Highlights of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province
Leaving the Garden Route eastward brings you to one of the largest, and most off-the-beaten-path regions of South Africa – the Eastern Cape Province. Stretching almost a 1,000 km between the Bloukrans River and the northern province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, this province has a mix of climatic regions (from dry desert in the Great Karoo to green, agricultural lands in the northeast) and is characterized by a wild and rugged coastline. It includes the traditional homeland of the Xhosa, the 2nd largest tribe in South Africa, called the Transkei. Eastern Cape province is also referred to as ‘Adventure Province’; a popular region for surfing, sand-surfing, swimming, hiking, horseback riding, paragliding, and biking – as well as authentic cultural activities.
Coming from The Garden Coast, one of the first stops for visitors is Jeffreys Bay, a resort town famous for water sports, especially surfing (It was recently voted as the 2nd best spot for surfing in the world!). This whole stretch of coast, from Jeffreys Bay to Cape St. Francis, is famous for its year-round surfing conditions. Scared of the great whites? You can do some Sandboarding.
From Jeffreys Bay, it’s a 70 kms drive northwards to Port Elizabeth, the province’s largest city and a major port and industrial centre. Although usually of limited interest for most visitors, it does have a good selection of attractions which make it a worthwhile stopover. The ‘Heritage Trail’ in the city centre covers major attractions; the Donkin Reserve, Terrace Houses, the nearby Horse Memorial, the restored Wool Exchange, old Feather Exchange building, Public Library, City Hall and Portuguese (Prestor John) memorial. The 52 meter high Campanile, built in 1923 to commemorate the Settlers’ arrival, provides an excellent panorama over the centre, the port as well as nearby beaches. The Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment World in Summerstrand (Port Elizabeth’s seaside suburb) offers gaming and a variety of entertainment, shopping and restaurant options, and all, just across the road from some of the city’s best beaches – Hobie and Summerstrand.
Recommended: A walking Tour of Port Elizabeth.
Addo Elephant National Park
The major attraction in the area,70 kms north of the Port Elizabeth, is the (now much expanded) Addo Elephant National Park, home to the most southerly elephant herds on the continent. Due to its endemic ‘elephant food’ bushes, the reserve supports a very high density of elephants and a wide variety of other South African game too. The NP provides a full range of accommodations, shops and restaurants. If you are not visiting any other National Parks further north make sure to visit Addo! It’s best to get to Addo on your own wheels (see at the bottom of this post), otherwise you can do this Full-Day tour of Addo from Port Elizabeth.
Grahamstown, the 1820 ‘frontier’ city of the English settlers, is about 130 kms east of Port Elizabeth, the half-way point to East London. The town is a major educational centre, having several of the finest schools in the country (including famous Rhodes University). The town makes for a great stopover for its architecture, beautiful Cathedral (and 40 plus other churches), Botanical Garden, and the fascinating Observatory Museum.
Continuing on, East London is Eastern Cape Province’s 2nd largest city and the country’s only river port. It is also a popular resort town. It, or Grahamstown, can be used as overnight stopovers – but if you’re in a rush continue on, the best of Eastern Cape province is yet to come!
The Wild Coast
Running from East London all the way to the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) border is the homeland of the Xhosa tribe (the Transkei) – as well as the Wild Coast; spectacular, rugged, and often inaccessible. The towns and attractions along the coast can only be reached along small side roads (often gravel) off the N-2. Be prepared for some slow, arduous – but incredibly beautiful and interesting driving. The entire “Wild Coast’ is very much “off-the-beaten-path” but offers a huge selection of activities centered on beach; surfing and water sports, quad trails, paragliding and biking. However, it is the hiking and horse-trekking in the area that is phenomenal – and it is often the only way to get from one coastal point to another without heading back inland and then down to the coast again.
From south to north, some suggestions for coastal points: Kei Mouth, Mazeppa Bay, The Haven (and Divesa Nature Reserve), Coffee Bay and “Hole -in-the-Wall” (just south of Coffee Bay), wild , wacky, weird Port-St-Johns (the largest coastal town), and Port Edward (on the KZN border – and from where there is a coastal road to Durban).
The interior of the Transkei is characterized by green, rural, communal (unfenced) agricultural land of beautiful rolling – often eroded – hills, and villages. It is one of the most traditional, but poorest and undeveloped regions of the country. The main (N-2) road is always thronged with traffic, people and roaming animals. The towns along the N-2 are poor and scruffy, holding little interest for the visitor – Umtata (now Mthatha), the ‘capital’ and largest town being a possible exception. BEFORE you stop reading this section though: the Transkei, its culture and traditions, are one of the touchstones of South Africa itself. If you have the time and interest, it’s possible to see and learn of the great many tribal rituals including beer brewing, courting, dancing etc. A unique 5-day ‘cultural’ hike, along the Wild Coast, from Port-St-Johns to Coffee Bay, is available. Doing it will immerse you in the best of the geography and culture of the Wild Coast/Transkei.
Car Rental. A car is the best way to get around South Africa. A few years ago we did a 2 week road trip in the Cape region and it was fantastic – having a car allowed us to see the beautiful geography of the country at our own pace. I don’t drive much but I felt very comfortable driving in South Africa where the roads are good and the traffic sparse (outside of the major cities). We use Rentalcars.com, they dig up the best prices from all the car rental companies.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus from Cape Town to Johannesburg. If you don’t want to drive. the famous Bazbus can get you anywhere in South Africa. This ticket is good for a year and lets you get on or off the bus anywhere between Cape Town and Johannesburg. There’s a bus every day in each direction and the bus stops in over 40 cities and towns along the way. The best and cheapest no-worry way of discovering South Africa.
Related: The BIG Guide to South Africa
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