Cape Town Garden Route: Take the low road

See it all: Tsitsikamma, an adventure playground.
See it all: Tsitsikamma, an adventure playground. Photo: Steve Mckenna

Travel the Garden Route from Cape Town for some spectacular sights, writes Steve McKenna.

Cape Town isn't the easiest place to escape by road. First up, there's the traffic (which gets chock-a-block during the day). Then there's the magnetic hulk of Table Mountain (a helluva distraction when it's not shrouded in cloud). And there's also the fact that this is such an awesome city to visit that you may never want to leave.

But on the doorstep is one of the world's great touring regions.

Great white sharks at Gansbaai.
Great white sharks at Gansbaai. Photo: Steve Mckenna

The pearl of the Western Cape, the Garden Route is a bit of a misnomer, so don't expect rows of manicured lawns smothered in flowers. It's so called because its densely vegetated, and stunningly beautiful, stretch of coastline contrasts so sharply with South Africa's parched interior.

Here are some recommended pitstops.

HERMANUS

Ostrichs at Oudtshoorn.
Ostrichs at Oudtshoorn. Photo: Steve Mckenna

The quickest way to the Garden Route is the N2 highway that ploughs through undulating wheat fields, vineyards and the dramatic Sir Lowry's mountain pass, whose craggy formation resembles a dragon's back.

However, Rte 44 - which begins at Strand, 30 minutes from Cape Town - is an alluring diversion. This breathtaking coastal drive winds past sleepy seaside villages before joining Rte 43 to Hermanus - billed as the world's best land-based whale watching destination. Between June and November, southern right whales come to calve in the town's Walker Bay, with cliff path trails and lookouts offering vantage points of these and other whales (like humpback and Bryde's).

GANSBAAI

While these mighty cetaceans are a seasonal treat, another mammoth maritime creature can be seen year-round, off the neighbouring town of Gansbaai. Attracted by colonies of African penguins and Cape Fur seals, Great White sharks perennially prowl these chilly Atlantic waters.

You can go nose-to-nose with them on a cage-diving adventure with Marine Dynamics - a top-notch tour operator and conservation trust - or watch these spine-tingling shark-human interactions from the boat deck (sharkwatchsa.com).

WILDERNESS

Driving into Wilderness on a multi-lane highway, you'd be forgiven for thinking what an inappropriately named town this is. However, when you're strolling along its near-deserted, palm tree-lined white sand beach (which appears to stretch until eternity), or picnicking by its birdlife-rich lagoons, you'll probably be thinking: oh my, how lovely!

The Garden Route's underrated gem - 65 kilometres east of Mossel Bay - Wilderness has a hippy-chic vibe, with its Friday night village market featuring artisanal craft stalls and funky live music.

See beejuicecafe.co.za.

KNYSNA

Whether you fancy battered hake and chips and an ice-cool beer, or freshly caught crayfish and oysters with a bottle of crisp white wine, Knysna is a boon for foodies.

The Garden Route's most popular resort is crammed with delectable seafood eateries and cosy crash-pads.

The town's landmarks are the Knysna Heads, a pair of towering sandstone bluffs which overlook the spot where the town's forest-fringed lagoon - fed by the Knysna River - flows into the Indian Ocean.

PLETTENBERG BAY

Head to "Plett" favourite, the Lookout restaurant (lookout.co.za), for a scrumptious eggs benedict brekkie by the town's majestic sweeping beach where joggers, amblers, surfers and sun bathers supply ample people-watching pleasures.

Uphill, in Plett's spick and span centre, stylish fashion boutiques shoulder art galleries and French-style cafes and patisseries, while the town's outskirts boast some of the Garden Route's most enticing wildlife parks and reserves.

Tenikwa, a sanctuary that rehabilitates injured animals and birds, has a fabulous collection of African wild cats.

See tenikwa.co.za.

TSITSIKAMMA

Characterised by lush mountainous forests, plunging ravines and pristine, wave-lashed coastline, Tsitsikamma is, for many, the most sublime chunk of the Garden Route.

Adventurers love it here, with myriad activities to tackle: from kayaking and kloofing (canyoning) to tree canopy swings and bungee jumping. The 216-metre Bloukrans River Bridge is the world's highest commercial bridge bungee.

Hardcore hikers lap up the Otter Trail. This 42-kilometre jaunt from Tsitsikamma National Park HQ to the hamlet of Natures Valley is regarded as South Africa's best walk and usually takes five days. Casual walkers - like me - trek the first three kilometres of this route.

After something more leisurely? Hire mountain bikes and Segways from Tsitsikamma Backpackers in Storms River Village, a tranquil tourist hub with good dining options.

From Storms River, it's a two-hour drive to Port Elizabeth, though the distractions continue; among them surf mecca Jeffreys Bay, and Addo Elephant National Park, whose 180,000 hectares shelter the Big Five (elephants, buffaloes, leopards, lions and rhinoceros).

OUDTSHOORN

They call it the "Ostrich Capital of the World". A 45-minute drive inland from Mossel Bay, in the semi-arid Klein Karoo region, Oudtshoorn grew rich at the turn of the 20th century, when its "feather barons" made a mint capitalising on the global demand for fashionable feather boas and hats.

Now tourists flock for close-up encounters with these giant flightless birds, the big cousins of Australia's emus. At the Cango Ostrich Farm, you can feed these ravenous creatures, and, if you weigh less than 75 kilograms you can ride them, too.

Tender ostrich fan fillets are served at the elegant, unpretentious Bello Cibo restaurant (bellocibo.co.za) and go down well, I find, with Stellenbosch shiraz.

Across the road, ostrich sausages and kebabs star in the nightly braais (barbecues) at the welcoming bar of Backpackers Paradise hostel.

On Oudtshoorn's outskirts be prepared to rise at the crack of dawn for Devey "Meerkat Man" Glenister's daily tours. They grant visitors along the Garden Route a wonderful insight into the lives of meerkats, cute-looking but very territorial mongooses (meerkatadventures.co.za).

The writer was a guest of Cape Town Tourism, Marine Dynamics, Cango Ostrich Farm, Oudtshoorn's Backpackers Paradise, and Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

South African Airways operates regular flights to Johannesburg from Sydney and Melbourne, via Perth, with its new codeshare partner Virgin Australia. See flysaa.com.au; virginaustralia.com.au.

GETTING AROUND

Hire car companies abound in Cape Town. Most let you drop the car off in Port Elizabeth for a small fee. With Thrifty, a week's hire of a Hyundai hatchback was 2569 rand ($260); I clocked up about 1500 kilometres and spent 1200 rand on fuel. See thrifty.co.za.

STAYING THERE

The Ocean View Luxury Guesthouse, rooms from 1160 rand, see theoceanview.co.za; in Knysna, Villa Afrikana Guest Suites, rooms from 1750 rand, see villaafrikana.com; Plettenberg Bay's Milkwood Manor, rooms from 790 rand, see milkwoodmanor.co.za; the five-star Plettenberg has rooms from 3200 rand, see collectionmcgrath.com/plett.

In Storms River, Tsitsikamma Village Inn has rooms from 395 rand, see tsitsikammahotel.co.za; Tsitsikamma Backpackers, rooms from 470 rand, see tsitsikammabackpackers.co.za; on Oudtshoorn's outskirts, Hlangana Lodge, rooms from 920 rand, see hlangana.co.za; Oudtshoorn's Backpackers Paradise, rooms, from 425 rand, see backpackersparadise.net.

MORE INFORMATION

capetown.travel; thewesterncape.co.za.

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