If the idea of encountering the Big Five in Kruger Park, climbing Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain or sipping signature Pinotage at posh wineries along the scenic Garden Route is enough to make you want to throw yourself off a South African bridge, I have good news.
The country's so-called 'adventure province' offers daredevils the chance to swan dive off the world's highest bungee-jumpable bridge -- that's 700 feet down toward the Bloukrans River in the Tsitsikamma region of the Garden Route. If ever there was an activity that should be brought to you by the adult diaper company, Depends, this bungee business is it.
I sensibly chose not to follow one of my temporarily insane travelling companions like a suicidal lemming off Bloukrans Bridge, a decision I don't regret. I crept along the vertiginous catwalk suspended beneath the bridge's road surface, which leads to the top of the arch and a date with gravity. That was sphincter-contracting enough for me.
Bungee jumping not enough for you? South Africa's second largest and most bio-diverse province offers adrenaline junkies a veritable buffet of exhilaration, including zip-lining, hiking, kayaking, rafting, whale watching and surfing.
History also looms large here, where the Xhosas, Afrikaners and English met for the first time and fought their frontier wars. Evidence of ancient San Bushmen can still be seen in rock art found all over the province and several of South Africa's most important political leaders -- Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki -- hail from this proud region, where the anti-Apartheid struggle had deep roots.
During a week spent exploring the Eastern Cape, I learned why this relatively little visited part of South Africa is well worth visiting. Here are some highlights.
Once you get your tongue around this Khoisan word meaning "place of much water" you'll discover that Tsitsikamma National Park has nothing to do with the dreaded Tsetse fly, tormentor of African bush dwellers.
This vast coastal reserve covers an 80-km stretch of dramatic Indian Ocean coastline, protecting a huge variety of inter-tidal and marine life, including dolphins and porpoises.
As the Storms River flows from the Tsitsikamma mountains to the sea, it gouges deep kloofs (gorges) from which pour spectacular waterfalls. Ancient Stinkwood, Hard Pear and Ironwood forests shade large swaths of fynbos, natural heathland vegetation that grows only in this narrow coastal belt. And a mild year-round climate ensures that Tsitsikamma's popular hiking trails are nearly always accessible.
While hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking and rafting are all popular in Tsitsikamma, the "Waterfall Zipline' tree-top canopy tour provides the most heart-pounding experience. Featuring nearly 2,700 feet of lines zigzagging across three waterfalls, it can't match Bloukrans Bridge's leap of faith, but is thrilling nonetheless.
Addo National Elephant Park
Boasting the "Big 7" (lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, whale and shark), the Greater Addo Elephant National Park contains an impressive diversity of plant and animal life.
Covering nearly half a million acres, South Africa's third largest park provides sanctuary for nearly 600 elephants, as well as black rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo, spotted hyena, and a variety of antelope and zebra species. Plans are in the works to expand Addo into a mega park with a 300,000 acre marine protected area, home to the world's largest breeding populations of Cape gannets and endangered African penguins.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls that "the hills above Qunu were dotted with large smooth rocks which we transformed into our own roller coaster."
Seated on a piece of scrap plastic, I slide down those same rocks on a visit to a fascinating museum and cultural center dedicated to Mandela that opened ten years to the day after he was finally released from 27 years of imprisonment.
Perched on a hill overlooking the rural Transkei town of Qunu, not far from the village of Mvezo where the South African leader was born, the Nelson Mandela Museum is a rare example of such a facility dedicated to a still-living person. Mandela has insisted that his eponymous museum serve as a catalyst for the development of the local community rather than simply be a tribute to him.
Through captivating collections and award-winning multimedia exhibitions, visitors can take an inspiring journey through the life of Mandela and other South African black leaders who came from this area, including Walter Sisulu and Bantu Holomisa. The museum also offers cultural and heritage youth programs.
You can also visit the nearby primary school Mandela attended, his original family home, the stone church where he was christened, and the Mandela family graveyard where his parents are buried alongside three children from his first marriage. Someday in the not too distant future, Nelson Mandela himself will be laid to rest here in his Xhosa heartland amid the rolling emerald hills dotted with herds of sheep and traditional thatched rondavels.
Their stated objective was to amass enough land to have a self-sustaining eco-system that would carry game, the herds of antelope that used to inhabit this area, and the predators to keep the balance that helps maintain these fragile eco-systems.
70,000 acres and twelve years later, Samara owners Mark and Sarah Tompkins finally realized their dream of creating one of South Africa's largest and most progressive private game reserves. Located in a huge semi desert called the Great Karoo that is often referred to as the 'dry heart' of South Africa, Samara offers luxurious safari accommodations.
Plus, the opportunity to become involved in various research projects, and community and conservation efforts such as an ambitious program to reintegrate game into a once desolate area.
Thanks to the Tompkins' extraordinary vision and determination, rhino, giraffe and herds of springbok, black wildebeest, zebra, Oryx and eland once again graze where sheep farms once stood. Even the cats came back. Reintroduced to the area by the Tompkins over a hundred years after its wild ancestors were hunted to near extinction, the highly endangered Cheetah once again roams free in the sanctuary that is Samara.
When to go
With a mild year-round climate, the Eastern Cape is comfortable to visit anytime. Winters (June-September) are generally mild, especially along the Wild Coast, while summer (December-February) is the most popular time to visit for sun seekers. Spring (mid-September to November) and autumn (April and May) are ideal nearly everywhere.
South African Airways offers daily nonstop flights to Johannesburg from New York and Washington, with frequent same-day connections to the Eastern Cape's main cities of Port Elizabeth and East London.
East London based Edgeworld Tours offers personalized small group guided excursions throughout the Eastern Cape that range from one to eight days. Focused on meeting and interacting with ordinary South Africans, tours include accommodation in country hotels, game reserve lodges and bed and breakfasts. www.edgeworldtours.co.za
Where to stay:
Excellent tourist accommodation is available all along the Eastern Cape's 800-km coastline, which stretches from the Tsitsikamma National Park in the south to Port Edward in the north.
Samara Private Game Reserve
This luxury safari destination is located about three hours drive from Port Elizabeth in the heart of the Great Karoo. Surrounded by spectacularly arid mountain scenery, Samara is one of the largest game reserves in the Eastern Cape. 5-star accommodation includes a beautifully restored colonial farmhouse, a tastefully decorated manor, and a secluded mountain retreat.
An excellent base for daytrips to the Transkei and Nelson Mandela Museum, this luxury private hideaway is tucked into a pristine dune forest on Chintsa Bay along the Wild Coast about 40 minutes' drive from East London Airport. Open-plan suites include private gardens and plunge pools, and are decorated with select pieces by South African artists.
A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape by Jeanette Eve and Basil Mills
This book includes poems and prose extracts from imaginative and personal writings and introduces some 80 writers from different eras and backgrounds.
The Sunburnt Queen by Hazel Crampton
The extraordinary story of a shipwrecked child and her descendants, traced through contemporary oral histories and reports from the Eastern Cape