Travel in the Eastern Cape. South African travel.

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Travel is in my blood.

As a small girl, I clearly remember my Dad carrying my brothers and I to the car at around midnight, settling us in with blankets and pillows and once snug we would embark on the 15 hour road trip that began our annual holiday. Living in the Free State, these long drives meant destination Cape Town, where we would stay for a week or two.

The smell of coffee freshly poured from a flask and egg sandwiches lovingly made by my Mom, mixed with the warmth of the early morning sun on our skins, woke us to Karoo landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see.

This anticipation and discovery was the foundation of the traveller in me.

It didn’t involve large amounts of money or fancy hotels, it was about togetherness, the adventure of driving open roads with endless games of I spy as we broke ground. Lots of stops and detours to see new things and meet interesting people, something that gave us a sense of pride and love for our country.

This is exactly how I see the SA Tourism Sho’t Left campaign. ‘There is indeed nothing more fun that a Sho’t Left’ and the past few days in the Eastern Cape with travel buddy and fellow blogger Di Brown of The Roaming Giraffe, affirmed just this.

Flying in and out of George we picked up a hire car and embarked on a round trip that had us staying in the Tsitsikamma, Port Elizabeth, Cradock and Graaf Reinet areas, all arrangements flawlessly made by Jonker Fourie of ECTour. These are some of the things we managed to see and do, additional posts will follow as I’m bursting with stories to share, but this is the sum of it.

The approach to Wilderness with views across the long white beach, always mark arrival on the Garden Route for me. We stopped and took to the boardwalk that follows the curve of the Touw River Estuary, pausing for a while next to the tranquil waters to watch the birds and canoeists. From here activities are diverse, with hiking in the surrounds most popular. There is a variety of accommodation on offer with special mention of the SANParks’ Garden Route Park which we visited.

In Sedgefield, a stop at Wurst Express, a cool mobile food trailer where German-speaking Jan Schiebe offers street food to regulars and passersby, is a must stop! Open Monday to Friday, Jan is found at the local market on Saturdays. Seated at his table with an umbrella for shade we indulged in currywurst he had prepared for Di and a special spelt based vegetarian version for me. His homemade chilli sauce adding the bite and his charm much enhancing the conversation as he passionately told us about life in his hometown.

When in Sedgfield keep your eyes open for the work done by Mosaic Job Creation Project – an inspiring local community project. There are the horses we all know to look out for whilst driving through town, and near the look out point to the river mouth, a large fish and a tortoise that reminds that this is a proudly Slow Town.

From here the drive along the N2 into the Eastern Cape and Tsitsikamma forested area, where the adventure series began. We stayed in Storms River at the 49 room beautifully renovated Tsitsikamma Village Lodge. My room was simply gorgeous.

The whole town has a strong eco-village feel to it and I’m sure you could stay here for days and never tire of things to do. For us though it was the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours in the afternoon and Segway Tour to the big tree the next day.

The Tsitsikamma indigenous forest is an enchanting place to be, with some of the Outeniqua Yellowood trees as old as 700 years. Here the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours have carefully constructed 10 platforms that we zoomed between, mostly at a height of about 30m above the ground with distances as great as 90 meters. I loved it! Flying through the sky. All capably assisted by our guide Chantelle and her crew. The company is registered as Fair Trade Tourism and beyond their environmentally sound ethos have also just awarded 15% of their shares to the staff.

The Segway Tours offered a thrill of a different sort. Basically, the only way to find out how much fun this is, is to go on one. Having had a lesson from our guide Chris, we ventured into the forest towards the big tree. From start to finish the grin on my face was so broad I could hardly say anything but weeeeeee … We even crossed the N2 before venturing off-road and between the tall trees, I never wanted it to end! Besides, walking is so last year.

That afternoon a meet up with geocache superstar and friend in travel Jonker Fourie at the pier at Hobie Beach in Port Elizabeth allowed us the opportunity to bask in the sun whilst learning more about a city that is too often overlooked. Not only the gateway to Addo Elephant Park and a collection of high-end game reserves, Port Elizabeth has all you’d want from a coastal city, yet has managed to retain a small town feel. The beaches and swimming are excellent and the promenade along the coast show signs of continued development whilst being enjoyed by locals.

My highlight was a visit to Donkin Reserve where I learnt about the Route 67 art project, climbed the lighthouse and took a moment to hold hands with Madiba. These moving words appear on the pyramid built by Sir Rufan Donkin in memory of his late wife Lady Elizabeth after whom the city is named – ’In memory of one of the most perfect human beings who has given her name to the town below.’

