East London, also known as Buffalo City, is the country’s only river port and is the second-largest industrial centre in the Eastern Cape. Picture: Supplied/ parktravel.co.za

The end of year holiday season is finally upon us. Two weeks from now, traffic volumes on the roads, railway lines and the air space will increase exponentially with teeming multitudes headed for different destinations for much deserved rest, play, reflection and reconnection with long-seen friends and loved ones.

Far from the expected oaths of a patriotic national, our country, South Africa, is endowed with unique natural and human-made spaces for any of these pursuits.

Consider our agreeable weather during this period – for the most part sunny with occasional rain in some parts of the country – our diverse flora and fauna, the roaring seas, majestic mountains, hills and plains, and the many historical sites that bear witness to the titanic struggle that was the midwife of our freedom.

Very few countries on earth boast such congenial mix and diversity; more so during the summer season. Which is not, of course, to suggest any notion of South African exceptionalism.

Fewer places exemplify the country’s diverse scenic beauty, rich history and under-explored tourist offering and potential than the 2 536 km 2 area of the Buffalo City Metropolitan City which lies on the east coast of the Eastern Cape Province. Little explored by fellow nationals and citizens from the rest of the world, Buffalo City is arguably one of South Africa’s rarest tourist bouquets.

A bustling city with modern amenities and a bucolic rural landscape at one and the same time, its 68-kilometre coastal line is renowned for vast expanses of breathtakingly turquoise and unpolluted beaches the sight of some of whose sand dunes can delude one into thinking of the territory beyond the shoreline as nothing but desert. Driving along this coastline and witnessing the vast expansive ocean with its constant back and forward clash formation of gigantic multi-storey waves of blue and white bubbles and strands can be a truly therapeutic and meditative affair.

Buffalo City is steeped in a wealth of ancient and recent history which opens up vistas to our understanding of the human species and the natural world more broadly. 

In 1964, for example, human fossil footprints that are thought to be more than 200 000 years old – the oldest in the world – were discovered at the Bat’s Cave in the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve. 

The cave sits along a rugged coastal shoreline punctuated by white sand beaches and yawning sandstone coves in which Cape hyraxes and giant colourful kingfishers have resided harmoniously since antiquity.

The municipality has built a boardwalk atop a dune forest of indigenous vegetation from where visitors can enter the coves or otherwise watch dolphins, an assortment of birds and the occasional sea traffic at a comfortable distance from the coastline. During June and July, the coast is witness to a festival of gannets, sharks and whales that come to feed on unsuspecting families of sardines on their annual run.

Not far from here is South Africa’s oldest aquarium, the East London Aquarium – established in December 1931 – home to 400 species of marine and fresh-water animals. Whale watchers fraternise at the aquarium deck and pier to witness the wonder of migrating southern right whales.

Yet another of the city’s and the country’s heritage sites is the East London Natural History Museum. Established in 1921, it features the natural and, of course, aspects of the Eastern Cape and wider national colonial history which, at the time of the museum’s founding, would have been considered as natural as the environment on which it is built. It houses the only known Dodo egg in the world and the type specimen of the coelacanth fish, one of the habitants of the sea previously thought to be extinct.

The modest East London airport hosts between 20 and 30 flights a day. Well-known hotel brand names are on the increase as are affordable lodges that provide greater privacy in and outside the city.

An hour’s drive away, South West of East London, is King Williams Town, the former missionary station which became the British military headquarters in 1835 and a centre for German settlement.

It paved the way for the establishment of East London, which began with the port – and remains South Africa’s only river port – after the frontier war of 1846-47, the so-called “War of the Axe.” The British needed the port to provide lines of supply and communication for the settlements between Port Elizabeth and the Albany settlements after these had become dangerously over-extended.

Then British Governor, Sir Harry Smith, named area, East London, probably in nostalgic honour of his place of origin back home.

At the town’s entrance is the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance, formerly known as the Ginsberg cemetery, where the Black Consciousness leader alongside victims of the September 1992 Bisho Massacre and many other residents of the town are interred. A stone's throw from here is another historical monument, the burial grounds of other eminent activists, Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge, both murdered by the apartheid regime in the 1980. These sites are a sharp reminder of three centuries of the Eastern Cape and the country’s collision with British colonialism and apartheid and inspires us to turn our backs on racial bigotry and inhumanity.

The Garden of Remembrance is one of the must-go-to places to pay respects to heroes and heroines whose blood continues to water the tree of freedom.

While in King Williams Town, you will also come across bits and pieces of tired but interesting vignettes that tell us about our country’s infatuation with myths of no greater significance; some of which live long to this day. Take, for instance, the immortalised story of Huberta the Hippopotamus
whose taxidermied body sits at the Amathole Museum in King William’s Town.

Huberta is believed to have left the Mlathuze lagoon in Richards Bay in November 1928, eventually reaching East London, 1 600 kilometres away, three years later in 1931. A month later, she was shot and killed by a group of farmers in the area. They would be arrested and fined £25 for shooting ‘royal and protected game’ following a public outcry occasioned by a jazzed-up report on the Natal Mercury earlier on November 23 1928. 

Huberta's body was sent to a taxidermist in London and would be greeted by over 20 000 people on its return to Smith’s East London, en route to the Amathole Museum where she remains mounted to this day as to the leaps of imagination about her.

From King Williams Town, you can drive to Makhanda, an hour and half to the South, formally known as Grahamstown, and named after Lt-Col John Graham. 

Makhanda is one of the first established by British in South Africa. It was there that the Fourth Frontier War of 1811-1812 was bitterly fought, with Graham mercilessly butchering thousands of people in January and February of 1812 and displacing another 20 000 after driving them across the Fish River, in what would easily pass as an incident of internally displaced people in today’s terms.

You will drive through signposts directing to forts, places where garrisons military posts and signal towers once stood. Obey the signs and call on them.

By the time you return, you will no doubt have gained more knowledge about our country, refreshed and more energised to take on the New Year. And if you can’t make it to Buffalo City this December, you have the rest of next year to make amends.

* Xola Pakati is Executive Mayor of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality and Chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.