The robots and the horizon
For those looking for a self-drive experience, the popularly named Garden Route in the south of South Africa is well worth considering. We started on the east at Port Elizabeth and drove across to the west, finishing in Cape Town. Although you can do most of the route by sticking to the N2 (a good standard A(M) road by UK standards and in itself is quite picturesque) we were amply rewarded for getting off it from time to time and taking the more scenic route.
Driving in South Africa is relatively easy. They drive on our side of the road and by and large drive in a courteous manner, with just a few quirks to look out for. Roundabouts are a relatively new concept here, so occasionally there is some confusion by the locals as to exactly who has the right of way (how’s that different to the UK you may well ask). Traffic lights are called robots and crossroads (without robots) see vehicles take it in turns based on who arrived first. Best of all is the use of the hard shoulder, where a slower driver will pull onto the hard shoulder to allow a faster car to pass. Great on a two-lane road that has few opportunities to pass and the courtesy is acknowledged by the passing car flashing it hazard warning lights. Political correctness has yet to blight SA, so simple signs at roadworks like ‘Don’t kill us’ make it clear why you are required to observe the speed limit.
Our first deviation from the N2 was to visit the surfer paradise of Jeffreys Bay, followed by a drive around the white-washed cottages of St Francis Bay. Many of the cottages are set alongside a canal system, so think Cornwall/Venice combo, very picturesque.
Before the great beaches of Plettenberg Bay comes the Tsitsikamma National Park. Here visitors can explore the rugged coastline, gorges and indigenous forest via a number of trails. We chose the trail that eventually took us to the suspension bridge where you can stand directly over the Storms river as it flows out into the Indian Ocean. It was here that we had our first sighting of a Dassie (rock rabbit), a cute creature that resembles a large gerbil but apparently has more (genetically) in common with an elephant! We also stopped just a little further up the road at Bloukrans Bridge, allegedly not only Africa’s highest bridge but the world’s highest commercial bungee jump location some 216-metres above the Bloukrans River. Your guess is as good as mine as to why people throw themselves off a perfectly good bridge, but it’s fun to watch. There’s plenty of attractions in this area like Monkeyland, Birds of Eden for example, but after exploring the waterfront area of Knysna, we pressed on to Oudtshoorn.
The prevailing wisdom is to break your journey (before you head over the mountain pass) at Wilderness National Park but if you want something different like us, we chose to stop at the Outeniqua Transport Museum. For a trifling 20 rand per person you get to see a great collection of steam trains, carriages used for the royal visit, a classic car collection, vintage coaches and more. It’s a great way to spend an hour and they have a cafe here too.
The road through the mountain pass was probably the most challenging thus far. Take it steady, work the gears and about 30 mins beyond Oudtshoorn we were rewarded with a visit to Cango Caves. This vast selection of limestone caves was well worth a visit, with chambers as big as cathedrals and interesting collections of stalagmites and stalactites. The informative guide conducts the tour and also gives the excellent acoustics a work out by bursting into song at a couple of points. Pre-booking is essential as only a limited number of tours are allowed each day to protect the caves. The area around Oudtshoorn is noticeably more arid than the other side of the mountains and ideal for the many ostrich farms. This area originally made its fortune by selling ostrich feathers.
Heading back down to the coast we based ourselves at Hermanus, another beautiful coastal town with amazing cliff top walks. From here it’s just a short drive to take the cruise to Dyer Island. Now when I say cruise, as the tractor dropped our boat into the rough seas at Gansbaai, this was about as far from a big ship cruise as it gets. Despite the huge swells, we were rewarded with sightings of humpback dolphins, cormorants and seals. Our bonus was a rare sighting of a northern giant petrel which is so large it cannot fly straight from the sea, so runs along the surface in an ungainly fashion until it gains enough momentum for takeoff. The swells unfortunately gave rise to some seasickness and the quote of the day. One of the unwell passengers was told to fix on the horizon and then immediately complained to the volunteer that they were standing in her horizon! We also rendezvoused with the sister boat that dressed men up as seals (wet suits), placed them in a cage in the water as bait, so that we could watch a huge great white surge out of the water to try and eat them! Very sporting of them.
Further along the coast we visited Stony Point, also known as Betty’s Bay, where there is a large colony of African (jackass) penguins. There’s a convenient boardwalk so we could view the penguins without clambering over the rocks or disturbing them too much.
All this driving is thirsty work, so at Franschhoek we ditched the car and boarded the wine tram for a day’s tour around some the many wineries close by. There are a number of routes to choose from, which use a combination of tram like bus and tram to get you from one vineyard to another. Wine tastings at each range from 20-70 rands and most have beautiful grounds set against a mountainous backdrop. By getting the first tram/bus on each route you can manage six wine tastings out of the eight vineyards on the route (hic). Pacing yourself and taking advantage of the delicious food available is essential.
We ended our tour of the Garden Route in Cape Town. I’ll cover that and our experiences on the Peninsular in another piece.
With breathtaking scenery, a rugged coastline and a seemingly endless supply of different wines to try when we’d parked up for the night, this was a lovely way to see some of the magnificent country called South Africa.
For more information, visit Africa Sky Safari.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Africa Sky