South Africa's Eastern Cape

Lyn Hughes explores the twisting woodland paths, mountains, wildlife reserves and wild coastline of South Africa's Eastern Cape

5 mins
In preparation for tonight's episode of Africa with Sir David Attenborough, we've dug this article from Wanderlust's editor-in-chief and co-founder Lyn Hughes out of the Wanderlust website archives. Enjoy!

‘It started many years ago when the travelling fairies happily tiptoed in the dappled sunlight of one of the most enchanted forests in the world. They decided to make it their home and have been blessing the amazing sites and sounds of this magical world ever since.’ – Hogsback tourist brochure.

The Eastern Cape is commonly held to be the centre of the struggle for a democratic South Africa. It’s where the apartheid ‘homelands’ of Transkei and Ciskei were established, dumping grounds for millions of blacks.

This is where Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki were born and educated. The heartland of the ANC.

So the mountain village of Hogsback, with its tourist brochure asking visitors not to step on any fairies, seemed like an alternative reality; a surreal mix of deepest Devon, Beatrix Potter and The Hobbit. I was staying at Granny Mouse House; the backpackers’ hostel was called Away with the Fairies. I kept expecting to bump into Frodo or Bilbo Baggins – and wasn’t surprised to find that the activity centre was called Hobbiton. JRR Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, further north, and it’s not known for sure whether he ever visited Hogsback – but it’s easy to imagine that he was inspired by its magical setting.

Set 1,300m high in the Amatola Mountains, amidst swirling mists and waterfalls, this village is a bit of a time warp. Electricity was only introduced 12 years ago (after a residents’ referendum was carried by just one vote), few roads are paved and the petrol station is closed on a Sunday – just when weekenders are looking to fill up for their journeys home.

Hogsback is one of the few spots in the Eastern Cape where visitors can be found, although even here tourism is low-key. Unlike the bustling Western Cape, the apartheid years left this region undeveloped and impoverished. Those visitors who do make it come for the handful of game reserves, the stunning but deserted coastline – with some of the world’s best surfing – and some superb walking. Hogsback itself is famous for its hiking trails, which range from 15-minute strolls to the six-day Amatola Trail, one of South Africa’s best, and toughest, walks.

I’d come here to take part in a fundraising walk for The Keiskamma Trust. There were 25 of us taking part and the first day’s walk was a challenging one, starting at a valley homestead before heading up the steep and twisting woodland paths of the Wolf River Forest. 

We passed waterfalls and rock pools, scrambled over moss-covered boulders and scampered over stepping-stones (or edged over in my case) as we panted our way through this beautiful tranche of indigenous forest.

Leaving the trees behind we exited into open heath and grassland, with stunning views, also enjoyed by the eagle casually riding the thermals above. The weather can be notoriously fickle up here, but this day the sun was blazing down, and there was barely a breeze as we joined the Zingcuka Loop, an optional section of the Amatola Trail.

Lunch was by a waterfall and rock pool. We filled our waterbottles with the ice-cold water, and the braver members of the party jumped in for a swim. I didn’t dare risk the freezing water as my legs had seized up, and I had excruciating cramp in one thigh. Thus the afternoon was a mix of agony and ecstasy (with the emphasis on the former) as I hobbled my way across open plains, got hauled up steep rocks (thank you, Mike!) and limped through cool pine plantations.

The next day’s walk was a breeze in comparison – a beach walk to the mouth of the Keiskamma River and the small town of Hamburg where the Keiskamma Trust is based. The wind was behind us and the white sand firm below our feet as we strode along with just the crash of the surf and the mewling of sea birds as our soundtrack. This is some of South Africa’s most beautiful coast, and yet we spotted only one property on the whole walk.

We were met at Hamburg by a reception committee of dancers and schoolchildren, and we followed them up through the village to the house of Eunice Mangwaye. For the next couple of hours we listened to prayers, speeches and music from three choirs and tucked into a traditional feast. There was barely a dry eye as everyone stood for a rendition of 'Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa).

On lion patrol in Kwandwe

Having spent the next day witnessing the good work the trust was doing, my next destination, Kwandwe Game Reserve, was initially – with its air-con, private plunge pools
and top-notch food – to prove a stark contrast.

Set around the Great Fish River, Kwandwe was formed in 1998 and, since then, 7,000 animals, including black rhino, elephant and lion, have been reintroduced.

My guide, William Moss, was young – just 23 – but world-class. Brought up on a nearby citrus farm, William is passionate about this land and its wildlife. His enthusiasm was contagious as he got us to guess what plants were by their taste, and demonstrated how a hyena marks its territory by giving a bush “an anal pasting”. Most exciting of all was our first night drive: a swinging searchlight revealed an aardwolf sloping along. Although it looked like a hyena, this slightly cuddlier version was on a search for its staple diet of termites.

The next morning we heard that lions had been seen in a gully. As we approached, two other vehicles were on the opposite side trying to spot them too. Listening in to the radio, the other guides thought that the lions were moving along the stream in the shady gully, but William was not convinced: "The sun is rising so they'll want to come out into the sunshine to warm up," he explained.

He and tracker Saki got out to scour the ground, and soon found the tracks of a lioness and three cubs. Sure enough, they were heading away from the gully and the pugmarks were so fresh that William exclaimed: “Those tracks are now!”

