Born of a farming community, residents have always led a quiet and somewhat sheltered existence in remote Nieu Bethesda. It’s only in the past twenty plus years that it’s gained increased attention for Helen Martin’s Owl House.
In the ‘wild’ province of the Eastern Cape, also known as the adventure capital of South Africa, you’ll find vast expanses of untouched beach, bush and forest. An area with enticing attractions, among them the Addo Elephant National Park (home to over 600 elephants!), dramatic Wild Coast seascapes, numerous Big Five malaria-free game reserves and,
Helen was an eccentric character who in the latter part of her life, worked tirelessly to convert her simple home into one that resembled a colour-filled fantasy. The inside walls are encrusted with ground glass and the many mirrors catch the light at different times of day while in the Camel Yard statues of men face east.
As much as the Owl House is a draw card, it’s not all that’s on offer here. You can indulge in locally grown produce, try the craft beer and goats cheese platter at The Brewery, search for fossils in the riverbed and take a donkey cart tour of the town.
Set in the heart of the stark and beautiful semi-arid Karoo and completely surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park, Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s fourth oldest settlement. Founded in 1786, it is now a center for tourism, agriculture and game farming, with a closely guarded history and cultural past that sets it apart.
The town has at least 220 heritage sites meticulously listed in celebration of a bygone era. Cape Dutch, pre-Victorian and quaint Karoo style homes that now hold a rich collection of museums and galleries. Get to the The Old Library Building, Reinet House and the recently rebuilt Drostdy Hotel and remember to pay respect to the great anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe, who’s modest grave is found on the outskirts of town.
Dwesa Nature Reserve
Dwesa Nature Reserve is a green gem along the Wild Coast that offers coastal forests, grasslands and a gloriously empty beach. About 3 900 hectares in size, it has excellent bird watching and mangrove forests at the Mbashe and Nqabara river mouths. In the forests look out for the rare samango monkey, the equally rare blue duiker as well as the more common vervet monkeys and tree hyraxes.
One of the oldest protected areas in the country, the Dwesa region was declared state forest in the 1800s. Before then, the area had been the hiding places for high-ranking Xhosa chiefs during the heroic Frontier Wars against the British settlers.
Hole in the Wall
A rocky archway set just off the Wild Coast, south of Coffee Bay, this landmark was created millions of years ago through the restless action of waves against sandstone and shale, it’s instantly recognizable and is the source of many legends. In the Xhosa language, this area is called esiKhaleni, which means ‘the place of sound’. Some say it’s because under certain conditions, the waves hit the rocks with a resounding cracking sound, especially during storms.
Insider Tips to the Windy City
Visit the Donkin Reserve, a public space gifted to the city by its founder, Sir Rufane Donkin. Equal in size to about two city blocks, its main feature is a stone pyramid monument with a touching inscription in memory of his late wife. There is also a lighthouse that was built in 1861. Today the area is home to Route 67 and holds 67 pieces of public art to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of public life and his contribution to the freedom of South Africa.
While exploring Port Elizabeth, stop for a coffee at the area called Friendly Stranger on Bridge Street. Rejuvenated and developed over the past years to become a hub for creatives, designers, renovators and the impressive Bridge Street Brewery. Housed in a cobblestone building that dates back to the 1820s and believed to be one of the oldest in the city, here you can enjoy a tour, tasting and delicious meal.
Jeffreys Bay is an area with some of the country's wildest coastline backed by spectacular sub-tropical rainforest and is famous for its ‘supertubes’, probably South Africa's longest and most consistently good wave. Once a sleepy village, over the last decades surf enthusiasts have flocked here in pursuit of the perfect swell. A good place to indulge in some serious lessons with Wavecrest Surf School and the legendary Andrew Moon offering three, five and seven-day workshops.
Arts and Culture
The National Arts Festival, held annually in Grahamstown, is Africa's largest and most colourful cultural event, offering a choice of the very best of both local and imported talent. For 11 days every July the town's population almost doubles, as over 50 000 people flock to the region for a feast of arts, crafts and sheer entertainment that astounds in its quality.
The Land of our Father
Found in the Butterworth area, the village of Qunu is where Nelson Mandela grew up and to where he lived after his retirement. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes Qunu as the place where he spent the happiest moments of his childhood and is where he was finally laid to rest in December 2015. Today Qunu can be visited as a modest and humbling tourist attraction.
Visit Nomvula’s Knitters in St Francis and meet the incredible women driving this community project that teaches the skill of knitting, empowering others to earn a steady income. There’s also a shop in town where you can buy some of their beautiful knitwear for men, women and children.
In St Francis, enjoy a walk in the Supertubes Indigenous Garden that is supported by the Supertubes Surfing Foundation and nurtures the theme ‘passion through the protection of rescued land and plants.’
In the town of Hamburg, the Keiskamma Art Project, founded to help solve unemployment in women has grown into a number of art studios specializing in beading, felt-making, embroideries, ceramics and printmaking.
Did you Know?
The capital of the Eastern Cape is Bhisho, but its two largest cities are Port Elizabeth and East London.
This region is the birthplace of many prominent South African politicians, such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Chris Hani, Thabo Mbeki, Steve Biko, Bantu Holomisa and Charles Coghlan.
The Eastern Cape has more cattle, sheep and goats than any other province and the Wild Coast one of the few places in the world you'll see cattle on the beach!
The province is home to South Africa's only Snow skiing resort, Tiffindell, which is situated near the hamlet of Rhodes in the Southern Drakensberg on the slopes of Ben Macdhui.
The Tsitsikamma National Park is an 80-kilometre long coastal strip between Nature's Valley and the mouth of the Storms River. The nearby Bloukrans Bridge Bungy is the world's third highest bungee jump at 216 metres high.