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The Garden Route is one of South Africa’s most popular tourist destinations and for good reason. It is a region of striking contrasts; from magnificent mountain ranges to lush belts of indigenous forest and spectacular beaches.
The N2 National Highway and scenic side roads take you on a winding journey through a coastal corridor between the Indian Ocean and the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains that divide the Garden Route from the Little Karoo. Lush coastal vegetation merges seamlessly with arid grasslands; creating a visual masterpiece that transforms into something different with the changing seasons.
The Garden Route is the playground of the young and old. If you’re looking for adrenalin and adventure or you like to take life at a more leisurely pace; there’s something for everyone on the Garden Route.
HOW THE GARDEN ROUTE GOT ITS NAME
It’s not hard to imagine how the Garden Route got its name. South Africa’s most popular tourist destination is sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Indian Ocean and is an extension of the Cape Floral Kingdom.
The region is world-renowned for its unique combination of Cape Fynbos (fine bush) and Temperate Forest, boasting over 750 species of fynbos and 300 species of birds. Some describe it as the Garden of Eden with striking contrasts in scenery; from magnificent mountain ranges to endless stretches of sandy beaches and bleak grassland plains where the arid Karoo merges with the lush coastal vegetation.
The Garden Route is made up of diverse eco-zones and is home to an array of indigenous wildlife, birds and marine life found in ten protected nature reserves, a variety of marine reserves and soft coral reefs. Certain bays along the Garden Route are nurseries for the endangered Southern Right Whale which go there to calve in the winter and spring periods (July to November).
TOWNS ALONG THE GARDEN ROUTE
The Garden Route is located on the south-western coast of South Africa and extends some 300-kilometres from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape. It is hotly contested where the Garden Route starts and locals say it starts at Mossel Bay. A good point of departure is the collection of quaint coastal towns that includes Witsand, Stilbaai and Albertinia.
From here, the Garden Route winds its way some 200-kilometres through the towns of George, Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna; passes through Plettenberg Bay and the magnificent Tstisikamma Forest and ends as one crosses the awe-inspiring Storms River Bridge.
Between Heidelberg and Storms River, the Garden Route runs parallel to a coastline featuring crystal-clear coastal lakes, majestic mountain ranges, imposing indigenous forests, amber-coloured rivers, white sandy beaches and beautiful bays.
George is the administrative capital of the Garden Route and is known as “The Gateway to the Garden Route”. Oudtshoorn is the “Capital of the Little Karoo”; known for its ostriches and the Cango Caves. Between the two major tourism hubs are an array of towns; each with their own character and rich in history. Many are trendy holiday spots while some are hidden gems; all are charming and special in their own unique way.
BEST TIME TO VISIT THE GARDEN ROUTE
The Garden Route enjoys a typical oceanic climate, with pleasant summers and mild to cool winters. It has the mildest climate in South Africa and the second mildest climate in the world, after Hawaii (according to the Guinness Book of Records).
Temperatures rarely fall below 10°C in winter and rarely climb above 28°C in summer. It is a winter rainfall area but rain occurs throughout the year with a slight peak in Spring (September to October) when humid winds blow in from the Indian Ocean, rise and release their precipitation over the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains which lie inland of the coast.
There is no “best time” to visit the Garden Route as the region has something to offer tourists throughout the year. Summer is all about long days on the beach and being adventurous. Winter is all about long, leisurely gatherings at popular restaurants with roaring log fires and good wine.
GARDEN ROUTE NATURE RESERVES
The Garden Route boasts a magnificent collection of protected natural reserves and each one offers tourists visiting South Africa an introduction to the incredible diversity of animals, birds and plants in the region. Explore them on foot on a scenic hiking trail or in the comfort of your vehicle.
Garden Route National Park
The Garden Route National Park (GRNP) covers an area of just over 120 000 hectares and includes the existing Wilderness and Tsitsikamma National Parks, the Knysna Lakes and an additional 52 000 hectares of newly-proclaimed protected land. It is so large that it extends from the Eastern Cape and Western Cape Provinces.
It was established SANParks and finally gazette in 2009 after an exhaustive process to extend the size of area under state protection. Today it is one of the most important conservation areas in the Cape. The Knysna estuary and Wilderness lake area is a critical focus area as it is the largest continuous complex of indigenous forest and Cape fynbos.
Tsitsikamma National Park
The Tsitsikamma National Park is one of the most beautiful stretches of indigenous forest and coastline in South Africa. It spans an area of some 80 kilometres and was formed through the amalgamation of the Wilderness National Park and other tracts of natural wonderlands. It is managed by SANParks.
The park covers an 80 kilometres (50 miles) long stretch of coastline. Nature’s Valley is at the western end of the park, and the main accommodation is at Storms River Mouth. Near the park is the Bloukrans Bridge, the world’s highest bridge bungee jump at 216 metres (709 feet).
Tsitsikamma is derived from the Khoekhoe language where tse-tsesa means “clear” and gami means “water”. Other interpretations of the name are “place of water” and “waters begin”.
Storms River Mouth is located in Tsitsikamma; where red-brown brak water pours into the Indian Ocean. You can take a leisurely walk along a boardwalk to the river mouth. This is where the infamous Otter Trail starts.
Wilderness National Park
Wilderness National Park stretches from the mouth of the Touw River to the Swartvlei estuary and merges with the Goukamma Nature Reserve. The town of Wilderness lies nestled in the heart of the national park.
