Nature’s beauty at its best

Why I’ll stick my neck out that Eastern Cape has it all


“How is this province so beautiful and yet under-explored?” I wonder to myself while taking in the magnificence of THE world-renowned Shamwari Game Reserve through the dining hall window.
Every part of me is eager to have the water from its sky-blue pool and all its purity touch my skin. But it’s freezing cold, so I continue to peer out while sipping on a welcome cup of chai tea and cuddling the warmest thing I can lay my hands on, my denim jacket.
We are exploring the Eastern Cape again and, at risk of sounding like a broken record, I keep rattling on about the beauty of my province in the hope my travel companions - fellow media representatives and tourism industry representatives – will pardon my ignorance over the next four days on the road.
Regardless of our prayers for warm weather, Mother Nature will not deliver, relentlessly sending the drizzle our way again.
Rain is our constant companion for the next few days – and the parched land welcomes it.
I daydream of the day I’ll get another chance to visit this award-winning five-star reserve on a sunnier day.
But my dream is cut short . . . only because it’s time to nibble on the day’s lunch menu before heading out for an afternoon game drive.
Given our ranger Jessica Tyrer’s excitement and enthusiasm for the reserve, and its incredible biodiversity, I can’t help but feel guilty about burying myself in a blanket for most of the drive, only to resurface when I hear rumblings that an animal has been spotted.
Secretly I find comfort in learning that, like myself, even wild animals are not fond of dancing in the rain.
It takes us quite long to spot some dazzling of zebras , some warthogs and a herd of springbok elsewhere.
Mother Nature does grant us a breather long enough for us to take in a hungry cheetah eyeing out some nearby warthogs for its next meal.
We watch as is wanders from pillar to post, hoping to catch them by surprise. At this moment I’m not sure whose side I’m on. I mean, no one deserves to die of hunger but also, no one wants to be gobbled up for lunch.
A flock of birds moves restlessly above the area between the hunter and its prey, warning the warthogs of the danger approaching.
Guess who has just been denied a meal. We are running a little behind schedule for our dinner and overnight stay to follow at Mpekweni Beach Resort – and so we end our two-hour game drive at the internationally acclaimed reserve of some 25,000ha..
Sadly, we leave not having experienced the reserve’s six luxury lodges and explorer camp.
The drive past Grahamstown towards Port Alfred is a quiet one, with everyone deep in thought for much of the way until we reach tranquil Mpekweni, some kilometres away from the town.
Having spent the previous night overlooking the beach from my suite at the Boardwalk hotel, I was left believing the sound of the ocean in your ears was indeed the perfect way to go to sleep and wake up.
I would discover that Mpekweni, given its location, also embodies something quite beyond perfection. (Read more about the Mpekweni Beach Resort next Saturday.)
It’s the third day of our road trip and, although we are met by a sewage stench at the gate of the Steve Biko Centre in King William’s Town, we arrive refreshed and ready for knowledge consumption of one of SA’s most respected apartheid struggle icons.
This particular visit proves heavy on the heart and more emotionally draining than our earlier stop at the icon’s grave site.
Within its walls, the seven year-old Steve Biko Centre is home to a museum with an A-Z life story of the icon, a library, amphitheatre, conference centre and restaurant.
At this museum we learn all there is to learn about Biko.
We explore a vivid map of Biko’s life from his childhood, involvement in politics, his revolutionary spirit, to the day he took his last breath, his funeral and his legacy.
I discover that the four walls of the museum reflect more about this struggle hero than is probably generally known about the man among ordinary South Africans.
“He deserves a lot more respect than the sewage leaking at the gate of his resting place, where his spirit lives on,” I think to myself.
I am, however consoled by the fact that the centre continues to uphold Biko’s values and passions with its entrepreneurial workshops and programmes aimed at empowering the community with knowledge by encouraging reading.
As the guide takes us through the tragic tale of Biko’s treatment at the hands of apartheid law enforcers, I can feel the mood shift in the room as we each stare at the evidence: a lengthy list of revolutionaries who died at the hands of police on one wall, pictures of thousands of mourners at Biko’s funeral on another.
The sofa he used to sit on outside to watch people roam the streets as they pleased (to a limit) – something he was once denied doing as punishment for breaking the rules of his oppressors. Burdened as we are by our discoveries, and stripped off the bliss of our ignorance, we move on: There is a lot more to explore in Biko’s home town and beyond.
