As you cross into the Eastern Cape, the landscape changes. Towns and people become fewer, the terrain grows spectacularly unrefined. For many, the Eastern Cape evokes images of dramatic coastal cliffs, pristine sandy beaches and the long, near perfect waves that many surfers only dream of. The northeastern coastline, known as the Wild Coast, is surrounded by sub-tropical rainforests and waterfall-laden rivers that flow past small villages to the ocean. The coast is only one of the region’s draws. The semi-desert Karoo gives way to rugged mountains and is home to a handful of small towns full of history and character. The province is also home to a number of nature and game reserves including Addo Elephant National Park, where you are sure to see a number of the Big 5.
The dusty terrain of the Karoo heartland tells the story of life in this region dating back 60 million years. The countless fossils embedded in rocks near Graaff-Reinet and Nieu Bethesda are the last remnants of prehistoric mammal ancestors, which roamed this area before dinosaurs did. Eons after those life forms were captured forever in sediment, indigenous San peoples and Khoi pastoralists became the first humans to call the region home. Nguni-speaking migrants descended from the north to join them between 500 and 1200 A.D., laying the foundations for future Xhosa chiefdoms, whose robust farming communities eventually sprawled across Eastern Cape.
Early contact between the Xhosa and Europeans had mixed results. News of white settlers in the Cape spread along the coast, but the Xhosa did not initially view the foreigners’ presence with much alarm. They saw their new white neighbors as fellow pastoralists, who, like the Khoisan, could in due course be absorbed into the expanding Xhosa society. A handful of early trekboers, Boer farmers, did in fact assimilate into Xhosa culture as they married Xhosa wives and provided important diplomatic links between the chiefdoms and the Dutch colony in Cape Town. However, systematic Boer expansion eventually clashed with Xhosa migration westward and conflicts erupted into a series of nine violent frontier wars that spanned the majority of the 1800s.
Most of the early wars between the Xhosa and Boer frontiersmen consisted of both parties crossing the Fish River divide to raid each other’s settlements. The Eastern Cape Boers struggled against the powerful Xhosa, and received little assistance from the colonial Dutch East India Company (VOC) government in the Cape. Fed up with the lack of support, the frontiersmen expelled VOC officials from their strongholds in the interior and declared independent republics based in Graaff-Reinet and Swellendam. The rebellion was short-lived however, as the British seized the colony from the VOC, built a series of forts along the frontier and brought the rebels back under colonial control. The Boers eventually retreated to wild frontier further north to escape Britain’s rule.
The continuing warfare pushed the Xhosa farther east, and the British encouraged immigration into the frontier with the hope that more settlers would foster stability. Scores of British and German immigrants arrived by boat to Port Elizabeth in the early 1800s, transforming the natural port into a bustling harbor town. But ongoing attempts by the Xhosa to expel the white invaders continued to undermine European settlement in the frontier. When the British realized it was impossible to expel the Xhosa, the colonial government established small and overcrowded “territories” east of the Cape Colony boundary where Africans were forced to live.
Yet the Xhosa remained defiant against British occupation. In a desperate attempt to reclaim their land, the Xhosa heeded the words of a young prophetess who claimed that she had received a message from the ancestors promising to drive out the European invaders. In return they demanded that the Xhosa kill all their cattle and destroy their crops as a test of their faith. But the ancestors did not keep up their end of the bargain and the famed “Cattle Killings” of 1856-1858 led to the death and starvation of thousands of Xhosa. In their weakened state, the Xhosa were no longer a match for the British army. At the end of the ninth and final Cape Frontier War of 1877, the Xhosa lost their sovereignty and by the end of the century their traditional lands were annexed to the Cape Colony.
But that was not the end of the Xhosa struggle. The 20th century saw the region carved up into the Transkei and Ciskei, independent Xhosa “homelands” established as part of the first apartheid experiment. The black population effectively became foreigners in South Africa. Laws required that all Africans not employed in the households or businesses of the white population be restricted to the overcrowded and underdeveloped reserves.
In this context of racial discrimination and repression, many Xhosa sons rose as leaders in the struggle against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was raised just outside of Mthatha in a small village called Qunu, before rising in the African National Congress (ANC) and becoming the country’s most famous political prisoner and first democratically elected president. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, was also reared in the Transkei by teacher and activist parents. His father, Govan Mbeki, was a pillar of the ANC and leader of the South African Communist Party before serving time alongside Nelson Mandela in prison on Robben Island. Robert Sobukwe, founder of the offshoot Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was raised outside of Graaff-Reinet before laying the foundations of South Africa’s black consciousness movement.
