Highlights of the Garden Route
The garden route is a famous stretch of road along the southern coastline of South Africa, taking in stunning views, sunny beaches, and enough activities to keep us moving non-stop during our two weeks here!
Adam and I started at Port Elizabeth, then made our way along the coast, stopping at the many, many attractions, before ending up in Cape Town. Here are my highlights from the trip…
(Note: Some of these attractions aren’t officially part of the garden route, but all of them are located along the coastal route between Port Elizabeth in the east, and Cape Town in the west)
1. Addo Elephant National Park:
Addo NP isn’t technically on the Garden Route- it’s around 170 km before the garden route officially starts at Storms River). Addo is the perfect place to combine a safari with a garden route road trip. The park boasts of being the only place in South Africa that is home to the Big Seven; lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants, rhinos, great white sharks and southern right whales- provided you visit at the right time of year! To read about our safari in Addo, click here.
2. Tenikwa Big Cat Sanctuary, near Plettenberg Bay
Every trip to South Africa should include spotting big cats. For those not lucky enough to get up close to them in the wild, Tenikwa guarantees close encounters. But these animals are so much more than attractions for visitors to look at. Most of the cats are kept behind the scenes, where they are rescued, rehabilitated and rereleased into the wild.
The cats that are not suitable for release are kept in large enclosures for the visitors to see and even interact with. The money earned through showcasing these animals helps to pay for the rehabilitation of others, as well as long-term education projects, such as teaching farmers how to protect their livestock from leopards without the need to kill them. On our hour-long tour (SAR200 per person) we got to see lions, leopards, servals and caracals, and also got to enter the enclosures of servals, African wild cats and even cheetahs. Not to mention seeing our first couple of penguins since our arrival in South Africa (these are also housed and rehabilitated here).
The guides at Tenikwa are incredibly knowledgeable and provide a wealth of information on the big cats. Daily photography tours and cheetah walks are also available. Click here for more information.
There isn’t much to do in the town of Knysna, other than to stroll along the harbour front and eat your fill at a restaurant overlooking the bay. But as soon as we got here we realised that’s all we wanted to do anyway!
The pretty town sits on a harbour filled with sailboats, and its main attraction is a waterfront full of restaurants. It’s the perfect place to stop for a day during a Garden Route road trip, and fill up on sushi while gazing out over the sunset.
3. Mossel Bay
There are more beaches along the Garden Route than we could count! But a popular stopping point is Mossel Bay, a stretch of sandy beach where visitors can relax in the sun. It made a nice stopping point for us when we got tired of driving and wanted to rest on the sand.
There’s one reason people come to Gansbaai- cage diving with great white sharks. It’s an incredible experience, and it alone is worth the trip along the Garden Route. Starting early in the morning, we piled onto one of the boats from several tour operators along the waterfront, squeezed into wetsuits and dove into the freezing cold water, where, from the safety of a cage, we came close (very, very close) to one of most incredible predators nature has to offer.
But the emphasis isn’t on how fierce and deadly these creatures are (despite the t-shirts for sale with the slogan of “I survived an encounter with a Great White!”). Rather, the tour operators emphasise the destruction that humans are wreaking on sharks, and portray them as gentle giants that pose little threat to us. Myths such as the notion that sharks mistake humans for seals are quickly dispelled, and visitors leave with a new appreciation and understanding of these animals.
Shark diving tours operate all year round, though the months of June to October are popular as the warmer water means the sharks are more active, and the area is also home to southern right whales. Sharks are almost guaranteed to be spotted (if not, most operators offer a second trip free of charge). We were lucky enough to encounter several of these incredible beasts, ranging up to five metres long and spending a long time circling right by the cage.
The practise of shark diving is controversial, however. Some claim that it increases the likelihood of sharks approaching humans in the water (which the tour operators are quick to deny). Others argue that the practise of chumming the water is tantamount to “feeding” the sharks (though the amount of chum used is strictly limited and is dangled in the water to attract the sharks, then is removed). Do your research first, and be sure to find a reliable tour operator if you do decide to partake in shark diving. Most tours charge SAR1,350- 1,500, and some include overnight accommodation.
5. Betty’s Bay
While Boulder’s Beach is the more famous penguin attraction, Betty’s Bay sees fewer visitors and more penguins. For just a SAR10 entrance fee, guests can enter the walkway that runs along the rocky coastline, spotting hundreds of African penguins as well as rock dassies and a range of seabirds. Betty’s Bay is one of the Garden Route’s best kept secrets. Though rumour has it that the penguins from Boulder’s Beach are migrating here so it won’t be a secret for long!
The town of Stellenbosch and its surrounding vineyards lie just a short distance outside Cape Town. Whether you choose to drive, take a tour, cycle, or just stroll around the cellars located around the town, Stellenbosch makes an excellent day trip. We chose to take the train from Cape Town, and then visit various cellars and wineries (we had driven through plenty of vineyards on the way here, now we just wanted wine!). Our favourite was Die Bergkelder, a cellar that’s walking distance from the city, where for just SAR50 you can take a tour of the cellar, learn about making wine, and then wrap it all up with a wine tasting. Tours depart hourly and there’s no need to book in advance. For more information, click here.
7. Cape Town
The second we arrived in Cape Town, we were hooked. Laid back, fun and easy going, this city is worlds away from the likes of Johannesburg, Durban or Bloemfontein. Our highlights were drinking at craft beer bars on Long Street, watching a film at the 4D cinema (we arrived just in time for the release of Star Wars!), and eating our way through the food stalls at the V&A waterfront. On the day we chose to climb Table Mountain, it was covered in the famous “tablecloth”- a layer of cloud that blankets the mountain and refuses to shift for the day. Oh well, one more reason to plan a return trip!
What we had to save for the next trip:
There were so many things to do along the garden route, and even two weeks weren’t long enough to take in everything. Some places and activities we had to skip were:
Snorkelling with seals:
After paying for shark diving, we couldn’t justify the SAR550 hit to our budget that snorkelling with seals would involve, but it’s probably the thing I most regret missing out on. Snorkelling tours leave from Plettenberg Bay, read more here.
Birds of Eden and Monkeyland:
Located just outside Plettenberg Bay, Birds of Eden is a giant aviary that is home to a host of tropical birds. Just next door, the outdoor enclosure of Monkeyland houses a range of monkeys. A combined entry ticket to both attractions costs SAR280 for adults. We decided to give them a miss, though we did eat in the restaurant at Monkeyland (which you can enter without paying the entrance fee), from where we got to watch the monkeys play with each other and try their best to steal visitors’ food. For more information, click here.
Surf lessons take place in a range of locations along the Garden Route, and were an activity we just didn’t have time for (but at least there will be plenty of chances once we visit Central America in a few months!). Your accommodation can help arrange surf lessons or renting a surfboard. Be warned, despite the year-round warm temperatures along the Garden Route, the water (which drifts in from Antarctica) is freezing, so wetsuit up!
Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments!