One of South Africa's main tourist attractions, The Garden Route, can be found on the south-eastern coast of South Africa. Quoted as having the second mildest climate in the world after Hawaii, winter temperatures rarely drop below 10 degrees Celsius, and the summer maximum is around 28 Celsius.
There are 10 nature reserves with varied ecosystems and several unique marine reserves sandwiched between majestic mountains and the golden beaches of the Indian Ocean.
Our guide, David Smith collected us from the picturesque Winelands of Franschhoek on a misty April morning. Already one hour out of Cape Town, we were travelling along the Hottentot Holland Mountain Range. Immediately impressed, little did we know that this was just a taste of things to come for the next 5 days. We saw everything from lush green or pumpkin coloured mountains, green Fynbo bushes, deep valleys, steep escarpments, foaming and windswept headlands, golden beaches and rugged coastlines.
Having a small group--of just 6 friends--allowed our tour to be tailored to our interests and energy levels.
Day 1 we travelled approximately 400 kms along the ever-changing landscape of Route 62, passing acre-upon-acre of vineyards, travelling via never ending ranges of the Hottentot and Langeberg mountains, and admiring the semi-arid plains of Klein Karoo. Our first night was spent at the Hlangana Lodge in Oudtshoorn in preparation for our morning visit to the 20 million year-old subterranean Cango Caves.
Day 2 commenced with the Caves which offered a choice of: Heritage or Adventure Tour, the second of which involves crawling through very narrow spaces. They are popular and must be booked in advance.
Our visit to the 1,800 hectare Safari Ostrich Farm was educational and informative, learning everything from breeding, to the value and processes involved in farming for feathers, for meat for consumption and export, and the use of hide for making very expensive ladies handbags. You can get really up-close-and-personal with these flightless birds if you'd like to race your friends, but you must be under 80 kilos.
Farmed for meat, feathers and hide, you can also ride Ostriches
Later we passed through towns of well known people such as the home of the late President PW Botha, and professional golfer Ernie Els. We stopped at scenic vantage points, one of which is known as the Map of Africa.
Day 3 - After a night at Knysna Quays Protea Hotel and a meal at J.J.'s where we were entertained with traditional songs from the staff, it was time to explore Knysna. Some people say "nice? na?" and you can see why. Situated on the northern end of the tranquil Knysna Lagoon--and well known for its annual oyster festival--you'd be remiss if you missed a visit to where the estuary opened out to the Indian Ocean. It is here, perched high on the northern headland, that you find multi-million rand residences with views across the Lagoon and out to sea. The foaming waters below tell many a shipwreck story, whilst the southern headland is home to Featherbed Nature Reserve, a favourite guided hiking destination.
Of the early ships that made it through this treacherous coast were explorers Vasco Da Gama and Bartholomew Dias. The museum at Mossel Bay named after the latter houses a full size replica of Dias's 1488 vessel, the Caravelle. There is much to explore here so allow a few hours at least.
Near to here and right on the beach, is the Kingfisher hotel restaurant . This is definitely on the must visit list, if only to look at the sandy floor and painted rustic tables made from wooden planks. I don't recall what we ate, but I know it was good, as was the energetic, after lunch coastal walk. Our guide knew we were keen to balance the sitting associated with sightseeing with some physical activity.
Don't feed the clever Dussies - these cute little animals want you to think they're underfed
By late afternoon, we arrived at the Garden Route Game Lodge in time for a quick cup of tea and our first introduction to a Game Park which had good representation of Africa's wild animals: buffalo, kudu, antelope, impala, white rhinoceros, lions, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, giraffe, and cheetah if you're lucky. What you miss on the evening gave drive, you may catch the next early morning.
Although not your typical African Safari experience, this is a great introduction to the wildlife of Africa, and the Lodge is everything you'd want from your first Safari experience. We were happy enough to commence Day 4 with this, and a tour of the Cheetah breeding facilities as well as being introduced to several venomous and not so dangerous snake species.
A pretty journey towards Struisbaai with lunch at the rustic Pelicans Harbour Cafe and a visit to the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum are well with squeezing in before stopping at Cape Agulhus, the southernmost point of the Continent where the warm Indian and cool Atlantic Oceans meet. This area is feared and respected by sailors and ship's captains. A popular tourist attraction as it is, it also attracts scavenging baboons that like to steal people's food and are smart enough to open 'unlocked' car doors. Windswept and rugged, this coast is definitely a "must-explore-and-tick-off". Try to allow time to stroll along the shoreline, admire the old light houses and natural formations carved out by the sea.
Walking towards Cape Aghulhus, the southernmost point
The waterfront Arniston Spa Hotel, our bed for the night, continues to display the colours of the coast. With a massive anchor outside the entrance, painted boats by the shore, white sandy beach, sea caves, and a headland of limestone cliffs that changes face with every curve of foreshore. It's a must for a sunrise morning walk, which is how we started Day 5
We crammed a lot into our last day: driving through the trendy, picturesque town of Napier, stopping for a beer and wine tasting at Birkenhead Vineyard, and a half hour cliff walk to Burgundy restaurant in Hermanus. Along the way we spotted a migrating humpback whale, and admired the craggy coastal scenery and expensive houses perched at the cliff's edge.
As we are now bound for Cape Town, the points of interest along this panoramic coast road include: penguins at Boulders Beach, False Bay, Cape Point, Camps Bay, and of course the monolithic Table Mountain as you approach Cape Town.