That night had us at Kragga Kamma, a small reserve on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, where giraffe, zebra, warthog, white rhino and buffalo are found. We settled into our cabin that evening as the sky turned orange, watching the game pass by. In the morning our seld-drive yielded excellent game viewing, particularly of the white rhino which has been dehorned for their safety. Sadly a necessary precaution these days.

As an ocean advocate and lover of all things marine-themed, I couldn’t wait to visit SAMREC. A marine bird rehabilitation and education centre in the Cape Recife Nature Reserve with special emphasis on the African penguin. Our guide Keith, a volunteer at the centre, showed us around the facilities and we had the pleasure of meeting some of the penguins. They are equipped to deal with emergencies such as oil spills and often rehabilitate birds caught in nets or with injuries from boats and fishermen.

That said, the greatest concern for these little guys is the lack of breeding ground and fish in the ocean. Most have to swim 25+km per day just to find food, meaning that by the time they return to shore there is little left for their young. It was fascinating and I will be adding more detail on the work done here. They work purely on the funds taken at the door and donations. An organisation is worthy of support.

Taking to the open road between Nanaga and Cradock, where we stopped for coffee and a chat with my long time friends, Sandra and Lisa Antrobus at Die Tuisehuise and Victoria Manor. There is no greater show of what heart and soul can do for a small Sho’t Left town than what they have done for Cradock. Now a 16 room hotel with 30 restored self-catering cottages, dining room and wellness centre, they deserve all the love they can get.

Victoria Hotel, built in 1840, is one of the oldest hotels in South Africa and is said to have hosted Olive Schreiner and Cecil John Rhodes.  The cellar was reportedly used as a prison cell in the South African war. Back on the road we stopped to breathe in the great Karoo and capture one of my favourite South African road signs.

SanParks continue to meet all expectations with their collection of reserves beautifully kept and proudly managed. We arrived at Mountain Zebra National Park just as the afternoon was nearing its end. About 5 minutes in we were offered a gift from the rhino gods when a black rhino walked across the road right in front of us. Pausing slightly before running off … We also saw Mountain zebra, vervet monkeys, red hartebeest and more on the short drive to our accommodation.

Walking in the bush heightens the senses. There’s always an element of risk in the wild, yet with a professional guide to lead the way its the smells, sounds and feel of the bush that holds the focus. With ranger Charl Lyell we headed up the hill after picking up the signal on cheetah Angela’s collar. Cheetah tracking is one of the many activities on offer at Mountain Zebra, one I highly recommend. Approaching from below, we found her relaxing in the shade under the tree. What a pleasure to spend time in her company.

It was hard to leave this park, actually, it was hard to leave everywhere we visited on this trip, even though we knew new discoveries and adventures awaited us.

In Graaff-Reinetthe gem of the Karoo, we were warmly welcomed by Chantelle Marais aka Karoo Girl. Who better to show us around than a girl with the area firmly embossed on her soul? Staying at her parent’s Karoo Park guest house in one of the biggest most indulgent rooms I’ve seen, we indulged in more Eastern Cape hospitality before heading to Obesa Nursery, the largest succulent garden in the Southern hemisphere.

The only way to end an evening in Graaff-Reinet is with sundowners at the Valley of Desolation in the Camdeboo National Parkwhich is exactly what we did. Dinner that night was under the stars with the weather warm and clear.

The last day of our Sho’t Left had arrived and we did a walking tour of Graaff-Reinet with our Karoo girl, who brought the history of the town and buildings alive with her anecdotes and knowledge. I always say ‘walk a town’ and now I’m adding to that ‘with a guide’. We never looked at buildings, we looked at architecture, design, history and the stories that they held.

No visit to Graaff Reinet is complete without paying respect to the great anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe who was born here and died on 27 Feb 1978 aged 53. My favourite quote by him – ’The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.’ It felt right to stand here and say thank you for the lessons he brought us. From here we hit the road back to George airport, taking on a few detours nearby, before checking in for our trip home.

Suggestions and notes

Our country is larger than we imagine. No matter how ell we plan, there will be things we wish we could do or add. Allow time in each area. Pack padkos and water for the long drives. Walking shoes and a sun hat. An open mind and the desire to Sho’t Left down any road that grabs your attention.

For me, this trip exploring the Eastern Cape brought home the facts. As much as I love all travel, from the safety of the backseat as a child to the exotic international destinations I’ve encountered and seductive days falling for Africa, there is nothing as special as touring your own city and country. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember and know for a fact that I will never stop.

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