Since leaving the Garden Route we’ve had a variety of experiences. One was rain – over three days of solid rain, which dampened our spirits and restricted what we could do. Another was seeing how people live in this part of South Africa (the Eastern Cape), both in townships and in the little towns on what used to be the ‘frontier’. Thirdly, we saw a large variety of animals, in a game reserve and in national parks.
Casinos and Townships
Port Elizabeth is one of the major cities of South Africa. We stayed in a suburb called Summerstrand, which is a beachside holiday resort. It rained the whole time we were there, so we spent some time exploring the Boardwalk – a shopping and entertainment complex centred round a large casino. In some ways it’s similar to Disney Village in Florida – apart from the casino. It was busy and popular, and they put on a show every evening of dancing fountains, lights and music.
We stayed in a large, smart guesthouse which typically had security doors and gates, plus electric fencing on top of the wall. It bore a sign saying ‘Armed Response’ meaning that, should the house be entered unlawfully, men with guns would turn up. Such signs are very common in South Africa, but we were nevertheless amazed to see, in the Boardwalk, a sign saying ‘Gun drop’ – this is where you deposit your weapons before entering the casino!
We went on another township tour in Port Elizabeth, which was quite good as it took us to the city centre as well as several townships. We felt we got a more unbiased view of what was happening than on our previous tour, and began to understand the challenges facing the country as it tries to recover from the apartheid years. Perhaps the diversity of lifestyles was illustrated for us by the contrast between the casino and the township ‘shebeen’ that we ended up in.
After the big city of Port Elizabeth we went on to Grahamstown, founded in the 19th century on the frontier between the British colony, the Boers and the African tribes. Grahamstown is noted for being the home of the prestigious Rhodes University. However, we did not feel that the town merited the glowing description in the guidebook. It did not seem very attractive to us, possibly because it was raining nearly all of the time we were there. Luckily we had booked a self-catering ‘cottage’, which turned out to be quite a large house, so we had plenty of room to shelter from the rain, and did not even need to go out to eat. We set ourselves the challenge of drinking some of the wine acquired in the Winelands – we have too much to bring back to the UK!
Grahamstown was the first town we had visited that was not in any sense a tourist town. We found it somewhat edgy (we could not step out on the street without being accosted by beggars). But it was also quirky – the lady on the next table in a café had a parrot on her shoulder (it later moved to her lap) and later we saw a cow (or was it a bull?) on the pavement right outside our cottage!
One of the things people go to South Africa for is to see wildlife, in particular the larger mammals. We thought we would like to experience this, and spent some time at a private game reserve and in two national parks known for wildlife. At Schotia Game Park we had an afternoon and evening wildlife tour and spent the night in a lodge in the jungle, followed by another game tour in the morning. The lodge had no electricity, but there were lots of candles in glass lanterns, and a double bath with plentiful hot water. There were tea/coffee and snacks, and we had some wine with us – so we managed to cope. During our tours at Schotia we saw a pride of lions eating a giraffe they’d killed, some more live giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, gnus, ostriches, zebras and lots more.
At Addo Elephant National Park we managed to see three elephants and more zebra, as well as a number of different types of antelope – all classified by Sandie as ‘brown things with horns’.
At Mountain Zebra National Park we went on a tour to see prehistoric San rock art, and also saw some rare Cape Mountain zebra, as well as wildebeest wrestling together, vervet monkeys, ground squirrels and many more ‘brown things with horns’. The park is north of Addo, and the scenery is quite different. You are not allowed to hike through the park (too dangerous!) but in the area close to the accommodation etc we did a short walk over the top of some very impressive rock cliffs. There were also some amazing views when we were on our way to see the cave art.
At the game reserve the animals were more restricted and controlled by fences, so it was more like a safari park than a real wilderness. In the national parks there is more space and less control, so it is more natural, but not so easy to see the animals. We were glad to have had both experiences, but are still not sure which is better.