The Amathole district encompasses the Amathole Mountain Escape, Frontier Country, Friendly N6, Sunshine Coast, Wild Coast and Gateway City tourist routes. These routes together cover most of the central Eastern Cape. Amathole means ‘the calves of the Drakensberg’ in isiXhosa. It is a region rich in splendid beauty and history.
There are incredibly varied landscapes, from mountains and forests to beaches, rivers and estuaries. Its dense forests of ancient indigenous trees are a haven for the endangered Cape parrot. The Albany thickets are also a distinct biome that is home to many endemic species.
Hogsback is the heart of the Amathole Mountain Escape, which stretches west to east from Adelaide to Stutterheim, through Katberg and Cathcart to the north of King Williams Town. The University of Fort Hare is situated in nearby Alice and is the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and many other notable South African leaders. Settlements in the region range from rural villages, township areas and settler towns, to large cities such as Port Elizabeth (Sunshine Coast) and East London (Gateway). The Amathole District’s 350 local heritage sites attest to the importance of this area as the meeting point of Khoi-San, amaXhosa, Boer and British cultures.
The Eastern Cape was originally the home of the San (or Bushman) people, who left their mark in the form of cave and rock art, before being displaced and assimilated by the pastoral Khoikhoi. Then, roughly 2 000 years ago, Nguni-speaking people moved to the area, assimilating some of the Khoi-San. The distinctive clicks of the Khoikhoi and San languages now distinguish isiXhosa from other Nguni languages. The Eastern Cape is now seen as the traditional home of the amaXhosa. The legacy of the Khoi-San lingers on in the Kieskamma, Kei and Tsitsikamma areas.
Jan van Riebeeck started his ‘service station’ at the Cape in 1652, from whence the Dutch settlers, or ‘Trekboers’, moved into the interior. Graaff-Reinet was initially a Trekboer settlement and was the first town in the Eastern Cape. Its magisterial district was proclaimed in 1786 and its magistrate’s court, the Drostdy (now a hotel), is the oldest building in the province.
Frontier Country is named for the 9 frontier wars that the Xhosa nation fought against the colonial forces between 1779 and 1878. Britain gained control of the Cape Colony in the early 19th century, and 4 000 British settlers landed at Algoa Bay in 1820. After finding that the Zuurveld on which they were settled was unsuitable for farming, many moved to Grahamstown, Salem and Bathhurst and pursued their old trades. They brought with them their religion and architecture. Pineapples, chicory, maize, dairy, beef, sheep and ostrich farming did prove successful in the long-term.
The death knell of the amaXhosa resistance of British expansion was unusual and tragic. The amaXhosa decimated their crops and cattle in accordance with the visions of a young woman called Nongqawuse, who promised the ancestors’ assistance in driving the British back into the sea. Instead it caused a famine which left the amaXhosa economically and militarily crippled.
Nongqawuse is buried just outside Alexandria. The pool in which she saw her vision is said to be near the Trennery's Hotel on the southern Wild Coast.
The Amathole district is also rich in sites of prehistoric importance. It was once home to the ‘Blinkwater Monster’, the colloquial name for the first fossilised dinosaur remains discovered in South Africa, near Fort Beaufort. The area also has a number of Early, Middle and Late Stone Age sites which indicate settlements of up to a million years old. Shell middens on the coast are often attributed to the Late Stone Age San ‘Strandlopers’ (Afrikaans: ‘beach walkers’).
Generally, the region’s weather is moderate, but its differing sea levels and rainfall areas make for variable weather conditions. In winter it often snows in the higher reaches, and in late summer temperatures may soar up into the 40s (Celsius). Visitors will enjoy the beautifully crisp, clean air due to the lack of heavy industry in much of the region.
Look out for
Game viewing: Frontier Country is one of the most diverse ecological regions in South Africa and has successfully converted around 80% of its farmland back into game farms. It’s malaria-free and is fast gaining popularity for its first-rate game viewing. Prime sites are the Greater Addo Elephant Park and the Shamwari Game Reserve (halfway between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown). The latter hosts Kaya Lendaba, a traditional healing village. The Great Fish River Reserve is between Grahamstown, Fort Beaufort and the Kieskama River. There are also numerous private game reserves.
Fort Fordyce Nature Reserve between Fort Beaufort and Adelaide affords visitors beautiful views of the Hogsback and Katberg Mountains. It offers excellent game viewing and birdwatching, horse riding, hiking, bass fishing, mountain climbing and rustic accommodation. There is also rock art at the nearby Mpofu Nature Reserve.
Hiking: The Amathole Hiking Trail is a strenuous 6-day hike through the indigenous forest of the Amathole Mountains. The Alexandria Trail winds through the Woody Cape Nature Reserve and involves some gruelling dune walking in one of largest moving dune fields in the world. Port Elizabeth’s Sacramento Trail follows a series of ancient shipwrecks.
Adventure activities include mountain biking, abseiling, rock climbing, kayaking, fly-fishing, 4x4 trails and camping. Fraser's Camp Adventures offer the first zipline tours in Frontier Country, over a forested gorge on the edge of the Fish River Valley.
Alicedale’s 18-hole championship Bushman Sands Golf Course and Port Alfred’s Fish River Sun Country Club were designed by the South African golf champion, Gary Player.
Museums – San, Khoi, Xhosa, Trekboer and Settler attire and history, and important prehistoric finds are displayed at the Albany Museums Complex in Grahamstown and the East London Museum. Fort Beaufort has an excellent museum at Keiskammahoek. King Williams Town, where Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko is buried, also boasts the renowned Amathole Museum.
The district’s 4 heritage routes, named after Xhosa kings and heroes: Sandile, Maqoma, Phalo and Makana, encompass 350 local heritage sites. These include forts, mission stations, and graves of prophets, Xhosa kings and struggle heroes. There are numerous monuments and forts relating to the Anglo-Boer War which broke out in October 1899.
Explore Bedford’s arts and craft galleries and look out for its wonderful annual Garden Festival. Bathurst is also pleasant to visit on route to Port-Alfred. It has interesting historical sites, arts and craft galleries, and enjoyable restaurants. Enjoy Cathcart’s impressive San rock art, as well as its excellent fishing, hiking, horse riding and birdwatching. The University of Fort Hare in Alice has a celebrated African art collection.
East London's fossilised footprints in the Bats Cave on the Nahoon bluff corner are roughly 200 000 years old and are visible in the cave and at the East London Museum.