A Picturesque All-in-One Safari District for Celebrating the Great Outdoors
If you are in the mood for an informal seaside escape, an encounter with the Big Five on safari, or a choice of scintillating city diversions, you are sure to find what you're looking for in the Eastern Cape. Scenic diversity is one of the most striking characteristics of the region.
Alternating between sweeping sand, river mouths, rocks and covers, the coastline is a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. Among them, surfers ride the perfect waves, anglers reel in king-size catches, and board sailors revel in the challenge of the wind. Sunshine all year round, fine leisure resorts and splendid facilities ensure that the great outdoors is always in style.
From lush tropical forests to uninhabited desert expanses, and from easy-going hammock time to adrenaline-pumping adventures, the Eastern Cape offers a wide range of topography and experiences. Compared with the more developed Western Cape, it can feel like a different country and provides opportunities to learn about Xhosa culture.
Some of South Africa's finest hiking (and slackpacking) trails wind along the province's largely undeveloped coastline and through its mountainous, waterfall-filled landscapes. Private wildlife reserves, national and regional parks abound; see the Big Five or migrating whales and dolphins. You will find tranquillity and culture in the towns of the semi-arid Karoo; the imposing Drakensberg peaks and little-known valleys in the Highlands; good surfing in the Indian Ocean, coupled with amazing cultural experiences on the Wild Coast; and history throughout, including the legacy of some famous local sons like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Steve Biko.
Magical Dense Forests and the Big Seven in Tsitsikamma and Addo National Parks
Dark, coffee-coloured churning rivers, deep ravines and dense indigenous forests, this is the beauty of the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. It encompasses 650 sq km between the towns of Plettenberg Bay and Humansdorp, as well a Marine Protected Area covering 80km of coastline. Elusive Cape clawless otters, after which the Otter Trail (a multiday hike) is named, inhabit this park; there are also baboons, monkeys, small antelope and furry little dassies. Birdlife is plentiful, including endangered African black oystercatchers.
A 77m-long suspension bridge spans the Storms River Mouth where several walking trails pass thickets of ferns, lilies, orchids, coastal and mountain fynbos (fine bush), and yellowwood and milkwood trees, some hundreds of years old. Millennia-old sandstone and quartz rock formations line the gorges and rocky shoreline, and southern right whales and dolphins are visible out in the ocean.
The Addo Elephant National Park located 70km north of Port Elizabeth, near the Sunshine Coast is South Africa’s third-largest national park protecting the remnants of the huge elephant herds that once roamed the Eastern Cape. When Addo was proclaimed a national park in 1931, there were only 11 elephants left; today there are more than 600 in the park.
A day or two at Addo is a highlight of any visit to this part of the Eastern Cape, not only for the elephants but for the lions, zebras, black rhinos, Cape buffaloes, spotted hyenas and myriad birds. The park is one of few that boasts the ‘Big Seven’, thanks to sightings of great white sharks and southern right whales (in season) in Algoa Bay. Look out, too, for the rare flightless dung beetle, endemic to Addo.
The Karoo Heartland – Rugged and Intense Beauty Under Magnificent Night Skies
The Karoo Heartland lies at the heart of South Africa, consisting of a series of mountains, vast plains, star studded skies, farmland, idiosyncratic little towns, reminiscent of yesteryear and space – lots of it. This beautiful area, subject to red dust, thorny acacias, stunted vegetation, aloes, windmills, sheep and the odd Angora goat, boasts some of the quaintest towns in the country, authentic farm stays, the dramatic valley of Desolation, the Owl House and the Camdeboo National Park. Today the Karoo Heartland has been repackaged as an enviro-region that charms with its unusual and unpretentious characters, eccentricities and diversity of activities. And did we mention the skies? Some of the best stargazing and sunsets in the country are available in this incredible vastness.
The Camdeboo National Park has plenty of animals, but the real attractions are the spectacular geological formations, and great views of the town of Graaff-Reinet and the sun-baked Karoo plains. The park’s name comes from the Khoekhoen for ‘green valleys’ – probably a reference to the spekboom growing here, which remain verdant throughout the winter. The park’s most popular sight, the Valley of Desolation is a hauntingly beautiful valley with outstanding views at sunrise and sunset – the rugged, piled dolerite columns are set against the backdrop of the endless Karoo plains.
Hidden in the deep Karoo, the tiny village of Nieu Bethesda has gained some attention for its extraordinary Owl House – the fantastically and unnervingly decorated home of ‘outsider’ artist, Helen Martins. With its dirt roads, water furrows, pretty cottages and endless stars, Nieu Bethesda is a great place to experience life in a Karoo village, unwind for a few days and reconnect with nature. Most visitors drive from Graaff-Reinet – the route is very scenic, with the Sneeuberg range dominating the region.
The Wild Coast – an Untamed Coastline and Wilderness
The city of East London is the ideal base from which to explore the north-eastern mountains and the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. The Wild Coast is an incredible, unassuming combination of breath-taking coastline, precipitous and craggy cliff faces, wild and desolate beaches, secluded bays and green rolling hills that rush headlong into deeply etched river valleys. The beauty of the coastline is interfered with by few, and aside from the odd collection of thatched rondavel huts, is virtually uninhabited.
This shipwreck-strewn coastline rivals any in the country in terms of beauty and wilderness, stretching over 350km from just east of East London to Port Edward. Often referred to as the ‘Transkei’ (the name of the apartheid-era homeland that once covered most of this area), the Wild Coast region also stretches inland, covering pastoral landscapes where clusters of rondavels (round huts with a conical roofs) scatter the rolling hills covered in short grass.
In this land of far-flung river estuaries and backpackers resembling Xhosa settlements, numerous outdoor activities and cultural tours are on offer. In June and July, the Wild Coast is prime territory for the natural phenomenon known as the ‘sardine run’, an absolute highlight on the marine calendar which attracts divers and snorkellers from all over the world. The Wild Coast’s forested areas include prehistoric cycads, sneezewood and yellowwood trees, and areas thick with vegetation.
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