The Garden Route

South Africa

The Garden Route begins about four hours outside Cape Town, and includes one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline, the starting point of which is constantly contested as towns such as Witsand, Stilbaai and Albertinia join the route that winds its way for some 200 km via George, Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna on to Plettenberg Bay culminating in the Tstisikamma Forest – a fairyland of giant trees, ferns and bird life.

Mountains crowd close to a shoreline dotted with beaches and bays, and vividly coloured wild flowers delight the eye. Between Heidelberg and Storms River, the Garden Route runs parallel to a coastline featuring lakes, mountains, tall indigenous forests, amber -coloured rivers and golden beaches.

Meandering trails are followed by hikers, the forests invite long, leisurely drives, and the lakes and rivers lend themselves to swimming boating and fishing. A wide range of leisure options, spectacular scenery and a mild climate guarantee an unforgettable holiday experience when visiting the Garden Route in South Africa.

 

The region provides a stirring study in contrasts. The delightful town of George, known as “The Gateway to the Garden Route”, graces a coastal plateau in a fertile area of lush greenery at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains. Oudtshoorn, “Capital of the Klein Karoo”, is set in a semi-arid valley, providing the ideal habitat for ostriches which are farmed here on a grand scale.

The Garden Route stretches on the southern coast from Heidelberg to the Tsitsikamma Forest and Storms River. It’s a nook of the country that offers inspiration to writers and artists whose presence gives the Garden Route a trendy flavour. It is also a top priority of many a foreign visitor. The coastal drive links a series of charming towns interspersed with natural beauty.

Along the way, every kind of adventure activity is possible; scuba diving, abseiling, fishing and more. The Tsitsikamma National Park, perched on a tumultuous Indian Ocean shore is one of South Africa’s most dramatic protected areas, combining marine and land attractions. Its indigenous forests are a haven for birdlife. One of the most geologically interesting parts of South Africa is the Klein Karoo, with its towering mountains and sheer gorges.

An important geological feature is the Cango Caves, a series of caverns and chambers naturally hewn out of limestone, situated outside the city of Oudtshoorn. The Cango Caves are among the top ten most visited South African attractions.

 

Oudtshoorn itself, the heart of the ostrich feather industry when it was in its hey day the late 1800s and early 1900s, is well worth a visit. The grandiose, old feather palaces are still to be seen, while ostrich farms, now involved in the commercial production of meat, leather, eggs and feathers, can be toured, with the possibility of riding an ostrich.

THE GARDEN ROUTE AS A DESTINATION; MUST SEE IN THE GARDEN ROUTE

1.      GONDWANA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE

Along the Garden Route of South Africa just 4 hours from Cape Town you will find 11 000 hectares of indigenous fynbos and free roaming big 5 game, home to the lion, black rhinoceros, eland, red hartebeest, endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, springbok, kudu, …

About Gondwana Private Game Reserve

Along the Garden Route of South Africa just 4 hours from Cape Town you will find 11 000 hectares of indigenous fynbos and free roaming big 5 game, home to the lion, black rhinoceros, eland, red hartebeest, endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, springbok, kudu, as well as elephant, among others.

 

Did you know?

The Gondwana reserve gets its name from the original land mass that existed one hundred and twenty million years ago called “Gondwanaland”.

The unique vegetation on the Gondwana Private Game reserve consists of both Fynbos and grass plains which is arguably the most beautiful in the world. The Fynbos resembles wild flowers and is endemic to the Western Cape which is found nowhere else in the world. Here you will find plant species such as Proteas, Erica’s, and Restios which provide much colour and beauty to the reserve.

The Gondwana reserve gets its name from the original land mass that existed one hundred and twenty million years ago called “Gondwanaland”. Africa was formed after this Land mass broke up into different continents. The last bit of visible evidence of the 100 million year old land mass is the Outeniqua and Swartberg mountain ranges which surround the reserve.

When the Gondwana Game reserve was developed, much care and consideration was taken in reducing the impact on the environment and kept areas of indigenous vegetation protected and untouched. Processes are in place to remove all alien invasive plants that may harm this natural vegetation. The water system and supply at Gondwana is completely self-sufficient as it uses its own streams and has water restrictions in place.

