November 4

A Complete Guide to South Africa’s Gorgeous Garden Route


November 4, 2015

Along the South Coast of South Africa lies one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, the stunning Garden Route. With mountains and vineyards on one side, and rocky shores and sandy beaches on the other, the Garden Route waltzes into lists of the world’s best drives.

Huffington Post, CNN, Australia’s Traveller Magazine, Business Insider and Rough Guides are just some of the publications that sing the praises of this scenic drive in their ‘Greatest Road Trip’ articles. The Daily Mail writes, “The Garden Route boasts some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline, jam-packed with exotic activities to enjoy along the way. Explorers can enjoy the double majesty of elephants on land and whales close to the shore, forest walks and one of the continent’s most unhurried towns.”

The view of Tsitsikamma mountains along the Garden Route

It is the indigenous vegetation – fynbos, which puts the ‘garden’ into the Garden Route. The Cape Floral Kingdom (a World Heritage Site) is the smallest of the six floral kingdoms in the world. Even though the biome is a mere dot at the southern tip of Africa, it boasts over 45,000 different plants, over 69% of which are endemic to the region. Interestingly, the diversity of fynbos species is due to its history – the southern hemisphere did not experience the last ice age of 10,000 years ago that wiped out the vegetation of the northern hemisphere.

The Garden Route is home to many natural wonders including the Cango Caves, Cape Agulhas (the southern tip of Africa), the Knysna Heads and some of the most majestic mountain passes in the country. The landscapes range from Karoo scrub land to lush coastal forests. The cherry on top of this delicious fynbos cake is the beautiful weather. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Garden Route has the second mildest climate in the world after Hawaii.

Roughly starting in Cape Town and ending in Port Elizabeth, the Garden Route has an incredible list of activities and attractions to choose from. Let’s take a closer look at these attractions, and get this great trip on the road…


The scenic Route 62 of the Garden Route
Image credit: Leo van Wijngaarden

Route 62 is the tourist route that meanders from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn offering the shorter, scenic alternative to the N2 highway. It’s an area of dramatic landscapes, towering cliffs, crystal clear streams and an abundance of trees and indigenous flora. Starting in one of the world’s great wine regions and ending in the sparse Karoo, Route 62 casts its gentle, captivating spell on all who travel its roads.


Bontebok National Park
Image credit: Danilo Naumann

Swellendam is the third oldest town in South Africa with 50 provincial heritage sites in this small town. Halfway between Cape Town and George, Swellendam lies at the base of the Overberg Mountains. Surrounded by wine farms and Cape Dutch country houses with the Breede River passing nearby, there are three main attractions for visitors.

Cape Agulhas – This rocky headland is the geographic southern tip of the African continent and the beginning of the dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
Bontebok National Park – The smallest national park in South Africa is just 5km from the centre of Swellendam. Part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, Bontebok National Park is always boasting something in bloom. Watch the bontebok grazing from your chalet window, or spy on the 200 bird species home to the park from the viewing decks.
Marloth Nature Reserve – This peaceful reserve has seven different hiking trails, all varying in difficulty, length and landscape. Marloth offers fynbos-clad mountains, patches of indigenous forests and unspoiled vistas.


Ostriches can be fed at some Oudtshoorn farms
Oudtshoorn is the largest town in the Klein Karoo, a sun-drenched area about 250km long and 70km wide where every road crosses a spectacular mountain pass dotted with the fantastic Cape fynbos.

Grapes grow here (Calitzdorp produces some of the country’s best port), as does lucerne (alfalfa), which is why farmers in the region were able to successfully introduce the ostrich – lucerne is a favorite food of the ostrich. Today the ostrich farms, together with the Cango Caves – a series of subterranean chambers – are the main draws of the region.

