In many ways, Port Elizabeth is a great place to end off your Garden Route self-drive holiday. Lying in the Eastern Cape province, it’s the place where the Western Cape’s lush forests and plantations start giving way to burnt orange aloes and the thicket bush that is the perfect terrain for kudu and one of the Eastern Cape’s main attractions: elephants. Addo Elephant National Park lies less than hour from PE – as it’s known to locals – and is ideal for first-time safari goers who are looking for a completely safe, malaria-free, family-friendly destination.
But let’s start with the city first. Nestled in Algoa Bay, it has long sandy beaches lapped by the warm Indian Ocean. There is a popular seafront promenade and pier where you and the kids can indulge in ice-cream cones while watching the anglers and wind surfers (among its many nicknames, PE is also known as ‘the windy city’ as it can be gusty).
Nearby is Bayworld, which consists of a small Oceanarium, Snake Park and the PE Museum, which is decidedly ‘no-tech’: the exhibits are charmingly old-fashioned and track the history of the area all the way from life-size dinosaurs to the ‘whale well’, which is hung with a gargantuan whale skeleton. It will no doubt remind you of the museums of your childhood, right down the quaint ‘Curiosities Hall’.
Part of the colonization of the Eastern Cape region by the English from about the 1820s, much of the inner city has splendid Victorian architecure, including a magnificent city library guarded imperiously by a statue of Queen Victoria
Driving up the steep streets that lead from the foreshore area, you’ll be treated to magnificent bay views from the Donkin Memorial, a masoleum built in honour of Elizabeth Donkin by her besotted and bereft husband. Right next to it is the Hill Lighthouse that can be climbed for a very nominal fee (R5 in 2014) – the views are wonderful but be warned that the stairs are vertiginous – if you’re scared of heights, repair to the coffee shop for tea and scones (with strawberry jam and cream) instead!
Leaving the city behind, it’s a short drive to Samrec, a marine bird rehabilitation and education centre situated in the Cape Recife Nature Reserve. A small fee gets you in and it’s a quiet place to learn more about pelagic birds like endangered African penguins and Cape gannets. They often have recuperating penguins here but don’t expect them to be the natural acrobats that they are in the wild as they’re recovering from terrible injuries caused by fishing line and boat propellers. The staff are patient and will love answering little ones’ questions.
Port Elizabeth lives up to its other moniker – ‘the friendly city’ – by being small, neat, tidy, human-sized and slow-paced. Life passes by slowly here and it’s a welcome breather, especially during the end-of-year festive season, from far busier places like Cape Town, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
After a day or so, it’s time to seek adventure in Addo Elephant National Park. Only about 40km / 25 miles from PE, Addo is an ideal self-drive reserve. It’s terrain is classic Eastern Cape: undulating hills with dense thicket vegetation that is very different to the mixed mopaneveld and grasslands of the Kruger National Park, or the golden savannahs of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. While Addo is perfect for first-timers, in its own way it also has a certain charm for old safari hands: the very different landscape makes for a different type of game viewing. In fact, it covers five biomes. And forget the Big 5, Addo is home to the Big 7: lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant and, with the marine sanctuary, the great white shark and southern right whale (the one animal you will not find here are giraffes – there are no tall trees for them to munch on and they were never historically part of the Eastern Cape for this reason.)
The roads in Addo are well maintained and, although largely dirt, don’t require a 4x4. Drive slowly and remember the ‘rules’ of safari: when the weather is too hot, very wet or very windy, it will be much harder to find the animals as they will be sheltering. Consider getting to the park at dawn when the gates open, have a morning drive and then go back to your accommodation for brunch or lunch and an afternoon snooze. Late afternoon is perfect for another drive or consider booking a night drive with a trained Sanparks ranger. Night drives have something special about them: suddenly you’re much more aware of the click-click-click of a herd of elands’ hooves, the whinnying of zebras or the hooting of owls…
There is a restaurant and visitor centre in Addo with a sightings board that is updated regularly, so you can track a specific species you’re keen on seeing. The great thing about Addo for first-timers or families travelling with young children or grandparents is the lack of extremes; the weather is seldom swelteringly hot or very cold, and you do not need to take any precautions for malaria or yellowfever.
PE’s ‘small town’ feeling and Addo’s rolling greenery are a laidback end to a Garden Route self-drive holiday. An hour after leaving Addo, you can be at Port Elizabeth International Airport, ready to wing your way to Cape Town or Johannesburg for your connecting flight home. And although you may be leaving the Eastern Cape, a small part of this down-to-earth part of the country will surely be lodged fondly in your heart...