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.