The Eastern Cape: 'South Africa geared up for tourists, without being touristy'
Think you know South Africa? There’s more to it than Cape Town — right next door in a land of safaris and surf, says Mark Evans
Given that the country is twice the size of France, it's probably not surprising that most visitors go to the Western Cape, and no further, in South Africa. The beautiful setting of Cape Town, the buzz of the waterfront nightlife, a trip down the Garden Route to the wine region, and then home, country seen.
Well, not quite. You see, South Africa has two cape areas - and the next-door Eastern Cape is the one that most people miss out on, and that's their loss. Vibrant cities, laid-back beach life, safari, marine wildlife and a rich history, this is South Africa that's geared up for tourists, without being touristy.
The main city, Port Elizabeth, feels different with a relaxed air as you make the short hop (less than 15 minutes from its small airport) to its heart. PE, to give it its local nickname, feels like a California beach town, all surf and sand and a line of hotels, bars and restaurants.
My base was the Boardwalk Hotel, a colonial-style wooden building that's slap bang on the beach. Part of a huge casino and entertainment area surrounding a lake, it's a sort of cross between Vegas opulence and Disneyland fun for all ages.
The hotel is typically South African - high-end without the high price. And one added bonus is the entertainment - it attracts a lot of Western acts from the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, so if it's a beach and fun holiday you're after, it fits the bill. (And, although they're after my time, and I hadn't a clue who they were until they sang, I bumped into the Grammy award-winning band All-4-One after a gig for a few sundowners on the hotel's gorgeous Indian Oceanview balcony bar).
While many people go on safari to see the Big Five - lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo - in PE, it's all about the Big Seven, mixing the land creatures with two from the sea: dolphins and sharks.
I've been on plenty of sea-watching boat trips and they're usually a washout, along the lines of "if only you'd been here yesterday, last week..."
On many, catching a glimpse of a seagull or pigeon was a highlight. Not so with Raggy Tours, eco tour operators from PE to the city's nearby Algoa Bay, which was first discovered by westerners when the Portuguese arrived in 1488.
The timing was excellent - dolphin mating season. Forget about a solitary Fungie, dozens of various species appeared around our little boat, hoping to score with the opposite sex and leaping into the air when the deed was achieved.
Maybe they were a bit shy because of all the mating, but they were hard to catch on camera. Maybe they did it on porpoise. Anyhow, you can see why it's known as the bottlenose dolphin capital of the world.
But these cute creatures weren't the only highlight - the outcrop that is St Croix Island is home to the world's biggest population of African penguins.
It was like a Happy Feet reunion as dozens of the fluffy penguins waddled around, and slipped up, on the rocks in front of our boat, surrounded by native Cape Cormorant birds. Back in the day, the mariners used penguins as fire-logs, but thankfully, the creatures here are now in a protected zone.
Sea wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, but depending on the time of year, there's a great chance of seeing dolphins, seals, whales and the fiercest of them all, the great white shark.
PE is also a good base for safaris, or visits to the nearby elephant sanctuary, with local touring companies offering a range of packages depending on your time and budget (just remember that your euro goes a long way against the Rand currency, so living well here is possible within your budget).
Local expert Alan Fogarty (yup, Irish ancestry there) is a handy man to know, and runs trips from PE around the country with his Alan Tours company. One popular excursion is along the picturesque beaches of Nelson Mandela Bay to the massive Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, a World Heritage site the size of Co Donegal.
Baviaanskloof is old Dutch for 'Valley of Baboons' - and they weren't joking. You'll spot them here and there on the 4WD trek and, thankfully, they keep their distance. A nosy bunch, who watch from afar, I like to think of them as Awol teens - hanging around in groups, scratching their backsides and always on the lookout for an iPhone to pinch.
Still, they make you know you're in Africa in an unspoiled wilderness with towering, jagged mountains, lush green valleys and the feeling that you've just walked onto the set of I'm A Celebrity... (but barbecues and picnics, not Aussie bugs, are the food of choice here).
This is remote, but it's worth taking in the view in the little store in the back of beyond where women from the Baviaans Community upliftment project make beautiful ornaments and gifts from recycled metals.
Back in PE, there's another side to the city; its apartheid past. While Soweto tours in Johannesburg show an area that's a mix of low-end and high-end housing, here, the New Brighton township is a sprawl, with many people living in abject poverty to this day.
This best way to see it is through local eyes. Siseko Yelani's the young face of South Africa, growing up in the main in post-apartheid times, and was chosen as a global ambassador for South Africa. Pals Lungelo Ngabaza and Xhantilomzi Lamani, from the local Lungton Tours, remember the darkest days of the city. They organise trips to a shebeen in New Brighton for something that has always united South Africans of all races - the barbecue, or 'braai', as it's known. The meat is bought from the local butchers next door and brought to the no-frills bar where the local youths do the hard work, cooking it away over the white hot coals.
Over beers and huge slabs of meat, they share the stories and still have the scars - the physical ones you can see - of incarceration or torture in the old ANC days (activist Steve Biko was tortured in a police station that is still there today).
The city hosts some of the oldest township houses, with areas like Red Location dating back to 1901.
Now, the talk is of the future. When Nelson Mandela - born up the road in the countryside of the Eastern Cape - gained power, the talk was of what to do with the historic colonial buildings, symbols of a past that many wanted to forget. They were kept and now form part of the Mandela Route 67, a series of artworks commemorations of his life and times around the city.
They're proud in these parts of the Mandela Voting Line sculpture, which looks out on the Indian Ocean. The 38m metal silhouette - just a short walk from the old red British postbox and colonial lighthouse - depicts people voting for the first time in the groundbreaking 1994 elections.
The country's first free vote, locals queued for hours to cast their ballot. Those days are gone, as people get used to democracy - and power cuts and poverty are a reminder that Nirvana doesn't happen overnight, or even over long decades.
But, as the cruise passengers lined up for a quick shot in front of it, one more selfie in a line of snaps across a country, it's a reminder that things are better, a long way from perfect, but better.
British Airways flies to Port Elizabeth via London Heathrow and then a short hop via Johannesburg. The total flight time is around 14-and-a-half hours. The flight is normally by 747, and the service is good with enough in-flight entertainment to keep you going (ba.com); and check on packages with local operators here in Ireland, such as African Sky, Sunway and Hayes & Jarvis.
Where to stay
Boardwalk Hotel: Big rooms, beautiful lobby and a range of bars and restaurants on site (food is five-star, but cheap: around €5-€6 for burger and chips). Great beach location on the Indian Ocean too and handy for shopping next door. Prices from around €150 a night. (suninternational.com/boardwalk)
Things to do
Whale, Dolphin & Penguin Island Cruise: This costs €93 (adults) and €59 (children under 12) for a 3.5hr to 4hr cruise. Shark-diving and whale watching also available through Raggy Charters (raggycharters.co.za).
For local experiences, Alan Tours has a range of trips from half-day to multi-day excursions, taking in city and country, safari and sea (alantours.co.za)
Ambassador guide Siseko Yelani can be found at uncuthutours.co.za. Lungelo Ngabaza and Xhantilomzi Lamani know the townships and history inside out: see Lungton Tours on Facebook.
For more info on the area, visit southafrica.net.
NB: This story originally appeared in The Herald.