The Eastern Cape is a treasure trove of experiences; it glitters and charms with diverse landscapes, biodiversity and cultural history stretching all the way from the Wild Coast to the Sunshine Coast, through the Amathole mountains, to the top of the highlands’ mountain passes, into the Karoo, with a city pit stop to the fruit of the Langkloof and the crashing waves and coca-cola coloured rivers of Tsitsikamma.
It is a province that can feel familiar - like coming home to family - and completely unknown - as if you are visiting a different country - all at the same time. It is a province with unique voices, unpolished scenery, rare sights and undiscovered paths and in the words of George Eliot, “These gems have life in them: their colors speak.”
Here are 5 experiences to dig out of the Eastern Cape’s treasure cove and explore, many of which have been regional and national winners of the Lilizela Awards, an initiative of the National Department of Tourism and headed by South African Tourism to celebrate South Africa’s best in travel.
With an 800km coastline, the largest dune field in the Southern Hemisphere, 7 Blue Flag Beaches, the biggest bottlenose dolphin population and co-host to the annual Sardine Run, you can bet your bottom of the ocean dollar – ehh rand – and your salty, sandy beach bum that a lot is going on in, on, under and around the ocean waters of the Eastern Cape.
Raggy Charters, based in Port Elizabeth and the waters of Algoa Bay, is Africa’s oldest Marine Eco Tour company and has been operating in licensed boat-based whale watching since 1992.
The Southern Right and Humpback Whale can be seen (and other whale species), dolphins, cape fur seals, sharks and of course penguins, as Algoa Bay is home to the largest breeding colony of African Penguins.
There is also a feel-good factor to Raggy Charters as they contribute towards the Baywatch Project, Penguin Research Fund and they organise beach clean-ups and plant an ingenious tree for every boat trip as an initiative to offset their carbon footprint.
For other ocean experiences you can also explore the coastline of Tsitsikamma (Storms River National Park), a Marine Protected Area, go see kayaking with Pro Dive in Port Elizabeth, try windsurfing in Cannon Rocks, surfing in Jeffreys Bay or explore the coast on foot on the Otter Hiking Trail or one of the numerous Wild Coast trails.
Move over other provinces, move over all the continents, and allow the Eastern Cape to wow you with the fact that it is the only place in the world to boast that it is home to the “Big Seven”.
Addo Elephant National Park – which includes Bird Island and St. Croix Island in Algoa Bay since 2005 – is home to the big five as well as other smaller game species and creatures like the endangered flightless dung beetle, while the Southern right whale and great white shark are frequent visitors. And just to be clear, they are frequent visitors to the waters of Algoa Bay, they don’t frolic among one of the 600+ elephants and warthogs.
READ: From Addo to the Wild Coast: SA’s top wildlife experiences to add to your Eastern Cape itinerary
The variety of private game reserves and a total of 4 national parks (all within close proximity to Port Elizabeth’s airport) mean that there is a variety of accommodation options available for different budgets, preferences and the choice between a day or an overnight trip.
Many years ago, a few great minds came together and decided to take up the role of being custodians of the environment; they had a vision and mission to restore the land – its history and fauna and flora – to the thriving biodiverse conditions before hunting, over-farming and drought wrecked the area during the 19th century.
Over time Shamwari Private Game Reserve expanded and today it is known as one of the leading luxury private game reserves. Shamwari has also been recognised globally for their efforts in conservation and they offer volunteer experiences in conservation management and a veterinary science and nursing student fraternity.
READ: Hanekom commends Shamwari Game Reserve for its vital conservation contribution to tourism
A stay at Shamwari might not sit right with the average South African’s wallet, but this 5-star facility is a one-of-a-kind and a once-in-a-lifetime trip if you’re looking for a personalised wild life experience – complete with romantic dinners, guided bush walks, seeing the big 5, spa treatments, photographic safaris and more.
Oh and did we mention the province is malaria free?
For other wildlife experiences, you can also visit Camdeboo National Park and in Mountain Zebra National Park and at Samara Private Game Reserve you can go cheetah tracking on foot. There are a number of provincial reserves worth visiting such as the Great Fish River, Baviaanskloof (4x4 only) and Hluleka Nature Reserve.
