Overseas visitors to South Africa tend to throng to Cape Town (in the Western Cape), the Kruger (in Limpopo and Mpumalanga), or Durban (in KwaZulu-Natal). Meanwhile, the oft-overlooked Eastern Cape province is one of the most rewarding destinations the country has to offer. Geographically, it is incredibly diverse. Within its borders, you can find areas of arid semi-desert, mountains capped with snow, rolling grasslands filled with game, and of course, a spectacular coastline studded with sun-soaked beaches. There is also plenty to discover from a cultural perspective, from Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa homelands to colonial cities like Port Elizabeth and Makhanda. In this article, we look at some of the best ways to spend your time in this magical area of South Africa.
Discover Colonial History in Port Elizabeth
There are many reasons to visit the province’s largest city, Port Elizabeth, including Blue Flag beaches and several excellent restaurants. For many, the city’s colonial history is its biggest draw. PE was founded by the British in 1820 and named after the wife of the Cape Colony's Acting Governor. The landing site of the 1820 Settlers is marked by a monument known as the Campanile, while Elizabeth Donkin is commemorated with a stone pyramid at the Donkin Reserve. The Reserve also sells maps for the 3.1-mile (5-kilometer) Donkin Heritage Trail, which connects 51 colonial landmarks and Victorian architectural sites.
Tick Off the Big Five at Addo Elephant National Park
Just outside PE lies Addo Elephant National Park. This vast tract of protected land provides a sanctuary for the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino). In particular, the park is famous for its huge elephant herds, which sometimes congregate at the waterholes in groups of 200 or more on hot days. Many other animals can also be spotted at Addo, in addition to more than 400 bird species. You can opt to join a guided game drive, or save money by driving yourself around its well-maintained roads. Self-drive safaris costs 307 rand for adults and 154 rand for children.
Experience 5-Star Luxury at a Private Game Reserve
In addition to national parks like Addo, the Eastern Cape has more than its fair share of private game reserves. Private reserves have their own five-star accommodations, and are only open to paying guests. Therefore, they offer a more exclusive safari experience for the luxury traveler. Two of the top names in the Eastern Cape include Kariega Game Reserve and Shamwari Game Reserve. Kariega is special because it is located a 15-minute drive from some of the most beautiful beaches in the province. Shamwari is home to a famous Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Both offer a choice of elegant lodges with gourmet dining and spa services.
Check Out East London’s Growing Culinary Scene
The Eastern Cape may not have as many fine-dining restaurants as Cape Town and its surrounding winelands, but cities like East London have increasingly exciting culinary scenes. Locals and visitors flock to Sanook, a gourmet pizza, pasta, and burger restaurant with two branches—one in Berea, the other in Beacon Bay. Cantina & Craft offers a contemporary take on classic Mexican cuisine while The Cricketer is locally renowned for its prime South African steaks. Artisan cafe fare is also on the rise, thanks to quirky locations like open-air Lavender Blue Market and independent brunch spot Ginger & Co.
Explore the Spectacular Beaches of the East Coast
There are literally hundreds of astonishingly beautiful beaches in the Eastern Cape, most of them with endless golden sands and very few people. Some of the most beautiful are scattered along the stretch of shoreline known as the East Coast, which extends north of East London and includes Gonubie, Kwelera, Chintsa, Cefane, Double Mouth, Morgan Bay, and Kei Mouth. Gonubie is the closest to East London and the most populated. It’s particularly famous for whale sightings in winter. Kwelera is a haven for fishermen and surfers alike, while Morgan Bay’s magnificent stretch of sand is flanked on one end by dizzying cliffs.
Learn About Xhosa Culture in the Transkei
The Transkei region stretches from the Great Kei River to the Umtamvuna River on the KwaZulu-Natal border. During apartheid, it was designated as one of two Xhosa homelands and considered separate from white South Africa. Many of the freedom fighters who helped bring apartheid to an end were born there, including Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela. Today, the Transkei is part of South Africa once more but retains its rich Xhosa heritage. Villagers still wear tribal dress, live in traditional rondavels and perform age-old ceremonies. The Nelson Mandela Museum offers cultural experiences in Mthatha and Qunu.
Revel in the Untamed Beauty of the Wild Coast
The coastline between the East Coast and Port Edward is known as the Wild Coast for its undeveloped, untamed beauty. Sheer cliffs, pounding surf, tangled coastal forests, and magnificent natural features make it one of the most visually impressive regions of the Eastern Cape. Particularly photogenic places include Hole in the Wall, a sea arch created by millions of years of erosion near Coffee Bay. Magwa Falls near Lusikisiki is another highlight, as is Port St. Johns, with its pristine beaches and twin mountains flanking the Umzimvubu River. Hiking, fishing, and nature photography are all popular pastimes on the Wild Coast.
Witness the Sardine Run, One of Nature’s Great Events
Every year between June and July, Eastern Cape ports like Port Elizabeth, East London, and Port St. Johns welcome dive operators from all over the country. They come to take part in the Sardine Run, an annual migration of billions of sardines that attracts marine predators such as dolphins, seabirds, sharks, whales, seals, and more. You can watch the action from the surface or plunge into the melee and witness firsthand as the predators herd the hapless sardines into bait balls, ready to be picked off and eaten. Trusted Sardine Run operators include Aliwal Dive Centre and African Dive Adventures.
