127km (79 miles) east from Port Elizabeth; 180km (111 miles) west from East London
Grahamstown, a medium-sized town that shrinks dramatically whenever the local university closes for vacation, is probably not an essential stop; most visitors will simply pass through on their way to their game reserve of choice. It's a bit crowded and run-down in patches (keep a firm hold on your belongings when walking in town), but it does have a lot to offer those interested in 1820 settler history and the long, bitter battle for land that took place here during the 19th century. The town was born in 1812 as a military outpost and grew as beleaguered settler families from Britain gave up trying to farm the hopelessly inadequate 40-hectare (100-acre) plots the government had given them in the hopes that farmers would secure the volatile frontier. The best way to get acquainted with this history is by taking a Spirits of the Past tour (tel. 046/622-2843 or 082/825-2685; www.spiritsofthepast.co.za) with highly respected guide Alan Weyer. A former pineapple farmer, Alan was named Tour Guide of the Year in 2005 and has done much to ignite interest in this fascinating period of South African history. On the R900 half-day tour, Alan takes you into the hills around town to explain -- eloquently and humorously -- what was at stake for the various cultures caught up in the conflict. It's a good option for those with limited time. The full-day tour (R1,250) also examines the cultures and people who influenced the region, but includes visits to forts, historic sites, and a pub, where you will have lunch. Tours that visit the Great Fish River Valley are also available.
If you don't have time for a tour, other attractions include the Observatory Museum, 10 Bathurst St. (tel. 046/622-2312; Mon-Fri 9:30am-1pm and 2-5pm, Sat 9am-1pm; R8), which, in a small tower, has the only Victorian Camera Obscura in the Southern Hemisphere. The system of revolving lenses and mirrors projects a surprisingly detailed miniature moving image of the town on a flat viewing surface (the room is darkened). Music devotees can't miss the International Library of African Music (tel. 046/603-8557), with its collection of over 200 African musical instruments (they are used for demonstrations or recordings), a massive music library, and a fascinating collection of photographs. For more information on the town's accommodations and attractions, stop by the comprehensive Makana Tourism, 63 High St. (tel. 046/622-3241; www.grahamstown.co.za; Mon-Fri 8:30am-5pm, Sat 9am-1pm), for detailed information -- Willem Makkink is particularly helpful.