The Garden Route is one of South Africa’s best kept secrets. While tours of Namibia will take you into arid desert landscapes, and Cape Town or Joburg tours will show you around the cities, the Garden Route is a peaceful haven for those who enjoy lush forests and hidden coves.
Winding through quaint, small towns still thriving on more traditional ways of living, swaths of untouched natural South African forests, while being home to all sorts of interesting attractions, the Garden Route is an eclectic collection of natural and manmade attractions, and ideally, if you are going to visit this part of the world, you should consider booking a Garden Route tour.
The South African Garden Route is not something people who envision the African landscape would expect to encounter. Instead of dry grass and thorny acacia trees, the garden route is filled with dense forest, lush green mountains and rushing rivers that spill into the Indian Ocean.
The Garden Route is well worth visiting, and for those who are embarking on an exciting Cape Town tour, a trip through the Garden Route is a natural next stop. The Route, given its name from the fact that the area is a beautiful strip of botanical wonders, covers an extensive area and is only a mere 4 hours from Cape Town.
The stunning 300km stretch of land that the Garden Route covers has an unidentifiable starting point (the locals can’t quite agree on where it begins) and runs up the rustic Eastern Cape coast of South Africa.
Self-drive tours as well as guided ones, are all available at rather affordable rates. Many tours also include accommodation and entry fees to popular attractions.
The History of the Garden Route
Unlike many of the other national parks dotted around South Africa, the Garden Route is not exactly one entity. Rather it is a variety of national parks, old picturesque towns and various natural attractions, and so the history of the areas is about as varied as the places you will encounter.
The history of the Garden Route is divided into two sections; ancient history and the more recent events that have shaped the area.
The ancient history dates back around 2000 years to the time when hunter-gathers lived a nomadic life in the region. These herders made use of the abundant natural vegetation and close proximity to fresh water sources to live. The tribe that dominated the area was the Khoi Khoi.
Hundreds of years later, when man took to the oceans to explore the world, Europeans landed in the area and instantly fell in love with the scenery, the natural forests, the natural harbours and the plentiful game that lived in the Garden Route at that time.
Many of them chose to make their homes here and established small villages of their own. This was soon after the arrival of Dutch Settlers in 1652.
Along with those who initially settled in the Eastern Cape, after arriving on ships in other parts of the Cape, Dutch settlers from the Dutch East Indian Companies relief establishment would soon after their arrival also start moving inland, in search of a new home.
The explorers who ventured inland would trade all sorts of things with the people they would encounter along the way.
The numerous natural forests the explorers found along the way were not respected in a way we would today, simply because they lived such different lives. They saw the forests not as trees but as timber to be turned into ships and homes. So many sawmills popped up in the area.
A few hundred years later and gold was discovered.
The gold rush of South Africa is truly legendary and saw the rise and fall of towns, families and industries, and it gave the forests of the Garden Route temporary relief. But by then 200 years had passed and the forests and most of the game populations had been nearly whipped out.
In 1913, the Forest Act was passed. All woodcutters had to be registered and approved, making it more difficult for just anyone to move into the area and begin cutting down trees. By 1939, all woodcutters in the area were pretty much forced to pack up their tools. The forests of South Africa today include plenty of alien species but the Garden Route is one of the few places where indigenous hardwood trees grow freely.
In the present, South Africa’s national park authorities have set aside areas of the Garden Route where the natural habitat has been mostly revived and there is a firm dedication to conservation so that visitors from all over the world can enjoy some of our country’s most beautiful natural wonders.
When travelling through the forests, the smell of milkwood trees fills the air and in the summer months, all sorts of flowers bloom, attracting bees and other insects.
The more recent history of the Garden Route, saw the rise of towns and the establishment of roads between the cities of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. All along the route, there are various places to stay, countless bars and restaurants to explore, hiking trails to venture on, and friendly faces to meet.
For those who are on the ultimate self-drive excursion, it’s basic knowledge that you have to know where you are going. And for those who are part of a laid back tour group, it’s of course natural to want to know where you are heading.
Getting there is half the fun, as they say, and when you are taking a winding trip up the coast, taking in the sights, smells and sounds along the roughly 200km route, this saying rings truer than you could possibly believe.
The Garden Route is considered one of South Africa’s ultimate road trips and its forests, national parks and isolated beaches are enough to attract most intrepid adventurers.
Most Garden Route tours will begin in Cape Town, especially for international travellers. Since most guests travelling to South Africa, wanting to visit the Cape, will start their holiday in Cape Town, it is quite natural that the Garden Route tours begin here to.