There are five natural lakes in the Wilderness National Park, one being the Serpentine which is a stretch of water that links Island Lake and Touw River. The Wilderness ecosystem is a spectacular combination of rivers, lakes, estuaries and beaches, with a backdrop of rugged mountains and dense forests. In Spring, the area is transformed when the Cape fynbos becomes a rainbow-coloured blanket of blossoms.
The Wilderness Section, as it is also known, was proclaimed a national park to protect three major indigenous forests, four Cape fynbos eco-zones, a myriad of natural lakes and wetlands. The area is also rich in cultural history and there are a number of archaeological sites that date back to its earliest inhabitants.
Boosmansbos Wilderness Area
The Boosmansbos Wilderness Area is a nature conservancy that lies nestled alongside Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve in the Langeberg Mountains. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was proclaimed a wilderness area in 1978 to protect its indigenous forest. Incredible specimens of indigenous trees thrive in the area, including the yellowwood, stinkwood, white and red alder, beech and candlewood trees.
Boosmansbos boasts a dramatic combination of rugged mountains, wild forests and dense fynbos. It’s paradise for avid hikers with 64 kilometers of marked trails spread out over some 14 200 hectares. The hiking trails are restricted to only 12 hikers per day so it’s essential you book well in advance.
The area is also known as a birder’s paradise and is home to rare and vulnerable species which hide out in the dense forest and mountain fynbos. There are nearly 200 resident species in Boosmansbos, including eagles and the double-collared sunbird.
The conservancy falls within the Cape Floral Kingdom and is home to several rare Erica species, such as Erica blenna, Erica langebergensis and Erica Barrydalensis. You’ll see an array of buck on a hike aswell as mongoose and genets but the most exciting sighting will be a shy leopard.
Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve
Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve is a magical reserve with spectacular stretches of indigenous forest spanning some 250 hectares. It is located in the Langeberg region, close to Heidelberg. Grootvadersbosch means “Big Father’s Bush” and was named in honour of Roelof Oelofse who owned the land in the early 1700s. It was proclaimed a nature reserve in 1986 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
The protected reserve is a significant stretch of indigenous afro-montane forest, and one of the last remaining in the south-western Cape. There are close to 35 tree species in the reserve, including red alder, ironwood, stinkwood and yellowwood. It’s also a popular birding destination with more than 196 bird species spotted regularly.
The main drawcard to Grootvadersbosch is the incredible array of hiking trails. Along the way, you’ll spot an array of small antelope like bushbuck but be on the lookout for the forest emperor butterfly and a subspecies of the rare ghost frog. Both are a highlight on any hike in Grootvadersbosch.
Featherbed Nature Reserve
Featherbed Nature Reserve a privately-owned nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This hidden gem is found on the western side of Knysna Heads, otherwise known as the Heads. It can only be reached by crossing the Knysna Lagoon on a boat which makes it the ideal location if you’re wanting to get away from the holiday crowds.
A trip to Featherbed Nature Reserve involves a 25-minute ferry trip across the Knysna lagoon, a tractor drive through the reserve and a 2.2-kilometer scenic walk along the coastline. Then it’s time for a picnic in a milkwood forest at the top of the Western Head; with panoramic views of the sea and the steep sandstone cliffs.
The number of visitors to Featherbed Nature Reserve are limited and hikers are accompanied by a reserve specialist guide. The 4-hour excursion is a wonderful outing for people of all ages but you need to be relatively fit to keep up with the group. Your guide will keep you enthralled; with discussions on the fascinating ecosystem, coastal bird and marine life. Keep an eye out for the resident Black African Oyster Catcher which is one of rarest coastal birds in South Africa.
The milkwood forest in the Featherbed Nature Reserve is home to the Knysna Loerie and the Blue Duiker, one of Africa’s smallest antelopes. You’ll also find the Cape mountain tortoise, blue cranes (South Africa’s national bird) and the white-breasted cormorant.
Outeniqua Nature Reserve
The Outeniqua Nature Reserve is a protected area covering some 38 000 hectares. The impose mountain range separates the semi-arid Little Karoo from the south-western coastal belt. There are five mountain passes that fall within the reserve so you can well imagine that it’s a hiker’s paradise.
Outeniqua means “those who bear honey”; named by the San and Khoi people that once lived in the remote mountainous region. Bushman rock paintings are found throughout the reserves. In the 1600s, the early settlers used to follow elephant tracks that lead over the mountain range from Karoo to the coast. These ancient elephant paths became the first passes and are now popular hiking trails.
The Outeniqua Nature Reserve lies between a high rainfall coastal region and the dry Klein Karoo so the vegetation is a unique combination of mountain fynbos and indigenous forest. It’s also where you will spot the majestic black eagle, elusive mountain leopards and a stunning array of tiny fynbos birds such as the Cape sugarbird.
The Outeniqua Mountain is regularly covered in a blanket of snow during icy winter spells. Be careful if you’re hiking at this time of the year as temperatures drop rapidly to below freezing.
Goukamma Nature Reserve
The Goukamma Nature Reserve covers a relatively small area of some 2 500 hectares and was proclaimed a Marine Protected Area to protect a dense coastal forest. Incredible specimens of milkwood, yellowwood and candlewood trees are found in the forest which is popular for hikers and bird lovers.
The reserve is a hidden gem and often overlooked by busy travelers who rush past it en-route to the more popular Garden Route towns. If you have some time to wander off the beaten path, you’ll discover a scenic wonder that is mostly deserted and an excellent spot if you’re needing some peace and quiet. Pack a picnic hamper because you’ll be hungry after a brisk walk through the forest.
