Eastern Cape Tourism for the Off-road Traveler

Although this article, Eastern Cape Tourism for the Off-Road Traveller, mainly deals with 4×4 trails in the Eastern Cape, it is one of a series of fifteen that briefly describes the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all South Africa’s provinces, in addition to the countries bordering South Africa.

EC Tourism Contents:

Geography of the Eastern Cape

The second largest province of South Africa with a population of 6.3 million people, the Eastern Cape has the highest annual rainfall over its eastern regions compared to the rest of the province, most of the western region consisting of the semi-arid Karoo, and the far southern Tsitsikamma region being a temperate rainforest region. Much of the province consists of rolling hills to mountainous terrain between Graaff-Reinet and Rhodes, which area includes the Sneeuberge, Stormberge, Winterberge, and parts of the Drakensberg mountain range. Bordered by the warm Indian Ocean, the coast is mostly rugged, with high cliffs interspersed with wide beaches.

From East London towards the Kwa-Zulu Natal border in the east, the eastern parts of the province consist of rich grassland with some scattered coastal forest. The Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, which includes the Wild Coast, is defined by rolling hills and deep gorges along the coastline.

At 3001 metres, Ben Macdhui, a peak in the Drakensberg range, is the highest peak in the Eastern Cape, and situated near the small town of Rhodes.

Climate of the Eastern Cape

Climatic conditions at the coast are windy with high levels of humidity; however, the relative humidity is higher towards the Kwa-Zulu Natal border in the east, but lower towards the Western Cape in the west.

Rainfall decreases progressively towards the interior, as average temperatures increase towards the more arid Karoo region. Summer temperatures vary between 160 C and 270 C during November to April, while winter temperatures vary between 70 C and 200 C between May and August. Weather conditions in the Eastern Cape are seldom extreme. Except during the infrequent heavy snowfalls on the higher mountains, when temperatures drop to below freezing.

Rainfall occurs mostly during the winter months in the west, and during the summer in the east, although the division between the two rainfall areas is not clearly defined. The best time to visit is between September and May.

Scenery of the Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape demands time; time to explore the incredibly diverse landscapes that range from the arid, but stunningly beautiful desolation of the Great Karoo in the north, to the wet, humid coastal forests of the Wild Coast in the south, to the dramatic mountains of the east, and the vast, picture-postcard fruit orchards in the Langkloof to the west.

Although much of the scenery of the Eastern Cape borders on the unbelievable, and is wholly unforgettable, one area that stands out from the rest is that around the tiny hamlet of Hogsback in the Amatola Mountains, which is said by some to be the setting for J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Whether this is true or not, matters little: the lush, green, centuries-old indigenous forests, numerous waterfalls, majestic mountain peaks, and the silence can easily make you to think you are on another world, in another time.

The Wild Coast offers 800 kms of pristine coastline, characterised by wide beaches, dramatic sea cliffs, and deep gorges through which more than a dozen rivers empty into the Indian Ocean. Just off the coast, the green clad rolling hills are dotted with traditional Xhosa huts. The Wild Coast is likely the only coastline in South Africa where cattle stroll down from the hills to relax on the beaches.

Eastern Cape National Parks and Reserves

Camdeboo National Park

In addition to spectacular scenic beauty, the Camdeboo National Park provides visitors with clear insights into the unique landscape and ecosystem of the Karoo: formed several hundred million years ago, the Karoo is without doubt one of the great unspoilt wonders of the world.
A unique aspect of this 14 500-hectare park is that it virtually surrounds the town of Graaff-Reinet.

Mountain Zebra National Park

The tall, scraggly peaks of the Mountain Zebra National Park’s Bankberg range encircle rolling plains and steep valleys, forming a secure preserve for the Cape Mountain Zebra. The Mountain Zebra National Park also contains a large variety of plant species that flower during spring, carpeting the plains with colour. The establishment of the Mountain Zebra National Park in 1937 prevented the extinction of the Cape Mountain Zebra, and the population now stands at just more than 350 individuals.

Tsitsikamma National Park

Located at the heart of the Garden Route, the coastline Tsitsikamma National Park is a protected marine reserve. Around 30% of the park consists of fynbos sprinkled amongst the forest vegetation that gives the park a picture-postcard atmosphere and look.

Eastern Cape Scenic Routes/Drives

Route 62

Cape Route 62, or better known as the Mountain Route, on which visitors pass through range upon range of dramatic mountains, sometimes on passes built by Thomas Baines and his son Andrew, winds through an area of magnificent landscapes, vertical towering cliffs, crystal clear mountain streams and an astounding variety of trees and indigenous flora.

Karoo Connections

Here you can loiter for months in and through the magical towns of the Great Karoo and have a different experience in each one: a place of immense open spaces, very far-off horizons, wrin-kled mountain ranges, solitary conical hills, some of the richest fossil beds in the world in ancient inland seabed, and a sky so close at night that you could pluck the stars from it.

The Wild Coast

The coastal roads take one through some of the most beautiful, and dramatic coastal scenery anywhere in the world. It is an area of steep, green-clad hills topped by traditional Xhosa huts, coastal forests, wide, pristine, yet deserted beaches, crashing waves, and several shipwrecks, making this one of the most rewarding scenic drives to be found anywhere.

More on Eastern Cape 4×4 Trails >>

Must-see Attractions

Wild Coast

The Wild Coast is an incredible, unassuming combination of breath-taking coastline, precipitous and craggy cliff faces, wild and desolate beaches, secluded bays and green rolling hills that rush headlong into deeply etched river valleys.

