Tag Archives: Nelson Mandela Bay

Floating Up the Sundays River

There’s little that beats floating down (or up) a river on a sunny afternoon, especially an Eastern Cape one, with its singing-beetle bush, so familiar from my childhood holidays in Port Alfred and varsity days in Grahamstown.

Floating on a river does something to one physiologically, I’m sure of it. It’s almost like your body realises it’s no longer on level ground and your blood moves more languidly (in a good way, not a medical emergency way), a bit like the river below, filled with scaly creatures, flapping fish and other secret rivery things with whiskers that lurk down in the muddy bottom.

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve been on a boat. Wheelchairs and boats are not, generally, best friends. The Sundays River ferry, ably captained by Les looking suave in his captain’s hat, is, however, a friend of the wheelchair, having been designed thus (and the jetty adapted). This is because Les’s wife, Maggie, had a brother in a wheelchair.

And that’s how I found myself gently puttering first up, then down, the Sundays River on a sunny afternoon during our recent visit to PE. And it was the beautiful and gentle and quiet that I remembered … that one that only being on water can offer.

Les has been running the Sundays River ferry for over ten years. Moored on a jetty in Cannonville (next door to Colchester which, as a child seeing the turn-off as we headed to Port Alfred, I thought was the cheese capital of South Africa, imagining the whole place built of Colchester cheese … I stray) across the road from the guesthouse they run, the ferry is a big, flat boat with a canopy and seats on both the lower and upper levels.

The Sundays River source is way up in Graaff Reinet, in my beloved Karoo, and it grows and widens as its winds its way down to the coast, finally passing through Addo National Park and then on to the Indian Ocean where it pours itself into the sea.

From Cannonville, it’s navigable for 15 km upstream (from where you can see Addo) and 7 km down. We headed up first, turning the bend with the Cannonville houses watching us pass, going under the huge bridge with the N2 above our heads and out beyond civilisation. Here, we were watched by a plethora of birds, a sandbank on the right – about 10 foot-or-more high, aquiver with gorgeous bee-eaters. Their sand-coloured homes in the bank reminded me of the higgledy-piggledy stone houses balancing precariously on the hillsides in Sicily.

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Beyond civilastion we came across a legevaan – colloquially known as the ‘Sundays River Crocodile’, who had – somehow – snagged himself a ray and was trying, rather toothlessly, to eat it. Les switched off the boat and we sat for fifteen minutes watching as he finally managed to flip it over and get some of its intestines out. Fascinatingly gory.

Heading back we floated downstream for a bit, a bend in the river revealing dunefields shimmering in the orange glow of the late afternoon sun. It’s on these dunes that Les also offers sandsledding, an activity that we adored on the steep sand dunes of East Beach in Port Alfred as kids.

And that’s, really, what it was like, being on a boat again after so long. It was like being a kid again: buoyant, carefree, the river below, the breeze blowing, the smells and sounds of nature and the gentle puttering of the engine accompanying that familiar bush and a Fish Eagle on a dead tree, to end off a magical afternoon.


 Wheelchair Accessibility

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The boat itself is completely accessible (the bottom bit). It’s large and flat, with plenty of room to manoeuvre and sit.

Getting to the boat: Les has keys to the gate, so you can drive the car over the large grassed field between the river and the road and park right next to the jetty.

The jetty is a normal, wooden-slatted jetty, with two small steps. At low tide, the gradient is quite steep, but Les helps, and has devised a ramp that removes one of the stairs. It’s totally doable but if you’re a nervous traveller, might be a little nerve-wracking getting on. It’s worth it, though. The river is just beautiful.

*We went on the cruise as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism and Addo Cruises.

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The View From The Balcony of Port Elizabeth

Standing in the Donkin Reserve gazing over Port Elizabeth, the CBD below looking as if it may tumble into the bay, I realised that my perception of this city had been entirely wrong, and it was a wonderful thing.

Port Elizabeth’s CBD is like one of those inspiring and miraculous stories of a recovering junkie. She’s been through the mill, hung out with dodgy characters, looked like a lost cause and then she went to rehab. After years of grimy decay, she’s back – plumper, livelier, wiser, more determined and creative and with the colour back in her cheeks.

While I realise that’s a fairly weird analogy, it is apt for this inner city that found itself falling into disrepair and decrepitude at the end of the last century (sheesh, I sound old). In 2004, the Mandela Bay Development Agency started its first project to  regenerate the area and it’s just been getting better and better.

I have to admit I was somewhat mean about PE in the past. My experience of the city consisted of fleeting visits as a child to get groceries to stock our beach shack in Port Alfred in December. Memories of Christmas-crazy, Boney M-filled, Checkers-trolley-into-your-ankles trips calmed slightly by a visit to the magical old library and gelato (with real bits of chocolate) from the hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop as a reward for surviving.

Some years later, as a student at Rhodes,  PE to me was the occasional trip to Greenacres – a real shopping mall, which Grahamstown-of-yore didn’t have … What bliss, I’m not really a mall fan – and a long, dark, laser-infused night in the docks at one the first raves there. Youthfully oblivious of our own mortality, we drove that treacherous road between Grahamstown and PE on the back of a bakkie, hot-pantsed and silvery-topped. After dancing the night away, we returned as the sun rose over the bay. We didn’t even stay to look around.

So, yes, my impression was that of shopping malls and dark dockside warehouses, interspersed with cars with CB number plates. Standing up there in the Donkin Reserve, I had to to admit that I was wrong. Certainly about 2017 PE, interspersed by the more inclusive EC number plates. As an aside – I miss the town-specific plates. They satisfied (some of) my curiosity about where people were from.

 

I stray. Back to the point that PE’s CBD has (and still is) undergoing an incredible rejuvenation. The stately old buildings with their gorgeous architecture are being renovated and upgraded back to their former graciousness and the whole area is becoming people-friendly. Public spaces dotted with art, coffee shops and breweries, old churches and statues, restaurants and performance spaces and, right up there in the Donkin Reserve (both literally and metaphorically), a pervading sense of the history of this – in South African terms – ancient city.

There’s plenty of history in this city, but that of its namesake and her husband is the most beautifully tragic and is the source of the somewhat unlikely pyramid up in the Donkin Reserve, slap-bang in the middle of the city.

Elizabeth Donkin died of ‘The Fever’ in India in August 1818 at the age of 27. She left behind her heartbroken husband, Rufus, and tiny 7-month old son. Their son was sent back to the family in the UK and the devastated Rufus went to not-yet-called-PE to act as governor. In August 1820, he erected the pyramid in honour of her. It is inscribed:

‘To the memory of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the Town below.’

See? Tragic. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be loved like that? Without The Fever and dying bit, of course. Urban legend has it that he placed her head inside the pyramid. I like that. It’s macabre and beautiful. A new addition is a gorgeous, swirling mosaic – part of the 67 Steps, which I’ll write about in my next blog, this is getting too long! – that leads up to the pyramid, the lighthouse beaming behind it and the whole bay laid out in front.

It is, without doubt, ‘The Balcony of Port Elizabeth’!


Wheelchair Accessibility

Port Elizabeth balances on a hill. The Donkin Reserve, however, is on top of the hill and if you park on Athol Fugard Terrace, there are bricked pathways with a gentle slope to see all the cool things at Donkin Reserve.*We visited NMB as guests of the wonderful Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism.