The landscape of the Eastern Cape is diverse, from arid desolate Karoo to lush green Tsitsikamma Forest, the fertile Lankloof and Sundays River Valleys and magnificent beaches on the Wild Coast. This was true frontier country in the early 1800s. Various peoples met along the coastal migration routes and as a result many battles were fought here. White settlers clashed with the Xhosa, Pondo, Zulu and Sotho tribes.
The unique architecture of the towns and cities reflects the mixed heritage of the people and the many museums narrate the turbulent history of the area.
The Eastern Cape is an agricultural region producing mainly grains and fruits, though there are some cattle and sheep ranches. The main public game reserve in the Eastern Cape is the Addo Elephant Park, not far from Port Elizabeth. There are also numerous private game reserves, all of which are in malaria-free areas.
Addo Elephant National Park
Addo Elephant National Park is part of the South African National Parks and is a delightful reserve near Port Elizabeth. The elephants used to be tightly packed in this park but it has recently been expanded so that these large but quiet pachyderms have a wider area in which to roam.
As a result it is slightly harder to see the elephants, but the animals aren’t in short supply and evidence is all around. An elephant produces 150 kilograms of dung every day so the precious flightless dung beetles have quite a job to do.
You will see many signs in this park asking you to take care not to run over dung beetles, which are vital to the fragile ecology.
Accommodation is in basic but attractive chalets, which overlook a well-trodden path to the waterhole in front of the main lodge. You can eat at the basic restaurant or take your own barbeque food and cook it on your patio while watching elephants pass by. Just after dusk the silver-backed jackals often start howling, an eerie serenade in the otherwise silent evening.
Port Elizabeth is known as ‘The Friendly City’, with its sandy beaches, pleasant parks and a thriving nightlife. Settlers Park includes 54 hectares of cultivated and natural gardens in the valley of the Baakens River, with the many native plants and flowers attracting many colourful birds.
Known to South Africans as ‘P.E.’, Port Elizabeth is a major water-sports venue and hosted the 1995 World Windsurfing Championships. There is a public pool in St George’s Park and a tidal swimming pool at MacArthur Baths on Kings Beach Promenade.
Port Elizabeth is also a city for animal lovers, with dolphins performing at the Oceanarium, a snake park, and even a Horse Monument in town commemorating horses that suffered and died during the Boer War.
A reminder of a different, short-lived war is Fort Frederick, built in 1799. It was intended to defend the original harbour at the mouth of the river against the French, who wanted to colonise the remote eastern regions of the Cape. They found it was too much trouble and no shot was ever fired from here.
This sunny stretch of coastline offers some of the best angling, hiking, diving and scenic beauty in South Africa. The surroundings here are magnificent and the cultural diversity alone makes the Wild Coast well worth visiting.
The swimming is safe and the water is warm and undisturbed along this peaceful and glorious stretch of coast. The area is not extensively developed, which adds to its rustic and unspoilt appeal.
Slightly inland from the Wild Coast, is an area in which a fair number of English immigrants settled in the 1820s. At the time, it was a conflict-torn region where Boer and Xhosa communities were constantly at each other’s throats over cattle and land.
The English Settlers landed in the middle of this tension and several wars were fought. Towns like Cradock, Hogsback, Queenstown, Fort Beaufort and Somerset East sprung up to buffer the conflict and supply garrisons with provisions.
Many of these towns benefited from the strong English influence and these influences can still be seen today. There are a number of historic buildings to be seen as well as beautiful areas of indigenous forest, especially around Hogsback.
The hot dry Karoo overlaps the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. It has a sparse barren landscape, where the main economic activity is wool and meat from hardy Karoo sheep.
One of the main towns in the Eastern Cape Karoo is Graaff-Reinet. The wide streets of Graaff-Reinet have more National Monument buildings than any other town in South Africa and it is a delightful oasis in the scrubland.
Nearby is a spectacular natural wonder known as the ‘Valley of Desolation’, where the ground falls away dramatically, and strange dolomite pinnacles rise like rockets from a launching pad.
Nieu-Bethesda is a quirky little town and home to the strange Owl House. The Owl House is an unusual collection of cement and glass sculptures and is the life’s work of an eccentric artist named Helen Martins.
It may seem vast and empty but the Karoo is full of delightful eccentricities waiting to be discovered.