Snow-covered mountain peaks, sun-drenched beaches, lush forests, stretched-out deserts – all this and much, much more, you will find in the Eastern Cape – the province where sea and land, mountains and valleys, deserts and forest all come together.
The Eastern Cape is a wonder world where all seven of South Africa’s ecological vegetation types (biomes) are found. It is also the only place in the world that has a wildlife reserve where the “Big Seven” – elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino, leopard, southern right whale and great white shark, can be seen.
It is South Africa’s second largest province (having approximately the same size as that of Austria, Switzerland and Denmark combined) and its coast lies ensconced between subtropical KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape with its Mediterranean climate. The Great Escarpment divides the interior into the southern region, with its many rivers and wetlands and the northern, more arid regions. Its almost 1 000-km coastline stretches from the Tsitsikamma National Park in the west, past St Francis Bay and Algoa Bay and up to Port Edward in the east. Most of the beaches of its popular coastal resort towns provide safe, warm bathing for the thousands of visitors who visit it annually, while the untamed Wild Coast offers unspoilt seclusion.
The western region of the province extends from the forests of the Tsitsikamma National Park in the west to Algoa Bay in the east and from the Karoo plains and mountains in the north to the Indian Ocean coastline in the south, where the dusty plains are replaced by lush forest creepers and where the gurgling waters of its streams take over from creaking Karoo windmills.
The natural beauty of the Eastern Cape is not confined to its land areas. Reefs of incomparable beauty and water that offers better colour at depth than anywhere else in the world are found just off the rugged coastlines of St Francis Bay and Algoa Bay. Divers are treated to views of colourful coral, delicate sea sponges, nearly transparent sea wasps, exotic sea anemones and shoals of tropical fish swimming among rocky pinnacles and the rusty remains of sunken ships.
The attractions and activities offered by the province are rivalled only by the diversity of the types of landscape and vegetation. Hiking, biking, mountaineering, hang-gliding and paragliding are practised all over the province and two of the best-known hiking trails in the country, the Otter and the Tsitsikamma Hiking Trails, traverse the Eastern Cape.
The magnificent underwater world of the Indian Ocean is a popular playground for scuba- and snorkel-divers. The coast is a surfer’s Mecca and some of the world’s most famous surfing competitions are held here. The “breaks” at Bruce’s were immortalised in the cult film, “Endless Summer”.
The many lakes and strongly-flowing streams of the province offer a multitude of easily accessible fresh-water fishing sites and the Eastern Cape is particularly renowned for its trout-fishing. Rock-fishing and deep-sea angling are popular alternatives and huge shoals of shad and elf, cob, spotted grunter, “galjoen”, roman, bream, garrick, and rock cod are found in most parts of the Eastern Cape’s waters.
And just when you thought you had the measure of the province, up crops another surprise – South Africa’s only ski lodge! During the winter months snow blankets the slopes of Ben MacDhui, the highest mountain peak in the north-eastern part of the province, and enthusiastic skiers from all over the country gather to enjoy the excellent skiing conditions.
However, the Eastern Cape is not just a popular holiday destination; it is also a major crop producer. It is the world’s second largest producer of chicory and is a premier producer of tomatoes, deciduous fruit and citrus. At least 70 per cent of South Africa’s pineapples and one third of its tea are grown in the Eastern Cape.
The province is synonymous with the motor industry and the Eastern Cape provincial government has recently established two new industrial development zones (IDZs), one at East London (targeted at industries associated with the motor industry, textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and high technology, especially electronics) and the other at Koega, 20 km east of Port Elizabeth, where a new deep-water port will cater for the giant new-generation container ships that will soon be visiting our shores.
Today, almost seven million people, including our former President, Nelson Mandela, “Madiba”, call this province “home”. Madiba recently retired to the small village of Qunu, where he spent the happiest part of his childhood.
The San tribes were the first indigenous people to occupy the caves, gorges and inland valleys of the province, while nomadic herders, the Khoi-Khoi people, settled along the banks of the Gamtoos River and occupied the coastal areas. The rock art and the melodious names of some of the rivers and mountains attest to their occupancy.
The Xhosa people, a mixture of North-East African Hamitic pastoralists and agriculturalists from West Africa, later migrated to the same area. From these migrants the great Xhosa nation, made up of a diversity of tribes of Nguni stock, developed and their men soon became known as bold and brave fighters. At the time when clashes between these tribes and the white frontiersmen took place they were ruled by two major chiefs, Ngqika (Gaika) the rightful heir, and his uncle Ndlambe who, loath to give up his regency, later settled west of the Great Fish River with his followers. Today, although each group of the Xhosa-speaking tribes has its own distinctive costumes and colours, they are bound together by the customs and traditions of their ancestors.
The first European spark of interest in the area was ignited when the Portuguese navigator, Bartolomeu Diaz, landed on the coast in the late 1400s. Vasco da Gama was the next well-known European seafarer to arrive. Algoa Bay, as it is now called, is derived from the Portuguese term, Bahia de Lagoa (Lagoon Bay). At first these early Europeans merely used the bay to land their ships and to get fresh water. However, Cape Dutch “Voortrekkers”, trying to escape the yoke of British colonial rule soon arrived and established farms in the area. In 1820 they were joined by the British Settlers, who settled in an area extending from Algoa Bay in the west to the mouth of the Great Fish River in the east and inland for 300 km. This was the old frontier, an area of bitter contention between the white settlers and the indigenous Xhosa tribes.
The migration of different groups of people to this beautiful part of Africa has resulted in a fascinating mix of cultures and in the tangible architectural, historical and cultural evidence left behind in the form of San rock art, the remains of Xhosa villages and other artefacts, British, Scottish and German Settler houses, churches and town names, as well as Anglo-Boer War sites and the distinctive culture and cuisine of the Indian, Malay, Greek and Portuguese settlers.
The inconsistencies in the Eastern Cape’s topography are echoed by the variety of climatic conditions experienced in the province. However, the weather is generally kind to visitors and rarely reaches extremes except during the hot Karoo summers. As one travels north towards the Free State, the increase in altitude also means lower temperatures and conditions more favourable to skiing than to sunbathing.
Although the towns in the heart of the Karoo experience long, hot summer months and moderate winters, the towns in the north-east, along the Wild Coast, experience moderate winters and long summers, with hot, balmy conditions and a high rainfall.