So, how do you get to the Garden Route?
To get to the Garden Route, you will be following South Africa’s fully tarred and well maintained, N2 highway. If you travel the route from beginning to end, you will rack up around 800kms, and likely end up in Port Elizabeth.
Officially, the Route begins at Mossel Bay and ends at Storms River. Knysna is considered to be about the middle of the Route.
The beauty of the Garden Route is that tours can stop all along the way, at every beautiful attraction or small town, and explore. There is also no real, or rather no official guide to determine where you should be stopping and what you should be doing. This is why most tour companies will create their own itineraries. Many tour companies will also provide guests with the option of customising their tours.
The other option that some guests like to use is flying. This option gives them the chance to land exactly where they want to and as such it minimises the amount of time they are going to be spending on the road.
But really, half the fun is getting there so if you were to fly into the area and only see the most popular places, then you will truly be missing out on a lot of the more exiting attractions.
Known for its natural attractions as well as its many historical small towns, the Garden Route is without a doubt a top destination for everyone visiting South Africa.
Storms River Suspension Bridge
There are all sorts of exciting natural attractions to see and get lost in. The Storms River is a part of the Tsitsikamma National Park, which is now a part of the Garden Route National Park, and the best way to explore here is to put on your comfortable walking shoes and get hiking.
At a point you will come to sighting that is not for the faint of heart; a suspension bridge.
It stretches for 77 meters, covering the turbulent mouth of the Storms River. Guests walking across the bridge can watch the storms river merging with the Indian Ocean in a violent rush. The bridge is only about 7 meters above the water and those who stand on the bridge can feel the intensity of the wind as they take in the experience.
Those heading for the bridge should also look forward to the hiking trails that will lead them there. Walking through unbelievably beautiful natural forests, which occasionally give way to ocean views, and an array of spectacular waterfalls, the suspension bridge is really just the final cherry on the cake.
The nature in this part of the Tsitsikamma is also quite something. The birdlife is vibrant and full of song, and there are also all sorts of antelopes and monkeys living in the park. When gazing out at the ocean, you might have the opportunity to catch glimpse of some of the marine life that frequents the area.
When you are in the area you should also take the time to visit South Africa’s oldest tree. It is called the Big Tree and it is estimated to be around 800 years old.
Knysna Forest and Knysna Heads
From above the view could quite easily be that of an English country side. On the ground though, it is quite distinctly South African.
Knysna is situated right on a lagoon, between the forests and the ocean. It is without a doubt one of the most popular towns in all of the Garden Route and it is home to a gorgeous natural wonder, the Knysna Heads.
The Knysna Heads are two gigantic rocky outcrops, sitting in the mouth of the lagoon. The easiest way to see them is by boat and by taking a long walk along some of the trails in the area which have a couple of lookout points from which you will be able to see some of the most unforgettable panoramic views.
While on a walk, you can stop off at one of the local cafes for a pick me up.
Close to Knysna, the forests are a must-see. They are one of South Africa’s only natural forests and these forests are home to some of South Africa’s oldest trees, some of which are between 400 and 800 years old. Of these trees there are yellowwoods, stinkwoods and Cape chestnuts.
Knysna Elephant Park
Elephant herds once roamed the area although today they can only be found in conservation areas like the Knysna Elephant Park.
At the elephant park, you can interact with and even feed these legendary animals, under the careful eye of their devoted handlers.
The park was established some 20 years ago and at the time was the first South African sanctuary to look after orphaned elephants. Many of the elephants were rescued and rehabilitated at the sanctuary. This kind of experience is one that will certainly stick with you for the rest of your life and if you have a special love for wildlife, you need to embark on this tour.
It’s not all forestry and lush greenery, there are some places in the area that are mountainous and during sometimes of the year, quite dry.
The Swartberg Pass is one of those places and along with its quite remarkable rock formations and unbelievable views, there are also a couple of places where you can go exploring.
The Pass climbs over the Swartberg Mountain Range, which is a natural boundary between the Great Karoo and the Little Karoo. The road travels some 200 km and at some points it rises up to 2 326 meters above ground.
The Swartberg Pass winds its way from Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert and it was built by convicts between 1881 and 1888 under the guidance of the road engineer Thomas Bain.
One of the flowers to lookout for along the way is the Protea, South Africa’s national flower.
Oudtshoorn Ostrich Farm
It is one of the biggest towns in the Little Karoo and it also happens to be one of the best known and most used ostrich breeding centers of South Africa. If you’ve had dreams of riding an ostrich, you will probably be able to do it here.