The townships outside of Port Elizabeth became a focal point in the struggle against apartheid. When the ANC was pushed underground in the 1960s, their newly formed military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning “spear of the nation,” established its first cells in Port Elizabeth's townships. In the following years, boycotts, stayaways and protests were met with police repression and violence. In 1977, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko, was arrested in Port Elizabeth and brutally beaten and killed while in custody. The murder spurred an international outcry. Today his death still stands as a symbol of police brutality and the countless that suffered and died at the hands of the South African security forces.
With the demise of apartheid and the transition to democracy, the Transkei and the Ciskei were reincorporated into greater South Africa and the newly formed Eastern Cape Province. The legacy of segregation has left the Eastern Cape one of the poorest regions in the country. However, in a bittersweet twist, the area’s isolation has also preserved some of South Africa’s most beautiful untamed landscapes and many Xhosa have been able to retain their traditional ways of living.
GPS: S 33 58.403 E 023 53.151 | pop. 3,000 | elevation 240 m/787 ft
Slow down as you enter Storms River Village, because you might miss it entirely if you don’t pay close attention. This sleepy collection of guesthouses and the half dozen storefronts on Darnell Street draw adventure seekers from around the world hoping to get a rush from the array of outdoor activities available in and around Tsitsikamma National Forest.
GPS: S 34 02.958 E 024 55.371 | pop. 20,000 | elevation 21 m/69 ft
Beachgoers from around the world have flocked to Jeffreys Bay, or J-Bay as it’s fondly known, since the classic surf movie The Endless Summer put the region on the map in 1966. Billabong hosts a pro surfing competition here every year, but a temperate climate and the reliable curl of the Supertubes make this a surfer’s Mecca all year. You don’t have to know your way around a board to appreciate J-Bay’s gorgeous beaches or the casual cool permeating the town from the surf to the street. It’s the kind of place where a few days vacation might slip into a few blissful weeks if you’re not careful.
GPS: S 33 56.097 E 025 35.100 | pop. 1.1 million | elevation 39 m/128 ft
Port Elizabeth, commonly referred to as PE, is one of the country’s largest cities and has some of the country’s safest and most beautiful city beaches that can be enjoyed year-round. The center of this haphazardly planned industrial city has suffered from urban flight and lack of upkeep in the past, and while many attractions have moved out to the safer and more modern suburbs such as Humewood, the downtown area is verging on a revival.
The greater Port Elizabeth area, encompassing the surrounding towns and township was officially named Nelson Mandela Bay to commemorate President Nelson Mandela and the pivotal role the surrounding townships played during the anti-apartheid struggle.
GPS: S 33 26.653 E 025 44.749 | elevation 139 m/456 ft
Addo Elephant National Park is one of South Africa’s top game viewing parks and home to the Big 5, although with the inclusion of the costal area the park is attempting to coin the Big 7 (elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, plus the southern right whale and great white shark). Much of the park is covered in tall Albany Thicket, which can make it difficult to spot wildlife, but few visitors leave the park without seeing numerous elephants. In addition to being densely populated with elephants the park is also home to kudu, red hartebeest, zebra, warthogs and spotted hyena and a variety of other birds and smaller mammals.
Citrus fruit of any kind is not allowed into the park out of concern that elephants that are attracted to the fruit, which is grown in orchards surrounding the park, may attack vehicles carrying it.
GPS: S 33 35.748 E 026 53.274 | pop. 25,000 | elevation 5 m/16 ft
Straddling the mouth of the Kowie River, Port Alfred is a thriving costal town filled with vacation houses. The scenic riverside marina is flush with water-based activities
including fishing, canoeing, surfing, waterskiing and scuba diving. There are many places to stay in the marina, farther inland and along the beach, but during South
African holidays the town fills up with vacationers and finding a place to stay can be pricy.
