Exploring the Eastern Cape | Alternative Adventures in South Africa
Uncovering the potential of South Africa's other cape
Sitting out the back of a surf break is normally a uniquely relaxing place to be. Those few minutes between the hard work of paddling out and the excitement of your next wave give you a chance to catch your breath, chat to your buddies, or just sit and enjoy the feeling of being out in the ocean.
Right now however, I’m not feeling very relaxed. About 20 metres to my left I’ve just caught a glimpse of a sleek, grey dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water. I suddenly become very aware of my legs dangling either side of my board, and how vulnerable I am. I’m alone out here – the rest of my group is having a lesson in the white water – and the shore looks a long way away.
“I’ve just caught a glimpse of a sleek, grey dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water."
My shark paranoia isn’t totally unfounded either. We’re in St Francis Bay, South Africa. We’re a short distance from the legendary surf spot Bruce’s Beauties, made famous by the classic 60s film Endless Summer, and I’m stoked to be surfing here. But I’m also conscious this is a notoriously sharky stretch of coast. Just round the corner is Jeffrey’s Bay, where Mick Fanning fought off a great white on live TV just last year.
My heart is pounding as I turn and start paddling frantically towards the shore. Then I see the fin again, coming closer. Except this time I catch sight of it properly... and I laugh out loud as I recognise its arcing movement. I’m not swimming with sharks, I’m surfing with dolphins! I stop paddling and sit back on my board, soaking up the moment. And then nearly fall off it as one of the curious creatures breaks the surface just a few feet to my left. It’s not the first time this incredible region of South Africa has sprung a surprise on me in the past week, and it won’t be the last.
With its combination of natural beauty and wildlife, unique culture, fascinating (if frequently brutal) history and myriad opportunities for adventure, South Africa is a hugely popular holiday destination. According to the government’s statistics, some 15 million people visited last year, while a recent government report claimed that tourism accounts for one in every 12 jobs in the country. It is particularly popular with Brits. Over 400,000 of us travel there every year, more than from any other overseas nation. Yet there are large swathes of the country that remain relatively unknown to foreigners.
The vast majority of tourists fly into Johannesburg and either spend their time exploring nearby attractions (like the enormous Kruger National Park) or fly straight on to Cape Town. Table Mountain, Robben Island and the Garden Route, along the coast of the Western Cape, are world famous, and fixtures on every itinerary from luxury retirement tours to basic backpacker jaunts. The area also has a well-deserved reputation as a world-class destination for adventure sports. What a lot of people don’t know is that just next door lies a province which offers equally incredible opportunities, but fewer tourists. In the UK certainly this “Other Cape" is relatively unknown – and it’s this area that we’ve come here to explore.
It may not be as popular as its western neighbour with British visitors these days, but the Eastern Cape has a long history of British involvement. Its largest city, Port Elizabeth, where we begin our trip, was founded by Brits. Some 4,000 settlers were given farms here in 1820 (a typically arrogant imperial move, with scant regard shown for the rights of the locals) and the town takes its name from the late wife of their leader, acting governor Sir Rufane Donkin.
“It’s quite a sad story actually, but quite a romantic one" explains our guide, Craig Duffield as we take a walk around the pyramid built in Elizabeth’s memory, on top of a hill overlooking the colonial-era buildings of the old town. “It was an arranged marriage, but also apparently they really loved one another. Elizabeth followed him out to India, but then just after she gave birth to their son, she died. He came out here and did his duty for his country, but he pined for her." After seeing out his service, Sir Rufane returned to the UK, but as Craig explains: “He never really recovered, and he eventually took his own life in 1841, on 1st May, which would have been their 25th wedding anniversary."
“A restaurant we eat in has a sign warning ‘monkeys may drop in for a visit during your meal.’"
