South Africa: The Garden Route

The Indian Ocean at The Heads, Knysna, South Africa

The famed Garden Route along the southern coast of the Western Cape of South Africa stretches from Mossel Bay to Storms River. I’d planned our first two nights officially on the Garden Route at an AirBnB apartment in Mossel Bay. The drive from Hermanus was just under 3 ½ hours along an inland stretch of the N2 highway. It wasn’t the gorgeous coastline we’d enjoyed en route from Cape Town to Hermanus via the Cape Peninsula, but it had had its own rugged vastness with mountains looming beyond plains off to our left. We loved a lunch stop at Ou Meul Bakkery in Riviersonderend where kudu venison meat pies and sweet pastries were delicious and cheap.

Our AirBnB apartment in Mossel Bay was on an upper floor of an oceanfront complex with a wall of glass overlooking the water from the enclosed balcony where we ate breakfast. Our hostess had said whales and dolphins could be sighted from the window, but we didn’t see any, which was a bit of a let-down after non-stop whales in Hermanus. We took long strolls along the wide, nearly deserted beach both days we stayed in Mossel Bay. It seems there’s not a lot to do in the town in the off-season.

View from our Mossel Bay AirBnB apartment

A casual waterfront restaurant (Delfino’s) recommended by our hostess served uninspired food in a nothing-special atmosphere. It wasn’t horrible, but not a stellar start. A sea of small campers and tents parked next to the restaurant parking lot; I guessed them to be the local version of the “snow birds” that frequent my home state of Texas in the winter. We found a better dinner option on our own at pretty Café Gannet the second night, and really enjoyed it. I just wish we’d found it sooner and worked in time to try the picturesque make-your-own-gin micro distillery on their premises. Still, we were left looking for much to do in the cool spring weather. We watched waves crashing near a zip line that dropped to the shore from a peak where a lighthouse overlooked the waterfront, but no one braved dipping through the icy spray. We tried Big Joe’s, a local franchise meat pie shop whose gravy-filled meat pies couldn’t hold a candle to the meat-packed kudu venison pies at Ou Meul. We wandered a bit on the local main street. Hmm. After all the build-up for the Garden Route, our first stop wasn’t stacking up to charming Hermanus nor the spectacular views around the Cape Peninsula. We were looking forward to moving into the heart of the Garden Route. Hopefully, we’d see what all the fuss was about.

The beach is wide and beautiful at Mossel Bay, but this pic is a reminder that security is always an issue in South Africa. We enjoyed the freedom of driving ourselves and exploring, but we remained extra vigilant and barbed wire, warnings of “armed response,” guards, etc. are the norm.

I’d booked a guest house in Knysna (“nize-nuh”), but the drive was less than 1 ½ hours, so we decided to drive on past another 50 min, to the Bloukrans Bridge before coming back to check in. This would put us near to the far east side of the Garden Route so we’d see most of it before we settled in at centrally-located Knysna. The drive did give us some lovely views of the coast, as promised. Was it prettier than the Cape Peninsula? Not really.

The Bloukrans Bridge boasts the “highest commercial bungee jumping site in the world,” and it’s pretty spectacular, whatever its current ranking. Neither David or I had any interest in jumping, but it was fun to see. (If you are interested in jumping, learn more here.) We enjoyed lunch at a picnic table overlooking the bridge, feeling a little bad about the empty main building and vendors with wares set out for no one but us (and we weren’t interested). Tourism was clearly taking a big hit due to the pandemic. One other couple arrived while we were there, also Americans, but that was it. Entrance to the Tsitsikamma viewing area is free; we were just stopped at an entrance booth where we gave our names for some unknown reason. No one stopped us on the way out and the booth seemed deserted.

Bloukrans Bridge

After navigating a steep road and a dicey uphill turn-in through a quick-closing electric gate, we found our Knysna guest house to be all we’d hoped for. Perched on a slope overlooking the Knysna “Lagoon” (an estuary) and The Heads (headlands opening onto the Indian Ocean), the house was beautiful and clean, our hostess welcoming and very chatty. We loved our room with two walls of windows and a nice balcony offering that gorgeous view.

Our Knysna guest house balcony with view of the Lagoon and The Heads

We soon learned that the estuary fills and drains each day and it was fascinating to watch shallow islands emerge and retreat. Birds flocked to the islands to feed. We rented a canoe one day and paddled out to one of the islands. The Steenbok Nature Reserve on Leisure Island provided more (free) bird watching and a nice walk along the water with lots of local dog owners. A short drive to The Heads offered spectacular views from the East Head overlooks, some jutting over the cliff edges facing the Indian Ocean. East Head Café is a real treat with outdoor seating overlooking the pass between The Heads. We enjoyed local craft beer at Red Bridge Brewing Co. and toasted our last night in Knysna with champagne and local oysters waterside at Drydock.

Summing up the Garden Route for us: We enjoyed our four nights on the Garden Route, but in hindsight, we would have skipped Mossel Bay altogether and gone straight to Knysna. (We’d spend those two nights in the Stellenbosch wine region instead.) If you’re looking for beach time and the weather is warm, I’m sure Mossel Bay is fun, especially for families with kids, but we’ve got lots of warm beaches at home and we weren’t in South Africa for that, even if we’d been there in summer. Also, I’d debated between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, and am glad I chose Knysna. It’s bigger (appx. 70,000 pop. vs. PB’s 19,000) and just had more to offer us.

Tip: I found canoe and kayak rentals in a tourist brochure and debated booking via the website listed there, but decided to just drive to the physical site first. (Located at Kalaideskoop on Thesen Island, across from the Gastropub, despite the brochure putting it at restaurant Sirocco) The price was substantially less on-site than what I saw in the tourist brochure at a purported “discount”. This may have been partially due to the depressed tourism due to Covid-19, but just FYI.

Up next: An Afrikaner ostrich farm!

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