The Garden Route is a coastal corridor between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains – that divide the Garden Route from the Little Karoo – and the Indian Ocean so richly endowed in natural beauty that one is hard pushed to narrow a list down to a mere 10 attractions.
It provides a coastline of some 300 km between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay – one of South Africa’s most popular holiday destinations for its effortless combination of ancient forests, rivers, wetlands, pristine stretches of beach, lakes, mountains and fynbos.
Here are 10 of the most popular natural attractions in the Garden Route.
Boosmansbos Wilderness is a dramatic combination of mountains, wild indigenous forest, and dense fynbos that delivers exactly what it promises: a wilderness of 64 km worth of marked trails across 14 200 hectares, reserved only for hikers.
The conservancy, which lies alongside Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve, is a world heritage site and as such is restricted to only 12 hikers in the reserve a day. A birder’s paradise it is a perfect space in which to lose yourself; the kloofs, mountain fynbos and forest canopy your only companions. Booking is essential.
One of the lesser-known attractions on the Garden Route, the views of the Knysna Heads are well worth the excursion. Featherbed Nature Reserve lies on the western of the famous Knysna Heads. It is a natural heritage site and private reserve.
A visit involves a good day’s outing that includes a ferry trip across the Knysna lagoon, a tractor drive and a (downhill) walk along the reserve’s coastline, followed by a picnic under milkwood trees. Views from the top are incredible, and the hike gets rave reviews. Wear hiking boots.
Lying at the feet of the Outeniqua Mountains these gardens are often described as a photographer’s paradise. They provide residents of George with a green lung and a place of natural beauty for recharging the soul.
A MTB trail from the forest gate to the north of the gardens takes you into the state forest, whilst a weekly Sunday 5 km park run gets residents into the gardens. There is a tea garden, herbarium, nursery and a bird hide near the marshland.
A Marine Protected Area that lies between Sedgefield and Knysna this reserve may be small (2 500 hectares) but it protects dense coastal forest that includes milkwood, yellowwood and candlewood trees, and provides wonderful trails and plenty of birds.
But what really makes this reserve a treasure is its overlooked status – most people drive straight past en route to Knysna without exploring its vivid scenery and deserted beaches (park on the road near the vlei before the road takes a left, and head west). Take along a picnic, good walking shoes and plenty to drink. Use the ferry to access the walks.
This world heritage site lies off the beaten track deep in the Langeberg; a 250 hectare indigenous forest – the most precious in the southwestern Cape. Only two and a half hours’ from Cape Town it is a wonderful getaway from the city with campsites and a self-catering cottage on the edge of the forest.
Numerous hikes in the reserve, and into the bordering Boosmansbos Wilderness, access to the forest, trees that include ancient, towering redwoods, bird hides high in the trees, and the accompanying trickling of streams make it a choice weekend getaway. Described as a rough diamond, it is famous for its mountain biking.
Despite its apparent density, this 568 km² forest is all that remains of one of Africa’s great forests. Indigenous hardwoods have been felled continuously since Europeans first landed in the Cape to the detriment of large mammal populations that used to make the forest their home – buffalo, elephant and possibly leopard.
Despite this, the beauty of the forest is one of the area’s major attractions. Filled with ironwood, stinkwood, Outeniqua yellowwood, white pear, Cape beech, bastard saffron, assegai and kamassi trees the forest is awash with hiking paths and the call of birds. Look closely enough and you might catch a glimpse of the endemic Knysna dwarf chameleon.
Evidence in Mossel Bay’s Pinnacle Point Caves revealed that Homo sapiens arose in Africa between 200 and 100 thousand years ago. They also provide evidence for modern human behaviour.
Now these important archaeological sites are available to small groups of visitors, under the direction of an archaeologist; half-day excursions that will change what you know about the origin of modern thinking people.
This Marine Protected Area and nature reserve is one of the biggest draw cards of Plettenberg Bay. The 4 km long headland, or peninsula, that juts out into the sea in similar fashion to the Cape peninsula, is a national monument its rocks dating back 120 million years to the Goondwanaland breakup.
Visitors head here for the hiking and the natural beauty. Three circular routes, one of which heads to the Point and back, take in the resident Cape fur seal colony, whales, an incredible coastal bird life, unique fynbos and some wild game. Pack a picnic.
Storms River mouth lies in the Tsitsikamma National Park, one of the most scenically rich attractions of the Garden Route, and certainly one of the most popular.
The Storms River meets the pounding surf of the ocean against a backdrop of a deep gorge, its forested cliffs steep on either side of a suspension bridge. A kilometre long walk along a boardwalk takes one to the river mouth, and the Otter Trail (5 days and 42 km) starts here.
It is unusual to find a national park in the heart of a town but Wilderness National Park, also known as Wilderness Section, lies in the seaside town of Wilderness – stretching from the Touw River mouth to the Swartvlei estuary before linking with the Goukamma Nature Reserve.
In all it protects five lakes, the Serpentine (a strip of water that winds between Island Lake and Touw River), indigenous forest, fynbos and three series of lakes. It provides a sanctuary for whale and dolphin spotting, kloofing, boating, bicycling, boating, fishing and hiking.