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Road Trip! The Garden Route Part 1, South Africa

I had never really given the Indian Ocean much thought. I think that is because it is a place I never thought I’d visit. Suddenly, it became all that I could think about as I loaded the passenger seat with my maps, water bottle, binoculars, and sunscreen (yes I get sunburned while sitting in the car) for our road trip along South Africa’s Garden Route.

The Garden Route starts in Cape Town and runs along the coastline along the Western Cape to Port Elizabeth. The route gets its name from abundant plant life along the way. The Garden Route is sandwiched between the the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Indian Ocean.

Even though the route is roughly 190 miles long, it can take anywhere from three to fourteen days depending upon the stops along the way. We decided to take the coastal route that wound along the bays and through small coastal beach towns. This added several days to our trip.

The drive is beautiful and the road is on par with American or European standards. This road trip has every component of a world class experience. We were treated to stunning views, two oceans, beaches, wineries, National Parks, animal reserves, animal sanctuaries, scenic mountain passes, wildlife, and beautiful flora and fauna.

The geology of the region is both stunning and dramatic. The mountains on one side are a continuous ripple of the hard sandstone Cape Fold Mountains. These mountains were buckled and bent 180 million years ago when South America and the Falkland Plateau smashed into Africa. On the other side is the Atlantic Coast.

In this scenic region there are steep mountains, deep river gorges, rolling hills, long sand beaches, and beautiful ocean bays.

Our timetable was dictated by a five day hike that we were fortunate to book in Cape Town. Our hike starts in Storms River Valley and ends in Nature’s Valley; two beach communities that are highlights along the Garden Route. Therefore, we had seven days to spend on our drive.

Ol wanted to dive with the Great White sharks and bungee jump from the highest bungee bridge in the world. I wanted to drink great wine, eat fresh seafood, and see whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, sharks, elephants, zebras … ok every animal in Africa!

In 1448, Bartolomeu Diaz, the celebrated Portuguese explorer was the first European visitor to the Garden Route. Ol and I are a little obsessed by this guy. After our visit to Portugal and seeing the family resemblance to so many of Ol’s family, we have become convinced Ol’s ancestors are Portuguese.

Following our slow travel mantra, we stopped along the way to take in the sights. We pulled over to watch crashing waves, and to watch families of baboons alongside the highway.

We stopped at a nice restaurant in Hermanus to eat and enjoy the view, we walked along beautiful beaches and explored local artisan markets. We were able to see the clear delineation between the cold dark Atlantic Ocean and the warm blue green Indian Ocean. This was a little unexpected, as we hadn’t yet reached Cape Aguillas, the southernmost point in Africa.

Our first stop was Gansbaii, the most famous place in the world for shark diving. We didn’t stay in town, but ten minutes further down the beach in Franskraal, at Walker’s Bay, a charming bed and breakfast right on the ocean.

We were delighted to see that the owners of the inn had an almost exact replica of our “grand dog” Freddie. We were so enamored, we took Pongo for a six mile walk on the beach where we watched kids on skim boards playing on a river that runs directly into the ocean. We enjoyed the area so much that we ended up staying two nights.

The next morning, we took an ocean tour of the “Marine Big 5”. This is the only place in the world to see whales, dolphins, Great Whites, penguins, and seals. The Big 5 tour was incredible. We saw over 40,000 seals with pups taking their first swim. We saw four of the big five, but were a little early for the whales. At the end of the tour we signed up for shark diving the next morning.

We saw numerous copper sharks and experienced up close the beauty and power of three Great Whites. I still can’t believe that I faced my fear and got into the cage.

The company that we toured with are responsible for monitoring and preserving the wildlife in the area. They use the funds from tours to protect the penguins by building penguin houses and running a sanctuary for marine life in the area.

After a fantastic dinner and more time with our adopted puppy, we finally had to move on.

We were excited when we finally reached Cape Aguillas, the southernmost point on the continent of Africa. I had to run down and touch the Indian Ocean. I was surprised to find that it was much warmer than the Atlantic. It reminded me of the Gulf of Mexico.

We could hardly believe that we missed by one day the dedication of a new monument, a giant map of Africa, marking the Southern most point! The map was huge and made of metal from shipwrecks in the area.

After traveling further east, we stopped and visited with local children on their fall break in a harbor town. We were amazed to find that they were petting giant rays in the harbor. The rays appeared to swim into the harbor from the ocean just to play with the children. It was an incredible sight.

The kids were fun to talk to. They were as interested in America as we were in them. They all had holiday homes in the area, but were from all different areas in South Africa. They were happy to teach me how to feed the giant rays and were excited to learn that we were going to put their photos on our blog.

It was still early afternoon so we decided to drive just a little bit further and ended up staying in Arniston. We rented a thatched fisherman’s hut with a gorgeous view of the ocean. Our cottage was surrounded by huge sand dunes. With the patio doors open, we fell asleep to the sound of the crashing surf. We enjoyed walking along the beautiful sand beach and climbing the rocks along the shore.

The following day, we waited until low tide to visit the famous sea cave in the area. The walk through the waves and the crawl through the small opening was well worth the effort. The seaside cave was spectacular.

We spent the morning driving through De Hoop Nature Reserve. The reserve is a World Heritage Site and a favorite for cyclists, hikers, and bird and whale watchers. The marine reserve extends five kilometers out into the ocean and is one of the largest marine reserves in Africa.

We had a nice hike along the river where we saw our first bontebok and an array of stunning birds and flamingoes.

The Cape zebras were beautiful with their brown and black stripes. I loved seeing their little mohawk manes up close.

Since De Hoop is a nature reserve, not even a shell or rock is supposed to be removed from the beach. This makes a walk along the shores and tidal pools a real treat. I have never seen such an abundance of beautiful sea shells.

We had an enjoyable lunch overlooking the river canyon at the Reserve’s lodge before we headed back to our beach cottage. The entire reserve with its wide beaches, high dunes, and river is simply stunning.

One of South Africa’s premier hikes, the Whale Trail, begins in this park. Hikers can ship their packs and food ahead each day and stay in gorgeous 4 and 5 star accommodations at night. From the one lodge we visited, this will be at the top of our to do list on our next visit.

From the Coast we headed north to Bontebok National Park. South Africa’s smallest park. We enjoyed the few hours we spent there. The flora was is full bloom and we saw our share of the rare bontebok, the park’s namesake.

We then decided to head further North to explore the famed mountain passes the region is known for. We found another cute little bed and breakfast and stopped for the night.

Even though we had not been making great mileage each day, we were making great memories.

On South Africa’s Garden Route we could be on a world class beach and five minutes later be at a winery or in a national park. It was hard to believe that we had so many different experiences and we were only a few hours from Cape Town!

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