Wednesday 24 July 2019

Sundowners, cities and safaris in South Africa's Eastern Cape

A trip to South Africa's Eastern Cape takes Isabel Conway to the Karoo and historic, gritty Port Elizabeth.

Views of the Eastern Cape
Views of the Eastern Cape
Jumping at the Donkin pyramid, Port Elizabeth. Photo: SouthAfrica.net
An aerial view of Graaff-Reinet
Wildlife at Mount Camdeboo
Sundowners at Mount Camdeboo

Isabel Conway

Once the sheer cliffs turn red and eagles soar above the towers of rock rising over the floor of the Valley of Desolation, it's sundowner time.

My eagerly-awaited sip of a perfectly mixed Gin & Tonic, reward for a strenuous, sweaty climb to this spectacular viewpoint at one of South Africa’s most awe-inspiring spots, plays second fiddle to drinking in a view created over millions of years.

Here among the so-called ‘Cathedral of Mountains’, there’s a collective intake of exhausted breath, drinks momentarily forgotten whilst we watch a kaleidoscopic sunset of swirling orange, yellow, pink, and brown tinged with red.

By the time I think of recording the glorious sight on my smartphone, the show is almost over and a calm golden grey light settles over the horizon.

These clifftops dominate the Valley of Desolation, a geological wonder every bit as awesome as parts of America’s Grand Canyon, lying at the heart of Camdeboo National Park in the Karoo. This semi-desert natural region covers around 40pc of South Africa, spread across 400,000 square km, making it slightly larger than Germany.

As far as tourism from Ireland is concerned, Mount Camdeboo National Park and much of the Eastern Cape Province are largely unexplored.

Sundowners at Mount Camdeboo
Sundowners at Mount Camdeboo

Now, a push by the South Africa Tourist Board hopes to encourage more intrepid travellers to discover Great and Little Karoo, combining a wilderness and wildlife rich adventure with a stay in historic gritty Port Elizabeth.

This traditionally blue collar city is famous for its associations with the late Nelson Mandela and freedom fighters such as anti-apartheid martyr Steve Biko. Algoa Bay’s beautiful coastline, the most populous place in the world for bluenose dolphins, is another reason to visit.  

In Port Elizabeth’s sprawling township of New Brighton, we enjoy a raucous Braai (barbecue) in a shebeen/cafe adjoining a butchery. We sit crowded together on noisy benches, feasting on meats grilled in furnace like open ovens, enjoying large bottles of local beer with guides Siseko and Xhanti. 

An outstanding advertisement for his city, the knowledgeable and entertaining Xhanti of Lungton Tours (See their 'Lungton Tour' page on Facebook) recounted how he was jailed for years, held in solitary confinement as a teenager by the apartheid regime.

He take us on Mandela’s Route 67, showing off public art works around the city which pay tribute to the 67 years of Nelson Mandela’ journey before he retreated from public life.

In the Karoo, we step back in time to a period when Dutch settlers (trek boers) arrived on the Cape in their covered wagons, later engaging in skirmishes with the British. These confrontations over territory and power led to the bloody Boer Wars (those interested in the Boer Wars will be in their element listening to the stories and coming across many a battle site and monument).

Jumping at the Donkin pyramid, Port Elizabeth. Photo: SouthAfrica.net
Jumping at the Donkin pyramid, Port Elizabeth. Photo: SouthAfrica.net

Graaff-Reinet is the fourth-oldest town in South Africa. It's a settlement of Dutch Cape whitewashed gabled houses - and visible as a tiny dot on faraway plains from the top of the Valley of Desolation. Local man Les Slabbert of Karoo Connections Tours (karooconnections.co.za) who has an enviable ability to spot wildlife from long distances, tells us how in former times Graaff-Reinet advertised the Valley of Desolation as being within walking distance of the town.

That may be the reason, he thinks, for its bleak sounding name. Hardy Afrikaner inhabitants of the town would set out early in the morning and reach these heights by midday, entering an oven where the searing heat was trapped between towering rocks.

