The Eastern Cape Midlands Travellers Guide

About the O.R. Tambo District

The Wild Coast and Interior provide a web of roads through spectacular scenery from precipitous coastal cliffs and remote beaches to dramatic, forested gorges and gentle hills dotted with colourful homesteads. The authorities are hard at work improving infrastructure, a massive undertaking given the region’s historical legacy under apartheid as the former Transkei. As a result, some rural roads require high-clearance vehicles and drivers must be alert at all times to the presence of livestock and horses.

Take the N2

The first of three major routes linking the region is the N2 to Mthatha.

Travelling from Kokstad, you’ll pass a turn-off to Tabankulu, the main town of the Ntabankulu Local Municipality. Where three rivers – the Umzimvubu, the Mzintlava and the Thina – converge, there is a region where botanical expeditions have been carried out by canoe.

This scenic route continues past Tabankulu to exit at the R61 near Flagstaff, providing panoramic views of the Umzimvubu and Mzintlava rivers and the forests that dominate to the east.

Returning to the N2, past the Tabankulu turn-off, you’ll travel through Mhlontlo Local Municipality’s towns of Tsolo and Qumbu. Here rivers like the Tsitsa carve vast gorges and waterfalls. The Tsitsa Falls is one of numerous attractions being developed for adventurous travelers.

Tsolo, just off the N2, is developing rapidly with a new hospital already built, and access roads, and water and sanitation works all testimony to confidence in the District. It is the gateway to burgeoning forestry areas in Langeni. Tsolo is also the start of the Maluti Route, incorporating the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Mthatha, the administrative seat and commercial hub of the OR Tambo District Municipality, houses the Nelson Mandela Museum, the centrepiece of a Liberation Heritage Trail tracing the roots of the region’s heroes. These include the venerable Madiba and his good friend, former ANC president Oliver Reginald Tambo, whose name the district has taken.

Travelling south on the N2 takes you through the King Sabata Dalindyebo Local Municipality to Qunu and Mvezo. You’ll pass Madiba’s holiday home and the burial place of his family, the turn-off to the Qunu satellite museum and another to Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace and site of a monument.

Travel the T310

To get to Coffee Bay and Hole in the Wall, travel south from Mthatha along the N2 for 20km to Viedgiesville. Take the T310 for 81km to Coffee Bay. This links via a 9km coastal road to Hole in the Wall.

This well-travelled road in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Local Municipality is a portal to adventure hotspots and scenic beauty.

It also brings you to secluded beaches and begging-to-be explored estuaries and rivers such as the Mthatha River Mouth, Mdumbi/Tshani and Presley’s Bay.

Coffee Bay has for years been a magnet for international backpackers, surfers and all those who intend remaining ‘forever young’, as well as birders and hikers – generally, anyone who appreciates getting back to nature and imbibing local culture.

Hole in the Wall is a geological wonder created by constant erosion over the millenia. The free-standing arch draws photographers and adventurers. But don’t get too close: the currents are powerful indeed.

Ride the R61

The R61 is your gateway from Mthatha to both the interior and the coastal ‘hub’ of the region, Port St Johns. It continues east to Lusikisiki, Flagstaff, Mbizana and, finally, the Umtamvuna River, the border between Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Sightseeing opportunities abound, such as the memorial to the men who died aboard the SS Mendi in the English Channel, and St Barnabas Mission, one of many harking back to the earliest days of missionary attempts to bring Christianity to South Africa. Some have been turned into clinics, hospitals, schools and village centres. Many are still places of worship, retaining beautiful stained-glass windows, burnished pews and glimpses into history through their adjoining graveyards.

To get to Hluleka Nature Reserve, turn off at Libode. You’ll also pass a sign leading to the old Bunting Mission as you make your way to this Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency reserve, which has recently been upgraded.

Libode, 30km east of Mthatha, is the main town in the Nyandeni Local Municipality. The village of Ngqeleni is some 10km outside of Mthatha. The Royal House of the amaMpondo, the palace of the late Paramount Chief Tutor Ndamase, is in Nyandeni.

Look out for Mlengana Mountain (incorrectly named Execution Rock), near Libode, a great mountain looming above the Tutor Ndamase Pass.

Some 20km from Port St Johns, stop awhile to view and buy curios at the Tombo Art Centre.

A turn-off at this bustling little village can take you on a 116km coastal cross country route – between Port St Johns and Coffee Bay. But be warned: the road varies from bad to even worse and is best attempted only with a detailed map (available to hotel guests at Cremorne Estate and Coffee Bay Hotel) and only in vehicles with high clearance. This route takes you well off the beaten track, to estuaries and wild, beautiful beaches such as those at Umgazana River, Brazen Head, Mpande and the Sinangwana River estuary.

A tarred road from the R61 just before Port St Johns will deposit you at Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa, an award-winning accommodation establishment renowned for its hospitality and its contribution to the community.

The rural town of Port St Johns, in the local municipal district of the same name, is bisected by the Umzimvubu River. Approaching from Lusikisiki, the road hairpins its way through a dramatic landscape until you see in the distance the mighty Umzimvubu River. As the town is revealed under guard of the Gates of St John, you are confronted, from the south bank, by the towering Mt Thesiger. On its escarpment is an airstrip and at its foot the town, its landmark estuary and First Beach. The road winds through to Second Beach and Silaka Nature Reserve. To the north is Mt Sullivan, at its base Agate Terrace accessed via a turn-off before the Pondoland Bridge.

Heading North

Travel north from Port St Johns on the R61 to Lusikisiki, the administrative seat of the Ingquza Hill Local Municipality. Lusikisiki is the capital and commercial centre of East Pondoland and the most densely populated in the former Transkei area. The Royal House of King Mpondombini Sigcawu is at Qawukeni village, 30km north-east of Lusikisiki’s Central Business District.

From the R61 there are turn-offs to beaches at Ntafufu/ Nhlako and Manteku, as well as the rapidly growing village of Mbotyi.

This region has more than its fair share of spectacular waterfalls, including two of only a handful in the world that fall directly into the sea, at Waterfall Bluff. Other waterfalls of note nearby are the Magwa, Fraser and Manteku Falls.

A turn-off from the road to Mbotyi leads to Msikaba, ending abruptly at the Msikaba Mouth. On the way to this fishermen’s destination of note – and the start of Drifters Hiking and Mountain Biking Trails – you will pass numerous turn-offs to Lupatana, Port Grosvenor and Lambasi Bay. These bring wild beaches, Waterfall Bluff and Cathedral Rock within hiking distance. Ask for maps from accommodation providers as these are not well signposted.

Your journey to Msikaba will have put you within viewing (and walking distance, when the Msikaba River mouth is passable) with the Mkambati Nature Reserve on the north bank. But you will need to retrace your steps to the Mbotyi road and Lusikisiki to reach the reserve by car.

Take the R61 to Flagstaff and follow the signposts to Holy Cross Mission to get to Mkambati. But first, take the time to explore this historically rich area.

The Ingquza Hill Massacre Monument commemorates those who died during the ‘Pondo Revolt’ of the 1960s, when the people defied the Nationalist government over apartheid laws.

From Holy Cross Mission there is a dirt road link to Mbizana, or you can drive back to the R61, on to Flagstaff and then to Mbizana.

At Mbizana there is a scenic link road heading west through the Engeli Mountains and Brooke’s Nek to Kokstad. Here the Mbizana Local Municipality prides itself on being the guardian of the birthplace of struggle stalwart Oliver Reginald Tambo, in Nkantolo. One of the landmarks on the R61 as you pass through Mbizana is the OR Tambo Cultural Village.

Explore the O.R. Tambo District

Attraction Highlights

Silaka Nature Reserve
This 400ha reserve lies in the forested valley between Second Beach and Sugarloaf Rock just south of Port St Johns.
Mlengana Mountain
Some legends have it that this mountain was used as a place of execution.
Hluleka Nature Reserve
Some 772ha in extent, it is on the coast midway between Coffee Bay and Port St Johns, some 90km from Mthatha.
Tsitsa Falls
The jewel in the crown of Mhlontlo and one of the biggest and most impressive waterfalls in South Africa.
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