Ah, the Garden Route. Rivers, lakes, lagoons, vineyards. 300km of the south east coast of South Africa. Indigenous temperate forest, pine plantations and thick fragrant bush. Rocky coves, sandy bays. Do you like the phrase ‘coastal vista’? Hmm. Well, you’ll hear it, see it, damn, you’ll be shouting it by the end of this jaunt. You’re gonna see a whole lotta lovely views. Super sea. Super whales. Super sand. So much super it’ll make ya cry.
Home to half a dozen nature and marine reserves, you can hike, trek wildlife, hang out at the beach.
1. Beaches & Forests
A good start is the Tsitsikamma National Park. Home to the Big Tree. Huge and a thousand years old. Imagine how much its seen it all its days. Phew. A stunning forest to wander through. You can head all the way to the seaside town of Knysna. Plettenberg Bay is on the way, originally named ‘beautiful bay’ by early Portuguese explorers. That gives you a clue. It’s a rather pleasant spot on Planet Earth. Head to Knysna Forest. Go horse riding and admire ferns and fynbos. Admittedly they sound like celebrity siblings but they’re not. You may see lots of strelitzia too - giant ones - she’s surely ferns and fynbos’ mum but she’s not. She’s a plant. Fool. Yes, yes the garden route is finally getting a reputation for fine wines but you’ve downed your last of the day sonny. Giant strelitzia are banana like and often called birds of paradise.
The Garden Route does beaches rather beautifully. Hartenbos, Stilbaai and Mossel Bay are the most famous. Hartenbos is wide, sandy and good for children. Stilbaai is also known as the Bay of Sleeping Beauty which is rather stupendous. 3km of sand. Flat and safe. Good for body board surfing. Mossel Bay has several good spots including Santos Beach and Dana Bay. Occasionally whales come into the bay to calve. Lots of dolphins too.
Quieter beaches include Noetzie near Knysna. Clean beach in a secluded cove. Victoria Bay and Herolds Bay are small, hidden, sandy. Massive waves. Surfer’s paradise. Brenton beach is stunning and rustic. Gerickes Point has huge sandstone cliffs that are actually fossilised dunes. Myoli Beach is windy, quick have a windsurf. Ah, you blew away. Shame. Witsand Beach is one of the best for whale watching, especially from June to October.
2. Whale Route
Talking of which... The Whale Route starts along the south of Cape Town to Durban - it’s about 1,200 miles of whale watching coastline including the Garden Route and Tsitsikamma National Park.
Plettenberg Bay is one of THE places to go if you’re a whale. Southern right, humpback and bryde are three of the great lumps that love it. They’ve basically had it with Antarctica. Who can blame them? It’s just too darn cold, time for an African warm up. Those coves make nice little cots for their little ones too. Southern rights can be seen metres from the shore. Bryde’s stay further out.
They make a lot of noise those mighty sea giants. Especially when competing for a mate. They’re massive and they like to hurl themselves around. To look slick the male may even sing a bit. They leap, splash, fight, bang, crash. That’s a lot of blubber to bellyflop on. And yet, when it comes to the deed itself it’s all over in about 30 seconds. Bit of a damp squib for the lady. And they’re not even monogamous. That lying, two timing, rat. Disgusting.
There are about 37 species of whales and dolphins in the waters off South Africa but it’s the southern rights and humpbacks that you’re most likely to see. African penguins, Cape fur seals and black oystercatcher birds, like to hang out too.
3. Route 62
More than a road, think of Route 62 as a moving holiday. Mountain passes, vineyards, orchards. You’ll be oohing and aahing at every bend. And it’s quiet as many people drive the speedier N2. The Garden Route section of Route 62 centres around the Klein Karoo. The roads are good and the small towns you’ll pass through are rustic and thoroughly pleasant. Lots of ostriches. Robertson Wine Valley is worth a stop as is Oudtshoorn. Definitely explore the Cango Caves. Genuinely impressive. Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is good for the Big Five. Ronnie’s Sex Shop is an amusingly named pub - not salacious - just a joke by Ronnie’s friends when it was a humble farm shop that’s stuck. The best of the Karoo can be found in the Karoo Desert National Park. One of the largest collections of succulents live here.
The Garden Route National Park is home to 85 species of mammals including elephant.
And there are several smaller nature reserves along the route too. You can see the Big Five at the Garden Route Game Lodge, lots of antelope too. You don’t really get the huge expanse of wilderness on the Garden Route but many reserves are good options for families or first timers. Examples include Gondwana Game Reserve near Mossel Bay. Look out for cheetah, giraffe and lion. Botlierskop is a small family friendly reserve. Kariega is larger with good wildlife as is Sanbona.
More In South Africa
South Africa is the best of both worlds: it is Africa with its beautiful scenery, glorious weather and relaxed attitude, which manifests itself in the people who are friendly and easy-going; it also has a modern infrastructure making it an easy country to visit with plenty to see and do and plenty of ways to get around.
There is something soothing about row upon row of grapevines be they in winter green or summer russet. It may be their rhythm and sense of order; the shape of the land enhanced or the calming effect of lines converging in the distance. In any case, time slows down in Cape wine country and that's all the more to enjoy your time here.
Garden Route Safari
If you've been doing your South Africa safari research, and that's why you're here, you'll be thinking along the lines of a Kruger National Park safari followed by a few days on the beach in Cape Town. But, you'll be saying to yourself, there's an awful big distance between those two places and I've heard malaria is a nasty piece of work.
Namaqualand and Northern Cape
Dry. Arid. Remote. Stretching 1000 kilometres along the West Coast, this thirsty patch of Planet Earth is a biodiversity hotspot. Incredible. Rich in minerals and swathes of unspoilt vastness. A different kind of beauty. And then, suddenly, for a few short months Namaqualand sheds its desert cloak and darling buds burst through the sand and granite. Thousands and thousands of petal clad carnival queens vying for the sun. Their survival remarkable. The Namaqualand flower route is a natural phenomenon and world famous.
Humans like perfection. Humans like shiny things. Like the common magpie myth we covet, squirrel and parade. And what could be more gorgeous, more glittering, more regal than gold. We trade it, wear it, damn it we even eat it. So when gold was discovered here in the late 1800s people rushed in. Pickaxes a ready. The world’s largest gold rush had begun and South Africa would never be the same.
Swaziland (Kingdom of Eswatini)
Still under rule by decree of the King, Swaziland is one of the last true monarchies in the world. A country wedged between South Africa and Mozambique with a small economy but with a number of game reserves and a huge traditional culture so unique, it has fast become a popular tourist attraction.
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