To most travelers planning on visiting the Garden Route, a few days are set aside in their itinerary to tick off a few of the highly publicized highlights. Without exception, visitors to this natural landscape lament the brief amount of time that they budgeted for their stay in the region.
The Garden Route in reality offers many attractions and activities, but for nature lovers it is a unique area of South Africa that extends from Mossel Bay in the west to the Storms River in the east. The uniqueness of the Garden Route lies in its botanical and avian diversity. Afro-montane Forest competes with Fynbos to shroud the Outeniqua and Titsikamma mountain ranges which separate the Garden Route coastal plateau from the Little Karoo to the north. Coastal dunes are cloaked in dune fynbos and Milkwood climax dune thicket, which between Wilderness and Knysna, plunge into the Indian Ocean as cliffs of fossil sand dunes.
In the heart of the Garden Route, surrounding the Slow Town of Sedgefield, are five coastal lakes, home to waterfowl which complement the forest, passerine and coastal bird species, allowing avid birders to tick off no less than 264 species.
Assuming a week long visit to the Garden Route, a perfect slow start on the first day would be a picnic breakfast at the Rondevlei Bird Hide. Depending on the season and water levels, watching the antics of ducks, teals and grebes will soften the transition of pace as you unwind from your separation from the work place and slip into the simplicity of vacation. While the last sip of coffee lingers, you should see the resident African Fish Eagles emerging from the west of the hide en route to catching their first fish of the day. Before you depart, if lady luck smiles on you, the local family of Cape Clawless Otters will romp past the viewing windows, expressing their curiosity and caution at your presence.
Next, a short drive along the gravel Lakes road towards Wilderness will allow a stop off at the Malachite Bird Hide overlooking Langvlei. As the name would suggest, this is a perfect hide to view these iridescent feathered jewels and capture some classic images of Darters and cormorants sunning themselves on a stump.
With all the morning sitting around, continuing on to the Brown Hooded Kingfisher Trail will allow you the opportunity to stretch your legs on the 1.65km hike through riverine forest. A highlight is to pause at the two Broom Cluster Fig trees. When laden with fruit, the birds flock for an easy meal and are unconcerned by humans watching their antics.
For lunch you can choose from an eclectic selection of restaurants in Wilderness and succumb to the spirit of a small coastal village.
To round off the day, hire a canoe and paddle up the Touw River, a journey that will transport you back in time to an era of primordial nature. Overhead, alarm calls of Knysna Turacos will reverberate off the hillsides as they glide past, Giant Kingfishers will dart past to a less disturbed roost while the forest will echo with birdsong. At the point of no return, depending on how much energy you have, you can either embark on the 2.5km walk along the boardwalk of the Giant Kingfisher Trail to the waterfall or simply glide back downstream.
A great day outing is to take a forest hike and meander along the Seven Passes Route between George and Knysna.
To warm up, a quick visit to the Woodville Big Tree will set the scene of what a true climax canopy giant looks like. Towering 30m above you and spreading a canopy of similar proportions, this 800 year old Outeniqua Yellowwood has it’s own ecosystem growing on it’s branches. Whether you select to walk the short 2.7km forest circuit or simply marvel at the tree, the botanical diversity between the parking area and the big tree will leave a lasting impression which will serve to prepare for the rest of the day.
From the big tree, travel east along the Seven Passes road towards Knysna. Soon the road transitions to gravel which may intimidate most city slickers, but once you negotiate the first river pass (over a bridge), your sense of back country adventure will carry you onwards (and remember, the best all terrain vehicle is a rental vehicle). Once through the Homtini Pass, you reach the turn off to Millwood and the Woodcutter Trail.
The trail offers a choice of a 3 or 9km forest walk and the more astute hiker will see Bushpig, Bushbuck and Leopard markings along the route. Fortunate hikers will find Elephant dung, an enigmatic reminder of the mystical Knysna Forest Elephants, of which the true numbers living in the forest is hotly debated by locals, researchers and park officials. If you choose the 9km option, take a sarong to dry off after a swim in the river.
After the walk you can opt to drive further into the reserve to Jubilee Creek for a picnic or to lunch at Totties Eatery en route to Knysna.
After being immersed in the dappled green tonal range of the forest for the day, a late afternoon beach walk at Buffalo Bay will provide a sense of balance. A magnificent arching bay, the beach is 5.1km between Buffalo Bay and Brenton on Sea and you can decide where to turn around. Or to simply plunge into the waves and surrender to the rhythm of the ocean.
With some birding and forest hikes notched up and a hint of the beach, it would be perfect to plan a coastal walk along the Robberg Peninsula east of Plettenberg Bay.
