Driving the Garden Route
The Garden Route is the most popular scenic drive in South Africa and offers some of the finest vistas over both the Indian Ocean and the spectacular landscape. Though this review makes mention of the various towns and parks along its route, the whole driving trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Garden Route extends from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape and there are no major airports along its length. So you will probably have to fly into Cape Town first where you can get a hire car for your trip to the Garden Route. There is much to see in and around Cape Town before you leave, you can check it out here in our Car Hire Cape Town blog.
After you are done with Cape Town you can head east on the N2, through Swellendam and on towards Mossel Bay. On the way past Albertina, about 65kms before Mossel Bay, you will be passing close to the Garden Route Game Reserve. This game reserve is in a Malaria free zone and it features all of the big five (rhino, lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo) which have been re-introduced to the area. In addition to these animals there are programs to increase the numbers of antelope, zebra, springbok, wildebeest, crocodile and 23 different species of Snake in the Reptile Park.
Starting on the Garden Route
Mossel Bay is the traditional starting point for the Garden Route and you will find it about 390 kms from Cape Town. This is where the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias landed in 1488 and finally proved to Europeans that Africa had a southern point and that it would be possible to sail all the way to India. Today you will find Dias Museum Complex dedicated to this achievement. The town actually features in the Guinness Book of Records for having the mildest all-year climate in the world, second only to Hawaii! This means that no matter the time of year you can head to the beach and enjoy the warm Indian Ocean. The beaches here are also very popular with surfers and other water sport enthusiasts.
The next city on the Garden Route is George, but before you get there you will be passing a number of noteworthy sites along the N2. One of the first places you will come across is the Botlierskop Game Reserve. The titular Botlierskop is actually a spectacular rock formation that is quite amazing. Some of the animals you can meet, as you travel in the safety of a 4×4, in this free-roaming reserve include rhino’s, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, eland, bontebuck and 26 more species.
Carrying on east you will come across Groot Brak which is about halfway between George and Mossel Bay. This village is fairly small without much of interest except the Great Brak River Museum, and the Watson Shoe Factory. But outside the village there are a number of truly beautiful beaches and a Lagoon that is a joy to swim in. This place is almost the exact opposite of the city, perfect for those looking for some peace and quiet.
Moving on you will arrive at Herold’s Bay is only about 15kms from George. This area is a bit more touristy than Groot Brak but it is equally well served by magnificent beaches. In place of serenity it has more activities you can avail of including surfing, fishing, and golf; on the Oubaai golf course, Ernie Els’s first signature golf course. The surrounding countryside is also full of magnificent nature trails and walks.
Moving slightly inland to George you will come across the largest town on the Garden Route. The town serves as the administrative and commercial of the Garden Route and it is roughly half way between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. This town has lots to offer including two of South Africa’s top golf courses; the Fancourt Country Club and the George Golf Club. If you aren’t into golf then you might perhaps try visiting the Slave tree; Garden Route Botanical Garden; or have a look at the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, a steam train that runs from usually George to Knysa but is out of commission due to flooding at time of writing. There are a number of other activities available in the town such as fishing, hang-gliding, diving, water skiing, cycling, canoeing, climbing, sailing, windsurfing and surfing.
If you have time you could head north off the Garden Route and visit Oudtshoorn. This town is located 60kms north of George and is home to the world’s largest Ostrich population with a number of specialized ostrich breeding farms such as the Safari Show Farm and the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm. Other activities in the area include the Cango Caves, the Barons Palace Gaming Centre, the Cango Wildlife Ranch and the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival which happens in March every year.
Continuing east towards Knysa, you will encounter Victoria Bay (aka Vic Bay) which is a small and charming bay between George and Wilderness. This is really little more that an sheltered cove that is ideal for families looking for a safe and quiet place to do some swimming or paddling.
The next town along the N2 is Wilderness and here you will find fine beaches and decent vantage points for whale spotting. But in addition to all that the town is popular for some of its inland activities such as hiking, mountain-biking, bird watching, hang gliding, paragliding, horse riding, scenic drives and angling. One famous place is the Map of Africa, which is a nearby valley that features a river valley that looks like the coastline of Africa.
