A big highlight and something that was high on my list was to drive the Garden Route in South Africa. This is a 300-kilometre (190 mi) southeastern stretch of road from the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape. The best and most affordable way to do the route is by renting and driving your own car. This option gives you the most flexibility by allowing you to choose the stops that you want for each day. You can do the route in a fast paced manner in about four days or in a very slow paced manner taking as long as one month. We chose to spend 8 days/7 nights visiting various towns deemed as some of the best highlights on the route, according to our research. Here is a summary of our itinerary which would take us from Cape Town all the way to Port Elizabeth.
Day 1: CAPE TOWN TO OUDTSHOORN
Total Drive: 343mi 6.5hr
Route: Drive from Cape Town South to L’Aghullas then continue on to Oudtshoorn taking Route 62 through the towns of Swellendame and Barrydale.
We decided to do the longest part of the drive on this day as we wanted to get to Oudtshoorn and take it easier on the following days to do more activities. We first headed to L’Agulhas, the most Southern point in Africa where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. After enjoying the views and taking photos we continued on to catch Route 62 and drive through the beautiful canyon passing through Swellendame and Barrydale to end in Oudtshoorn. In this town you can find beautiful huge guest farm houses with big gardens and beautiful patios. This is your base to see the Cango Caves and visit an Ostrich Farm.
Day 2: OUDTSHOORN TO WILDERNESS
Total Drive: 45mi 1hr
Route: We spent the day visiting the Cango Caves and visiting an Ostrich Farm before heading to Wilderness for the following two days.
The Cango Caves are a highlight in the area, a 200-million year old limestone cave system in the Swartberg Mountains, about 30 minutes north of Oudtshoorn. They offer guided tours of the caves every hour from 9 to 4pm- the Standard and the Adventure tour. We opted for the Adventure one which takes you deeper into the cave. We covered about 1.5km of the total 5km of the cave. The interior is a pretty stunning show of stalagmites and stalactites and worn out limestone that looks like marble. We went through many fun narrow passages, and some a bit difficult to squeeze through. Our guide Bea was fantastic, she even allowed me to stay at the back of the line as we were exiting the caves so I could see her turn the lights off and get a feel for the darkness and silence of the empty caves. The adventure tour lasted about 90 minutes. We then headed to the “Safari Ostrich Farm” just south of town to see one of the many farms in the area and enjoy a guided tractor tour. We saw a ton of ostridges running around the farm from the comfort and safety of our open tractor. We visited the incubator and learned all about these creatures and the ostridge leather industry in South Africa. They have a big souvenir shop and a restaurant there. Open daily from 8 to 4pm with tours offered every hour.
Day 3: WILDERNESS
Drive Time:: only drove about 2 miles out of town to go hiking at Wilderness National Park.
Route: We went to the Half Collared Kingfisher trailhead.
We got a permit from the ranger just at the entrance of the trail and we hiked about 4.5km (3mi) roundtrip to visit a waterfall. The trail was a system of well maintained wooden and cobblestone bridges and steps up and down the hills, alongside the Touws River. Afterwards we headed to town to visit one of the cute little restaurants. I recommend trying the Boboti, a delicious traditional South African dish.
Day 4: WILDERNESS TO KNYSNA ELEPHANT PARK
Drive Time: 58mi 1.5hrs
Route: We headed straight to the Knysna Elephant Park located just past the town of Knysna.
We would do one of the regular 45min elephant tours in the morning but when we got there we opted for the afternoon elephant walk at 4:30pm (there are only two per day) which would give us more personal time with the elephants. While we waited for our tour to begin we had lunch at the center and later went for a drive to hang out at Lookout Beach in Plattenberg Bay, just 7 miles east of the center. The Elephant walk was one of the big highlights for me of the entire Garden Route. The center was pretty amazing, what began with the rescue of two baby elephants has now been around for 20 years and it is now a world-class rescue and conservation place that has seen more than 40 elephants through its gates. Their main mission is to rescue orphan elephants and raise them. That afternoon we were a group of six people for the walk and we each got assigned to an elephant guide and an elephant. The elephants walked in a straight line following each other and we each walked right next to our assigned elephant and our guide who gave us the history of the park, the elephant’s rescue story, and instructions on how to stay safe during the walk. My elephant was named Keisha who came to the center as an orphan baby and is now 15 years old. She had lost her momma as a baby and tried to feed from another momma elephant but was injured, she ripped a hole through her ear (as you can see in the photo below). Keisha had to be fed by bottle at the center and eventually got adopted by another elephant momma. Samson was my elephant guide, a very energetic, passionate man who works with all the elephants and visitors for many years. No words can describe what I felt walking next to a wild elephant. I had my heart in my throat the whole time. It was truly an incredible experience that I will never forget!
Day 5: KNYSNA TO TENIKWA WILDLIFE AWARENESS & REHABILITATION CENTER
Drive Time: 34mi 48min
Route: A quick drive from Knysna to the wildlife center
I wanted a heavy focus on getting to know the local wildlife while in South Africa. On the Garden Route I wanted to learn about the local sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers where the injured, abandoned, and rescued animals are being cared for and allowed time to heal. Tenikwa is one of these amazing places that are working hard to protect and rescue wildlife. We paid for the morning photographer’s private tour. The tour offers the chance to enjoy a walk in the Cape Floral Fynbos where the cheetahs and other cats live. We got to be in the same natural enclosure as one of the cheetahs as it took its daily enrichment time out (or walk). They only allow visitors to enter animal enclosures where it is deemed as “non-invasive”. They also have the white lion, several serval cats, and all kinds of beautiful birds. Some animals go back to the wild, and some stay in the center for the rest of their lives, depending on their capacity to survive on their own in their new circumstances. This center admits 200 to 400 animals annually. They also rescue animals that are bred for the hunting industry. They have 30 employees working there who are passionate about these animals and about educating visitors. Another amazing and unforgettable experience!
After the tour we headed back to Knysna to check out the Knysna lagoon and the East Head viewpoint. The Knysna river goes through a treacherous narrow channel before it meets the Indian ocean. At the mouth of the channel there are two geological points of interest known as the Heads offering dramatic cliff views. You can reach the East Head viewpoint by car and walk down to the rocky beach. The West Head is a private reserve called Featherbed Nature Reserve and you have to take a ferry to get to it. There are a lot of activities that you can do in this town like canoeing, kayaking, pleasure cruises, and oyster tasting. You can try Knysna’s fresh oysters at one of the many great restaurants in the promenade area near the marina.
Day 6: KNYSNA TO PORT ELIZABETH
Drive Time: 175mi 3.5hrs
Route: Visit to Tsitsikamma National Park en route to Port Elizabeth
Overnight: Port Elizabeth
We wanted to do an afternoon stop at the park to do the kayak and lilo adventure with Untouched Adventures- an outfitter with offices inside the park. We did the 2.5 hour tour which included a hike (or kayak if the waves are not too rough) to the suspension bridge and canoeing into the Storm’s River Gorge, and later floating on the lilos to go deeper into the narrower parts of the canyon. It also included some cliff jumping- 3 and 6 meters high. On our way out of the park we visited the Big Tree of Tsitsikamma, one of the nationally protected Outeniqua Yellowwood Trees that grow up to 50m in height and as old as 2000 years.
Day 7: PORT ELIZABETH
The final day of the Garden Route for us. We spent the day site-seeing at the ocean front and around the Promenade area. Visited the historical center including the top of the Donkin Reserve Lighthouse. We said our goodbyes with one last lunch at one of the many fantastic restaurants on Stanley Street in the city. We returned our car at the airport where I later boarded my flight to the city of Durban.
I hope you have been inspired by my itinerary and are ready to come up with a great one that will work for you and your travel companions. I highly recommend taking your time through this amazing part of the country and learning as much as possible about the local culture, enjoying the food, and visiting the different wildlife conservation parks and beaches.
Happy travels and enjoy beauuuutiful South Africa!