East London has four rivers, many beautiful beaches and the best milkshakes in South Africa. I returned to reaffirm my love for my hometown.
The insider Ondela Mlandu grew up in East London and now lives in Cape Town. But she will be forever loyal to ‘Slummies’, as it’s affectionately known. No one knows where, when or how that nickname came about, but don’t take it too literally, she says. It’s a wonderful place.
Why is there traffic here? I grumble as I drive over the Buffalo River Bridge from the airport. Traffic in East London was a foreign concept when I was younger. I know it takes more or less 15 minutes to get from one place to another. Not any more, clearly. With a famous Shamrock steak and kidney pie in one hand (these pies, available at any garage shop or cafe, are found only in the Eastern Cape) and my phone in the other hand, I take an image of Buffalo River to upload to Instagram later.
It is quiet by the river, with no people in sight, and it seems to go on forever. East London is the only city in South Africa with four rivers (the other three flow into the sea at Nahoon, Bonza Bay and Gonubie). The Buffalo is the largest of the four, some 126 kilometres long and 140 metres wide where it meets the ocean. But it’s not the kind of river you can take romantic strolls along, as there are no paths, pavements or promenades. It’s both undeveloped and overdeveloped, home to the only river port in the country. A memory crosses my mind: trying out for the rowing team in Grade 8 on the river. My biggest concern was falling into the water – I mean, who knew what lurked underneath the surface?
Next to the harbour is the Daimler (Mercedez-Benz) car-manufacturing plant that is responsible for connecting this part of the Eastern Cape to the world, and the major industry in town. It funds the Coastal Education & Visitors Centre at Nahoon, which, if seen from the air, looks like a footprint. The centre is part of the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve, established in 2004 to protect dune forest, beach, rocky shore, numerous caves and its ‘archaeological potential’, according to Kevin Cole, project coordinator of the reserve management committee.
Zandile Dlova, the River Control Officer responsible for patrolling Buffalo City coastal zone and dealing with stranded dolphins and whales, gives me a tour of the reserve, including Bat’s Cave – home to masses of Egyptian fruit bats. The trail leading there is breathtaking and well preserved. To my delight, I learn there are a number of trails through the reserve, designed to explore this special part of the East London coast. I had no idea there was such a natural treasure here. If I knew then what I know now, my weekends would have been more productive.
During my schooling days, not more than a decade ago, my friends and I attended derby days at the boys’ school across the road, and had sleepovers and slipped off for a night of dancing our youth away at Numbers – the popular club in town (sadly, it closed in 2014).
There have been urban changes over the years, too, which explains the heavier traffic. There are roadworks everywhere, construction sites and new developments – the Gillwell Taxi Retail Park in the CBD, built in 2015, was the first of its kind in SA, combining a mall with a taxi rank. Avanzas and small private cars (old Cressidas and Fords) are used as taxis in East London; we call them ‘amaphela’, which means cockroaches.
The following morning I head to Arcadia, a semi-industrial area where my mother used to buy anything we needed for the house – tiles, plumbing, kitchen appliances, window frames. I’ve come here for breakfast at Ginger & Co because my friend Yolisa never stops talking about the great decor and coffee there.
‘It was risky placing the business here,’ says owner Benji Gane. ‘Our friends and family said it wouldn’t work, but we took the risk. East London takes its time to get ‘with it’ but people enjoy the industrial feel of the area and it’s easily accessible.’ I enjoy a bacon-and-avo croissant, and as I’m leaving the restaurant I smell the ocean, which reminds me of one of the best things about East London. I drive towards it.
Quigney is in this direction and was one of the first suburbs in East London. It’s where the Wimpy is that my father and I always visited after school; the waitresses knew what we wanted and where we would sit without us having to say a word. It’s also where the East London Aquarium is, the oldest in South Africa (opened back in 1931). I love anything that involves the ocean, but I find I have a one-of-a kind thirst that only a double-thick milkshake from the Friesland Milk Bar can quench. It started out as a dairy; the original shop has been in Quigney since 1924, and is a true landmark. Milkshake in hand, I head over to the German Settlers’ Memorial on the Esplanade to drink it in the company of a family made of stone, overlooking Quigney Beach. Along the Esplanade, people sell straw baskets, colourful beadwork jewellery and wood carvings of the Big Five to tourists.
A strong feeling of nostalgia draws me to another suburb, Selborne. The houses on this side of town are beautiful and it’s where my old school is, across the road from the East London Museum. For old times’ sake, I go into the museum. The smell is still as distinct and the stuffed animals behind the glass look as real as they did when I was a curious 10-year-old, in a below-knee-length skirt, excited to be on a school excursion. The coelacanth that was discovered in 1938 on the East London docks is still one of the headliners at the museum. It also has the only dodo egg in existence and the world’s oldest human fossil footprint, left at Nahoon Point 124000 years ago (the ‘archaeological value’ of Nahoon, as Kevin Cole described it, suddenly makes more sense).
I go down the road to another favourite spot – the Ann Bryant Art Gallery, housed in a family home built in 1905. It still has the creaky wooden floors and stained-glass windows and feeling of peace I loved so much as a child. The curious painting of the Chinese lady is still there. While there have been quite a few changes in East London, some things remain the same; there’s a lot of comfort and joy in that. I sit in the garden, where we’d eat our packed lunch on those school outings, lean back and smile. This is what home feels like.
