Adventures Along the Garden Route, South Africa
Maybe Ol and I have been on the road for so long that we are starting to look adventurous. That can be the only possible explanation as to why our kind B&B host suggested, and we eagerly agreed to take a “scenic detour.” Instead of following the “boring” highway, she told us about an incredibly beautiful drive on a less traveled mountain road. We should have know better when the slender and unassuming 60 something woman told us that she enjoyed “dirt bike riding.”
We were several days into driving the Garden Route, South Africa’s most scenic road trip. It passes along oceans, mountains, and through jaw dropping valleys. The first few days had all that had been advertised. We visited wonderful restaurants, wineries, and beaches. I even conquered my fear of Great White Sharks and went cage diving.
After about forty minutes, on the “scenic route” detour suggested by our host, I was regretting not renting a four wheel drive. The scenic “road” was much more dangerous than diving with the sharks!
I was now seriously questioning my decision to rent a two-wheel drive vehicle to drive across southern Africa. In my defense, I had promised Ol that he wouldn’t have to camp or take long hikes on this adventure. The fact that he was having to drive a stick shift with his left hand and drive on the opposite side of the road was already asking too much.
I was afraid that Ol would have bolted back into the airport in Cape Town to catch the next plane back home if I had rented the 4x4 safari camper van that I wanted to take on this journey.
Our “scenic detour” turned out to be a deep rutted gravel road with hairpin turns. The dirt road did not appear on our maps and wound its way through the mountains. When I realized that we had to go over a mountain pass on what could at most be considered a one lane road, with no guard rails, I began to worry. The fact that we had no cell service and no way to call for assistance if needed only added to the adventure.
This road made the logging roads I grew up driving in the mountains of Idaho and Montana look good.
The drive wasn’t quite what I had in mind when our host described a scenic road, through a picturesque valley, with art galleries and private game lodges and guest houses.
The gravel road wound through a deep valley. We passed a few abandoned farm houses along a dried up river. We drove over the region’s dam which only had 7 percent of the water remaining. The region was experiencing a severe drought with three more months until the rains would come.
Along the way, we saw dozens of baboons. But, we did not see many people. We only saw a few families working outside their small farms.
After a long distance we finally passed a few rustic houses that were converted into art studios and galleries. We were flooded with relief when we realized that we weren’t hopelessly lost in Africa after all.
Maybe we were adventurous after all! I thought about how few people will ever see a road like this.
We had skipped breakfast and we were both famished. Despite our host’s road recommendation, we were not going to miss her lunch suggestion of Buffesldrift Game Lodge. She suggested that we eat at the local private game lodge, because of their young innovative chef. As a bonus, the restaurant overlooks a watering hole frequented by many exotic animals.
The lodge features a few resident hippos, but are most well-known for the three elephants that they rescued from Kruger National Park as babies, after their parents were killed by poachers. The elephants had to be hand fed by humans, and therefore could not be reintroduced to the wild. We met the caretaker who raised the elephants from babies and he explained that the elephants were now teenagers. They would soon be old enough to leave the lodge and be moved to a larger private reserve where they will have the opportunity to find mates.
We arrived just in time to help with the feeding of the elephants. We were given a big bucket of fruit and vegetables and led to the feeding area. We laughed and enjoyed feeding them as much as they enjoyed eating. We could see that each elephant had an individual personality.
After the feeding, we each received much needed elephant hugs! Later, we enjoyed our own lunch of steaks, salad, and wine. It was official, South Africa was the best place I had ever visited!
After lunch we decided to drive another one of the area’s most scenic mountain passes. The Swartberg Pass was both scenic and terrifying. The thirty minute drive took us over two hours in our two wheel drive vehicle. I now understood why everyone else drives a four wheel drive vehicle!
The pass was another one lane dirt road with hair pin curves! I was distracted from sure death by the mesmerizing rock formations. After our morning drive I was also much more confident in our little Ford Eco-Sport and my daring driver. On second thought, maybe the confidence came from the wine at lunch.
We didn’t realize that it would take so long to drive the pass, so we didn’t have much time to spend in the charming colonial town of Prince Albert. It is definitely on the list for a weekend visit when we return to the area. The quaint town has art galleries, small guest houses, restaurants, and a bit of a Sedona desert vibe.
We headed back to Oudtshoorn on the scenic paved route which also took us over two more passes. I was happy when we stopped to help a giant tortoise crossing the road. By the time we made it back to town, we decided to head back to the game lodge to see what animals would come down to the water hole.
The Oudtshoorn area is the ostrich farm capital of the world. There are dozens of farms that give private tours and many shops to buy local products made from ostrich.
The next day we visited Cango Caves which the region is also famous for. The caves are situated in a limestone ridge parallel to the Swartberg Mountains. The caves dripstone caverns, towering halls and towering formations did not disappoint.
After trying to squeeze and maneuver through the small sample cave openings, we decided to skip the hour and a half adventure tour which required crawling and slithering through the narrow dark passages. We took the traditional one hour walking tour instead.
During the tour we learned why the sample cave openings were made. Apparently a pregnant woman was determined to go on the adventure tour with her family. She not only became stuck, but she blocked the opening and stranded dozens with her. This led to a rescue mission that was televised around the world.
