As the glamorous host for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ Final Draw, Cape Town takes centre stage in December. There is however, another local jewel that deserves some attention in these summer months. Take your eye off the Mother City for a moment, head east, and you will discover one of the world’s most remarkable coastal stretches: South Africa’s Garden Route.
Leaving Cape Town
The N2 highway carves and meanders some 500 miles between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, linking the two Host Cities. The Garden Route – the name given to the stretch of forested, coastal area between Mossel Bay and Port Elizabeth – is the brightly-coloured cherry on this southern slice of Africa. The best way to explore this area is, undoubtedly, to self-drive. All along the Garden Route, mountains dip and rise alongside a rugged coastline whose cliffs, estuaries and sandy shores are lapped by the Indian Ocean. Pressed between these forces of land and water are ancient forests, pristine beaches and secluded seaside towns.
What’s in a name?
Traversing the 250 scenic miles between Cape Town and Mossel Bay, one quickly forgets the many local arguments concerning the official start and end points of the Garden Route. With nothing but blue skies above and an undulating landscape of mountain passes, valleys and open fields ahead, tourism formalities quickly become meaningless in this beautiful part of South Africa.
About halfway between Cape Town and Mossel Bay, Swellendam is a good stopping point. Over 250-years-old, Swellendam is preserved in small town charm with wide streets, neatly preserved Cape Dutch and Victorian buildings and excellent places to enjoy some local food.
Golf and Great Whites
Considered by many as the official westernmost point of the Garden Route, Mossel Bay has a mild year-round climate, good beaches and friendly locals. Golf has become a big attraction here, thanks to the course at Pinnacle Point Golf Estate and Golf Resort. The course is perched atop a cliff and offers spectacular views of the Indian Ocean. Yet it’s not all leisurely walks and casual golf in Mossel Bay. The town is one of the only two places in South Africa from which visitors can go cage diving with Great White Sharks, something to think about when you slice your ball off the cliff at Pinnacle Point.
The formal route
Slightly north east of Mossel Bay is George, an important link in South Africa’s road network and a crossroads for both coastal explorers and those traveling inland. For a uniquely South African experience, be sure to head north of George for a quick visit to Oudtshoorn, South Africa’s ostrich capital.
Although it’s located just a few miles inland, the Oudtshoorn landscape is a dusty contrast to the thickly forested coastline of the Garden Route. Visit one of the Ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn and experience the frenetic, somewhat crazed madness that ensues from getting mixed up with these bald, chubby birds.
It’s not all ostriches in Oudtshoorn though; the area is also famous for Cango Caves. Believed to have been formed more than 65 million years ago, the caves are regarded as one of Africa’s most important natural wonders. If the caves don’t impress, the nearby Cango Wildlife Ranch surely will. The centre is one of the world’s foremost cheetah breeding projects and also boasts rare white lions, Bengal tigers and crocodiles.
Welcome to Wilderness
Leaving George behind, Wilderness is undoubtedly where you will next want to stop for a day or two. With an impressive collection of long secluded beaches, lakes, and rivers, the small intimate town is the perfect place to enjoy a secluded getaway.
The magic of Knysna
From the moment you approach Knysna, driving alongside the massive lagoon, it’s all too obvious why this town is the unofficial capital of the Garden Route. Try not to swerve off the road when you first notice the impressive Knysna Heads – the two large sandstone cliffs that stand guard on either side of the estuary mouth.
In Knysna, visitors can just as easily explore the lagoon, forests and rivers as the bustling town centre. As the Oyster capital of South Africa, Knysna is a place where people love to eat. The culmination of the town’s oyster obsession is the annual Knysna Oyster festival, which takes place from late June to early July.
Packed with marine life, lined with long beaches and buzzing with daytime activities and nightlife, it’s easy to see why many South Africans spend their summer in Plettenberg Bay. There are also a variety of special places located just outside Plettenberg that must be visited. These include The Elephant Sanctuary, Monkeyland and Birds of Eden.
Treetops and bridge jumps
Heading east once again, it’s time to tame your fears in Tsitsikamma. Some 80 kilometers of rocky coastline comprise the Tsitsikamma National Park, a place of deep, heavily scarred gorges, cliffs, tidal pools and thick evergreen forests. There are walking trails that range from comfortable day-long hikes too much longer treks. For a less strenuous experience take a canopy tour. Standing almost 100 feet in the air, surrounded by 100-year-old hardwood trees, visitors slide along cables, zipping from platform to platform in the treetops. Not to be outdone by the heights of Tsitsikamma, the nearby Bloukrans Bridge offers a heady rush of a different kind. At 708 feet, Bloukrans is the highest commercial bungee jump in the world.
The friendly city
Arriving in Port Elizabeth, you may have reached the end of your Garden Route journey east but the coastal fun is far from over. P.E’s many attractions aside, the Host City is also the gateway to the game reserves of the Eastern Cape, a malaria-free safari region that offers some incredible wildlife experiences. The most famous of the Eastern Cape reserves are Shamwari, Kwandwe Private Reserve and the Addo Elephant Park, but there are many other remarkable reserves in this region, all of which are a comfortable drive from South Africa’s 'friendly city'.