Why South Africa's wild Eastern Cape is a must-see

South Africa's untamed Eastern Cape has soaring mountains, remote desert plains and gorgeous beaches... It's the country's best-kept secret, says Frank Partridge

British visitors to South Africa are a pretty conservative lot. Large numbers pass through Johannesburg in the blink of an eye before striking out for the northern game reserves. Others base themselves in Cape Town, taking circular tours of the manicured Winelands or the more rugged Garden Route. Romantics travel between the two main cities on the Blue Train. Beach-lovers choose Durban, high-rollers try their luck at Sun City... and that's about it.

Large chunks of this extraordinarily diverse country remain unexplored. Health and security concerns, the interior's inhospitable climate and its lack of tourist infrastructure play a part. But these factors don't fully explain why the malaria-free Eastern Cape, with its rich history and culture, and its infinitely varied scenery, flora and fauna, ranks way down most travellers' wish lists.

Why do so many turn their hire cars around when they reach the end of the Garden Route? Why do they pass up the opportunity of tasting life in a traditional African village; of exploring the bays, beaches and cliffs of the unspoiled Wild Coast, or the elemental plains and mountains of South Africa's near-desert, the Karoo?

Alan Weyer thinks he knows. Alan is a self-taught historian from Grahamstown, a graceful university town of churches, museums and memorials to the people and battles that shaped South Africa's south-east frontier. Standing on the panoramic lookout of Signal Hill, Alan tells the story of the nine Frontier Wars which raged for 99 years until the Europeans finally prevailed over the Xhosa people in 1878. "The Xhosa lost their birthright, their land and most of their population. But don't expect to read about it in books. In history, the winners write the books."

Growing up on a nearby pineapple farm, Alan played in the fields with local Xhosa boys and learnt their language, clicks and all. "The settlers thought these people were unsophisticated bushmen. Yet they're born diplomats, politicians, and highly literate. They managed to sustain their society for thousands of years. In everyday speech they employ 126 different sounds. We use 44 and we think we're sophisticated."

Grahamstown, with 96 churches serving little more than 100,000 residents, does its best to put the past in context, with museums dedicated to history, natural science, astronomy and African music. With its spires, Colonial-style shop fronts and historic buildings, it feels like an English county town - a place of relative affluence in an impoverished corner of the nation.

On the road north-east, the one-horse town of Bedford is another relic of Empire: a self-proclaimed garden village in the rainy lee of the mountains, with a horticultural festival every October, and a teashop called Nostalgia selling antiquarian books and chintzy crafts. The woman at the till emigrated from Dundee in the 1960s and will never go back: "The local demographics are quite scary. Bedford has 1,000 whites, 3,000 coloureds and 10,000 blacks." "So you're worried about security?" "No, poverty's the problem. We have to look after them all because there's hardly any work."

The onward journey into the Karoo Heartland is a succession of unfeasibly straight lines across a landscape that belongs to the dinosaur age. This is one of the most peaceful places on earth. A passing car is an event in itself; the occasional isolated farm a tribute to man's tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. The parched vegetation stretches towards a horizon defined by jagged peaks. Stop the car, stand on the spot, do a 360-degree turn, and you can see for 50 miles in every direction. The sun is relentless; the pioneering Boer farmers spoke of it as "murderous".

In such an environment, it's astonishing that the main town, Graaff-Reinet, is one of South Africa's treasures. Lying in a cleft in the mountains, 200 historic buildings recall the Dutch settlers who proclaimed it as the first Boer Republic. Today it successfully blends tourism with industry, with a surprise at every turn. Down a side street, someone has assembled an enormous collection of cactus plants, which grow so readily that a form of tequila - Agava - is distilled locally and even exported to Mexico. There are restaurants and internet cafés with art galleries attached, and one of South Africa's most celebrated places to stay, the graceful Andries Stockenstrom Guesthouse, where the rooms give on to a luxuriant courtyard, and Beatrice Barnard, the exuberant co-owner and chef, sits you down with a pre-dinner drink to describe the delights to follow. Game is invariably the centrepiece, but her soup of squash, pear and chilli was so flavoursome that we scribbled down the recipe and made it the first course of our Christmas lunch.