Ostrich Farms – The ostrich remains the primary source of income for Oudtshoorn, with thousands flocking to see, touch, eat, and even ride the giant birds. There are some 400 ostrich farms, of which Highgate (incidentally, the biggest ostrich farm in the world), Safari, Oudtshoorn, and Cango all have a similar offering. These include an explanation of ostrich farming (from incubation to tanning), guided tours of the farm, the opportunity to sit on an ostrich, and an ostrich “derby.”
Cango Caves – One of the most popular attractions in the region, the Cango Caves is also one of the great natural wonders of South Africa. A series of spectacular limestone caverns lie in wait for the curious explorer. All are filled with a captivating collection of stalactites, stalagmites and helictites (limestone formations that grow in unusual directions).
Outdoors – Include hiking trails, mountain biking, caving, abseiling, rock climbing, quad biking, hot air ballooning, micro-light flights, eco tours, driving across a historical pass and birding.
Natural Beauty – Just north of Oudtshoorn en-route to the historic and gorgeous town of Prince Albert, you will find two of the Klein Karoo’s largest wilderness areas – the Swartberg Nature Reserve and Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, a succulent botanist’s dream destination in the Red Mountain Range.
Meerkat Tours – A popular activity is the daily tours of the wild, yet habituated meerkats. These tours commence at sunrise and are dependent on good weather since these little creatures will not venture outside their burrows on cold and rainy days. Guests sit and observe the meerkats as they come out of the burrow into the morning sun and then go about their daily routine of foraging and exploring.
Swartberg Pass – Rated one of the most spectacular drives in Africa, the Swartberg Pass offers stupendous views of the Klein Karoo, which lies some 1,220m  below. The road can be hair-raising and is known for its zigzags, twists, and steep gradients on its narrow dirt road.


The Fancourt Hotel and Golf Estate in George
Image credit: Safari Partners

Halfway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, the fast-growing city of George is by no means a highlight of the Garden Route but it is the commercial heart, with the most transport connections and a large choice of restaurants. It’s not worth spending too much time in George, as its attractions are few and far from scintillating, and the coastal town of Wilderness, with a number of pleasant lodging options, is just a 10-minute drive away.

The best reason to visit George is for its range of world-class golf courses such as Fancourt, which has four courses in George: The Links (premier), Outeniqua, Montagu and Bramble. There is also George and Kingswood.  Pinnacle Point is in nearby Mossel Bay, and Knysna has the impressive Simola and Pezula golf courses. 


An aerial view of Wilderness
Wilderness is idyllically situated between mountains and beaches, with a chain of tranquil lakes locked in between. It’s the only village in South Africa that, together with the five rivers, five natural lakes, two estuaries, surrounding forests and 28 kilometers of coastline, is protected within a 2,612 hectare National Park.

Wilderness sports many types of wildlife, in particular, birds. This is a breeding spot for many water birds making it the ideal destination for bird-watchers. The many other types of recreation include hiking, dolphin and whale watching, hang-gliding, paragliding, horse riding, mountain biking, scenic drives, day tours, ferry cruises, angling, boating and other water sports.

The famous Map of Africa viewpoint offers a fantastic view of the Kaaimans River Valley and an ocean vista worth stopping to admire. Another great viewpoint is Dolphin Point, which gives a magnificent view of the ocean for miles and was named after the number of dolphins which can be spotted from here on a regular basis, as well as whales in the winter months.

Explore the Wilderness area by:
• Walking on the endless white beaches.
• Hiking through lush natural forests.
• Canoeing up the winding Touw River.
• Mountain biking on little by-roads or on the beach at low tide.
• Driving through the scenic mountain passes to the Karoo.
• Playing golf at excellent nearby golf courses.
• Watching the dolphins and whales.


Knysna Heads are spectacular to see
Knysna is one-half of what is affectionately known as ‘The Heart of the Garden Route’ (with the other half Plettenberg Bay). The town is nestled between the impressive Outeniqua Mountains and the Indian Ocean, with the world-renowned forests encircling it like a protective emerald green halo. The defining feature of Knysna is its large lagoon, which is protected from the sea by the ‘Heads’ towering over the lagoon. Knysna has the largest areas of indigenous forests left in South Africa, which until recently was home to the elusive Knysna forest elephants.

