Local tourism authorities market the Eastern Cape as an inexpensive malaria-free Big Five destination but, as far as most people outside its borders are concerned, the province comprises the Friendly City and main section of the Addo Elephant National Park (AENP). The well-to-do are familiar with Shamwari, Jeffreys Bay is the surfers’ lodestone and whack-heads (such as I) know there's a place called East London into which you can fly before heading to Hogsback and the Wild Coast.
But, if you're South African, your ears will have pricked at the words “friendly”, “wild” and “inexpensive”. Travelling off the beaten track in the Eastern Cape is about the only way you can see the absolute best the southernmost tip of Africa has to offer without being bankrupting.
Some time back, I was fortunate enough to pick up a top-of-the-range VW Amarok diesel-powered SUV for a 10-day visit to the Eastern Cape. A wondrous travelling companion it was, too, because it had the range and capability to take me effortlessly wherever I needed to go.
When I manage to drag myself away from my thirsty friends in PE, I almost always head to Addo - the village, rather than the game reserve - and Chrislin African Lodge. (www.chrislin.co.za)
I've been a regular guest for about six years because it's the perfect base for day-long sorties into the main, Zuurberg and Darlington section of the national park. Chrislin consists of a score of well-appointed, air-conditioned rondavels scattered around an enormous enclosed garden property which provides a quasi-privacy not available in AENP’s main camp. It's also very family friendly.
Guests can explore Addo and its surrounds under their own steam or engage the services of Crisscross Adventures (www.crisscrossadventures.co.za), run by ebullient Chris and Terri Pickels. They offer professionally guided tours of AENP or, if you need a break from game-viewing, quad-biking through orange orchards and sand-boarding down the magnificent coastal dunes at Colchester. Alternatively, you can join them in paddling peaceably down the Sundays River.
The dam, formerly known as Lake Mentz, is fed by the Sundays River and was once the second-largest in the country. It was built largely at the instigation of Jock of the Bushveld author Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, who owned irrigation-dependent citrus farms in the area.
No accommodation is provided so, consequently, there is neither restaurant nor shop. A basic ablution block serves the small camp site on the western side of the dam but there is no electricity and campers have to bring drinking water.
Other than fishing, the charm of the place lies in its isolation.
Plans are afoot, though, to drop the fences between Darlington and the neighbouring Kuzuko contractual section in the near future and the reintroduction of cheetah is also envisaged.
All-wheel-drive vehicles or those with high ground-clearance are essential for getting to and traversing Darlington Dam.
Those who are enjoy a hike of moderate distance and difficulty will love the two-night “slack-packing” Two Rivers Trail (www.tworivertrail.co.za), 108km from Port Elizabeth on the N2 to Grahamstown.
Named in reference to the Kariega and Assegai rivers that flow through Mosslands dairy farm, the trail is designed to be walked over successive days, being two circular routes (14km and 8km, respectively) that start at quaint Alldays Cottage. I arrived there mid-afternoon and chilled for the rest of the day because I'd decided to do the longer leg first.
Fourteen kilometres doesn't sound like much but there's a fair bit of undulation through the Albany thicket - mainly milkwood, yellowwood, euphorbia and sneeze wood - lining the Kariega. Start early so dew still marks webs spun across the trail and carry a walking stick to dislodge them unless you like silk and spiders in your face.
The route was well signposted and there are sensibly sited benches that provide relief and the opportunity to look out over tranquil farmlands, forest, rivers and ponds. The bird and wildlife is prolific; I nearly stood on a little duiker that probably got as big a fright as I did.
Take more water than you think you'll need.The only replenishing spot is about 10km from the start.
Allow a minimum of seven hours to cover the route.
The Amarok had some fun slithering back to the N2 but it wasn't long before it was turning back off the freeway onto a nondescript road marked Carnarvondale. It was the second time I'd taken this entrance (once on a Harley-Davidson in the rain, (nogal!) to a concession within the private Amakhala Game Reserve that is one of the hidden gems of the Eastern Cape.
Quatermain’s 1920s Safari Camp (www.quatermainscamp.co.za) is a small and seemingly laid-back operation - three tents accommodate a maximum of six guests - but there's unrelenting focus on authenticity, comfort and quality at a reasonable price.
Riaan and Julie Brand began building Quatermain’s in 2007, aiming to achieve a nostalgic feel that harkened the tented expedition camps made popular in fiction by author H Rider Haggard.
The camp is tucked away in the bush at the end of a beaten-up road that is virtually impassable after the seasonal rains. Guests are required to leave their vehicles at Carnarvondale farmhouse and are ferried to camp by Quatermain's safari trucks.
What helps make Quatermain’s ultra-special is that the Brands have acquired traversing rights to neighbouring Shamwari. For less than R3000 per person per day, guests get a Big Five experience on both Shamwari and Amakhala; one in the morning, the other late afternoon; as well as a guided bush walk.That's fantastic value.