Exploring the Beauty of South Africa’s Garden Route
On the Road again. Even if only for a few weeks. Our home for the last weeks, Hout Bay, disappeared in our rearview mirror. The paved road led east. Quite precisely 900 kilometers. To Port Elizabeth. Or, as it’s been called since 2011 – Gqeberha. We were on the Garden Route: a random combination of world-class beaches, dazzling lagoons, and native forests.
What is the Garden Route, anyway?
Before we started our new life, we had heard about this world-famous route, mentioned in the same breath as “Highway Number 1” in California or the “Great Ocean Road” in Australia.
That’s all we knew about it. Neither what was along the route nor where it started or ended. As it turns out, no one knows, apparently. “Officially, the Garden Route begins…” we read in blog articles and travel guides. Traceable sources on this, as so often – terribly inaccurate.
Locals also disagree. For some, it’s simply a promotional name for the section of the N2 highway from Mossel Bay to Storms River. For others, it starts in Cape Town and ends in Port Elizabeth (today’s Gqeberha.
On closer inspection, the Garden Route is an area, not a road. And I don’t mean the Garden Route District, which only got its name in 2017. A freely definable adventure, somewhere between the vibrant Cape town, the Arizona-like little Karoo, the dense forests near Storms River with its numerous hiking trails, over the world-class surfing beaches of Jeffreys Bay, to Gqeberha. A definition that is entire to our taste.
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
On closer inspection, the Garden Route is an area, not a road.
Our Garden Route
After more than a month in the Cape town region, it was time to head east to Gqeberha to spend Christmas and New Year there. Following the N2 always to the east, this is precisely 900km and thus quite exactly ten h drive. It is calculated without stops and deviations from the longest of all paved roads in South Africa.
We started from Hout Bay and followed the R44 along False Bay to Hermanus. The Bay stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to Hermanus gets its name because it was once confused with Table Bay, which is on the peninsula’s west side.
False Bay is known for its diverse marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, and various fish species. It is also famous for recreational activities such as swimming, surfing, and fishing. The water in False Bay is generally warmer than the Atlantic Ocean, as the warmer Indian Ocean is already impacting here. When I write warmer, it does not mean “warm.” Swimming is still reserved for the hardy. Ordinary mortals usually use the 19-degree “warm” water only for a short cooling down.
One of the main attractions of False Bay is the whale-watching opportunities. The Bay is home to various whale species, including southern right whales, humpback whales, and Bryde’s whales. These whales can be spotted from shore or on a whale-watching tour. Usually, the whole spectacle takes place from June to November when the whales are in the area to mate and calve.
The drive took us along a beautiful landscape with rugged cliffs and sandy beaches between a few small towns. Among them is Betty’s Bay. The city is home to the Stony Point Nature Reserve, which is home to a colony of African penguins and a variety of other bird species. Just a 5-minute walk from the parking lot, it’s possible to marvel at the little penguins at arm’s length – without paying admission. If you still want to spend the entrance fee: continue to the right of the parking lot.
One of Betty’s Bay’s main attractions is the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, which covers 122 acres and is home to a diverse array of native plants and flowers. The garden is a popular destination for hikers, with a network of trails that wind through the gardens and offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains and coastline.
Hermanus has earned a reputation as the best whale-watching destination in Africa – if not the world. Here it is possible to see whales up close from land, which for someone like me (seasick on an air mattress in a swimming pool), is a fantastic way to see whales without going green.
During our visit, probably since already December, there was no whale. Not a single one. Nix. Nada. This did not change when we strolled along the 12km cliff path along the beautiful, completely whale-empty rugged coast.
Cape Agulhas Lighthouse
From Hermanus, we continued our journey to Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, the southernmost point of Africa. Here the sea is divided – not proverbially and also not biblically – eastward begins the Indian Ocean and westward the Atlantic.
Sudden rain put a spanner in the works of this visit. The rain greeted us in the form of a wall of water that fell from the sky without warning. We stopped at the roadside and waited. It did not get better. So three waters met for us at the southernmost point of Africa: one from the left (the Indian Ocean), one from the right (the Atlantic Ocean), and one from above (the sensual rain). We drove on when it became clear that the rain was here to stay. Back to Bredasdorp and then on towards Albertinia via Swellendam.
In the last hundred years, about 150 ships are said to have sunk around Agulhas.
After a coffee break, we continued to Albertinia, where we had rented a small hut for the night. There the rain finally let up. Albertinia is probably only known for two things. The first is two aloe farms, and the second is the high crime rate. In 2021, 1308 crimes were registered. With a population of 4,731, that’s not too bad. A little more, and it could be a town in Mexico.
Our little shack on the property of a former diamond miner was without power. Load-shedding (the inability of the South African government to provide electricity to the country) was much more common here than in Capetown. People here wait 12 hours a day for the invisible gold to pour out of the sockets, power everything possible, and make it work.
We went to the only open restaurant in town with the foresight to buy a generator after over 17 years of load shedding. Not that it was enough for much more than the lights. The rain had become only a drizzle when we settled on the covered porch. The hotel’s restaurant and foyer reminded us of an old, ancient country inn somewhere in southern Germany. About 40 years ago. Or 60? Unrenovated, of course. So like most country inns in south Germany. Now that was mean.
Everything looked thrown together. Our old wooden table was covered with one of those thick plastic tablecloths that had protected sofas in German households in the 60s—held in place with those funny clips that never really hold. In addition, there was a Coca-Cola plastic chair bleached by the sun, which was more orange than red. Nina sat on an old wooden folding chair that looked dangerously fragile. And so it went as my gaze wandered.
We ordered from the greasy laminated slip of paper (they called it a day’s menu), also bruised by time. We could literally see the last food ordered on the “menu” overflowing with stains. The only non-fried food on the menu was a Sirlion Steak. Sirlion steak – it is. Vegetables were served with two glasses of wine. The restaurant had a gas stove, allowing them to prepare our steaks without electricity.
As we waited for an eternity for our food, as is usually the case in South Africa, I noticed that no one was talking in English. Afrikaans was predominant here.
The food surprised us positively. Of course, we paid in cash. Finally, there was not enough electricity to operate the radio terminal.
The next day we set off – literally in the dark – and continued dry on our way to Mossel Bay. The town of about 100,000 souls is, for many, the western gateway to the Garden Route. The town offered us a good opportunity to stretch our legs on the St. Blaize Trail. The trail runs about 14 kilometers along the coast and offers fantastic views. We skipped the slide museum. In bad weather, an excellent opportunity to get an insight into Mossel Bay 500 years ago when European “explorers” first landed on the South African coast.
The highway between Mossel Bay east to George is busy and not very pretty. After George, things turn to photogenic.
Some consider wilderness as an “insider tip”. When we arrived there, there was nothing to see of it. It was bursting at the seams. Parking lots were overflowing, restaurants were crowded, and hotels and campsites were fully booked, which is not particularly difficult with a supermarket and a good dozen restaurants clustered around a gas station. The forest-river-lake-beach-waterfall landscape makes it one of the most beautiful places on the “Garden Route”.
By chance, we got another room in a hotel. The room was noted as “water damage” in the hotel system. After a visit with the receptionist, we found out that there was no water damage and so we rented a room for a few days.
We explored the lake system by kayak and headed upstream. We docked further upstream and then hiked to a small waterfall that had risen many times over due to the heavy rains.
The “Timberlake Organic Village” just off Highway N2, was a great stop to enjoy a coffee. And, of course, there is the obligatory store with German specialties, on to Knysna.
There are many attractions in Knysna, the manageable Knysna Waterfront being one of them. This area is home to restaurants and several stores selling everything from clothing to jewelry to souvenirs.
The town’s most famous landmark is the Knysna Heads. The Heads are a group of two towering cliffs separated by the Knysna Lagoon, which empties into the Indian Ocean.
Both Heads offer equally fantastic views over the calm lagoon and the roaring sea below, but the Eastern Head is the most accessible.
In the morning, we visited the beautiful Coney Glen Beach. Here you can barbecue, splash in the rock pools, search for shells, or enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
The 2017 fires in Knysna were the worst forest fire disaster in South Africa’s history. Despite all this, Knysna turned out to be a true phoenix, with rebuilt hotels and houses. We wouldn’t have noticed this if a few locals hadn’t pointed it out during our several-day stay.
Plettenberg Bay, half an hour further east, is a byword for stunning beaches throughout the Western Cape. Here are sandy bays, which are not only popular with surfers. Thanks to the Indian Ocean, it is also fun to go into the water.
For lunch and dinner, we recommend “Enrico” at Keurboomstrand. A restaurant known for seafood and Italian dishes just a few meters from the waves. And please don’t come hungry during peak season. The waiting time is eternal, and the organization, as with almost all restaurants, is a disaster: the excellent food and the view compensated for the 1.5-hour wait.
From Plettenberg Bay, we drove on to Natures Valley, a place known for its unspoiled beauty and abundance of wildlife. Heavy rain clouds hung heavy in the forested hills as we explored the secluded beach.
From Natures Valley toward Storms River, there is the only toll road on this route. It is worth driving around it. We descended into a valley through an old winding road with little maintenance. We crossed the border from the Western Cape into the Eastern Cape at a bridge. We could clearly see that the Eastern Cape was a poorer state when we looked at the road condition on the other side of the bridge. The jungle had reclaimed one lane. Road maintenance? Not a thing. Countless bushes protruded so far into the road that we brushed against them even though we were making our way out of the valley in a ZigZag course. I had to roll a large stone out of the way that had found its way from the next slope right into the middle of the roadway.
Jeffreys Bay (J-Bay 😉)
Welcome to the surf mecca of South Africa. J-Bay is home to world-famous waves and even a World Surf League tour stop. Reason enough to throw ourselves into the waves. Unfortunately, the opening hours of the surf stores put a spoke in our wheel. Not just once, as it turned out a few days later when we came here again. J-Bay tops most cities in terms of opening hours. They sometimes open at 10 am and close as early as 2 pm. This applies not only to surf stores but also to cafes. Crazy. More free time for everyone.
If one day you find yourself in this area, pay attention to the opening hours and visit the Tasty Table restaurant. Here you can start a conversation with the owner over breakfast or lunch. She has sailed the oceans for many years on small cruise ships. There is also a load-shedding menu 😉
Port Elizabeth (since 23th Feb. 2021 Gqeberha )
Still in Turkey, we booked ourselves accommodation in Port Elizabeth. After all, Christmas and New Year are busy times everywhere in the world.
The small cottage is located only a few minute’s drives from probably the most beautiful sandy beach in the so far discovered South Africa – Sardinia Bay. Also right next to us was the “Kragga Kamma” Game Reserve. A small but friendly game reserve with affordable entrance fees for self-driving safari. Only 30 minutes away was the Addo National Park, the third-largest game reserve in South Africa. And the only park with the Big “7” – lion, buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard, whale, and great white shark.
Since 23.01.2021, Port Elizabeth has had a new name: Gqeberha. The name is Xhosa for the Baakens River that flows through the city. Xhosa is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa and one of the few in the world that has a “click” sound that is difficult for non-Xhosa speakers to master. We were a bit overwhelmed when we asked how to pronounce the tongue twister. Some of us helped each other a little bit. In essence, the “Gqe” was a tongue click, “beer” for “be” and added a guttural “g” before the ha: “Click bear gha.” Simple. That’s why we still say PE, as Port Elizabeth is briefly still called by pretty much everyone.
Our return to Capetown
On our way back to Capetown, we stopped again in Plettenberg Bay, Knysna, and Wilderness.
From there, we went into the hinterland to Montagu, the gateway to the Little Karoo. The small town would have fit without problems into Arizona or eastern California. It is embedded in a sparsely populated landscape with low bushes and hard grass. Small mountains surround the place.
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Hey Jeff! Thanks for joining our journey! We are glad you liked it! Wow, 50th anniversary, you are doing something right!! You are our inspiration! Hope to see you soon again! Big hug to you and Melissa
Hey world travelers it’s the Laughing Moon Ranch Barn people here. We are enjoying your trip. Awesome photos and adventures. We have gotten a few good storms up here at the barn but we are still dry under the roof. Everyone is well here and we are coming up in July on our 50th wedding anniversary and we’re still together and talking to each other!