Encounter the Eastern Cape Travel Mailer – December 2023


It’s summer time and the December school holidays are here as well. Everybody is (hopefully) busy and making hay while the sun shines. Spring is in the air and the fields are full of flowers. But why not take a break, enjoy a coffee and read read a little bit about our beautiful province?

Welcome to the December 2023 issue of Firefly the Travel Guy’s Encounter the Eastern Cape Travel Mailer.

This month we look at the following:

  • Wander along the historic Storms River Pass

  • Learn about the Sand River and Oyster Bay Dune Bypass System

  • Why is an Arctic explorer buried in the Karoo?

  • Ever wondered why there are cattle on the Wild Coast’s beaches

  • Who was Prester John and why is there a monument to him in PE?

If there is something that you would like to see featured in our monthly travel mailer or have any suggestions, please drop us an email at jonker@fireflyafrica.co.za

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History of Storms River Pass

Walking along the historic Storms River Pass Road

Until the 1870s, the only way linking the now Western Cape with the now Eastern Cape was through the Langkloof due to impregnable forests and impassible gorges along the coast.

The famous pass builder Thomas Bain surveyed the Tsitsikamma (then known as Zitzikama) area in 1879.  He found these impenetrable forests east of Plettenberg Bay with access made even tougher by the deep gorges. During the planning process of building a pass through the Storms River gorge, Bain followed the ancient elephant migratory routes down to the river and as elephants find the easiest way down, decided to build his pass along those routes. Thus construction on the pass along with the Bloukrans Pass and Groot River Pass started.

Convicts provided labour for this difficult task and some of their graves can still be found in the forest on the outskirts of the Village.  The pass itself was completed in 1884 and until the N2 and Storms River Bridge were built in 1955, it was the only way to get through the gorge.  Today the road is closed to traffic and can only be accessed on foot, by bicycle or with one of the accredited adventure activities in the village. In places, you can still see the remains of the ancient elephant trails and stonework done during construction.

Visit the Tsitsikamma

The Sand River and Oyster Bay Dune Field at St Francis

Sand River and Oyster Bay Dune Bypass

The Sand River and Oyster Bay Dune Bypass System is one of the finest examples of a bypass headland dune system in the world. The entire dune system stretches over a distance of 16,8km.

In the dune field, several ancient middens of great archaeological value dating back centuries can be found. Artefacts, bones and other remains are by law to be left undisturbed. Khoisan burial sites at least 2000 years old have also been discovered here.

The Sand River only flows through a short section of the Oyster Bay Dun field. It rises in the farmland north of the dune field and joins the dune field about 3 km upstream from the Sand River Bridge. There is often no visible water flow and even when there is a flow, it is generally more a stream than a river. Thanks to wind and water, the dune field is constantly moving and looks different every time you walk along it. There are pools of water in the slacks between the dunes and although some are more permanent than others, you can’t count on finding a pool where you last saw it – especially if there has been no rain.

There is no specific trails through the dunes, but if you do want to walk it, start at the Sand River bridge. Walk for about 90 minutes to one of the largest middens in the Sand River. From there you will see the highest dune to your right – take time and climb to the top for the most amazing 360º view of the greater St Francis.

Learn more about the area with Krom Enviro-Trust

An Arctic explorer buried in the Karoo

An Artic explorer in Cradock in the Karoo

The Cradock cemetery is probably one of the most interesting ones around. You’ll find gravestones of settlers, frontiersmen, nuns, soldiers who fell in the Anglo-Boer War and even one Harry Potter. Another interesting grave in the cemetery belongs to Reginald Koettlitz. What makes this grave different? The answer can be found in the grave’s inscription.

“An explorer and traveller, surgeon and geologist to Expeditions North Polar and Abyssinia and with Scott to the Antarctic”.

Koettlitz’s first Artic expedition was in 1894 to Franz Josef Land as physician and geologist on the Jackson–Harmsworth expedition. In 1901, Koettlitz volunteered for Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition to Antarctica, as physician and botanist. The story goes that Dr Koettlitz somehow neglected to add enough vitamin C to the polar pioneers’ diet. This was attributed by some critics as having led to the Scott party being in a weakened state before they perished on the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition that followed.

Even though Koettlitz was cleared of wrongdoing, the fallout led to his withdrawal from the world of exploration and moving to rural South Africa in 1905. Here he worked as a country doctor for over a decade, often using a horse or pony-and-trap to call on patients in out-of-the-way places. Not much of a challenge for one who had travelled thousands of miles around the globe, and explored some of its most inhospitable places. He had been deep into the Arctic and, with Captain Scott, the Antarctic, trekked through vast uncharted areas of Africa and, alone, up the Amazon to Manaos.

Reginald Koettlitz died from dysentery on 10 January 1916. Look carefully at the stone and you’ll notice that his French-born wife died on the same day, barely two hours after him.

Visit the Karoo Heartland

Why are there cattle on the Wild Coast beaches?

Cattle on the beach on the Wild Coast

Nobody knows exactly why the Nguni cattle of the Wild Coast enjoy the beach so much. There are several theories though.

Some say that the salt and the sand aid the cattle in ridding themselves of parasites and that ticks and fleas fall off their hosts on the beach. It is an old tradition of Xhosa cattle farmers to ‘dip’ their cattle in the ocean to rid them of ticks although there is no scientific evidence that this method is effective.

Others believe that the cattle are attracted to the salt of the beach, much like they are attracted to a salt lick.  The most convincing argument though is that there are fewer flies on the beach and the cattle move there to avoid them during the day, moving back to the grassy hills to sleep at night. 

Perhaps they just enjoy the Wild Coast beaches as much as the human visitors do.

Prester John Memorial in Port Elizabeth

Prester John Monument in Port Elizabeth

Algoa Bay used to be a refreshment stop en route to the East for passing ships and was first used by Portuguese explorers in the 1400s.  In addition to looking for a way around Africa to the East, they were also hoping to make contact with Prester John as a Christian ally.  

The story of Prester John is a mysterious one.  In some circles he was believed to be a descendant of the Three Wise Men, some believed he was a crusader-era Christian king based in Ethiopia or possibly a high-born Mongol from the time of Genghis Khan.  Then some said that he watched over the Holy Grail, never growing old but wiser and wiser as the years went by.  Whoever this mythical king-priest Prester John was, it was the quest of the Portuguese explorers not just to find a sea route around Africa to the East, but to also find and make contact with Prester John as a Christian ally.

A local philanthropist paid for the monument which was unveiled by the Portuguese Ambassador to South Africa in 1986.  It was erected in the form of a large Coptic cross.  In the centre of the cross sits the two figures of Prester John and a Portuguese explorer. Symbolic devices on the cross depict the Portuguese royal coat-of-arms, a Portuguese sailing ship, navigational sailing instruments of the time, the Coptic cross motif itself, the Lions of Judah and the elephants and rhinos representing the fabulous kingdom itself.

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