After our tour, we headed south to another game reserve that features two juvenile giraffes. Of course we had to buy some food and feed the giraffe while we waited on our sandwiches.
We continued driving south over a few more passes to the seaside town of Mossel Bay. We drove back over the mountains to the coast and resumed the traditional Garden Route. We marveled that we could be in such different eco-systems in under an hour.
In Mossel Bay we had to visit the Bartolmeu Dias complex. We saw a replica of the ship that sailed from Portugal and landed on the shores of South Africa. It is here that we also visited “The Post Office Tree,” the oldest post office in the world.
The old tree is the same one that sailors have used for centuries to pass along messages. An old boot hangs from the tree in which sailors used to place letters. Ships would stop at this point and pick up these dispatches and leave their own. Today, letters can be placed in the boot and they will be delivered by regular mail.
After a long day, we made our way to a quaint bed and breakfast for a room with a balcony overlooking the ocean. It had been a long day and we wanted to spend a quiet evening enjoying a glass of wine and the sunset. We were welcomed by our hosts and treated to afternoon tea. The bed and breakfast was perfect for resting and relaxing. In the morning we were treated to an amazing breakfast with lots of personal touches. Our seats at the table were adorned with small American flags to make us feel at home!
After just one night, we were back on the road again. We drove by farms, animal sanctuaries, and rescue reserves for birds, crocodiles, and big cats.
We drove toward the town of Wilderness and couldn’t help but notice the picture post card cottages along the riverbank. After driving around the bay we reached the famous outdoor holiday destination.
Wilderness is known for hiking, hang gliding, biking, canoeing, birding, rock climbing, and all beach activities. There were many things that we wanted to do and not enough time. We settled on dropping off our laundry and going up to an outlook over the town where para-gliding flights originated.
While in Cape Town, I had gotten out of paragliding because of the weather. But, entering Wilderness we could see the sky full of colorful hang gliders para gliders. One hang glider landed near us on the beach.
I knew that paragliding was something that Ol really wanted to do. I was terrified because I couldn’t think of an excuse not to do it. We jumped in the car and followed the instructions up to the cliff that towers over the beach town.
We arrived at the top and approached the tents on the top of the cliff. Several people were suited up and we watched several run towards the edge and take flight. I tried to come up with excuses in my head.
Before I had a chance to say anything Ol grabbed my hand and we walked up to a table. The young woman working at the table turned out to be a world class professional paraglider. She reassured me and eased my fears and before I knew it we had a 2:00 jump time.
On the drive down the mountain, we stopped and visited “The Map of Africa,” a scenic valley overlook which resembles the continent of Africa! It was a beautiful view. But, instead of enjoying the view my mind was working overtime. I was thinking “I can’t do this because I don’t have any socks because they are at the laundry.” My excuses sounded lame even in my head.
Ol could tell that I was terrified. He distracted me by suggesting lunch. We found a restaurant that overlooked the beach and the gliders. I enjoyed lunch but prayed for a case of food poisoning.
Lunch ended too soon and we headed back up the mountain. We pulled out of the restaurant and drove toward the cliff again. Ol’s phone rang. The wind had picked up and our jump was cancelled. Saved by the bell! I was relieved but also disappointed. We picked up our laundry and had to leave Wilderness.
Because of our new found confidence in driving scary mountain passes and our adventurous spirit in driving our rental car, we decided to stray from the highway again and opted for the “Seven Passes” road, which winds through the wooded countryside and through various mountains. The road and pass has been re-engineered since 1827 and has had the “horrors” removed, when it was described by the explorer George Thompson as “.. one of the most frightful spots I have ever beheld”.
The cliff faces on either side of the road are spectacular as they overlook the Keerom River. We made our way through the mountains and toward the town of Plettenberg Bay. Again, it was about the journey. The views were stunning. Ancient inland seas created these mysterious lakes which are surrounded by sand dunes and fed by fresh waster rivers.
We stopped in beautiful Knysna Bay. Once famous for its gold mines and logging, it is now known as premier tourist destination for golf, boating, bird and outdoor enthusiasts. It has several food festivals and a quaint shopping district in the town center. Thousands of acres of ancient forests are still home to the endangered and elusive mountain elephant.
After a short stop we arrived in Plettenberg Bay. When we arrived it was late, but we had enough time to appreciate our cool and funky inn. We met the owner and he gave us a tour. Each unit was built and decorated differently by he and his wife and reflected their hip and adventurous lifestyle. He made several recommendations for our stops the next day.
We woke the next day and headed toward our final stop on the Garden Route before the start of our long planned hike. We visited Newstead Winery and enjoyed a perfect afternoon. They are known for their sparkling wine or “bubbles” as our host put it. We had several nice food pairings and several glasses of bubbly. Before leaving, we added a half case of wine to our wine collection and drove the short distance to Nature’s Valley and the start of our hike.
Even though we didn’t get to go paragliding, crawl through a cave, or get close to ostriches, I am beginning to feel that maybe we are just a bit adventurous. We may not look the part in our little two-wheel drive rental car, but it is exciting driving across southern Africa on our own!