Eastern Cape, South Africa


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The Eastern Cape is the second largest of South Africa's provinces and has the greatest diversity of environments, cultural attractions and outdoor activities. The beaches are spectacular, and extremely varied - from the popular and very developed Hobie Beach in Port Elizabeth, to the East London waterfront, to long, deserted stretches of sand, rock and cliff.

Jeffreys Bay, St Francis Bay and the Wild Coast have some of the best surf in the country (in the world, actually), and the diving off Port Elizabeth, East London and Tsitsikamma is great. There are two full-time flying schools, where you can do a residential pilots course at very competitive prices, as well as a dedicated skydiving club.

There are beautiful hiking trails, ranging from beach rambles to pretty hectic mountain epics. The mountain biking fraternity is large and active, with many new routes opening up all the time, and there is some excellent climbing. Here you will also find South Africa's only ski resort, with guaranteed snow from June to August.

The Eastern Cape is a surprisingly good game viewing destination with 3 national parks, and one provincial park. It is entirely malaria-free. The Addo Elephant National Park has recently been enlarged - an ongoing process - and now encompasses a huge area stretching from the sea to the Zuurberg Mountains. Most famed for its Elephant, it has a huge variety of game.

Accommodation at Addo ranges from the typical, very adequate and comfortable parks board camp to the luxurious Gorah Elephant Camp. The Mountain Zebra National Park was set up specifically to protect this endangered and lovely animal, and it has a wonderful hiking trail.

Shamwari, between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, was the first private conservation initiative in the Eastern Cape and it is an unmitigated success, both in terms of environmental integrity and as a great tourist destination. Following on from that a new lodge has been opened at Kwandwe, near Grahamstown

The Tsitsikamma National Park, on the western edge of the province, consists of rugged coastline and lush forests. For keen hikers, the Otter Trail is very worthwhile, but you will need to book far in advance - or take a chance on a cancellation.

The Dolphin Trail is the perfect answer for those keen on walking, but don't fancy roughing it. The hiking is moderately tough, so you need to be reasonably fit. All gear is carried around, the hike is catered and guided and - best of all - accommodation is in ultra-comfy, guest house accommodation, complete with hot showers, lovely food and all life's little necessities. As well as these, there are lovely day walks, scenic boat trips up the gorge and scuba diving.

The Wild Coast is a deliciously different destination. The major attractions are unspoiled coastal scenery, friendly and picturesque villages and a generally laid back feel. Adventurous travellers may like to hike the Wild Coast - it's about a 15km walk between beach hotels, on average. This hike can be done catered and guided - with or without the gear being carried around. Another brilliant option is to do a community run multi-activity holiday which consists of a combination of gentle horse riding, canoeing and hiking and perhaps some fishing and foraging. The best part, of course, is the opportunity to spend time with the guides, all of whom live very close by.

The history of the Eastern Cape is one of confrontation. Once considered the frontier between the British colony at the Cape and the wilds of 'Kaffraria' - the land the Xhosa people - it was the scene of many bloody battles. This heritage continued and, in the freedom struggle of the 1980s, this province certainly saw its share of action.

Grahamstown is probably South Africa's most intellectual city, with Rhodes University, many of the country's top schools and a host of academically oriented museums. It is also the home of the National Arts Festival. One of South Africa's most notable outsider artists, Helen Martins, lived and worked in the small village of Nieu Bethesda, where you can still see her work at the Owl House.

The capital of the province is Bisho, but the most economically important cities are Port Elizabeth and East London. As a traveller, the urban areas most worth visiting are Port Elizabeth, with its wonderful beaches, great cultural attractions and excellent hotels, and the smaller centres of Grahamstown, Graaff Reinet and Craddock for their lovely old buildings and interesting museums.