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BBefore you embark on the Donkin Heritage Trail in Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape province, there’s a great love story you should hear.
Port Elizabeth, or ‘PE’ as South Africans prefer to call it, was named after the beloved wife of Rufane Donkin, who was once acting governor of the Cape Colony. Elizabeth and Rufane were true star-crossed lovers in a time of arranged marriages, and shortly after they were wed she accompanied her husband when he was called to India for service.
She died shortly after giving birth to their son, George David. A grief-stricken Rufane left for England, with his baby son and his wife’s embalmed heart. On his stopover in Cape Town, he was informed of his new position in South Africa and sent to Algoa Bay to supervise the new 1820 settler arrivals.
He named the site of the settlers’ landings after Elizabeth and built a pyramid of remembrance to her on the hill that is now called the Donkin Reserve. Just 20 years later, back in England, Rufane took his own life – on the anniversary of Elizabeth’s death.
This sad love story is the centre pivot of the Donkin Heritage Trail, which actually begins below the hill in Govan Mbeki Avenue. There’s a collection of magnificient mid-1800 buildings that include the main library, city hall and the more recent Feathermarket Centre. Ask your guide about the Prester John statue and spend a minute below the stern gaze of Queen Victoria outside the library, forever frozen in Sicilian marble.
If you’ve been to PE before, you’ll remember that the central area, though grand, was losing some of its elegance due to inner-city neglect. That’s all changed. Central is being uplifted in a dozen different ways. Besides getting a much-needed ‘lick of paint’, the historic heart of Port Elizabeth is being restored and brought back to life.
The stylish, terraced houses, 18 identical Victorian-era dwellings in Donkin Row, were recently restored. The Donkin Reserve itself has an auspicious new resident in the form of a metal cut-out statue of a jubilant Nelson Mandela, part of the voting line sculpture. And the friendly folk at Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism now have their offices at the base of the Donkin lighthouse and are awaiting your visit.
Around the reserve itself, one of Port Elizabeth’s most popular green spaces, are Fort Frederick (the city’s first structure); Prince Alfred’s guard drill hall; a number of cathedrals and churches; the London-like Havelock Square; and a series of settler cottages and classic old hotels, some of which are still open for business.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)41 378 1486
Cell: +27 (0)72 358 4634
Tel: +27 (0)41 585 6162
Cell: +27 (0)82 390 6340
How to get here
Your best bet is to secure a great little booklet (The Donkin Heritage Trail & Richmond Hill Trail) at the Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism offices at the base of the Donkin lighthouse in central. The tour should first take you along Govan Mbeki Avenue, then up a series of steps to the lighthouse and around the area. The booklet, which costs less than R50, contains maps and points of historic interest.
Best time to visit
Because of all the vistas along the way, it’s best to visit on a bright, sunny day during any of the seasons – especially when the wind has died down for a few hours.
Around the area
Port Elizabeth has many good beaches, game lodges in the close vicinity and a number of historic sites in the township complex outside the metro area.
Township tours of Port Elizabeth and day trips to the Addo Elephant Park region are recommended.
What to pack
Take along comfortable walking shoes, a camera, a light raincoat, some water and the recommended guidebook in a daypack.
Where to stay
Port Elizabeth has good quality accommodation – check the listed Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism website for details.
What to eat
If you want to start the day off well, have a hearty breakfast at the restaurant at the Donkin lighthouse. The food is good and the prices are reasonable.