Coastal Cities in the Sun

Staff Writer

With a coastline that is almost 3,000km long, it’s to be expected that much of South Africa’s human settlement will be along the coast. Because of this many of the country’s largest cities are located on the coast and receive millions of visitors from all over the world and the country each year.

During December and January, when most South Africans take their annual summer break and many people from the northern hemisphere flee the cold of their winter, these cities in the sun are usually packed to capacity with holidaymakers. We took a closer look at these cities from Cape Town in the west, to the Southern Cape conglomeration of Mossel Bay and George, on to the Eastern Cape cities of Port Elizabeth and East London, and finally to Durban on the north-eastern coast.

However, between these coastal centres there is a constant continuation of towns, villages and resorts and therefore much more to enjoy, with perhaps the exception of parts of the West Coast and the Eastern Cape. But there is still ample beautiful, mostly unspoilt natural scenery left to be enjoyed in between these built-up areas.

South Africa’s coastline also undergoes dramatic changes as you travel from the mostly flat and barren, semi-desert regions of the northern West Coast along the icy Atlantic Ocean; to the tranquillity of the southern West Coast which reminds one of the Greek islands at times; around the stunning and dramatic mountain-and-sea scenery of the Cape Peninsula; along the Southern Cape’s world-famous Garden Route with its lakes, forests, mountains and endless beaches; up along the Eastern Cape coast passing through the breathtakingly beautiful and unspoilt Wild Coast; and finally up along the north-eastern coast of KwaZulu-Natal where the scenery and the climate changes to being almost sub-tropical.

Again with the exception of parts of the West Coast and Eastern Cape Wild Coast, there are roads that hug almost the entire coastline which can therefore easily be accessed by car. As for the West Coast and Wild Coast, good inland highways pass by not far from the coast, and at various points excellent access roads lead from these down to towns and places of interest on the coast. And all of the major coastal centres have large airports, a number of them designated as international.

Cape Town

The Mother City of South Africa of course needs no introduction for people the world over… everybody has heard of Cape Town and many have visited her. In terms of tourism numbers, popularity, diverse attractions and the many awards this city has won, Cape Town can be considered South Africa’s premier tourism city. It is also South Africa’s oldest city following the beginning of the colonisation of South Africa in 1652. Today Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa where the houses of Parliament are situated. Cape Town is the second most populous city in South Africa behind Johannesburg with an estimated population of 4.52 million according to current UN projections (the 2011 census put it at 3.74 million.)

Cape Town sprawls across what is known as the Cape Peninsula, stretching from its southern tip at Cape Point – where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are said to meet – around the False Bay coastline to Strand and Somerset West, up along the western coast to Hout Bay, Sea Point, Table Mountain and the city centre, across the flat and sandy Cape Flats to the Northern and Southern Suburbs, and around the Table Bay coast up to the beginning of the West Coast at Melkbosstrand. Its southern and eastern regions hug the warm Indian Ocean, while its western and northern parts are cooled off by the breezes coming off the cold Atlantic Ocean. Of course, dominating over it all is the majestic hulk of Table Mountain flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head.

Some of Cape Town’s most popular and world-famous attractions include:

  • Table Mountain, which rises up behind the city centre and is itself the focal point of a national park that stretches from Cape Point to the city centre.
  • Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other ANC and other political leaders were once incarcerated.
  • The Cape Winelands, with historical wine estates dotted around the valleys and mountains of Somerset West, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Durbanville, Paarl and other parts, and many still with their original Cape Dutch homesteads. The world-famous Constantia wine estate is in the heart of the city’s Southern Suburbs.
  • Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, set along the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, and one of ten National Botanical Gardens covering five of South Africa’s six different biomes and administered by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
  • The Castle of Good Hope, the oldest existing building in South Africa built by the Dutch East India Company between 1666 and 1679 when it replaced an older fort called the Fort de Goede Hoop which was constructed from clay and timber and built by Jan van Riebeeck upon his arrival at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. The Castle, as it is commonly known, today houses three museums, some military offices and barracks, all of the original structures and buildings, and a restaurant. Daily guided tours are conducted through this fascinating and historical complex.
  • World-famous beaches, of which Cape Town has many, from the warm water of the Indian Ocean at Muizenberg, St James, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek, Simon’s Town, Strandfontein, Monwabisi, Macassar, Strand and Gordon’s Bay, to the colder waters of Atlantic beaches such as Scarborough, Kommetjie, Houtbay, Llandudno, Bakoven, Camps Bay, Clifton, Bantry Bay, Sea Point, Lagoon Beach, Milnerton, Table View, Blouberg, Big Bay and up to Melkbosstrand.
  • Chapman’s Peak, one of the most breath-taking, scenic drives to be found anywhere in the world, the toll-road drive starts in Hout Bay, rising sharply and hugging the cliffs high above the Atlantic with sweeping views and numerous lookout points and with engineering features offering protection against rocks that may become dislodged higher up, and ends where it descends down to the beaches and villages of Noordhoek and Kommetjie.
  • V&A Waterfront, the bustling older but still working harbour of Cape Town that has been turned into a shopper’s paradise and entertainment hub with malls, shops, pubs, restaurants, markets, museums, the Two Oceans Aquarium, and much more.
  • Townships, like Gugulethu, Nyanga, Langa and Khayelitsha with their markets, arts and crafts centres, taverns, shisa nyama eateries and guided tours.

Cape Town and surrounding suburbs and areas are also home to many restaurants, theatres, cinemas, pubs, coffee bars, bistros, night clubs, niche boutiques, museums, historical sites, guided city tours, parks, hikes, harbour cruises, various sports activities and some of the largest shopping malls in the southern hemisphere.

Mossel Bay & George

Until about two decades ago the towns of the Southern Cape – Mossel Bay, Hartenbos, Great Brak River, Blanco, George, Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna were distinct towns or villages separated by many kilometres of farmland. Today they form almost one continuous sprawl of coastal built-up area dominated by the town of Mossel Bay and the city of George, with the ever expanding Knysna on the eastern flank.

Mossel Bay is, in various ways, South Africa’s ‘oldest’ town. Within the caves along the cliffs of the town’s southern shoreline, its human inhabitants’ history can be traced back more than 164,000 years. But it is also the place where the first European explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, went ashore with his men on 3 February 1488, at a point close to the site of the modern-day Dias Museum Complex. They were the first Europeans to make contact here with the indigenous Khoisan people who gave them a not-so-friendly reception.

In 1501, another Portuguese navigator, Pedro d’Ataide, sought shelter in Mossel Bay after losing much of his fleet in a storm and left an account of the disaster hidden in an old shoe which he suspended from a milkwood tree near the spring from which Dias had drawn his water. The report was later found by the passing explorer to whom it was addressed — João da Nova — and thereafter the tree served as a sort of post office for decades. The Post Office Tree, as it became known, still stands within the grounds of the Dias Museum Complex, with a modern post box where letters that are posted here receive a special stamp.

Today Mossel Bay is a bustling harbour town with large commercial and industrial sectors and serves as the main centre of the gas exploration and extraction industry. It also still serves a large agricultural community and is one of South Africa’s premier holiday destinations. During the summer holiday months of December and January its population of approximately 130,000 people almost doubles.

Among its many wonderful attractions are the Cape St Blaize cave and lighthouse, the Pinnacle Point Caves where archaeological finds show this is where modern human behaviour first originated, the Dias Museum Complex with an exact replica of Dias’ ship, fine cave rock art, the Garden Route Casino at Pinnacle Point, boat tours around Seal Island, shark cage diving, deep-sea fishing, scuba and snorkel diving, sailing, excellent surfing, various museums, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, shopping and much more.

And of course there are the beaches, from the natural rock-protected tidal pools at The Poort (also known as the Point), to the intimate little Munro’s Bay beach next to the yacht club and museum complex, the tranquil safe waters of Santos Beach, to the body surfing beach at De Bakke, and on to Diaz Beach, Bayside, the resort of Hartenbos, Little Brak River and further afield.

The city of George, established in 1776 by the Dutch East India Company as an outpost for the provision of timber from the vast Southern Cape forests that were found here, is the sixth largest town in South Africa and third largest town in the Western Cape province by population. It is a popular holiday and conference centre, the administrative and commercial hub of the region, and considered to be the capital city of the Garden Route. Together George and Mossel Bay are situated roughly halfway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The former township of Pacaltsdorp, once the kraal of a local Khoekhoen chief and now a fully incorporated suburb, lies to the south of George.