The Karoo’s remote outposts are increasingly inhabited by artists and writers in search of solitude and open spaces, craft breweries, organic food stores and small tourism ventures.

The whole area was once home to huge herds of elephant, hippo, rhino and the now extinct cape lion. Rampant hunting by the colonists eradicated most of the wildlife, however, while farmland fences stopped the vital springbok migration. Today the tide has turned somewhat and private reserves are doing much to return the Big Five to their natural habitat.

Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, one of the pioneers of this movement, and run by people passionate about animal conservation and regeneration, has re-introduced all of the Big Five. The 14,000-hectare estate is an irresistible African combination of luxury lodgings and superb chill out zone, with the excitement of game drives that bring guests up close to the wildlife.

On a windswept mountainside, we get out of the jeep and walk to within ten feet of a cheetah who is contemplating his lunch menu, eyeing distant wildebeest and warthog. We’ve already watched a family of white rhinos grazing among the trees near our lodge.

Earlier, we'd spent a day exploring the World Heritage wilderness of ‘Baviaan Kloof’ a few hours further west. It has baboons a plenty and we glimpsed bush backs, duiker, and Kudu among the antelope species.

Wildlife at Mount Camdeboo
Wildlife at Mount Camdeboo

Game is not really what the Eastern Cape does best, a seasoned traveller to South Africa has said. But we are well pleased… our road has been the one less travelled.

Take three: travel tips

1. Eat at Coldstream

In Graaff-Reinet don’t miss dining out at the town’s vintage Coldstream Restaurant, which doubles as a training facility for young people entering the hospitality sector.

Next door, the ‘old boys’ Graaff-Reinet Club is crammed with memorabilia from an era of colonial superiority. Look out for the bulletholes on the bar counter... impatient customers demanding speeded up service reputedly left them there.

2. Take care while driving

Distances in South Africa are a challenge, something worth remembering on a driving trip. Highways and lesser roads are generally well maintained, however, and driving is on the left. Use common sense – protect valuables and never leave doors and windows open. Monkeys have been known to run off with expensive camera bags, and slithering and creeping things can sometimes hitch a lift..

3. Take a charter

Raggy Charters , the longest established marine eco-tour company in Port Elizabeth, offers fantastic experiences ranging from great white shark cage diving to cruises out to St Croix Island, which has the largest population of African penguins on the planet and seasonal whale-watching. See raggycharters.co.za.

Get there

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An aerial view of Graaff-Reinet

Flights from Dublin to Port Elizabeth (via LHR and Johannesbeurg) cost around €496 with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and British Airways (ba.com) as we publish.

Travel Focus (travelfocus.ie) offers two nights each at the Boardwalk Hotel, Port Elizabeth and Drostdy Hotel, Graaff-Reinet, and one night at Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, including return flights from Dublin, from €1,970pp.

An al-inclusive, three-night safari package at Mount Camdeboo costs from €543pp. For more informatio: see visitsouthafrica.net/meetyoursouthafrica.

Where to stay

Rates at the oceanfront colonial style Boardwalk Hotel, Port Elizabeth (suninternational.com/boardwalk/rooms) start from €155 pp per night; elegant top end Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve (mountcamdeboo.com) has rooms from €135pp per night.

Long established popular Drostdy boutique hotel (newmarkhotel.com/places/hotels/drostdy-hotel) starts at €117 for doubles. The cutely decorated terraced rooms are grouped around their own swimming pool. This Graaff-Reinet landmark has the town’s best restaurant.

What to pack

Pack comfortable light hiking shoes to tackle uneven terrain; dress in layers as temperatures can be searing by day and cool by night. Invest in decent camera with a minimum 250mm zoom lens for getting up close to the wildlife. Bring plenty of sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and good UVF protection sunglasses. No visas are necessary for Irish passport-holders, and you won't need malaria tablets for this part of South Africa.

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