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 Eastern Cape Country Routes  Great Karoo, Xhosa Culture, Wildlife, History

Eastern Cape Country Routes at a Glance

Heritage, Xhosa culture and legend The Eastern Cape is rich in history and culture: famous Xhosa Kings, legends and sites where violent battles raged for land and country. Here too is where former president Neslon Mandela spent his choldhood.

Adventure ActivitiesOn land, under the sea and in the air, adventure seekers are spoilt for choice with trout fishing, hiking, hang gliding, horse riding, elephant experiences, off road quad biking...

The Great Karoo desert landscapeThe vast and ancient Karoo landscape extends into the Eastern Cape with towers of ancient volcanic rock pillars, unique succulents and the vibrant colors produced by seasonal wild flowers. Visit centuries old rock paintings and engravings from the descendents of Stone Age people - the Khoi and the Bushmen. Authentic farm stays are available and popular.

Blue Flag BeachesVisitors are drawn to the shores of the Eastern Cape by the popular blue flag beaches that conform to international standards of excellence - or by the remoter beaches of the Wild Coast, an uncrowded haven for families, fishermen, hikers and scuba divers.

Private Game ReservesConservation is high on the agenda in the Eastern Cape with farm owners emerging as one of the key contributors. Progressively, more land is ‘given back’ to the wildlife as they restock their land to include endangered species and birdlife. These reserves add to the already large conservation areas of the Mountain Zebra and Addo Elephant National Parks.

Art and Culture The region offers many art galleries and studios, the annual Grahamstown National Arts Festival (late June / early July) and the arts and crafts of the Xhosa people. The Keiskamma Art Project teaches craft skills to local women who make exquisite hand beaded, dyed and woven items that make perfect gifts and souvenirs.

 

Country Routes and Attractions

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The Friendly N6 Route
Lion Park, Xhosa cultural villages, Rock Paintings, history of the Frontier Wars, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, horse riding, farm holidays, art galleries, and adventure activities.

Frontier Country Route
Private Game Reserves, Frontier War historic sites and architecture, Xhosa township experience and quaint towns.

Sundays River Valley and the Waves Routes
Microlight flights, Addo Elephant National Park, lighthouse tours, Jeffreys Bay and the history of surfing - and a shell museum.

Karoo Heartland Route
The remarkable landscapes of the Great Karoo semi-desert region, Camdeboo National Park, the Valley of Desolation, private game reserves, farm stays, the beautiful historic architecture of Graaff-Reinet and the unique concrete and glass art at the Owl House of Nieu Bethesda

Kouga Route
Beaches, Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, lush farmlands, Jeffrey's Bay (famous with surfers around the world and home to the perfect wave, offering 11 unique surf breaks and annual surfing competitions).

The Wild Coast
The Wild Coast is a beautiful and remote stretch of the Eastern Cape coastline, offering a truly uncrowded getaway for hikers, horseback riders, scuba divers and fishermen. Sheer cliffs, sandy bays, hidden coves and undulating green hills characterise this scenic region.

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Travel Info Wanted

Eastern Cape Province information link Eastern Cape Province, South Africa
Addo Elephant National Park, malaria-free game reserves, adventure activities and Xhosa cultural experiences.
 

Tourism routes all over the Eastern Cape highlight its heritage, scenic beauty, outdoor activities and nature. Self drives or guided tours range from day excursions to multi-day trips.

There are many and varied treasures to discover along each route, including the three churches that all claim to have the tallest spires in the country: the Cathedral of St Michael and St George in Grahamstown, the Dutch Reformed Church in Aberdeen and the Dutch Reformed Church in Dordrecht.

Friendly N6 Route

Known to many as the 'Friendly N6', the route travels through many little towns on the way to Bloemfontein (Free State Province). Starting in East London's Amathole District, visit the East London Museum to see the 200,000 year-old Nahoon Footprints, uncovered in 1964 by construction workers at Bats Cave on the Nahoon Bluff.

The route includes the towns of Stutterheim and Cathcart, the Python Park, Lion Park (see the rare white lions here) and the Calgary Transport Museum. The Mpongo Private Game Reserve is another great attraction.

Stutterheim was founded by German military in 1857. It is surrounded by the Kologha Mountains and on its outskirts the Thomas River Conservancy hosts a historical village and rock art museum. Visitors can take a guided rock art trail, go fishing or visit the Mgwali Cultural Village for an insight into the traditions and lifestyle of the Xhosa people. Spend a little extra time to marvel over the beaded jewelry and other local crafts on sale here.

xhosa-rock-art

Cathcart is best known for its rare wildflowers and hang gliding but other activities include hiking, fishing, mountain biking, horse riding and farm stays.

Lady Grey is a graceful quiet little hamlet and a perfect stop over on the way to Lesotho or the ski slopes. There is surprisingly much to do and see here. Admire the lovingly sewn and designed country clown dolls at the Mountain View Country Inn and marvel at the skills demonstrated by the ladies of Khwezi Lokusa Textiles where they were taught to spin, weave, knit and sew exquisite carves, shawls, throws, hats and table runners.

Guided tours to historic places of interest and to the botanical gardens are available. The Cape Vulture Sanctuary in Karnmelkspruit Gorge is definitely worth visiting.

Other historic towns along this leg of the route are Dordrecht, Elliot, Rhodes and Barkley East. Stop overs here include museums, Anglo Boer battle sites, modern art galleries and adventure activities. In the winter months, activities include skiing at South Africa’s only Ski Resort on the slopes on Ben MacDhui near Rhodes.

King Sandile

Many great leaders have emerged and left their mark on South African history including the legendary Xhosa Chief King Sandile. He was famous for eluding British forces during the War of the Axe in the 1840’s.

King Sandile was however wounded in a battle with the British in the Ninth Frontier War in May 1878 and was cared for by his men in a cave in the Isidenge Forest until he died a few days later. When the British captain heard of his death he ordered his men to recover the body and arranged a ceremonial burial, interning the king between two British soldiers, Dicks and Hillier, who were killed in the same battle.

In recent times, the Xhosa royal house of the AmaRharhabe tribe decided with the help of two archaeologists and an anthropologist to exhume the king’s body in the Tyushe Forest. Finally the rumour that the king was beheaded before burial could be put to rest, because a fully intact skeleton was exhumed and further evidence of King Sandile’s deformed leg was found, which made his leadership as a chief and military strategist an even greater accomplishment. Visitors can now view the grave, found roughly 16km (10 miles) from Stutterheim at the foot of Mount Kemp in the Isidenge Forest Estate.

Frontier Country Route

The grave is now also a part of a heritage route called the Sandile heritage route. Other heritage routes that celebrate Xhosa kings are Makana, Maqoma and Phalo.

Read more about the Friendly N6 Route.

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The Frontier Country Route

The Frontier route is essentially a grouping of farms that are progressively diverting the use of land from agriculture back to wildlife. Gradual introduction of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), as well as large antelope such as kudu, zebra and giraffe are taking over the area with almost 80% of the land already ‘converted’.

It gained its name from the frontier wars fought with the British for dominance over land. Here visitors will find the town of Grahamstown, often called the Settler City because of all the colonialists who settled here, or the City of Saints because there are so many churches and religions represented in the town. Grahamstown is also home to the only cameras obscura in South Africa at the Albany Museum.

A very new attraction is the KWAM eMakana, a township tourism project where visitors are offered an authentic township experience. Guests can stay in a home in the township, travel to the township in a KWAM taxi and visit a shebeen (tavern or pub).

Fort Beaufort was founded in 1822 by the  British settlers. It is now a citrus farming community nestled in the Katriver Valley. The valley offers many walks, hikes, bass fishing and nature trails along the Kat River, Katberg and Amatole Mountains. Nearby, Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve provides nature and game viewing by horseback.

There are a number of historical places to visit. At the Martello tower, a mounted cannon is on display that pivots 360 degrees, one of just two in the world (the other is in Canada).

Seven Fountains is one of several quaint little farm towns scattered across the region - towns that were left behind but survived, when British settlers abandoned their farms for larger towns and merchant futures. The first church here was built in 1834 and historic graveyards date back to 1820. Seven Fountains is located next to the Pumba Game Reserve and has a population of only 2,000.

Other towns on the route are Adelaide, Alicedale, Alice, Bedford, Peddie, Riebeeck East, Salem, and Sidbury.

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Sundays River Valley Route

A local route for visitors to Port Elizabeth, the Sundays River Valley Route meanders through the village of Kirkwood (known for its citrus fruit, roses and microlight flights), onwards to the Greater Addo Elephant National Park and to Noorsveld and Darlington Lake. The start of the route is a mere 40 minute drive from Port Elizabeth.

Addo Elephant National Park is a recommended destination for a full day or preferably a number of days. Addo is the world’s first Big Seven Reserve - it has the safari Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant) as well as Southern Right whales and Great White sharks.

The Wave Route

SEAL POINT LIGHTHOUSE - The route includes Seal Point Lighthouse (a National Monument) and the Adjubatis Marine Rescue Centre. Lighthouse tours can be booked from the Coffee shop.
SURF MUSEUM – Jeffreys Bay is home to the surf museum which chronicles the history of surfing and records many of its ‘heroes’ and pioneers. The museum looks at how the surf board has evolved from wooden boards to the modern day foam and glass fibre boards.
SHELL MUSEUM - Charlotte Kritzinger started a collection of shells and marine skeletons in 1945 and this has developed into a shell museum where visitors can view glass cases full of a wide variety of shells not only from the Wild Coast but from all over the world. Some gems on display include the cowry, the rare paper nautilus and baby 'jam tarts'. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm.

