“That was the best holiday in the Garden Route because the beaches were closed”, was my brother in law’s parting comment as they prepared for their journey back to Cape Town. “We don’t want to go home”, was the verbal feedback we received from our 9 year old niece and 7 year old nephew.
Washed up Beaches
Their summer holiday of 2020/2021 in the Garden Route was special, made more challenging with COVID-19 level three lockdown and beach closures. Following on from an unprecedented year of social distancing accompanied by a raft of restrictive conditions and the disruptive school closures, like most South African families, our Cape Town family just wanted to spend their summer holiday relaxing on a beach on the south coast with family and friends.
Then, just as plans had been made and they were preparing to depart for the Garden Route, the early December announcement of a level three lockdown and beach closures through to mid-January had them reconsidering and looking for alternatives. Knowing the Garden Route like we do, we were able to convince them to still come up, with the promise to show them a host of alternative outdoor adventures and places of natural beauty.
In general, many desperate holiday makers worked the loopholes in the regulations in the first week of beach closures with fishing permits and recently acquired fishing gear while others flocked to rivers and dams and a previously unknown gem, the Witfontein Quarry, of which the latter became a hub of aquatic adventure to beat the summer heat.
As the date of our family’s arrival drew closer, each of the aquatic options were closed down and outdoor pursuits transferred from the beach to the mountain peaks and the swathes of forest and fynbos in between.
In preparation, Amanda compiled a program with daily activities which showcased the natural diversity of the Garden Route, some traversing private property and others on public access land.
The most obvious alternative to the beach on a hot summer’s day is undoubtedly a river experience. Depending on the level of adventure you are prepared to undertake, it can range from simply swimming at one of the numerous river crossings to planning a kloofing expedition.
Plans for a hot sunny day, armed with nothing more than a towel, swim gear and something floaty, involved an afternoon of swimming from a grassy river bank which kept the whole family entertained for a few hours with the added advantage of inducing a siesta when we returned home.
Looking for a more adventurous aquatic experience, kloofing is ideal. It does, however, require a bit more preparation, of which choosing the correct river with a manageable distance and flow rate is paramount for a safe outing. Arranging to be dropped off upstream adds to convenience and packing tasty snacks in a waterproof container definitely contributes to a memorable experience, especially when the less fit members of the group begin to tire along the way. Munching on a dry snack while sunning on a boulder without any signs of civilization is enough to perk everyone up after a few hours of bouldering and swimming. Once done and home, even the most active child will retire for an early night.
Choosing a sunny windless day, we opted for a shorter kloofing option with the family, combined with a relaxed picnic and time observing dragonflies and playing in some cascades on the river.
In an urban landscape, the go to retreat is the web, but in the Garden Route, the best connection is to hook up with the Wood Wide Web. Beneath the forest floor, a network of fungal mycelium offers the ultimate in terms of the ‘Web of Everything’ by connecting each and every tree and plant to maternal lines, species and intraspecies throughout the forest. Every aspect of a forest’s health is dependent on the network of mycelium, integral in the defense against insect predation, pathogens and resource sharing.
While you most likely won’t be aware of the interconnection throughout the forest directly, after a walk among the towering trees, you will be infused with a sense of wellbeing, a subtle tendril of connection that will wash over you and awaken a primal connection to the forest, invoking the feeling of having returned to a familiar place, an experience known as Forest Bathing.
Depending on the age of your children, there are numerous forest hikes ranging from 2.5km up to 20km, each one with its own distinct ambiance.
Looking for something unique, Amanda took the family on a lesser-known, infrequently walked trail with a section of riverine forest. Initially, there were the expected moans of ‘How far are we going?’ and ‘Are we there yet?’ But as soon as they reached the fern-flanked stream, the adventure began, distance became irrelevant and time evaporated into insignificance. Even hunger pangs all but disappeared.
Blending a sense of freedom and adventure, horse riding is a gateway to nature for people looking for a fusion of power and speed. Children’s fascination with horses grows at an early age and, those that pursue it, develop a skillset of discipline, time management, goal setting and self confidence that assists in mapping their future.
The Garden Route has a range of horse riding stables offering spectacular options of forest, fynbos and, at a few locations, beach rides.
Opting for an outride from the Rondevlei heights, the family enjoyed a wonderful ride through some spectacular indigenous forest and along shaded jeep tracks and I was entertained with stories of horsemanship over dinner later that evening.
Reality of Life
In our modern world, sadly, for most people, their experience with nature is through a digital platform. Awe-inspiring images, captivating footage and enhanced audio bring nature and wildlife into our lives… via screens. Yet, if you are prepared to put down your digital interfaces and explore the abundance of nature, you will forge a passion for nature that will inspire a lifetime of adventure.
Every guest switches on all their five senses when we find a mound of elephant dung along a forest trail. Do not underestimate the intrigue of finding a pile of dung on the forest floor and wondering what animal it came from. After the first uncertain ‘yuck!’, mentored correctly, learning about it often stimulates a prospective DSI (Dung Scene Investigation) expert who will then go bounding through the wilderness looking for more samples to scrutinize.
Nothing brings a family closer in the forest than finding a fresh pile of leopard scat, with kids nudging next to parents for protection in anticipation of a spotted predator erupting from the undergrowth.
While wildlife dung triggers the imagination of children in the wild, finding live micro creatures, both vertebrate and invertebrate, sparks a resonance with wildlife. In the Afromontane forest that stretches across the Garden Route, a Knysna Dwarf Chameleon focuses their concentration beyond their normal attention span. Even spiders, once the initial apprehension is overcome, will captivate their interest.
Two things ‘earth’ us at the end of the day; sitting around a fire and watching a sunset. The wavelength of reds and oranges trigger a pacified sense of wellbeing. Geographically set along an east west alignment, summer in the Garden Route gives us spectacular sunsets over the ocean before the blood orange disc dips below the horizon and leaves a lingering glow that sluggishly fades to dusk.
Whether from the dunes, a deck, plateau or mountain top, it is a daily holiday ritual enjoyed by most. As a final family gathering before everyone set off home to prepare for whatever 2021 has install, it seemed fitting to end the last evening from the Cloud Nine view site overlooking Sedgefield with the Sphinx-like peninsula of Gericke’s Point in the distance.
Symbolically, as the hues of sunset were intensifying, a thunderstorm blew in with lightning flickering across the sky and a short downpour chased us back to our vehicles.
Initially reluctant to travel to the Garden Route because of the controversial COVID-19 beach closures, both my sister in-law and her husband reflected that without a doubt they had done more in this five day break than any of their previous summer holidays. Most remarkable was that neither of the kids had spent literally any time on their screens, being too absorbed in the daily activities and ultimately feeling sufficiently exhausted each evening not to require any digital distraction.
Most importantly, they had discovered one of the Garden Route’s secrets; that there are a plethora of spectacular outdoor alternatives beyond the beach and a host of wonderful adventures to be had by ALL families!