Hey guys, we´re off to the second part of my South Africa „ guide“. I´m putting guide in quotation marks because I´m obviously no expert, having only been there once for two weeks. But when we were planning our trip, I felt like I couldn´t really find what I wanted regarding some information about the Garden Route so I´m putting my ideas out there, in the hopes that they might be helpful for someone.
Today´s post is about what happened after we left Cape Town and explored the garden route. I initially only planned to make two posts but this one is long enough as it is without the 300 pictures we took at the Addo Elephant Park, so I´ve decided to leave that part for the next post.
The Garden Route is probably one of the most popular travel destinations in South Africa. Technically, the Garden Route only refers to the coast between Mossel´s Bay and Port Elizabeth but most people start their trip in Cape Town so I will also be talking about the spots before that.
I talked a bit about general things to keep in mind when visiting South Africa in my last post but just for a quick summary, here are some aspects to consider:
- There is no time difference (or only an hour) between Germany (and pretty much Europe) and South Africa so Hallelujah, no Jet Lag!
- The whole Western Cape is malaria free. So no worries!
- Take sunscreen and make sure to get a high sun protection factor!
- There are some snakes that you probably don´t want to meet. I´ve talked about them in the last post.
- You need a car if you want to travel in South Africa, you don´t get very far with busses. Also, they drive on the left which means most of us need to to pay a little bit more attention when driving.
The first stop that most people go to when leaving Cape Town is Hermanus. It becomes pretty obvious why once you get there. Hermanus is one of the(!) whale watching hot spots on this planet. Between July and October, whales come to the area of Hermanus to mate and they come so close to the shore, that you can see them without problems from land. At least, that´s what we were told. During our stay, we did not see a single whale. Granted, we came after the high season but our host told us, that she hadn´t seen any whales in weeks and that this year has been very unusual for the town. There were different explanation offered as to why the whales didn´t really come this year, from climate change and warmer waters to conflicts with the whale watching boats. Whatever the explanations, there were no whales to be seen. The whole thing reminded me too much to the beginning of the book “The Swarm” for me not to get creeped out a little. The end is near you guys!
If you are unlucky like us (or not there during the whale season), Hermanus is still a pretty spot to stay. There are beautiful beaches around, a 10 km long cliff path and the food is delicious. (We had dinner here and here)
What to do:
- Whale watching
- Hanging out at the beach
- Eating delicious (sea)food
Hermanus to Montagu
From Hermanus we went to Montagu. However, we didn´t take the direct route and made a detour to De Kelders instead, hoping to maybe see some whales there. No luck there either unfortunately but our detour turned out great because (a), the way to Montagu was incredibly beautiful, passing through corn fields and vineyards and overall beautiful scenery and (b), we discovered the most amazing cheese farm on our way there for an impromptu lunch.
We were kind of hungry when we left De Kelders but didn´t really feel like driving all the way into Stanford for a bite to eat (De Kelders was no option either, the only café they have was closed). According to our travel guide, there was a cheese farm not far away which offered homemade picnic baskets for lunch so we thought, why not check this out?
It was amazing. When we got there we both decided that we desperately need to move to South Africa to open a Cheese Farm. There was a huge playground, animals running around everywhere and cute little cottage right next to a lovely park. We got our picknic basket filled with cheese and goodies, went down to the river and had the most amazing lunch. Stuff like that seems to be typical for South Africa. A lot of vineyards offer lunches as well and we found cute little farms or cafés in the most unexpected places (right next to a gas station for example). So if you see a sign that says something about lunch/cheese/organic produce, I´d say that 9 times out of 10 it´s worth checking out.
After our romantic drive and with a tummy full of cheese, we arrived in Montagu. We only stayed in Montagu for one night and realized pretty quickly, that the town is not famous for its nightlife. But it´s a very cute, charming little town and apparently one of the top climbing spots in the world. It´s pretty great for hiking as well and there are wine tastings offered everywhere.
You can get maps for hiking at the tourist bureau and go climbing with this guy.
