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Despite being the second-largest province in South Africa, Eastern Cape is usually overlooked by those who plan tourist itineraries. While the Western Cape, Garden Route, and Kruger National Park have their fair share of attractions, the Eastern Cape is like an introduction class to the real South Africa, from its prominent Xhosa culture to jaw-dropping landscapes.
In this article, we will do our best to cover everything this off-the-beaten-track province offers.
Why Visit the Eastern Cape
If you enjoy road trips to lesser-known places and exploring the unknown, the Eastern Cape in South Africa is the ideal place for you. The province covers 170,000 square kilometers and is filled with different climate zones and landscapes.
There is the semi-arid Karoo region in the west of the province, a more sub-tropical environment towards KwaZulu-Natal, and the Indian Ocean in the east. This combination makes the Eastern Cape a diverse and enjoyable place to visit. Not only is the terrain suitable for outdoor activities, but the land and the climate create an abundance and diversity of wildlife to explore
Some of the most unique natural places of interest are found in the Eastern Cape. These include rock formations, pristine beaches, caves, arches, cliffs, and many more. Besides this, there is an underrated potential in the Eastern Cape for safari tourism, which you can explore without the risk of malaria.
The spectacular nature aside, the Eastern Cape is the birthplace of a lot of significant people who left their footprints in South Africa’s colorful history. Nelson Mandela, the founder of the modern Republic of South Africa and famed freedom fighter, was born in the small town of Qunu not far from Mthatha.
Eastern Cape also became home to some of the most influential South African artists, including Athol Fugard, Olive Schreiner, Walter Battiss, and Helen Martens.
Overall, a trip to the Eastern Cape will open up the often hidden side of South Africa through its natural beauty, history, and rich culture
Getting around in the Eastern Cape – like the rest of South Africa – is best-enjoyed by car. However, it does have some challenges. The western half of the province is much like the Western Cape, with well-maintained roads and lots of interesting shops along the way.
The east is a different story. As you drive into more poverty-stricken areas, the roads become narrower, and you may well find potholes the size of baby elephants. Even worse, you may come across a lot of cattle with people roaming around the roads. These require you to drive slowly and very carefully at all times.
Another consequence of this is the extended time it takes to travel between towns. What might seem like a two-hour drive on Google Maps can often take you five hours because of the poor condition of the roads.
To be on the safe side, you should start your journey early and drive slowly and carefully. Driving at night is unpleasant because of the conditions listed above and in some areas, it is unsafe to do so.
Eastern Cape’s tourist attractions are surprisingly diverse, and they fall into three main categories, listed below
Cities and Towns
As the third-largest port city of South Africa, Port Elizabeth provides the perfect combination of laid-back beach life and culture, with close proximity to the many nature reserves. Some attractions include;
- Blue-flagged beaches, including Humewood, Kings, and Wells Estate
- Route 67: An art-route that contains 67 works by local artists
- South End Museum that depicts the history of Port-Elizabeth during Apartheid.
- The city is a short distance from nature reserves like Cape Recife Nature Reserve, and safari destinations like Addo Elephant National Park, and Shamwari Game Reserve
This laid-back coastal city is epitomized by its rich history and laid-back beach resorts.
East London Museum has many intriguing artifacts from around the Eastern Cape. You will find the world’s only remaining intact Dodo Egg, fossils of the oldest human footprints, and an exhibition about a fish species that were previously thought to be extinct. To name but a few.
Home to the renowned Rhodes University, Grahamstown is more than a typical student town; it is a town with soul.
- The Literary Museum is a bookworm-heaven that depicts South Africa’s complex history through a large selection of literary works.
- Other museums, such as the Albany, depict the history of the wars between the Xhosa tribes and the British settlers.
- Grahamstown hosts the National Arts Festival, one of the biggest festivals in South Africa
Being the fourth oldest town in South Africa, Graaff-Reinet has tremendous historical importance, especially as far as the history of Afrikaner nationalism is concerned. It is the starting point of the Great Trek, the mass movement of Dutch descendants towards the east of South Africa in hopes of escaping from the British rule in the Cape Colony.
As a result, every inch of this small town resembles those years with numerous monuments and historic buildings. Graaff-Reinet is also popular because of its proximity to Camdeboo National Park.
A town so small that you can see one end from the other, yet, Nieu – Bethesda was home to two of South Africa’s most important artists Athol Fugard is the most acclaimed playwright in South Africa. Helen Martens is known for the life-sized sculptures she built at her home – now called the Owl House, where she lived a tragic and isolated life.
Owl House is the most popular attraction in the town, but there are a thriving art and book scene that has been created by the local community despite many financial difficulties.
Somerset East is the hometown of Walter Battiss, South Africa’s most famous abstract artist, well-known for his quirky personality and imaginary Fook Island concept.
Nature of Eastern Cape
Wild Coast is home to the most unspoiled coastal stretch of South Africa. Coffee Bay on the Wild Coast offers the ultimate tropical vacation experience in the Eastern Cape. It is known for its Xhosa villages nestled on the breathtaking Mapuzi Cliffs.
However, the highlight of Coffee Bay is The Hole In The Wall, a magnificent arch-like rock formation with a hole in the middle. These iconic sites can be accessed via many scenic hiking trails guided by friendly locals.
New Zealand is always thought to have inspired the Lord of the Rings, but South Africans have a counter-argument. Born in South Africa, Tolkien spent quite some time among the Amatola Mountains in a mystical village called Hogsback.
Today, it is the ultimate retreat for famous artists, hippies, and anyone who wants to connect with nature.
Camdeboo National Park
Camdeboo has phenomenal scenery that has inspired writers from all over the world. If you want to see what the fuss is about, pay a visit to the Valley of Desolation that consists of dolomite rock columns reaching as high as 120 meters.
Jeffreys Bay is considered one of the top surfing spots in the world. Due to this reputation, it hosts some of the biggest commercial surf events in the Southern Hemisphere.
Tsitsikamma National Park
Because of its lush scenery and the extreme sports scene, Tsitsikamma is the most popular hiking spot in the east of the Garden Route. It is also home to the famous Otter Trail, a multi-day coastal hike, as well as Bloukrans Bridge – the highest bungee-jumping bridge in the world.
Eastern Cape Safaris
Eastern Cape’s safari potential is often overshadowed by the safari destinations in and around Kruger. However, the conservation efforts in the Eastern Cape are worth experiencing. Here are the Eastern Cape safari parks, where you can have a malaria-free safari experience.
- Addo Elephant National Park: The third-largest national park in South Africa known for its abundant elephant population, as well as various other large mammals
- Shamwari Game Reserve: One of the best private reserves in South Africa, renowned for the 14 different habitats contained in a single game reserve. It has won several awards for the quality of its game drives and the diversity of wildlife
- Amakhala Game Reserve: Another private game reserve adjacent to Shamwari, known for its boat cruises and rare antelope species.
- Mount Zebra National Park: Famous for the endangered mountain zebra population, and its exceptional big cat- viewing, especially cheetah.
- Samara Private Game Reserve: Close to Graaff-Reinet, rated as the best game reserve in the Great Karoo
When Is the Best Time to Visit Eastern Cape?
The Eastern Cape is ideal for visiting all-year-round, but here are some factors to consider
- Great Karoo region has a semi-arid climate and is dry most of the year. It can get extremely cold in winter. The temperature can drop below zero degrees at night.
- The western Coastal stretch up until Port Alfred has an almost Mediterranean climate.
- Wild Coast has a subtropical climate with dry winters and rainy summers.
Hotels in Eastern Cape
Here are our top picks from the best hotels and guest houses in Eastern Cape:
- Drostdy Hotel, Graaff Reinet
- Purple Hase Eco Lodge, Chintsa
- No 5 By Mantis, Port Elizabeth
- Royal St. Andrews Hotel, Port Alfred
- Bukela Game Lodge, Amakhala
The Eastern Cape is solid proof that there is much more to South Africa than just Cape Town. From history and culture to nature and wildlife, the Eastern Cape boasts all in abundance.
If you have visited South Africa and skipped the Eastern Cape, we strongly recommend that you book a return trip and focus on the beauties of this amazing province on its own.
For more great African destinations, head to our other posts on Botswana national parks, Tarangire national park, Kenya national parks, and best countries to visit in Africa.
According to Tripadvisor;
Kraga Kamma Game Reserve
Shamwari Game Reserve
The safari destinations like Addo and Shamwari are about an hours’ drive from Port Elizabeth. The good news is, they all accept day visitors!
Port Elizabeth – Cape Town: 750 km
Graaff-Reinet – Cape Town: 666 km
East London – Cape Town: 1028 km.
There are two – one in Port Elizabeth and one in East London.
Johannesburg – East London: 966 km
From Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth: 1050 km
Between Johannesburg and Graff Reinet: 828 km.