We left Port Alfred for a South Africa travel road trip, intending to bring a friend's car back from Kwa-Zulu Natal and, on the way, visiting the Addo Elephant Park and Mountain Zebra Park.
There was no timing or fixed schedule, but a leisurely road trip to Shelly Beach and then head back to Port Alfred. A week or so of driving and sightseeing.
The lasting memories of the trip were mixed. The country is beautiful vast, and impressive. The wildlife unsurpassed. But the decay in towns and infrastructure clear to see. The difference emphasised by the contrasts of areas still pristine clean, and neat from those that had overflowing garbage and are quite frankly a mess.
Addo Elephant Park
The day trip through Addo started at the southern Matyholweni gate. Turning off the main park road at the first loop, we came across our first elephant. An enormous male padding his way down the narrow gravel road towards us. We were apprehensive, but he appeared relaxed as he approached. In awe of his size and with a dash of trepidation, we moved across the road to let him pass. He padded past nearly within a touching distance less than two metres from the car.
From here, we slowly made our way through the park stopping at waterholes and viewing sites to appreciate the diversity and natures quiet. In addition to many elephants, we saw a range of antelope from greater kudu to red wildebees, eland and zebras.
Elephants were taking dut baths and, as it got hotter huddling in the shade of the trees.
As we approached the main camp, we saw several small herds of elephants—many mothers with babies and some with what looked like two generations of calves.
We watched one herd move slowly across the bushveld to a large waterhole. Here they stopped, drank and sprayed themselves with the muddy water. A tiny baby struggled to get over a small, steep, slippery bank.
As they moved off, there was a brief friendly encounter with a large male.
Avoca River Cabins
We decided to stay overnight out of the park in a BnB in the Sundays River Valley. This area was a revelation.
The verges had cut grass and flowers and fronted immaculate farms and packing stations. The environment made me think of many areas of South Africa many years ago.
Situated on a working citrus farm on the banks of the Sundays River is Avoca River Cabins. I could have stayed for a week as it had all I needed for a restful holiday. Breakfast was served on the verandah of the main house looking out over the garden. The selection was good, with the lemon marmalade being the standout for me.
Sundays River Valley to Fish River
From here, we decided to take the longer, more scenic route to Fish River, travelling via Graaf Reinet and the Valley of Desolation. Graaf Reinet was the number one town we passed through on the trip. The coffee stop at Maria's Coffee Roastery being memorable. Many houses are traditional and well maintained.
The Valley of Desolation, situated in the Camdeboo National Park, is a short distance from the town. Here the staff were friendly and engaging with their recommendations. There are two main viewing sites, both accessible by short walks. The first view is back over Graaf Reinet and the second out through the rocky Valley of Desolation. At this site, there is a walk around the perimeter that takes about an hour.
Lowlands Country Estate - Fish River
It was then on to Fish River, where we'd planned to stay at Lowlands Country Estate for two nights.
The journey from Graaf Reinet to Fish River was one of two parts. The first on a good quality tar road and the last 50 kilometres over dirt roads that varied from reasonably smooth through jaw juddering corrugations to rough rocky patches. Here the Google Maps estimate was highly optimistic as 60 kph was a promising average speed in anything except a rugged 4x4!
Situated on the banks of the Fish River is Lowlands Country Estate. On a working farm with sheep, cattle and walnut and pecan nut plantations. It was idyllic, although the weather turned quite grey and wet. It stayed away long enough for us to have a traditional South African braai (or barbecue). We ate supper sitting outside on the wide verandah.
One thing that happens to me with spending time out in nature is that it feels like it's time for bed by early evening!
Mountain Zebra Park
From here, it was a short drive to the Mountain Zebra Park. This park is the home to the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra. This zebra has quite different markings to the Burchells Zebra found in the rest of South Africa.
This park has three completely different biomes that are unique and rare. We saw a range of antelope, including red hartebeest, black wildebeest, gemsbok, springbok, the magnificently horned kudu, as well as the curious, cute ground squirrels. Although we searched, we saw no predators (the park has lions and cheetahs) or buffalo, but that was probably due to us going through around midday.
Fish River to Matatiele
We decided to take this leg of the trip in two stages. First from Fish River to Matatiele and then the second leg from Matatiele to Port Shepstone. The town where we would be staying before returning to Port Alfred with a friend's car.
After a delicious breakfast with the BnB owners, Dave and Ann, we set off on the next 700-kilometre stretch.
Matatiele to Port Shepstone
On our trip back to Kwa Zulu Natal, we decided on a stopover in Matatiele, which turned out to be just another decaying town.
