Into Frontier Country – South Africa’s central Eastern Cape

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Wednesday, 3rd April 2013

The Eastern Cape is a place you drive through slowly, whether because of goat herds grazing on the road shoulder, or a pineapple vendor running up to the car, or a hill suddenly peeling away from the horizon, revealing a steep plunge down to a pristine, beachy river mouth.

Mostly, it’s all three, or at least it was throughout our road trip through Frontier Country, that slice of the province stamped by the history of British expansion into the Xhosa heartland and studded with the forts and battles that shaped Grahamstown and nearby towns.

We took two weeks to make the 210km from Cintsa to Grahamstown – not on foot, driving – because the Eastern Cape takes time. It also gives a sense of time.

This is a place where cows walk down to the beach after a day of heavy grazing to sit and look at the sea (locals attribute this to the wild dagga that grows freely on their grazing land).
And there is a lot of sea to look at: perhaps the best-known of the region’s glories is its multitude of small, perfect bays and river mouths lost to the world. The sand is clean and white, the vegetation rich and dense, and there is mostly no one around.

This means that, in case you become paralysed with leisure after first tying your hammock between milkwood trees on the beach at Cintsa, you should bring a quantity of festive drinks with you – unless you really enjoy sorghum beer, which is probably the only refreshment you can buy from passing herdsmen. Cintsa was our first stop, and Buccaneer’s Backpackers – a large, friendly, family-owned concern – was our first port of call, but you can tear old friendships apart in the pubs of this province by asking where the definitive best beach backpackers is.

They all offer the sort of prices that allow a two-week holiday elsewhere to stretch into a second month here; most have a particular speciality, like (respectful, meaningful) trips deep into Xhosa hill country and into local villages, or surf lesssons or battlefield tours. In our case, we headed next to Bulungula Lodge, possibly the best case of the oft-touted ‘development in partnership with local communities’ I have ever seen or heard of, where we had beauty treatments in a traditional mud-brick hut somewhere in the hills.
What makes Bulungula unique – apart from the lack of roads and mains electricity – is that it is 40% owned by the local Nqileni community. Xhosa locals don’t ‘benefit’ from your stay; they profit from it as businesspeople.

This is a distinctly better kind of tourism – Bulungula was one of the first Fair Trade Tourism establishments in the world – which in itself is as new and arresting as the total quiet of the place.
The food here is abundant and cheap but also fresh and tasty. The Eastern Cape in general is hardly a gourmet destination but, given the distances and the less-than-first-rate roads, there is perforce a lot of locally-grown fresh produce with subtle flavour variations from place to place, and plenty of meat and venison from the herbivores that dot every hill.

After Cintsa and Bulungula, our carful of travellers felt in need of a place where people outnumbered livestock, and so we crawled into Grahamstown, famous for its university and the National Arts Festival. However, we arrived when Grahamstown was slumbering through a humid mid-summer, without students or festivalgoers.

This left us free to explore the deep tradition of eccentricity that the City of Saints (it has over 15 stone churches and a cathedral) has nurtured. One example is Henry Henry Carter Galpin’s Camera Obscura, a huge Victorian mechanism capable of high-definition spying on everybody in the valley, or the crenellated and turreted Scottish manor house built by an old laird that now serves as the university’s Anthropology Department.

All roads lead to the pub in Grahamstown, however, and this is none other than the famous Rat & Parrot. Grahamstown has some fine restaurants and, as one might expect of a university deeply invested in the arts, a theatrical and live music scene worthy of a large city.

One interpretative dance performance later, however, and our thoughts turned urgently to nature. Grahamstown proved a clever base as we found that Addo Elephant Park, malaria-free and stuffed to the rafters with pachyderms, was quite close by. Addo was as kind to us as everyone else in this often-overlooked but amply rewarding province. After game drives in which charismatic megafauna pursued each other in front of and around our LandRover, we sat for hours in the camp’s own animal hide, socialising and drinking, while we watched 60 or so elephants do exactly the same, fraternising at the waterhole.

The Eastern Cape’s beaches, hills and history are something you can see without much money, preparation or booking. Sturdy walking shoes are a plus, detours are essential, and a not-overly-specific-date of return home are highly recommended.

(By Brett Petzer on 12 March for www.thesouthafrican.com)

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