Children wave to us from the roadside as we drive up to a clifftop for sunset, beer in hand, looking out to the beautifully rugged Coffee Bay below. This is South Africa’s Eastern Cape.
Geographically it’s the country’s second largest province and, as the traditional home of the Xhosa people, it’s also the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.
While rich in scenery, history and culture, the region’s biggest draw is the abundance of wildlife, whether it’s up close to the lions on the many game reserves or out on an ocean safari for some dolphin and whale watching – a highlight of the trip.
Our Port Elizabeth-based tour guide, Lizl Nieuwoudt, says to anyone thinking of booking their first trip to South Africa: “If you want to end up in Cape Town or Kruger National Park in the north, that’s cool, but give us a try too because it really is full of some amazing places.
“I would say this is the most special province in South Africa.”
Our road trip starts in Port Elizabeth, a city of about 1.3 million people. It’s the nation’s car industry hub and is often referred to as the “Detroit of South Africa” with Volkswagen and General Motors both major employers.
If you fancy seeing some nature then try the ocean safari to Brenton Island, which has the world’s largest breeding colony of African penguins, or drive 30 minutes north to the Addo Elephant National Park.
In Port Elizabeth we stay at the splendid Beach Hotel overlooking the promenade. For dining out locally, try the Coachman restaurant for one of the best steaks you’ll probably ever eat and impressive appetisers including fresh oysters, snails and springbok carpaccio.
The next day we head north towards the Wild Coast, a section of the province stretching from the city of East London to the border of KwaZulu Natal province in the north. We pass swathes of open game reserves and farms interspersed with villages of brightly-coloured homes with tin roofs – occasionally we pass a rugby pitch with wonky tree trunks for goalposts.
One of my fellow travellers spots a lion and lioness about 100 yards from the road in the Amakhala reserve, feeding on wildebeest in the shade of a tree – “a rare sight,” says Lizl, who once worked there as a ranger herself.
After a three-hour drive we arrive for a Xhosa cultural experience in Ngxingxolo village, where we are warmly welcomed by a group of children singing and dancing to the beat of drums and stomping feet.
The tribal way of life is immediately clear. Local resident Zinzi explains to us the significance of the kraal – a ceremonial enclosure where goats are sacrificed on special occasions. You’ll also hear about a special roundhouse for female initiation before marriage.
At the village we enjoy a traditional lunch of lamb stew, steamed bread cabbage and wild spinach.
We continue north-east to the beach-side Morgan Bay Hotel, where rooms have spectacular Indian Ocean views and at night the waves calm you to sleep. It’s the perfect place for a digital detox but there is wifi if required, and you can stroll down to the beach by the hotel for a paddle or surf.
The staff at Morgan Bay are incredibly friendly and the food is superb. It’s here I try out some malva pudding, a must-try traditional South African dessert containing apricot jam with a spongy caramelised texture and served with an Amarula cream liqueur. Delightful.
Further north there are two Nelson Mandela museums to visit – one near his birthplace of Qunu and the other in the town of Mthatha.
Find out about Mandela’s early life and time in politics, the will to free his country from the oppression of apartheid and his time as a prisoner on Robben Island before he became president.
Our next destination is the Ocean View Hotel in Coffee Bay. Getting there means winding through the region’s beautiful rural highlands along a pothole-laden road and en route we encounter everything from cows and sheep to donkeys. This hotel is a little more budget but allows you to indulge your adventurous side with activities like diving, surfing, fishing or kayaking. Five minutes’ drive along the coast is the Hole in the Wall, a striking rock feature extending out from a large sandy beach where cows sit and soak up the sun.
The next day we depart for Port St Johns and check in to the Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa, a beautiful retreat on the banks of the River Mngazi where you can take a sunset cruise with nibbles and drinks and gaze at the surrounding wildlife. Enjoy a bath or outdoor shower at night while listening to the sound of grasshoppers by the riverbank as the smell of burning wood flows through the air.
There are lots of spa treatments available and the food is fantastic, with dishes ranging from grilled sole with lemon cream sauce to tempura vegetables and sweet chilli rice noodles. Breakfast at the Umngazi is a buffet of everything from granola, fruit and pancakes to cooked breakfasts.
We rise early the next day for our boat trip with Offshore Africa along the Mzimvubu River to the Indian Ocean for the “sardine run”, which creates a large feeding frenzy off the coast.
Our skipper Rob says about 40,000 tonnes of sardines come up in schools in a month. As we look around us, Cape gannets dive up to 20m below the surface while dolphins glide past the rib on all sides. A humpback whale even breaches the surface less than 100 yards from our vessel.
As we motor on to Brazenhead cliffs, where filming took place for Blue Planet II, dozens of dolphins jump through the breakers as we ride alongside them parallel to the coastline.
The whole experience is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before – truly amazing.
It’s a six-hour drive north from Umngazi to Durban – South Africa’s third-largest city – in KwaZulu-Natal, which is greener and lusher than the more rugged Eastern Cape. We stay at the luxurious five-star Oyster Box Hotel, a grand building on the seafront housing a private cinema, various funky bars and several dining options, including an outstanding curry buffet offering a mix of South African and Asian-inspired dishes.
Durban, which has the largest urban population of Indians outside of India, boasts a bustling promenade – built up for the Fifa World Cup 2010 – lined with vibrant bars and cafes.
If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience of wonderful scenery, history, culture and wildlife, South Africa’s Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal have it in abundance. This was a road trip of a lifetime.
Africa Collection offers an eight-night holiday to South Africa from £1,895 per person. Price includes one night B&B at the Beach Hotel, Port Elizabeth, two nights B&B at the Morgan Bay Hotel, two nights B&B at the Ocean View Hotel, Coffee Bay, two nights full board at Umgazi River Bungalows and one night B&B at the five-star Oyster Box Hotel, Durban. Price also includes flights from London Heathrow to Port Elizabeth and return flights from Durban with South African Airways and car hire for the duration. For more information please visit www.africacollection.com For more details about the trip visit https://www.southafrica.net/uk/en/