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.
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.