|The Eastern Cape is
South Africa’s hidden gem, much of it little
known and under explored by tourists, but with an astonishing variety
of cultural history and picturesque beauty, ranging from the vast,
dry Great Karoo to the fertile agricultural lands
of the Little Karoo and the ‘Settler Country’
around Grahamstown and, above all, the brilliant cliffs and coves
of the Wild Coast.
The Eastern Cape is also home to 2 of the country’s major
seaports, East London and Port Elizabeth,
and many brilliant small game reserves, including Addo Elephant
Park. The area around East London is the homeland of the Xhosa people,
several of whom, including Nelson Mandela, have played a crucial
role in late South African history.
Port Elizabeth is better known as PE’, and
is being dominated by industry and freeways and subject to strong
winds for most of the year. The City Hall and Market Square are
worth a visit, enclosing a replica of the Dias Cross, initially
placed by the Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Dias.
There are numerous other interesting buildings,
including a memorial to Prester John, the Donkin Lighthouse and
the Campanile Clock Tower, while the old part of town, above the
city centre, has some gorgeous Victorian houses. The Oceanarium,
Museum and Snake Park are also on the seafront at Humewood. The
King George IV Art Gallery & Fine Arts Hall has a fantastic
collection of 19th and 20th century art and Castle Hill Museum,
in the city’s oldest house, has a fine collection of Cape
Settler’s Park Nature Reserve
at How Avenue thrives with indigenous flora and St George’s
Park has open air exhibitions and craft fairs, as well as theatrical
productions. South of the city are fine beaches, such as King’s
Beach and Humewood Beach. The latter features
the Apple Express, 1 of the few lasting narrow gauge steam trains,
which runs on occasion from Humewood to Thornhill.
To the west of Port Elizabeth
The Eastern Cape portion of the Garden Route (please see the Western
Cape in addition) outstandingly includes the Tsitsikamma
Coastal National Park, the remnant of a once huge indigenous
forest, home to immense native trees such as yellowwoods. Jeffreys
Bay is a world famous surfer’s paradise, and heading
north, miles and miles of sandy beaches run all the way up the coast.
The Alexandria State Forest is a reserve that runs
along the coast and includes a hiking trail along the beach. East
from here is Dias Cross, the location of 1 of Bartholemew Dias’
stone crosses and a desolate paradise for beach lovers.
Inland, the Karoo is a vast and stunning upland
area with spectacular sunsets, drier, hotter and colder than the
coasts. The novelist Olive Schreiner made the area renowned and
her house at Cradock has been restored. The Mountain Zebra
National Park is also worth a visit, on the northern slopes
of the Bankberg range.
The Addo Elephant National Park, 72 kilometres
(45 miles) north of Port Elizabeth, was created in 1931 to defend
the last of the eastern Cape elephants. Newly massively expanded,
it offers an brilliant range of game, including buffalo, black rhino
and antelope and more than 170 bird species. There are also numerous
private reserves nearby, including the fantastic Shamwari
and Kwandwe, both of which have very upmarket accommodation
and ‘Big 5’ (leopard, rhino, elephant, lion and buffalo)
The town of Graaff - Reinet, located in the heart
of the Karoo Nature Reserve at the foot of the Sneeuberg Mountains,
is 1 of the finest surviving Cape-Dutch towns in South Africa, with
several attractive 18th and 19th century buildings, as well as parks
and museums. Just 5 kilometres (3 miles) outside the town, it is
possible for visitors to drive into the Valley of Desolation along
a twisting single track road that ultimately climbs into the mountains.
From the viewpoints, it is achievable to look down over Graaff -
Reinet across towering red and ochre outcrops of rock. The nearby
town of Nieu Bethesda is worth a visit for the Owl House, a wonderful
sculpture garden by eccentric artist Helen Martins, subject of a
play by Athol Fugard.