The Garden Route is South Africa's classic road trip, following the dramatic Indian Ocean coastline and taking in whales, walks and wine-tasting along the way
Its original settlers, the Khoikhoi herders, called it Outeniqua, the land of honey. Today, the Garden Route is widely regarded as the paradise of South Africa, a fertile landscape of fruit farms and vineyards, fringed on one side by the rumbling Indian Ocean, with lush dense forests and high mountains inland. It is most commonly known as a driving route, sweeping visitors from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth along the well-established N2, offering easy roads and far-reaching views that can have a heady kind of effect. This is somewhere that makes you want to wind down the windows and just drive.
Here, at the foot of Africa, the tip of the planet’s second largest continent, the scenery is ever-changing. The Garden Route gets its name from its natural abundance of flora and fauna and multitude of indigenous milkwood forests. Set this against a backdrop of long white sandy beaches, crashing surf, tranquil lagoons and pleasant year-round temperatures, and you have an ever-scenic backdrop that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your car.
At some stage your route will follow the dramatic coastline of the Indian Ocean, dominated by three inlets: Mossel Bay, Knysna Lagoon and Plettenburg Bay. There are plenty of choice locations in which you can pull up to feel the sea spray on your face and get close to the pounding surf, with its dramatic high rolling waves.
Various bays along the Garden Route are also nurseries to endangered Southern Right Whales, which come here to calve in winter and spring (July to December). At Hermanus, whale-spotting can be done from the shoreline. The Robberg Nature and Marine Reserve near Plettenberg Bay has a stunning 11km circular walk. Sections take you above the waterline, where the dark shadows of circling sharks can make for a dramatic wildlife-viewing experience.
You don’t have to stay firmly strapped in your car. Along the way, there’s plenty of opportunity to stop off, with walking, wine-tasting and watersports all available en route. Swap the road for the rails and jump aboard the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, South Africa’s only remaining steam train, and you can enjoy a journey into the heart of this landscape.
If you have the time, then head inland towards the Outeniqua and Swartberg mountains. These two parallel ranges dominate the Southern Cape. In between lies the Little Karoo, a Khoikhoi word meaning dry and hard. In this vast dust-bowl hinterland, grazing ostriches seem to outnumber people.
Driving across its open spaces is like being in your own personal car ad. Big, bold sunsets and rich, red earth unravel right in front of you. If you fancy stretching your legs, the Tierkloof Trail is ideally located in the heart of this semi-arid desert landscape and part of the Gamkaberg Nature Reserve. Tier, or tijger, was the name given by early Dutch farmers to the leopard and whilst famously rare, leopard sightings have been made on the trail.
The walk starts in succulent vegetation, where the pink flowers of the clapperbush fringe the side of the trail. Easy route-finding, through a deep, forested ravine signed with painted leopard pawprints, leads upwards to the fynbos-rich mountain plateau. All along the way, the hum and buzz of birdsong is unmistakable. Dashes of flitting colour swoop past, a vibrant green from the Malachite Sunbird or the flash of a yellow chested Bokmekienie.
The 23.5km route can be undertaken as one long round trip or alternatively broken into two days by staying at Oukraal, an overnight shelter. From up here the soft light of sunset can make the undulating curves of the Swartberg and Outeniqua ranges seem to glow. The possibility of spotting the roaming herds of the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra also creates added interest, although these beautiful animals remain elusively rare.
The Garden Route offers more than just a one-way ticket. There doesn’t have to be a journey that follows a set itinerary, direction or even duration: the freedom of the open road is yours.