I was talking to some South African friends about my visit to the Garden Route recently, and one of them said: “Maybe this is a dumb question. But what is the Garden Route, exactly?” And I realized that even though I’ve been there multiple times I did not exactly know.
I looked it up on Wikipedia (obviously): “The Garden Route is a 300-kilometre (190-mile) stretch of the south-eastern coast of South Africa [mostly along the N2 Highway] which extends from Witsand in the Western Cape to the border of Tsitsikamma Storms River in the Eastern Cape.” The area is called the Garden Route because of “the verdant and ecologically diverse vegetation encountered here and the numerous estuaries and lakes dotted along the coast”.
So, that’s what the Garden Route is. It’s a few hours east of Cape Town and one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Africa due to its beautiful beaches, mountains (which often slope right down onto the beach), and ancient forests.
I drove along much of the Garden Route during my quirky road trip with Mom; we stayed in the area for three days. I had been to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, two of the Garden Route’s biggest towns, before, but this was my first time driving along a significant stretch of the route.
Storms River and Tsitsikamma National Park, now part of the larger Garden Route National Park, had been on my list for ages — I hadn’t been, except for this one time when I did the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, but I don’t count that because I didn’t really see anything other than the bridge I jumped off of — and I finally got to spend some real time there.
We were in the Garden Route for a very short time and the experiences I describe are a tiny snippet of what goes on there. Check out my friend Attiya’s blog, the Scribs & Nibs, for a more comprehensive guide to the area.
Quirky Garden Route, Part 1: Storms River
We started our Garden Route stay in Storms River, the town closest to Tsitsikamma, which is really more of a tourist hamlet than a town. Storms River has a small residential area, a few hotels and B&Bs, and a bunch of cute restaurants surrounded by an indigenous forest. Thanks to an excellent recommendation from Attiya, we stayed in a super-quirky cabin in Storms River that I rented on Airbnb.
This cabin was my top highlight for the entire roadtrip. The owner, Robert, built the entire thing himself and I believe it’s mostly or completely off the grid; the power never went out while we were there, despite Stage 6 loadshedding. The cabin had everything we needed: great character (rustic in an authentic, sophisticated-but-not-overly-trendy way); cozy interior; privacy; beautiful views; and a wonderful outdoor space. We could easily walk to all the restaurants in Storms River and to several hiking trails that connect to the national park.
Robert’s property has a huge, wild garden that we were free to forage from, so we ate homegrown raspberries, lettuce, and lemons.
There was an outdoor shower, surrounded by greenery, and a composting toilet. (Don’t be intimidated by the composting toilet! It gets cleaned every day and I found it totally comparable to a normal toilet, plus I felt smug that I was helping contribute toward a greener planet for 48 hours.)
I really loved this cabin — it gave me the most peaceful, zen-like feelings. I would have been happy to relax there all week, sitting on the deck listening to frogs croaking in the stream, sipping coffee I ground using the hand-cranking coffee grinder, and watching giant bumble bees sip nectar from the granadilla flowers. But we came to this area to visit Tsitsikamma National Park, so off we went.
Quirky Garden Route, Part 2: Tsitsikamma
There are dozens of things to see and do in Tsitsikamma, but we were there for half a day and only hit the highlights.
Important note: If you’re a foreigner living in South Africa, bring your passport/long-term visa to the park with you. Admission is one quarter the price (R70, or about $4) for South African residents as it is for international visitors (R280, or about $15).
Mom and I walked across Tsitsikamma’s famous suspension bridges, which cross over the churning Storms River and are spectacular. The river mouth is incredibly beautiful, and I enjoyed watching the kayakers down below while also feeling relieved I was watching them from above and not getting wet. The walk is a bit steep, but it’s short and doable for anyone as long as you take your time.
We had lunch at the park restaurant (which is currently in temporary quarters while a new restaurant gets built), which has a great view of the Indian Ocean and serves decent food. I took one more quick hike to the top of the ridge while Mom read her book on a park bench by the sea (she has a bad knee). Then we headed back to our utopian cabin.
Quirky Garden Route, Part 3: The Whale’s Tail at Plettenberg Bay
I wrote a decent post about Plettenberg Bay (a.k.a. Plett) a few years ago so I’ll keep this section short. But we spent one night in Plett, in a flat I borrowed from a friend, and we took a lovely little outing to the famous Whale’s Tail bench. Whale season is June to November, so we didn’t see any whales, but apparently this is a great place to spot them at the right time of year.
From Plett, Mom and I headed inland over the Outeniqua Pass (which was totally fogged in, sadly, but you can see a picture of it here) and back toward Joburg. I hope you enjoyed our whirlwind tour of Quirky South Africa — I’ll be back to regular Joburg programming later this week.