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Africa gets under your skin. At least it does mine. I’ve only traveled there three times —once to Zambia and twice to South Africa — but each time I returned with a feeling that I couldn’t wait to go back. It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on.
I recently visited South Africa’s Eastern Cape and, once again, I got that old feeling: The endless plains stretching out in front of me, majestic blue mountains in the far distance and, in the Eastern Cape especially, the lovely late afternoon sunlight on the scrub.
Until recently, the Eastern Cape was not high on anyone’s list of must-see places in South Africa. More likely, Johannesburg or Cape Town would have topped the list. But the Eastern Cape contains some of the country’s most important — and interesting — history. To begin with, Nelson Mandela was born there. It’s also the home of the Xhosa, one of the most important tribes in the history of the country. Visitors can see young men taking part in the Xhosa initiation rites as they walk along the side of major roads covered in white clay.
The Eastern Cape is a “Big Seven” destination. That is, you can see the Big Five — lion, hippos, giraffe, leopard and elephant — as well as whales and great white sharks. This is because the Eastern Cape, more than 500 miles long, stretches along some of the most pristine beaches and rugged coastal areas on the continent. It’s also has some of the world’s best surfing, including Jeffrey’s Bay.
There are a surprising number of adventure tourism options in the Eastern Cape. The province has the highest bungee jump in the world, there are numerous zipline tours and the hiking and biking are superb. For the more sedentary, the Eastern Cape is also becoming known for its incredibly diverse bird watching.
Leaving from Cape Town, you can drive south, along the narrow coastal Garden Route, which is what a lot of people do. Or you can do what I did, leave from the more northern Port Elizabeth and, then, head inland. East London on the coast is also a jumping-off point. What follows is a sampling of some of the places I remember vividly from my recent trip to the Eastern Cape.
Mandela’s Home It’s hard to escape the long shadow of Nelson Mandela, and for good reason: The first black president since the end of apartheid, Mandela is an icon in South Africa. Now in his 90s and in frail health, Mandela mostly stays in Johannesburg, but you can see his childhood home and native village, Qunu, along the main route, N2, in the northernmost section of the Eastern Cape.
The Nelson Mandela Museum in nearby Mthatha features posters, photos and other documents that trace his long and extraordinary life. The museum is perched on top of a hill, and you can walk down one side and stand on the rock where Mandela slid down with other children of the village as they tended flocks of sheep. Close by, although in some disrepair, is the foundation of the school that young Mandela attended. The Mandela family burial plot, overgrown with weeds and enclosed only with a simple wire fence, is also in close distance.
Nighttime SafarisThere’s nothing quite like a nighttime safari where you can see animals in their nocturnal pursuits of other animals or maybe just trying to avoid the spotlight that is shone on them from a moving 4x4 vehicle. This is only one aspect of safaris, and some of the best private game reserves in the Eastern Cape are about a two-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. Though the vegetation is not as lush and the trees are not as plentiful as in the north around Kruger, this area has a major advantage: It’s malaria-free. Some of the best private reserves are Kwandwe, Shamwari and Samara, where a cheetah restoration program is in full swing. You can get up close (but not too personal) with Sibella, who has produced 18 cubs since being rescued from near death at the hands of farmers.
Bungee Jumping The Bloukrans Bridge, at 708 feet above the Bloukrans River, is billed as the largest single-span arch bridge in the world. Construction was completed in 1984. The bridge is primarily used for traffic, but it’s also the site of the world’s highest commercially operated bungee jump. Let me say at the outset: I didn’t jump off that bridge, but I watched a lot of people do it. It features a team of professionals guiding jumpers through every step, and everyone who does it comes away describing it as an otherworldly experience. That’s nice to hear, but getting out to the center of the bridge, where the bungee jumps take off from a platform from under the road, was enough for me. The walkway is fully enclosed with wire and sturdily built, but the floor has small holes in it to allow for the wind and the view down can be downright scary. I looked up at the ceiling the entire way out and back. Good luck to the jumpers.
Small Towns One of the real delights of driving through the Eastern Cape is discovering some of the smaller towns. One of these is Graaf-Reinet, said to be the fourth-oldest town in South Africa. In Graaf-Reinet, there are more national monuments than any other place in South Africa (220 to be exact), and you can’t miss them as you stroll through town. There are also dozens of examples of Cape Dutch architecture, the most prominent of which is the Dutch Reformed Church with its signature chimney. But we spent more time driving out of town and into the Camdeboo National Park, which surrounds it. A few miles away from Graaf-Reinet is the Valley of Desolation, with sheer cliffs that rise 2,624 feet from the valley floor. I broke out a picnic lunch, poured some wine and just enjoyed the silence.
South African Tourismwww.southafrica.net
Getting There South African Airways (SAA) has many daily flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town to the Eastern Cape cities of Port Elizabeth and East London. SAA Vacations offers a variety of packages in the region with a 12 percent commission or higher. www.flysaa.com
Where to Stay Ideal for business travelers, Radisson Blu Hotel, Port Elizabeth is a comfortable modern hotel with 173 guestrooms. The hotel features an infinity-edge pool that opens onto the India Ocean skyline. www.radisson.com
The family-friendly Samara Private Game Reserve features three elegant lodges nestled between wide plans and mountain ranges on 70,000 acres of the Karoo. Wildlife roams freely, especially the endangered cheetah. www.samara.co.za
Somerset Lodge is conveniently located on a quiet street in the charming and historic little town of Somerset East. A five-bedroom B&B, Somerset is located in close proximity to a golf course and hiking trails. www.somerseteastlodge.co.za
Cavers Country Guest House is a fifth-generation, family-owned farm with a stone double story homestead, built in 1850, used exclusively for guests. The guesthouse features lovely, award-winning gardens and fresh country cuisine, including homemade bread, butter, preserves and cheese and yogurt. www.cavers.co.za
Located a 40-minute drive away from the East London airport along the Wild Coast, Prana Lodge is a boutique hotel and Thai spa featuring seven suites with private gardens and plunge pools. The hotel is located in a pristine forest along spectacular Cintsa Bay.www.pranalodge.co.za