The road leads northward through deserted hills to Nieu Bethesda. This tiny village is notable for the Owl House, where the artist Helen Martin, haunted by illness and personal unhappiness, created a bizarre menagerie of creatures and characters out of concrete and hand-ground glass. Every inch of her house and garden is an attempt to bring colour and light to the drabness of her surroundings. In 1976, at the age of 78, laid low by arthritis and depression, she gave up the struggle and swallowed a bottle of caustic soda. Georgina, the ticket lady at the entrance, used to earn a little pocket money as a girl, providing "Miss Helen" with empty bottles for the doomed project.

We lunch on the edge of the village at the ramshackle Two Goats Deli, where André Cilliers emerges from nowhere with a wooden platter of salami, home-made bread, pickles, a selection of feta and goat's cheese, and beer he brews from natural spring water - in exchange for a few rand. Nothing in the Karoo is quite like anywhere else.

In recent years, efforts have been made to create employment and make use of land long abandoned by the Karoo settlers with the opening of a dozen private game reserves, stocked with animals imported from other parts of Africa. Returning towards the coast we stop at Blaauwbosch, a pleasing assembly of thatched roofs and 13,500 acres of bush that was once a sheep farm. In place of the sheep you find lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo (four of the Big Five - only the hippo is missing, because of the conditions). In addition there are giraffe, cheetah, zebra and a variety of buck. We arrive just in time for high tea followed by a game drive. As darkness falls, we edge to within a few feet of a family of lions bedding down for the night under a tree.

A natural break in the journey to the Wild Coast, Jeffreys Bay has a gorgeous beach and a combination of reefs and waves that make it South Africa's surfing capital - a holiday playground of white concrete apartments and villas that could belong to California.

Beyond East London, the N2 motorway cuts inland on its way to KwaZulu Natal. The lack of a proper seaside road has spared the Wild Coast from all but the most basic development: a handful of rough-and-ready resorts scattered along a 210-mile stretch of beaches, bays and cliffs that overlook the twice-yearly migration of whales and dolphins.

Morgan's Bay, like the other resorts, can be reached only along heavily potholed, untarred roads. "It's the best-kept secret in South Africa," says Jane, a mother of three from Johannesburg, whose family holidayed here for decades. Morgan Bay Hotel has dropped the apostrophe and the 's' - and all trace of pretention. Its owner, Richard Warren-Smith, knows that in this age of luxury travel, some folk are put off by the effort and discomfort of getting here, but he's not losing any sleep over it: on a mid-season night, all 33 rooms are full.

A few miles east, a pontoon ferry carries us across the Great Kei River into the former apartheid homeland of Transkei, and another sudden scene change. Straggling settlements of shacks and round houses spread across the plains. Domestic animals and children roam free, the latter pleading with passing motorists to stop and give them - not money, but "Schweets! Schweets!"

Our last port of call, Coffee Bay, is a relaxed confusion of alternative lifestyles: a haven for backpackers, surfers and battered campervans. Roadside signs advertise massage, reflexology, African drumming classes - and there's not a holiday apartment to be seen.

There's talk of an ambitious plan to build a seaside highway, turning the Wild Coast into an eastern extension of the Garden Route. It would surely rank among the world's most spectacular drives, and would bring tourist dollars in abundance. But in the long run, the Wild Coast would be the poorer, and those who treasure its overpowering sense of untamed isolation would have to go elsewhere for their annual escape.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk), which offers 14-day trips in the Eastern Cape from £1,845 per person. This includes return flights from Heathrow to Port Elizabeth via Johannesburg; car hire; three nights at Diaz 15; two nights' full board and activities at Blaauwbosch Private Game Reserve; a two-night package (one dinner, two tours) at 7 Worcester Street, Grahamstown; three nights' half-board at Morgan's Bay; three nights' half-board at the Ocean View Hotel. The gateways to the Eastern Cape are Port Elizabeth and East London, both served by South African Airways ( www.flysaa.com) from Heathrow via Jo'burg. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Jo'burg; SAA connections can be made. Nationwide Airlines (0870 3000 767; www.flynationwide.co.za) flies from Gatwick to Port Elizabeth via Jo'burg. You can buy an environmental "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org); the environmental cost of a return economy flight to Jo'burg is £19.70.

MORE INFORMATION

Eastern Cape Tourism, 00 27 47 531 5290; www.ectourism.co.za:

South African Tourism, 08701 550 044; www.southafrica.net

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