Very little is written about Port Elizabeth, known to many as the friendly city of South Africa. Sometimes it gets overshadowed by other coastal cities like Cape Town and Durban. Although I had to cut my stay in Port Elizabeth short by two days due to unforeseen circumstances, I was mesmerised by its beauty and surreal experiences that make it unique.
The story of this town started around 1820 when British Settlers arrived by sea and claimed the land. The city got its name from Sir Rufane Donkin, the Acting Governor of the Cape Colony in 1820. He gave the port the name of his late wife, Elizabeth. She died in India and never made it to PE, so he named it in her honour. Peter Joseph, my tour guide for my trip, is a history book just waiting to be opened. Having lived in the city for such a long time, he generously answered even the silliest of questions, like how Port Elizabeth got its name as the ‘windy city’. Oddly enough, I am told, that despite being called the windy city, Port Elizabeth is in fact the least windy city from all the coastal towns in the country.
As I explore the town on my 5 day visit, I notice that there is minimal traffic, even in peak hour times. The suburbs are so close to each other, meaning one can literally take 10 to 15 minutes to get to a specific place. Old demolished buildings are given life through artworks done by graffiti artists. It brings out a kaleidoscope of colour that is refreshing. Another big attraction of the town is its water sports, game reserves and wildlife. Foreigners spend big money to take 'safari' in these establishments, hoping to spot a lion or elephant along the drive.
The beach is a huge draw card for tourists, with surfing, fishing and swimming huge activities for the sports enthusiast at heart.
Staying near Summerstrand Beach, one of the most eco friendly beaches in the country, helped me soak in the culture and its people. People jog before sunrise, grabbing a latte on their way to the hotel or apartment. Dog owners bring along their furry friends for a morning or afternoon swim. The weather is perfect, and it never gets humid. However that doesn't mean one should not wear sunscreen. I took it lightly during a tour and ended up looking like a ripe red tomato.
Out at sea
My first day in Port Elizabeth started off brilliantly. The night before, arriving literally at midnight, high winds were at full force.
On my list of things to do was St Croix Island where penguins are king. But visiting the island is dependent on the wind and the weather. I didn't anticipate going on my first day, but when my tour guide Peter Joseph changed the itinerary around, who was I to refuse. We went on a cruise on the Stampede.
The sun is out, but I don't feel the heat on my skin. The clear waters hit against the catamaran. The Stampede is owned by Rod Lochhead, who started the trips to St Croix and other islands since October 2016. He purchased the boat in 2001 and boating has been in his family since the 1800s. Joining us on the trip are two couples, one from France and the other from Netherlands. The Netherlands pair bring along their four-year-old daughter. Our diverse group head out to the boat that can accommodate 12 people. The weather is perfect for a cruise this morning.
We have given up on the idea of seeing whales, but have our fingers crossed that we will see a school of dolphins.
Rod says there is a 50 percent chance that we will see dolphins today. As we head out to sea, there are African penguins in the water splashing about. The penguins are shy and go underwater when they see us, but every so often they came back up and complete their water bathing ritual, at least that's how I perceive it to be. One cannot step outside the boat to visit the islands as the city needs to protect the bird life that occupy them. We were lucky to have seen dolphins. Hundreds of them swimming about in all their glory. It's a blink or you'll miss it kind of moment. Videoing the experience is good but watching it live is a spectacle of note. Dolphins are friendly creatures, so beautiful and majestic.
For a moment you forget about the colony of penguins because the dolphins do a good job of stealing the show. Whale spotting can happen close to winter. There is about 16 000 penguins on St Croix Island, but years ago the numbers were as high as 120 000. The population is decreasing rapidly so preserving it has remained a big task for many organisations.
The rocks hide them well, but others parade themselves near the edge of the mountain. Oystercatchers with their signature red bills are also visible.
The French tourists are lapping the penguin sighting so beautifully that their sighs of happiness make me happy.
We spend a good three hours at sea, just watching the beauty of sea creatures unfold before our eyes. I will admit the experience does not come cheap, however this is one trip worth splurging on.