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.
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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.
Brief history of the Eastern Cape
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.
Port Elizabeth and the western region
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.
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
Travelling between Grahamstown and the towns of Cradock and Graaff-Reinet (the Eastern Cape’s two most-visited Karoo towns), you’ll be heading into sheep-farming country, with the occasional dorp rising against the horizon, offering the experience of an archetypal Eastern Cape one-horse outpost. The roads through this vast emptiness are quiet, and lined with rhythmically spaced telephone poles. Dun-coloured sheep, angora goats and the occasional springbok graze on brown stubble, and you’ll often see groups of charcoal-and-grey ostriches in the veld. Staying on a farm in this region is a highlight.
Cradock, 240km north of Port Elizabeth, lies in the Karoo proper, and makes a great stopover on the Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg run, because of its excellent accommodation and its proximity to the beautiful Mountain Zebra National Park. Some 100km due west of Cradock, Graaff-Reinet is one of the oldest towns in South Africa, and much of its historical centre is intact. Surrounding the town is the Camdeboo National Park. For more of a sense of the Karoo’s dry timelessness, head to Nieu Bethesda, 50km to the north of town.
Mountain Zebra National Park
When the Mountain Zebra National Park was created in 1937, there were only five Cape mountain zebras left on its 65 square kilometres – and four were male. Miraculously, conservationists managed to cobble together a breeding herd from the few survivors on surrounding farms, and the park now supports several hundred.
For game viewing, the park has a couple of good part-tar, part-gravel loop roads forming a rough figure of eight. As well as zebra, keep an eye out for springbok, blesbok and black wildebeest. The introduction of buffalo in 1998 and plans to bring in cheetahs and rhinos add to the wildlife interest, but mean that hiking across the park isn’t possible, since buffalo have a reputation for extreme aggression. There are, however, two waymarked walks near the camp.
It’s little wonder that tour buses pull in to GRAAFF-REINET in their numbers; this is a beautiful town and one of the few places in the Eastern Cape where you’d want to wander freely day and night, taking in historical buildings and the occasional little museum, and having a meal or a drink before strolling back to your accommodation.
Graaff-Reinet has a large population of Afrikaans-speaking coloured people, mostly living on the south side of town, some of slave origin, others the descendants of indigenous Khoi and San who were forced to work on frontier farms. The dry mountains surrounding the town are part of the Camdeboo National Park whose main attraction is the Valley of Desolation, a B-movie name for an impressive site. The rocky canyon, echoing bird calls and expansive skies of the valley shouldn’t be missed.
Robert Sobukwe and the Africanists
One of Graaff-Reinet’s most brilliant but often-forgotten sons is Robert Managaliso Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Born in 1923, Sobukwe went to Healdtown, a boarding school, then Fort Hare University, where he joined the African National Congress Youth League. After graduating in 1947, he became a schoolteacher and then a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. A charismatic member of the Africanist wing of the ANC – even the ultra-apartheid prime minister B.J. Vorster acknowledged him as "a man of magnetic personality" – Sobukwe questioned the organization’s strategy of cooperating with whites, and formed the breakaway PAC in 1959. The following year he launched the nationwide anti-pass protests, which ended in the Sharpeville massacre and his imprisonment on Robben Island for nine years. In 1969, Sobukwe was released under a banning order to Kimberley, where he died in 1978. Five thousand people attended his funeral in Graaff-Reinet.
The Central Eastern Cape and East London
Between Port Alfred and East London lies some of the Eastern Cape’s least-developed coastline, although it has now fallen into the hands of developers as more and more people discover the beauty of the region. East London, wedged uncomfortably between two ex-Bantustans, is the largest city in the central region of the province, with excellent beaches for surfing and swimming and good transport links to Johannesburg and along the coast. Inland, Fort Hare University near Alice has educated political leaders across the subcontinent, including Nelson Mandela, and has the country’s finest collection of contemporary black South African art.
Sweeping up from Fort Hare’s valley, the gentle, wooded Amatola Mountains yield to the dramatic landscapes of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, which offer hiking, horseriding and even skiing opportunities. Before white settlers (or even the Xhosa) arrived, these towering formations were dominated by San hunter-gatherers, who decorated the rock faces with thousands of ritual paintings, many of which remain surprisingly vivid.
