From beautiful beaches to misty valleys, South Africa’s Garden Route is easily one of the world’s most beautiful drives. Brian Johnston explores South Africa’s stunning South West coast.

Words Brian Johnston
Photography Corbis

This article originally appeared in the February / March 2014 edition of Horizons magazine.

The truth is, gardens are scarce along the Garden Route. Neatly mowed lawns and pretty flowerbeds are far from this drive’s chief attractions, and tulips will seem tame once a baboon is sitting on your car bonnet. Instead of strolling garden paths, you might be wading through a swamp in pursuit of psychedelic flamingos. Never has a tourist route been so modestly and misleadingly named.

South Africa’s Garden Route leads you past wild beaches with crashing waves and through misty valleys where leopards moan and Turaco birds bark like dogs. There’s scarcely a centimetre of its 770km that isn’t beautiful. Hike through damp forests with monkeys, swim at pristine beaches where seals flop and when you’ve had enough of nature, civilisation is only down the road in the form of a cold drink on a hotel terrace. Garden Route this isn’t, Paradise Road it might well be.

The Garden Route refers to the N2 highway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and especially the highly scenic section that hugs the coast between Mossel Bay and Storms River, about half its length. It’s a popular holiday destination for overseas visitors and South Africans alike, and very well supplied with accommodation, from luxury boutique retreats to excellent campsites. Good roads, glorious scenery and plenty of tempting detours are tailor-made for a driving holiday in one of South Africa’s safest regions.

Most visitors start their journey at the western end of the Garden Route in Cape Town. The city is set in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, backed by rugged tabletop mountains wrapped in clouds. Neither quite European nor totally African, Cape Town has blended influences that provide it with Dutch architecture, British parks and Malay food, as well as an interesting history.

Where oceans collide

As you head out of the city, the N2 passes through rolling wheat country. A detour south to Cape Agulhas brings you to the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet in a collision of pounding waves. At Mossel Bay the main highway dips down to the coast, where you can settle in for some spectacular scenery. The town of George makes for a good first base. If any part of the region can be compared to a garden, it’s the lush green countryside around this town, sandwiched between the coast and the Outeniqua Mountains.

George was described in 1811 as “the prettiest village in the world” by novelist Anthony Trollope, and nothing much has changed. The town is dotted with historic buildings in the Cape Dutch and European styles of the 18th and 19th centuries. Outside the library in York Street stands an oak tree under which slaves were once bartered. Pieces of slave chains and an old lock are still embedded in the bark as an eerie reminder of Africa’s dark past.

The Garden Route leads on to Wilderness, a relatively upmarket resort town with good beaches backed by lagoons and marshes visited by flamingos and spoonbills. If you think bird-watching is boring, you might change your mind after seeing giant kingfishers hunting across the lakes, and flocks of flamingos moving in pink clouds across a silvery sheen of water like a scene from Out of Africa.

The next stretch of the Garden Route eastwards leads into Knysna, where the region’s natural splendours converge in a shimmer of lagoons and scalloped coastline. You could easily stop here for a few days of swimming, fishing and walking through the area’s giant yellowwood forests, damp and dripping with ferns. If you’re an ardent angler, don’t miss the town’s Angling Museum, which follows the history of rod, reels and hooks and is the only museum of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Knysna is also a good place to buy souvenirs such as woven fabrics, pottery and handcrafted wooden furniture made from local hardwood.

Not much further east, Plettenberg Bay has more marvellous coastal scenery, where sluggish rivers meet golden beaches and frothing surf. It’s very upmarket in places, home to the holiday villas of wealthy South Africans – though you can also take a tour through the local shanty town and learn how the vast majority of South Africans live.

Natural wonders

Plettenberg Bay is the sort of place where you wake up late, play a round of golf, go for a coastal walk and then enjoy a gin-and-tonic as you watch the sun set. The town is dotted with boutique hotels and luxury B&Bs, or you could stay in the countryside beyond town in alternatives such as Lilypond Country Lodge, where a guest-only restaurant demonstrates that fine dining and wilderness are far from incompatible in South Africa.

The nearby Robberg Peninsula has an 11-kilometre trail from which you can observe seals, humpbacked whales and a variety of sea birds. This windswept peninsula also has shell deposits left over in middens that are remnants of the beachcombers who lived here at the time of first European settlement.

Plettenberg Bay also offers plenty of water sports such as boating, water-skiing, wind-surfing, canoeing and diving. In fact, the warmth of the Indian Ocean and the many lakes of the Garden Route make water sports available just about everywhere along its length. Some of the coast’s surfing spots are of international standard, including Lookout, Kuerbooms and Robberg beaches.

Jeffrey’s Bay is rated by some as having the best surf in South Africa. Its streets are lined with surf shops, as well as whale-watching companies and ice-cream parlours. From Plettenberg Bay, it’s best to momentarily leave the N2 and instead take the R102, which passes several gorges and leads through forests where monkeys, duiker, bushbuck and brightly coloured loerie birds can be spotted, as well as a kaleidoscope of startling butterflies and lizards. At Storms River Mouth you’ll find an unspoilt, rocky shoreline and a breathtaking campsite location near Tsitsikamma National Park.

Hiking heaven

Here you can follow nature trails through tangled undergrowth and overhanging trees where monkeys roam. The best-known path is the Otter Trail, a five-day, 48-kilometre coastal trek that’s among the most popular hiking routes in South Africa.

Only 12 people are allowed along the trek each day (you’ll have to book ahead through the National Parks Board), so this is truly getting away from it all. The Garden Route finally leaves the coast at Storms River, where the
foolhardy take a bungy-jump from the road bridge while monkeys leap in the trees. Still, just keep on driving and the splendid scenery continues until you get to the outskirts of industrial Port Elizabeth, the official end of the Garden Route. If the Garden Route has one downside, it’s that you won’t see any of the big game for which South Africa is renowned along the coast itself.

Turn inland at Port Elizabeth however, and you can top off your drive with a safari experience at private game reserves such as the superlative Kwandwe, which offers the chance to see elephants, giraffes, zebras and lions.

At the end of a day’s animal encounters, guests gather around the safari lodge’s boma (open-air fireplace) to warm themselves as the evening cools and swap stories about the day’s adventures. Sunset flares in a magnificent display of crimson, pink and gold. Then it’s dark, and out of the night an elephant trumpets: the spellbinding call of the wild.

Fun facts

The Garden Route is the tourist name for the N2 Highway from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. It runs 770km one way; allow four days minimum. Many visitors return by detouring inland through the Little Karoo region.
Driving is on the left. Roads are well maintained and uncrowded; watch for potholes on minor roads.
The best weather is in summer (December to March), though spring brings wildflowers. Winter is wet.

Engaging statuettes in beadwork costumes, and wood-carved animals.
Victoria Falls is one of Africa’s most spectacular sights, easily reached on a flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone in Zambia. Apart from one of the greatest natural shows on Earth, this is a centre for adrenaline
sports and safaris.
The cellar doors and gorgeous scenery of the Stellenbosch wine region east of Cape Town, a minord etour off the route.

Travel essentials

  • Be cautious with luggage at Johannesburg airport, and don’t accept unsolicited assistance or transportation.
  • Keep your valuables out of sight and never venture into isolated or darkened parts of cities. Tourist areas along the Garden Route are reasonably safe.
  • The Garden Route lies in a malaria-free part of the country.
  • It’s advisable to apply for an International Drivers Permit before you leave home.
  • Make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance that covers you for unexpected medical treatment, camera equipment and car hire excess.