Before the development of the reserve, it was home to three sheep and cattle farms and was chosen for its conservation value and viability to support wildlife. By developing the reserve, Gondwana contributes to the conservation of the critically endangered fynbos species such as Renoster thicket and Blanco Fynbos Renosterveld.

 

2.      BLOUKRANS PASS

About Bloukrans Pass

Bloukrans River Bridge, just beyond Nature’s Valley in the Western Cape, is famous for its bungi jump, reputed to be the highest commercial bungi in the world at 216 metres. But the Bloukrans Pass is one of several passes found in the Tsitsikamma.

Did you know?

Bloukrans Pass is as incredible as the Groot River Pass with steep ravines and more than its own share of 90 degree turns. It is arguably the most spectacular of the passes in this area.

These passes are part of the old route with tree-canopied winding roads that, despite their being slightly run-down and as a result sometimes closed, are well worth driving as it makes such a beautiful alternative to the N2. Instead of driving across the high bridges like the Bloukrans bridge, you get to see them from the old road. Before driving through the Bloukrans Pass, one passes through the Groot River Pass.

With Plettenberg Bay behind you, take a bit of a detour off the N2 just before the toll road that takes one through the Tsitsikamma. This old road travels through farmland and fynbos clad countryside along the slopes above the Groot River.

Watch out, as the road through the Groot River Pass makes a rather sudden hairpin turn, descending from the top at a more than dizzying rate. The views from the top, and whilst sending it down the pass, are pretty incredible though. The pass then takes one through the pretty village of Nature’s Valley, worth a stop over if you can to take a stroll along its lagoon that forms part of the Groot River estuary, and onto the beaches here – remote, deserted during off peak season and absolutely beautiful.

Leaving Nature’s Valley takes one on to the Bloukrans River Pass. There is an initial low level bridge crossing the Groot River. Just north of here you will be able to look across at the toll road to the hugely high Bloukrans bridge.

3.      TSITSIKAMMA NATIONAL PARK

About Tsitsikamma National Park

The Tsitsikamma National Park is situated at the heart of the picturesque tourist region known as the Garden Route, found in the Southern Cape of South Africa. The Park incorporates 80 km of rocky coastline with spectacular sea and landscapes, a remote mountainous region with secluded valleys covered in mountain Fynbos and temperate high forests with deep river gorges leading down to the sea.

Did you know?

Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning, “place of much water”.

The Tsitsikamma’s spectacular scenery includes the Indian Ocean breakers, pounding rocky shores beneath 180 m high cliffs, ever-green forests and fynbos (proteas and heath) rolling down to the sea in a lush carpet where ancient rivers have carved their path to the ocean through rocky ravines. All this conspires to attract large numbers of international and local tourist to the Park.

Tsitsikamma National Park protects a wonderland of inter-tidal and marine life. This is one of the largest single unit ‘no take’ (including fishing) Marine Protected Areas in the world, conserving 11% of South Africa’s Temperate South Coast rocky shoreline and provides a ‘laboratory’ for fisheries baseline research on endangered fish species. In 1964 when it was proclaimed, it became the first Marine National Park to be proclaimed in Africa.

Approximately 30% of the park is covered in fynbos, scattered amongst the forest vegetation, boasting a wide variety of beautiful flowers, including proteas and heath. Many species of forest, fynbos and sea birds are present. The Tsitsikamma area has a long history of Marine and Forest utilisation and most of the local communities relied mostly, in one form or another, on these two ecosystems for their survival.

Cormorants, Kelp Gulls and African Black Oystercatchers are prominent along the coastline. Pied and Giant Kingfishers can both be seen hunting fish at tidal pools or in the rivers that drain into the Indian Ocean.

More inconspicuous, but also inhabiting these rivers are Half-collared Kingfisher and African Finfoot. The Tsitsikamma Forest is the haunt of the Knysna Loerie. Other forest species to watch or listen for include Emerald Cuckoo, Narina Trogon, Knysna and Olive Woodpecker, Chorister Robin and Grey Cuckooshrike.

Although Tsitsikamma boasts a magical world of inter-tidal life and reefs in its marine part, there is also the famous terrestrial part of the park with its lush forest, delicate fynbos and sheer cliffs. One of the most conspicuous trees is the Outeniqua yellow-wood, Podocarpus falcata.

