Joe explores the southern Cape

It was roughly a year since I had last been to South Africa, this time I flew to Cape Town to visit areas of the Cape I had missed previously.

On arrival into Cape Town Airport on the direct overnight British Airways flight, I collected my hire car and made my way south-eastwards bypassing Cape Town to the coastal town of Hermanus. Hermanus is well known for being one of the best places for land based whale watching in the world. From June through to November, this town comes alive with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the southern right whales as they migrate to Walker Bay to calve. There are a number of lovely hotels and guesthouses in both the town of Hermanus and in the bordering suburbs. The advantage of being within the town itself is the perk of being walking distance to restaurants. The restaurants and eateries are located around the central ‘village/market square’ area of the town. With seafood being the obvious choice, there are some fabulous options. However, in high season it can get quite busy with tourists in this area so staying in the outer lying areas such as Mosselberg is favourable for some.

From Hermanus, I drove north into the winelands triangle. I visited both Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, two of the three triangle corners (Paarl being the other). Despite being only 30 minutes from each other, they do vary quite significantly. Being a university town, Stellenbosch feels like it has a lot more going on, with museums, coffee shops and restaurants spilling onto the streets and generally a livelier ‘buzz’ around it. Franschhoek on the other hand feels more sedate. It is a quaint smaller village and is renowned for its food and wine offering with some of the best restaurants in South Africa. The location of both destinations makes it easy to visit vineyards, as well as visiting each other during your stay.

After spending two nights in Franschhoek, I drove back to Stellenbosch where I met Julia and departed for the famous Garden Route. We drove back through Franschhoek and ascended the Franschhoek Pass out of the valley enjoying the fantastic views of the winelands. We continued towards the ‘little’ Karoo and Montagu before continuing to the small town of Swellendam for the night.

There are two routes to be considered in order to reach the central Garden Route area of Knysna/Plettenberg Bay; the more direct route along the N2 highway or the scenic R62, which although does take longer doesn’t disappoint.

We departed Swellendam, visiting the Sanbona Game Reserve en route before continuing along the R62 through Ladysmith and Calitzdorp where we popped into Ronnie’s Sex Shop (don’t worry, it is just a famous roadside café!) before continuing to Oudtshoorn. Oudtshoorn is a one night stop in most cases and there are plenty of accommodation options available. It is in the semi-arid Karoo desert which is popular for Ostrich faming. As a result, the tender ostrich meat is on nearly every menu! If you were to spend longer in this area, there are visits to ostrich farms, meerkat experiences as well as generally exploring the area. We only spent one night in Oudtshoorn before departing for the Swartberg Pass. If time allows, this is something I really do recommend – it was spectacular. The road is rough and you feel like you are ascending the pass for an eternity but once you reach the top, the view is sensational. Due to the nature of these trips, we couldn’t delay and so continued on our way to Prince Albert, a small town on the northern side of the pass. After picking up a quick lunch, we continued on our merry way eastwards through Klaarstrom, Meeringspoort (again it was beautiful!), De Rust and Uniondale before joining the Prince Alfred Pass south towards Knysna.

The central Garden Route is made up of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. These locations are only a 30 minute drive apart yet they do differ in terms of the experience. Knysna very much feels like more of a ‘tourist’ destination with its own mini waterfront and it’s more commercial centre. As a destination in itself, Knysna is located on a beautiful tidal lagoon and offers a landscape quite different to other parts of the Cape.

Plettenberg Bay on the other hand feels more wild. The westerly side of town in particular offers the Robberg Beach and Nature Reserve. This a beautiful long beach which does feel slightly wild and there are a number of walks within the Robberg Nature Reserve which can culminate in a seal colony on the point. The centre of Plettenberg however does offer more of your typical beach town with tourist shops and a number of good seafood restaurants.

After departing the central Garden Route we visited Port Elizabeth before continuing further east to the Eastern Cape Game Reserves.