Knysna Forest is an iconic treasure and was once home to a large herd of African elephants. It is believed that about 1 000 elephants roamed the forested area but the herd was nearly exterminated by ruthless European ivory hunters in the 1 800s and 1 900s. Smatterings of sightings and DNA evidence get locals excited that a few still roam the bowels of the forest but looking for the legendary Knysna elephants is much like looking for the Loch Ness Monster.
The Knysna Forest is managed by South African National Parks (SANParks) and is a dense wonderland of indigenous forest which magnificent hardwood specimens such as ironwood, stinkwood, Outeniqua yellowwood, white pear, Cape beech, bastard saffron, assegai and kamassi trees. The birdlife is prolific and the forest is home to rare species such as the endemic Knysna dwarf chameleon.
The Knysna Forest is best enjoyed on foot with a myriad of walking and hiking trails crisscrossing the forest floor.
Robberg Nature Reserve
One of the biggest attractions close to Plettenberg Bay is the Robberg Nature Reserve, a short 10 kilometre from town. The Marine Protected Area is a 4-kilometre headland or peninsula that juts out into the ocean. The area is rich in archaeological finds with some rocks in the area dating back 120 million years to the breakup of Goondwanaland. The reserve was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a South African national monument.
There are three circular routes in the reserve that can be explored on foot or on a mountain bike. One of the scenic routes takes visitors to the Point and back, passing a resident colony of Cape fur seals. The diversity of marine, plant and birdlife is incredible. In addition to being a protected area for Cape flora and fauna, the reserve extends 1.8 kilometers into the Indian Ocean and offers protection to an array of vulnerable fish species.
A few activities you can look forward to on a trip to Robberg Nature Reserve is whale watching from one of the high coastal dunes, spotting the rare blue duiker or viewing the Cape Seal Lighthouse which is the highest navigational light on the coast of South Africa. There is a rustic hut high up on one of the coastal hills that visitors can spend the night in if they’d like to spend more time in the reserve.
THINGS TO DO ON THE GARDEN ROUTE
Garden Route Botanical Gardens
The Garden Route Botanical Garden is located in the town of George and borders the Outeniqua Nature Reserve. It is referred to as the “green lung” of the Western Cape and plays a vital role in educating visitors on the unique beauty of the regions flora.
The Southern Cape Herbarium was established at the botanical garden and houses a collection of more than 10 000 pressed and growing plant specimens indigenous to the Southern Cape region. It is not open to the public but a visit can be booked through the curator as a special request.
Visitors to the Garden Route Botanical Garden can learn more about plants found in the Cape Floral Kingdom; one of the richest, yet smallest and most threatened floral kingdoms on earth. In the centre of the botanical garden is a Medicinal Mound filled with indigenous plants that have healing properties. In the southern corner of the garden you’ll find an expansive wetland area filled with water-loving plants and home to an array of wetland birds.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can follow the hiking trail at the Garden Route Botanical Garden which skirts the edge of the Outeniqua mountain range or you can relax at the tea garden, spend time in the botanical library or birdwatching at a hide near the marshland. Bring you camera as there is a photo opportunity around every corner.
Birdwatching in the Knysna National Lake Area
The Knysna National Lake Area in the Garden Route is a tidal lagoon and open estuary with the Knysna Heads at its centre. These massive rocky sentinels stand between the peaceful lake waters and the powerful Indian Ocean. The forest belt is popular among tourists to the Garden Route who spend leisurely days there walking, hiking, picnicking, cycling and, of course, birdwatching.
Birdlife in the Knysna National Lake Area is prolific. It’s an excellent habitat for waders in the summer months, and other popular species which include the grey plover, greenshank, curlew sandpiper and whimbrel. In the winter months, the lagoon harbor is home to species that do not migrate such as egrets, gulls, cormorants and ibises.
Birders get particularly excited as the threatened African black oystercatcher can be found in the lake area all year round. Their numbers increase in winter, along with a boost in numbers of the Cape shoveller, avocet and black-winged stilt.
The Dolphin Trail
The Dolphin Trail is every bit as beautiful and enjoyable as the famous Otter Trail but a little less hectic. Slack-packing is what they call it; without the heavy backpack and the luxury of a warm bed at night.
For two magical days, the hike takes you on a route along the Tsitsikamma Coast, with three nights spent in different hotels along the way. The Dolphin Trail is a joint venture between the Tsitsikamma National Park and two private sector partners; Forest Ferns and Misty Mountain Reserve. It covers a distance of some 17 kilometres with an endless view of sandy beaches and the Indian Ocean. You’re guaranteed to spot dolphins and definitely whales in the breeding season.
Garden Route Big 5 safari
If your trip to South Africa doesn’t take you up north for a Kruger safari; no problem. The Garden Route has its own Big 5 territory. Gondwana Private Game Reserve is an 11 000-hectare wildlife sanctuary located along the Garden Route and the bonus is it’s a malaria-free area.
The reserve is the perfect destination for an authentic African safari; it’s home to the Big 5 (elephant, buffalo, rhino, leopard and lion) and an abundance of antelope, predators, giraffe, hippo and zebra (to name a few).
Gondwana Private Game Reserve lies nestled in a scenic valley with 360° views of the Langeberg and Outeniqua mountains. After an early morning game drive, treat yourself to an Africology spa pamper session or get active. You can go mountain biking, hiking or organise a bush walk with a professional safari ranger. The reserve offers a Junior Ranger programme which keeps the youngsters busy.