3 must-visit beaches in East London
1. Nahoon Beach
This is home to local surfers and the East London Surf & Life Saving Club. Since 1974, the Discovery Surfers’ Challenge has taken place here. Nahoon is a family favourite on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
2. Gonubie Beach
This beach is eight kilometres from the city. It’s a peaceful retreat or great for a family day out, and offers good swimming. It also has an estuary, high dunes, tidal pool, bird sanctuary and 500 metres of boardwalk built to protect the vegetation.
3. Cove Rock Beach
This is one of East London’s finest fishing spots, 15 minutes from the city centre near the airport. The sandy white beach is secluded and has several fishing pools. Though it’s not great for swimming, it is one of the most scenic beaches, and a key whale-watching spot.
Where do locals go?
Ntumi Kondile, brand ambassador – ‘I love Urban Junction in Nahoon. You can almost feel the love that’s gone into the food. It’s also quiet so you can enjoy your meal in peace.’ Tel 0437351319.
Sethu Pota, project administrator – ‘I love the ambience at Grazia on the Esplanade. The best is sitting outside, under the umbrellas, Champagne in hand, taking in the view of the ocean.’ Tel 0437222009.
Sasha Andrews, sports marketing assistant – ‘I love the ocean, so a paddle on the Nahoon River or a boat ride with Barge Cruises is always a win.’ Tel 0827837115.
Mbulelo Ntlonti, candidate attorney – ‘I enjoy going to Hand Made Coffees in Nahoon. They have the best moccaccinos in town. I always go back for more.’ 0793887654
Plan your trip to East London
The N2 connects Cape Town via Port Elizabeth to East London, and on the other side via Umtata to Durban. The N6 connects to Bloemfontein. FlySafair serves East London Airport from Cape Town, Durban and Joburg. Flights from R1059 on Travelstart.
Arbour Lodge offers B&B and self-catering, not far from Bonza Bay beach. All rooms have a private entrance, braai and kitchenette. There is also a swimming pool. From R750 double B&B; self-catering from R650 for two (units sleep up to four).
Park Place Boutique Guest House has 19 beautiful rooms, each with its own flair, in a Victorian manor close to the Ann Bryant Art Gallery. There is an on-site restaurant (with a rather exotic menu), a bar- lounge and lap pool. Rooms from R795 per unit.
Gonubie Hotel, very close to the beach, is a 30-room family-run place with a friendly atmosphere. Enjoy your meals in the dining room with views of the sea. R875 for two sharing B&B. Self-catering units nearby cost R1200 (sleep five).
Explore the wilderness at Nahoon Point. The nature reserve has a 400m boardwalk trail to the beach, with the best views of the coast. There is also the Mermaid’s Pool, a snorkelling spot near Nahoon Reef. Free entry. End of Nahoon Reef Drive. Tel 0437355015.
Learn about the coastline at the Mercedes-Benz Coastal Education & Visitors Centre. This eco-tourism facility is a wonderful place to gain knowledge of the natural history of this area and how it can be protected. Free entry but tips for the guides are welcome. End of Nahoon Reef Drive. Tel 0437355015.
Enjoy the Buffalo River on a boat with Southern Cross Cruises (around R180 per person, 0829386275); they also do harbour and ocean trips. The Buffalo River Yacht Club has a great pub called Uncle Ben’s. Pontoon Road. Tel 0829386275.
Appreciate the ocean at the East London Aquarium. I love watching the seals at play in their pool, and the penguin feeding. There is a boardwalk with views as far as Nahoon Point. Entry R46 adults, R26 for children. 13 Esplanade Street, Quigney Beach. Tel 0437052637
Relax in the garden at the Ann Bryant Art Gallery – it’s serene, well kept and a great place to read a book. The portrait of a Manchu lady was donated from a Chinese exhibition in 1953. Free entrance, donations are welcome. 9 St Marks Road, Selborne. Tel 0437224044
Go back in time at the East London Museum. Yes, it’s filled with stuffed animals but some of these species are no longer around. There are also great displays on Khoi-San and Xhosa clan history. Entry R20. 319 Oxford Street. 0437430686
Also read: 6 exceptional places to eat in East London
Ginger & Co serves mouth-watering breakfasts for as little as R40. The staff make great conversation and you don’t wait long for your food. It also has free Wi-Fi. 16 Bowls Road, Arcadia. Tel 0437435576.
Friesland Milk Bar makes over 20 different flavours of milkshake and ice cream, and locals swear it’s the best in SA. The recipe remains closely guarded. From R23 for a shake. 49 Tennyson Street, Quigney Beach. Tel 0437223260.
Pinecreek is a country escape just outside Beacon Bay, good for breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. By day, there is a mini steam train and playground for kids, plus a farmstall, crystal jewellery shop, beautiful tea garden and deck (great for picnics). The restaurant has a romantic ambience if you want a special night out. Holm Hill, off the R102. Tel 0437321101.
Lavender Blue Market stocks home-baked goods, free-range eggs, fresh fruit and veg and a selection of meats. It’s good to see the foodie-market trend catching on in East London. Open daily, but it really buzzes on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Old Gonubie Road. Tel 0437321172.
This Insider’s Guide first appeared in the October issue of Getaway magazine.
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