Loving Local

Up for an awesome adventure holiday? Head to the Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape may seem like SA's tourism sidekick. Yet the province is filled with history, adventure and beauty, as Graeme Hosken discovers

02 September 2018 - 00:00 By Graeme Hosken
Plant your feet, or plant your face, sandboarding down the Alexandria Dunes, just outside PE.
Plant your feet, or plant your face, sandboarding down the Alexandria Dunes, just outside PE.
Image: SA Tourism

Within minutes of landing in PE, I was figuratively smacked in the face with a solid Mike Tyson upper cut, which shut up all my questions.

The Eastern Cape's hidden gems, without too much searching or damage to one's bank cards, spilt forth the moment I stepped off the plane.

She dragged me out of bed at 3am on a cold Monday, and I hadn't even met her yet.

Hypnotised and in a dreamlike state, I made my way through the throng of early morning Joburg airport traffic.

I'm a crime reporter, used to blood, and gore. I knew nothing about the Eastern Cape, other than the bloody struggle the province's inhabitants played in our country's fight for democracy.

Go explore, said my bosses. Take a load off and breathe. See what there is too see.

I was circumspect. Was this local yokel, with 800km of rugged coastline and hundreds of kilometres of rivers and waterways, going to be what it claimed to be? Or was it just a forgotten backwater, deprived of the dazzling lights of the country's big cities, with nothing to offer?

With sun, sea, sand, bush, rivers, historical treasures and a sense of carefree abandonment, this baby is more than just a fling on the side.

It's a place that teases, leaves you wanting more, and shows why exploring is the name of the game. And I didn't even need a passport.

"You want adventure? We will give you adventure," laughed Lloyd Mthembu, our host at Port Elizabeth's Black Impala Tshisanyama, a local-is-lekker braai spot on the city's outskirts. "You want relaxation? We will give you body-melting relaxation. Our province does not disappoint."

He was right. Oh, so right.

ROUTES OF FREEDOM

Route 67 - which symbolises the 67 years of former president Nelson Mandela's struggle for freedom - is a historical and artistic gem.

Starting among the decay of abandoned buildings - caused by the lack of foresight by apartheid-era road planners in the '70s - it takes one through both familiar and little-known sites of inner PE.

It leads the curious from the city's harbour and railway-station entrance, where the Campanile bell tower - which every day commemorates the arrival of the 1820 Settlers with the country's largest carillon of bells, while the tower's frieze celebrates those who lived in the region before the colonists arrived.

The Campanile bell tower in Port Elizabeth.
The Campanile bell tower in Port Elizabeth.
Image: Supplied

It heads on to the highest point in the city, the Donkin Reserve. The flag pole at the Donkin Reserve is the highest in the country, standing at 68m, with the biggest South African flag in the world, measuring 12m x 8m, flown from it.

Here, you will also find the country's only and strangely out-of-place pyramid, a monument built by Sir Rufane Donkin, the European founder of Port Elizabeth, in honour of his wife, Elizabeth.

Throughout the journey to the top, the route - part of the greater Nelson Mandela Bay Arts Journey - is marked by poignant quotes penned by Mandela during his struggle for democracy.

For guide Lungelo Ngabaza, knowledge and acceptance of all the country's history is vital if we are to successfully move forward as a nation.

"To know where you are going you have to know where you come from. Without that we will forever be lost," he says as he looks out over the city from the pyramid.

His words resonate with me throughout my journey of adventure.

And adventure it was, from the easy stroll on Route 67 to my "bum sliding" sandboarding endeavours down some of the province's tallest sand dunes, called the Alexandria Dunes, just outside PE.

Sandboarding? No problem, I told my guide. Easy-peasy. Watch me.

But, to my horror, and the delight of my guide and team of journo-tourist cohorts, I was not very successful. I learnt very quickly the fine art of face planting while travelling at speed downhill on a device with no brakes.

I'm a quick learner, though, and took to the board on my bum like a semi-pro, wiping out twice spectacularly as the guides from Sundays River Adventures encouraged me to go faster.

Sand, sea air and good vibes soon add up to hunger - a hunger, I discovered, that could only be satisfied by the bounty of South Africa's calamari capital, Cape St Francis.

It's here that my off-switch got flipped and I dissolved into a puddle of drool.

It's not my fault. Who wouldn't? You arrive at the resort, leave your luggage, then head out on an hour-long cruise of the canals and Kromme and Geelhout rivers, during which you are fed piles of seafood and told there is nothing to worry about, to enjoy yourself.

If the Eastern Cape hadn't been spoiling me on day one, by day two it was pulling out all the stops, bells and whistles - and there was still another day to go.

My cares disappeared and work became a faded memory.

Cruising back from the resort owner's farmstead, situated on a bend on the Geelhout River, I found it difficult to imagine how it could get any better, but boy did it.

The writer, back right, and friends with Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour guide Heiney Jacobs, front.
The writer, back right, and friends with Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour guide Heiney Jacobs, front.
Image: Supplied

Not to be outdone by the resort's five-star, sea-facing self-catering and B&B villas, the unassuming Tsitsikamma village knows how to do adventure by the bucket load.

"What you saw until now was average, and average is boring," said our zipline guide, Heiney Jacobs as he sent me haring off down a 90m steel cable.

"What we do is spectacular ... This place is the epicentre of the adventure province."

It's true. Whichever way you turn, you bump into an adventure, man-made or natural. Around every tree, there is something that wows.

This sidekick province is definitely deserving of a starring role in your holiday plans.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

WHERE TO STAY

  • The Cape St Francis Resort: Has several accommodation options, from backpacker private rooms (from R323 per person in low season) to Sea-Facing Villas (R6,453). 
  • Tsitsikamma Lodge: R680 per person sharing, B&B. Rates increase from October. 
  • Port Elizabeth Beach Hotel: Sea-facing rooms from R950 to R1,995. Standard rooms from R850 to R1,815. Weekend promotion until September 30: R785 per person including breakfast (minimum two-night stay). 

WHAT TO DO

  • The ziplining tour was arranged by Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours.
  • The Route 67 tour was led by Lungelo Ngabaza. Call him on 083-16602997.
  • The Cape St Francis Canals and River cruise was arranged by the Cape St Francis Resort.
  • The dune boarding on Alexandria Dunes was arranged by Sunday's River Adventures.
  • The Black Impala Tshisanyama is at 153 Grahamstown Road. Call 062-871-2090 for a 'lekker' braai spot.

• Hosken was a guest of SA Tourism.


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