Oudtshoorn is a sort of side trip for guests because it is not actually a part of the Garden Route but there is a lot to see and do here.
A visit to the Cango Wildlife Ranch is worth it. Here you can go cage-diving with crocodiles, and you can get up close and personal with cheetahs and lemurs.
Wilderness National Park
Of all the Garden Route this is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places out of them all. Wilderness National Park sits between Knysna and George. In the north the park ends in the Outeniqua Mountains, and to the south it leads right into the Indian Ocean.
In this vibrantly colourful part of the world you’ll come across wetlands, estuaries, and lakes, as well as a diverse range of flora and fauna that are quite unique to the Garden Route. Along with seeing all sorts of birds, you can go hiking, canoeing, windsurfing, fishing, and sailing.
One of the best things the Garden Route is well known for is its exhilarating sports. Canoeing, windsurfing, fishing, and bungee jumping.
Bloukrans Bungy is situated about 40 kms outside of Plettenberg Bay when you are heading in the direction of the Storms River. It is best known for being the world’s highest commercial bungee jump and those who are brave enough will take the 216 meter leap into the gorge below, while safely attached to a bungee cord.
To ensure that you make the best memories, bring along a GoPro or similar camera so you can record every single hair raising moment.
When you come back into civilisation after sometime out in the wilderness (no pun intended), one of the places you should certainly visit is Plettenberg Bay. For the locals it is a rather upmarket town, where only those of a certain income bracket can afford to live, and where students spend their “Spring Break”.
For international guests it is an oasis of calm and guests can look forward to some of the best accommodation and picturesque beaches. Be warned though, in the high season the town can be packed full of people.
It was once a place of industrialisation and quick growth, but these days it is dotted with coffee shops, places to buy antiques, and all sorts of second hand shops where you can buy a once loved something.
Once you’ve spent some time exploring the town, you can settle yourself on one of the blue flag beaches and enjoy a good book and a warm drink, so long as the wind isn’t acting up. You can also arm yourself with your camera and set off to snap a few pictures of some of the many, stunning historical buildings.
There is a natural conservation area called wilderness and there is also a town called Wilderness, so don’t confuse the two. In the town of Wilderness, there are sparkling natural lakes, untouched beaches, mountains, lagoons and estuaries full of birds. It is the ultimate outdoorsy town for anyone wanting to get in touch with nature while exploring the shops.
Wilderness has plenty of fantastic places to stay as well, so you can easily find some luxury accommodation while here.
Although many South Africans have chosen to retire in this quaint little town, making sure that the pace is nice and slow, Sedgefield is a fantastic place to enjoy some of your time while on a tour of the Garden Route.
The town has 5 hidden beaches, which lie just beyond the lagoons and sand dunes, and they stretch along the coast for around 6 kms. They are the perfect place to go for a walk, especially when the tide is low.
The town is quite well-known for its eclectic art vibe and while here there are a few places where you can soak up the creativity.
It is not just the name of the popular river that runs through this area, but it is also partly the name of the town nearby, known as Storms River Town. The town lies just about on the beach and it plays host to all sorts of action packed adventures such as tubing.
The town of Storms River Mouth is surrounded by the Tsitsikamma National Park and it has become a favourite destination for holiday markers across the Cape. People love to stay here because so much of the accommodation looks out over the restless ocean and makes for the perfect place for those cold, stormy nights.
One of the last must-visit towns is Nature’s Valley. The town is known as a real retreat into nature and there was one time when the town was completely inaccessible and situated between the daunting Tsitsikamma Mountains. The valley is characterised by a river, a number of beaches and the natural forest.
The village is quite hidden away from the world and occasionally the nature comes a little too close, although that is part of the appeal.
While it will take a lot of strength to drag you away from the gorgeous nature that characterises the Garden Route, there are a few indoor attractions which are well worth the visit.
One such attraction is the Bartholomew Dias Museum.
The Museum is based in Mossel Bay and it pays tribute to the arrival of the Europeans and their subsequent meetings with those who already lived here. The museum gives guests a truly remarkable insight into the history of the area at that time as well as a look at the history of the Portuguese, British and Dutch sailors who were constantly coming and going.
Within the museum is a replica of the Dias Caravel which is the boat used by Bartholomew Dias to reach Africa. Guests can walk around the boat and imagine themselves living in an era when such travel was the norm.
Blue Ocean Adventure
When on the Garden Route, and so close to the shining ocean, exploring the waters and seeing some of its inhabitants is a must. The Garden Route has numerous places for experienced divers to take a dip, but you don’t have to be a diver to see what lurks beneath the waves.
Blue Ocean Adventure gives guests to the area the opportunity to spot the rare Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin, the Bottlenose Dolphin, Humpback Whales, Southern Right Whales and all sorts of other beautiful sea creatures while also being given a front row seat to a view of the landscape.
Whale watching is an incredibly popular past time for those living and visiting the area, and it would be a shame to miss such a sighting. The whales are not visible all year round, so make sure you plan your trip in such a way that you don’t miss them.
Gansbaai is without a doubt a highlight of the tour for everyone who has a love for sharks. It is the shark cage diving capital of the world, and anyone can sign up for a cage dive, you don’t need experience. Guests who go shark cage diving will be supplied with the necessary equipment and the accompanying attire. They are then taken out on to the ocean, climb into a cage and then drop beneath the waves to go on an underwater safari of sorts.
Cage dives take place all year round, but are heavily dependent on the weather, so certain times of the year are better than others.
The Ultimate Garden Route Road Trip
From natural wonders, to historical towns, and wonderful places to eat, the Garden Route has a lot to offer those who go exploring. Whether you want to spend your time swimming in the river while gazing up at the sheer canyon cliff faces, go deep sea diving to visit long forgotten ship wrecks, spend a few days hiking through one of the many national parks, or submerge yourself in the local vibes, with this ultimate Garden Route road trip you can plan your trip from beginning to end.
It is South Africa’s most scenic drive. Passing through indigenous forests, spotting lagoons and simply taking in that clear South African air, the Garden Route is one for the bucketlist.
1. The Garden Route begins in Mossel Bay (officially, although the locals might claim otherwise), and ends in Storms River. It covers a stretch of about 200 -300 km (the official distance depends on who you talk to).
2. There is no set number of days needed to explore the route. Some people take 7 days, others 2 weeks. The time you spend on tour will likely be determined by the tour company you are travelling with, so plan carefully, you don’t want to miss the best attractions.
3. You can travel the route either way and as such you can begin in Cape Town and end in PE or you can begin in PE and end in Cape Town. There are also some travellers who journey down from Johannesburg and head straight for whichever attraction they chose as their starting point. Again, where you begin and end will depend on the tour company you travel with.
4. When it comes to the finer aspects of your travels, if you are travelling from overseas, it might be helpful to bring along a travellers adaptor plug for your appliances and chargers. In South Africa, power sockets are most the M type.
5. Accommodation is generally going to be decided by the company you are travelling with and you can expect some truly amazing, even luxurious accommodation, when you are on the road. If you are planning to tackle the route on your own, the most budget friendly accommodation will be camping. Luckily, the Garden Route has countless camping spots all along the way.
6. There are restaurants and family owned cafes in most of the small towns dotted along the route, so you will always find a place to eat or a place to stock up on food while on the road. In some cases, the area is quite old fashioned and dedicated to a slower pace of living, and as such you might find that restaurants are closed on a Sunday.
7. If you are planning a self-drive trip, keep in mind that South Africans drive on the left hand side of the road, and pass on the right. South African roads can be quite an experience so make sure you stick to the rules and just take your time.
8. The Garden Route is tarred the whole way so you won’t need a 4×4 vehicle when on a self-drive.
9. When you arrive at a national park and wish to enter, keep in mind that there are certain entrance fees that will need to be paid. Generally, when travelling with a tour group as part of a packaged trip, your entrance fees will be covered.
South Africa Travel Insurance Basics
It pays to plan your trip properly and this means planning for possible risks and/or disruptions in your plans. Travel insurance is used for in case things go wrong and it is especially important when you are travelling to a destination like South Africa, which is quite far-flung.
Travel insurance can also cover your personal well-being should you get sick or hurt while on holiday. Remember, South Africa is quite the action-packed holiday getaway, and the Garden Route has a number of activities which include hiking, surfing, canoeing, bungi jumping, and diving, and having insurance is going to cover any possibly accidents.
This type of insurance will also work to cover any losses due to theft or even damage. As you well know, South Africa has a bit of a reputation for theft, but your holiday doesn’t have to be ruin by a robbery.
With travel insurance, you can sit back and take in the beauty around you, without the worry about unexpected financial situations.
When you are choosing you insurance company, make sure that you have chosen the company that works predominantly with travel. More insurance companies are going to offer travel insurance, but instead opt for a reputable company which specialises in travel.
