The Garden Route along the south coast of South Africa is one of my Top Ten Road Journeys.
The Route, which runs for 150 miles from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape, is sandwiched between lofty mountains on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. This provides many spectacular views whichever way you look.
The name ‘Garden Route’ relates to the lush fynbos vegetation and ancient indigenous forest bordering lakes, lagoons and long, golden beaches.
It is quite a paradise on earth, with the mild oceanic climate making it a great place to visit at any time of the year. I chose September so as to see the springtime foliage and to avoid the busy summer holiday period.
Mossel Bay at the start of the Garden Route has not much to offer in itself, being a fairly industrialised town with the harbour supplying off-shore natural gas installations.
However I had a panoramic view over the Indian Ocean from my room in The Point Hotel, with clear sightings of passing whales.
George and Wilderness
George, which considers itself the capital of the Garden Route, is a pleasant enough little town, but travelling a little further brings you to the Wilderness Park, part of the Garden Route National Park. Here a complex of lakes, rivers and estuaries is both scenic and offers great canoeing opportunities.
The prime feature of Knysna is the lagoon which opens out to the Indian Ocean between two large headlands, infamous due to loss of boats trying to pass through the narrow channel.
The Protea Hotel Knysna Quays is well placed for the harbour and close by there are some excellent restaurants. A boat ride around the lagoon is not to be missed, admiring both the natural scenery and some of the opulent holiday homes on the headland cliffs.
During the summer months of January and December, Plettenberg Bay is teaming with South African holidaymakers. When I visited in September, it was relatively quiet.
But why stop at a beach lined with houses and hotels, when the secluded Nature’s Valley beach is just a few miles further on. It means leaving the main N2 road to follow along the old, windy R102, but well worth the detour.
If you are into bungee jumping (as some seniors are, but definitely not me), then head back along the N2 to Bloukrans Suspension Bridge, where the drop of 216 metres is the world’s highest.
Storms River and Tsitsikamma
Storms River is the official end of the Garden Route, but I ventured a few miles further east for accommodation at the Tsitsikamma Lodge & Spa in the foothills of the Tsitsikamma Mountain range. The well-furnished wooden lodges are set within a landscaped garden teaming with bird life.
This proved an ideal centre for exploring the Tsitsikamma National Park and the Storms River Estuary.
The latter epitomises well the Garden Route, with rich vegetation and wildlife on rugged cliffs leading down to the Indian Ocean. The 77 metre long suspension bridge over the mouth of the river, swaying wildly in the wind, provided me with an innocuous substitute for bungee jumping!
Many people are concerned about reports of violence in South Africa. Is it a safe place for senior travellers to visit? Well, during my stay I found nothing but a friendly and helpful manner from all South Africans I met. I never felt threatened in any way. However, it is always sensible to take precautions and be aware of dangers. See my Safety Tips for Senior Travellers and the UK Government Travel Advice for South Africa.
Driving the Garden Route
Should senior travellers undertake this drive? Based on my experience, there should be few difficulties for any driver used to UK roads, and of course they do drive on the left in South Africa. The roads are well surfaced and well sign-posted and I found them to be relatively quiet in September.
I set off from Cape Town in a hire car organised efficiently through Auto Europe and drove the 250 miles to Mossel Bay in about 5 hours. Although not as scenic as the Garden Route, being inland for most of the way, the place-names gave an interesting insight into where the early settlers came from, for example, Somerset West, Caledon (named after an Irish peer) and Heidelberg.
I booked my accommodation in advance at the three hotels mentioned above using the trivago hotel comparison site. However, friends of mine had little difficulty in obtaining good accommodation by calling in at the local information office wherever they wished to stay.
How to Get There
British Airways have direct flights from London Heathrow to Cape Town for about £950 return. However, you can save about £300 by travelling with South African Airways with a brief stop at Johannesburg. Flights from regional UK airports typically cost about £700, with stops along the way, for example, in Amsterdam or the Middle East. See the Skyscanner flight comparison site for details.