Also close by is the Lakes Area National Park. This park consists of the two formerly separate Wilderness National Park and the Knysa National Lake Area. In this park you will find the endangered Knysa seahorse, which changes colour to match its surroundings. The park is full of Nature Trails that give you an excellent opportunity to do some bird watching and these birds are among the most colourful you will ever see including the redbilled woodhoopoe, Knysna woodpecker, paradise flycatcher, Knysna Loerie and the lesser double-collared sunbird. In the Lakes and wetlands area you may also see fish eagles, cormorants, kingfishers, blacksmith plovers and geese.
On the opposite side of the Lakes Area National Park you will find Sedgefield. This town sits close to Groenvlei Lake, which is the only fresh water lake in the area and is suitable for Bass fishing. The town is also popular with Paragliders due to the annual Paragliding festival held here every year.
The next town along you way to Knysa is Brenton on Sea. This town sits in the middle of the Goukamma Nature Reserve, which is famed for its unique fynbos landscape. The town gets its name from a butterfly that is only found in this part of the world, the Brenton Blue, and if you are in the area during November to December. Just to the east of the town is the Featherbed Nature Reserve which sits on one of the Two Heads, a pair of sandstone cliffs that are located as the mouth of the Knysa River Estuary.
Located on the other side of the Knysa River Estuary is the town of Knysa. While there you can visit the Knysa Lagoon, the Knysa Forest, the Pledge Nature Reserve, and the Millwood Gold Fields which is the site of one of Africa’s first gold rushes. The town also has a number of golf courses to avail of and of course a number of fantastic beaches that enjoy a lot of shelter from the turbulent Indian Ocean in the Knysa Lagoon.
As you head out of Knysa don’t forget the Knysa Elephant Park which is definitely worth a visit. You will get the opportunity to walk with the elephants and even to touch them as they wander around in their 75 hectare reserve. This park is especially popular with the younger tourists.
A little further east is Plettenberg Bay; this town lies about 600kms from Cape Town and about 200 kms from Port Elizabeth. This town is very popular for its fine golden beaches, the lagoon, and its magnificent climate. While Whale Watching and Dolphin Spotting is popular throughout the Garden Route, in Plettenberg Bay it is a lot more organised with boat and small aircraft making regular trips out, so you can book your expedition and keep your fingers crossed that you will get to see some of our ocean bound cousins.
Moving east you will find the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary which is the world’s first free roaming multi-species primate sanctuary. This means there are no cages and you will have to wander around the park in order to see all the different species. Entry is free but you will have to pay for a guided tour, this is recommended as it will also help make sure you get to see as many of the primates as possible and also because tourist revenue is the only financing the park receives.
Heading east once again towards Storms River, you will come across Tsitsikamma National Park. This park takes up about 80kms of beautiful coastline and is for many the highlight of the Garden Route. Tsitsikamma boasts a magical world of inter-tidal life and reefs in its marine area. Away from the water there is the lush forest, delicate fynbos, sheer cliffs and the Otter Trail which is the best route to see everything the park has to offer, though this 5-day hike is not for the faint of heart.
And finally we come to Storms River; this is the traditional end of the Garden Route, though it doesn’t have to be the end of your holiday. This village sits on the eastern side of Tsitsikamma National Park. Though small there are some fun activities to partake in. These include the Canopy Safaris, some biking trails, fishing excursions, Black Water Tubing, Kloofing (similar to Caving/Spelunking but in an open ravine rather than in a closed cave) and on the nearby Bloukrans Bridge, one of the world’s highest bungee jumps at 216m!
That’s the end of the Garden Route, if you carry on the N2, you will arrive at Port Elizabeth which is another beautiful city to explore. Some of the major attractions in the town including the South Africa Airforce Museum, Bayworld, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, the Wezandla African Arts and Crafts Gallery and the Alexandria Dune Fields, which are the largest in the southern hemisphere.
That’s the end of our overview of what you can expect on the Garden Route. And remember the conservationist catch phrase when visiting Nature Parks, “Take only photos and leave only footprints.” As you will most likely be driving the route why not have a look at our Car Rental South Africa page and have a look at our great instant quotes. For more ideas for things to do and see in South Africa check out our other South Africa blogs.
If you have any tips about driving in and around the South Africa or the Garden Route area feel free to let us know. Just leave your message in the comment box below.