4.      GARDEN ROUTE NATIONAL PARK

About Garden Route National Park

The Garden Route National Park, established by SANParks and also known as GRNP, spans an impressive 121 000 hectares and includes the existing Wilderness and Tsitsikamma national parks, the Knysna Lakes area and roughly 52 000 hectares of newly proclaimed land.

Did you know?

Still regarded as ‘new’ the GRNP was only gazetted in March 2009 and is part of a long-term plan to extend areas in South Africa under formal protection from 6% to 8% of the country.

It is no surprise to learn that the Garden Route is one of the most important conservation areas in the country in terms of biodiversity and that its sheer beauty attracts a major number of tourists, both local and from overseas.

The Garden Route is regarded as a critical focus area. The Knysna estuary and Wilderness lake areas alone are rated number one and six respectively; it is home to a section of 60 500 hectares of indindigenous forest – the largest continuous complex of such forest in the country; and the fynbos of the Garden Route falls within the Cape Floristic region – a global diversity hotspot.

The Garden Route National Park is so large it falls across both the Eastern Cape and Western Cape and brings together a series of tourist facilities that include camping areas, chalets, hiking and mountain bike trails, forest trails, canoeing, diving and other local activities.

The Garden Route National Park is an example of ‘conservation without boundaries’ and SANParks believes that it is in essence a new conservation model for the country, particularly if you consider the over 1 000 private landowners who border the park and the need to create stewardship programmes that encourage these residents of the Garden Route to help conserve the natural heritage of the area.

5.      ROBBERG NATURE RESERVE

About Robberg Nature Reserve

Just outside Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route is a remote rocky peninsula touted as the most popular hiking destination in and around Plettenberg Bay.

Did you know?

Hikers and visitors often sight loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles in the waters, with occasional rare visits by leatherback turtles.

The Robberg Peninsula is not only a nature reserve but also a national monument and marine protected area in the heart of the Garden Route, just 8 km south of Plettenberg Bay. Roughly 4 kilometres in length, the peninsula sweeps out to sea, like a mini Cape peninsula.

People head here for the natural beauty, the rocky shoreline home to hundreds of Cape Fur Seals and the waters rich with dolphins and whales.

 Montane fynbos sweeps up the wind-driven, rocky slopes awash in salt spray, whilst a collection of ocean seabirds – albatross, broadbilled prion and Subantarctic skua – fill the air with their calls as they head to and fro from the Sub-Antarctic island, Marion Island, south east of the peninsula. It is also a breeding area for the rare African black oystercatcher.

Kelp gulls breed on Robberg peninsula, particularly since the building of boardwalks that have allowed rehabilitation of disturbed area and kept people out of nesting areas.

And rare blue duiker, the country’s smallest antelope, hide in the evergreen thickets, occasionally appearing to hikers when they feel safe. This diminutive blue-grey antelope weighs under 5 kg and has short, sharp horns in amongst its tuft of hair.

The Robberg Peninsula is far more than a wonderful space in nature. It is also an important Middle and Later Stone Age archaeological site. Nelson Bay Cave shows evidence of a time when grasslands, rather than sea, stretched beyond the southern horizon.

And Robberg’s rocks date back 130 to 110 million years to the early Cretaceous period.

Hikers can choose from three circular routes, including the walk to The Point, which takes about four hours. Kayakers advocate that sightings from their boats are the best way to explore the rocky shoreline. And fishers fish from rock and surf (any other type of fishing is forbidden within one nautical mile of the peninsula).

6.      KNYSNA HEADS

About Knysna Heads

The Garden Route is a magnificent part of the South African coastline, known the world over for its breath-taking vistas and natural abundance. It links the provinces of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape and includes a number of popular holiday towns; such as Nature’s Valley, Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, George and Mossel Bay

Did you know?

Steeped in history and laden in breath-taking beauty, The Heads are very special must-sees for visitors to the Garden Route.

This is also the very special route along which the Knysna Heads are found, emerging from the raw power of the ocean to stand like tall sentries, guarding the picturesque lagoon and town. The ocean waters surge and crash dramatically through the passage between them, providing breath-taking views from so many different vantage points throughout the town and its outlying areas. The Knysna Heads are also notorious for having been the resting place for many fishermen and seamen that tried to negotiate the unpredictable, powerful waterway in days past.

Today, The Heads are a stunning sight to enjoy from a number of restaurants, and provide the perfect backdrop for those indulging in water sports nearby. The East Head is the more accessible one, and visitors need only head to Leisure Isle and then follow the sign posts to be part of the drama and scale of this headland.

