The Eastern Cape Province, a land of rolling green hills and stunning coastlines, is one of South Africa‘s nine provinces. Often overshadowed by tourist hot spots in the Western Cape, it remains one of the Country’s best kept secrets. It stretches from Tsitsikamma National Park all the way North-Easterly to Port St Johns. Although often underestimated, there are without doubt many outstanding destinations in the Eastern Cape.
For travellers who prefer less crowded and more rural locations, the Eastern Cape is a worthy travel destination that provides a relaxing getaway across a unique and varied landscape. The province provides a charming combination of extraordinary cultural heritage, magnificent and almost untouched scenery, as well as a rugged coastline of some of the countries least traveled and unspoilt beaches. The province’s appeal lies in its connection with nature and its quiet, off-the-beaten-path atmosphere.
- National Parks (SANParks) of the Eastern Cape
- Eastern Cape Parks Board
- Private Game Reserves of the Eastern Cape
- The Wild Coast, a paradise in the Eastern Cape
- Sea-side Towns of the Eastern Cape
- Historical Towns of the Eastern Cape
National Parks (SANParks) of the Eastern Cape
The malaria-free Eastern Cape Province is home to many extraordinarily beautiful reserves. Rich in a variety of plant and animal species, these reserves offer wildlife lovers plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves in nature. Many of the reserves and parks in the Eastern Cape are also home to the Big Five, which include the lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. While self-driving is a great way to explore the parks, most reserves offer guided drives that allow guests even more fantastic experiences. Accommodation varies from camping to self-catering to luxury 5-star all-inclusive packages.
South African National Parks (SANParks) is the body responsible for managing South Africa’s national parks. Established in 1926, they currently manage 20 parks across South Africa. The Eastern Cape boasts four of these Parks within its borders, namely Mountain Zebra, Camdeboo, Tsitsikamma and Addo Elephant National Park.
Addo Elephant National Park
Addo Elephant National Park is Probably one of the most well-known destinations in the Eastern Cape. As the third largest wildlife park in South Africa, Addo as it is fondly called, is home to over 600 elephants. Other wildlife includes Cape buffaloes, spotted hyena, lion, the endangered black rhinos as well as a variety of antelope species. The largest remaining population of the flightless dung beetle (Circellium Bacchus) is located within the park.
Addo is the perfect place for your first safari in Africa (or your 100th!). It is a malaria free zone and you can self-drive at your own time and leisure. There are also plenty of accommodation options to suit any budget, from luxurious bush camps to rustic homesteads. For the outdoor enthusiasts, there are excellent hiking and mountain bike trails through the stunning Zuurberg Mountains.
Addo is certainly the crown jewel of the Eastern Cape and there is a good reason most travellers include Addo on a trip to the Eastern Cape.
Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park is a beautiful wilderness area, situated near the town of Cradock. Proclaimed in 1937 as a sanctuary for the then endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, today it is common to see these animals around the park. The reserve is also home to a variety of antelope species and a plethora of indigenous birds. The terrain is excellent for mountain biking, hiking and 4×4 enthusiasts. Guided game drives, bush walks and a cheetah tracking tour are also available.
Camdeboo National Park
Famous for the Valley of Desolation, Camdeboo National Park surrounds the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, the oldest town in the Eastern Cape. The reserve is home to white rhino, Cape buffalo, cheetah, giraffe, mountain zebra, a host of antelope and an abundance of birds.
Tsitsikamma National Park
With scenic coastlines, indigenous forest and magnificent hiking trails, there’s plenty to keep you busy at Tsitsikamma National Park. It’s a haven for adventure lovers also, with plenty of snorkeling, kayaking and mountain biking on offer. The world’s highest and sought after Bloukrans Bridge Bungee Jump lies in the region, a must-do for the thrill seekers!
In the heart of the Tsitsikamma forest is the ‘Big Tree‘, a popular stop along any Garden Route Trip around South Africa. The Yellowood tree stands proudly at 36.6 meters tall and with a trunk circumference of 9 meters. Not only is it the largest tree in the Eastern Cape, but it is also very old. 800 years, in fact
With so many activities and fantastic scenery to enjoy, Tsitsikamma is certainly a destination not to be missed.
Eastern Cape Parks Board
There are six reserves under the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, as indicated below.
The Great Fish River Reserve
The Great Fish River Nature Reserve is connected in a loop of conservation by the Andries Vosloo Kudu Reserve, Double Drift Kudu Reserve and Double Drift Nature Reserve. Unlike Addo Elephant National Park, the reserve is not home to the ‘Big Five’. This however is exactly what makes it so special. The reserve is not crowded with tourists or overburdened with animals for the enjoyment of viewing. There’s an almost secrecy to the animals here. Although game viewing can be challenging in the dense thicket, the reserve represents animals in a natural environment. Here, wildlife is not as used to human presence as some larger reserves so their nature is a bit more timid.
Not only is the diverse habitat and spectacular views of the reserve enticing to visitors, its rich history is just as impressive. Several forts bear witness to the frontier conflicts between the Xhosa and the British Settlers. In addition, there are also a few Rock Art sites. These ancient rock paintings are found in caves and on rock shelters. Some of the images are thousands of years old, drawn by the San people, or Bushmen, who once lived in the region. At the Great Fishriver Reserve, wildlife sightings include Buffalo, Rhino, Kudu and Hippo.
Baviaanskloof Wilderness Region
Located in the Karoo Midlands, the Baviaans Wilderness Region boasts magnificent mountains rising from rolling plains and green valleys below. The area encompasses the World Heritage Site of Baviaanskloof and the Karoo towns of Steytlerville, Willowmore and Rietbron. Baviaanskloof offers seemingly endless breathtaking scenery. From grassland, indigenous forests, mountain streams, steep cliffs and waterfalls, to a huge diversity of plants and animals, the Baviaans region is awe-inspiring.
The Leopard Trail
Probably one of the best ways to truly explore the Baviaans region is by hiking it. The Leopard Trail provides this opportunity with a 4-day and 3-night slackpacking hike. Before heading into the Baviaans ‘Wilderness’, be sure to stop off at Patensie, the Eastern gateway to the Baviaanskloof. This quaint little country village is the perfect place to stock up on supplies. The town has some really cute guesthouses and excellent little country shops and restaurants with farm-fresh products and delicious menus.
The Gamtoos Valley
The nearby Gamtoos Valley, considered the gateway to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness area is also home to incredible scenery and interesting landmarks. The Valley is host to charming countryside stays, excellent hiking opportunities, wildlife spotting, 4×4 trails and many small restaurants, shops and farm stalls.
Double Mouth Nature Reserve
Double Mouth is a small protected area situated just 4km from Morgan Bay. The conservation area has a beautiful camping site and spectacular views of the ocean and surrounding cliffs. Activities in the area include dolphin watching, walking trails and hiking, swimming, diving, fishing, camping and mountain biking. A major attraction in Double Mouth is “Bead/Treasure beach”, a place where the remains of the Portuguese ship, Santo Espirito, which ran aground in 1608, can still be found.
Commando Drift Nature Reserve
The 6 000 hectare Commando Drift Nature Reserve lies approximately 60 km north of Cradock on the road to Tarkastad. Central to the reserve is the Commando Drift Dam, fed by four rivers. Furthermore, the reserve is home to mountain zebra, black wildebeest, a variety of antelope, as well as a good 200 species of birds. One of the most striking features of the reserve is the series of dolerite and sandstone cliffs. The combination of the cliffs, central dam and various wildlife species offers visitors incredible scenery. The reserve boasts numerous mountain biking, hiking and off-road trails, including the Bushman and Endurance hiking trails and the Palingkloof jeep track. Above all, the biggest attraction of Commando Drift is that not many people know about it. In turn, this creates a tranquil and quiet environment that is often hard to come by in today’s busy world.
Dwesa Nature Reserve
Located in the outstanding Wild Coast region of the Eastern Cape, the Dwesa Nature Reserve is a remote destination surrounded by breathtaking scenery and pristine air. Lush coastal forests stand out beautifully along the rolling green hills that descend to the streams and rivers in the valley. There is a total of 290 bird species recorded in the reserves. It’s rich bird life means that on any given day, visitors may be treated to a sighting of 100 species.
Private Game Reserves of the Eastern Cape
There’s certainly something to be said of South Africas private game reserve experience. Undeniably, the Eastern Cape is no exception. Many of the reserves boast luxury lodges and outstanding guided wildlife experiences. Although they come with a price tag, the service and accommodation lodges are world-class.
