Molweni! Famous as the birthplace of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela, the Eastern Cape of South Africa is the home of the isiXhosa culture and the land where open skies meet vast stretches of veld, traditional thatched rondavels and livestock, and where the warm Indian Ocean beats against the wild coastline.
South Africa’s second-largest province, stops include Port Edward, the Wild Coast, East London and Port Elizabeth (the two largest cities) and Storms River, the gateway to the Garden Route below. Grahamstown, Queenstown and Mthatha are inland, with Graaff-Reinet and tiny Nieu Bethesda snuggling the border of the Karoo.
The appeal of the Eastern Cape is off the highways. Follow pot-holed tarred or gravel roads that wind their way through the sub-tropical vegetation to the coast. Keep your eyes peeled for cows, goats, dogs and an assortment of other animals as you travel past townships and grassy villages. Travellers can make the journey inland on similar pockmarked roads for even more natural beauty off the tourist trail.
Just as bewitching as the scenery, the Eastern Cape is characterised by friendly locals. You will be welcomed with warm smiles as wide as that glorious sky.
It’s not about big city lights in the Eastern Cape, and the best way to explore is by road. Vegetation ranges from Karoo plains to Afromontane forest in the Tsitsikamma and sub-tropical flora along the coast, which creates many natural hidden attractions.
Best are the region’s beaches and warm Indian Ocean waves.
Journey slightly inland and stumble across other hidden treasures such as Hogsback, a micro mountain village in thick Lord-of-the-Rings forest, and Graaff-Reinet, billed as the gem of the Karoo.
Why you should visit: The 250 km stretch from East London to Port Edward is aptly called the Wild Coast. Previously known as the Transkei, traditional isiXhosa culture informs the simple and secluded way of life. Cows roam on the area’s beaches, colourful thatched rondavels line the hills, and Coffee Bay (backpacker central) reveals izi Khaleni, place of thunder in isiXhosa, or ‘Hole in the Wall,’ a huge rock structure, slightly detached from the coast, that has a giant hole in its base where the ocean waves crash through at high tide.
How to get there: It is a four-hour drive from East London airport to Coffee Bay. Keep alert for livestock on the road – and potholes! A 4X4 is best for the gravel road from Coffee Bay to Hole in the Wall or hike the 10 km coastal stretch.
Addo Elephant National Park
Why you should visit: The Eastern Cape boasts the third-largest national park in South Africa. The Addo Elephant National Park is malaria-free and just one hour from Port Elizabeth on good roads and is well worth a visit. The park has Big Five wildlife and hundreds of its namesake, the elephant.
How to get there: It’s 42 km from Port Elizabeth to Addo, travelling along the N2.
Storms River Mouth
Why you should visit: For sheer raw beauty, make the journey to Storms River Mouth Rest Camp in the Tsitsikamma National Park. Verdant vegetation of Afromontane forest and fynbos roll down rocky cliffs to the Indian Ocean. For nature lovers and adventure seekers, this is the Garden of Eden.
Walk the iconic suspension bridge, hike, kayak or take a boat cruise up the gorge and tackle blackwater tubing and canopy tours. Storms River is also the starting point for the famous Otter Trail, so popular it is recommended to book a year in advance.
How to get there: It’s almost central to PE and George along the N2.
Why you should visit: Said to have inspired J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings setting, Hogsback is every bit as magical and mysterious as the books. Hidden high up in the Amathole Mountains at 1,200 metres above sea level, visit this one-road hamlet for its artsy community, waterfalls in summer and snow in winter.
How to get there: It’s a two-hour drive from East London airport. Watch out for animals on the road, and don’t make the journey after dusk.
With a complex and rich history, the Eastern Cape has many stories to tell. In spite of the painful legacy of apartheid still very raw and visible, Eastern Cape locals are warm and welcoming.
There are many opportunities to engage, dive into local arts and culture, and enjoy a traditional meal together.
Surfing in Jeffrey’s Bay
Why you should visit: Jeffrey’s Bay needs no introduction. The Eastern Cape surfing mecca is world-famous for its right-hand surf break, and international surfing events and competitions are frequently held here.
Do as the locals do, grab a surfboard and hit the waves. If you’re a newbie, join one of the many surf schools for a lesson.
How to get there: It’s a one hour drive down from PE to Jeffrey’s Bay via the N2.
How much does it cost: Lessons at the Jeffrey’s Bay Surf School start from R350 for a two-hour group lesson.
Arts and culture in Makhanda
Why you should visit: (formerly known as Grahamstown) Home to Rhodes University, Makhanda has a thriving arts and culture scene. The National Arts Festival, the largest celebration of arts on the continent, takes place every June and July and there has been an influx of local and international artists, performers and musicians.
When not getting cultured at ‘Fest’, as the event is known, browse at the Village Green Arts and Crafts Fair, or rest at the town’s quaint coffee shops and museums.
How to get there: It’s an hour and a half from Port Elizabeth airport to Grahamstown.
