The Garden route tops the bucket list for all travellers to South Africa with good reason. A panoramic route covering mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, lagoons it offers all nature lovers, photographers and travellers not only an immense opportunity to see the diverse cape fynbos and wildlife but also engage in various activities like hiking, bungee jumping and kayaking.
Stretching from Mossel Bay (Western Cape) to the Storm River (Eastern Cape), the distance is approximately 300 km, covered at a pace that you can customise.
In 2014, Johannesburg was home. It was a well thought out decision to split the garden route into different trips and approach it from different points to get the best and leisurely experience.
My personal favourite itinerary was a drive from Johannesburg, to Knysna and Tsitsikamma Forest Reserve in the Eastern Cape via Graaf Reinet. This road trip aimed at a boutique experience covering stay at exclusive hotels.
Day 1:Johannesburg to Graaf Reinet
Driving distance: 823.3 km
Driving time: 8 hours
Stay: Drostdy hotel at Graaf Reinet
The drive from Johannesburg passes through Golden Gate National Park with its big sandstone cliffs, Clarens, a pretty village known for art and local crafts, through Fouriesburg to finally arrive in Graff Reinet.
The town of Graff Reinet is known as a romantic town with old dutch style buildings set against the backdrop of hills. The Drostdy Hotel is worth every penny you spend for the stay and offers complete luxury. The rooms were along cobbled street style lanes with brightly coloured french windows, in yellow and green. They came with large king-size beds with the highest quality linen, beautiful bathrooms, and a private garden set against the backdrop of hills.
There was a lot to do there. After a dip in the swimming pool, we headed to the spa for an afternoon of massage therapy with natural African products. Towards the evening, we browsed through the many collectives, sculptures, and hunting trophies in the main lounge, followed by a three-course dinner with their famous steaks.
Day 2: Graaf Reinet to Knysna
Driving distance: 319 km
Driving time: 4 hours 16 min
Safety: Safe with lonely stretches
Stay: Lofts Boutique Hotel, Knysna
We enjoyed the early morning tea in the private garden, then, walked around town to see the old Church, banks, and dutch style historical buildings. We drove out early after breakfast as a significant leg of the journey was through a lonely stretch of roads.
The landscape was dry, barren with scattered succulents and low lying bushes popularly known as the Great Karoo or land of the thirst. The drive stretched for miles through lonely roads, the beautiful yellow landscape on either side, and the blue sky above.
With approaching Outeniqua mountains, the landscape suddenly changed to wet vivid greens, and it is this stark contrast in the scene that makes this approach to the garden route so thrilling and unique.
The route stays green on the descend to Knysna, a picture-perfect town along a blue lagoon. We drove into the Thesen island to stay at the Lofts boutique hotel.
The hotel was an old boatshed, now converted into rooms on two floors with great views of the lagoon. The family suites had a large kitchen, beautifully done up rooms and attic rooms that offered a fun factor for kids. The old wooden supports from the initial boatshed were maintained to give a rustic, raw feel.
The hotel had a line of boutique shops, spas, and cafes. We took a walk down from Lofts along a street dotted with art shops and designer clothes. There was an option to buy a variety of fresh seafood and wine at the local shops, so we came back to cook our dinner in the cosy kitchen.
Day 3: Exploring the Knysna Heads and Featherbed Nature Reserve
Knysna is famous for its marine reserve, popularly known as the Knysna Lagoon and the two Knysna Heads. The Eastern and Western Knysna Heads, a pair of sandstone cliffs that separate the lagoon from the sea beyond, offer spectacular views of the sea crashing on the rocks below.
We drove up to the Eastern heads to get a view of the narrow passage where the lagoon merges into the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. We had heard a lot about the breakfast experience at the East Head Café. True to its fame, the café had the most breathtaking views of the lagoon that we enjoyed over the best eggs benedict and coffee.
The Eastern head also offered easy access to rock pools and beaches.
The privately-owned Western Head and the Featherbed Nature Reserve is accessible only by a ferry that departs from the Knysna Waterfront. One can enjoy a leisurely lunch served as part of the tour followed by a four-hour trek through the reserve discovering the Cape fynbos.
By the end of the day, we had raked up a good appetite and headed out for beers and shopping at the waterfront.
Day 4: Drive from Knysna to Tsitsikamma nature reserve
Driving distance: 92 km
Driving time: 1 hour 10 min
Untouched beauty is the only way to describe the Tsitsikamma Forest Reserve. There are densely forested mountains all around and the Prussian blue waters of the storm river below.
Small hikes to the Storm bridge or the famous Otters trail, kayaking in the river or bungee jumping, there were numerous activities offered there. There is an option of getting camping accommodation at Tsitsikamma, but the camps are limited and booked well in advance.
My tip: Camping at Tsitsikamma Forest Reserve is a fantastic option and worth the effort to plan in advance.
Back in Knysna, we headed to the Turbine hotel for drinks and dinner of oysters which are a must-try in Knysna.
Day 5: Knysna to Bloemfontein
Driving distance: 746 km
Driving time: 8.5 hours
A trip to Knysna is incomplete without a breakfast at Ile de Pain, a quaint café with the best bread in town. Loaded with their sourdough bread and cheese and a heart full of memories, we set off on our long nonstop journey back to Bloemfontein.
There was a choice from the many bnbs here to make a quick stopover for the night. It is advisable to go for a simple and clean option and not waste too much budget on this night stay.
Day 6: Bloemfontein to Johannesburg
Driving distance: 396 km
Driving time: 3hr 48 min
The final leg back home carrying with us memories forever.
There is a lot to do around Knysna and Port Elizabeth area that includes, Game Reserves, camping, beaches, kayaking and trekking. There is enough on offer should one decide to have an extended holiday. There is also the option of completing the entire route and heading to Cape Town.
I had a memorable experience doing this bit of the Garden route at our pace, customised for a boutique experience. Please feel free to leave any queries or suggestions if you have made a similar trip and have experiences to share.
Road trip essentials and tips :
- South African Currency: Rands (ZAR). 1$ =15.67 ZAR
- Driving is on the right side in South Africa
- Safe time for road trips: 7 am to 6 pm. It would be best if you tried to get to your destination within this time.
- Carry spares especially for lonely stretches along the Karoo.
- Avoid rolling down windows to buy food from street-side vendors.
- In case the signal does not work, the rule is to let one car pass from each direction by turn clockwise.
- Be careful while driving at roundabouts.
- Always wave or nod if someone gives you the way. Do not honk.
- The sun is intense, so hats and sunscreens are a must.
- In most places, afternoon thundershowers and hail storms are frequent. Therefore, plan your drive with the weather in mind.
- An appropriate way to greet when someone greets you with “How are you ?” is to say ” good thanks and you ?”
- Some places to pick up ready to eat food/groceries/ toiletries: Woolworth, Pick n Pay
- Some commonly heard words in Afrikaans.
Dankie : Thank you
Praat u English? Do you speak English ?