Visit the Eastern Cape
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CAPE TOWN - Flying business class during Covid times comes with far less value for money; there are no meals, no newspapers and no drinks to luxuriate on. Just extra legroom, extra bag and water. This is a thought that crossed my mind as we commenced our descent into King Dawid Stuurman Airport (Port Elizabeth Airport), from Cape Town. Tour guide Thobela Roloma, of Uncuthu Tours, picks us up at the airport. Straight to the new Black Impala “restaurant” at the Transnet Harbour in Gqeberha to meet our hosts and entire tour entourage.
For years now I've known the Black Impala brand to be a hotspot tshisa-nyama on the way to New Brighton township in Gqeberha. So, opening up a branch in the burbs surely meant a few changes. Or so I thought. I ask for a shot of my favourite dram and am told it is only sold by the bottle. I ask for a cider, and am offered a six-pack. There! Right there! Is where you miss the opportunity to be a restaurant. I am told this will be sorted out within the week as they resolve their licensing matters.
Anyway, Black Impala is our first official meeting spot as a group of journalists from all parts of the country. I recognise Simon from the national tabloid that left the Eastern Cape. He tells me they have run out of thikoloshes, hence they now dabble in politics. Same difference. There's Malibongwe from a popular online news website. The I'solezwe lesiXhosa crew is also there. My people. I started that paper. Peddie's Ngqushwa FM, Queenstown's Lukhanji FM and other scribes from other parts of the country.
Lunch is served. Ribs, lamb, sausage and chicken skewers hot off the braai stand. It does not taste the same as the one in the township Black Impala. Something seems too well-manicured in the presentation. Not as saucy but good. We eat and get ready for our first few activities.
Think Shamwari Private Game Reserve, Amakhala Game Reserve, Lalibela Game Reserve and more where international elites come to hide out in South Africa. We are booked at the Bellevue Forest Reserve, 75km from Gqeberha. We chase the sunset where we also hope to do some Giraffe Walking and Buffalo Encounters. No such luck, but we do manage to capture images of a beautiful sunset. The giraffe watch from afar. No walking with them on that day.
Back to the actual reserve for dinner and our designated lodges and camps.
I was allocated to the Stargazer Camp, which was curiously reserved for males only. Others had Ikwanitsha and Addo Reach. Lodges. No questions asked. After dinner, we cruised past two lazy lions behind a fence, a few steps away from the reception area.
Again, no questions asked.
Lo and behold, when we get to the Stargazer camp it becomes very evident that whoever named this section was quite literal. We were going to lie on our beds and gaze at the stars. Stargazer. No roof, no doors nor walls. The toilet was about 200 metres away in the open bushes. The shower was lodged 50 metres above the beds. Geyser made from a rim, gas cylinder and actual fire.
As we huddled around the fireplace, posting Stargazer pictures on social media, there were responses that sought to liken our experience to the Xhosa male initiation practice. Nothing like it. Nothing at all. And I will leave it at that.
While others slept peacefully throughout the night, I personally slept like a baby. Literally. Waking up every now and then to hear Lukhanji FM's Andrew snoring the leaves off every single tree. The lions too, in their enclosure, were found cowering in the dark, most likely asking themselves, “What new beast is this?” Lukhanji FM roars. I digress.
By 5am I am up and in the shower. Geyser fire not yet set. Lukewarm shower as the others woke up amazed they’d survived the night and slept peacefully. Suddenly everyone is taking pictures and excited. Tea, rusks, depart. The two lions, by the reception area, were still acting lazy so I, too, couldn't bother myself writing about them. A roar or shrug would've been nice.
Bellevue Forest Reserve's Stargazer section requires those who really want a unique experience. I would definitely do it again.
We head back to Gqeberha from Paterson for a four-hour boat cruise. Forty minutes later we are alighting at Raggy Charters at the harbour in Gqeberha. Raggy Charters is not quite like your other boat cruise experiences where you can amble about the deck, champagne glass in hand and puke over the side. No. Far from it. You feel every minute of that four hours, sober. Raggy Charters operations are geared more towards a nature conservation agenda. Their public cruise offering can be dubbed a "side-hustle" but rest assured you will get to know a lot about penguins at the islands off the Port of Gqeberha. I saw showy dolphins, a cross mounted atop St Croix island, penguins, more dolphins and Bird Island.
Back on land, we had to do the 260km drive from Gqeberha to Graaff-Reinet where we were to spend the night. On the road I discovered a beautiful new song by Mthatha's DJ Stax called “EmaXhoseni”, “siya emaXhoseni …” is the chorus. The irony of saying we are going to Xhosaland when approaching Graaff-Reinet was duly noted. Now Graaff-Reinet is one beautiful, clean and serene small town. If you lead an extremely stressful life in the city, then you really want to be here. It is also the oldest town in the Eastern Cape and the fifth oldest in the country after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swellendam.