It boasts a number of stunning homes, which have incredible views, as well as a selection of great restaurants. East Head Café has indoor and outdoor tables that are all positioned to make the best use of these views. Blankets are provided so that, even when the seasons turn, visitors can enjoy delicious food or cocktails accompanied by world-class views.

The East Head is easily accessible by car, and has a number of viewing points and decks from where to take in the stunning vistas. Cony Glen Road has two different viewpoints, each of which promises a slightly different perspective of this incredible natural wonder. There are also several little beaches and rock pools that can be reached via the East Head.

These are a delight for young and old to explore, and are the launching point for snorkellers, SUP-pers (Stand Up Paddlers), canoeists, paddlers, kayakers, kite boarders, and more. The beaches are also gorgeous little spots at which to enjoy a family picnic and a suntan. Always be aware of the changing tides before getting into the water here, as it can become risky quite unexpectedly otherwise.

The West Head is considerably trickier to access, as there are not public roads to it. So, the only way to see it is via a ferry trip across the lagoon. These are conducted regularly from the waterfront. The West Head is well worth the visit, though, thanks to its being home to the lovely Featherbed Nature Reserve.

A trip to the reserve includes the ferry trip across the lagoon, a 4 x 4 trip up the headland, stops at various lookout points, and an easy 2.2 kilometre walk that really shows off the loveliness of the area. The coastal forest and fynbos are beautiful to see, and the ancient caves are an exciting bonus.

The charters to The Heads include sunset cruises, oyster cruises and lagoon cruises; giving visitors even more variety in terms of the different ways that they are able to see and experience this beautiful part of South Africa.

7.      WHALE WATCHING IN GARDEN ROUTE

About Whale Watching in Garden Route

Whilst the Garden Route, between Mossel Bay and Storm’s River, does not get landbased whale watching in quite the same way as Hermanus, Witsand and De Hoop, whales are still very much in evidence in the more secluded bays particularly around Mossel Bay, Wilderness, Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay.

Did you know?

Knysna lagoon offers a sailing cruise past the Heads, another renowned area for spotting whales, and on towards Buffalo Bay. See southern right, humpback whales and even dolphins.

Mossel Bay offers a three-hour boat-based whale watching trip to Seal Island, whilst the largely unspoilt and beautiful beaches around Victoria Bay and Herold’s Bay offer some wonderful vantage points to watch over the waters. If you can, make a stop at Dolphin’s Point at Kaaiman’s Pass on the N2 – on clear days this is an amazing place to spot whales and dolphins. Also head for Sedgefield’s Gerike’s Point and Swartvlei Beach.

Knysna lagoon offers a sailing cruise past the Heads, another renowned area for spotting whales, and on towards Buffalo Bay. See southern right, humpback whales and even dolphins.

The Whale Trail includes an overnight at Noetzie beach in huts just above the crashing waves, where it is common to catch sight of the southern right whale.

Plettenberg Bay and the Robberg Peninsula – Plettenberg Bay in particular deserves a visit when the wales are in. It too calls itself the ‘whale capital’ of the world, in similar vein to Hermanus.

In Plett’s case, it has more to do with the whales’ prevalence – the bay sees Bryde’s, orcas and a range of dolphins all year round – and the duration of their visit – no sooner do the southern right whales start to head off than the humpback whales arrive, to remain until early January, usually whole families of them.

Add to this the rather impressive Cape fur seal community that makes the bay their home, and you can understand that Plettenberg Bay might contend for the title, even if their credentials are slightly different.

The area between the Athene shipwreck and the Keurbooms River in Plettenberg Bay draws a fairly large number of southern right whales. They roll in the waters close to shore.

And for excellent shore and cliff-based whale viewing head to the Robberg Peninsula and nature reserve, signal Hill, the Beacon Isle, Look-out deck, Look-out beach and Harkerville.

8.      KNYSNA LAGOON

About Knysna Lagoon

The Knysna Lagoon opens between two massive cliffs, known as The Heads. These stand tall, acting as rugged watchmen over the pristine loveliness of the lagoon. Here, exquisite views of the water surging through the narrowed entrance make for idyllic backdrops to your Garden Route excursion.

Did you know?

