So named because of the region’s picturesque, lush and biodiverse ecosystems, the Garden Route is home to an abundance of wildlife, varying terrains and quaint coastal towns oozing countryside charm.
Take a look at some of the main highlights from this famed South African stretch of tarmac.
The Garden Route officially starts in Mossel Bay (below) in the Western Cape Province and runs along the rugged coastline until the majestic Storms River in the Eastern Cape. Because there is so much to see and do along the Garden Route, it may be worthwhile arranging an organised tour through a local operator.
There are dozens from which to choose, each offering exciting Garden Route experiences. Two recommended tour organisers include luxury bespoke African travel and tour operators, Travel Republic Africa, who customise unique Garden Route packages, and SA-Venues, a leading South African tourism portal specialising in all things related to travel in and around South Africa.
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If going at it alone is more your style, renting a car and driving along the route yourself is a great way of experiencing this beautiful corner of the world. One option is to fly into George, the region’s biggest city and main administrative centre, rent a car and drive eastward from there.
Another idea would be to arrive in Cape Town and drive along the N2, over Sir Lowry’s Pass and onwards towards Mossel Bay and the official start of the route.
Where to stop along the way
There are several towns dotted along the Garden Route, each with its own unique character and set of attractions. Starting in the west, one aptly named beautiful spot worth stopping at is the town of Wilderness and its surrounding area.
Boasting an almost never-ending stretch of stunning beach and a number of lagoons, the Wilderness area is a real paradise for nature lovers. Enjoy the phenomenal views of the Wilderness coastline as you drive along the Kaaimans River Pass (above), which extends over the Kaaimans River, a region which offers some excellent hiking, kayaking and even opportunities to spot dolphins and whales, generally seen from late winter to early summer.
Another must-visit town and popular holiday resort for locals is Knysna. Known for its beautiful estuary that makes its way to the open ocean between two large rocky outcrops, called the Knysna Heads (above), the seaside town is also home to an annual oyster festival, which presents the chance to sample some of the world’s best oysters, and other fun and exciting activities including concerts, fashion shows, entertainment for kids and a host of other adventurous endeavours in and around the town.
Knysna is also famous for its forests which are home to the last few remaining Knysna elephants, forest-dwelling pachyderms once thought to be extinct, but recently a few of these forest giants have been spotted.
Another well-known resort town along the Garden Route famed for its beautiful beaches, Plettenberg Bay (or Plett as it’s called by locals) offers ideal holidaying spots with numerous excellent hotels, resorts and guest houses from which to choose. For golf lovers, the Plettenberg Bay Country Club is a great way to enjoy a round while taking in the surrounding nature. While on the course, keep an eye out for some of the area’s unique wildlife.
Another major point along the Garden Route that every road-tripper should visit is the Tsitsikamma National Park (above). The protected park and coastal reserve was combined with the Wilderness National Park and other areas of the Garden Route to form the Garden Route National Park, a collection of protected forests, coastlines, rivers, lakes and lagoons, and a pristine swath of indigenous wilderness, in which a host of attractions, activities and adventures abound.
Two main campsites within the protected park can be found at Storms River and Nature’s Valley – including chalets, camping grounds, forest huts and even a caravan park – both of which act as perfect springboards to explore the Garden Route’s untouched nature.
Enjoy some of the best birding opportunities in the world, amazing mountain biking trails, forest excursions and some truly wild hiking trails, including the popular and renowned Otter Trail (above), a 45km, five-day hike through rugged coastlines and over powerful rivers, river mouths and bays, home to some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world. Because the Otter Trail is so popular and only a limited number of individuals can undertake the trail at a time, you need to reserve your spot in advance.
What to see along the way
The Garden Route offers travellers a richness of natural treasures, hardly encountered anywhere else on earth. Enjoy an abundance of unique wildlife, including marine mammals and birds, as well as great opportunities to appreciate the extremely biodiverse Cape Floral Kingdom. Characterised by the various different fynbos species (below), this floral kingdom is unique to the nation of South Africa, and the only one in the world restricted to a single country, hence its immense significance.
Other major attractions along the Garden Route include the craggy and super photogenic Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountain Ranges, found just inland of the coast. Because there are several rivers crossing through the Garden Route region, a number of bridges and overpasses can be found there, such as the Kaaimans River Bridge and the Storms River Bridge, respectively on the western and eastern ends of the route.
One famous natural attraction by the Storms River area that’s worth a visit is The Big Tree, a giant Outeniqua Yellowwood close to the N2 parking lot. Estimated to be an impressive 900 years old, the tree extends to an incredible 37m high, with a trunk of more than 8m in diameter.
When exploring the Storms River area make sure to take in some of the exciting activities on offer, including Segway tours, zip-lining treetop canopy tours, hiking, snorkelling, scuba diving and kayaking the spectacular Storms River Gorge (above).
What to do along the way
With an almost endless list of things to do in the area, there’s something for every type of traveller on the Garden Route. Whether you’re an intrepid hiker seeking immaculate terrains to explore, or a luxury lover looking to relax at an upmarket resort with idyllic beaches, the Garden Route can satisfy all those wanderlust cravings.
Additional points of interest along the coastal highway range from several historical sites, some dating back as far as 12,000 years to the first human occupation of the area (e.g. Matjes River Rock Shelter, a national monument) to other less ancient, though no less fascinating sites, such as a number of beautiful churches (e.g. St Andrews Chapel built in 1850/1 and St Peter’s Church built in 1856). Don’t forget the famous shipwrecks along the coast (e.g. the 1630 wreck of SanGonzales and the 1967 wreck of the Athina, both found off the Robberg Peninsula at Plettenberg Bay).
Unsurprisingly, as the entire route is filled with hotels, guest houses and other places to stay, excellent dining options can be found throughout the Garden Route as well. Naturally, the fresh seafood caught off the coast is some of the best you’ll find anywhere on earth. Another major attraction that draws crowds of thrill-seekers year round is the Bloukrans Bungee Jump (above), at the Bloukrans Bridge crossing the Bloukrans River, just outside of Nature’s Valley on the border of the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces. At a hair-raising, stomach-churning 216m, this is the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee jump. The adrenaline-pumping jump costs R$1,900 (US$135.90) and is probably the Garden Route’s most exhilarating experience.
– TEXT BY SAUL LIPCHIK
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.