Driving the Backroads of the Eastern Cape

“When you look at the farmhouses, what do you see?” asks our driver and guide Velile Ndlumbini as we drive through the rolling emerald hills of Qunu, in East Africa.  Tall stands of corn stretch to the horizon next to carpets of lush grazing land. Cattle, sheep, goats and the occasional donkey mingle together in the fields or wander across the red dirt road.  Modest, plaster-covered one-story homes in shades of pale orange, pink and yellow dot the hillsides, some crowned with a traditional thatched roof, some with metal. All of them have several outbuildings. “Each house has at least one round hut”, Velile points out, “because the young men must sleep in one to commune with the spirits of the ancestors.” Thanks to insights like these from Velile of Imonti Tours our tour group learns that round huts are more than a building style, they are an integral part of the culture of East Africa.

The hills of the Eastern Cape of South Africa are covered with fields and farmland - photo Debra Smith

The hills of the Eastern Cape are covered with fields and farmland – photo Debra Smith

Our first destination is Qunu, the childhood home and ancestral farm of Nelson Mandela, the acclaimed anti-apartheid leader, and South Africa’s first democratically elected black president. Since 2009, July 18th has been celebrated internationally as Nelson Mandela Day and in 2018, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of his birth, his gravesite is being prepared for public visits. It overlooks the tiny town of Qunu and the gentle slopes of the valley where he grew up. This humble icon of democracy circled back to his roots after a lifetime of service in the struggle for freedom and 27 years spent as a political prisoner.

At the Nelson Mandela Museum in nearby Mthatha, we met Pmiko Mandela, Mandela’s grandson, who is a leader at the educational Youth & Heritage Centre associated with the museum. Display cases hold Nelson Mandela’s awards, personal items and gifts from world leaders.  Touching portraits painted by famous artists and local schoolchildren line the walls, along with photographs and quotations by Mandela.  It’s clear how much he is revered here both as a world leader and a local hero.

Mandela was born into the Xhosa clan and given the name Rolihlahla which means “troublemaker”. For insights into the way that the cultural history of his clan is being preserved, we stopped at the ICAMAGU Institute in Dutywa and met Dr. Nokuzola Mndende and her son Andile.  Their compound is made up of the same kind of round, thatched huts that Mandela grew up in.  Dr. Mndende made us feel right at home while we enjoyed a typical Xhosa meal of corn and beans (called samp) and hearth grilled chicken. Afterwards, Andile gave us a tour that included a demonstration of the Xhosa clan’s hunting and household implements. He also showed us how to prepare a special root that invokes dreams when guidance is needed. Like his mother, he is trained in traditional Xhosa divination and religious studies and is passing down his knowledge to the next generation.

The Sundowner Trail by the Sea

In the late afternoon, we reached the Morgan Bay Hotel where endless beaches of the Indian Ocean stretched out before us. From here we could have circled back north on foot, joining other “slackpakers” on a 5-day, 6-night guided walking tour along the sandy beaches and rocky cliffs of the Sundowner Trail. Hikers spend evenings at selected hotels along the route, while their bags are transferred ahead. It sounded wonderful, but we had to push on to Nahoon Beach in East London where another, more ancient, hiker left their mark.

Eastern Cape of South Africa -The Indian Ocean touches Nahoon Point where the world's oldest footprints were found - photo Debra Smith

The Indian Ocean touches Nahoon Point where the world’s oldest footprints were found – photo Debra Smith

Around 124,000 years ago a child was walking along the shore of Nahoon Beach. The footprints they left behind were discovered here in a cave, and a cast of them can be found at the foot-shaped Nahoon Point Nature Reserve visitors centre. They are the oldest human footprints in existence.

We made our own footsteps on the beach along this amazing 2-kilometre stretch of coastline. Surfers, whales and dolphins can be seen from the viewing platforms of the extensive raised boardwalk, along with adorable dassies (hyraxes), a furry mammal that resembles a small, tailless beaver. They are, in fact, related to elephants and manatees and only found in Africa and the Middle East.

On Safari in Style

We headed back to East London for a short flight to Port Elizabeth, eager to make the one-hour drive to Amakhala Safari Lodge.  Our check-in experience was nothing less than breathtaking.

Our first visit from Norman the elephant at Amakhala Safari Lodge - photo Debra Smith

Our first visit from Norman the elephant at Amakhala Safari Lodge – photo Debra Smith

As if the stunning view from the valley’s edge wasn’t enough, a gigantic male elephant was slowly plodding along the valley floor coming right towards us, on his way to a nearby watering hole. “Oh, you’ve met Norman”, said our guide, Martin Bronkhorst with a chuckle, “he came to us from Addo”. Addo Elephant National Park is only a half-hour drive from the lodge, although, with delicious meals, twice daily game drives and personal plunge pools we weren’t tempted to leave. The Safari Lodge can host up to 24 people in 11 private luxury tented suites complete with sitting areas, outdoor showers and full baths with windows that overlook the valley. Each suite has a queen bed swathed in a romantic mosquito net, but the reserve is malaria free.

Amakhala has ten camps on the reserve surrounded by 75 kilometres of electric fence. Hlosi Lodge is an all-inclusive that is perfect for families, with children’s safaris and activities like archery, stargazing and bush walks. Children 6 and up can go on game drives, while the under-6 set are allowed on family drives.  There is babysitting available if parents would like some alone time in their luxurious thatch-roofed suites, complete with a view of the grasslands of the veld.

The lions and leopards at The Born Free Big Cat Rescue and Education Centres at Shamwari are just a 15-minute drive away from the Amakhala Reserve, and they welcome visitors, but bookings must be pre-arranged through animalcare@shamwari.com. There are two morning tours daily, one at 8:15 and 11:00 for R100 (about $10 CAD) per person.

A group of giraffes is called a journey even when they're not moving along - photo Debra Smith

A group of giraffes is called a journey even when they’re not moving along – photo Debra Smith

Thanks to Martin, we saw many creatures at Amakhala, great and small.  In fact, with his keen eye, Martin often stopped the jeep to move small tok-toki beetles out of our path while staying on the lookout for cape buffalo, wildebeest and white-tailed gnu. We were lucky to see a journey of giraffes on our first morning game drive, along with a black-backed jackal, white-tailed gnu and several wildebeest. Over the next few days, we’d see lines of warthogs trotting off across the grassland, herds of zebras taking over the road and many antelope, impala and kudu (called the Grey Ghost of Africa for its ability to quickly melt into the bush). The birdlife was equally abundant. Secretary birds, quail, nightjars, red-necked francolin and many others flitted through the bush. Kingfishers, Egyptian duck, and blue crane (the national bird of South Africa) nested along the riverbank.

Martin Bronkhorst likes all creatures great and small, like this tok-toki - photo Debra Smith

Martin Bronkhorst likes all creatures great and small, like this tok-toki – photo Debra Smith

On our final morning game drive, we took off at top speed, dodging potholes and edging past zebras to look for a lion and lioness that the Rangers had spotted at the far end of the reserve. The minutes and miles flew by until we finally found them, the pair enjoying the sunrise overlooking their own lush valley lookout. Although our time with them was short, it was precious.  It was time to circle back to Johannesburg.

It's good to be the king - and the queen - of the Amakhala reserve - photo Debra Smith

It’s good to be the king – and the queen – of the Amakhala reserve – photo Debra Smith

The writer was a guest of South African Tourism while in South Africa. As always, her opinions are her own. For more photographs of the Eastern Cape, follow her on Instagram @where.to.lady