This is the epic road trip to take if you are in Cape Town. A near 200 km scenic route tracing the south-eastern coast of South Africa starting from the town of Mossel Bay about 400 km east of Cape Town to Storms River on the other end.
Most travellers drive themselves on the Garden Route as it allows them to customise their itinerary and explore the different attractions at their own pace. But if you aren’t a competent driver (or just plain lazy to plan), you could join a small group tour. The accommodation and activities are all prearranged so all you have to do is gaze out the window along the way (or snooze all the way).
Allocate at least three days to get the full experience. You will see why it is called the Garden Route.
The changing landscapes en route from Cape Town to the Garden Route.
The first surprise on the drive out of Cape Town to the Garden Route was the ever-changing landscape. As the urban cityscape gave way to nature, mountains, trees and bushes in all shapes and sizes started to materialise.
The scenery changed so often there was never a dull moment, even though much of the first day was spent on the road. If only this was the view on the daily commute…
Our first stop on the Garden Route was the inland town of Oudtshroon. Though not hugging the coast, it is a popular stop on the trail because of its many activities on offer.
Also known as the “ostrich capital of the world”, Oudtshroon has the largest ostrich population in the world. So, it was no surprise that we made a requisite stop at the Safari Ostrich Farm, one of three ostrich show farms in Oudtshroon. In the spacious and airy location, we learnt all about the big birds and saw their even bigger ostrich eggs.
Ostriches at the Safari Ostrich Farm in Oudtshroon.
An ostrich show followed and the audience were invited to challenge themselves by riding on the back of an ostrich. If you wonder what’s so difficult about that, well you see, ostriches are flighty birds (though they can’t fly). So as soon as you sit on them, they hop around as if trying to rid a pest off their back, leaving you grabbing on for dear life. You can imagine the rest…
Since we were not game enough for the challenge, we opted for the meeker option – a photo call on the ostrich while it’s being held still by the friendly handlers. But in case you had the misfortune of being thrown off one, you can take your revenge at the dinner table. Ostrich meat is said to taste like beef but lower in cholesterol. Mmm…
The mysterious Cango Caves in Klein Karoo.
We headed next to the Cango Caves in Klein Karoo, featuring limestone caves a million years in the making. Even from the outside, the Cango Caves exuded a mysterious feel. A long entryway then leads the way in, increasing the sense of mystery and anticipation. As the external light fell away, the mood lighting inside the caves intensified.
When our eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, we were totally awestruck. The stalagmite formations were all around us – up, down, left and right – and in various stages of drip. At about 4 km long, the Cango Caves is one of the largest stalagmite formations in the world, though only about a quarter is opened to public as the rest is not easily accessible (read: getting on all fours and scuba diving skills required). Entry to the caves is also limited to an hour and led by a guide.
Stalagmite formations in the Cango Caves.
Dramatic as it looked, the real function of the low lighting is to protect the sensitive limestone from light damage. This made the caves much cooler too and it started to get cold after a while. Much as we loved the dark and mysterious caves, we were glad to head back out into the warm sunshine at the end of the tour.
At dusk, we retreated for the day to a boutique guesthouse named La Plume. It is a charming 1902 Victorian homestead on a working ostrich, alfalfa and cattle farm. Each room opened out into the garden corridor and cats sauntered up your doorstep.
A cat welcome at the boutique guesthouse, La Plume.
Any worries fell a world away as we sat on the lawn with spectacular views of the Swartberg Mountains and sipped our welcome drinks.
The view from the front lawn of La Plume.
On the second day, we drove south and headed to the coastal town of George, the largest city on the Garden Route. There, we boarded the historic Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, a coastal steam train that is a fan favourite. Touristy as it is, the exhilarating train ride offered fantastic views of the ocean as it trudged along the coastline from George to Knysna.
The Knysna lagoon on the Garden Route.
Knysna’s main attraction is a pair of sandstone cliffs affectionately known as the Knysna Heads. The Heads guard the entrance to the lagoon and are famous (or infamous) for its casualty-ridden maritime history. Knysna is also famous for its annual oyster festival and is home to the last few remaining forest elephants in South Africa, known as the Knysna Elephants.
From one head to another – the view from the Eastern Head.
We also drove on to take a peek at Plettenberg Bay, a glamorous seaside resort famous for its beautiful beaches. Named after Governor Joachim von Plettenberg, it is better known as “The Plett” to locals. With attractions such as the Birds of Eden, Plett Elephant Park, Monkey Land, Whale Watching, Otter Trail and many more, it is a great place to animal-watch.
The glamourous seaside resort of Plettenberg Bay.
As the sun began to set, we headed back to Knysna, where we ended the day with a candlelight dinner on board a docked cruise boat.
On the third and last day, we started on the return leg of our Garden Route tour. Similar to the first day, we spent a good amount of time on the road. But where we came by train, we returned by mountain road, which was much less exciting and much more nauseating.
The starting point of the Garden Route, Mossel Bay.
Our final stop was Mossel Bay, the starting point of the Garden Route (yes, it gets a bit confusing). Mossel Bay (the Bay of Mussels) was named in honour of the large amount of mussels and oysters found there. It is also the location where the first European explorer, Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias, touched shore in 1488. Its main attraction is the Dias Museum Complex, which we dutifully visited.
The replica of the ship that brought Bartolomeu Dias to Mossel Bay.
The museum showcases the artefacts of Dias’ maritime journey in 1488, including a replica of the sailing ship he used to sail from Portugal to the Western Cape. Alongside the museum is the boot-shaped post box that marks the spot where sailors used to leave messages for one another in an old boot under a milkwood tree, now affectionately known as the Post Office Tree.
The Post Office Tree where sailors used to leave messages for one another.
From there, we bade farewell to the Garden Route and started on the drive back into Cape Town.
A three-day trip seemed short and wanting, as most of the time was spent on the road. Well, yes and no, I would say. There were lots more activities on offer along the Garden Route than what we did and saw. But, the beauty of the Garden Route lies in the landscape itself. And so, even if we were just being on the road, we were already being part of the Garden Route experience.