The Amatola Mountains
Most visitors drive quickly through the scrubby, dry, impoverished area between East London and the Amatola Mountains proper, to reach the cool forests and holiday lands at Hogsback. However, it’s worth deviating en route, to see the fine collection of African art at Fort Hare University, close to the little town of Alice, and to take in some peeling, but intact, colonial streetscapes in King William’s Town.
Steve Biko and Black Consciousness
Steve Biko’s brutal interrogation and death while in police custody triggered international outrage and turned opinion further against the apartheid regime.
Steven Bantu Biko was born in 1946 in King William’s Town. His political ascent was swift, due to his eloquence, charisma and focused vision. While still a medical student at Natal University during the late 1960s, he was elected president of the exclusively black South African Students’ Organization (SASO) and started publishing articles in their journal, fiercely attacking white liberalism, which they saw as patronizing and counter-revolutionary. In an atmosphere of repression, Biko’s brand of Black Consciousness immediately caught on. He called for blacks to take destiny into their own hands, to unify and rid themselves of the "shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude". From 1973 onwards, Biko suffered banning, detention and other harassment at the hands of the state. In 1974, he defended himself in court, presenting his case so brilliantly that his international profile soared.
Barred from leaving King William’s Town, Biko continued working and writing, frequently escaping his confinement. In August 1977 he was detained and taken to Port Elizabeth where he was interrogated and tortured. A month later he died from a brain haemorrhage, after a beating by security police. No one was held accountable. He is buried in King William’s Town. The polished, charcoal-coloured tombstone sits midway through the graveyard, among the large patch of paupers’ graves. To get there, take Cathcart Street south out of town (towards Grahamstown), turning left onto a road signposted to the cemetery, after the bridge (just before the Alice turn-off to the right).
Fort Hare University
Despite decades of deliberate neglect, and its relegation after 1959 to a "tribal" university under apartheid, Fort Hare, 2km east of Alice on the R63, is assured a place in South African history. Established in 1916 as a multiracial college by missionaries, it became the first institution in South Africa to deliver tertiary education to blacks, and was attended by many prominent African leaders, including Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe and Tanzania’s former president, Julius Nyerere. The most famous former student is Nelson Mandela, making this an essential port of call if you’re following his footsteps.
If you have even the slightest interest in African art, Fort Hare’s De Beers Art Gallery is well worth a visit. A treasury of contemporary black Southern African art, it’s one of the most significant and least publicized collections anywhere. The gallery also houses Fort Hare’s ethnographic collection – a major museum of traditional crafts and artefacts, with many rare and valuable pieces.
The Eastern Cape Drakensberg
The Eastern Cape Drakensberg is the most southerly section of Southern Africa’s highest and most extensive mountain chain, stretching east across Lesotho and up the west flank of KwaZulu-Natal into Mpumalanga. The obvious goal of this world of San rock paintings, sandstone caves and craggy sheep farms is Rhodes, one of the country’s best-preserved and prettiest Victorian villages. Since there is no national park in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, activities are all arranged through private farms. Very remote, Rhodes is reached from Barkly East, which itself is 130km from Aliwal North on the N6. The 60km dirt road to Rhodes from Barkly East is tortuous and rough, taking a good ninety minutes, with sheer, unfenced drops.
RHODES is almost too good to be true – a remote and beautiful village girdled by the Eastern Cape Drakensberg. Few people actually live here: like other villages in this region, Rhodes was progressively deserted as residents gravitated to the cities to make a living, leaving its Victorian tin-roofed architecture stuck in a very pleasing time warp. Today, its raison d’être is as a low-key holiday place for people who appreciate its isolation, wood stoves and restored cottages. Although electricity reached the village a few years ago, very few establishments have it, and paraffin lamps and candles are the norm. Given that Rhodes is not on the way to anywhere (on some maps it doesn’t even appear), it is a place to dwell for a few days, rather than for an overnight stop. While nights are cool even in summer, in winter they are freezing, and there’s no central heating, so pack warm clothes.
The village itself is not much more than a few crisscrossing gravel roads lined with pine trees. At the heart of the village is the Rhodes Hotel, a general shop and a garage; there’s also a post office and payphone, but no banking facilities and no public transport in or out of the village.
Rhodes used to be busy in the winter, when skiers used it as a base for the artificial snowed Tiffendell slopes, but this activity has ceased due to mysterious legalities. The village is an hour’s 4WD drive into the highest peaks of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg. December to May are the best months for swimming and hiking.