Picnic at Jubilee Creek
Picnics are popular among locals and holidaymakers with such an incredible selection of gorgeous spots to visit. Jubilee Creek is one of the most beautiful picnic spots along the Garden Route as it is situated in the heart of the Knysna Forest.
Set up next to a crystal-clear stream in one of two forest clearings and relax while your children do what they’re supposed to do; run wild in the outdoors. Take a walk along the river and explore the forest. Look out for the elusive rare Knysna elephants. They haven’t been spotted since 2007 but it could be your lucky day to spot these magnificent historical beauties.
Keurbooms River Nature Reserve
This unspoilt wilderness belt is the playground of Plettenberg Bay. The brak water of the Keurbooms River laps gently on the sandy beach with the pristine forest as a delightful background. Towering specimens of Outeniqua yellowwood, Cape beech, giant stinkwood, keurboom and ironwood trees makes this a birder’s paradise and the ideal destination for a vigorous hike or a leisurely stroll.
The abundance of woodland plant species reminds us why the region was named the Garden Route. You’ll find woodland agapanthus, arum lilies, bracken, pelargonium and various species of fynbos on a walk through the forest. Look out for the Cape clawless otter, mongoose, caracal, genet, bushpig, dassie, blue duiker, bushbuck, grysbok and even a rare sighting of a resident leopard.
Birders love the Keurbooms River Nature Reserve; just a few species to tick off you list include the famous Knysna lourie, malachite kingfisher, giant kingfisher, narina trogan, fish eagle, white-breasted cormorant, African darter, reed cormorant, yellow-billed duck, little grebe, hamerkop, black-headed oriole, Cape batis, Knysna woodpecker and an array of dazzling sunbirds.
There is so much to do at Keurbooms River Nature Reserve; hiking, paddling or canoeing or a motorless boating. Power boats are prohibited. Get active or relax and totally unwind; the choice is yours.
The Knysna Estuary is a prominent landmark on the Garden Route and one of the most important areas from a conservation point of view. It is ranked as the 3rd most important botanical biosphere, the 8th in marine conservation and the 19th for waterbird conservation. It is ranked 1st overall in terms of size, habitat diversity, eco-zone rarity and biodiversity.
The Knysna Estuary is one of the most scenic destinations in the Garden Route where pure tranquility is guaranteed.
Montagu Pass links the town of George with Oudtshoorn; taking travelers on a scenic journey over the Outeniqua Mountains. The pass was built by Henry White in the 1800s to connect the ports of the Indian Ocean with the Karoo and economic hubs of South Africa.
The pass is a dirt road but easy to drive; you don’t need a 4×4 vehicle. Enjoy panoramic views of the valley below and Indian Ocean in the distance and the lush vegetation and small animals that make it such a magical region.
Scuba Dive Storms River
You don’t need to head out into the deep water if scuba diving is your thing. Tsitsikamma National Park offers visitors an underwater wonderland that can be explored by scuba or snorkel.
The Storms River Mouth and Tsitsikamma National Park is a marine sanctuary which offers protection to an array of magnificent marine life. Diving is safe and suitable for novice divers. Untouched Adventures hires scuba gear, fills cylinders and offers guided dives. The courses range from a 4-hour scuba diving introduction to a 4-day qualifying course.
Knysna Elephant Park
The Knysna Elephant Park was founded in 1994 and is a unique destination on the Garden Route. It is home to orphaned elephants that live in a controlled free-range environment. The protected park provides visitors with a glimpse of the regions history when a few thousand of these magnificent animals once roamed freely through the valleys and forest belts.
You can choose to join a guide for a guided walk riding one of the orphans through the lush park or take a personal safari tour of the Knysna Elephant Park. Spend a few nights in the park to really soak up the tranquil atmosphere and enjoy all the area has to offer. Visitors get to touch, feed and photograph these gentle giants while they graze on their morning breakfast. There are no barriers or fences to spoil your close encounter and you can spend as much time with them as you have spare.
Elephant rides at Botlierskop Private Game Reserve
The Knysna elephants are an iconic feature of Knysna’s rich history and it makes sense an elephant population has been re-established in the Garden Route region. Botlierskop Private Game Reserve is home to some 1 800 animals, including the Big 5, giraffe, zebra, eland, bontebuck and other regulars. It’s an excellent destination if you’d like an authentic African safari without having to travel north to the Kruger National Park or Pilanesberg National Park.
The reserve is named after a dramatic rock formation located in the heart of the reserve. It creates a beautiful backdrop while ambling along on a guided elephant ride. If riding an elephant doesn’t grab your fancy, you can join a professional safari guide for a game drive. The reserve is sanctuary for two orphaned elephants rescued from Zimbabwe and four lions that needed to be re-homed in a protected reserve.
Water sports at Little Brak Beach
This hot spot for outdoor enthusiasts is located a short drive from Mossel Bay. It’s a great destination if you love waterskiing, canoeing, boating and fishing. The sandy beach and river mouth is safe for families with young children and, in the winter months, it’s a prime spot for whale watching.
Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours
Canopy tours of South Africa’s lush forests have become very popular for those who prefer to zip through the forest canopy instead of tromping through the wooded wonderlands. Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours was the first tree-top tour developed in South Africa and offers adrenalin-seekers 10 platforms and 10 slides suspended some 30 metres above the forest floor; the longest one being 100 metres long.
Zip through a forest dominated by ancient Outeniqua yellowwood trees on a 3-hour canopy tour with a professional guide sharing interesting snippets on the animals and plants in the area.
Birds of Eden
Birds of Eden is located a short drive from the Garden Routes most famous town, Plettenberg Bay. It was established in 2005 and is now home to over 3 000 birds from 220 distinct species. It is also the world’s first free-flight bird sanctuary.
A tour of Birds of Eden takes visitors around a 2-hectare dome that covers the entire indigenous forest belt. Explore the forest, walk behind a raging waterfall and cross a 128-metre suspension bridge while the birds fly freely around you. It truly is one of the most interesting day outings you’ll have on the Garden Route.
Monkeyland was the first primate sanctuary in the world established to protect a species that is threatened by human encroachment on its habitat. It is located next to Birds of Eden which makes it the ideal destination for a day out for families with children.
An hour-long guided tour takes you through an indigenous forest where more than 450 primates roam freely. These include such species as monkeys, gibbons and lemurs. It’s fun for the whole family and something to do when it’s not a sunny beach day.
Head out into the deep blue sea and enjoy an Ocean Safari where you’re guaranteed sightings of whales, dolphins, seals, sharks, seabirds and other interesting marine life. Visitors are taken out to sea on a twin-hull ski boat in the company of a professional ocean safari guide.
The company is Fair Trade accredited which means your guide can take you up close for a personal encounter with these magnificent creatures. Once on dry land, enjoy a meal and drink at the restaurant which has an interesting décor style made up of reconstructed skeletons of whales.
Storms River Mouth
Storms River Mouth is the adventure capital of the Garden Route. There are a number of companies in the area offering adrenalin-boosting adventures which include a forest canopy tour, hikes and walks through the Tsitsikamma Forest and informative tours which appeal to birders and avid photographers.
The well-known Otter Trail sets off at Storms River Mouth, starting off with a walk across the suspension bridge towards a beautiful waterfall. The scenery is breath-taking and the birdlife is prolific.
Knysna Oyster Festival
The Knysna Oyster Festival needs no introduction. It’s one of South Africa’s most popular annual festivals with promises of delicious oysters, gastronomic seafood delights and an action-packed weekend. The festival takes place every year in July in the middle of the Cape’s winter season; it’s all about eating, socialising and having fun in packed restaurants with blazing log fires or the festival beer tents.
The Knysna Oyster Festival takes place at the same time as the popular Knysna Marathon and Cycle Tour. This has turned it into a two-week affair which means the town is buzzing with holidaymakers and running and cycling enthusiasts. If you need to get away from the crowds, you can take a leisurely cruise to the Knysna Heads and head off for a walk in the Knysna National Lake Area.
If you’re in Knysna at festival time, it’ll be the “best 10 days of your life”. That’s what the advertising slogan says, boasting everything from music concerts to comedy shows, talent and fashion shows, theatre and big tent dance parties. In 2017, Knysna was nearly wiped out in a devastating forest fire but the spirit of the Knysna community beats strong and the efforts of #RebuildKnysna will see this gorgeous coastal town restored to its former glory.
Bungee Jump off Bloukrans Bridge
Tourists to the Garden Route have travelled from far and wide to bungee jump off the Bloukrans Bridge. It’s world-famous as one of the most exhilarating experiences you’ll ever put yourself through.
It is the highest bungee jump location in the world and the brave drop some 216 metres into the rocky gorge. It is located 40 kilometres from Plettenberg Bay en-route to Storms River and you’ll see the crowds gathering on the bridge as the safety officer starts his countdown for the big jump. A bungee jump at Bloukrans is something we should all do once in our lives.
Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe Museum
Kids and train enthusiasts will delight in a visit to the Outeniqua Choo-tjoe Museum which is home to 13 beautifully-restored locomotives. The collection of antiquities also includes restored cars and farm implements from a long-gone era.
The Transport Museum is also home to what was South Africa’s last remaining scheduled steam train. It’s the ideal destination on a rainy day; it’s a fun outing for the whole family and you can enjoy a light lunch at the museum restaurant to stretch it out a bit.
A visit to the Maritime Museum is another outing to save for a rainy day and promises to be a fascinating experience for the whole family. It houses a life-sized replica of the caravel that brought master mariner and explorer Bartolomeu Dias to the shores of Mossel Bay from Portugal.
Dias is famously regarded as the first European explorer to set foot on the shores of South Africa, arriving at Mossel Bay on 3 February 1488. He named Mossel Bay ‘The Watering Place of Saint Blaize” after fetching much-needed fresh water from a spring on the day of the Patron Saint Blaize. The spring still flows strongly to this day and can be seen in the Diaz Museum complex grounds.
The Big Tree
The Tsitsikamma Forest is world-famous for its giant yellowwood trees but the one that gets all the attention is known simply as the Big tree. This ancient specimen is estimated to be between 600 and 800 years old and stands almost 37 metres off the forest floor. It has a trunk circumference of 9 metres which makes it one of the most glorious specimens of yellowwood in the world.
Visitors can take a lengthy but pleasant amble along a boardwalk path that leads into the cool Tsitsikamma Forest which is home to an abundance of forest animals and birds. The trail is free and open every day of the year. The path is well signposted so you shouldn’t have a problem finding the Big Tree in the Tsitsikamma Forest; you’ll find the start of the trail just west of the Paul Sauer Bridge on the N2 highway.
