Rockskipping Along the Garden Route

by Alice Mariscotti-Wyatt

Recently my boyfriend and I were summoned back to his home in South Africa for his Dad’s wedding. Having been rather safaried out from our previous visits we thought we’d use this trip to see more of South Africa’s flora (and I snuck in some beaches too).

Day 1: Port Elizabeth to Knysna

knysnaWe were heading west across the Garden Route, a scenic drive that spans the length of the Cape, between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. We were short on time so our first stop wasn’t until Tsitsikamma, already in the heart of the Garden Route National Park.

This section of the Garden Route stretches 80 kilometres along the coast, where you can see mountains, lush temperate forests, deep river gorges and, if you’re lucky, dolphins frolicking offshore. It’s somewhat of a paradise for birdwatchers, hikers, mountain bikers… and generally anyone who enjoys being surrounded by green stuff.

Unfortunately we were just passing through, so we had to content ourselves with just one of the region’s highlights: a short meandering walk to see Tsitsikamma Forest’s Big Tree, a towering Outeniqua Yellowwood, estimated to be up to 800 years old. It was pretty big.

There was time for a brief dip for our toes at Plettenberg Bay, one of the best known beaches on the route, before we motored on to Knysna where we were going to spend the night. Knysna is surely the most scenic town of the Garden Route; set on a peaceful lagoon, and surrounded by green hills, historic forests and the towering sea cliffs known as the Knysna Heads. We enjoyed our new backdrop with a sunset accompanied by wine and fresh seafood at Knysna marina.

Day 2: Knysna to Riversdale

knysna marina

Our second day started with us wandering through Thesen Island, once home to a saw mill that powered the area’s industry, but now redeveloped into luxury warehouse conversions with artsy boutiques and chic restaurants. For a close-up view of the Knysna Heads we took a gentle cruise on the lagoon, but renting kayaks or taking the hike through the privately owned Featherbed Eco Reserve are also popular.

By lunchtime the road was calling so we headed even further west after a brief but bumpy detour for the Map of Africa.

map of africa

Can you see it?

We stopped off at Victoria Bay, drawn by the promise of tidal pools. But unfortunately our stop coincided with high tide and the pools were under the waves. Finding the beach beautiful but crowded, we ambled along the walkway and spotted surfers instead.

Our stop for the night was away from the coast for a change – the town of Riversdale where we got to sleep in a Rondawel, a circular thatched cottage.

Day 3: Riversdale to Hermanus

hermanus rock pools

My boyfriend’s father’s only recommendation for the whole of the Garden Route was the coffee at Die Ou Tronk. I say forget the coffee, this former jail turned craft market should be seen for itself. Dainty teacups sit side by side with shackles and gallows (only used once) and each former cell holds a new collection of antiques, bric-a-brac and handicrafts.

Shortly after Riversdale we parted ways with the Garden Route, on a diversion to see Hermanus. Hermanus is known for being the best land-based whale watching destination in the world. However, since we were visiting in South Africa’s summer (which the whales typically spend off the coast of Antarctica) there weren’t a lot for us to spot. From the land or otherwise.

So instead we spotted tidal pools, sculpture and wines.

The whale watching trail is worth walking even without the whales – it takes you through fine examples of fynbos (a type of coastal shrubland of which South Africa is incredibly proud), with sea views, past several tiny coves and ending up on Blue Flag Grotto Beach.

Day 4: Hermanus to Paarl

Paarl

After Hermanus, we skipped over to the wine country. Also not technically part of the Garden Route. But who’s going to quibble when there are miles upon miles of wine estates to taste?

Because we were short on time but keen on wine, we’d pre-booked a space on the tour of the Nederburg estate – one of the largest and most famous in the region.

We don’t think we got the official tour that day – the tasting was 50% family gossip, 50% gushing, 100% unrehearsed. But the passion for the wine more than came across. After our tasting we also got to see into the wine cellar, and to catch a glimpse at the vast vats.

Then it was back to relax and dine at our hotel, another historic estate in Paarl: Augusta Kleinbosch. This was the site of first Afrikaans school in South Africa, and has tragically since been destroyed by fire, but I’m hoping they rebuild. When we visited,  the centuries old buildings were filled with varied artworks, and there was a mango tree-shaded pool, which was much appreciated on a 40°C scorcher of a day.

Day 5: Paarl to Cape Town

lions head viewMy biggest regret was that we didn’t stay longer in this gorgeous part of South Africa. But real life was calling, so we rolled into Cape Town to see out our trip in style.

We squeezed in one more visit to the beach, and for one last look at the Cape’s spectacular natural beauty we climbed up the mountain known as the Lion’s Head. Cape Town’s bays, the 12 Apostles mountain range and Table Mountain made for one final glorious view as the sun set on our Garden Route.

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