Breezing through the Friendly City
There’s a certain laid-back feeling that permeates the coastal city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape – almost as if the ocean winds have blown away the worries and urgency brought on by typical city life.
After work, locals stroll along the beachfront, some listening to music through headphones, others with a content-looking canine running happily ahead of them. During ‘peak hour’ traffic, only a few cars glide along the coastal highway. It soon becomes evident why one of Port Elizabeth’s more popular nicknames is 'the Friendly City'.
I recently spent three days exploring PE, as it's also known, trying to cram in as many of her sights and sounds as possible during my short stay. Tough work, considering all there is to do and see in South Africa’s second-oldest city...
We started by travelling along the rocky Port Elizabeth coastline, an area where many ships met an early demise hundreds of years ago. One such vessel was the Sacramento, a Portuguese galleon that ran aground in Schoenmakerskop in 1647.
Its 40 cannons were salvaged by divers in the 1970s, and the one pictured in this blog points towards the site of the wreck 1km down the Sacramento walking trail. We were told the heroic story of how 72 wreck survivors set out on a 1 350km trek to the nearest port in Mozambique. Of those, only nine made it to the then-Delagoa Bay a year later. Ultimately, only four of the men made it back to Portugal alive.
A massive steamboat named the HMS Thunderbolt also ran aground further up the coast in 1847, and its salvage was later used to build some of the first houses in Port Elizabeth.
Within the coastal Cape Recife Nature Reserve you’ll find the South African Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec), established in 2000 after the catastrophic Treasure oil spill that took place in Cape Town that year.
'We realised that there was nowhere in or near PE that could cope with an oil spill of that magnitude,” says Samrec director Libby Sharwood. 'Bay World (a nearby marine tourist attraction) can cater for the rehabilitation of about 40 birds, but we have the largest penguin breeding colony in the world at St Croix island, with a population of around 50 000 birds.'
Samrec is now a popular education centre for children and works towards conserving the critically endangered African penguin, as well as the rehabilitation of other marine animals. In the event of an oil spill, it can accommodate up to 2 000 birds.
Further inland, the lush Kragga Kamma Game Park is situated right by the city’s forested suburbs. This small, privately owned park spans 250ha and is home to a variety of game like rhino, zebra, cheetah and antelope. Affordable accommodation in the reserve makes it a popular stop-over for tourists and locals looking to get a break from urban living.
The people of Port Elizabeth are proud of their heritage and the colourful history the area is well known for. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Donkin Reserve, a centre of urban regeneration in the city and tribute to the man who founded PE in 1820 – Rufane Donkin.
The tallest flagpole in Africa towers over the park, and atop it, the largest South African flag in the world is lifted proudly by the seemingly ever-present breeze. Its surface area is the same size as a tennis court – see if you can spot it on your way in or out of Port Elizabeth International Airport.
Here you’ll also find the newly developed Route 67 art trail, so named to commemorate the 67 years that Nelson Mandela contributed to South African politics and the struggle to abolish apartheid. Once finished, 67 artworks will be strategically placed along a meander that runs from the nearby beachfront, up the CBD, ending in the Donkin Reserve.
'It’s so encouraging to hear all the positive comments from both tourists and locals concerning the rejuvenation of this area,” says Jonker Fourie of Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.
We also visited PE’s oldest township, New Brighton. Children play in the streets and surprisingly pay us little regard. Teenagers joke with each other, some throwing curious stares at the large white minibus. We drive past the newly built ‘Smartie Houses’, the brightly coloured government housing units that were introduced in 1998. On the corner, locals prepare popular township fare of boiled goat’s head, also known as a ‘smiley’.
We make our way to Red Location Lodge – a great new initiative set up by a group of passionate elderly ladies from the township that provides vulnerable youths in the township with a safe place to stay. Keep an eye on the SAT blog for more on this initiative, as well as the nearby Red Location Museum.