Julia visits South Africa’s Garden Route and Eastern Cape Game Reserves

After the thick snow and freezing temps brought on by the ‘Beast from the East’ this UK winter I was more than ready to pack my bags and head once again to the warmer climes that beckoned in South Africa. I arrived into Cape Town and was met by lovely clear blue skies with spectacular views of Table Mountain. My colleague Joe had flown out a few days earlier to explore Hermanus and the winelands before we met in the pretty university town of Stellenbosch (a 25 minute drive from Cape Town international airport). Together we drove along the picturesque R62 route passing through historic Oudtshoorn- ‘the ostrich feather capital of the world’ –  followed by the stunning Swartberg Pass and then continued on through the famous Garden Route; exploring Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Stormsriver areas.  We ended our trip with a safari on the private malaria free game reserves located beyond Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape; Shamwari, Lalibela, Pumba, Kariega and Kwandwe.

On leaving Stellenbosch, we had a quick pit stop at the Boschendal farm estate which produces some delicious local fare (a steak and kidney pie for me, lamb pie for Joe and a bag of biltong for our road trip). After driving through the lovely Franschhoek village we then headed along the scenic R45 through Threewaters Nature Reserve which provided some beautiful views back down the Franschhoek valley. Continuing on through Villiersdorp, Robertson and Ashton, we then connected with the famous R62 as we drove our way up the Kogmanskloof Mountain Pass reaching the quaint little town of Montagu. After inspecting some properties here, we retraced our route back down the pass and continued onto the historical town of Swellendam, famously home to The Drotsdy Museum (the oldest museum in South Africa). Both Montagu and Swellendam have lovely boutique style guesthouses, perfect for overnight stays or longer for those keen to explore the area in more depth; for outdoor enthusiasts there are some great hiking trails in the mountains or rock climbing, for cultural enthusiasts there is beautiful Cape Dutch architecture, churches, museums and galleries to explore.

From Swellendam we headed east then northwards through the winding pass of Zuurberg Nature Reserve. At every turn, we had scenic mountain views and troops of boisterous baboons keeping us amused by their antics along the road side. At Barrydale we headed west towards Sanbona Game Reserve; a mountainous private game reserve with expansive views and some lovely game-viewing on offer, perfect for an introductory safari experience. There are three lodges here; Gondwana, Tilney Manor and Dwyka Tented Lodge, the first being ideal for families of all ages, with the latter two designed for older couples and honeymooners. Continuing along the R62 we arrived at the historic town of Oudtshoorn, which boomed in the late 19th century as Europe’s fashion houses embraced the ostrich feather. Today, as well as a visit to an ostrich farm, there are other local attractions nearby; Cango Caves, meerkat magic, hot air balloon flights, horse riding, quad biking etc. In Oudtshoorn, I stayed at the absolutely delightful Rosenhof Country House and would rate our dinner at their restaurant as the best meal of the trip!

From Oudtshoorn we then drove up through the winding but absolutely stunning Swartberg Pass. At around 24 km in length, the dirt road twists and turns around fish hook bends, with ever changing dramatic views and staggering landscapes. It is claimed that these are some of the ‘best exposed fold mountain chains in the world’, and they are simply awe inspiring. To drive straight through, will take an hour or so, but to really enjoy the mountains you can easily spend a few hours slowly winding your way up and down the mountain. Be sure to have your camera charged and plenty of space available on your memory card! At the end of the pass we visited the small town of Prince Albert, before continuing on our journey along the Prince Alfred Pass (on the R339) to Knysna. Prince Alfred Pass is around 70 km in length and it took us about 4 hours to drive with minimal stops. The gravel/dirt road can be slow going; tight bends, corrugated gravel, pot-holes as well as being single track in some places, so I would only suggest this route to more adventurous travellers who enjoy the challenge of slightly more difficult driving conditions and have the time available on their itinerary. Again there are some beautiful mountain views as well as a very pretty forestry section but overall not as breath-taking as Swartberg Pass. After a long day of driving we were happy to arrive in Knysna!

