Words by Meegan Rourke-McGill
When most people think of the Eastern Cape, they think of a wild, sweeping coastline with untouched beaches; a surfer’s paradise. What doesn’t come to mind is the Eastern Cape’s interior: small towns and steep mountain passes where the air is crisp and the scenery breath-taking. A recent road trip through the ‘highlands’ of the Eastern Cape couldn’t have been more of a pleasant surprise. If you’re looking to “get away from it all”, I have your dream getaway right here…
When we set off from Durban on Good Friday, we expected to encounter a fair amount of traffic heading out for the long weekend. Instead, we were greeted by long stretches of empty road winding through rolling green hills and not a human in sight as far as the eye could see. While most people tend to take the N2 through the Transkei to get to the Eastern Cape, we headed south west along Route 56. The road was a dream – no potholes and only the occasional goat or cow to contend with.
From Camperdown, we took the R56 to Kokstad, passing through Richmond, Ixopo and Umzimkulu. Kokstad is a good place to fill up if you’re running low on fuel. We carried on, passing through Cedarville, Matatiele, Mount Fletcher, Maclear, Ugie and Elliot on the way to Queenstown. In Queenstown, we stopped for a much-needed break at the Shell garage (N6 Highway/Cathcart Road) where the Torrador by Vida E Caffé provided much-needed caffeine in the form of giant flat whites.
Unfortunately, the Eastern Cape’s interior is not a wonderland of coffee shops and cafés – you really are getting away from it all, including the third wave coffee culture currently blooming in South Africa’s main centres. But what the area lacks in cafés, it more than makes up for in spectacular scenery and unspoilt natural beauty. For most of our trip, we relied on Torrador and our own stainless steel coffee plunger which is perfect for travelling (can’t shatter like glass), and makes a pretty good cup when you’re pairing it with ground single origin coffee.
Our meandering road trip took us to Stutterheim, Hogsback and Rhodes, and I absolutely recommend this as a road trip, especially in April, when the days are warm and the nights call for the warmth of a fire.
The Shire Eco Lodge, Stutterheim
Hidden at the edge of the indigenous Xholora Forest near Stutterheim, The Shire Eco Lodge might be one of my favourite places in the world. Each of the four self-catering cabins faces the forest, and are truly unique structures. The spacious open-plan cabins with curved walls feel like something out of The Lord of the Rings, and the only thing interrupting the absolute peace and quiet is the call of the birds and shy Samango monkeys. A short walk takes you into the forest where you can hike to your heart’s content, before retiring back to the cabin for a rejuvenating outdoor shower. Despite being five hours from Durban, this was my second visit and it won’t be my last!
Daneswold Cottage, Hogsback
High up in the Amatole mountains, Hogsback village was the one town where we felt we were no longer in the middle of nowhere – the town is packed with things to do and places to stay, as well as numerous restaurants and cafés. We stayed at Daneswold Cottage, an upmarket cottage with a panoramic view of the mountains and the valley below. The cottage was fully equipped for anything we might need during our stay, and just a short drive from the main town. We spent a magical day hiking through the Hogsback forest to the Madonna & Child waterfalls, before heading into town for a well-earned burger and beer at The Lighthouse Ranch. Butterfly’s Bistro, The Edge and Happy Hogs also come highly recommended!
Swallow’s Nest Chalet, Rhodes
Rhodes is the one place you might need a 4x4 to get to (and to leave), as it’s surrounded by mountain passes and often gets snow in winter. It’s also stunningly beautiful, set as it is in between mountain peaks. Unlike Hogsback, Rhodes is largely a farming community, and this is not a place where you can run to the store (there isn’t one) or pop out for petrol (the closest garage is Mount Fletcher). Travelling through Barkly Pass on the way to Rhodes was one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful drives, and as if that isn’t enough, the way out of Rhodes takes you through Naudé’s Nek, the highest mountain pass in the country. We stayed at Swallow’s Nest self-catering chalet just outside of the main town, overlooking the Bell River valley, and spent our days hiking the high-altitude trails below Ben MacDhui peak.
I could spend all day waxing lyrical about the Eastern Cape highlands, but it’s really best if you go see for yourself. If the fresh country air of mountainous forests where time seems to stand still appeals, take time to go on an adventure in the great outdoors. Just remember to pack your own plunger and top quality coffee (see our piece on outdoor coffee for some tips!), and I can promise you won’t soon want to leave.