The Eastern Cape reserves combine really well with the Garden Route as they can be accessed by between a 1 to 2 hour drive from Port Elizabeth. They are also malaria free which makes them ideal for families and those not wishing to visit malaria risk areas.

We visited a number of different reserves all offering good game viewing and a variety of different landscapes. The reserves are of course fenced and as a result don’t feel as ‘wild’ as other parts of Africa, however as an introduction to safari, they work well. The reserves aren’t as established as in other parts of the country and have only been operating for the last 20 years or so, but year on year, the wildlife numbers are getting stronger. Accommodation was very comfortable throughout and the guiding was good. There were a number of notable wildlife moments during our time in the Cape, the highlight of which for me was a beautiful white rhino encounter while at Kwandwe. Our spotter saw three white rhino (a large male, female and young female). We parked the Land Cruiser downwind of the rhinos, sat patiently and watched. Rhino are notorious of not having great eye sight and as a result the three rhino hadn’t noticed us and continued to graze, slowly moving towards where our car was positioned. They got to within 10 feet of our tracker who was perched on a seat on the bonnet of the vehicle, before catching whiff of us. The male in particular was startled, but was also not 100% sure whether we were actually there or not! It was terrific to have rhino so relaxed approach the vehicle. Unfortunately, lovely experiences like this are becoming few and far between across Africa due to the threat these beautiful animals are under.

It was a fantastic trip and although very different from our usual more specialist safari destinations it offers superb variety and is great for those wanting a first African holiday experience. This part of South Africa also gives those looking for great wine and food as well as good general touring a fantastic option. Eating out in South Africa tends to be excellent value and with recent exchange rates the trip as a whole can be very affordable.

Something that surprised me was the ease of driving in South Africa. It is easy to overthink it and assume that driving in Africa is torturous (which it can be in other parts of the continent), but the roads were mostly fantastic, with barely a pothole to speak of on the main roads. The added perk is that they also drive on the same side of the road as us in the UK!

During Joe’s time in South Africa, he stayed at the following: Schulphoek House, Ocean Eleven Guesthouse, La Cle Country Lodge, Residence Vive la Vie, Rothman Manor, Hlangana Lodge, Falcon’s View, Robberg Beach Lodge, Hog Hollow Country Lodge, Settler’s Drift, Kichaka Private Game Lodge, Kwandwe Great Fish River Lodge and Kwandwe Ecca Lodge.

Joe also site inspected: The Marine Hotel, Auberge Burgundy Guesthouse, Harbour House, Grootbos Nature Reserve, Mosselberg on Grotto Beach, Lavender Manor, Birkenhead House, Abalone Guest Lodge, 1 Marine Drive, River Manor Boutique Hotel and Spa, Oude Werf, Delaire Graff Estate, Boschendal, Babylonstoren, La Cle de Montagnes, La Residence, Maison Chablis, Mont Rochelle, Auberge Clermont, Ashbourne House, Akademie Street Boutique Hotel, Leeu Estates, Leeu House, La Fontaine, 7 Church Street, Galenia Estate, Schoone Ordt, Sandbona Game Reserve (Gondwana Lodge, Tilney Manor and Dwyka Tented Lodge), De Zeekoe Guestfarm, Rosenhof Country House, De Bergkant Lodge and Cottages, Parkes Manor, Villa Afrikana, Roseroc Boutique Guesthouse, Leisure Isle Lodge, Head Over Hills, The Milkwood Collection, Kanonkop House, Periwinkle Guest Lodge, Lairds Lodge, Tsala Treetop Lodge, Hunter’s Country House, The Plettenberg, Kurland, Tarn Country House, Hacklewood Hill, No. 5 by Mantis, Kariega Game Reserve (Main Lodge and River Lodge), Pumba Game Reserve (Water Lodge and Msenge Bush Lodge), Lalibela Game Reserve (Tree Tops Safari Lodge, Lentaba Lodge and Mills Manor), Shamwari (Bayethe, Lobengula and Long Lee Manor), Kwandwe Game Reserve (Fort House and Melton Manor) and Riverbend Lodge.