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Jim Calio

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Africa Under My Skin

Posted: 10/06/11 07:41 PM ET

Africa gets under your skin. At least it got under mine. I've only traveled there three times -- once to Zambia and twice to South Africa -- but each time I return with that feeling that I can't wait to go back. It's something I can't quite put my finger on, but I think I've got a clue.

When people ask me what the animals were like, I reply, "They are great. You can get up close and it's marvelous to see giraffe or hippos or even lions in their native habitat." But then I pause and say, "But what's really terrific about Africa is the land. It's vast, it's beautiful and it extends forever. You feel as if you are in a continuum of time and history."

I recently visited South Africa's Eastern Cape and, once again, I got that old feeling: The endless plains stretching out in front of me, majestic blue mountains in the far distance and, in the Eastern Cape especially, the lovely late afternoon sunlight on the scrub.

Until recently, the Eastern Cape was not high on anyone's list of must-see places in South Africa. More likely, it was Johannesburg, although with the usual warnings about safety, and then certainly Cape Town, everyone's favorite South African city. But the Eastern Cape contains some of the country's most important -- and interesting -- history. Nelson Mandela was born there. It's the home of the Xhosa, one of the most important tribes in the history of the country. Still in evidence, as if that part of the country's history will never go away, are young men walking along the side of major roads covered in white clay. They are taking part in the Xhosa initiation rites.

The Eastern Cape is a" Big Seven" destination -- that is, you can see the "Big Five," lion, hippos, giraffe, leopard and elephant, as well as whales and Great White sharks. This is because the Eastern Cape, more than 500 miles long, stretches along some of the most pristine beaches and rugged coastal areas on the continent. It's also got some of the world's best surfing, including Jeffrey's Bay, considered world-class.

There are also a surprising number of adventure tourism venues in the Eastern Cape. The province has the highest bungee jump in the world, there are numerous zipline tours and the hiking and biking are superb. For the more sedentary, the Eastern Cape is also becoming known for its incredibly diverse bird watching.

You can drive from the south, leaving from Cape Town and driving along the narrow coastal Garden Route, which a lot of people do. Or you can do what I did, leave from Port Elizabeth farther to the north and then head inland. East London on the coast is also a jumping off point. Remember: Because South Africa is below the equator, the seasons are reversed.

Here's a sampling of some of the places I remember vividly from that trip.

MANDELA'S HOME
It's hard to escape the long shadow of Nelson Mandela, and for good reason: He's an icon in South Africa, the first black president since the end of apartheid and that country's George Washington. Now in his 90s and in frail health, Mandela mostly stays in Johannesburg, but you can see his childhood home and native village, Qunu in the northernmost section of the Eastern Cape along the main route N2. The Nelson Mandela Museum in nearby Mthatha has displays of the great man's life that include posters, photos and other documents that trace his long and extraordinary life. The museum is perched on top of a hill, and you can walk down one side and stand on the rock where he slid down with other children of the village as they tended flocks of sheep. Nearby, although in some disrepair, is the foundation of the school that young Nelson attended. The Mandela family burial plot is nearby, overgrown with weeds and enclosed only with a simple wire fence.
SAFARIS
There's nothing quite like a nighttime safari where you can see animals in their nocturnal pursuits of other animals or maybe just trying to avoid the spotlight that is shone on them from a moving 4x4 vehicle. This is only one aspect of safaris, and some of the best private game reserves in the Eastern Cape are less than two hours from Port Elizabeth. Though the vegetation is not as lush and the trees not as plentiful as in the north around Kruger, this area has one huge advantage: It's malaria-free. Some of the best private reserves are Kwandwe, Shamwari and Samara, where a cheetah restoration program is in full swing. You can get up close but not too personal with Sibella, the queen of Samara, who has produced 18 cubs since being rescued from near-death at the hands of farmers. At any reserve, it's best to book safaris with a knowledgeable guide who knows the fauna and flora of the region like the back of his or her hand.

BUNGEE JUMPING

The Bloukrans Bridge at 708 feet above the Bloukrans River is the largest single span arch bridge in the world. Construction was completed in 1984. The bridge is primarily used for traffic, but it's also the site of the world's highest commercially operated bungee jump. Let me say at the outset: I didn't jump off that bridge, but I watched a lot of people do it. It is completely safe, it has a team of professionals guiding jumpers through every step of the way and everyone who does it comes away describing it as an otherworldly experience. That's nice, but getting out to the center of the bridge where the bungee jumps take off from a platform from under the road, was enough for me. The walkway is fully enclosed with wire and sturdily built, but the floor has small holes in it to allow for the wind and the view down can be downright scary. I looked up at the ceiling the entire way out and back. Good luck to the jumpers.


SMALL TOWNS

One of the real delights of driving through the Eastern Cape is discovering some of the small towns. One of these is Graaf-Reinet, said to be the fourth oldest town in South Africa. There are more national monuments than any other place in South Africa -- 220 to be exact and you can't help miss them as you stroll through town. There are also dozens of examples of Cape Dutch architecture, the most prominent of which is the Dutch Reformed Church with its signature chimney. But we spent more time driving out of town and into the Camdeboo National Park which surrounds the town. Eight-and-a-half miles from Graaf -Rienet is the Valley of Desolation, with sheer cliffs that rise 2624 feet from the valley floor. We broke out a picnic lunch, poured some wine and just enjoyed the silence. We also visited Somerset East and Bedford, which have lovely B&Bs.