The Robberg Nature Reserve offers two hiking routes, a 7.5 and a 4km option. The first stage of both hikes is along the eastern cliff overlooking the bay. From the vantage of the cliffs it is possible to see seals cavorting below, pods of dolphins, whales (in season) turtles and, if fortunate, the Robberg Express, a large Great White Shark that has been christened by local surfers, spearfishers and surfskiers who see it often as it swims past them.
On the western side of the peninsula is a tombola, renowned to be one of the most perfectly shaped in the world. The geological feature is formed by wave carried sand filling in a channel between an island outcrop and the mainland and forming an hourglass shape when viewed from above. Whether you opt for the short or long route, plan for a swim at either of the sides (or both) of the tombola. The island that is part of the tombola has a pathway over it and is well worth a detour for yet more incredible views and sightings of marine mammals.
To finish off the day, I love to sit on the western deck at the parking lot, set up my camp stove and brew a cup of coffee in a Bialleti percolator. With a fresh brew and the seascape stretching out in front of you, the true essence of the Garden Route seeps through to your very core.
Time to rev up the pace a bit with some mountain biking. For the endurance tour cyclists, you could pack a picnic and set off on the Seven Passes Route between George and Knysna. About 70km, the route is a mix of gravel with sporadic sections of tar. As the name would suggest, there are seven riverine passes en route with historical bridges and enchanting names like ‘Homtini Pass’, and Silver River. If lady luck shines on you, one of the few elusive leopards will dart across the road. Even more special would be to glimpse a forest Elephant, an occasion that would admit you to a very elite club.
Cyclists looking for more adventurous outings can try the routes around Harkerville or around Millwood. A personal favorite is the forest ride from the Diepvalle forest station to the Harkerville Big Tree which descends through dense forest and pockets of fynbos along a series of jeep and single track.
For a different MTB experience you could plan for a beach and back roads route. Starting at the Swartvlei beach parking lot, head west around Gericke’s Point and come off the beach at Kleinkrans. From Kleinkrans, cross the N2 and take a lakes road around Langvlei and Rondevlei to return to Swartvlei beach for an easy 30km circuit. Most important is to plan for the tides so you ride at low tide on firm sand. Best periods are the spring tides around full and new moon (check out http://www.satides.co.za for accurate tides).
Day Five :
A day to get wet. Here options abound with the most obvious being jumping into the ocean for either a surf, body board or a simple swim. Without a doubt the Garden Route has a plethora of magnificent beaches from Keurbooms Strand, Lookout Beach, Robberg Beach, Noetsie Beach, Bollards Beach, Brenton on Sea, Buffalo Bay, Myoli, Swartvlei Beach, and Leentjiesklip.
For the more athletic water lovers, an endurance swim down one of the many rivers. Worth a swim are Keurbooms River, Goukamma River, Kingfisher Creek and Touw River, each with tranquil forested stretches.
Wet and Wild. Kloofing, or canyoning, there are a few options to please every adventure seeker. There are two commercial operations in the Garden Route, Eden Adventures and Africanyon that offer canyoning.
If you want a quiet self guided outing, booking Drupkelders near Millwood and spending time with family or friends in the kloof is a perfect summer kloofing outing. While not demanding, you will get a preview of the sheer cliffs and deep gorges that are possible on longer outings.
Before preparing to travel home, it is time to stretch your legs with a real Trail Run. The Robberg Peninsula will test your eye to foot coordination across so challenging rocky sections while saturating your visual senses.
For a forest run, plenty options abounds, but my most memorable has to be the section of the Outeniqua Hiking Trail from Karatara to Jubilee Creek. Forest, River crossings and pine plantation will embed both landscape and muscle memory in your entire being which you can draw on to get you through the day in the weeks ahead of office time.
A trail run with unrivaled scenery has to be the Goukamma Traverse, a 17km single track through fynbos and coastal thicket clad dunes. Aligned along an east west axis, starting at the Goukamma River is preferable. Once you have crossed the river on a self propelled pontoon (a small row boat with a pulley system of ropes), you set off along the Bushpig Trail before taking the Blombos Trail.
There are four main dunes that you ascend, each progressively higher until you summit the fourth one which levels out to a section pitted with mole holes before a dramatic drop down to the shore of Lake Pleasant for a undulating finish to the Lake Pleasant Chalets and Camp Site. Beneath the cool shade of the campsite gardens, reflecting on the views, vegetation and bird life will confirm why you enjoying trail running.
Packing up you realize that, like so many travelers before you, time has slipped by and there is so much more to do. In the mix of outdoor adventures you missed out on canoeing on the Goukamma River.
Or snorkeling in the rock pools at Gericke’s Point. Or photographing fynbos on the slopes of George and Craddock Peak.
But like so many nature lovers before you, you are already planning your return. As soon as possible. And maybe, like plenty before, you will even end up moving to the Garden Route to live the daily adventure.
I know that we did. Twenty years ago, and still there is so much more to do than the mere glimpse that a week offers.