GPS: S 32 14.994 E 024 32.098 | pop. 44,000 | elevation 756 m/2,480 ft
The self-proclaimed "gem of the Karoo," Graaff-Reinet is a quaint town in the middle of the Eastern Cape interior, rich in history and surrounded by stark natural beauty. This is South Africa’s fourth oldest colonial town (after Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam) and was founded in 1786 by the Dutch East India Company. It is filled with churches and historical Cape Dutch and Victorian styled buildings that are now national
monuments. Its welcoming small-town atmosphere makes it a perfect place to leisurely explore on foot and great accommodations, restaurants, museums and sites are all centrally located. The surrounding Camdeboo National Park and its impressive vistas over the Valley of Desolation should not be missed.
GPS: S 31 52.015 E 024 33.196 | pop. 1,000 | elevation 1,324 m/4,344 ft
Nieu Bethesda was established as an isolated mission station in 1875. Today the small town remains peacefully quiet and in the middle of nowhere. The first paved road into town was constructed in 2010, but the town itself still holds proud to its lack of development - dirt roads with no streetlights, no filling station and no ATMs (so make
sure to fill up your car and pocket before heading into town.) Many visitors pop into town to check out the eclectic Owl House - the former home of eccentric outsider and artist Helen Martins, which is filled with cement and glass sculptures, but the town is growing in popularity as a tranquil place to escape the rush of life.
GPS: S 32 35.667 E 026 56.234 | pop. 1,000 | elevation 1,217 m/3,993 ft
Hogsback is a tranquil retreat situated up in the Amatola Mountains surrounded by lush mystic forests with hiking trails, waterfalls, monkeys and mushrooms. It is reminiscent of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and many say that Hogsback was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien's works. This area is also home to some impressively large California Redwood trees that were brought to the area and planted by missionaries in the late 1800s.
Take care when driving into or out of town, especially in the dark, as there are an abnormal number of cows that seem to enjoy walking on and sitting in the road.
GPS: S 33 01.167 E 027 54.325 | pop. 480,000 | elevation 53 m/174 ft
Officially renamed to Buffalo City, almost everyone still refers to this bustling port city as East London. Many of the city’s restaurants, accommodations and attractions hover around the beach that is popular with vacationers and surfers alike although the majority of the city is quite industrial with a few dilapidated Victorian-style buildings.
This is not one of South Africa’s top tourist destinations but gets a good amount of foot traffic as a major city and well-served transportation hub.
GPS: S 31 59.162 E 029 08.895 | pop. 1,000 | elevation 12 m/39 ft
Coffee Bay is hard to get to and harder to leave. This gorgeous coastal enclave has fantastic beaches, rustic resorts and friendly locals more than willing to kick it with you for a night or two. All that changes a couple of times a year when Bomvu Backpackers organizes huge music festivals for 1,000 partygoers or more. In recent years, the sale and consumption of mushrooms and cannabis has become more popular here – it’s difficult to walk anywhere in town without being offered a handful of either. But despite this, the area has remained quaint and rural, due mostly to Coffee Bay locals who have insisted that the road into town remain unrepaired. The thoroughfare is pocked with thousands of sizeable potholes and drivers in both directions make use of the entire road to aim for the smaller holes. Watch out for oncoming traffic in your lane -especially at night.
GPS: S 31 37.391 E 029 32.749 | pop. 2,000 | elevation 9 m/30 ft
In the heart of the Eastern Cape and former Transkei, Port St Johns is a gorgeous, peaceful destination for backpackers and families alike - although its reputation has long been as a Mecca for cannabis connoisseurs.
Here the Umzimvubu River, flanked by mountains, flows into the Indian Ocean. The river mouth creates a natural port with multiple bays and strings of pristine sand. In addition to its beautiful beaches, Port St Johns is also known for good fishing, waterfalls and hiking trails that wind through thick jungle. The area is home to the Xhosa speaking Pondo people who have inhabited this region for hundreds of years, but the town’s name is said to come from the Portuguese ship, Sao Joao, which wrecked off the coast in 1552.
GPS: S 31 35.307 E 028 47.405 | pop. 400,000 | elevation 693 m/2,274 ft
Mthatha is a scraggly and somewhat scrappy city that has not flourished since its days as the capital of the Transkei homeland from 1976 to 1994. While the city itself is not a tourist attraction, it is the largest city in the Wild Coast region and a main stopping point along the East London to Durban route. One site that is worth the drive is the Nelson Mandela Museum, which tells the story of Mandela's rise to become the country's first freely elected president, from his beginnings in the nearby town of Qunu. Mthatha is not excessively dangerous but it is worth mentioning that it is not a good idea to walk around with anything valuable or flashy during the day and exploring the city by night isn’t advised.