The following are some of the most popular privately owned reserves in the province:
Matola Game Reserve
Matola Game Reserve is a hidden gem of the Eastern Cape. Nestled in the Kabusi Valley, only an hours drive from East London International Airport, this beautiful reserve is a haven for a variety of plant and animal species. Commonly spotted wildlife includes giraffe, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, warthog and ostrich and the occasional leopard sighting. Rocky mountain slopes and gorgeous river banks provide guests with exceptional views, hiking and mountain biking opportunities. In addition to hiking, visitors can enjoy breathtaking views in a tranquil environment. Self-drives or guided game drives are also available on request. Three stunning accommodation camps have views overlooking the lush grassland. A shared kitchen, bar, dining and braai area allow visitors opportunity to relax and enjoy the company of fellow travelers.
The Wild Coast, a paradise in the Eastern Cape
Included in the Wild Coast is what used to be the Transkei, a coastline of more than 200km. Flying into the city of East London or Durban is probably the easiest way to access the area. The pristine and almost uninhabited scenery surrounds the secluded and long beaches, which really encompasses the name ‘Wild Coast’. Coupled with Xhosa huts scattered throughout the green pastoral landscape, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. All in all, the coastline is a nature enthusiasts dreams which offers fantastic hiking and fishing opportunities. The area is still very rural with a very basic road network. While most 4×4 vehicles can travel across the region in good weather, the best way to explore is by hiking or horseback.
Easy-to-reach places along the Wild Coast
Unfortunately, many of these popular destinations along the Wild Coast like Port St Johns, Coffee Bay and Lusikisiki are difficult to reach without a four-wheel drive vehicle. Consequently, this could limit some travelers. Despite this, there are still plenty of amazing spots to explore near the town of East London and towards Kei Mouth that are easily accessible to any type of vehicle. Below are a few of these easy-to-reach places along the Wild Coast.
Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve
Inkwenkezi is a magical place, just a 45 minute drive from the city of East London. Lying along South Africa’s breathtaking Wild Coast, Inkwenkwezi boasts 4 out of the ‘Big 5’ animals, namely lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard. Both the rough terrain and the diverse landscape provide a thrilling guided game viewing experience. In addition, their Sunday lunch buffet and Friday steak nights are out of this world. Don’t miss out on their more adventurous activities, which includes canoeing, quad biking and bush hikes. They also offer various packages which combine activities such as the Umtiza Forest Walk, a buffet lunch and 4×4 game drive. Not only is there plenty to do at Inkwenkwezi, but their Luxury tented accommodation affords visitors spectacular views and tranquility.
Areena Riverside Resort
Adventure enthusiasts will love the ziplining, paintball, segway tours, abseiling, quad bike safari, obstacle course, archery and pellet gun target shooting on offer at Areena. There’s even a ‘giraffe experience‘, whereby guests can pay to get up close and personal with Abbey, the resorts 16 year old hand-reared giraffe.
After a full day of adventure, the Areena Quays restaurant is a great spot to relax and enjoy a meal. The restaurant serves an A La Carte Menu during the week, with different specials daily. On Sundays, they serve a delicious Sunday Lunch Buffet. The on-site spa is another excellent place to unwind and free your mind from all your troubles. In addition to all this, the scenic river cruise experience follows the Kwelera River with plenty bird watching opportunities. There’s even a possibility of seeing some buck on the river banks.
The resorts self catering accommodation with family cottages, rondavels, timber chalets and double en suite couples units are lovely! The riverside timber chalets have their own private deck overlooking the river where you have a chance to view wildlife and enjoy bird watching. Riverside camping facilities are also available. In addition, the resort’s swimming pool is an oasis on a hot summers day!
Kei Mouth is one of the Eastern Cape’s hidden gems. Also located along South Africa’s Wild Coast, it’s a smaller and more rural, yet very charming, seaside town. However, don’t let its small size fool you, there’s actually a plethora of things to see and do.
Just wondering the small town is fun in itself. Quaint stores line the streets and cattle are often spotted lazily lying in the middle of the road. There is also a lovely beach and great little restaurants scattered around the town. The pont is only one of three remaining car-transporting pontoon river ferry services in South Africa. The pont also provides easy access to the Transkei, a stretch of coastline between the Great Kei River and the Umtamvuna River. Kei Mouth is also the start of the popular four day Strandloper Trail, literally meaning ‘beach walker, which covers 60km in 4 days.