The Wild Coast region
The Wild Coast region is aptly named: this is one of South Africa’s most unspoilt areas, a vast stretch of undulating hills, lush forest and spectacular beaches skirting a section of the Indian Ocean. Its undeveloped sandy beaches stretch for hundreds of kilometres, punctuated by rivers and several wonderful, reasonably priced hotels geared to family seaside holidays. The wildness goes beyond the landscape, for this is the former Transkei homeland, a desperately poor region that was disenfranchised during apartheid and turned into a dumping ground for Africans too old or too young for South African industry to make use of.
The Wild Coast region’s inhabitants are predominantly Xhosa, and those in rural areas live mostly in traditional rondavels dotting the landscape for as far as the eye can see. The N2 highway runs through the middle of the region, passing through the old Transkei capital of Mthatha and a host of scruffy, busy little towns along the way. To the south of the highway, the coastal region stretches from just north of East London to the mouth of the Mtamvuna River. With its succession of great beaches, hidden reefs, patches of subtropical forest, rural Xhosa settlements and the attractive little towns of Coffee Bay and Port St Johns (both popular with backpackers), this region offers the most deserted and undeveloped beaches in the country.
The Wild Coast, unlike the Western Cape Garden Route, is not a stretch that you can easily tour by car. There’s no coastal road, and no direct route between one seaside resort and the next. Yet in this remoteness lies the region’s charm. Resorts are isolated down long, winding gravel roads off the N2, which sticks to the high inland plateau. Choose one or two places to stay, and stay put for a relaxing few days. Most places along this stretch of coast are known simply by the name of the hotel that nominates the settlement, though you will also see the Xhosa name of the river mouth, on which each hotel is situated, on many maps.
Straddling the Mthatha River and the N2 highway 235km from East London, the fractious, shambolic town of MTHATHA (formerly Umtata) is the erstwhile capital of the Transkei and the Wild Coast region’s largest town. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty ugly place, its crowded and litter-strewn streets lined with nondescript 1970s office buildings, with the odd older architectural gem, albeit dilapidated. However, the town is useful for stocking up and drawing money, all of which can be done at the Spar Centre or Shell Ultra City on the edge of town. The only reason to venture into the town centre is to visit the Nelson Mandela Museum, housed in the old parliament, or bungha, built in 1927. The most interesting display in the museum traces the great man’s life with photos and other visual material. The museum co-ordinates guided trips to Qunu and Mveso, Mandela’s birthplace, from its sister museum, the Youth and Heritage Centre in Qunu.
Some Xhosa traditions
The Wild Coast region is largely populated by rural Xhosa, who still practise traditions and customs that have faded in more urban areas. Many people, for example, still believe that the sea is inhabited by strange people who do not always welcome visitors, which explains the relative scarcity of the activities you would normally find thriving among seashore-dwelling people, such as fishing and diving.
Initiation for teenage boys and young men is still common. Young men usually leave their homes to stay in "circumcision lodges", dress in distinctive white paint and costumes and learn the customs of their clan. At the circumcision ceremony the young men are expected to make no sound while their foreskin is cut off (with no anaesthetic). After the ceremony, they wash off the paint and wrap themselves in new blankets, and all their possessions are thrown into a hut and set alight – they must turn away from this and not look back. There follows a feast to celebrate the beginning of manhood and the start of a year-long intermediary period during which they wear ochre-coloured clay on their faces. After this, they are counted as men.
Like other African peoples, although they believe in one God, uThixo, or uNhkulukhulu (the great one), many Xhosa also believe that their ancestors play an active role in their lives. However, the ancestors’ messages are often too obscure to be understood without the aid of specialists, or amagqira.
The Xhosa are patriarchal by tradition, with women’s subordinate status symbolized by lobola, the dowry payment in cattle and cash that a prospective husband must make to her parents before he can marry her. If the woman is not a virgin, the man pays less. Married Xhosa women have the same right as men to smoke tobacco in pipes, and can often be seen doing so, the pipes’ long stems designed to prevent ash falling on babies suckling at their breasts. Pipes are shared, but each person must have their own stem, not just for matters of hygiene but also to prevent witchcraft: bits of the body make the most effective poisonous medicines against people, and that includes hair, skin and spittle.