After an extremely filling, tshisa nyama-style lunch at Man’s Buy and Braai Butchery in Victoria Street, we direct our bellies towards Panorama Drive for a site visit of the three-star guest house named after the street.
An assortment of single and family bedrooms, the homely establishment belongs to Amanda Croucamp whose bubbly, warm and welcoming personality would easily win over any guest’s heart.
Here, the friendly owner takes us trough five of the former family home’s squeaky clean rooms.
She has been operating her establishment for three years and has already won a national service excellence Lilizela award in 2018, she lets us know.
When she insists we sip on a cup of coffee or cold drink despite our filling lunch at Man’s, I see why the accolade heaped upon the place.
Next we’re headed to Areena Riverside Resort, 23km east of East London on the banks of the Kwelera river, where we go on to spend the night.
Still drenched in mother nature’s unsolicited rain, we are therefore unable to take part in any of the resort’s outdoor adventure activities for which it has won awards.
From quad biking, canoeing and abseiling to Segways and paintball, Areena is renowned for its adventure activities, camping and events such as weddings, children’s parties, corporate team-building and conferences.
Some of my companions narrate their struggles of trying to fit into the showers over breakfast, and in truth luxury, pay-through-your-nose accommodation is not what this long-time favourite family spot is about.
Areena, instead, is a place to escape the hubbub and catch up with yourself.
Return to understanding of indigenous African religion
Hidden away in a village outside the small town of Dutywa near Mthatha is the Icamagu Institute “headquarters”, where founder and former UCT African religion lecturer Dr Nokuzola Mndende lives and teaches about African indigenous religion, spirituality and the Xhosa culture.
On our way in, our group is startled by a banner that proclaims: “Likhaya lesintu eli. Ukuba uze ne bhayibhile ungumngcatshi (This is a traditional home. If you come bearing a bible, you are a traitor).”
The banner is one of the first points of discussion after Mndende welcomes us.One of her goals is to decolonise African indigenous religion and practise without Christian influence. The banner is meant to turn away Christians who come with the intention to convert her to Christianity, she says.
To simplify the complex, Mndende and the Icamagu Institute believe Africans deserve the freedom to practise their own religion as they did before Africa was colonised, and want their indigenous religion to be recognised in all spheres.
The institute is a tourist destination which has seen local and international visitors of different races and religions flock to learn about the Xhosa culture and Mndende’s beliefs.
As those tourists today, we learn that the organisation was founded in 1998 while Mndende taught religious studies at UCT.
The academic wrote a paper on Imbeleko – an African ritual performed to introduce a new-born baby into the family and to the family’s ancestors – to introduce “real” African religion, independent of Christianity at UCT and see it taught in schools in Cape Town.
She believes that institution’s religious studies misrepresented true African religion.
“When they spoke of African religion, they spoke of mainstream Christian churches that are dominated by Africans.”
Mndende had found religious studies did not represent Africans in their African religion syllabus. As a result, she says, Africans, especially pupils, do not know enough about their culture and religion and are often embarrassed by it because it is widely considered heathenism.
In another rondavel, Mndende is slowly establishing a museum where she exhibits Xhosa traditional material such as Ingobozi (a traditional handwoven basket), Impepho (traditional incense), traditional healer attire and accessories and Iqubu (a Xhosa drum).
Here we learn that in the Xhosa culture men sit on the left site of the hut while women sit on the right, and the seating arrangement follows a hierarchy with the most powerful and eldest men and their wives closer to the door.
My memory flashes back to my childhood in my grandmother’s home, our family homestead in the rural Eastern Cape where I was the youngest child for a very long time. There, I was never allowed to be seated closest to the door on the bench while older siblings and cousins sat higher up. On a table further up, books on African indigenous religion and culture produced by the institute are on display.
In the garden outside she nurtures vegetables, indigenous trees and herbal medicines.
As broad and somewhat controversial as the organisation may be, I walk away with a renewed pride in being Xhosa and an urge to learn more about my culture.
The media tour was arranged by the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency to for participants to experience some of the province’s tourism establishments that have recently won national Lilizela awards.
See Weekend Post next Saturday for more of Zamandulo Malonde’s explorations of the Eastern Cape...

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