Exploring the hidden gems of South Africa's famed coastal region
Anyone who has ever been lucky enough to visit South Africa will know that there’s nowhere in the country quite like the Garden Route. Whether you choose to admire the views from a lookout point or brave the 216-metre high bungee jump off Bloukrans Bridge, the forested coastal area between Heidelberg and Storms River will take your breath away.
Having moved to South Africa a few years ago, I knew this stretch of paradise to be famed for some of the best beaches, restaurants and hotels in the country, but what I didn’t realise was how many beautiful enclaves and secret hideaways lie tucked away off the beaten track, along with a healthy dose of adventure for good measure.
The call of the sand and the sea may always have been strong, but with the chance to explore hidden gorges and indigenous forests, I found plenty of ways to pass the days away from the hordes of tourists; once I’d perfected my tan and caught up on some sleep, of course.
My particular four-night holiday started at the opulent Hunter’s Country House on what used to be an old farm between Knysna and Plettenberg. Set far from the madding ‘high season’ crowd in flowering gardens fit for a fairytale, this is a hotel that you could quite easily never leave. And if its surrounding areas hadn’t been quite as appealing, I’m not convinced that I would ever have parted ways with my private swimming pool and cheese platter. But dinner at The Fat Fish beckoned, and the moment that the tempura prawn salad touched my lips, I was happy to have briefly torn away from the comfort of my gigantic bed.
After the best night’s sleep of my adult life, I ventured further afield the following morning to embark on a Secret Elephants Forest Experience near the town of Knysna with Gareth Patterson. The Knysna forests form the largest closed-canopy forest in southern Africa, and I could not pass up the chance to explore the tranquil habitat of Knysna’s elusive elephants, as described in Gareth’s book, The Secret Elephants. They chose not to reveal themselves on our drive and forest strolls that morning, but we did come across their tracks, dung and other evidence of their existence. However, it was enough for me to wander their sacred home and learn about their diet, range and numbers from an expert.
In addition to these elusive elephants, the Garden Route also boasts an abundance of birdlife. Nearly 300 species are to be found in a variety of habitats ranging from fynbos to forest to wetlands, of which 30 species are endemic to the Southern Cape. And to get up close and personal with our feathered friends, the next day I took to the skies for the ultimate avian adventure with Altitude Paragliding.
With many stunning jump sites throughout the Garden Route, it was tough to decide which hill to hurl myself from, but the weather dictated that the site in Sedgefield would be best. My instructor, Nigel Frith, was not only a keen competition pilot with 20 years of experience catching the wind in his parachute, but you couldn’t think of anyone better to be strapped to while dangling hundreds of feet above the ground. He not only has a 100% safety record, but the true testament to his talent was how he set a precedent for all the other operators and adrenalin junkies that day. While the wind refused to blow and we were stuck practising what is known as ‘para-waiting’, everyone else began to pack up shop after a few attempts. But Nigel persevered, and soon enough we took off over stunning surroundings and flabbergasted faces. With the skies to ourselves, we soared higher and higher, catching thermals and chasing one spectacular view after the next. The sky was the limit!
Once my pulse had returned to normal, it was time to head even further off the beaten track to relax with Mother Nature at Teniqua Treetops. This is an eco-friendly and somewhat eccentric holiday hideout set in acres of indigenous forest where there is no place for technology. And an evening spent braaing on the handcrafted deck, while soaking up more breathtaking views, was just what the doctor ordered. As was the bottle of Pinot Noir/Chardonnay and another good night’s rest.
After waking to the sound of birds and starting the final day of my Garden Route adventure with a walk amidst 1,000-year-old milkwood and towering yellowwood trees, I was ready to abseil in the secluded Kaaimans Gorge with the experienced and incredibly friendly guides at Eden Adventures. After receiving detailed instructions on how best to shimmy down a rockface attached to a rope, I started to question some of my life choices. Still, any fears were soon quelled by the hilarious grandfather-grandson duo who bounded down the rocks on their first attempt without breaking a sweat. These two daredevils are quite the pair, and they head back to Eden Adventures every year for different bonding experiences together. So whether you fancy boulder hopping, cliff jumping and swimming down narrow canyons, or hiring a canoe to explore the various waterways in the area, it’s clear that this adventure company in Wilderness will make you want to keep coming back for more.
It’s a place to which you will want to return again and again
And this for me is what the Garden Route is all about. It is a place to which you will want to return again and again, for an incredible experience each time. No matter what your age or what you choose to do along this scenic stretch of South Africa, whether you’re looking for solitude or an adrenalin fix, this area of the world will be sure not to disappoint. The landscapes will leave you in awe, the restaurants and markets are worth the new waistline, and the activities will have you ticking things wildly off your African bucket list.
What to do and how to do it
For the perfect excuse to keep pedalling or trail running for hours, head to the Garden Route Trail Park. Open from dawn until dusk, enjoy exploring the endless trails that weave through ancient forests at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains and the Karatara River Gorge.
Start your weekend the country way at Wild Oats Community Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning. Come rain or shine, this award-winning market on the outskirts of the town of Sedgefield is positively brimming with the best locally-produced foods and freshly picked vegetables. It’s also a great place to gobble down a cooked breakfast!
Looking to tire the kids out so that you can enjoy your sundowners in peace? Then head to Acrobranch in Wilderness where Tarzan swings and ziplines await above the natural forest floor. I braved the 48 treetop obstacles on the High Flying Course while desperately trying to muster what’s left of my balance, and I had a great time being a kid again – albeit lacking somewhat in dexterity. If you’re on a tight schedule, there are shorter courses and even a Monkey Moves course for the tiny explorers in your troop.
For some of the most spectacular views this side of the equator, I was happy to have visited the extraordinary lookout point at Wilderness Heights, which towers over a forested mountain that resembles the shape of this beautiful continent – earning it the name, ‘Map of Africa’.
Once you’re done with the day’s snoring or soaring, head to watch the live music at Cocomo Restaurant in Wilderness. Local bands grace their stage every night of the week, so I got stuck into an O’Coco pizza and a Cocolada cocktail while the talented The Sequence Band performed. I had such a great night that I topped it off by buying a tree to support the 1000 Tree Project, so that the next time I go back to the Garden Route, I can look around knowing that I have helped to preserve its beauty in some small way.
Where to eat
While away a happy couple of hours like I did by sipping cappuccinos and eating Saldanha Bay mussels steamed in Red Bridge beer at the quirky East Head Café. Thanks to its cheerful vibe and funky decor, I found this to be the perfect spot to enjoy a top-notch ‘special’ and beer while overlooking the blue lagoon and the sandstone cliffs of Knysna.
Kurland Restaurant has won countless awards over the years and is located in the 5-star Kurland Hotel, just a stone’s throw from Nature’s Valley. To get a feel for the vast 700-hectare private estate, I took a beautiful stroll with my aperitif to admire the newborn horses and award-winning roses. Then when the sun started to set, it was nothing short of perfect to return to the charm of the country house to finish my glass of Pecan Stream Sauvignon Blanc on the verandah before moving to the restaurant. Kickstarting my three-course meal with the grilled lemon butter langoustines with a rocket and parmesan salad was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
“Fish to taste right, must swim three times… in water, butter and wine.” This is the fabulous motto of the even more fabulous The Fat Fish in Plettenberg and George. Head straight here for seafood when you’re hungry, and I’d personally recommend not living a day longer than necessary without trying the parmesan crumbed kingklip with smoked chilli butter.
Where to stay
For accommodation options at the best prices, visit our collection of camps and lodges: private travel & conservation club. If you are not yet a member, see how to JOIN below this story.
Few hotels can boast a walk-in wardrobe, a bathroom larger than most London apartments, and a private garden leading from a lounge suite, but I felt Hunter’s Country House to excel on every level right down to their omelettes. Starting the day with a buffet selection that had me kicking back the bedcovers, to rounding off the evening with treats and poems left on my turned down bedsheets, it was all the small details that warmed my heart the most.
I’m a hippy at heart, so I relished the chance to turn off all my gadgets and breathe in the fresh forest air alongside the butterflies at Teniqua Treetops. This secret hideaway is as green as its forest home. Thanks to its composting toilets, greywater recycling, horses as lawnmowers, solar geysers and low energy lighting, you can rest assured in your canvas tented bedroom that you will be contributing to sustainable tourism efforts in the country. But as wonderful as that may be, my favourite part of this enchanting experience was undoubtedly taking the time to indulge in their pièce de resistance – a bath overlooking the forest canopy!
If you’re always keen for a safari fix, head to Gondwana Game Reserve to see the free-roaming Big Five in malaria-free luxury. The 11,000-hectare reserve is just a 25-minute drive from Mossel Bay, or transfers can be provided for the 45-minute trip from George Airport.
About the author
MEI CAPES is half-Chinese, born in England, and South African at heart. She studied French and German at the University of Warwick before spending a decade bumbling around Asia, Central America, Australia and Europe, then settling in Cape Town.
Already tired of pretending to be a grown-up, she takes every opportunity she can to explore her new home of South Africa, accompanied by her canine best friend and her fiancé, who will do almost anything – even face his fear of heights – to stop her whinging about being bored.
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