The Xhosa did not wear cloth until it was introduced by Europeans, when it was quickly adopted. Today, what is now seen as traditional Xhosa cloth is almost always worn by women, mostly in the form of long skirts, beautifully embroidered with horizontal black stripes placed at varying intervals. The breasts of unmarried women were traditionally uncovered, while those of married women were usually covered with beads or matching cloth. These days, most women wear T-shirts, though almost all still cover their heads with scarves intricately tied to form two peaks above the forehead.
The great cattle killing
The 1850s were a low point for the Xhosa nation: most of their land had been seized by the British, drought had withered their crops, and cattle-sickness had decimated their precious herds. In 1856, a young woman called Nongqawuse, whose uncle Mhlakaza was a prophet, claimed to have seen and heard ancestral spirits in a pool on the Gxara River. The spirits told her the Xhosa must kill all their remaining cattle and destroy their remaining crops; if they did this, new cattle and crops would arise, along with new people who would drive the whites into the sea.
As news of her prophecy spread, opinion was sharply divided among the Xhosa – those whose herds had been badly affected by cattle-sickness were most inclined to believe her. A turning point came when the Gcaleka paramount chief Sarili became convinced she was telling the truth and ordered his subjects to start the cull. Thousands of cattle were killed, but when the "new people" failed to materialize, the unbelievers who had not killed their herds were blamed. By February 1857, the next date for the appearance of the new people, over 200,000 cattle had been slaughtered. When the new people failed once more to materialize, it was too late for many Xhosa. By July there was widespread starvation; 30,000 of an estimated population of 90,000 died of hunger.
The British administration saw the famine as a perfect way to force the destitute Xhosa into working on white settlers’ farms. To speed up the process, the Cape governor Sir George Grey closed down the feeding stations established by missionaries and laid the blame for the disaster on the Xhosa chiefs, imprisoning many of them on Robben Island.
The Eastern Cape’s coastal nature reserves
The Eastern Cape has some undeveloped and beautiful coastal reserves that are reached on difficult dirt roads and suitable for a stay of a few days, rather than for the day. All accommodation is self-catering, and there are no shops or facilities in the reserve, so you need to be fully self-sufficient and stock up before you leave the N2.
Situated between Kob Inn and Coffee Bay, Dwesa Nature Reserve has well-sited wooden chalets (R200), equipped with gas fridges and stoves, and is one of the best places to stay on the coast, boasting rare animals such as tree dassies and samango monkeys, as well as red hartebeest, blesbok, blue wildebeest and buffalo.
To get to the reserve, turn east off the N2 at Idutywa towards the coast and continue for 73km or so; the road forks right to Kob Inn and left to Dwesa.
Hluleka Nature Reserve
One of the loveliest of the Wild Coast reserves, Hluleka Nature Reserve consists of coastal forest whose coral trees flower scarlet in July and August, a strip of grassland and outstanding sandy beaches interspersed with rocky outcrops tattooed with extraordinary wind-shaped rock formations. In the grassland strip, you’re likely to see wildebeest, zebra and blesbok. Accommodation is in seven spacious self-catering chalets, on stilts overlooking the sea, sleeping up to four people (R600).
You can reach Hluleka along the difficult coastal road from Coffee Bay. Heading towards the N2 from Coffee Bay for a short distance, take the Mdumbi turn on the right, and continue for some 30km, when signs to Hluleka appear. Alternatively – and more easily – take the Hluleka turning 30km along the R61 from Mthatha to Port St Johns, and continue for another 57km to the coast.
Mkhambathi Nature Reserve
Largest of the Eastern Cape reserves, Mkhambathi consists almost entirely of grassland, flanked by the forested ravines of two rivers, and a ravishing coastline of rocky promontories and deserted beaches. There’s plenty of game: you’re likely to see eland, hartebeest, wildebeest and blesbok, as well as Cape vultures. The highlight, though, is the Mkhambathi River itself, which cuts through the middle of the reserve down a series of striking waterfalls, of which the Horseshoe Falls near the sea are the most spectacular.
To get to Mkhambathi, turn towards the coast at the Mkhambathi signpost at Flagstaff on the tarred R61. From Flagstaff, the reserve is 70km away on a dirt road, which is very variable in quality. Although the road to the reserve restcamp is fine, driving anywhere in the park except to the beach requires a high-clearance vehicle.