Storms River Suspension Bridge
The Storms River Suspension Bridge is a hugely popular destination on the Garden Route; not only because it is an engineering marvel but it offers panoramic views of the Indian Ocean and the Tsitsikamma National Park.
The suspension bridge was built in 1969 and spans some 77 metres and towers 7 metres above the churning waters of the Storms River Mouth. It was re-built by SANParks to improve its and visitors can safely follow a pathway leading over the suspension bridge that covers 900 metres of Tsitsikamma forest. The dark-brown brak river that rages through the gorge during the rainy season attracts the adrenalin junkies so you’ll see groups of paddlers, kayakers and scuba divers doing their thing on the wild water below the suspension bridge.
You need to fit and able to take this route as there are a number of steps along the way but it’s a fairly easy and comfortable walk if you take it slowly. The birdlife is prolific and at such a height you’re literally at eye level with them. There are a number of vantage points along the way which is a chance to take a break, open up the snack pack and enjoy panoramic views of the Indian Ocean. The path home takes you over two smaller suspension bridges; head back to the visitors’ centre for a much-needed drink and lunch.
Pinnacle Point Golf Course
There are a number of premier golf destinations on the Garden Route but one that stands out above the rest is the Pinnacle Point Golf Club. It was designed by celebrated golf architecture Peter Matkovich and pro-golfer Darren Clarke, and boasts a flawless 18-hole championship golf course that stretches for 4-kilometres along the Garden Route coastline.
If you’re a golfer that travels the world for mind-blowing golf experiences, this is one golf course you have to add to your bucket list. A few of the holes are positioned on the edge of cliffs that take your breath away, dropping down to a 1 000-acre pristine beach that is part of the Pinnacle Point property.
The course is challenging but the salty breeze coming off the Indian Ocean, the scent of the fragrant fynbos in the rough and scatterings of animals make it one of the most memorable golf courses in the world. Take time out from hitting balls to do a bit of dolphin and whale watching in the bay.
Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre
Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre is located close to a suburb called The Crags which is a short drive from Plettenberg Bay. As the name suggests, Tenikwa was established as a rehabilitation centre for wildlife with a focus on educating the public on the plight of threatened and endangered species in South Africa.
The centre runs a variety of conservation-based programmes that are both highly educational and budget-friendly. Tenikwa has a special interest in indigenous wild cats of South Africa and you’ll meet a few charming residents including leopard, cheetah, caracal, serval, African wild cats and black-footed cats. The centre also cares for indigenous birds that have been harmed or orphaned, including blue cranes, marabou storks and waterfowls.
Tenikwa Centre is situated on a portion of land that falls within 46 hectares of wild area where the animals are free to roam. It has grown from humble beginnings when the owners set up a basic rehabilitation centre that treated birds of prey. Today it is one of the largest active rehabilitation centers in South Africa and is a case study in community-orientated initiatives that benefit our precious birds and animals.
Kranshoek Coastal Walk
If you’re hankering to do an invigorating coastal walk but don’t have the time or courage do the challenging 5-day Otter Trail, then there is a coastal walk with your name on it. The Kranshoek Coastal Walk takes you on a 9-kilometre trail through an indigenous forest.
Immerse yourself in the dark recesses of the Kranshoek forest, with a rainbow-coloured array of forest ferns, fungi and lichens and spider webs lit up by rays of sunlight piercing through holes in the forest canopy.
The coastal walk is clearly demarcated and leads you through the forest to deep kloofs and crystal-clear streams. Bring your swimming costumes for a dip in the icy water. Enjoy sightings of the famous Knysna loerie as it hops among the treetops. There are a number of vantage points along the Kranshoek Coastal Walk so sit awhile and enjoy panoramic views of the Indian Ocean. Pack a picnic as the first beach along the route is perfect for a leisurely lunch break and a dip in the ocean.
Radical Raptors is a protected bird of prey sanctuary that will keep your children in raptures. A tour of the centre is a fun way of educating them on these magnificent birds and something to do with families or friends visiting from overseas.
Radical Raptors is a non-profit organisation and responsible for the rehabilitation of birds of prey that have been harmed or orphaned. It focuses on raising awareness of the plight of these peaceful giants and the aim is to release them back into the wild. Plan your visit to Radical Raptors to catch the impressive flying displays that take place three times a day. It’s a chance to touch and interact a few of the centre’s ambassador birds.
Nature’s Valley Mountain Biking Trails
The mountain biking trails in Nature’s Valley are some of the best in the country and attract avid outdoor enthusiasts from far and wide. The challenging trails take you over a stunning mountain range; following a single track or jeep track. Rocky, sandy and wooded sections make it interesting; particularly as the mountain biking trails in the Nature’s Valley Mountain are unmarked and you head in any direction you point your mountain bike.
The Otter Trail
The Otter Trail is a bucket-list hike for the toughest and fittest. It is regarded as one of the best hiking trails in the world, and certainly one of South Africa’s most famous trails on the Garden Route. The Otter Trail takes you on a challenging route that hugs the spectacular Garden Route coastline; starting at Storms River Mouth and ending five days later in Nature’s Valley in the Tsitsikamma National Park in the Eastern Cape.
The hiking trail is elevated about 150 metres off the coastline; following a route across ragged clifftops, with a few hair river crossings and steep ascents. It’s not an easy trail; it’s only 42.5 kilometres long but the terrain is tough-going and you have to dig deep to get to the end. Each day there is a 14 kilometre hike to the next stop and you have to be fairly fit to keep up with the group. The Otter Trail is so popular that you have to book at least a year in advance.
Tsitsikamma Segway Experience
The perfect way to explore the Tsitsikamma Forest is gliding through it on a Segway. This is a two-wheeled, self-balancing scooter that’s all the rage overseas. Take a guided tour with Eco-Discovery and discover the wonders of this glorious natural attraction on the Garden Route.
A 20-minute training courses covers all the basics and then it’s time for fun. There are a few challenging obstacles along the forest route but otherwise it’s easy and fun and something to do on the Garden Route with the whole family. All you need for the guided tour on a Segway is comfortable shoes, sunglasses and sunblock.
The Garden Route boasts its own authentic castles that you can stay in; either as a self-catering option or treat yourself to the luxury of a pampered night in a castle. The Noetzie Castles are located a short drive from Knysna and worth a visit to find out more about their fascinating history. The castle complex is situated on the beach, with panoramic views of the vast Indian Ocean.
What makes the Noetzie Castles so fascinating is they were built on rocks and were used by families living in Oudtshoorn and Knysna as a holiday retreat at a time when the only means of getting to the area was on a horse-drawn cart. Originally, each one was built as an ordinary home and then turrets were added to give them some character.
The name Noetzie comes from the original name, Noetziekamma. Noetzie is the Khoisan phrase for ‘dark water’ and describes the reddish-brown brak water the area is known for, which is created by Humic acid that is released by decaying leaves in fresh water.
The Noetzie coastal belt has been a popular coastal destination for centuries and archeological excavations have found evidence of human inhabitation dating back some 3 500 years. The Noetzie area was mentioned in 1786 in a record written by the captain of a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company.
The oldest Noetzie castle was built by Herbert Henderson in 1930, followed by one built in the 1960s by the Lindsays and another one built by Henderson’s son. Many of the Noetzie castles are still owned by descendants of the original families and five of the six are available to rent over the holiday period.
SAVING THE INDIGENOUS FORESTS OF THE GARDEN ROUTE
When you think of the Garden Route, you think of endless swathes of indigenous forest melting seamlessly into the coastal landscape. Every road along the Garden Route takes you past forests that have stood sentry for centuries. It’s also a wonderland of protected estuaries and tranquil bays that are home to an incredible array of marine life and nurseries for whales and dolphins.
Conservation of this incredible coastal belt is at the heart of its existence. Take the Knysna Estuary as an example. It is ranked 3rd in the list of estuaries in South Africa in terms of botanical importance, 8th in terms of protecting and conserving rare species of fish, 19th in terms of waterbird conservation and overall, 1st in terms of its vital role in the conservation which includes criteria such as size, diversity of habitat, zonal rarity and biodiversity.
More than 2 000 years ago, the Garden Route region was inhabited by ancient tribes of San hunter-gatherers who were later joined by Khoekhoe herders. They had little impact on the biodiversity of the region except for starting fires to drive out game animals. They appear to have lived in the region during the colder winter months, migrating further north and inland in summer.
The existed off a diet of fish, roots gathered from the veld (field) and bulbs of wild plants. They also hunted in the forested area, taking down small animals for their family’s needs. When the Europeans descended on the Garden Route region, the San-Khoekhoe tribes broke up and their traditional existence disintegrated as they integrated into the broader community and found jobs on local farms.
It was at this time that the history of indigenous forests in the Garden Route area started playing a significant role in the development of the area. The early settlers cut down trees for their day to day requirements but it was the Dutch East India Company that came close to desiccating the vast ancient woodlands when they set up the first settlement in the Cape in 1652. Swathes of indigenous trees were cut down in the southern Cape district to provide wood for new buildings, building wagons, furniture and fencing.
When they had cleared out those forests, unchecked timber operations moved on to the forests of George, Knysna and Tsitsikamma. Rampant exploitation of large tracts of valuable forest in the Knysna area started in 1763 and continued for over 200 years. It was the same period that saw the virtual desecration of herds of elephants that once roamed freely in their hundreds in the forest belt.
The town of George became the hub of timber operations and a timber-cutting post was set up in 1776. From there, timber was transported overland to Cape Town. It was only in the late 1770s that attempts were made to curb the total eradication of the indigenous forests of the Garden Route region. Little was done in terms of actual conservation of the area but a few prominent residents in the district were appointed to take some degree of control over the lumber operations.
This had little impact and the destruction only got worse with the arrival of the British Royal Navy in 1812. A port was established at Knysna for military purposes but it also provided the Dutch East India Company with an easier route to get the indigenous wood to Cape Town. At the height of the war, the port would receive up to 80 sailing ships and streamers in a year. The town grew and so did the need for more wood to be cut down. Things were looking bleak but very little attention was being paid to the total destruction of the indigenous forests in the region.
Things couldn’t get worse but they did when the Great Trek commenced in 1836. This increased the demand for timber for the construction of wagons and buildings. By 1846, a decade later, the depleted indigenous forests were closed by the government and divided into individual lots and sold by public auction. The forests that had survived the desecration were reserved as Crown forests and placed under the protection and control of local magistrates. Tree felling licenses were introduced and some felling continued.
Finally, in 1847, the Crown forests were closed and timber felling was prohibited. They were reopened in 1856 to meet the rising demand for timber. The Cape government finally too control of the indigenous forests of the Cape after the devastating “Great Fire” of 1869 that raged from Humansdorp to Riversdale, causing substantial damage. Real efforts were implemented to save the indigenous forests of the Cape in 1880 with the appointment of a professional French forest officer.
