A one stop shop for wildlife, wine, and lots of good food.
While Cape Town often steals the limelight, there’s another part of South Africa quietly winning over hearts. The lesser known Eastern Cape has it all: wildlife, national parks, beaches, history, city, food and wine, the whole nine yards.
I wasn’t sure what to expect flying into Port Elizabeth, being honest I’d heard very little about this place. The city sits on Algoa Bay, on a beautiful stretch of coastline along the Indian Ocean, and it’s one of the best places to jump on a whale, dolphin or penguin-spotting boat trip. In fact, it’s the bottle nose dolphin capital of the world and Raggy Charters’ marine eco tours are the wisest choice for conscious travellers.
Depending on the season, you might see different species of whale and shark, but St Croix Island is the year-round home of the largest colony of African penguin. Owner Lloyd is passionate about conservation (and travel – pick his brain about your next trip!) and if you’re lucky you might even spot his cute dog Sahara who has just found her sea legs.
South Africa is famous for its food, but one spot really jumped out as a highlight. For me, trying local specialities is a must when I’m travelling, so when I visited Victoria Manor in Cradock for a taste of typical Xhosa cooking, I made sure to wear my stretchy pants. Chef Maswazi prepared a feast of Bobotie (spiced mince with an egg topping and chutney), chicken pie, pumpkin, Inkobe (boiled corn) and Umngqusho (samp and beans) and it was the heartiest, most comforting meal I’d eaten in a long time.
Lisa, who runs the family-owned hotel comprising of Karoo style cottages dating back to the 1800s, is the South African equivalent of an Irish mammy. Essentially a feeder, she brought us on a whistle-stop tasting tour of the town. To the local butcher for Boerewors (a type of South African sausage) and Biltong, which is a bit like jerky – both excellent road snacks, for coffee and gin in Karoo Brew and rusks at the True Living farm store.
With a heavy heart and literally a couple of extra pounds, we left Lisa and went on to Drostdy Hotel in Graaf-Reinet, one of the oldest towns in South Africa and home to the terribly titled Valley of Desolation. Karoo Connections picked us up in an open-top game viewer to head up the ‘cathedral of mountains’ for serious views and sundowners at the most epic spot in town.
Keep your eyes peeled for Cape Mountain Zebra and plenty of Kudu, a spiral-horned antelope. The real wildlife watching was yet to come at Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve though, where we spent the night. Owner Iain proudly accompanied us on an early morning game drive where we were lucky enough to witness a cute exchange between a baby white rhino and its dad and caught a glimpse of a lone cheetah before setting off on foot for a closer look.
Game Ranger Hewart led us, single file, to within a few feet of the male cheetah after assessing the situation. We spent a pretty relaxed five or ten minutes observing the beautiful big cat, amazed at how little notice he took of us, other things on his mind. An amazing experience in great company. If you can, make sure to visit Mount Camdeboo, just one of the many highlights.
Getting there: Travel Focus offers a five-night holiday from €1,970pp; return flights to Dublin, two nights at the Boardwalk Hotel and Spa, Port Elizabeth (B&B), one night at Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, Karoo (FI) and two nights at the Drostdy Hotel, Graaf-Reinet (B&B). For more information, click here.