Next to the pyramid lies an impressive mosaic commemorating the arrival of the Brits, but also the rich histories of the different peoples who were here before them. The original San inhabitants, who were driven out by the Xhosa-speaking tribes, who in turn were being squeezed out by the Dutch-descended Afrikaners when the Brits first showed up. Legendary Afrikaner leader Piet Retief had a farm in what is now the suburbs of Port Elizabeth before he left on the Great Trek - itself an attempt to escape the ever-increasing influence of the latest English-speaking arrivals. The trek ended brutally for Retief when he was butchered by King Shaka’s Zulus who were (probably quite rightly) suspicious of the Afrikaner’s intentions.
These days of course the multiple ethnic groups who battled for control of the Eastern Cape live more or less harmoniously. Craig, a white English-speaking South African, is a huge fan of Mandela and the “rainbow nation" concept which defined his political vision for the country. As he talks us through the rest of the 67 artworks by local artists which surround the large mosaic, he waxes lyrical about the 67 years of Mandela’s political career that they’re meant to celebrate. Since he was freed and apartheid ended, the dividing lines in South African society have shifted. As the ANC’s hammering in recent local elections showed, economics are as important as ethnicity these days, but reminders of past conflicts are everywhere in the Eastern Cape.
It’s not all ancient history either. If Cape Town has Robben Island, the prison-turned museum where Mandela and his ANC comrades were held, then the Other Cape has its own altogether more stark reminder of the evils of apartheid. As we drive out of Port Elizabeth Craig points to an empty office block on our left, its shattered windows a sign that it’s long been abandoned. “That there is the building where Steve Biko was beaten basically to death," he says. The leader of the revolutionary Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s, Biko was arrested in nearby Grahamstown, but brought to the notoriously brutal South African Police’s Port Elizabeth headquarters for questioning.
“He was badly beaten", Craig explains. “He started haemorrhaging, a brain haemorrhage. They then put him on the back of a vehicle and drove him 1,200km to Pretoria. They expected him to be dead when they arrived but incredibly he wasn't. He was only officially declared dead the following day and the official reason given for his death was 'the effects of a hunger strike'".
Despite the fact that it’s a piece of prime real estate, the building’s brutal past means it’s been left abandoned since the collapse of the apartheid regime. "No-one wants to touch that building so it just stands empty," Craig says.
Craig Duffield’s expertise is not just in the history and the culture of his country, but also in the wildlife. “I’m trained as a culture guide and certified to guide around the Eastern Cape," he explains, “but also as a wildlife guide" – a ranger to you and me. This comes in hugely handy at our next stop, Addo Elephant National Park. Like the province it sits in, Addo isn’t the most famous of South Africa’s National Parks, but it’s a hidden gem.
The third largest in the country, the park is home to a vast range of animals. In a single game drive through the rolling, scrub-covered hills we see lions, elephants, warthogs and kudu as well as rare sightings like the caracal, a small cat-like creature with enormous ears. It’s not just the National Parks that are full of wildlife either. South Africa is one of 17 countries that have been listed as “megadiverse" by Conservation International, and it really does feel like there are incredible creatures everywhere. At one stage a troop of baboons slows down traffic on a main road, and a restaurant we eat in has a sign warning “monkeys may drop in for a visit during your meal". After leaving the national park we take a canoe trip down the Addo river in search of birds. The stretch of river we’re paddling isn’t protected, it’s just farmland. Either side of us are carefully kept orange groves, and yet the area is teeming with wildlife.
We see kingfishers, the ahinga snake bird, two of the utterly majestic African fish eagles and even a sleepy-looking owl having a daytime nap in a tree. At one stage our guide points out a boomslang, a highly venomous tree snake, swimming through the water ahead of us with just its head visible above the surface. One evening later in the trip, Warren Manser, another wildlife guide, leads us out to a small pond in the hotel grounds to go “frogging". This is not (as urban dictionary would suggest) the act of dogging on a canal boat, but rather spotting, catching and then releasing the tiny reed frogs that make such a racket in all South Africa’s waterways.