READ: Wind your way through these Dorpies of the Eastern Cape: Graaff Reinet
The Eastern Cape is a melting pot of traditions, languages and cultural heritage, spiced with flavours from all over the world and served with a mighty strong and homemade umqombothi on the side.
It is here in the Eastern Cape where ethnic customs are timeless and still respected, it is here - through pothole-laden roads and rural communities - where you get cultural glimpses, it is here where the roots lie of great leaders, Thabo Mbeki from Idutywa and Steve Biko from Ginsberg just outside of King William’s Town, and it is here where the father of our nation, Tata Madiba, grew up in the village of Qunu.
As he said in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, "Some of the happiest years of my boyhood were spent in Qunu."
READ: WATCH: Explore Nelson Mandela’s history through the streets of the Eastern Cape
Today, visitors from near and far can learn more about the life of Madiba at The Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, and also in Mthatha where you can wander through a museum filled with interesting displays and artefacts of Nelson Mandela; from his time as a young boy, to his time spent on Robben Island, to the time he served as South Africa’s president. It is a visual inspiring journey that visitors can take as a self-guided tour.
For other cultural experiences you can also do the Route 67 tour in Nelson Mandela Bay and view 67 art pieces commemorating Mandela’s life, in King William’s Town there is the Steve Biko Centre and the Icamagu Institute in Dutywa is focused on researching and reviving African Traditional religion and indigenous spiritualty.
If you have acrophobia, you might want to sit this one out, or if you have hydrophobia you might want to watch from a patch of dry land, because the Eastern Cape is called the Adventure Province for a reason; your limits will be tested, your screams will be monitored in decibels and you will mumble ‘mind over matter’ to yourself countless times.
But don’t fret or fear; not all the adventure activities will turn your legs into jelly, there are still many low-key mini adventures to take on as well.
READ: #EcoTravels: A nature lover's guide to Eastern Cape
Areena Rivierside Resort is but one place in the Eastern Cape offering guests the opportunity to face their fears with an ‘Amazingzing Zipline Tour’ that will have you sliding across 10 ziplines with the highest one being 70 metres and the longest one being 153 metres.
They also offer abseiling, canoe rides, you can play a game of paintball and go quad biking while the beach is just down the road.
For other adventurous experiences, make your way to the Bloukrans Bridge in Tsitsikamma which is home to the world’s highest commercial natural bungy jump at 216 metres, and if that isn’t enough… they’ve recently added a zipline to get you to the arch of the bridge for your jump.
Then there is also exciting adventures like the Kayak and Lilo trip up Storms River, numerous multi-day hiking trails (and slack packing trails), 4x4 routes that will rattle your dentures from Baviaanskloof to the Eastern Cape highlands where you will find the majority of South Africa’s highest mountain passes, you can go diving, there is cliff jumping on the Wild Coast, river rafting and mountain biking trails in the Karoo, fatbiking on the Sunshine Coast and dune boarding at Sundays River.
READ: #FindYourEscape: Top Eastern Cape adventures
It is impossible and slightly unfair to compare the cities in the Eastern Cape – whether that is Port Elizabeth or East London – to cities in other parts of South Africa. Things down here might be slow, but every destination beats its own drum, every city dances to its own modern pulse of seaside pleasures, historic treasures, nightlife, markets, parks and reserves.
The Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment World in Port Elizabeth is a 5-star hotel looking out onto Hobie Beach and Shark Rock Pier; it is home to a variety of restaurants, shops, the stage has witnessed many shows and its convention centre has been the choice of many for weddings, functions and conferences. The hotel is also a Lilizela Awards Winner in the category of mobility in accommodation and they go to great lengths to ensure that mobile and visual impaired visitors also benefit from their facilities and services.
For other city experiences, you can also experience the variety of markets in Port Elizabeth such as the monthly Locally Yours, or Bathurst’s Farmers Market just a short drive from Grahamstown and Avalon Market situated at Kidd's Beach.
Both East London and Port Elizabeth are proud IRONMAN hosts with beaches flying the Blue Flag Status proudly. Visit the cities’ museum, paint the town red and dance until the morning, go shopping, catch a show and if the heat gets too much, go beer tasting at Bridge Street Brewery in the Friendly City, or stop by for a cold one at Emerald Vale Brewery in East London.
READ: Bar hopping through Port Elizabeth in style
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