Road Trippin’ South Africa’s Garden Route
Featured destinations: South Africa
Published 30 March 2016
One of the world’s greatest road trips, the Garden Route is a 125-mile portion of South Africa’s N2 Highway that stretches between Mossel Bay and Storms River. An outdoor playground where lush vegetation and towering cliffs loom over golden beaches and peaceful lagoons, it makes for a wonderfully diverse and outdoorsy holiday destination, filled with hiking trails, wildlife watching, adrenaline sports and some wonderful food and wine. A string of boutique hotels and classy restaurants line the coast, and the roads are in an excellent condition, making this the perfect place for a chilled self-drive holiday. Angela Griffin takes us through the essentials…
About four hours’ drive from Cape Town, Mossel Bay marks the beginning of the Garden Route. It was here that, on 3rd February 1488, Bartolomeu Dias and his crew became the first modern Europeans to set foot in South Africa, something that you can learn all about in the town’s Dias Museum Complex. Many visitors to Mossel Bay come to relax on one of the beautiful beaches, or to crack open a chilled bottle of South Africa’s finest wine and admire the wild sea views from Cape St Blaize Lighthouse, keeping a look out for breaching whales. For the more active there are plenty of adventurous outdoor activities on offer, ranging from hiking trails of various lengths to getting up close and personal with fearsome great whites while shark cage diving. Mossel Bay’s rolling waves make it a popular surfing spot too.
You don’t have to drive to Mossel Bay in one go of course, as there are plenty of diverting stop-off points en route from Cape Town, which, although not technically part of the Garden Route, are often included in a Western Cape self-drive itinerary. Perhaps try Swellendam, a town filled with delightful Cape Dutch architecture, or my personal favourite, windswept Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the African continent and the point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
Wilderness, Garden Route National Park
A national park in its own right until it was enveloped into the Garden Route National Park in 2009, Wilderness encompasses five lakes and the Serpentine, a narrow strip of water linking Island Lake with the Touw River. This tranquil wetland is home to varied wildlife including the rare Knysna seahorse and the pied kingfisher, and whales and dolphins are frequently spotted offshore. Fill your days with cycling, canoeing, abseiling and kloofing (scrambling, swimming and jumping into a deep ravine, a bit like canyoning), or try the Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail, a gentle three to four hour walk along the river starting at Ebb & Flow North Rest camp.
Knysna’s lagoon is a wonderfully peaceful spot, great for kayaking or chilling with a gourmet picnic. When I first visited in 2003 the lagoon was being dredged for cleaning, and somehow I ended up spending my day sieving through the seaweed in search of the endangered Knysna seahorse. I felt like quite the eco-warrior, placing the poor critters into black bins filled with water, ready for relocation. Today, the lagoon is back to its sparkling best and the seahorse thankfully back in its rightful home, and you can snorkel or dive with them for a closer look (or check them out in Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, without doubt the best aquarium I’ve ever been to).
Oysters are a big deal in Knysna, and they are celebrated with the town’s annual Oyster Festival, held in June and July. These saltwater molluscs are farmed right here in the lagoon and you can learn more about them on an Oyster Tour, where you’ll sample a few freshly caught ones washed down with a chilled glass of sauvignon. Alternatively, order a dozen at 34 South, a fabulous waterfront restaurant in the Knysna Quays. Other than gorging on oysters there is plenty to do here – take a catamaran cruise to admire the dramatic Knysna Heads, hike the scenic paths of the Featherbed Nature Reserve or try your hand at tree canopy climbing.
As a student, I was lucky enough to spend a whole summer in Plett, as the locals refer to it, studying the whales and dolphins that migrate along the coast. Marine mammals are the main attraction here, with boat trips running daily and sightings ranging from humpbacks and southern right whales to Bryde’s whales and bottlenose dolphins. The Robberg Nature and Marine Reserve is well worth a look too – just follow the incessant chatter of the Cape fur seals, and that strange fishy smell. For more wildlife head to Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, an eco-tourism project that aims to rehabilitate formerly caged monkeys back into the wild and increase public awareness of their plight. Round off your stay with the catch of the day at The Fat Fish, located right on the beach.
Zip-lining in Tsitsikamma National Park © Angela Griffin
Nature’s Valley is blessed with clean fresh air and wide open spaces, so when I was in town I headed straight outdoors to Tsitsikamma National Park for a fun-filled zip-lining adventure through the treetops. This is an unusual way to appreciate the area’s natural wonders, and to admire the gorgeous backdrop of the Tsitsikamma Mountains, not to mention being an exhilarating and fun-filled afternoon. Sailing and canoeing along the rocky shores are another way to explore the area, with hiking, horse riding and bird watching also popular. A few mammals such as the bushbuck, bushpig, caracal and baboon dwell in the shrubbery, as well as a range of birds including the rare turaco, also known as the Knysna lourie. To add a final flourish to an action-packed day, indulge in a glass of locally-produced wine and a cheese platter at Nature’s Way Farm Stall. Bliss!
Storms River Mouth
Expert Sam Griffin black water tubing in Storms River © Sam Griffin
Adrenaline junkies should make a beeline for Storms River, the place to come to come for white-knuckle exploits. Cross the swinging suspension bridge across Storms River Mouth, soak up the forest and rocky cove views as the waves crash beneath you, or do like Round the World Experts’ very own Sam Griffin and try black water tubing on the river. If you’re feeling extra brave, fling yourself off the 216-metre high Bloukrans Bridge, with nothing but an elastic band strapped to your feet. This is the world’s highest commercial bungee jump, and not for the faint-hearted. I was scared witless just watching people jump and found walking along the bridge terrifying enough! I far more enjoyed my trip to Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary, where I made friends with the puppies and learned about wolf conservation.
Making friends at Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary © Angela Griffin
How to do it:
The Garden Route is easily reached by hire car from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or George, which is connected by frequent flights to Johannesburg. Take a look at our Garden Route & Safari tailor-made Journey or chat to your Expert about booking your Garden Route Journey.
A word of warning:
Don’t make the same mistake I did and come to the Western Cape expecting wild African savannahs and lions roaming the plains. You’re more likely to find lavish yachts moored in swanky marinas, grand waterfront hotels and some top-notch restaurants overlooking the sea. For a more ‘real’ Africa, add on a few days in South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, or combine your trip with a Journey to the Serengeti and Masai Mara.