The drive was through varied terrain with picturesque countryside and imposing mountain sections. The weather stayed cool and cloudy and ideal for a car trip. Our only stop was in Queenstown for coffee which was a town of contrasts.
The drive from Queenstown (Komani) to Matatiele is picturesque, with the mountains of Lesotho visible in the distance. The towns are in varying states of disrepair. With the worst having piles of uncollected garbage lining the streets.
There is limited traffic, and the only hazards are potholes. These seem to be strategically located in unexpected places. It takes careful attention and some exacting swerving to save serious tyre or wheel damage. In general, the road surfaces are acceptable – but don't let these good sections lull you into a sense of complacency.
Our off-putting Wimpy Matatiele experience
After a long day of driving, the weather had turned wet and chilly. We decided on an early supper at the local Wimpy branch and arrived there at 5:30 pm. Wimpy is the South African version of Macdonalds, where you know what you'll be getting at a reasonable price. Surprisingly we found a locked door. We saw a group inside eating, so we banged on the door. Our knocking gained a few of the staff members' attention. One of them came across and unlocked the door and informed us, "we are closed". Enquiring further, we were told that "business for the day had been slow!" So, despite the advertised closing time of 7:00 pm, The staff had decided to close the restaurant early and go home. Despite our protestations, it was clear that we wouldn't be getting anything from them that evening.
We then went next door to Debonnaires (a passable franchise pizza joint) and bought two pizzas.
The result of this incident for Wimpy Matatiele was a scathing review and the loss of our future business.
After this disappointing encounter with the staff of Wimpy on the previous evening, we decided to give this Wimpy branch a miss for breakfast.
So we drove about 100km's through to Kokstad, where we found the Kokstad Wimpy at the Mount Currie's One Stop. Here the service experience was the complete opposite of the previous evening. The staff were attentive and efficient and on hearing our Matatiele story apologised for the obnoxious service we had experienced at the other branch.
Service delivery protests
There is a growing phenomenon around South Africa, with communities fed up with the lack of services. Twenty-five years of promises and excessive corruption from incompetent officials has emphasised the chasm between the "haves" and "have nots".
As we got nearer to Port Shepstone in an area called Izingolweni, we saw burn marks on the road and large branches on the sides of the road. The previous day rocks and branches, and burning tyres, had been strewn across the road in several places along a stretch of about 4 kilometres. The burning and looting of shops also had accompanied these protests. This dispute: a lack of water supply.
These service delivery protests are becoming more prevalent all around South Africa as the lack of service delivery is a growing plight.
Travel tip: Two valuable resources regarding these incidents are the local radio stations and the Waze travel app.
Shelly Beach to Tarkastad
After two days in Shelly Beach, we set off back down the same road with a planned stopover for two days at a guest farm in Tarkastad. We had visited the Blanco Guest Farm about 40 years ago and were keen to see what had changed.
In conclusion, there was not much! It is a working farm with pigs and cattle and also has a section with wild game.
On a 9k hike around the mountain, we saw springbok, a large herd of red hartebeest and a troop of baboons which, as we passed, barked at us from a rocky cliff. There were also many cattle on the path, which, after giving us a "we're not moving stare", soon reversed as we approached and faded into the brush on either side of the path.
The resort, located at about 1 250 metres (4 100 feet), has a superb climate. The air is crisp and dry and an excellent environment for anyone with respiratory difficulties.
The final day was a four-hour trip back to Port Alfred. We chose a longer route to avoid a long section of dirt road and potholed sections.
South Africa Travel Conclusion
Travelling by car and visiting places you haven't seen before is fun. There are some pleasant surprises as well as some that are not so pleasing. The sprinkling of towns and attractions that are first-class makes a stark contrast to the degradation and complete collapse of many areas. Long lines of people waiting outside for their monthly grants are a reminder of poverty and the number of unemployed. The litter that lines the streets an indication of the collapse of refuse removal.
One feature of the Eastern Cape landscape is the random outhouse toilets dotting the countryside. These being the products of a partially completed project to provide each house with a pit toilet. Like many other "empowerment" projects, a good intention was fraught with corruption resulting in non-delivery and millions stolen.
In contrast, the national parks are well maintained and staffed with competent and engaging staff. The Sundays River Valley is an agricultural gem, and Graaf Reinet has pockets of old-world charm.
South Africa could have a lot going as an attractive holiday destination, but the good is being overwhelmed by the bad with the growing problems.
Looking for some South Africa travel advice - contact me, and I'll see if I can help.