South Africa: Close encounters on the Eastern Cape
"On average only three Irish tourists a year make it down to Victoria Manor hotel," writes Anna Coogan
As South Africans go to the polls this Wednesday, hoping to see more post-apartheid promises met - and on the 25th anniversary of the country's first democratic elections and Mandela coming to power - it's an interesting time to be invited to visit the beautiful birthplace of Nelson Mandela: South Africa's Eastern Cape.
Less well known than other regions of the country, and less touristy, the Eastern Cape is a place I quickly discover leaves you feeling set free, and out in the middle of nowhere like nowhere else.
And being in the middle of nowhere isn't just a state of mind. On average only three Irish tourists a year make it down to Victoria Manor hotel, which appears like a mirage on Market Street in Cradock, a faraway colonial farming town of about 35,000 people which is situated 250km - and often travelling over vast, sparse, flat and treeless plains - north east of Port Elizabeth, which happens to be the southernmost large city on the African continent.
But that could be about to change.
We get a welcome and a half from our hostess Lisa Ker who seems genuinely delighted to see us, and feeds us with the traditional South African dishes of bobotie - spiced minced meat and with an egg-based topping served with chutney - and koeksisters, syrup-coated doughnuts, and says she would love to see more Irish visitors drop by. As dropping-ins or -bys go, arriving at hospitable Lisa's door is probably one of the most once-in-a-lifetime event-filled journeys you're ever likely to make, starting with flying through London to Johannesburg, and then a third flight to Port Elizabeth.
Following a good rest in the Port Elizabeth's five-star Boardwalk Hotel, with its stunning views of the Indian Ocean, our visit kicks off with an early start and a day-long road trip through the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve.
Baviaan is Dutch for baboon - a group of which at one point sits in the middle of the road blocking our jeep. They look at us, we look at them. They do their baboon thing, and take their time deciding to move. We are their hostages.
But if they're trying to intimidate us, to remind us who is really boss, they have some serious competition in the scary stakes in the exceedingly steep road over which we are travelling through this astoundingly mountainous terrain.
As a day in the beautiful African wilderness goes, it's a toss-up over which is more exhilarating; the baboons which hang out near the outdoor loo where we stop to picnic, or the sheer cliff-like drops at the side of the road which are part and parcel of our panoramic views of the Groot Winterhoek Mountains.
Alan Fogarty (clearly some Irish ancestors in there somewhere) is our tour guide and had been our genial host for our first South African sundowner at the solitary lighthouse at Cape Recife Nature Reserve the night before.
The following day marks yet again another first on this trip of firsts for me: bottlenose dolphins, masses of them, about 250 at a good guess, whose fins slash through the shimmering waves, and who on occasion jump out of the water to do a wondrous spin for us during our marine safari in pretty Algoa Bay, part of the larger Nelson Mandela Bay. It's not for nothing that Port Elizabeth has been christened the Bottlenose Dolphin Capital of the World.
Back on land, we're back on the road, and traversing the open and vast sweeping plains of Camdeboo, in the Great Karoo region, until we arrive as night falls in what feels very much like the middle of nowhere. But something is up, as a sign appears at the side of a dirt road telling us to not get out of our vehicle, as predatory animals are on the loose. And then, a short while later, and from out of what feels like nowhere, the stunning lodge of Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve pops up in front of us.
Step inside and find a roaring fire and a gin and tonic on a tray, elegant dark wood furniture, sumptuous bedrooms, classical music playing, and a meal of carrot soup and chicken and venison kebabs, with Leopard's Leap Sauvignon Blanc to wash it all down with. Dating back to the early 1800s, Camdeboo Manor is a beautiful example of Cape Dutch architecture, and is in the shadow of majestic Sneeuberg Mountain Range.
The following morning we walk in single file behind wildlife ranger Hewart Mumba, with the game reserve's owner Iain Buchanan at the rear of the line, slowly making our way through wet grassland as rain falls, tracking a cheetah. This sprawling game reserve is spread over 14,000 hectares, and from the jeep we will see rhinoceros, springbok, zebra and wildebeest.
But for now we're on foot, and told that when we find the cheetah, not to run. He will not want to eat us, as cheetahs don't prey on humans. However, should we run, his predatory nature will kick in, and he will give chase. I don't look around at my fellow trackers, but I'm imagining a line of wide-eyed emoji faces.
Then there he is, stretched out lazily on the grass, about eight feet away from us. Yawning nonchalantly, while showing off his massive fangs. Rolling on his back, and purring like a big pussy, his killer claws on display. The markings on his coat, particularly his face, are a work of natural beauty. He sits up straight. He makes direct eye contact with me.
I look away, I look back; he's still staring. And that feeling of exhilaration, which I've discovered South Africa makes a speciality of, goes right through the roof. And I really don't think you'll find this kind of nervous elation anywhere else. Seeing this cheetah in the wilds of South Africa is one of life's truly memorable moments.
Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve's history brings me straight to the heart of South Africa's troubled political heritage, having, during the Second Boer War, been a battleground between rival settlers; the British Empire and the Boers, otherwise known as Afrikaners, and the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of southern Africa, and of course having traditionally been the home of the Xhosa people.
Alas, all too quickly, we're back on the road, under the command of our trusty tour guide Siseko Yelani, who's been showing people around the Eastern Cape for years. We drive to Graaff-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa which was established by the Dutch East India Company in 1786. We check in to our gorgeous little house/suites which make up the Drostdy Hotel, and in whose elegant Camdeboo Restaurant I'll later feast on chermoula roasted aubergine and Karoo lamb shank.
Once unpacked, we drive on to the Valley of Desolation.
Given its bleak name, you might wonder if it's a good choice of locations for sundowners. But once there, a person is quickly stunned into silence, by the sheer cliffs and precariously balanced columns of dolerite which rise 120m from the valley floor. An amazing place to have a G&T and watch the sun go down.
The following morning we make our way to the isolated and dusty Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda, where less than 2,000 people live, and which got electricity only in 1994. Its main tourist attraction, The Owl House, opened in 1992.
It belonged to Nieu Bethesda-born teacher Helen Martins who returned to the town nursing a broken heart. She transformed her home into a work of art, full of sad and lonely looking cement and glass statues inspired by biblical texts, including an awful lot of owls. People love this place.
It's close to lunchtime when we pull up at the door of Lisa Ker's hotel Victoria Manor on Market Street in the remote town of Cradock. We're Lisa's first Irish visitors for 2019, and she feeds us royally with South African dishes, and toasts our arrival with a Springbok cocktail - inspired by the graceful antelope of which we see many, and in the rugby team colours of green and gold - made from creme de menthe and Amarula Cream.
What does a colonial farming town like Cradock - first settled by Dutch farmers in the late 18th Century - inspire creatively?
The Schreiner House Museum is the one-time home of author Olive Schreiner who wrote the classic Karoo novel, The Story of an African Farm, published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. Her feminist novel worked a spell, and she was recognised in her own right quite soon, while her husband Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner even went on to take her name.
Sadly, we're soon back on the road heading to Port Elizabeth for our flight home, and on the way we stop off in the township of New Brighton near Nelson Mandela Bay. We see lots of pleasant bungalows but also corrugated iron one-room shacks which house whole families. Children play barefoot. It's clear more needs to be done in South Africa. We lunch with the locals at a braai, or barbecue - braais are a popular way of eating here, and of an evening you'll see groups of people gathered at communal braais in parks and on beaches eating and relaxing to music - and there's talk of this Wednesday's general election and the changes people wish to see in South Africa.
We hear about Mandela's fight for freedom. But this time the story feels more intimate, knowing as we do now the beautiful province which inspired the great man. "Nature was our playground," wrote Mandela of growing up in the Eastern Cape in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom. For us it's been a Long Drive to Freedom during this fascinating and whirlwind five-night tour of the unspoilt wilderness of the province he was born in.
The Eastern Cape, wild and vast, is at times exacting, and at other times, totally exhilarating.
Take Two: Top attractions
This walking tour of Port Elizabeth consists of 67 public art works designed by local artists and symbolising Nelson Mandela's 67 years of political life before his retirement, and his work dedicated to the struggle for freedom in South Africa. Guided tour, Port Elizabeth - nmbt.co.za
Anna (above) at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli in Nieu Bethesda, the perfect spot to have a chilled Karoo beer while sitting in the sun - the weather was in the mid-20s. Owner Andre Cilliers sells handcrafted goat and cow's milk cheeses. sneeuberg.net
Travel Focus offers a five-night holiday to South Africa from €1,970 per person. Price includes two nights at the Boardwalk Hotel and Spa, Port Elizabeth (B&B), one night at Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, Karoo (FI) and two nights at the Drostdy Hotel, Graaff-Reinet (B&B). Price also includes return flights from Dublin to Port Elizabeth via London Heathrow and Johannesburg. travelfocus.ie
MYSA Guide: Siseko Yelani - Meet Your South Africa - southafrica.net/meetyoursouthafrica
* Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve - Motor Trail - baviaanskloof.net/trails.html
* Marine Safari in Algoa Bay with Raggy Charters - raggycharters.co.za/
* Graaf Reinet for a sundowner trip to the Valley of Desolation - karooconnections.co.za/tours/valley.htm
* Owl House Museum - karooconnections.co.za/tours/nieu.htm
* Coldstream Restaurant - newmarkhotels.com/places/in-house/coldstream-restaurant/
* Camdeboo Restaurant - newmarkhotels.com/places/restaurants/de-camdeboo/
* Victoria Manor, Cradock - tuishuise.co.za/
* South Africa's official tourism website is southafrica.net
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.