The Forestry Department was established and a quorum of professional forestry offers were deployed to the region, slowing down the devastating destruction of illegal timber felling after decades of extreme abuse of our precious natural resource. The Cape Forest Act was passed in 1888 which created a greater degree of protection for the indigenous forests of the Cape and the first timber plantations were established near Knysna to address timber shortages in the country.
One would think that this would have been the saving grace of our Cape forests but illegal felling continued and high tonnages of timber continued to be taken by ruthless woodcutters to feed the hungry beasts of commerce. Only in 1939, a half century later, the rights of woodcutters to work in the indigenous forests of the beautiful Cape regions was annulled and state-owned forests were established. All exploitation of the valuable timber had ceased by 1964.
The indigenous forests of Knysna, Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma finally had some breathing space to flourish, aided by a system of multiple-use conservation management that is still in place today. After extensive negotiations between the National Parks Board and the then Secretary of the Department of Forestry and his Minister, the Tsitsikamma Coastal and Forest National Parks were proclaimed in 1964 to establish the first marine protected area in South Africa and conservation initiatives for the protection of coastal forests in the Garden Route.
Devastatingly, these initiatives happened too late to save the indigenous elephants of the Knysna valley. From herds of a few thousand, the population of elephants roaming freely in the coastal forest belt dwindled down to a few hundred and then to less than ten after years of rampant slaughter by unscrupulous ivory hunters. The last sighting of a small herd of wild elephant in the Knysna Forest was in 2007 but none have been spotted in the last decade.
Source: The Garden Route Meander
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KNYSNA ELEPHANTS?
The story of the mystical Knysna elephants is intricately woven into the history of the Garden Route. In 2007, a population survey in the area found evidence of a small herd roaming wild in the Knysna Forest; made up of at least five females, three bulls and two calves. Parts of the Knysna Forest are impenetrable which makes tracking this elusive herd difficult, and a veil of secrecy hangs over elephant research that is conducted by SANParks so the exact location of any sighting would not be made public.
Elephants play a vital role in the management of valuable eco-systems such as the Knysna Forest and in the days when the large herd roamed freely in the coast forest belt, they would have made a significant impact on the biosphere through feeding, digging and movement which plays a role in dispersing seeds, opening thickets and clearing the forest floor for small herbivores to browse freely.
All this would have helped the entire eco-system; thinning out the dense forest floor, opening up water channels in dry riverbeds and promoting the recycling of valuable forest nutrients.
So, what happened to the wild herds of elephants that roamed the Knysna Forest?
It has been estimated that as many as 1 000 elephants once freely roamed the Knysna Forest. These gentle giants are believed to have been part of a larger group that resided in the Tsitsikamma Forest and surrounding areas up until the early 1900s. It is believed the relic group was likely pushed deeper and deeper into the dense undergrowth; fleeing rampant hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat in the period.
Before the arrival of the early-European settlers the wild elephants lived in harmony with the ancient San and Bantu tribes who migrated to the area in the winter months. The European settlers, however; many of them farmers or relegate ivory hunters, over a period of two centuries came close to obliterating both the indigenous forests and what they obviously saw as an inexhaustible supply of wildlife.
As a result, there are no large herbivores in the Garden Route region found in their natural habitats. These include hippo, rhino and, of course, elephant.
The remaining Cape elephants that had retreated to the region now known as the Garden Route favoured the quiet forests along the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountain; living in the dense scrub-thickets of the Addo bush. In a population survey in 1870, it was estimated that some 400 of the original large herd were living close to and around the Knysna and Tsitsikamma Forests.
Attempts to protect this valuable herd fell on deaf ears. Caption Harrison, Conservator of Forests between 1856 and 1888, petitioned to have the forests proclaimed for the conservation of the remaining elephant herd but his pleas were ignored by the British-ruling government at the time.
By 1919, large tracts of land that had once been natural forests were divided up and sold to European farmers for a fraction of what they were worth because of the presence of elephants in the area. They complained to the authorities about damaged crops, broken water pipelines and reservoirs and, in some cases, loss of lives. It later transpired that the lives lost were at the hands of hunters tracking and killing elephants.
The Cape Provincial Administrator listed to the farmer’s exaggerated complaints and brought in professional hunters to exterminate all elephants in the region. The initial plan was to reduce the herd somewhat but the end result was almost the entire herd was wiped out. The last remaining 16 elephants were translocated to a proclaimed wildlife reserve in the area.
The fabled Knysna elephants that remained in the forest were made up of the scattered remnants of the original 130 elephants, who regrouped and drastically changed their behaviour to survive deep in the dark forest undergrowth. It is believed they adapted to a new habitat of dense forest fern and fynbos and kept out of harm’s way from greedy ivory hunters. There was no grass for them to graze and their diet suffered as a result.
Today, the Knysna elephants remain as much a mystery as the famed Loch Ness Monster with excitement rising and abating with false news of sightings. In 2000, a forest guard took video footage of a young bull grazing in undergrowth just thirty metres from him, and a conservationist officer collect samples of fresh elephant dung which was sent for DNA analysis.
There is a rumour circulating of a lone female known as Oupoot who lives deep in the forest but if she is still alive and surviving, SANParks is keeping a deep secret.
A few years ago, in an attempt to reintroduce elephants to the region, a few elephants were translocated to the area from the Kruger National Park. They didn’t adapt to the forest habitat and were returned to the Lowveld five years later.
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