A rugged coastline dotted with hidden coves, dense indigenous forests, golden beaches, dramatic cliffs and gorges, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean with majestic mountains as the backdrop – it’s no wonder the Garden Route is known as South Africa’s paradise and on every backpacker’s must-see list.
It’s arguably one of the world’s most scenic drives but if you take to the car to see the justifiably famous Garden Route, you’ll really miss out on all the jaw-dropping beauty this area has to offer.
Instead, hang up the backpack, take to your feet and give yourself the time to go slow through the Garden Route. You won’t be sorry.
Shark cage diving
For many travellers, one of the main draws of the Garden Route is to get into the water with a Great White Shark. Safely ensconced in a steel cage, of course. The popular, pretty harbour town of Mossel Bay is an ideal place to have your Jaws moment and get thrillingly close to these frightening predators.
If you prefer a milder, cuter wildlife experience, however, you could always take a boat trip out to Seal Island to see thousands of Cape fur seals. Aww.
Caves, ostriches and cheetahs, oh my
Even underground, the Garden Route will take your breath away. Near Oudtshoorn, you’ll find one of the world’s great natural wonders, the Cango Caves. These gigantic, gothic caverns open into towering, illuminated halls of the biggest stalagmite formations you’ll ever see. Many are open to the public for exploration, so take the time to spelunk through this strange, subterranean world.
Oudtshoorn is also famous for its ostriches, whose feathers have adorned fashionistas since the early 1900s. When the feathers were no longer the must-have accessory for Europeans and Americans, the farmers turned their businesses into ‘show farms’, where tourists can learn all about the breeding of ostriches and even experience riding one of these strange, exotic birds – providing you don’t weigh too much, that is.
Far cuter, and far more photogenic, are the cheetahs you’ll find at the Cango Wildlife Ranch, the biggest and oldest cheetah contact centre in the world. Surely no trip to Africa is complete without the amazing experience of cuddling a cheetah cub?
Wondrous views and wildlife
Nestled between lush forests and a lovely lagoon, it’s no wonder that Knysna is frequently named South Africa’s favourite holiday town. And if the locals love it so much, you know that you will too.
The Knysna Heads, two towering sandstone cliffs at the mouth of the lagoon, are rightfully one of the town’s most popular attractions and the most striking geological features of the entire South African coastline. There’s a public lookout on the Eastern Head, which provides breathtaking views of the lagoon and Knysna itself but the real draw is the Western Head, home to the Featherbed Nature Reserve.
Taking up the entire Western Head and accessible only by ferry, the Featherbed Nature Reserve is one of South Africa’s National Heritage Sites. Here you’ll find indigenous birds like the Knysna loerie, blue cranes and the endangered black African oystercatcher, as well as Cape mountain tortoises and blue duikers, one of the Africa’s smallest antelopes. And they’re all set against spectacular views you can take in on an easy walk around this unique reserve.
The vast, dense, often impenetrable Knysna Forest is another must-see attraction. The indigenous forest provides several trails for hiking through the tall, ancient trees and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the vervet monkeys swing in the treetops. At the nearby Elephant Park you can wander through the forest on the back of one of these gentle giants that once upon a time roamed the forest in great herds.
Whale and dolphin watching
Who doesn’t like to watch whales and dolphins? What if you could watch them swim in their natural habitat while walking on a beautiful stretch of golden sand? At Plettenberg Bay you’ll find several look-out points on land where you can see whales and dolphins swimming in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
And if you want to get closer, you can do that too on any of the town’s many boat tours.
Tsitsikamma National Park
Take to the sky
Thunderous waterfalls, dramatic river gorges, evergreen indigenous forests home to the giant, ancient Outeniqua yellowwood tree – the part forest park, part marine reserve Tsitsikamma National Park draws in tourists from all over the world to take to its scenic trails and take in the views of the rugged, unspoilt coastline.
You can even go one better if you opt for a unique canopy tour, where you’ll be harnessed to a series of cables that enable you to glide from one giant tree to another, far above the forest floor.
Take a township tour
The reality of paradise
As you continually rub shoulders with relatively well-to-do tourists and travellers, you could be forgiven for forgetting that many people call the Garden Route home. And that, unsurprisingly, it isn’t a paradise for them.
A township tour probably isn’t what you think about when planning a trip to this stunning part of South Africa, but you really should. It will provide you with a unique opportunity to experience life as it really is in the country, giving you an eye-opening and lasting insight into the culture and community life of the Garden Route.
And if you don’t have the time for volunteering in Africa, this is one way that you can give back to the country and make your Garden Route travels meaningful as the tours directly benefit the township’s people.
About the author
Christy Forbush is a freelance writer by trade, traveller by nature, with swimming in the Dead Sea currently being her most recommended travel experience. She also works in the world of business translation services as well.