Travel insurance can be bought online and there are quite a lot of flexible insurance options available out there. Make sure that you have a look around, read the reviews and only settle for a company that will provide you with the service you expect.
You should also look at customising your insurance instead of getting a blanket cover. You can choose to cover only certain aspects of your trip, and actually save money by not having to pay out extra money unnecessarily.
The best time to travel the Garden Route
South Africa is blessed with year round gorgeous weather. The Garden Route is no exception. The best time to travel the Garden Route is during the South African spring and summer, which begins in around September and ends in April.
While the winters might be a little gloomy with the romantic splash of rain, but since the winter months are off season, you can expect a quiet, and in some cases, a more personal, trip. The Garden Route enjoys an abundance of rain, most of which falls in the winter months with Cold Front systems whip the Western South Africa.
As the Garden Route winds into the Eastern Cape, the winter rains blow away before reaching land. The Eastern Cape, including the Tsitsikamma, receives summer rainfall with spectacular thunderstorms being quite normal.
To be on the safe side, simply assume that you will have rain during your trip and plan your attire accordingly.
As for the temperature, the summer months are always warm and pleasant. Unlike the bushveld of South Africa, and the north eastern coastline, where the summer temperatures get swelteringly hot, the Garden Route has a mild kind of heat. The average summer time temperatures range from 24 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius.
The Spring months as well as the Autumn which includes the months of September, April and May, are quite cool with the temperatures hovering at around 17 to 23 degrees Celsius. From June to August, the heart of South Africa’s winter, temperatures drop to between 16 – 20 degrees Celsius.
Garden Route Tour Itinerary and Highlights
Some of the best Garden Route Tours are the 5 to 6 day tours. This timeframe is ideal because it allows every day to be jam packed with action while not being too long drawn out. This means you can plan a longer trip to South Africa and fit the Garden Route into your time spent here without spending all your time on the Route.
Day 1 – Hermanus, Gansbaai, Cape Agulhas
The tour begins in the Mother City, Cape Town. Guests can stand on the Southernmost tip of Africa and be in awe of the endlessness of the Atlantic Ocean as it stretches out before you. From there, the tour heads through Cape Town and out towards the Garden Route.
The first day is spent really exploring, with the tour stopping at some of South Africa’s most beautiful beaches, including De Hoop Beach, welcoming towns, and idyllic eateries. The first day also includes a trip to the unforgettable De Hoop Nature Reserve.
Hermanus and Gansbaai are well-known for their oceanic viewing. Whales and sharks are often spotted close to the beach. A commonly enjoyed activity in this area includes shark cage diving, which is done off the coast of Gansbaai. Those brave adventurers who want to meet a Great White Shark, are kitted out in the right diving attire to keep the cold of the Atlantic away and submerged beneath the waves in a cage. While under the cold waters, curious Great Whites swim up to the cage and guests get to experience the exhilaration of witnessing these magnificent creatures.
For the rest of the trip, we travel on towards Knysna, taking the route via Malgas and Witsand. Guests will be accommodated in the same place throughout the tour. We choose a comfortable, central location from which to experience all that the Garden Route has to offer.
Each day is spent touring a part of the area. Guests can look forward to a trip into the Tsitsikamma, one of the most exquisite forests in the country. With its hiking trails and other fun things to do, it is difficult to be bored while you are here.
Another day will be spent in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa’s whale watching hub. Whether from comfort of the beach or out on the ocean, seated safely in a boat, spotting the whales as they come close to the beach is an unforgettable experience.
The afternoons and evenings are for leisure time. Guests can spend them relaxing and reliving the days excitement.
Our tours of the Garden Route make use of the very best 3 and 4 star accommodation so you can look forward to the best experience. The lodges we use come with all of the amenities you can expect and they are run by friendly staff.
The tour accommodation includes breakfast, while lunch and dinners are at your own expense. The Garden Route is full of all sorts of family run restaurants, cafes and coffee shops.
Guests who are considering a tour should keep in mind that the tour will include plenty of walking, so it is important that you pack a pair of comfortable shoes and be prepared for a busy time out in nature.
Those who visit South Africa will usually want to visit at least one national park to see the country’s real pull; the wildlife.
The Kruger National Park, in particular, is an attraction for many, but if your tour of South Africa is going to be confined to the Cape, you are likely to miss out on seeing this park. To make up for it, Kurt Safari can include a trip to one of the nearby nature reserves where you can see the Big 5.