Knysna Heads – Capture post-card worthy photographs from the Eastern Head viewpoint. The opposite viewpoint is equally spectacular. For a 360-degree view from Plettenberg Bay all the way to Mosselbay, one can drive out to the Spitskop viewpoint. For the more adventurous, you could also abseil the Heads!
Knysna Forests – Exploring the forests is another popular activity, as are lagoon-based excursions; several companies run boat trips on the lagoon, home to 200 species of fish and a variety of birds.
Featherbed Nature Reserve – This privately owned nature reserve on the western head of Knysna is a National Heritage Site and home to the endangered blue duiker antelope. Guests are ferried over and then drive up the head to enjoy the magnificent views of the lagoon, town, and ocean. Qualified guides then lead the visitors down through milkwood forests and coastal flora onto the cliffs and coastal caves.
The Seven Passes Scenic Drive – is considered a definite “must do” when in the area. This 75km route spans between Knysna & George, over seven mountain passes, past several historic bridges and will keep you mesmerised for about 2 ½ hours.


Robberg Nature Reserve is worth a visit
The Portuguese sailors who first set eyes on Plettenberg Bay or simply “Plett” named it Bahia Formosa, the “Beautiful Bay”, and with several miles of white sand beaches, backed by the far-off outline of the Tsitsikamma Mountains and lapped by an endless succession of warm waves, you’d probably agree.

Over the years, its beauty has inevitably drawn an ever-increasing string of admirers, but in the off season, when the vast majority of holiday homes stand empty, a far more laid-back atmosphere prevails. Plett boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in South Africa and has four premier “Blue Flag” status beaches, which are Robberg, Lookout Beach, Keurboomstrand and Nature’s Valley.  Further down the coast towards Port Elizabeth the fantastic surf and unique tours are a major drawcard for the more adventurous travellers.

Robberg Nature Reserve – Robberg, situated 8km south of Plett, is not only a nature reserve with beautiful walking trails, but also a national monument. Rocks from this region date back 120 million years and evidence of middle and later Stone Age inhabitation has been found in a few of the caves along the peninsula. 
Bungee Jump
 – One of the highest jumps in the world at Bloukrans Bridge – an astonishing 216 meters!
Paragliding/Sky Diving – What better way to see the area then from a bird’s-eye view? Paragliding over the forests and Knysna lagoon is a favourite pastime, or make your way to Plettenberg Bay and enjoy the thrill of skydiving (tandem skydive from 10,000 feet, with a 35 second freefall).
Tenikwe Wildlife Awareness Centre – Start the day off with an exhilarating stroll through Tsitsikamma Indigenous Forest and Cape Floral Fynbos as you join the Tenikwa cheetahs on their daily walk. Thereafter join a guided one-hour walking tour to meet the rest of the cats and endangered wildlife at Tenikwa (African wild cat, black-footed cat, serval and caracal) where you will learn about their struggle to survive in the wild.
Monkeyland – Take a stroll through the primate sanctuary situated in the Craggs. This is a noisy, in-your-face-and-up-your-nose kind of experience as you actually walk through the large cage that the monkeys are in.
Birds of Eden – This is the world’s largest free-flight aviary. The sanctuary incorporates an indigenous forest with waterfalls and elevated walkways. Previously caged birds from every corner of the globe live here in free flight.

View birds in paradise at Birds of Eden
Tree Top Canopy Tours – Zip-line around the tops of the forest, harnessed in, you zip between tall trees of Tsitsikamma with a bird’s eye view of the forest below.
Whale Watching – Plettenberg Bay is a great spot for whale and dolphin watching and there are numerous boat-based whale watching trips & ocean safaris on offer.
Keurbooms River – Visitors can choose from an array of water-based activities on the river such as kite-surfing, kayaking or sailing on a catamaran into the ocean.
The Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour – This is a unique eco-wilderness adventure that takes place in the magnificent Tsitsikamma indigenous rainforest. The first of its kind in Africa, the canopy tour involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30 meters above the forest floor.
Jeffreys Bay – Considred one of the best surfing destinations in the world, J-Bay, as it’s known to locals, has been attracting the surfing crowds for decades. According to surfing experts, it’s the best right-hand ride in the world.

If you would like to find out how you can experience one of the best scenic drives and regions in the world, contact us for your free, no-obligation quote.


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About the author 

Matthew Sterne

Matt discovered a passion for writing in the six years he spent travelling abroad. He worked for a turtle sanctuary in Nicaragua, in an ice cream factory in Norway and on a camel safari in India. He was a door-to-door lightbulb-exchanger in Australia, a pub crawl guide in Amsterdam and a journalist in Colombia. Now, he writes and travels with us.

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