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Karoo Heartland Route

Eastern Cape - Great Karoo and western region

 

A misconception about the Karoo is that it is a desert (a large one at that) and there really isn’t much to see.

The Karoo is in fact a semi desert and at 150,000 square miles in size, it stretches across all three of South Africa’s Cape provinces, the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Northern Cape.

The Karoo has the largest variety of succulents in the world and it is dotted with little hamlets, windmills, red dust, thorny acacias, aloes and sheep. A growing trend for visitors is a farm stay on an authentic Karoo farm. This is probably one of the best ways to really learn about the way of life and cultures that the Karoo folk share. Some notable places to visit are the town of Graaff-Reinet, Valley of Desolation, The Owl House and Camdeboo National Park.

Graaff-Reinet

This is just one of many Karoo towns steeped in history but probably the most authentically restored and memorable. The town was founded in 1786 by the governor of the time, Cornelius Jacob van de Graaff. His wife’s name was Cornelia Reinet. It is the oldest town in the Eastern Cape Province and the fourth oldest town in South Africa. It lies nestled in a crook in the Sundays River with the Sneeuberg Mountains acting as a backdrop from within the Camdeboo National Park.

The town has over 200 buildings that have been proclaimed as National Monuments. This is the largest number of National Monuments found in one center within the country. An entire street has been restored to include the slave cottages. It is also home to one of only two Agave Spirit Distilleries in the world, with the other in Mexico. The spirit is similar to Tequila.

Graaff-Reinet

Acknowledgements - Graaff-Reinet Tourism

Camdeboo National Park

Encircling Graaff-Reinet is the Camdeboo National Park, a green, mountainous landscape that is home to the Nqweba Dam and Valley of Desolation. The flora and fauna is as varied as the Karoo geography. With some 22 farms providing accommodation in the park, visitors can stay overnight here and enjoy trout fishing, horse riding, hiking, game viewing, rock art tours, fossil studies, township tours and a chance to visit Boer War monuments.

Cambedoo National Park, Eastern Cape - Great Karoo

Acknowledgements - Graaff-Reinet Tourism / Piet Heymans

The Valley of Desolation

The Valley of Desolation lies just 14km (under 9 miles) outside the town of Graaff-Reinet and is home to a sheer cliff face that has been declared a national monument. Enormous dolerite rock columns reach upwards of 120 meters (400 feet) into the sky. These natural rock formations are the product of volcanic eruptions and erosion 100 million years in the making. Walking trails, overnight hikes and picnic spots are available to visitors to the Valley.

The Owl House in Nieu Bethesda

In the very small town of Nieu Bethesda just off the N9 highway about 50km (30 miles) from Graaff-Reinet, visitors will find the home of artist Helen Martens and the art she left behind. Most of the art is created out of concrete and glass which Ms. Martens, assisted by Mr. Koos Malg and a group of helpers, created between 1950 and 1976.

After being away from her childhood home for many years she returned to tend to her elderly parents. When they passed on she remained in the home and started to transform it into a piece of art, starting on the inside and working outwards. One of her favorite animals was the camel and her backyard is nicknamed the Camel Yard because of the number of camel statues that are found there, all facing east.

Sadly Ms. Marten committed suicide in 1976. It was her wish that her house and life’s work be preserved as a museum. Her life and art inspired the film The Road to Mecca. The house is open daily from 9am to 5pm but is closed on December 25th. Helem Martens is now recognized as South Africa's foremost Outsider Artist, although during her lifetime she was subjected to derision and suspicion by locals.

Other places of interest on the Karoo Heartland Route are:

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Kouga Route

The Kouga route extends from the border of the Garden Route through farm land and across the large Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve. It also includes the surfing mecca Jeffreys Bay (J-Bay) with its 11 unique surf breaks and annual surfing competitions.

Dolphon Beacg Jeffreys Bay

Jeffreys Bay's Popular Dolphin Beach and Surfing at Supertubes | Photos by Garth Robinson - www.j-bay.com

Within the Kouga route there are a number of smaller finer interest routes.

Heritage Routes in the Kouga Region

SARAH BARTMANN - The route includes the burial place of Sarah Bartmann, a Khoekhoe girl born in 1789. In 1810, while working on a farm, she was convinced by ship surgeon Alexander Dunlop to travel to England. Unfortunately this was the start of a miserable time for Sarah who was exhibited as a Hotentot Venus in Piccadilly Circus. People would pay to view her often naked body and sneer at her large posterior and other private areas. Some folks tried to help Sarah and took Dunlop to court for his inhumane treatment of the young girl. He won his case by producing a document that allegedly stated that Sarah came to London willingly. She was later sold to a French showman who exhibited her in the Rue Neuve des Petits.

