My wheels turned into the direction of the Garden Route for the umpteenth time.
I’ve lost count.
I know this road all too well; the road map of the straight stretches of the N2 and its scenic sister, the R102, and all its step-on-the-brake spots dotted along the 300 km coast, have been part of me for as long as I can remember. This is where, at the age of two weeks, I spent my first vacation and Christmas, this where I did my first day and multi-day hiking trail, where I first pitched a tent, where I spent family holidays in a caravan, where I spent a matric vacation walking in the forest, where I slept under stars, swam in rivers, the ocean, learnt how to fix a flat tyre, how to canoe and how to operate a boat engine. This is where the love for nature was nurtured, where I dreamed about living in Knysna at the age of 15 and where it turned into reality more than a decade later. This is where memories were made.
And as I pulled in at Storms River Mouth, en route to Knysna, for a quick coffee and a walk to the suspension bridge (again), I thought about this 300 km stretch which is, after all these years, still described on websites, brochures, magazines and articles as one of South Africa’s “best kept secrets”.
I know what you’re thinking. How can it still be “best kept” and a “secret” after all these years? Is it not a case of been there, done that, what’s next? Are people still not over it yet? Has it not been promoted enough?
In a nutshell: No.
In a few more nutshells than one: For visitors to the Garden Route (and even residents) there are too many towns, communities, activities, markets, sights, unique stories and roads to explore along this scenic stretch from Tsitsikamma to Mossel Bay; some parts will always stay unexplored, and even if you visit the same spot twice, the Garden Route will still wow the socks off your feet.
The proof is in the pudding of statistics. Did you know that, last year, there was an equal split of overseas and domestic visitors to the region? That 88.8% of those visits were purely for vacation? That scenic drives, outdoor activities and gourmet restaurants are some of the top activities enjoyed by visitors? That the town of Knysna is the most visited in the region? And did you know that Tsitsikamma National Park received 337 333 visitors in 2016, 15.8% more than 2015?
In another nutshell: The Garden Route is still “best kept”, and some parts are still a “secret”.
9 Things that will WOW you in the Garden Route
1. Bird Life
The Garden Route has the largest indigenous forest in South Africa (Outeniqua/Knysna forest) and it is no wonder that it has such an abundant and big variety of feathered friends. Due to the diverse habitats in the area it is home to more than 300 bird species of which approximately 30 species are endemic to the Southern Cape. If you enjoy bird watching you’ll be happy to know that besides the National Parks and Cape Nature Reserves, there are also formal bird hides looking out over the impressive Wilderness lakes.
Where to go birdwatching in the Garden Route: Tsitsikamma National Park, Knysna forest/lagoons and the Malachite Bird Hide at Wilderness Lakes.
2. Rugged Coastline and Sandy Beaches
It’s a contrast of intense and tranquil; a kid-friendly beach on one side of the town and a few kilometers away you watch from a hill as the water moans vividly and loud, reminding you the ocean is a force to be reckoned with.
The rugged coastline of the Garden Route is equally (if not more) as impressive as the golden beaches; some parts are accessible, others bits you’ll only dream about getting to and here and there you can get up, close and too personal with white foam and loud crashing waves as you hold on for dear life while climbing over rocks along the Tsitsikamma coast or navigate your way on a boat through the Knysna Heads.
Where to experience the Garden Route’s rugged coastline: Tsitsikamma National Park, Eersterivier, Harkerville Hiking Trail and Knysna Heads (especially great if you experience it on a whalewatching tour with Knysna Odyssey).
Best beaches along the Garden Route: Buffelsbaai Beach, Wilderness Beach, Victoria Bay Beach and Herolds Bay Beach.
3. Forest Magic
You don’t want to miss the The Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua (Knysna) Forest. Imagine a carpet of leaves under your feet; a canopy of old giants boasting hundreds of years in age above your head, mist dances between trees as the sun lays a finger on a few leafs, to your left ferns stretch as far as the eye can see and to your right a dozen arum lilies fill the green wonderland, gently.
Keeping the size in mind, the forests are still one of the Garden Route’s “best kept secrets” with its numerous hiking and mountain biking trails, picnic sites and the rich history of woodcutters and elephants. The forest is an experience; it is not something to tick off from a list of things to do or to see, it is something to feel, a place to be, a place to breathe.
Where to have a forest experience: On almost any hiking trail in the Garden Route, especially those falling under the Garden Route National Park (Wilderness, Storms River, Nature’s Valley and Knysna).
(Do yourself a favour and read Dalene Matthee’s forest books – Circles in the Forest, Fiela’s Child, Mulberry Forest and Dreamforest – the history and forest will come alive when you visit).
4. Unique accommodation
From camping under the stars to rubbing shoulders with the elite at graded 5 star hotels, the Garden Route will give you a night or five to remember when you choose your accommodation, whether it is in a tent, in a guesthouse in town, in one of South Africa’s oldest hotels, on a cliff, a mountain or even, on a boat, a golf estate, or in a train and there’s even one in a castle.
