Often called Eden because of its lush splendour, its mysterious forests, dramatic coastline, tranquil lakes and rugged mountains, this stunning stretch of South Africa’s south-eastern coast is top of the list when it comes to destination enquiries. But is the Garden Route fit for self-drive? Absolutely! Perfect for first-timers or returning travellers, exploring this area on a road trip or self-drive tour comes highly recommended.
The Garden Route stretches from Heidelberg in the Western Cape to the Storms River in the Tsitsikamma region. The name Garden Route comes from the verdant and ecologically diverse vegetation (most bearing flowers at some time of the year) encountered here and the numerous lagoons and lakes dotted along the coast. It includes towns such as Stilbaai, Mossel Bay, Knysna, Wilderness, Sedgefield, Oudtshoorn, Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley, Tsitsikamma and George, the Garden Route’s only city and main administrative centre.
The Route is sandwiched between the Tsitsikamma and Outeniqua mountain ranges inland and the Indian Ocean. The indigenous forests are a unique mixture of Cape Fynbos and Temperate Rain Forest and offer hiking trails and eco-tourism activities. Nearly 300 species of bird life are to be found in a variety of habitats ranging from fynbos to forest to wetlands.
Ten nature reserves embrace the varied ecosystems of the area as well as unique marine reserves, home to dolphins, seals and a host of other marine life. Various bays along the Garden Route are nurseries to the endangered Southern Right Whales which come there to calve in the winter and spring (July to November). The area is also a popular golfing destination with world class golf courses in Mossel Bay, George, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
Founded by George Rex, reputedly the son of George III of England, Knysna wraps around the Knysna lagoon. Knysna’s history originates from woodcutters, sea-farers, gold-diggers and timber merchants that moved into the area. At one time a flourishing port, it is now a popular holiday town. By the time of George Rex’s death in 1839, Knysna had become a major timber center, attracting white labourers who felled trees with primitive tools for miserly payments, and looked set eventually to destroy the forest. The forests only narrowly escaped devastation by far-sighted and effective conservation policies introduced in the 1880’s.
The Heads are two impressive rocky peninsulas, where the lagoon enters the sea. Although known as the lagoon, with a size of 18 sq. kilometers, it is actually the estuary of the Knysna river, open to the Indian Ocean at all times. The lagoon is well known for its cultivated oysters and the Knysna seahorse.
Knysna has two islands: Leisure Isle, facing The Heads, an upmarket residential area with a small beach, Bollard Bay and Thesen Island, previously the sawmills from where the forest wood was shipped through The Heads, and now turned into an upmarket residential area and shopping center with canals and bridges, each property with its own jetty.
Activities in Knysna include a ferry boat trip to the Featherbed Nature Reserve, mountain biking in deep forests, township tours, surfing uncrowded beaches, the Knysna Elephant Park where you can feed and stroke the elephants and some great swimming beaches just a short drive away. By having your own car rental on the Garden Route, you can get to all these varied places with ease.
Plett as it is commonly known, is an excellent destination for a South African beach holiday and for nature lovers – hiking on Robberg Peninsula is a must. About 500 meters beyond the Bay you can see Robberg Peninsula jutting out into the ocean, to the west – formed by a geological fault about 90 million years ago. Today it is a very popular walking or hiking destination, as there are short to long options all with magnificent views of the Bay.
Not to be missed is the cave at Nelson Bay which was inhabited by Middle and Later Stone age people for the past 120 000 years. For the brave one can go snorkelling with seals just off the point of Robberg Peninsula. The bay is also home to number of resident Great White Sharks. Keep your eyes open to spot these awesome predators on clear days while hiking Robberg.
The Crags, an area adjacent to Nature’s Valley hosts an array of interesting wildlife sanctuaries, fresh produce markets, quirky restaurants, indigenous arts & crafts, wine estates and a very laid-back Garden Route culture. To name a few, here you can also visit Birds of Eden (the largest single span aviary in the world) and Monkeyland, where you walk with a guide amongst the free roaming monkeys in the forest, Jukani Big Cat Sanctuary, Plett Elephant Sanctuary and Lawnwood Snake Park.
The focal point of the Tsitsikamma coastline with its black rocks and pounding white foaming breakers, is the scenic Storms River Mouth in the Tsitsikamma National Park. A walk across the suspension bridge with the stormy waters below is a must when staying here. Adventure activities include the Tree Top Canopy Tour (where you glide from 30m high tree to tree in the Tsitsikamma Forest) and the Kayak and Lilo Adventure up the Storms River gorge. Scuba Diving, Ocean Safaris and snorkelling are also on offer here.
For those interested in ultimate extreme adventure activities, the nearby Bloukrans Bridge is home to the world’s highest bridge bungy jump of 217 metres. The Storms River area is dotted with easy to moderate hiking trails, the most challenging being the world-renowned Otter Hiking Trail starting at Storms River Mouth and finishing at Natures Valley. Book a year in advance though if you have a hiking holiday in mind. For mountain bikers the Garden Route is blessed with hordes of stunning trails.