- Wine tasting
Oudtshoorn was only a night stop for us on our way back to the coast. We had a beautiful hostel which we shared with only two other people and spent our time there chilling by the pool, enjoying the sunset and cooking for ourselves. If you plan on staying longer in Oudtshoorn, you can visit one of the many ostrich farms of visit the Cango Caves.
- Cango Caves
- Ostrich Farms
Garden Route – Mossel Bay to Nature´s Valley
I´m going to give a little bit more information about our next part of the trip. This is where we came to the actual Garden Route, back to the coast and passing through the towns of George, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. We weren´t really sure how to structure this part of our trip and decided to use Plettenberg Bay as a base for a couple of days. Turns out, that wasn´t going to happen. We were wondering why there were so little accomodations and managed to book one only for one night. Once we got there, our hosts explained us that we came right at the time of the “Rage”, the time of the year when thousands and thousands of teenagers make their way to Plettenberg Bay to celebrate their high school graduation. This wasn´t the worst though because by sheer luck or accident, we found the most beautiful Airbnb we´ve ever had just a couple of minutes away from Plettenberg Bay and used this for our homebase for a couple of days. The house apparently was an old barn that the owners renovated and decorated in the most beautiful way. Their kids are off to college and the spare rooms are rented so we were lucky to spend 3 nights in a room with the most amazing view. I mean, just look at it. Also, there was an incredibly cute dog!
From there, we explored the area. The Garden Route is famous for its beaches but also the thick forest and river valleys which give this part of the coast its name. It´s not very long, from the beginning at Mossel´s Bay to Plettenberg Bay or Nature´s Valley is less than 200 kilometers. But it has so many things to offer. You can go surfing, you can hike through the national parks, you can meet elephants, ride horses, go bungee jumping, relax on the beach, go kayaking…whatever interest you might have, you can do it there. Thus, I would recommend making one stop at the beginning of the Garden Route (e.g. Mossel´s Bay or Knysna) and one further down (Plett Bay or Nature´s Valley). That way, you can get the most of all the activities possible.
Like I said, we spend one night in Plettenberg Bay and then the rest of our stay before heading to Port Elizabeth in the beautiful Airbnb in the middle of nowhere. Here is what we did during those days.
Plettenberg Bay is great for surfing. It has beautiful beaches and the one we seemed to always end up at was Keurboomstrand. I don´t know what it was about that beach but somehow it stole my heart. Maybe it was the fact that we pretty much had the beach for ourselves. Or maybe it was because of the dolphins that were riding the waves in the evening sun. Whatever it was, we went there three times, once for relaxing, once for a picnic and once to eat pizza.
- Surfing, surfing, surfing
Knysna Elephant Park
Before leaving Plettenberg Bay, we had to get up kind of early in the morning to meet some elephants. About 10 minutes from Plettenberg Bay is the Knysna Elephant Park which has existed since 1994. Since then, they raise and take care of (orphaned) elephants. It all started with two elephants, Harry and Sally and evolved into over 40 elephants being in their care over the course of time. Right now, there are 9 elephants lead by the matriarch Sally.
The original Knysna elephants suffered a tragic fate once the Europeans reached South Africa. There used to be thousands roaming the Western Cape but in the 19th and 20th century, their numbers dwindled. In a short amount of time, the settlers managed to kill almost all of the elephants. A lot of them were killed by the “asshole of the century” Major Philip Jacobus Pretorius who managed to kill over a 100 animals in one year. Once the people realized that maaaaybe, just maybe, it might be time to actually safe the remaining elephants, Pretorius got permission to shot one elephant “for scientific purposes”. When he was done, five elephants were dead. The remaining population hid deep in the forest and for the longest time, it was assumed that the numbers were too small for the population to recover from. There were rumors of one last matriarch roaming the forest but an aura of mystery surrounded the remaining Knysna elephants. If still alive, they are the last remaining, completely free elephants in South Africa. New DNA testing might give reason for a little bit of optimism. After testing dung that has been found, it seems to be as if five elephants are still roaming through the forest, maybe even three bulls and two calves. Nobody knows for sure though and one can only hope, that they are left alone.
