A GUIDE TO EXPERIENCING THE MAGICAL DESTINATION OF HOGSBACK IN THE EASTERN CAPE
It’s often said about Hogsback that it inspired JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’m not too sure about that since he was only 3 years old when he left South Africa forever, but Hogsback has certainly taken up the mantle. Everywhere you look, there are place-and-character-names from the novels.
Nevertheless, it’s an easy story to allow yourself to believe, and I have yet to find anywhere quite as magical and fable-like as Hogsback, set in the Amathole Mountains in the Eastern Cape.
If you’ve never been, consider it a bucket-list destination you absolutely must visit in your lifetime. Here’s my destination guide to help you plan your visit.
1. Where To Stay
Hogsback is very much a tourist destination and as such, there are numerous accommodation options in various categories. Check out some of those here.
My number one accommodation venue and recommendation is The Edge. If at all possible, as they are often booked up well in advance, do try and experience your Hogsback visit by staying at The Edge, and especially in one of their cliff-side cottages. The views are incredible.
Their units are almost entirely self-catering (except for a few B&B rooms) but there is a restaurant on-site for those who prefer to dine out. It is also one of numerous quaint eateries dotted around town. If you go in low season, dinners at the restaurant need to be pre-booked.
If your budget doesn’t allow for The Edge, or you prefer to experience more social accommodation, then you simply must opt for Away With the Fairies, a backpackers and campsite, and also where you’ll find the very famous bath on the edge of the cliff. Probably the most Instagram’ed bath in South Africa!
2. What to See & Do
If you have time for only one activity in Hogsback, make sure it’s a hike on one of the numerous mountain trails to one of the many beautiful waterfalls. Hogsback and the Eastern Cape are currently experiencing a severe drought at the time of this article (June 2019), so some of the falls have diminished, but the Madonna & Child waterfall is still an incredibly beautiful sight to behold.
You can also take an extended hike and see the famous Big Tree, an 800-year old Yellowwood in the indigenous forest. Hogsback is also a favourite destination for birding. For example, little groups of sunbirds enjoyed flitting about our unit, evading our best attempts to photograph them. I’d never seen so many together in any one moment.
Hogsback features a prominent artist community and there are a number of locations you can stop in to view some of the more renowned artwork, such as the famous Eco Shrine.
My suggestion is that you should go for the views, the reinvigorating feeling of being out in nature, and cosying up to a loved one in front of a warm fire, enjoying the quiet and solitude of a mountain retreat.
3. How to Get There
There are numerous routes to Hogsback, and not all are recommended. In fact, some should be avoided at all costs. So definitely make sure you are taking the right route. Depending on your origin, you may wish to fly in via East London, rent a car and drive to Hogsback via the all-tar road that snakes through King William’s Town and Alice. Though the town of Hogsback itself is almost all gravel, most cars will do fine there as long as you drive slowly and avoid the main road’s potholes. Cars with low profiles are definitely not recommended.
If you prefer to drive all the way, you can make an epic road trip of it from Cape Town or Johannesburg. However, this is not recommended for a short stay or if this is your only destination, as it is quite a long journey. It can be done and we’ve done it, driving through for a long-weekend, but it is a lot of driving.
From Cape Town, you can either drive all along the Garden Route, or alternatively through the Karoo and via small-town destinations like Graaff-Reinet and Cookhouse. This also takes the road via Alice, eventually. These options are all tar.
From Johannesburg, you have a number of options. You can drive to Gariep Dam, the largest dam in South Africa, and head away from the major N1 highway from there (a short stretch of this road is not great, potholed and not advisable for night-time driving especially), or you can drive all the way to Colesberg and leave the N1 from that point.
The route (as per Google Maps) that leaves the N1 much earlier and travels via the byways that run through the Free State province is not recommended at this time because large sections of the rural Free State road network are in extremely bad condition, hugely potholed and in dire need of fixing.
If you do take the road from Gariep, make sure you’re heading to Cradock, and then Fort Beaufort and Alice. This is tar all the way to town. The northern “entrance” route via Cathcart includes a 60km stretch of gravel that is not advised for regular vehicles. Though not impassable, it will be slow going and not all vehicles will manage. We managed it in the Ossemwa but it isn’t called the Ossemwa for nothing. The road via Cathcart is mostly recommended for 4x4s or 4x2s. The road via the town of Seymour is strongly advised against and is often said to be completely impassable, even by 4×4. Basically, always aim to be entering town via Alice.
4. What to Know and Town Amenities
The town has a tiny fuel station, a small grocery store as well as a bottle store. Most people tend to eat out at the various restaurants that are available. If, like us, you’re budget-conscious, consider bringing all you’ll need for self-catering, e.g. meal options and the basics to make it. Most self-catering accommodation places will have all you need in terms of cutlery, and other basic kitchen essentials, so you’re able to put together your meal.
The roads in Hogsback itself are mostly gravel. The main drag is a former stretch of tar that is now potholed quite badly. It’s easier driving on the gravel roads that lead off the main road. Just go slowly and carefully.
As the Eastern Cape is currently experiencing a severe drought, anyone travelling to the region is asked to bring their own supply of water. This helps ease the strain on local water resources. So do consider bringing some five litre bottles of water to use for all your cooking and drinking requirements.
5. When To Go
The best time to visit Hogsback is right in the middle of winter. That says a lot coming from me, because I don’t enjoy the cold at all. But Hogsback is at its most magical during the cold winter months. Wake up to misty mountains, drift away in front of a warm log fire, snuggle close under a down duvet, warm up with some sherry, or get the blood flowing hiking in the mountains. And if you’re lucky, you might encounter snow. Hogsback also runs an extremely popular “Christmas in July” winter festival, which is also a great time to go.
6. The National Arts Festival
For me, however, the most perfect time to go to Hogsback is when you can coincide your visit there with a trip to the nearby town of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) for the National Arts Festival. The Festival, which this year started just yesterday in the sleepy university town of Grahamstown, my home for a long time, is another absolute must-do event that you simply have to experience.
However you make your way, or whenever you choose to go, visiting the town of Hogsback will definitely make for a very special holiday. Take a snuggle buddy!