Sadly she died presumably of pneumonia at the age of 27, after which her body was sold and dissected by French scientist Georges Cuvier. Her remains were then exhibited right up to 1974 when they were taken into storage. After decades of negotiations between the French and South African Governments, the remains of Sarah Bartmann were finally brought back to South Africa and laid to rest in 2002 in Vergaderingskop in Hankey overlooking the Gamtoos Valley. The date of her burial was delicately chosen and she was buried on South Africa’s National Women’s day, August 9th.

KOUGA CULTURAL CENTER - The center, near Humansdorp, offers an insight into ancient African architecture and symbolism and is open Mondays to Fridays 9am to 4pm. 

PHILIP TUNNEL – The lush Gamtoos valley in the Eastern Cape is the site of the Philip Tunnel (pdf file), a water engineering wonder and South Africa’s first irrigation tunnel. The tunnel was excavated by hand as an irrigation scheme in 1844 and was used for 125 years. It was designed by William Enowy Philip and dug out of the earth by shoveling the dirt into wheelbarrows. Progressing at one to two feet a day, the irrigation tunnel took 15 months to complete. Philip and his niece were unfortunate to drown on opening day June 1st, 1845 when their small boat overturned on the Gamtoos River.

Also found on the heritage route is the largest sun dial in Africa and magazine powder ruins.

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The Wild Coast

The Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape is unspoiled, pristine, culturally rich and scenically mesmerizing. It’s a part of the South African coastline that really is wild and stretches from the Mtamvuna River in the north right down to the Great Kei River in the south. The coastline stretches on for 200km (124 miles) and is one of the best kept coastal secrets in the country. Not many travel here because there is no airport nearby and roads tend to be rough. Hikers, horseback riders, scuba divers and fishermen all know that the journey to the Wild Coast is oh so worth it.

Eastern Cape - map of Wild Coast regionThe geography of the area is made up of sheer cliffs, quiet untouched beaches, ‘hidden’ bays and undulating green hills and river valleys. Rural and seemingly ageless Xhosa huts and villages are scattered across the hills.

Small towns and hamlets along the coastline offer accommodation and recreational activities to visitors that venture off the beaten track to reach this beautiful region. These include Port St Johns on the Umzimvubu River, Bisho (Xhosa for Buffalo), Cintsa and Coffee Bay, Gonubi near East London, Haga Haga and Kei Mouth.

The town of Qunu lies just south of Umtata and is significant because this is where Past President Nelson Mandela spent his childhood years. It is near Umtata that the Nelson Mandela Museum was opened in 2000.

Some ‘must see’ attractions on the Wild Coast are the Nelson Mandela Museum, the Hluleka Nature Reserve near Port St Johns, Silaka Nature Reserve between Second Beach and Sugarloaf Rock, Dwesa & Cwebe Nature Reserves, Luchaba Nature Reserve and especially the Hole in the Wall.

The Hole in the Wall

The Hole in the Wall, Coffee Bay is a large rock formation rising up from the ocean close to the shore. The opening in its center is the result of wave action, persistently eroding away the rock to form this natural feature. A hike from Coffee bay along the coast passes Baby Hole and Hlungwane Waterfall on the way to Hole in the Wall. The local Xhosa people call it “izi Khaleni” meaning place of thunder. Under the right conditions the waves hit the hole just ‘right’ and create a sound that can travel inland for miles.

Of course as with so many natural marvels, there is a legend attached to the landmark. Xhosa mythology tells the story of a beautiful young girl who lived in a village near the ocean. One of the sea people, resembling humans but with webbed feet and hands, saw her from the waves. The two lovers were kept apart by a giant rock and the girl’s protective  father would not allow her to join her suitor. The sea people asked for help from a large fish who bashed his way through the rock allowing the sea people to whisk the young maiden away.

Wild Coast - Hole in the Wall

Wild Coast, Eastern Cape Province and Hole in the Wall (right)

Adventure is everywhere on the wild coast. There are walking and horse trails, fishing in the rivers and the sea, cliff jumping and abseiling, boat based dolphin watching and game watching, mountain and quad biking, canoeing and surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling.

Scuba divers will find that the sea temperatures range between l7 degrees celcius (63 Farenheit) and 23 degrees celcius (73 Farenheit), the waters are really warm when the Agulhas Current is flowing close to shore. Winter is the best time to dive though and the best diving sites are at Presley's Bay, Harrison's gulley and Hluleka.

For more information and accommodation on the Wild Coast: www.wildcoast.com.

A truly unique experience is to visit a Xhosa village where visitors are welcomed by pipe smoking women. To be welcomed is to receive Ubuntu, which is an ancient African term that represents caring, sharing and co-operation between different cultures.


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