The ‘Garden Route’ of South Africa is a narrow strip of coastal floodplain hemmed between the Indian Ocean and the mountains leading to the huge semi-desert expanse of the Karoo. The route traditionally spans from Mossel Bay in the west to Port Elizabeth in the east, with the most interesting section located centrally between George and Tsitsikamma Forest. Whilst the area is not full of ‘gardens’, the area has high rainfall which provides lush vegetation and there are picturesque towns and villages along the route. We stayed in both Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, as well as visiting numerous properties located between them around Harkerville as well as slightly further afield in The Crags and Kurland areas. The accommodation options vary greatly but a stay in any one of these areas will provide a perfect base to explore the ‘garden route’ and they each have their own distinct character. Knysna town is built around a lagoon fed by the Knysna River and spectacularly meets the ocean through the treacherous Knysna Heads (a beautiful spot that has over the years claimed the lives of many a fisherman). Plettenberg Bay by contrast is a cosmopolitan seaside resort with long white sand beaches and more protected bays for swimming. Whilst Harkerville/The Crags and Kurland offer a more countryside experience with properties located in either densely forested areas or open rolling hills. A minimum stay of 3 or 4 nights is recommended in this area, however for keen walkers there are many hiking trails so it might be worth adding an extra day or two to allow time for some longer exploration.

From the ‘Garden Route’ we then drove eastwards through Port Elizabeth and onto the Eastern Cape private game reserves. There are a number of reserves of varying sizes, and we visited some of the most well-known; Shamwari, Lalibela, Pumba, Kariega and Kwandwe. These game reserves have been developed over the last 20 years or so, many originally started out as commercial farms which have now moved into wildlife conservation. Over time the reserves have continually expanded buying out surrounding farmland and increasing their footprint as well as their game capacity. Much of the wildlife now seen on the reserves were once endemic to the area, but other species have been introduced. The pursuit to protect wildlife and to provide conservation areas is core to the success of these game reserves and with the opportunity to see big game in a non-malarial area makes this a fantastic first time safari experience for families, friends and couples.

Overall, we travelled over 2,000 km.

Finally a word about the weather. The Eastern Cape can be unpredictable at this time of year. The season is transitioning from hot summer temperatures to very cold mornings/evenings with the possibility of rain and winds. We got lucky! We had wonderful sunny, clear, blue sky days. On safari the mornings were very cold (I had on numerous layers, plus hot water bottles and ponchos supplied by the safari lodges). By late morning, we were peeling off layers as the temps crept up to 30C in the middle of the day. By early evening, the temps had again plummeted, so a drink around the lodge fire was most welcome.


Julia stayed at: Rothman Manor, Rosenhof Country House, Parkes Manor, Periwinkle Guest Lodge, Tarn Country House, Pumba Game Reserve (Msenge Bush Lodge), Kichaka Lodge, Kwandwe Game Reserve (Great Fish River Lodge and Ecca Lodge).

Julia visited: 7 Church Street, Galenia Estate, Schoone Ordt, Sanbona Game Reserve (Dwyka Tented Lodge, Tilney Manor and Gondwana Family Lodge), De Zeekoe, Hlangana Lodge, Swartberg Country Manor, De Bergkant Lodge and Cottages, Falcons Views Manor, Villa Afrikana, Roseroc Boutique Guesthouse, Leisure Isle Lodge, Head Over Hills, The Milkwood Collection, Kanonkop House, The Robberg Beach Lodge, Cornerway House, Ocean Watch Guest House, Lairds Lodge, Tsala Treetop Lodge, Hunter’s Country House, Kurland, Hog Hollow Country Lodge, Hacklewood Hill Country House, No 5 by Mantis, Kariega (Main Lodge and Settler’s Drift), Pumba Water Lodge, Lalibela (Tree Tops Safari Lodge and Mills Manor), Shamwari (Long Lee Manor, Lobengula Lodge and Bayethe Tented Lodge), Kwandwe (Melton Manor and Fort House) and RiverBend Lodge.