George was first settled by woodcutters when the timber industry flourished here. In 1911 Bishop Sidwell, the First Bishop of George, was enthroned, giving George its status as Cathedral City. The building of the Montagu Pass, which started in 1844, connected the town to the interior. The pass was later supplemented by a railway line built over the Outeniqua Mountain which separates the town from the interior.

There are a number of gold courses and golf estates in and around George, all designed by world-famous golfers like Gary Player and Ernie Els, of which the best-known is probably Fancourt. George also gives visitors access to a number of excellent hikes in the mountains and forests and along the coast. While the town itself is set back some distance from the sea, satellite resort villages like Herald’s Bay, Victoria Bay and The Wilderness are excellent for swimming, surfing and angling and have camping and lodge and hotel facilities.

George has many historical sites and interesting attractions like the Slave Tree in York Street, the old Toll House, several churches, the old Drostdy now housing the museum, a transport museum, and much more. Outdoor activities to be enjoyed in and around George include abseiling, canyoning, caving at Oudtshoorn’s Cango Caves, sandboarding, surfing, diving, deep-sea fishing, paragliding, quad biking, 4X4 trails, and mountain biking. George also lies at the start of the Lakes District that comprises several interconnected lakes all the way to the Knysna Lagoon.

Port Elizabeth

The harbour city of Port Elizabeth, together with Uitenhage, Despatch and Colchester make up the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. It is the largest city in the Eastern Cape with a population of more than 1.3 million people, is a major seaport and is the southernmost large city on the African continent.

The city was founded in the early 19th century by the Dutch government of the Cape Colony. In 1820, by then under British rule, some 4,000 British colonists were settled here in order to strengthen the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa region which at the time was a point of conflict and the scene of several frontier wars. Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin, the Acting Governor of the Cape Colony, named the small frontier town Port Elizabeth after his late wife in 1820.

Today the city is major transport, commercial and industrial hub as well as a favourite holiday destination for thousands of South Africans each year and a large number of visitors from overseas. There are two major harbours here; the old main port of the city and the newer deep-water port of Coega some 20 kilometres north of the city.

The city is also a gateway to the scenic Eastern Cape province to its east and the world-renowned Garden Route to the west, and it is sometimes referred to as the “friendly city” or the “water sport capital of Africa”. Nelson Mandela Bay is also recognised as both the Mohair and Bottelnose Dolphin Capital of the World and is home to the largest breeding colony of the African Penguin. It boasts no less than 5 biomes within its city limits.

Port Elizabeth or the greater Nelson Mandela Bay Metro is the only city that can also boast the Big 7 (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard, southern right whale and great white shark) within its municipal boundaries, all within 45 minutes of the city centre. The city is also the gateway to more than a million hectares of malaria-free game reserves of the Eastern Cape, including the famous Addo Elephant National Park as well as numerous private reserves, all offering the ‘big five” experience.

Situated along the warm Indian Ocean, along its  more than 40Km of coastline the city boasts a multitude of beaches, including many Blue Flag beaches. Some of the better-known beaches are  Hobie Beach, Summerstrand, Humewood, Bluewater Beach, Noordhoek and Sardinia Bay Beach. A short distance away are also Marina Martinique, as well as Jeffreys Bay and Cape St Francis, both popular holiday resort towns and world-renowned surfing sites.

With its warm, dry summers and mild winter temperatures this beautiful stretch of coastline boasts a perfect combination of warm water, protected beaches and invigorating sea breezes. It is a true water sports paradise and is home to some of the best sailing conditions, first-rate scuba diving with colourful coral species, beautiful reefs and shipwrecks, near perfect conditions for windsurfing, angling, snorkelling, kitesurfing, fly-fishing and canoeing, and of course surfing. Boat operators offer trips to experience the seals, whales, dolphins and even ragged-tooth sharks of the area.

Visitors are also drawn by the city’s many fine remaining examples of its early architecture, from  the Victorian styles, to art nouveau, art deco and later additions. The biggest number of art deco buildings in South Africa is to be found in the city centre of Port Elizabeth! Other attractions include the Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment Complex in Summerstrand, cinema complexes, numerous sophisticated shopping malls, restaurants to suit any palate, a vibrant nightlife as well as annual and seasonal festivals and events. A selection of exciting social, historical and traditional township tours are also offered.

Apart from being the gateway to the the Western Region of the Eastern Cape province, Port Elizabeth also gives access to the Sunshine Coast, Frontier Country, Sundays River Valley, Kouga, Tsitsikamma Forest, Garden Route as well as the Karoo Heartland Routes and Route 62.

  • For more information: Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism tel +27 (0) 41 582 2575 or +27 (0) 41 582 2573, email info@nmbt.co.za or website nmbt.co.za.

East London

From Port Elizabeth, take the R72 coastal highway north to East London, our fourth coastal ‘city in the sun’, the second biggest city of the Eastern Cape, and the gateway to the fabulous Wild Coast. East London together with Mdantsane, Bisho and King William’s Town, make up the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality. Like its neighbour, Port Elizabeth, one of the biggest industrial employers here is the automotive industry. As of the 2011 census, East London had a population of over 267,000 with over 755,000 people in the greater metropolitan area.

An 1820 British Settler, John Bailie, surveyed the Buffalo River mouth and founded the town in 1836, naming it Port Rex. As it expanded around its harbour, it was later renamed London in honour of the capital city of Great Britain, hence the name East London. The city expanded around its harbour on the Buffalo River, which is South Africa’s only river port and the seventh largest harbour in the country. The port is also home to one of South Africa’s largest grain elevators. Major exports here are cars, grain and wool.

The city with its fort, Fort Glamorgan which was built on the West Bank in 1847 as one of a series of frontier forts, played an important role in the frontier wars with the Xhosa. East London served as a supply port to service the military headquarters at nearby King William’s Town, about 50 kilometres away.

Today East London is a pulsating city and popular destination for tourists and holidaymakers. The city is home to several museums, including the Steve Biko Centre and the Calgary Transport Museum, and also boasts some fine art galleries and an aquarium. The city is also well-known for the older architectural examples from the colonial era that have been preserved, among them the Cuthberts Building, Fort Murray, the headquarters of the Buffalo Volunteer Rifles, the Lock Street Jail, the City Hall on Oxford Street, and more.

There are a number of game and nature reserves close to the city while the Bridle Drift Dam is popular with water sports enthusiasts. East London is also a city of rivers, with most of the city falling between the Buffalo River on the southwestern side, and the Gonubie River on the north-eastern side, with the Nahoon River slicing through the centre. Sought-after residential areas line the rivers, which are also popular for water sports and the camping and picnic sites on their banks. The river mouths of the the Gonubie and Nahoon Rivers are also home to popular beaches.

Like the other coastal cities, East London is renowned for its superb beaches. These include the Orient Beach next to the harbour, the seaside area along the Esplanade Street, Beacon Bay East Beach, Nahoon Beach, Bonza Bay Beach, Gonubie Beach, Yellow Sands, Kidds Beach, Glen Eden, Areena, Queensbury Bay, Cintsa West and Cintsa East. Other attractions include East London Zoo, several excellent golf course, Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve, Mpongo Private Game Reserve, the Hemmingways Casino, and Buffalo Park Stadium where major sporting and entertainment events are staged.

  • For more information: Buffalo City Tourism tel +27 (0)43 705 3556 or +27 (0)43 721 1007, email info@buffalocitytourism.co.za or website www.buffalocitytourism.co.za.

Durban

Finally, our tour of major coastal cities ends in Durban on the north-eastern Indian Ocean shore of South Africa. The climate here is sub-tropical, which makes it extremely popular with holidaymakers from all over. Durban is also home to South Africa’s busiest port and the fourth largest container terminal in the southern hemisphere. Falling within the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, it is the country’s third largest city.

Durban was established in 1824 as a trading post called Port Natal on the northern shores of the bay near today’s Farewell Square and was soon expanded on land granted by the Zulu King Shaka to its founders, Lt. Francis George Farewell, an ex-Royal Navy officer from the Napoleonic Wars and a trader named Henry Francis Fynn. Fynn had successfully treated King Shaka’s stab wound he received in an assassination attempt. The settlement soon expanded around its natural harbour with a British military garrison and fort also being established.

 While the rest of the country shivers in the grip of winter, Durban and the surrounding coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal is the one place in South Africa where summer never ends, and neither does the action. Amon the major sports events staged here during the winter months is the famous Comrades Marathon run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg every year since 1921 except during WWII, as well as South Africa’s premier horse race, the Vodacom Durban July Handicap, run on the first Saturday of July every year since 1897 at the Greyville Racecourse.

