The Garden Route is the name given to 130 miles of the South Africa coast, starting at Mossel Bay, some 250 miles east of Cape Town. It’s one of the most popular areas for visitors, and we’d been keen to go ever since seeing it on a TV travel programme, several years ago. So one week of our trip was spent on the Garden Route, but we found it rather disappointing.
There were a number of reasons for this. First, the weather – which had been great nearly all the time we’d been in South Africa – deteriorated. We had two days of rain while on the Garden Route, plus some cool and cloudy weather, as well as some blue skies and sun. Second, we are not supposed to drive our hire car on unsealed roads, and that prevented us from doing many attractive-sounding hikes in the Garden Route National Park. Third, it is probably the case (as our guidebook implied) that the Garden Route is over-hyped: pleasant, certainly, but not outstanding in terms of scenery.
The two main tourist destinations along the Garden Route are Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. We stayed three nights at each, giving us time to explore. Despite the uncertain weather (including two rainy days), we did several walks, plus a couple of boat trips and a township tour.
The walks varied in length (though mostly 3-5 miles), scenery and level of difficulty. The easiest was a pleasant stroll along the beach from Brenton-on-Sea to Buffelsbaai and back.
Other coastal walks were more challenging, some involving climbing over jumbled rocks where the ‘path’ was not at all clear. The walk around the Robberg peninsula involved a steep climb on the edge of the cliff; steps and handrails were provided in places, but deserted us when we needed them most.
The Knysna Forests are part of the Garden Route National Park, and (according to our guidebook) one of the main reasons for visiting Knysna. On a grey day a forest walk seemed the best option – the lack of sun matters less as it may not penetrate the trees anyway. So we took our chances and headed north, even though it meant driving some distance on an unsealed road (please don’t tell!). The walk was pleasant enough, although the problem with forest walks is the lack of views. The biggest excitement for Sandie was the range of varied fungi encountered – she’s had a thing about interesting fungi ever since we explored the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1982.
One of our boat trips was up the Keurbooms River near Plettenberg Bay. We picked a good morning for the trip, and relaxed in the sun while travelling slowly up the river, enjoying the scenery and looking out for birdlife.
The other trip was from the Knysna waterfront to the Heads, facing cliffs which guard the entrance to the Knysna lagoon. The excitement of this trip was when the engine packed up; the boat had to anchor in the bay while we waited for an engineer to come out and fix it.
In several South African towns you can do ‘township tours’, i.e. visiting the shanty town suburbs where many of the black or ‘coloured’ people live. We hesitated at first about doing such a trip, not sure that we would feel comfortable looking at other people’s homes. But in the end, curiosity (and bad weather) got the better of us, and we arranged to do a township tour in Knysna.
This turned out to be not quite what we had expected. Our guide drove us to meet ladies from two of the local townships, and to visit some preschools which his company helped to fund. But most of the time we were listening to him expressing his very strong political views, mainly about the iniquities and shortcomings of the current government. We were unsure whether some of the things he told us reflected reality or his particular bias. After just three weeks in South Africa, we do not know the country well enough to judge.
So – our views on the Garden Route? We’ve enjoyed our week here, and have had some great experiences. But on the whole, the Garden Route is not the highlight of our trip so far. The scenery in this part of South Africa is pleasant, but (in our view) it does not compare with what we saw on the Cape Town peninsula, or in the Winelands.