Ride World-Class Waves in Jeffreys Bay
There are many epic surf spots in South Africa, but the Eastern Cape boasts the most famous: Jeffreys Bay. This idyllic beach resort hosts the World Surf League’s annual J-Bay Open and has received the stamp of approval from international greats like Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, and Jordy Smith. Supertubes is the top spot for experienced surfers, with waves that reach 12 feet and perfect barrels. Next-door Boneyards also operates, while Point offers slightly less intimidating waves and a much longer ride. The swell at Jeffreys Bay works best in the South African winter (June to September).
Go On a Birding Trip Around Port Alfred
Birders are spoiled for choice in the Eastern Cape, with rewarding birding to be had almost everywhere. However, the Port Alfred area is home to two particularly knowledgeable guides: Tim Cockroft and Anne Williams. Birding with pros like these means that you’ll have assistance identifying birds by sight and sound, and you’ll also get access to private land and secret hotspots. A rich variety of habitats around Port Alfred means that the possibilities for sightings are endless, from coastal waders to forest-dwelling endemics. Bucket list species include the elusive Narina trogon, the colorful Knysna turaco, and the tiny pygmy kingfisher.
Look for Endangered Species in Mountain Zebra National Park
Situated in the arid high country near Cradock, Mountain Zebra National Park may not have as many big game species as Addo, but it does have some rather special ones. The park was originally formed as a sanctuary for the Cape mountain zebra, which at the time was on the brink of extinction. It’s also home to cheetahs, lions, and the near-threatened brown hyena; while smaller predators such as bat-eared foxes and black-backed jackals flourish. The park is also known for an abundance of endemic scrubland bird species. Self-drive safaris cost 218 rand for adults and 109 rand for kids.
Hike Tsitsikamma’s Spectacular Otter Trail
Tsitsikamma is part of the Garden Route National Park, which straddles the Eastern and Western Cape provinces and is a haven for rafting, mountain biking, and hiking. Serious hikers can embark on one of South Africa’s best multi-day routes: the Otter Trail. It lasts for five days, with distances of up to 8.5 miles (13.8 kilometers) each day. You’ll drink from streams, cook on the braai, and stay in simple huts along the way. Above all, the trail is a chance to immerse yourself in the area’s magnificent natural beauty. You must be older than 12 and younger than 65 to take part.
Take a Leap Off the World’s Highest Bridge Bungee
The Bloukrans River marks the boundary of the Eastern and Western Capes, and is also the site of the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee jump. The jump is operated by Face Adrenalin and starts with a zipline ride from the bank onto the arch of the bridge. Then, it’s time to make the jump—a jaw-dropping 709-foot (216-meter) plunge towards the ravine and river below. After your jump, you’ll be winched back to safety before making your way to the bank via a scenic sky bridge. Bungee jumps cost 1,350 rand and weight and age restrictions apply.
Get Your Cultural Fix at Makhanda’s National Arts Festival
Makhanda (previously Grahamstown) is renowned as a center of education and culture. It’s home to Rhodes University, and hosts the National Arts Festival every winter from the end of June to the beginning of July. The festival, billed as the largest multi-arts festival in Africa, lasts for 11 days and welcomes over 200,000 visitors. They come to enjoy thousands of performances held across 90 different venues, showcasing the best African dance, theater, music, and visual arts. The careers of some of South Africa’s best artistic talents have been launched at Makhanda. Book tickets and accommodation well in advance.
Celebrate Christmas in July in Hogsback
The bohemian village of Hogsback nestled high in the Amathole Mountains is a refuge for artists, backpackers, and New Age spiritualists. Its breathtaking scenery, waterfall hiking routes, and excellent guesthouses make it a worthwhile destination at any time of year. For the most festive experience, however, consider traveling during the annual Winter Celebration. Traditionally held for three days, including July 25 (Christmas in July), the extravaganza includes food markets, gala dinners, live music, workshops, talks, and quirky events like the annual Chill Dip. If you’re lucky, it may even snow—watch the forecast and bring plenty of warm clothes!
Hit the Slopes at Tiffindell Ski & Alpine Resort
For guaranteed snow in Africa, visit Tiffindell Ski & Alpine Resort during the winter months of June, July, or August. The resort perches on the slopes of Ben McDhui, the highest peak in the Eastern Cape, and features state-of-the-art snowmakers in case Mother Nature fails to cooperate. It also has several ski slopes, a snow park with rails and jumps, multiple ski lifts, a ski shop, ski school, and a restaurant for aprés ski fun. The resort offers packages with accommodation in rustic, European-style chalets. In summer, it’s a great destination for hiking, mountain biking, and fly fishing.
Test Your 4x4 Skills at Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve
Located two hours inland from Port Elizabeth, the vast mountain wilderness of Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve is part of the UNESCO-recognized Cape Floral Region. In addition to its botanical splendor, the reserve is known for its 4x4 trails. Off-road enthusiasts come to test their mettle on five different routes. The longest stretches for 48 miles (78 kilometers) and is ranked Grade 2—meaning that while you will need a 4x4 vehicle, you don’t have to have extensive off-road driving experience. The most challenging trails are ranked Grade 4 and require plenty of experience and a recovery kit.
Explore Camdeboo National Park’s Stunning Karoo Scenery
Camdeboo National Park surrounds the historic town of Graaff-Reinet in the province’s semi-desert interior and is defined by its otherworldly landscapes. In particular, visitors come to marvel at the Valley of Desolation, where towering dolerite columns rise out of the seemingly endless Great Karoo plains. You can use a network of gravel roads, 4x4 routes, and hiking trails to explore the park, keeping an eye out for desert-adapted wildlife as you go. Top species include springbok, gemsbok, klipspringers, the Cape mountain zebra, and bat-eared foxes. Daily conservation fees cost 122 rand per adult and 61 rand per child.