Natural wonders await discovery along South Africa's Garden Route. But is it best to explore its peaceful countryside or its wild coastline?
South Africa’s best-known road trip is undoubtedly the Garden Route, a verdant stretch of lakes and mountains bordered by the swells of the Indian Ocean and the desert of the Karoo.
This is the country’s wild playground, where city dwellers come to escape into nature, and getting out of the car and spending a week or more here pays big dividends. Hikes through indigenous forests and drives up precipitous mountain passes are just some of the adventures to be found on land, while countless beaches and aquatic giants await in the depths below for those who want to explore the ocean.
Exploring the peaceful countryside by South Africa specialist Cara
Oudtshoorn, South Africa
I was last in the Garden Route region in early summer. At this time, the blooms of the fynbos filled the hillsides, lending credence to the area’s name. And as the temperatures rose past warm and towards the balmy end of the scale, its beauty more than compensated.
The coast might draw the crowds, but heading into the hinterland of the N2 (the main highway of the Garden Route) takes you away from the hustle and bustle to a land with a distinctively more African feel. One of the most important towns of the interior, Oudtshoorn, is an unusual spot that owes its existence to a rather eccentric-looking bird, the ostrich.
Thanks to a brief fashion trend at the turn of the 20th century — at least among style-conscious Europeans and North Americans — when ladies began to adorn their headgear with ostrich feathers, the bird’s plumage rose massively in value.
Local ostrich farmers grew extremely wealthy on the back of the trade and built ostentatious ‘feather palaces’, some of which can still be seen today, with the finest examples on Baron van Rheede Street.
Oudtshoorn is the major settlement of the Little Karoo, an arid zone of semi-desert, and within five minutes’ drive of the town’s sandstone mansions you’ll find some true wilderness. To the north lie the Swartberg Mountains, a craggy range that reaches well over 2,000 m (6,500 ft), with exposed sandstone folds dating back 300 million years.
Constructed in 1888, the Swartberg Pass is a gravel road that threads its way over the range. It can be a nerve-wracking drive if you’re tackling it alone — there are tight curves to negotiate and you often find yourself inching past oncoming traffic.
I therefore suggest the Klein Karoo and Swartberg Pass Eco tour, where a driver navigates the hairpins for you while you sit back and enjoy the far-reaching views. At the top of the pass you can see the Great Karoo, an even bigger wilderness area, stretching into the distance.
The Swartberg Pass
Looking up at the cloudless sky, I also saw Verreaux’s eagles and jackal buzzards circling overhead, while all around my feet the ground was speckled with indigenous plantlife, including fynbos and proteas.
Walk a short distance away from the road on one of the hiking trails and you will experience an overwhelming sensation of quiet and calm. With the clear mountain air and bright desert sun, it feels like a world away from the wave-battered coast.
Exploring the wild coastline by South Africa specialist Andrew
Camps Bay, Cape Town
There’s so much to see and do in South Africa that it’s often difficult to take it all in. Do you hit the glitz of Cape Town, enjoy a crisp Chenin Blanc among the peaks of the Winelands or get up close to the Big Five on a wild safari. The Garden Route’s coast links all these highlights, but often it doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves.
The Garden Route’s name might not immediately suggest water, but in my mind the Indian Ocean is at the heart of the area’s appeal. Locals are well aware of this too, and in most places along the 200 km (124 mile) stretch of coastline, you can spot surfers gliding glassy waves, families strolling on windswept beaches and couples enjoying a leisurely lunch overlooking the water.
Plettenberg Bay (or Plett for short) is in the middle of the Garden Route. I love its combination of sandy beaches, laid-back cafes and thriving outdoor lifestyle. Base yourself here for a few days to take full advantage of some of the water-based activities on offer and to increase your chances of spotting whales and dolphins.
If they don’t turn up on your first day, you’ll probably have better luck the next. Even if you’re not particularly active at home, the desire to be outside and doing something certainly rubs off on you here. If you’re reasonably fit, I recommend joining the Active Storms River and Tsitsikamma Forest tour; this will allow you to see and experience the coast from an entirely different perspective.
Led by enthusiastic guides, those on the tour paddle a kayak from the open ocean to the Storms River mouth and onward, passing under its suspension bridge. The upper reaches of the river gorge are explored by lilo, which are better able to navigate the shallower waters. All around you, the overhanging cliffs are draped with foliage, creating a cathedral-like stillness punctuated only by the burble of the river as it flows around gigantic boulders.