The Garden Route in South Africa is so named for the stunning natural beauty that stretches from the town of Mossel Bay in the Western Cape, up to the coast to Storms River in the Eastern Cape, a route which covers approximately 200km. It encompasses several well-known towns and villages such as Knysna, Wilderness and Sedgefield, and even the city George – the economic hub of the Garden Route.
Whilst travelling through the route it is easy to forget that you are actually in Africa, with fields, paddocks, hilly terrain and even forests that would be sooner associated with New Zealand than South Africa. Lakes and lagoons are a-plenty, and the temperate climate makes it a stunning place to visit, all year round.
Sadly, with areas as captivating as this it is to be expected that a whole tourist industry will spring up, and with the inevitable price tag! However, it is still possible to explore the area and get a real feel for what it has to offer, but for free.
Below is a list of activities recommended by the locals - and who best to know an area than those lucky individuals who get to inhabit it on a daily basis.
As an annual pilgrimage the Southern Right Whales migrate from the icy seas off Antarctica and head to the South African coastline for mating, calving and rearing their young. Regularly spotted during the months of June to November, the whales can be seen virtually anywhere along the coast, often just frolicking in the waves. Often paired with them are dolphins and seals to add to the spectacular show. Try to find a place with a bit of height, throw in a dash of patience, and you are sure to be rewarded. Ask a local too; they are bound to know the favorite hangouts of these ocean bound mammals.
The town of Knysna is built along the shores of a large warm-water estuary (or lagoon). The estuary opens into the ocean after passing through 2 headlands, popularly known as the “Heads”. The flowing waters between the Heads are known to be unpredictable and dangerous, not to mention extremely rapid given its narrowness—this has resulted in the loss of many ships and lives over the history of Knysna.
One side of the Heads is filled with million-dollar mansions, overlooking the beautiful lagoon and town, whilst the other side has been designated a natural reserve and is virtually untouched.
Many tours are available for the lagoon as well as the reserve, but equally amazing views are available free of charge if you have your own transport. Take a drive up the western head, weaving through Millionaires Row, and you will find yourself at a viewpoint that quite simply takes your breath away! Pack your binoculars, a small picnic hamper, and spend some time watching the estuary fill with water as the tide comes in. One of the lookouts has ocean views, so if you are really lucky, you might even be able to spot whales from this incredible vantage point.
Nestled next to the Knysna lagoon lies the Knysna Waterfront, a purpose built complex designed for tourists. Although entrance to the Waterfront is free, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for anything here. Maybe treat yourself to an ice- cream, drool over the yachts, some of which are enormous, and keep your shopping to the window variety!
7 Passes Road
Long before the current highway was built between George and Knysna, the 7 Passes Road was the main thoroughfare between the 2 towns, carrying drivers through 75km of almost surreal natural beauty of a by-gone era. Single-lane bridges over gorges, winding roads with plummeting drops to the side, a gold-rush town and tiny wooden settlements all made up the character of these passes. With the advent of the N2 highway, these roads are now quiet country lanes with hardly a vehicle in site, making driving this route a tranquil respite from the madding crowd. Spend a day investigating these passes and all the secrets they have to offer. And if packing a lunchtime picnic basket doesn't appeal to you, many quirky restaurants abound hidden just out of site. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled!
The Woodville Big Tree
Whilst investigating the 7 Passes Road, make sure to stop and picnic at the Woodville Big Tree picnic site, close to Hoekwil. The 'Big Tree' is a yellowwood tree estimated to be 850-years old, and can be found along a circular trail extending about 2km. With a designated picnic area, ablution facilities and easy access for wheelchairs, this route makes a delightful walk for the whole family, culminating in viewing quite possibly the biggest tree you will ever see! The bubbling brooks and fantastical forests will make any child, and adult, believe they are in an Enid Blyton storybook.
The Garden Route is literally littered with markets, with most of the larger ones happening over the weekends. However, during the end of year holiday season, the evening markets really come alive, and you are guaranteed to meet some weird and wonderful creatures! Regular year-round markets include the Milkwood Evening Market in Wilderness on a Friday night, the Outeniqua Farmer’s Market every Saturday near George, and the Wild Oats Community Farmer’s Market all day Saturday near Sedgefield. These markets really sum up the personality of the region, proud, artistic and somewhat eclectic!
From Plettenberg Bay all the way down to Mossel Bay, the Garden Route coastline shares some of the most beautiful beach walks in the country. Vast expanses of uninterrupted beaches means you can walk for many miles, weaving in and out of bays, exploring caves, and following abandoned railway tracks. The locals are incredibly friendly and can’t wait to share their favorite hidden gems – don't be afraid to strike up a conversation with a local on the beach ! As a sensible precaution, it is not recommended that you walk alone, or after dusk.
The Garden Route is truly one of the most mystical and magical places South Africa has to offer. It is best travelled in a lazy-hazy fashion, where you take the time to make your own agenda, investigate at leisure, and discover your own little corner of heaven.