Morgan Bay is nestled between Kei Mouth to the North and Haga Haga in the South. With outstanding beaches, fishing, surfing and hiking opportunities waiting to be explored, it is a nature enthusiasts dream. Dolphin and whale watching are other popular activities for the region. Numerous restaurants are found throughout the small town. There are also plenty accommodation options from the more rustic to higher end properties. For the adventure and thrill seekers, there’s abseiling, rock climbing, paintball, horseback riding, mountain bike trails, fishing and kayaking.
Just a 10-15 minute drive South of Morgan Bay center is the Double Mouth Nature Reserve, a small reserve with some outstanding coastal scenery and home to the magnificent Morgan Bay cliffs. Only a 20 minute walk from the Double Mouth Campsite is the site of a 17th Century Portuguese shipwreck on Treasure/Bead beach.
Offering the perfect mix of history and nature, the region in and around Morgan Bay has something for everyone to enjoy, and is particularly ideal for people looking for a quiet getaway.
Sea-side Towns of the Eastern Cape
While there are plenty of superb seaside towns in the Eastern Cape, three of the most well-known include Kenton-on-Sea, Port Alfred and Jeffrey’s Bay. These coastal towns offer a relaxed atmosphere, with pristine beaches and picturesque landscapes that continue to draw travellers to the area.
Kenton-on-sea is a gorgeous, small coastal town with one of the most scenic beaches in the Eastern Cape. At low tide, Middle Beach’s rock pools are a great place to play, fish and observe the variety of marine life. The nearby Stanley’s restaurant is a true gem, with a deck overlooking spectacular views of the Kariega river. A visit to Sibuya Game Reserve is also well worth it if you’re in the region.
Lying on the banks of the Kowie river, Port Alfred is a popular holiday destination. Established by English settlers in the early 1800s, the bustling town retains most of its English fishing village feel. It’s a popular destination for boating, water-skiing, surfing, windsurfing, fishing, diving, canoeing, hiking and bird watching.
The Royal Alfred Marina is a secure, gated residential estate, where every home has its own waterfront, with both water and road access. The popular Tash’s restaurant is a lovely place to grab a bite to eat, while envying all the beautiful homes along the water.
World-renowned surfing hot spot, Jeffreys Bay, is a small town in the Eastern Cape with big thrills for surfers. Considered one of the best surfing spots in the world, it draws both local and international travellers to the area. The J-Bay Open, also known as Billabong Pro Jeffreys Bay, is a World Surf League competition held every year at Jeffreys Bay.
Historical Towns of the Eastern Cape
The small village of Bathurst has a turbulent past of conflict between White Settlement and African pasturalists and refugees. Many of the original settler houses and other buildings have been preserved. Bathurst is also home to the oldest unaltered Anglican church building as well as the oldest licenced Inn in South Africa. On an old 1820 Settlers farm lies the Pineapple Museum. The museum is housed in a building shaped like a pineapple. In fact, its status as the world’s largest pineapple building at 17 metres (56 ft) draws a surprising amount of people to the small agricultural town every year.
King Williams Town
The city of King Williams Town, began its life as a mission station in 1834. The town also has a number of interesting museums, with the Amathole Museum having the biggest collection of mammals in Africa. During the apartheid era, political unrest was rampant in King Williams Town. Subsequently, anti-apartheid and leader of Black Consciousness, Steve Biko, was laid to rest here. Biko’s grave site can be visited in the township of Ginsberg next to King Williams Town.
Near Bathurst is the city of Grahamstown, host to Rhodes University and the 1820 Settlers Monument. Originally established as a small military outpost in 1812 by a British soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham, Grahamstown maintains its small-town Victorian charm. Gorgeous historical buildings, museums and a plethora of churches line the streets of Grahamstown. One of the oldest and largest arts festivals in the country, the National Arts Festival, takes place each year in Grahamstown. With great ecological diversity, the region is also devoted to nature and wildlife conservation.
Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest town in South Africa. Established by the Dutch East India Company in 1786, Graaf-Reinet is a town full of history. Recognized for its magnificent examples of Dutch architecture and over 220 heritage sites, the most in any town in South Africa.
Other Historical Towns in the Eastern Cape
The Eastern Cape is a treasure trove of outstanding beauty, historical interest and superb wildlife experiences. It’s a wonder that it still remains somewhat of a secret corner of South Africa. Perhaps this is exactly what makes it so alluring for those who do venture into this magnificent wilderness.