CHRISTIE TAYLOR

Worlds apart

Cosmopolitan towns, wild animal reserves coexist on South Africa's Eastern Cape.

8th October 2000

 

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa - Diaz Cross beach on South Africa's Eastern Cape is like an otherworldly mix of the sand dunes in "Star Wars" and an undiscovered Mediterranean shore. Feeling so far away while at a beach less than two hours from a bustling town is what makes visiting this part of South Africa so exhilarating.

Down an overgrown footpath at the end of a long dirt road lie sand dunes as high as houses and a glistening, aquamarine ocean. To the left, a rocky shoreline; to the right, stretches of sand. On the hilltop in front of the dunes rests a simple white marker. It's the only reminder that others have really been here.

On a 70-degree day during South Africa's winter - our summer - the only other beach visitors were mussel-gatherers. A few swift strokes of a knife meant a freshly-caught dinner.

South Africa might conjure up images of safaris, wine country and Nelson Mandela, but there's so much more to this country that spending a week on the Eastern Cape was like trying to see Manhattan in a day. Home of the Sunshine Coast - so called because Port Elizabeth receives more sunlight than any other town on the coastline - the Eastern Cape stretches along the Indian Ocean from Jeffrey's Bay to Port Shepstone. Inland, this region's natural beauty includes the desert-like Karoo region and the Transkai - a former independent province where Nelson Mandela was born.

Grahamstown, the home of Rhodes University, provides an excellent base for exploring South Africa's Eastern Cape. A 1 1/2-hour drive from the Port Elizabeth airport, Grahamstown offers the amenities of a cosmopolitan town without cell phones and honking horns at every corner.

Known as the City of Saints because of its more than 40 churches, Grahamstown is an appealing mix of British, Dutch and Xhosa culture. Founded in 1812 as a military outpost, it grew in the 1820s as British settler families established farms in the region. These settler-farmer roots run deep in Grahamstown today. Ask anyone who has lived there for an extended period of time what to see in the region, and they'll rattle off the pineapple plantations of Bathurst or the area east of Grahamstown known as Coffee Bay. South Africans have ties to their land that are as much a part of their identity as their family name.

Land ownership issues are still being grappled with here. Xhosa township, home to the indigenous black population who battled the British and Dutch for land, is the one nearest Grahamstown and well worth a look with local tour guide Fiona Masterson. A British transplant, Masterson leads a number of tours in the area and caters her tours to who's in tow: She takes doctors to the Xhosa health clinics, teachers to see the Xhosa schools.

We met Nellie, a warm, welcoming woman who recently won a government lottery grant to start her own store, and the women from the Umthathi Training Project, run by a non-governmental organization, who were learning to garden. Spinach, red beets and cabbage grew in expertly kept patches.

As much as the dirt-floor houses and huts in the township contrast the regal cathedral in the center of town, the people in Grahamstown - and throughout South Africa - are warm and gracious. With its European feel, vibrant nightlife and natural beauty, Grahamstown is civilization surrounded by untamed land.

Insiders also say that within the next five years, the Eastern Cape will surpass the other areas of South Africa as far as quality and quantity of game reserves, so that instead of heading north to Kruger National Park, safari adventurers will visit this malaria- free part of the country and its growing game industry.

Grahamstown proper has several museums worth visiting: the Albany History Museum, a small, airy, two-story building showcasing painting, arts and crafts by South Africans; the Observatory Museum, home of the only camera obscura in the Southern Hemisphere; and the 1820s Settlers National Monument, offering spectacular sunset views.

Less than an hour's drive from Grahamstown is Shamwari game reserve, one of the more upscale reserves in South Africa. Shamwari is home of the "big five" - elephant, black rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard - not to mention giraffe, zebra, hippopotamus and springbok, the national animal of South Africa. A day-long excursion at Shamwari (approximately $50) included a tour of a cultural village on the Shamwari property, as well as a presentation by the Born Free Foundation, a group that rescues animals from captivity. We saw two lions rescued from the tin roof of a nightclub, and four leopards.

A 3-hour game drive around Shamwari ended at dusk, and the ranger, who navigated the all-terrain vehicle with an Indiana Jones-like mix of skill and civility, knew exactly where to find elephants, giraffes and wildebeests. Midday, Shamwari served a wonderful meal that included springbok, antelope and other game, as well as fresh fruits, salads, spicy sauces and rich desserts.

Other day trips within a short drive from Grahamstown include the Addo National Elephant Park, where at noon we saw 14 elephants saunter to their watering hole; Jeffrey's Bay, home of an international surfing competiton; the Great Fish River Reserve, another of the area's large game reserves; and golf tours to Humewood in Port Elizabeth, Royal Port Alfred and the Fish River Sun.

Grahamstown offers accommodations for all price ranges and adventure levels. The Cock House, run by Belinda and Peter Tudge, hosts a mix of artists, ambassadors and government officials during any given week. There's also 137 High Street with its hip, whitewashed foyer and restaurant that looks like it could be in Atlanta or Austin. For the adventurer, stay at the Old Gaol Backpacker, an 1820s jail-turned-backpacker lodge. Here, visitors duck back in time and into closed quarters, where "jailkeeper" Brian Peltason can answer anything from where to get the best biltong (a national food staple, like beef jerky) to how to find the museum of African instruments in Grahamstown.

For more information on Grahmstown, go to www.grahamstown.co.za. For more information on traveling to South Africa go to www.satour.org.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: South African Airways (800-722-9675) flies from New York's Kennedy Airport into Johannesburg and Cape Town, with connecting flights to Port Elizabeth. SAA is partners with Delta (800- 325-5205), which flies from Boston to New York.

INFORMATION: Call your travel agent or log on to www.shamwari.com.

Hits and misses

South Africa's Eastern Cape is a study in contrasts, as well as in warmth and heritage.

- Destination rating: Four stars (out of 5)

- Best features: Beaches, game reserves, excellent food.

- Worst features: Telecommunication and transportation infrastructures are not as sophisticated as Americans are used to, although cell phones are widely used. Be patient when waiting for a taxi or bus.

- The hype: Nelson Mandela, Cape Town.

- The reality: These are two things of which South Africans are extremely proud, but they are equally proud of their arts, culture, hospitality and the country's natural beauty.

- The trip is best for: Those whose sense of adventure is tempered with a preference for the native tongue. South Africa boasts 11 official languages, and English is predominant.

- The trip is not for: Those looking to be pampered in an urban setting.

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