On other days we try out a whole plethora of adventure activities, from sea-kayaking, hiking and cliff jumping on the stunning coast to tackling the world’s longest double zipline. The infrastructure for adventurous activities of all stripes really is incredible in the Eastern Cape. “We market this as the adventure province," Craig Duffield explains at one stage. “We have the world's highest bungee jump. Abseiling, paragliding, scuba diving, you name it."
The final afternoon in Eastern Cape throws up one last surprise. We’ve just completed a high ropes course with Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours, swinging between platforms suspended about 30 metres up giant Outeniqua Yellowwood trees, some of which are 600 years old. It’s a little nerve-wracking at first, but a stunning way to see the forest. We’re staying in the Tsitsikamma Village Inn, a series of buildings built in an old colonial style arranged around a village green in the tiny town of Storms River. It’s very pretty, but also the last place you’d expect to find a thriving craft brewery. And yet, just next door (and owned by the same people) we find the Tsitsikamma Microbrewery.
Chris Sykes, the man behind the beer, gives us a tour. He’s big into his mountain biking, he explains (something else that the Eastern Cape is apparently excellent for) and the whole thing started as a bit of fun. “We started just before this mountain bike race we have here. As a joke we decided we needed to make good beer for the town.
“I had a friend who had worked for SAB (South African Breweries) and he had all this old stuff lying around and so he taught me. We made the beer for the race. That was three years ago." Although still very much a hobby, the brewery is now going from strength to strength. It is part of a somewhat unlikely craft beer scene which, according to Chris, exists as much outside of big cities like Jo’burg or Cape Town as in them.
"The scene is growing," Sykes says. “For years we've only had one brewer in South Africa - for 120 years – and that's SAB. There are now 151 breweries in South Africa and there are festivals and competitions. It's changing the whole industry too – it's putting pressure on the big brewers. SAB recently released a beer with 100 per cent malt for the first time called Blue Label and it was really popular."
Chris then proceeds to tell me about beers he’s tasted in the UK, and talk about the craft beer scene in London, a subject which he’s considerably more knowledgeable about than I am, despite the fact I live there. With his long hair and hippy-ish hobbies (he also collects and restores vintage American cars) Chris wouldn’t look out of place in San Francisco, or Portland – both worlds away from this tiny town in the Tsitsikamma National Park.
But then perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised to have found someone like him living here. If my week long sojourn in the Eastern Cape has taught me anything, it’s that the region is full of surprises. It might not be as well known as other areas of South Africa, but if you’re after something a little different, or an alternative adventure, then the other cape is where it’s at.
DO IT YOURSELF:
South African Airways (flysaa.com) fly to Port Elizabeth via Johannesburg from £600 return. There are twice daily flights from Heathrow to Jo'Burg and six daily flights connecting Jo'Burg with Port Elizabeth. Visit flysaa.com or call 0844 375 9680 to book.
We stayed in Addo Elephant National Park (sanparks.org/parks/addo). In Port St. Francis we stayed in the Dune Ridge Country House (duneridgestfrancis.co.za) and in Storms River at the Tsitsikamma Village Inn (tsitsikammavillageinn.co.za)
Activities and Guides:
Our tour was organised by Craig Duffield of Mosaic Tourism (mosaictourism.co.za). Activities included the stunning Chokka Trail hike organised by Eric and Esti of Chokka Trail (chokkatrail.co.za), surfing with Surf Camp South Africa (surfcampsouthafrica.co.za), canoeing and bird watching on the Addo River with Criss Cross Adventures (crisscrossadventures.co.za), zip lining with Adrenaline Addo (adrenalinaddo.co.za) and a tree-top tour in Tsitsikamma with Canopy Tours South Africa (canopytour.co.za).
For information on visiting South Africa and the Eastern Cape check the South African Tourism site (southafrica.net).
Huge thanks to South African Airways and South African Tourism for their help with this story.