellent tours around PE and into the townships.
Addo Elephant National Park
Addo Elephant National Park
A Big Five reserve, Addo Elephant National Park is just 73km north of Port Elizabeth, and should be your first choice for an excursion – for just one day or for several. You can also stay at one of the nearby private reserves – especially if you just want to be pampered. On the N2 highway between PE and Grahamstown alone, there are three: Shamwari, Amakhala and Lalibela, while Schotia, 1km off the N10/N2 interchange, has exciting night drives and is the least upmarket. One big attraction of Addo and these private reserves is that, unlike the country’s other major game parks, they benefit from the fact that the Eastern Cape is malaria-free.
Addo is currently undergoing an expansion programme that will see it become one of South Africa’s three largest game reserves, and the only one including coastline. Elephants remain the park’s most obvious drawcard, but with the reintroduction in 2003 of a small number of lions, in two prides (big cats last roamed here over a century ago), as well as the presence of the rest of the Big Five – buffalo, hippos and leopards – it has become a game reserve to be reckoned with. Spotted hyenas were also introduced in 2003 as part of a programme to re-establish predators in the local ecosystem. Other species to look out for include cheetah, black rhino, eland, kudu, warthog, ostrich and red hartebeest.
Some 75km west of Port Elizabeth, off the N2, JEFFREY’S BAY (known locally as J Bay) is jammed during the holiday seasons, when thousands of visitors throng the beaches, surfing shops and fast-food outlets, giving the place a really tacky seaside resort feel.
For surfing aficionados, however, this is a trifling detail; J Bay is said by some to be one of the world’s top three surfing spots. If you’ve come to surf, head for the break at Super Tubes, east of the main bathing beach, which produces an impressive and consistent swirling tube of whitewater, attracting surfers from all over the world throughout the year. Riding inside the vortex of a wave is considered the ultimate experience by surf buffs, but should only be attempted if you’re an expert. Other key spots are at Kitchen Windows, Magna Tubes, the Point and Albatross. Surfing gear, including wet suits, can be rented from the multitude of surfing shops along Da Gama Road.
Dolphins regularly surf the waves here, and whales can sometimes be seen between June and October. The main bathing areas are Main Beach (in town) and Kabeljous-on-Sea (a few kilometres north), with some wonderful seashells to be found between Main and Surfer’s Point.
- The Eastern Cape Karoo