For movie buffs the city also annually hosts the Durban International Film Festival, probably the biggest film event in South Africa that brings together around 400 filmmakers from around Africa and the world. Then there’s the famous Sardine Run, the mass migration of millions of tiny sardines being pursued by large predators like whales, sharks and dolphins, as well as birds and humans up along the coast. It has become so popular that many tour operators now offer a variety of Sardine Run tours and diving excursions so you can watch them from within the water.

Durban is also a city of markets and a visit to the city’s market area around Warwick Junction, the city’s main public transport hub where trains, buses and taxis, and about half a million commuters, converge every day, is a must. Between 5,000 and 8,000 vendors trade here in 9 different markets and the area is home to what probably is one of the biggest, most varied and most authentic African markets anywhere in Southern Africa.

These markets include the famous Victoria Street Market, also known as the Indian Market, with its curries and spices; the Zulu Muti Market where traditional healers – inyangas or herbalists, and sangomas or diviners – prepare and display their medicines, herbal powders and other wares; the 100-years old vegetable and fruit market known as the Early Morning Market; the Berea train station’s maze of stalls and shops housing both formal and informal traders; and other markets in the area such as an African bead market, lime and impepho (incense) market, cow’s head meat market, the Brook Street crafts and clothing market, the meat and fish market, and the Music Bridge market. With Durban having the largest Indian community outside of India, in the city you will find numerous Indian eateries offering curry dishes in a variety of styles, mostly very, very hot. A favourite with locals however is the Durban’s famous ‘bunny chows’ – a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry.

Given the city’s fascinating history, it is only natural that the city offers a number of wonderful heritage routes and cultural attractions. Some of the historical landmarks right in the city centre include the first and second city halls, the old court house, and the impressive Emmanuel Cathedral which gave Durban its city status. The cathedral was built partially with a donation from Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III. On an island between Dr AB Xuma Road and Monty Naicker Street in downtown Durban you’ll also find the famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or rather his bronze bust. Few people are probably aware that Pessoa, one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language who is also often described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century, grew up and schooled in Durban between 1895 and 1905.

A couple of street blocks away from Pessoa’s bust, on Margeret Mncadi Avenue, previously the Victoria Embankment, you’ll find the statue of Dick King and his legendary horse. In 1842 they made an epic journey, racing 960km in just 10 days to Grahamstown, fording 120 rivers along the way, to fetch military help for the British garrison in Durban that was besieged by Boer forces.

Travelling out of the central city going north, your reach the sprawling KwaMashu township, the Inanda Valley and the Phoenix Settlement. Here the Inanda Heritage Route starts,  and it’s said that in Inanda, there is “more history per square kilometre than anywhere else in South Africa”. The route will lead you to the house and offices that were once home to Mahatma Gandhi in the Phoenix Settlement. There are some truly fascinating exhibitions to be seen here. It was here that Gandhi first developed his philosophy of passive resistance against injustice, a philosophy that was applied by the people of both South Africa and India in their struggles for freedom.

From Phoenix the road takes one up the hill to Ohlange where John Dube, founding president of the ANC that governs South Africa today, acquired a piece of land and built a school for his community not far from where he was born on the Inanda Mission Station in 1871. The school, the Zulu Christian Industrial School, later known as the Ohlange Institute, was the first black African-owned and run educational institution in South Africa. Dube’s first house also still stands here, while the graves of Dube, his wife and a number of his children are here too…now a national monument.

In 1994 in South Africa’s first democratic elections Nelson Mandela chose the Dr JL Dube Interpretation Centre housed on the school premises as the place where he cast his vote for the first time in a fully free, democratic South Africa.

There’s much else to do in Durban, such as spending time on its famous beaches that include the beach at uShaka Pier, Addington Beach, South Beach, North Beach, Snake Park Beach, Battrery Beach, Blue Lagoon Beach, the beaches around Umhlanga, the Bluff and Amanzimtoti, to name but a few.

Or you  can attend a soccer match or other sporting event at the Moses Mabhida Stadium – or do the bungee jump from the arch over its top – or visit a Zulu cultural village and watch some foot stomping Zulu warriors do their powerful battle dance. There are restaurants, pubs and clubs aplenty along Florida Road. Or you can visit the fabulous uShaka Marine World with its dolphin shows and massive aquarium.