Frontier Country

This beautiful area is the scene where the various Border Wars between settlers and indigenous nations were fought for nearly a hundred years. However, the area is now better known for its abundance of game and nature reserves, as well as the practice of returning previously cultivated land to its original condition. The Frontier Country also happens to be one of the most biologically diverse regions in South Africa, with many biomes unspoilt and spectacularly beautiful.

Makana Botanical Gardens

Established in 1853, the garden is the second oldest in South Africa, and has been declared a National Monument. Maintained by Rhodes University, and incorporated into its own extensive gardens, a one-hour walk through this paradise on a quiet weekday morning can produce dozens of the 180+ resident bird species.

Zuurberg Area

This is not so much a sight-to-see, as it is discovering a new world. Crossing the Zuurberg into the Karoo, via a cutting that was made in the 1850’s, one discovers a new world, as if nature had created a new, arid world with new animals, new plants, new soils, and even a new sky.

Must-do Activities

Outeniqua Trail

At 108 km in length, the Outeniqua Trail has become world-renowned for the spectacular scen-ery it passes through. Thousands of people from all over the world complete this west-to-east-only trail every year.

Route 67 Art and Heritage Walk

This inspiring walking route comprises 67 publicly displayed pieces of art, by 67 different local Eastern Cape artists, in 67 giant steps: representative of a specific period during the 67 years of Mandela’s public life, each piece relates to historic events, and is complemented by quotes and media articles.

Tandem Skydive with EP Skydivers

Professional Tandem Masters will brief you, fit your harness, and generally prepare you to enjoy the exhilaration of free-fall skydiving, without requiring any previous skydiving experience.

Blackwater Tubing

Do you fancy a day of tubing through the Tsitsikamma forest? Experience the adventure of tubing, swimming, jumping over rocks, and hiking through the Storms River Gorge.

Ouma Rusks Factory

Without doubt, Ouma Rusks is one of South Africa’s most beloved, iconic, and favourite teatime snacks. If you visit the town of Molteno in the Eastern Cape, simply allow your nose to lead you to the Ouma factory.

Mountain Passes

The Eastern Cape has 85 mountain passes, and just like those in the Western Cape, they range from hardly noticeable to the proverbial “widow makers”. There are far too many to give even a representative sample, but the few that are listed here, have their challenging natures to recommend them:

Volunteershoek (or Bidstone Pass)

At 9.64 km, this comparatively long pass is particularly challenging, and strictly for proper 4×4 vehicles with low range, diff locks, and above average ground clearance only! Connecting the Wartrail farming valley with the Tiffindell Ski Resort, it starts at 1916 metres above sea level, and summits at 2576 meters above sea level. Although the average gradient is 1:14, the first few kms have gradients of up to 1:3, so expect some surprises!

Potters Pass (East London)

At only 1.22 km in length, Potters Pass is likely the shortest officially recognized pass in South Africa. Nonetheless, its attraction lies in the fact that it gains an impressive 72 vertical meters at an average gradient of 1:17. It also manages to bisect the Potters Pass Nature Reserve, before ending smack on a Grand Prix racetrack, the only pass in South Africa to do so!

Smuts Pass

An obscure but rewarding gravel surfaced pass on a farm road, approximately 27 km due West of Dordrecht, this pass starts at 1846m above sea level, and rises 70 vertical meters over a dis-tance of 3.45 Km to summit at 1916m. Snow during winter is a frequent occurrence, and like at the nearby Penhoek Pass, seriously bad weather can happen at any time of the year, because of this region being part of the Stormberg range.

Ongeluks Nek Pass

Ongeluks Nek got its name around 1860 after a luckless trekker in the Griqua trek to ‘No-man’s-land’ perished from an accidental gunshot wound. NOTE: this pass is strictly for proper off-road vehicles only, with low range, diff locks, and above average ground clearance, since the track is rutted, frequently muddy, and generally difficult to negotiate successfully.

Otto Du Plessis Pass

The word “spectacular” is the best description for this pass: a classic, gravel-road pass with in-trigue, danger, and views aplenty. This pass gains 639 meters in vertical altitude, which places it in the “top 10” of “‘most altitude gained.’” This pass demands technical driving skills, and is not suitable for normal cars, or soft roader type all-wheel drive vehicles. You need a proper 4×4 with good ground clearance, plus a diff lock to negotiate this pass successfully.

Country Towns

Just like the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape has dozens of towns of varying historical significance, but just like all of the other provinces, some towns in the Eastern Cape are historically and culturally more significant than others. It is impossible to give here even a brief overview of the historical and political reasons for the establishment of towns in the Eastern Cape, but the few examples of historically significant towns listed here, represent a microcosm of the often violent and turbulent past of the Eastern Cape Province.

Graaff- Reinet

The oldest town in the Eastern Cape, it was founded in 1786 and named after Governor Cor-nelius Jacobus van der Graaff and his wife Cornelia Reinet. Today, Graaff-Reinet has a large number of restored historical buildings; in fact, in excess of 200 buildings in Graaff-Reinet are National Monuments, making it the town with the largest number of historical monuments in the whole of South Africa. During the Anglo-Boer War, the town was also garrisoned by imperial troops and several courts-martial and executions took place here.


Founded in 1820 and named after Colonel John Graham, it was literally the 19th century frontier between the British Cape Colony and the Xhosa territories. It was the point of first contact with indigenous nations, the hub of cultural and military clashes, much political confusion and consternation, and inevitably military conflict, which is perhaps why Grahamstown has more forts and military fortifications than the rest of South Africa combined.


Founded in 1846, Burgersdorp in the north of the Eastern Cape was an important hub around which the political, religious, and cultural aspirations of the Afrikaner nation rotated.


Founded in 1812, and named after Sir John Cradock, the town was established purely to provide a safety buffer against military attack by the indigenous Xhosa from the other side of the Great Fish River.