The elephants of the Knysna Elephant Park are not part of that original population. They come from different game reserves or were born in the park. The park takes care of them with the goal of eventually releasing at least some of them back into the wild. There are different ways of interacting with the animals. You can either drive out to them every half hour and even feed them if you like. Or you can book an elephant walk or elephant ride, which takes place two times a day.
I was really skeptical before we finally booked a tour for the elephant walk. I felt a bit weird about the whole thing, as if the animals are used for entertainment. Images of animal cruelty or stories of poor elephants held in captivity in Asia crossed my mind and I wasn´t quite sure what to do. One the one hand it felt weird, on the other it did seem like a pretty cool opportunity to get close to my favorite animals. We tried to google beforehand whether tours like this have a bad reputation but couldn’t find anything. In the end we decided to give it a try and see what would happen. If we didn´t feel comfortable, we could always leave was what we though. We decided to only do an Elephant Walk though since Elephant Rides reminded us too much of a circus.
An elephant walk is just what the name says: a walk with the elephants. Either in the morning or in the afternoon you can accompany the elephants on a walk through the reserve. Each elephant gets one person and one guide and you can ask as many question as you want in the process. Afterwards, you are allowed to stay with the elephants as long as you like, feed them if you wish and get to know as much as possible about them. The animals have a very big area in which they can roam freely and visitors are always brought to them, not the other way around.
After we did the tour, we were both pretty high on endorphins. Getting so close to the animals was an amazing experience, the have such a radiant aura that you can´t ignore. They are such calm, loving and gentle animals that seem to have so much wisdom and patience, it´s amazing. It was definitely a pretty cool experience but in hindsight, I´m not sure whether I would do it again.
When we were there, we didn´t feel like the animals are mistreated or in any way only functioning for entertainment. The concept is to offer them a life which is as close to life in the wild as possible. However, they are still held in captivity (as are pretty much all elephants in South Africa. The only really free herd not contained by any fences are the mysterious Knysna Elephants). They are still trained so that they can safely interact with humans. And during my research to find out as much about the original wild Knysna Elephants after our walk, unfortunately I found one case in which an elephant of the Knysna Elephant Park seems to have been mistreated.
The big question behind all this is whether this kind of tourism is worth supporting. I haven´t made up my mind completely on this topic to be honest. On the one hand, even the best conditions cannot substitute a life in the wild. The animals are still held in captivity, they are still trained and although they are held as natural as possible, their life still revolves around human interaction, whether with tourists or with the caretakers. On the other hand, parks and reserves like these might also contribute to the protection of these animals. The biggest enemies of elephants are humans, living in the wild might also mean (certain) death for them. If things like these didn´t exist, the population of elephants might be a lot smaller than they are now. And I also understand, that game reserves and parks need to make an income somehow, whether it´s with tours, foster programs or personal interactions. In an ideal world, we wouldn´t need parks or game reserves but unfortunately, we´re not living in one right now. So which one is the way to go?
As I said, I´m not quite sure. I wanted to be completely honest and open about this so that people might have a more informed point of view before going into these kind of things than I had. I couldn´t really find a (critical) debate before we decided on doing a tour which was one of the reason I had such a hard time with the decision. So maybe this might be helpful for someone. In hindsight, I might recommend more to visit one of the many national parks (like Kruger or Addo Elephant Park, the latter which we visited in Port Elizabeth and which I will tell you more about) to experience the animals in the wild and observe their way of life without human interaction. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think?
Our last stop before we headed to Port Elizabeth was at this beautiful Airbnb I mentioned before. I titled this passage Nature´s Valley although that´s technically incorrect. The house was in the middle of nowhere, between Plettenberg Bay and Nature’s Valley and from there, we explored the area and did a couple of activities. We went hiking in the surrounding forests, we went to the beach and we went to the Tsitsikama National Park to go kayaking. On the way there we passed the famous bungee jumping bridge so if you are into the whole adrenaline thing, you might want to stop there. After staying in most places for only one night, it felt wonderful to actually stay at one place for a couple of days, make ourselves at home and dream about someday being able to afford one of those beautiful (beach) houses.
- Horseback riding
- Bungee jumping