The northernmost section of the Eastern Cape stretches 280km (174 miles) from the Kei River in the south to the mouth of the Mtamvuna River, bordering KwaZulu-Natal. The coast is lush and sparsely populated, with innumerable rivers spilling into large estuaries; waterfalls plunging directly into the ocean; coastal, dune, and mangrove forests; long, sandy beaches; rocky coves; and a number of shipwrecks, all of which have earned it the name Wild Coast. This region was part of the former bantustan (homeland) Transkei, where any Xhosa that weren't of economic use to the Republic were dumped, and as such it has suffered from overgrazing and underdevelopment and is one of the poorest areas in South Africa. Despite this, the people are incredibly hospitable, and exploring this region will provide you with one of the most unaffected cultural experiences available to visitors in South Africa. Note, however, that much of the coastline is difficult to access -- dirt roads are pitted with deep potholes, there is virtually no public transportation, and accommodations options are limited. The exceptions to this are the coast south of Qhorha Mouth (also known as Qora Mouth) and the coastal towns of Coffee Bay and Port St Johns.
The only way to reach these coastal towns is via the N2, which cuts through the middle of the hinterland, passing through unfenced green valleys dotted with traditional Xhosa huts and the old Transkei capital of Umtata, now called Mthatha. The top attraction here is the Nelson Mandela Museum (tel. 047/532-5110; www.mandela-museum.org.za; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm, Sat 9am-noon; free admission). Madiba, the clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known, was born near Qunu, where he still returns for holidays (this is also where he and Oprah Winfrey distributed thousands of Christmas gifts to an overexcited crowd in 2002). The museum is situated in the Bhunga Building, a gracious colonial structure that once housed municipal offices, and comprises several rooms that have been filled with Mandela memorabilia, among them gifts from respectful statesmen, adoring children, and various other admirers. Excellent displays, including posters, videos, and photographs, record the life and works of Africa's greatest statesman.
The Serengeti of the Seas -- Every year, from around mid-June to July, South Africa is host to what has been touted as "the greatest dive show in the world" by National Geographic, when the sea along the wild coast appears to "boil" as some three billion sardines, accompanied by migrating humpback whales and hundreds of predators (dolphins, sharks, seals, cormorants, and gannets), move from the cold Atlantic waters to the warm, subtropical Indian ocean. It's a migration to rival that of the Serengeti and a must on every serious diver's do-before-I-die list. Most packages run for 8 days, with divers based at Mbotyi River Lodge, on the Wild Coast (best accessed from Durban). Alternatively, simply catch one of the daily charters from Shelly Beach in KwaZulu-Natal and witness the migration from the boat. Contact www.oceansafrica.com or www.sardinerun.net.