The garden of South Africa
he African road trip passes through enchanted forests and on paths that run along the edges of cliffs next to wild beaches. It is known as the Garden Route, ‘Tuinroete’ in Afrikaans, but on the way you’ll see more elephants than roses. It crosses a narrow stretch of coast between the Indian Ocean and the mountains that separate South Africa from the Karoo desert. A path cut out of the cliffs and suspension bridges that cross the sea, which let you appreciate its primitive beauty.
You’ll see most of the landscape while you drive along the N2 Road, on the 200km stretch that runs between Mossel Bay and Storms River, although contemplative travellers set off from Cape Town and continue for 800km, until they reach Port Elizabeth, a beach destination dedicated to water sports, where your fingers will become wrinkly after all the surfing, sailing, snorkelling and deep-sea diving.
Fantastic animals and where to find them
Along the route, in Knysna Elephant Park and Addo Elephant Park, you can see elephants in their natural surroundings. Penguins and dolphins inhabit the southern coast of South Africa and between July and December, particularly in Tsitsikamma, Southern Right whales can be spotted.
The best season for doing the route is spring, which begins in September. After the rainy season, the ‘garden’ proudly shows off all its splendour. It is when the meadows fill with colour from proteas, daisies, and fynbos flowers, the natural vegetation of South Africa that is characterised by thin-leaved plants, all of which creates a multicolour contrast with the neighbouring desert land. However, there is no bad month here because the region has the second mildest climate in the world, after Hawaii, with temperatures that never drop below 10 ºC in winter nor go higher than 28 ºC in the summer.
The Garden Route has lived through conflicts of the timber industry and the gold fever of the Boers, who settled in the humid forests of Knysna in the 19th century. The area became their way of life, which the South African writer Dalene Matthee later portrayed in her Forest Novels, a striking literary plea to preserve the region’s natural forests with characters such as the woodcutter, Saul Barnard.
The life described in Matthee’s tales no longer exists, but you can still hear the characteristic ‘kow kow’ of the turaco coming from the ferns. This exotic endemic bird has bright green feathers with a red crest and wings. The woodcutters have been replaced by hikers and adventure-hunters, who go down the rivers in kayaks or zip-line back and forth over the trees in the Garden Route National Park.
The park is divided into three sections: Wilderness, Knysna Lakes and Tsitsikamma. Woodcutter’s Walk and Millwood Mine Walk start in Knysna, amongst waterfalls and gigantic centenary trees. Two sandstone cliffs, known as the ‘Heads’, keep watch over the entrance to Knysna Lagoon from the sea. Thanks to the Garden Route, this coastal area has turned into a lively tourist resort full of restaurants and leisure options, such as the Oyster Festival, which takes place every July.
If you would like to see the forests in the same way as in Matthee’s works, then you can either walk or do it on horseback, though new experiences have appeared along the route, including submerging in the waters of Mossel Bay inside a cage surrounded by white sharks. The park’s varied fauna, which includes wild elephants and animal sanctuaries like the Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary, helps to build up the legend of this road trip.
Detours are a necessary part of the route. The Cango Caves, a labyrinth of underground marvels and South Africa’s oldest tourist attraction, are near Oudtshoorn, well known for its ostrich farms. In turn, the beaches of Plettenberg Bay attract surfers and now the place is also popular with wine tourists. One of the latest additions to the route are the Bramon vineyards, further proof that it’s impossible to do the Garden Route without stopping. Even if it’s not to smell roses.