The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda
Why you should visit: The Owl House is a museum you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world. Hidden in the tiny Karoo village of Nieu Bethesda, artist Helen Martins transformed her house and garden into a wonderland of over 300 statues of animals made from cement and glass. Unique, entertaining, and at times a little eerie, it’s ideal for culture fundis.
How to get there: Nieu Bethesda is a 45-minute drive from Graaff-Reinet, off the N9.
How much does it cost: Buy tickets at the visitors’ centre in Martin Street. It costs R60 to visit the Owl House.
The Eastern Cape has an abundance of excellent accommodation, but not all of it is listed online.
Ask for recommendations from people who have visited the area before to find hidden treasures.
Pre-booking, especially in rural areas, is recommended.
Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay, Wild Coast
Why you should stay here: You don’t have a wide choice of accommodation (mostly self-catering and b&b) options in Coffee Bay but, even if you did, we’d recommend Coffee Shack for its beach setting. The backpacker accommodation is simple, with options from camping facilities to ensuite rooms. There’s a fun atmosphere, and visitors can join day trips such as cliff jumping and surf lessons and traditional isiXhosa experiences. There are no major supermarkets on the coast so pack accordingly.
How to get there: From East London, take the N2 towards Mthatha (Umtata) and take the Coffee Bay/Mqanduli exit. In Coffee Bay, once you pass the police station, cross the bridge, and you’ll arrive at Coffee Shack.
How much does it cost to stay here: A double ensuite room costs from R580 (base rate for two people).
Restrictions and notes: Pre-booking early is essential
Cosy cliff-side retreats in Hogsback
Why you should stay here: The Edge Mountain Retreat has tranquil self-catering cottages and b&b rooms with sweeping views of the mountains and gorge. Each is uniquely decorated.
If you’re on a budget (or want to party), Away with the Fairies backpackers (rated one of the best in SA) also has good views and is famous for its outdoor bathtub. Book a time slot!
How to get there: Follow the signs from Hogsback.
How much does it cost to stay here: Rates range from R225 – R1,000 per person at The Edge. Dorm rooms at Away with the Fairies are from R190 per person, and double rooms start from R400 per person.
Camp Figtree Mountain Safari Lodge
Why you should stay here: Close to the Addo Elephant National Park with unbelievable views of the Zuurberg Mountains and a touch of Out-of-Africa-style luxury, check-in at Camp Figtree Mountain Safari Lodge. The eco-friendly and 100% solar-powered lodge is only 15 minutes from the main gate at Addo. For romance, choose the luxury tents that just about hang over the mountain cliff.
How to get there: It’s just over an hour’s drive from PE along the R335.
How much does it cost: Luxury tented accommodation is from R2,558 for two people per night.
Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet
Why you should stay here: The Drostdy Hotel in the heart of Graaff-Reinet is a good base from which to explore The Owl House and Nieu Bethesda. This historic hotel was built in 1806 and has been lovingly restored.
How to get there: It’s a three-hour drive from PE airport to Graaff-Reinet. The hotel is on Church Street, on the main road.
How much does it cost to stay here: Rates start from R1,200 per person sharing.
Storms River Mouth Rest Camp
Why you should stay here: There’s a choice of campsites and SANParks accommodation in Storms River, but we like the log-cabin cottages that are a stone’s throw from the ocean.
How to get there: It’s a two-hour drive from Port Elizabeth or about seven hours from Cape Town.
How much does it cost: Cottage rates are from R1,600 for two people.
You won’t find a hipster coffee shop on every street corner and, for vegetarians, in some areas, you may still be served chicken. But what you will find in the Eastern Cape is home-cooked fresh produce and seafood, deliciously prepared.
From traditional dishes on the Wild Coast to Karoo lamb and home-made padstal kos, you’re going to eat well in the Eastern Cape!
Traditional isiXhosa meal
What’s special about it: AmaXhosa love meat and so should you on the Wild Coast. A good idea is to join one of the village tours offered through the backpackers. You’ll visit a local village and share a traditional meal of chicken, beef or mutton (be brave and try the tripe and trotters), as well as samp and mieliepap washed down with mqombuthi (maize beer).
Padstal kos in Tsitsikamma
What’s special about it: What would a road trip be without a stop at the padstal (farm stall) for roosterkoek or a freshly-baked pie? If you’re exploring Storms River or making your way to Jeffrey’s Bay, make the 45-minute drive east to the Oudebosch Farm Stall and Protea Farm.
How to get there: On the R102, just off the N2 near Eersterivier.
How much does it cost: Depends on how much you eat!
Feast on Karoo lamb
What’s special about it: The fragrant shrubs of the Karoo give the lamb its succulent and flavourful edge. Feast on African-meets-Karoo-style food at the Camp Figtree Mountain Safari Lodge near Addo. It has a fantastic culinary reputation!
When staying at the Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet, dining in is also recommended. The on-site De Camdeboo Restaurant specialises in local venison, ostrich and Karoo lamb infused with fynbos, rosemary and thyme that grows in abundance on the plains.