A little further on we spotted the female and three six-month-old cubs. After a few minutes a magnificent male with a tawny mane entered stage right. After affectionately greeting the female they sauntered off together, the cubs playfully gambolling along behind.

We slowly followed them up a track, keeping our distance – although it was sometimes difficult as the cubs kept lagging behind to play, totally unconcerned at our presence.

Back at the lodge, a local historian came to give a talk. Alan Weyer admitted that he had no interest in history at school; it was only later that he realised why: “I was learning a Boer version of history. One where winners never make mistakes!

“People recognise three things in South African history – Zulu wars, apartheid and Boer wars. But nothing before that. And the 100 years of frontier wars are often overlooked.”

Alan took us through the early history of the area, revealing that there are late Stone Age sites and San rock paintings in the hills around Kwandwe. Then the Khoi arrived, who owned cattle and sheep, followed by the Xhosa in the 14th century, who eventually became the dominant group.

"By the early 1700s the Trekboers moved in. At first they got on with the Xhosa, but as more arrived tensions rose. The first frontier war was in 1779 when there was an attempt to move the Xhosa south of the Fish River.”

Later, British settlers arrived: “They hadn’t been told they’d have 20,000 angry neighbours! They’d been given 100 acres each and were told the land was like ‘rolling parkland’. You can see it’s not. And they arrived during the worst drought in living history. They suffered great hardship.”

The final frontier war was in 1877. A 14-year-old girl had a vision that the Xhosa must kill all their cattle and destroy their possessions. “In desperation they went ahead – more than 38,000 died of starvation.”

Townships and communities

Life still isn’t easy in the Eastern Cape, with three quarters of the population living under the poverty line. Concerned at the lack of development in the rural area around Kwandwe, the owners of safari company CC Africa have set up a charitable trust, the Angus Gillis Foundation, to work with local villages. Rather than giving handouts or looking for short-term results, the emphasis is on sustainable and self-sufficient projects. The foundation is run by Diana Hornby, who stresses the importance of consulting with the community to find what they actually want and need, and then giving them the skills to achieve it. “The vision has to be shared. There’s no point imposing a European model on local people who are struggling with poverty.”

The foundation has already trained some locals in tourism-related jobs, created market gardens in each village within the reserve (some of the produce is bought by the lodges), and set up a pre-primary school.

Next on the agenda is the KwaDoli Community Centre. The plans include a computer skills room, a glass workshop and craft shop, and a courtyard for events – or simply for passing the time of day. Visitors to the reserve will have the option to visit the centre too, and will be able to have a go at a local craft or cooking a local dish.

“It was a long process getting to what people would really need and use, but it’s been worth it,” said Diana. “So many mistakes have been made in the past by well-meaning charities and individuals. We’ve all had to unlearn some of our preconceptions.”

Visiting a township in Port Elizabeth a few days later I could see first-hand what Diana meant by mistakes. It had rained in the night and the only recreational space – a rudimentary football pitch – was flooded and unusable. Over the road, at the Missionvale Care Centre, I was astonished to see a beautifully built tennis court. “It’s never been used,” said the centre’s manager. “No-one around here plays tennis!” So why had it been built? “A benefactor insisted. We have learned a lot since – we would never allow it to be built now.”

I was with Paul Miedema, founder of Calabash Tours, which specialises in township tours and carefully selected volunteering projects. “A lot of people want to meet locals but that’s difficult and can be contrived. So we’re about linking people. We want both sides to benefit.” Paul has seen a big difference in the townships over the past few years. “We used to see abject poverty. But new housing with running water and electricity is being built. We’re now running out of the worst areas to show people, which is great!”

Certainly, while there is no underestimating the huge problems of unemployment, HIV and poverty in the townships, there were visible signs of development and of new businesses. And I hadn’t expected to be offered chilled white wine or a trendy bottled beer at a township pub. Noxolo Sume, the co-owner of Jeya’s, bustled around, her eyes missing nothing, while her husband played pool in the corner. “She’s superb,” confided Paul. “It’s a great meeting place for the locals but visitors are made welcome too.” As I left, Noxolo gave me a huge embrace, telling me to make sure I visited again.

“Africa’s biggest asset is its people,” Diana Hornby had said.

Usually it’s the wildlife that brings me to Africa, but on this visit I had to agree – it was the people who had made it, and the people that would bring me back.

The Keiskamma Trust: How you can help

When Carol Hofmeyr retired to Hamburg in 2000 she hoped to indulge in her passion for art. She set up a programme – the Keiskamma Art Project – with a group of local women, producing embroidered goods and altarpieces, and more than 80 people are now employed as a result.

However, as a doctor Carol couldn’t ignore the Aids crisis. At that time, antiretroviral (ARV) drugs were hard to get. With the help of Eunice Mangwane, an Aids counsellor who had family in Hamburg, Carol started sourcing and dispensing ARVs.

Today the government will provide ARVs, but most rural poor can’t get to the cities for treatment. So the work of the Keiskamma Trust is as important as ever, ensuring that the drugs get to the villages, and providing adherence monitors to ensure they are taken correctly.

A key area of their work is catching children with HIV as early as possible, ideally within six weeks before any permanent lung or heart damage has occurred. The children are often orphans, being brought up by grandmothers. As Carol says, “This is the first generation of HIV-positive children in South Africa. Some are still dying because we don’t find them in time. Our driving force is to get them all onto ARVs.”

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