SA-Venus offers holiday-goers a variety of almost 700 options in the Garden Route starting from as low as R180 at a backpackers, or R250 at a campsite and self-catering units from R300.
When I’m visiting Tsitsikamma I prefer to stay in Storms River National Park, but during my last visit in Knysna I stayed in a private room at Elalini Backpackers (watch the video) and have also stayed at The Old Trading Post during a previous visit to Wilderness.
Unique places to stay in the Garden Route: Stay in a train in Mossel Bay at The Santos Express or enjoy the view at River Shack, or go for a bit of glamping at 7 Passes Tented Camp, experience luxury at Lindsay Castle or Craighross Castle in Noetzie, stay on a commercial strawberry farm, Redberry Farm in George or switch off in Nature’s Valley at Tranquility Lodge.
5. Back Roads
It is no wonder that taking a “scenic drive” is the top activity domestic and foreign tourist do while visiting the Garden Route and the Klein Karoo; there are back roads upon back roads just waiting to be to be explored.
Even when you travel along the N2 on the Garden Route you’ll be wowed with incredible mountain, river and coastal scenery, especially from Keurbooms River up until you make your way over the Kaaimans River. But there is also an alternative way to get from Knysna to George, and that is through the well-maintained gravel roads of the Seven Passes.
The Seven Passes winds through the forest, over single-lane bridges and plantations for about 75 km and was designed by the one and only, master of passes, Thomas Bain.
Don’t miss: Start or end your Seven Passes journey at Hoekwil, at the Touws River Pass. This alternative route will allow you to visit Map of Africa in Wilderness, make a coffee stop at Hoekwil Country Café or Skotteljons, and it will also give you a chance to enjoy the lakes, beach and river scenery around Wilderness towards Kaaimans River.
6. Pure Adventure
The Garden Route is tranquility at its best, especially if you find a spot deep in the forest or on top of a hill, but it is also home to a number of adventure activities.
Here are a few adventure activities to try if you don’t mind heights or speed or water or slippery things: Bloukrans or Gouritz Bungy Jumping, Diving, Snorkeling, Surfing, See Kayaking, Canopy Tours, Abseiling, Paragliding, Canyoning, Cliff Jumping, Kloofing, Caving and Quad Biking.
7. For the Car Enthusiasts
Whether you prefer two wheels, four wheels, fast wheels, vintage wheels, old wheels or just odd wheels, the Garden Route is the place to be for car enthusiasts thanks to museums, quirky restaurants, show rooms and its fair share of car shows.
Throughout the year you can visit: Sedgefield Classic Cars, Frost Brothers (Classic and Vintage Cars in Knysna), The Motorcycle Room (Knysna) and Marilyn’s 60s Diner (for some old Cadillacs) in Storms River Village.
Don’t miss these important car events: George Motor Show (February), Knysna Motor Show (April) and Jaguar Hill Climb, Knysna (May).
(These car shows usually take place in the months mentioned).
If there is one thing the Garden Route does well (besides wowing the rest of the world with its beauty) then it is pulling crowds to its markets. You can buy fresh produce or even indulge in oysters and white wine for breakfast (or be more traditional with a breakfast boerie roll), buy gifts, accessories for the home and listen to live music.
If you find yourself in the Garden Route on a Saturday, good luck, because you have to choose between the Outeniqua Market (George), Harkerville Market (between Plett and Knysna) and Wild Oats Community Farmers Market (Sedgefield).
9. Hiking Mecca
If your feet are itching for a boot or two and your back yearns for the warm embrace of a backpack, then the Garden Route’s hiking trails might just be for you.
The hiking trails – which are a mix of short one day trails starting from 1 km and multi-day trails of up to 7 days – offer a mix of coastal delights, scenic mountain meanderings, river crossings and waterfalls that take you deep into the forests. And if carrying a backpack and dozing off in a sleeping bag is not for you, try one of the Garden Route’s slackpacking trails for something slightly more luxurious.
Whatever your fitness level, landscape, style and distance of preference, the list of hiking trails is endless.
Slackpacking hiking trails: Oystercastcher trail, the Chokka trail (more towards Jeffreys Bay) and the Dolphin trail.
DIY Multi-day hiking trails: Otter trail, Tsitsikamma trail, Outeniqua trail and Harkerville trail.
One day hiking trails: Robberg Peninsula (Plettenberg Bay), Elephant Walk, Jubilee Creek Forest Walk, Millwood Goldmine Trail, Terblans Goldmine Trail (Knysna), Tsitsikamma Waterfall Hike, Suspension Bridge, Blouduiker Trail, Loerie Trail (Storms River), Cape St. Blaze Hiking trail (Mossel Bay), Pied Kingfisher Trail, Giant Kingerfisher Trail (Wilderness)
(There are definitely a few dozen more trails than the above-mentioned).
One more thing…
If you are still thinking how can it still be “best kept” and a “secret” after all these years? Is it not a case of been there, done that, what’s next? Are people still not over it yet? Has it not been promoted enough?
This post is not even covering a tenth of what is on offer in the Garden Route.
Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by SA-Venues.com. As always, all opinions are my own.