The Garden Route, South Africa

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The Garden Route is a popular road trip that many tourists take when they come to South Africa. Officially it stretches from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to the Storms river in the Eastern Cape, but many people make the whole road trip from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. ending at Addo Elephant national park.

Why is this drive called the Garden route? The simple reason is, it’s very green. This region has the second mildest climate in the world, with temperatures rarely falling below 10 degrees C or rising above 28 degrees C. The route lies between mountains and the Indian ocean; inland on the other side of the mountains it is hotter and there is another driving route with beautiful mountain scenery called Route 62.

Why is this drive so special? There are many nature reserves and coastal towns on this drive, which makes it easy to find great stopovers for exploring. For example, you can visit the forests and rivers of the Tsitsikamma national park or the Knysna forests and lagoon, where once a year there is an Oyster Festival. Activities like hiking, canoeing, surfing, sailing, wind-surfing, and fishing are all popular in this area. The area from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is also great for whale watching, and in the De Hoop nature reserve you can walk the Whale Trail, passing through fragrant fynbos and over white sand dunes. At Addo Elephant National park you can watch families of elephants hanging out at the waterholes, and see many other animals such as warthogs, zebras, kudus and even some lions.

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Our Garden route stopovers: When we visited South Africa last year, we spent five days driving from Cape Town to Addo Elephant park and back again. We had planned stopovers for accommodation at night and unplanned stopovers while driving along. Five days is not so long and we could have spent longer in all of our stopovers, but we had a great time nonetheless and saw many amazing places. This was our itinerary:

 Day 1: Drive from Cape Town to De Hoop Nature reserve. There are two routes, inland and along the coast. If you have time, there are actually numerous places of interest to stop along the way, such as Caledon, where you can bathe in warm spring waters and visit the botanical garden, Kogelberg nature reserve for great hiking, Hermanus, where you can see whales leaping out of the water from August to November and Cape Agulhas, the southermost point of Africa. We drove straight to De Hoop on day one, where we had a short time to take a drive to the dunes before it got dark (after sunset you are not allowed to drive around). We had an amazing time climbing the tall dunes and watching the wild waves before heading back for a delicious three course dinner. You can see the entire Milky Way in the night skies, as it’s far from the city. We stayed in a rondavel (traditional round hut) with an outdoor shower.

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Day 2: De Hoop – Mossel Bay – Tsitsikamma national park. Setting out from De Hoop, we arrived in Mossel Bay at about lunch time. After a fresh fish lunch we visited the Bartolomeu Dias Museum complex. Bartolomeu Dias was a Portuguese explorer who made landfall in Mossel Bay in 1488, he and his crew becoming the first Europeans to step onto South African soil. At the museum you can see a 500 year old Post office tree, visit the ethno-botanical garden and walk around on a replica of the Caravel, the Portuguese sailing ship Dias sailed in, which was actually used to sail from Portugal to Cape Town in 1987.

From Mossel Bay, the true Garden route begins. We passed through George and Knysna, and were especially tempted to stop in Knysna, which we could see had beautiful views just by driving through, and the feel of a seaside town. We also drove through Plettenberg Bay, another popular seaside destination, before turning off to Nature’s Valley rest camp in Tsitsikamma national park, where we would stop for the night. We stayed in a forest hut in the forest and had a braai (barbecue) for dinner (note: if you are heading out on these road trips, know that there’s often braaing facilities in these places, so you can bring a cooler bag with food to cook).

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Day 3: Tsitsikamma – Addo Elephant park. In the morning we went for a hike in the national park where we were able to see some of the amazing trees and vegetation of the area. Nature’s valley is a very verdant and lush place and looks like an amazing place to live. After our walk we headed back to the road, stopping at the Big Tree along the highway, a huge Outeniqua yellowwood between 600-800 years old. We then drove on to Addo park just outside of Port Elizabeth, where we headed to our bush camp, a small area cordoned off by an electric fence in the middle of the bush. Staying in a safari tent was quite an adventure that night as there was a giant thunderstorm with lots of lightning!

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Day 4: Addo Elephant park – Jeffrey’s Bay – Oudtshoorn. We spent most of the day driving around the elephant park. It was great to see whole families of elephants coming to drink and take baths at the waterholes. Elephants are such sociable animals and you could see how they take care of each other, especially the little ones. It was such a hot day that I was envious of them being able to go for a swim while we were in the hot car.

We’d booked accommodation in the Klein Karoo town of Oudtshoorn for that night as our plan was to take the mountainous Route 62 back to Cape Town, so had some way to drive. We set off in the afternoon, stopping at Jeffrey’s Bay, a popular surfing town, to cool our feet in the water. Then we continued the long drive to Oudtshoorn.  We arrived in the night at a lovely B&B where the owner soon made us feel at home. After some Karoo lamb chops for supper in town (you have to try these if you are in the area), we headed to bed.

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Day 5: Oudtshoorn to Cape Town, via Ladismith. Oudtshoorn is famous for its ostrich farms and the Cango  Caves, which are filled with stalagmites and stalactites. We went on an ostrich farm tour in the morning, where one of us (not me!) actually rode an ostrich. After that we visited the caves where we did the adventure tour, which involved climbing through some little gaps. The caves are beautiful inside. I’d recommend some shoes with good grip since some of the spots on the adventure tour were a little slippery.

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Then came the long drive back to Cape Town. Our stopover was in Ladismith where we had some traditional food for lunch: bobotie and potjiekos. We also stopped in a local wine shop, where the owner offered us very good advice on wines. Muscadels are one specialty in this dry region of South Africa, and I’d highly recommend trying one.

The drive along Route 62 was beautiful as we passed through mountains, alongside farms and small towns. Another good place to stop in the area is Montagu, famous for its hot springs, climbing/bouldering and hiking. Many of the towns in the area are famous for their wine and fruit, such as Robertson, Ashton, Swellendam and Barrydale. Swellendam has some great examples of Cape Dutch architecture and is worth checking out. Greyton is also a charming little village with some good hiking in the area.

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As you can see, there is lots to do and see along the Garden Route! It’s definitely one to add to your road trip bucket list.

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