Embracing land of eye-catching wonder

SAILING ALONG NICELY: The boat cruise after breakfast at Umngazi River Bungalows was a good way to recharge the batteries during the last day of our tour.
SAILING ALONG NICELY: The boat cruise after breakfast at Umngazi River Bungalows was a good way to recharge the batteries during the last day of our tour.
Image: Yanga Nothanga

A five-day media tour to experience some of the province’s wonderful destinations turned seven strangers into instant buddies.

It started on Thursday last week with the aim of highlighting last year’s Lilizela Award winners, launched in 2013 to recognise the best in the South African tourism industry.

I was not a fan of touristy areas, simply because they are usually expensive and I was of the belief that tourism and travel is only for the rich. However, as our tour guide, Siseko Yelani explained, travel should be enjoyed by everyone, save up if you have to, as it allows for experiences that will be remembered for the rest of your life.

“People must save up for destinations they want to visit, they must research and ask tour guides about affordable destinations and go and view the beauty of our province. I get church groups on my tours – more people should join travelling groups,” he said.

According to Yelani, a lack of information was the major stumbling block for would-be tourists.

Having assembled in East London, our first stop was in Port Alfred on Thursday afternoon. The Penny Farthing Cafe & Bistro is a lovely venue and features a veranda offering great views of the river, a varied menu and friendly service. I ordered the Deluxe burger – huge and great value for money.

Next on our trip was Port Elizabeth’s Boardwalk Hotel, Convention Centre & Spa which won the best accommodation mobility Lilizela Award last year. Boardwalk Hotel guest relations manager Phumzane Grootboom said Eastern Cape establishments were on par with the rest of the country’s tourism businesses. Testimony to this was the number of international delegates who attended the South African Society of Anaesthesiologists (Sasa) event in the hotel’s 1,000-seater conference hall.

The Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment World is only a few minutes away from the Blue Flag Hobie Beach. The facility, which is where we spent our first night, offers 24-hour entertainment, a variety of sidewalk restaurants and bars.

Bad weather on day two of trip meant a sea cruise had to be cancelled, and we ended up visiting the 16-room Forest Hall Guest House – which won a national Lilizela award as best B&B in 2018. Owner James Bolton is living proof that tourism can be a business opportunity for retired professionals. He also told us he decided to take art lessons while growing the guesthouse and as a result, each room is beautifully decorated with Bolton’s own paintings.

The retired dentist said that when styling his guesthouse he was aiming for a country farm-like feel even though it is located in the city. In the park-like garden there is a Romanesque swimming pool complete with pool deck, loungers and sun umbrellas.

There is also a newly resurfaced tennis court, trampoline, as well as a second, more modern, pool.

Those wishing to experience the wonderful wildside of the Eastern Cape are spoilt for choice, but one of the best has to be Shamwari Private Game Reserve, just 75km outside PE.

Experiencing some of what the Eastern Cape has to offer, on a five-day tourism trip, has Bhongo Jacob eager to embrace travel.

Game ranger Jessica Tyre enthused about what this game reserve has to offer but sadly the weather impacted on our game viewing with the “Big Five” the reserve has to offer – lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant – all hiding. All was not lost though as, after an hour’s drive in the rain, we were rewarded with a cheetah spotting.

To see and learn more about the animals’ lives was far better than reading about them in a book or seeing them on television.

We ended that second day at Mpekweni Beach Resort, a national winner in the Lilizela Award hotel category.

The resort is surrounded by historical and cultural sites and numerous shipwrecks lie off the coast nearby. The 175-room hotel has a well-equipped gym and therapy room offering a variety of soothing therapies.

Sales and marketing manager Linda Maxam, who started working in the resort when she was in Grade 11, was a wonderful host. What impressed me about the resort was the economic spin-offs it offers those living in the surrounding villages. Over 100 people are employed at Mpekweni and the resort’s shop sells artwork from locals. On Saturday morning we had an early start for King William’s Town where we lunched on “pap and vleis” at Man’s Pub and Braai. It was a privilege to revisit the Steve Biko Centre to get a glimpse into the life of the African leader.

After we left the centre we toured around Panaroma Guest house in King William’s Town (national winner in the guesthouse category) before leaving to spend a night at Areena Riverside Country Estate in Chintsa, which won a provincial award in the country estate category.

I was ready to get my adrenaline levels pumping with abseiling and a zipline tour; again however rain prevented us from enjoying any outdoor activity at the resort which lies at the banks of the Kwelera tidal river, 23km east of East London city.

Travelling is fantastic, it’s good to be out there gathering new experiences, but sometimes the best part of travel is being inside a beautiful room listening to people talk, in this case about what makes the Eastern Cape unique.

This was my experiencewhen we visited the Icamagu Institute for African Indigenous religion in Dutywa on Sunday. Director Dr Nokuzola Mndende, who holds a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town, enthralled us with her explanation of African spirituality in an hour-long conversation. I was not sure whether to silently pray to Jesus or my ancestors before eating a delicious home-cooked Xhosa meal at Kwa-Nokrisimesi in Qunu later that day. We slept at Dan’s Country Lodge on Sunday night and the staff at the establishment are the personification of ubuntu.


Finally we ended our tour along the Wild Coast taking in Port St Johns (PSJ) where there are many hidden gems to be found. The multi-award winning Amapondo Backpackers is perfect for those on a tight budget who still want to go hiking and camping. The PSJ Airstrip, on top of Mount Thesiger, is accessible with a normal vehicle as there is a tar road all the way to the airstrip where we got the most breathtaking view of PSJ.

Our final night’s destination was the Umngazi River Bungalows. This was one of the most spectacular overnight stays on the trip.

More than anything I was hoping this trip would expand my knowledge of the Eastern Cape and allow me to learn a thing or two about myself in the process. While I can’t say travelling has completely transformed me, I will say the past week has been a good learning experience – I’m already planning a trip with a few friends.

lBhongo’s tour was organised and paid for by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA).