Blue re­mem­bered hills

South Africa’s sunny East­ern Cape is cu­ri­ously free of tourists

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JAN­ICE WAR­MAN THE SPEC­TA­TOR

THE East­ern Cape has a bloody past: it’s where the English were set­tled to de­fend the fron­tier against the Xhosas in the 1820s, and where the ter­ri­ble forced re­movals of the apartheid years hap­pened.

It’s the birth­place of Nel­son Man­dela. And it gained last­ing no­to­ri­ety world­wide for the death of Steve Biko in cus­tody, an event that led to the film Cry Free­dom, which por­trays the friend­ship be­tween Biko and Don­ald Woods, the lib­eral news­pa­per ed­i­tor of the Daily Dis­patch.

It’s an un­likely hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion. Most vis­i­tors opt for the Gar­den Route through Knysna and Plet­ten­berg Bay. But the re­gion’s Sun­shine Coast has bet­ter weather than any­where else in South Africa — and, any­way, I have my own rea­sons for be­ing there.

I am on a pil­grim­age down mem­ory lane to my alma mater, Rhodes Univer­sity in Gra­ham­stown, where 30 years ear­lier I had made friends with three stu­dents who had gone on to fight the apartheid sys­tem with all their strength, and who had been tor­tured, im­pris­oned and, even­tu­ally, re­leased to be part of the new South Africa.

I am there to re­search a book, Class of 79, and I am to stay with one of those stu­dents, Guy Berger, now head of Africa’s most lib­eral jour­nal­ism depart­ment, and his wife Jeanne.

I share a taxi from Port El­iz­a­beth with a young black boy head­ing for one of Gra­ham­stown’s elite schools. We are driven by a white for­mer sheep farmer, once the owner of sev­eral hun­dred beau­ti­ful hectares, which he points out wist­fully to us as we drive by.

You could find no sharper de­lin­eation of how the coun­try has changed po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally: a black pupil at an ex­clu­sive, for­merly whites-only school; and a white man who used to be a landowner driv­ing a taxi.

I am head­ing down mem­ory lane, how­ever, and the wide, tree­lined streets of Gra­ham­stown wel­come me like an old friend. The taxi driver and I iden­tify Guy and Jeanne’s house by the life-size ze­bra painted on the garage door.

Guy sug­gests a sunset walk; we climb over the stile across the road from his house and wan­der across fields and a stream into the leafy univer­sity cam­pus. Orig­i­nally de­signed by Her­bert Baker, it has tripled in size since 1980.

My old res­i­dence, John Kotze House, is still there; many oth­ers, how­ever, bear the names of he­roes of the re­sis­tance.

Af­ter Jo­han­nes­burg, Gra­ham­stown is a lit­tle piece of heaven. I pho­to­graph Guy’s let­ters from jail while ly­ing by their pool. I bomb around town in Guy’s old Peu­geot; some evenings I cook for Guy and Jeanne on their re­turn from work. We switch on the tape af­ter sup­per, their brindle cat purring on the sofa as we talk of past ter­rors. I take them to sup­per at a res­tau­rant in town and the univer­sity’s vice- chan­cel­lor, Saleem Badat, comes over to say hi. Af­ter he leaves, Guy leans over to say: ‘ ‘ He was badly tor­tured by the old regime.’’

I drive down to a friend’s house in Ken­ton-on-sea, glimps­ing the gi­raffes of Kar­iega Game Re­serve ap­pear­ing from the mist and wilde­beest gath­er­ing around a wa­ter­hole like a mi­rage.

Ken­ton and the neigh­bour­ing Bush­mans River and Port Al­fred are a bit of par­adise where Brits have built big, com­fort­able houses to spend the Christ­mas hol­i­days with their ex­tended fam­i­lies, rid­ing on the beach, watch­ing the sun set, bar­be­cu­ing, eat­ing at the su­perb fish restau­rants on the river. Here are some of the coun­try’s best game parks, where you can see the big five — lion, elephant, buf­falo, rhino and leop­ard — in lux­u­ri­ous sur­round­ings.

There’s Pumba, Shamwari, and Kar­iega along the Bush­mans River. Along the coast you may, if you are lucky, add an­other two gi­ants that would make it the big seven: great white sharks and whales. A short drive away is the pic­turesque moun­tain vil­lage of Hogs­back. Add to that the fact you can en­joy fly-fish­ing, hunt­ing, hang-glid­ing, moun­taineer­ing, river raft­ing, ab­seil­ing and sky­div­ing, and it’s a won­der there are not more tourists here.

I eat a late, soli­tary lunch and watch the sun glit­ter­ing on the es­tu­ary.

Gra­ham­stown has changed, no doubt. You would no longer am­ble through it with your friends late at night on the way back from a show­ing of Ro­man Polan­ski’s The Ten­ant. I am­told to keep the wrought-iron gates to the gar­den and the house locked and to switch on the bur­glar alarm. Jeanne tells me that she had come into the kitchen late one night when Guy was away and found a would-be in­truder kneel­ing out­side the full-length win­dow, dig­ging away at the putty with a knife. ‘‘I don’t know who was more star­tled — him or me,’’ she says.

There’s high un­em­ploy­ment and as sharp a di­vide as ever be­tween priv­i­leged stu­dents and poorer towns­peo­ple. There have also been some bru­tal mur­ders of farm­ers in the re­gion.

But as I set off for the air­port a week later, I am de­ter­mined to come back. I fall into con­ver­sa­tion with a young woman while wait­ing for myflight. She is English, an Ox­ford grad­u­ate who had fallen in love with a South African farmer. Now she lives in the East­ern Cape and runs a tour com­pany. ‘‘I’ve been mugged twice,’’ she tells me. ‘‘Both times in London.’’

I have an­other rea­son to love the area. I didn’t have time to re­turn to Rhodes Vil­lage, a few hours north of Gra­ham­stown, but I’d rec­om­mend it.

Like many oth­ers, my boyfriend Ju­lian and I were plan­ning to leave South Africa at the end of our de­grees. He had gone abroad in the Easter hol­i­days to in­ves­ti­gate. I went away with friends — Bar­bara, her boyfriend Neil, and David — to a cot­tage in Rhodes Vil­lage lent to us by an English lec­turer and poet. It was on the edge of the East­ern Cape highlands, on the bor­der with the moun­tain king­dom of Le­sotho.

We skinny-dipped in the icy cold river, played poker, fired up the wood stove, drank whisky and slept late; when we awoke, we scram­bled up the moun­tains and looked at the views in com­pan­ion­able si­lence. David and I were stopped in the vil­lage street by a pho­tog­ra­pher from Panorama mag­a­zine: would we mind pos­ing for pic­tures, as they were there to take scenic shots and couldn’t find any peo­ple. Any peo­ple? We knew what they meant. Any white peo­ple. So we held hands for the cam­era and strolled, pre­tend­ing to be a cou­ple, along tree-lined paths.

The next night I ex­cused my­self and walked down to the phone box in the vil­lage. The only light was the vast blan­ket of stars. I fed my coins in and an age later the ring­ing be­gan. A re­ceiver was lifted in Cape Town. It was Ju­lian. ‘‘I’ve spo­ken to your fa­ther.’’ ‘‘My fa­ther?’’ I gen­uinely didn’t know what he meant.

‘‘I’ve asked his per­mis­sion for us to marry.’’ Jan­ice War­man’s The World Be­neath, a teenage novel set in apartheid South Africa, will be pub­lished by Walker Books.

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