I remember Graaff-Reinet from Mrs Sobukwe's funeral. Even before the funeral my team and I once drove her to hospital there. To me this town carries heavy memories and sorrow. What did it feel like to be Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in such a Dutch colonial setting? What led him so deep into politics having come from such a dead dorpie as this? I could not get Sobukwe off my mind. But a quick zoot up to the Valley of Desolation clears my mind. Our shuttles ascend a mountain and at the top we get views of the whole of Graaff-Reinet, see cliffs and amazing rock formations. The views are spectacular. Breathtaking. Bring-your-best-cliché type of views.
We are booked in at the Drostdy Hotel, a hotel I would rate as one of the best in the Eastern Cape, second only to Cintsa's Prana Lodge in my book. Sculptures by Dylan Lewis adorn the yard. Africology Spa. Garden lounge. I cannot even begin to describe the architecture but each room is more than enough. While others swam after dinner I popped into the cigar lounge, read some books and had a night tipple before a boisterous group of local tourists joined me and shared their experiences of the nearby hippy nirvana called Nieu-Bethesda. I was bushed. Wish I could've stayed longer.
The only thing amiss with the Drostdy Hotel was the staff; you almost feel like you are in Cape Town. Tone, attitude and manners matter. I could go on but I am sure they have registered my complaint. Should I ever go back I will ask not to interact with any of the staff. I wish for no hellos nor goodbye, I just want to soak in the beauty of the place without the forced "Sir!" sounds and disdainful service.
By 8am we’re all in our Uncuthu Tours shuttles heading to Cradock where the official tourism month launch would take place. About 140km to go from Graaff-Reinet. A few minutes into the trip I am gripped by nausea and suddenly feel very naar, my vision blurs and everything just spins around me. We get to a stop-and-go and I jump out to catch a breath. Thobile, our driver, tells me it's an altitude variance reaction. Going to Cradock from Graaff-Reinet is a steep climb of more than 500m. I suspect it’s delayed seasickness. Whatever it was, I asked to sit in the front so I could easily request a stop in case of an emergency. I dozed off.
Woke up in Cradock, buckled up in the front seat, sweltering 34-degree heatwave coming through the window. Blinded by the sunlight, I look to my left where four towering concrete structures cast shadows. The monuments bear the surnames of the infamous Cradock Four members; Goniwe, Calata, Mkhonto and Mhlauli.
Like Graaff-Reinet, this town comes with its own painful baggage. We are at the Cradock Memorial Centre. Inxuba Yethemba Municipality mayor Noncedo Zonke welcomes us all. Speeches are impressed upon us. Covid-19 is lamented for its effect on the economy and tourism sector as a whole. I am still battling nausea so I sit near the entrance. Eat nothing. Drink Stoney. Clap. Clap. And clap. And leave. At this point I would like to acknowledge our hosts, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA), which ensured that journalists got to experience the Karoo side of the Eastern Cape as well as attend this launch that was keynoted by the province’s Economic Development MEC, Mlungisi Mvoko.
Following the official launch we were whisked away to the Mountain Zebra National Park, still in Cradock. There was a game drive component that entailed an on-foot cheetah-tracking experience. I opted for the self-drive where we spotted a few zebra. The typical “is it black and white or white and black?” debate ensued. This national park also had a picnic site with a pool. It's really a family or group-of-friends type of set-up. You have to be chasing to be nowhere else to be there.
As the sun sets we head to our designated quarters at the Old Victoria Hotel now known as Die Tuishuise & Victoria Manor.
Something about Cradock just does not make me feel at ease. Uboya bam abulali tu kule dolophu. I don’t know whether it is the ghosts of apartheid or the fact that retired apartheid protagonists now live peaceful lives in such small towns. Having committed the most heinous acts and then retreating to such beautiful movie-set-like dorpies irks the living hell out of me. That is how I feel as ek groet die pas en mas by die ontvangs wat staar na my, geskok. I am allocated the Werf as my room. I walk out the reception, down the road, pass four houses and get to my room which is in fact a house. Picture a street in Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, with less colour and all houses one storey instead. Something like that. My “room” has three bedrooms, a lounge, kitchen, maid’s quarters and braai area.
I had to ask for the price. Such an experience or so-called “room” cannot be for one. Never. R500 per person sharing this spring only. It will go up during peak season. But this is the one time I really felt like staying indoors throughout this excursion. I wanted to sit on that 1960s couch, switch on that TV and actually laze around. But no, it was our last night. Each of us had their own house. The biggest unit was chosen to host the closing-night party. And that was that.
I am now back in Cape Town, laughing at the irony that I can only ever enjoy the Eastern Cape as a tourist or visitor. Resident? Never again. I grew up there, but as an adult the vulturish, gluttonous, egotistical, ubuntuless, ostentatious-in-the-midst-of-poverty and self-first culture I cannot stand. I would much rather deal with Cape Town's racism any day. I will visit the Eastern Cape from time to time. You too should, however a good guest knows when to go. Before the "who's son / daughter are you?" questions arise.
*Did you know: Karoo comes from the Khoi word Karus which means dry or barren hard land