The Garden Route is a stunning 200km stretch of coastline about half a day’s drive east from Cape Town. The climate is the second mildest in the world (after that of Hawaii), so the landscape is magnificently verdant and ecologically diverse, with a wealth of wildlife, forests and Fynbos. Many describe the area as “South Africa’s Garden of Eden”.
The attractions are too numerous to list here but here are my top tips.
The Tsitsikamma National Park is one of South Africa’s most dramatic protected areas with massive breakers crashing into towering cliffs, deep gorges covered in thick forest and towering mountains rising steeply inland. Adrenalin junkies can jump off the Bloukrans Bridge, the world’s highest commercially operated bungee jump (216 metres!). The park also boasts one of South Africa’s best long-distance hikes, the 42km Otter Trail, offering five days of superb coastal walking with rivers to ford and plenty of time to swim, snorkel or just relax.
The jewel of the Garden Route is Plettenberg Bay. Originally christened the “beautiful bay” by early Portuguese explorers, it offers miles of unspoilt coastline and beautiful, uncrowded beaches. It is also known as the whale watching capital of the world. Southern Right Whales come within metres of the shore, along with Bottlenose Dolphins, Fur Seals, Humpbacks and Killer Whales.
The Cango Caves, in the Klein Karoo mountains, are near the top of the list of South Africa’s most popular attractions. A series of dripstone caverns, stretching for 4kms, open into vast halls of towering stalagmite boasting formations with names like ‘the bridal couple’, ‘glass flower fantasy’, ‘weird cango candle’ and ‘the hanging shawl’. ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, which stands 9 metres high and is at least 150,000 years old, is one of the main attractions, but the beautiful dark grey roof, with its smoothly sculptured hollows and pendants, comes a close second.
Oudtshoorn, at the heart of the Klein Karoo, is a remarkable town – in the late Victorian and the Edwardian period it became incredibly wealthy from the production of Ostrich feathers, much in demand with the fashion industry. Demand is not the same these days but the area still boasts a number of ostrich ranches producing meat, leather, eggs and feathers – you can even go for a ride on the world’s biggest bird!
The Garden Route is also a magnet for surfers with Victoria Bay, Buffalo Bay (last wild buffalo to roam the beach was in fact killed here in 1883!) and Plettenberg Beach all being very popular. The really serious guys carry on east to Jeffrey’s Bay to tackle the legendary “supertubes“.
The Garden Route offers a wide range of spectacular scuba diving opportunities. In Plettenberg Bay there’s Groot Bank, Redbait Reef, Deep Blinders, Shallow Blinders, Dolphin Column, Jacob’s Poort and Whale Rock, as well as the MFV Athina wreck (1967). At the Tsitsikamma Marine Park there are trails for scuba-diving and snorkelling. In Knysna there’s the Dagleish Bank, East Cape Reef, Bruce’s Bank and the Pinnacle, with the wrecks The Fairholme (1888), The Paquita (1903), and the Phantom wreck. And in Mossel Bay there is the reef at Klein Brak River Mouth, Stingray Reef, Mitch’s Reef, the Santos Reef, Dolosse and the shallow and deep blinders of Windvogel Reef. You really are spoilt for choice!
The town of Knysna is in an absolutely gorgeous spot and was named one of the Top 100 Destinations in the World in the TripAdvisor 2008 Travellers’ Choice Destinations Awards. Apart from the splendours of the surroundings the unassuming little angling museum (entry by donation) is home to an unusual biological curiosity, a preserved Coelacanth. This is a “missing link” fish, with fins resembling primitive arms and legs. It was thought to be extinct until a specimen was caught in a deep-sea fishing net off the South African coast in 1939. Since then divers have discovered several colonies in the depths of the Indian Ocean.