The breath-taking blue of the Knysna Lagoon imbues the coastal town of Knysna with an allure that is quite irresistible.

The Knysna Lagoon is one of the area’s chief tourist attractions and is a popular spot for local fishermen and water sports enthusiasts. Some of the bird species that may be spotted around the lagoon include sandpipers, stilts, herons, the malachite and pied kingfishers, black oyster catcher, African fish eagle, Knysna woodpecker, and Knysna warbler.

9.      THE KNYSNA LAGOON IS IDEAL FOR THE FOLLOWING ACTIVITIES

Fishing

Home to leerfish (Garrick), mullet, skate, elf (shad), grunter, white steenbras and Cape stumpnose, this is a prime spot for fishermen. Some prefer to take a boat out and enjoy the peaceful bobbing of the water, while others sit on the shores and jetties in wait for a promising bite. The gorgeous views are an added bonus.

 

Boating

Yachts, catamarans and motor boats are permanent fixtures of the Knysna Lagoon. Sailing and embarking on sundowner cruises are fantastic ways to experience its beauty, and to soak up the stunning vistas of the Knysna Heads.

Water sports

Whether summer or winter, water sports enthusiasts are seen taking advantage of the unhindered stretches of water and the calm conditions.

IT IS POPULAR FOR

• Kite surfing

• Hydro-foiling (during the high tide)

• Wake boarding

• Stand-up paddling (commonly known as SUP-ping)

• Water skiing

• Canoeing

• Kayaking

• Swimming

Whale- and Dolphin-Watching

The Indian Ocean awaits visitors on the other side of the dramatic Knysna Heads and boat trips are conducted to these waters throughout the year. Dolphins may be seen exploring the warm waters here at any time. Then, between July and December, several whale species could also be spotted. These inquisitive creatures (usually humpbacks and southern rights) may spyhop, lobtail or even breach; creating a stunning spectacle for those watching from the boat.

Restaurants

For those who simply want to relax at one of the restaurants on the water’s edge, the views are spectacular and the vibe enticing. There are many fantastic eateries at the Knysna Waterfront, as well as ones that are right on the tip of the east head, or on the shores of the lagoon, closer to town.

Really, the Knysna Lagoon is a place of natural beauty, an abundance of plant and animal species, and near-perfect photo opportunities. It is close to many other local attractions in and around Knysna. The world-class golf courses of Simola and Pezula are just a few minutes’ drive away, while the elephant sanctuaries and raptor parks are less than half an hour away. The world’s highest commercial bungy jump at Bloukrans Bridge is just under an hour from Knysna and its scenic lagoon.

10.  PINNACLE POINT CAVES

About Pinnacle Point Caves

On the small headland that juts into the Indian Ocean at the very tip of Mossel Bay is a collection of caves that are not only intriguing to explore with awe-inspiring views of the ocean, but are also historically relevant to many scientists. Based on evidence left behind by ancient folk that once lived along this stretch of the South African coastline, some scientists believe that this area was occupied by humans 40 000 to 150 000 years ago, or even further back on the timeline.

Did you know?

The St. Blaize Cave (one of the more famous caves that is open to the public) is situated right below the St Blaize lighthouse.

Visiting this part of the Garden Route, along which Mossel Bay is perched, is as exciting as it is beautiful. The caves are large and invite visitors to explore their heights and depths and to relish in the breath-taking beauty that lies before them. Keep an eye out for passing whales between July and December.

Archaeologists from around the world have used the stalactites, which are dripstone formations hanging from the roof of the caves, to determine details about the moisture content, weather and plant-life that once characterised this part of the world. In addition, bones, implements and other remnants were discovered in and around the caves, testifying to the lives, habits and diets of ancient mankind. These showed that the earliest inhabitants of the caves lived off the molluscs and crustaceans that were easily available to them, on seals that they caught, and even on beached whales.

There are several formal tours (to be booked in advance) of the caves and their surrounds. More than this, there are endless awesome photographic opportunities for travellers to South Africa that want to capture its essence, a splendour that has not been marred by pollution or urbanisation.

After a walk along the rocky shores, head out for a shark cage diving adventure in Mossel Bay or explore the many exciting facets of the Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex (which includes a life-sized model of the ship that brought this explorer to South African shores). Cape Town is about four hours away and Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are around an hour from Mossel Bay.

National Parks in South Africa

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