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South Africa’s famous Garden Route follows the southern-most coastline of the African continent, stretching 396km from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape. It passes through some extraordinarily scenic coastal landscape and is without doubt one of the most scenic drives in the country, if not the world. The road hugs the coastline, carving a path between farm lands and rich green forests on the land side and the startlingly blue ocean on the coastal side.
The entire route is dotted with interesting little towns and a myriad of attractions that should not be missed, making this the ideal route for a self-drive holiday in South Africa. Having your own transport is almost mandatory in order to enjoy all the charms of the Garden Route that you would miss out on if you choose to go on an organized tour, so get behind the wheel and get ready for the time of your life.
What is the Garden Route?
First things first – The name of the route may be a little deceiving, as you are not going to see any gardens along the way – (some garden-lovers have been disappointed!) The poetic appellation rather refers to the very lush natural vegetation that lines the route which passes through an area of high rainfall. What you can expect to see are ancient forests, numerous little bays and inlets, rivers, lagoons, sand dunes, wet-lands, stunning beaches, and mountain slopes covered in South Africa’s treasured and unique Fynbos (Heathland) vegetation. (South Africa’s Fynbos vegetation has earned the region UNESCO World Heritage status!) The entire area is a huge draw-card for Nature lovers, bird watchers, adventure seekers and also those looking for peace and tranquillity.
Where to start?
Table Mountain in Cape Town South Africa
You can tour the Garden Route in either direction, from Port Elizabeth towards Cape Town or vice versa. Most international visitors will enter the country through the OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg or the Cape Town International Airport. If you have plenty of time at your disposal and really want to explore the country in depth, you can pick up your rental car in Johannesburg and drive yourself to Port Elizabeth to start your Garden Route adventure. However, do not underestimate distances in South Africa – this would entail a 13hour road trip before you even start the Garden Route! A much quicker and easier option would be to grab a domestic flight to either Port Elizabeth or Cape Town, and pick up your rental car at the airport. For our purposes today I am going to assume that you will be collecting your rental vehicle in Cape Town and travelling east towards Post Elizabeth.
The Route, and what to see along the way
This is a very easy route to follow – you simply exit Cape Town on the N2 and keep going! The road is good but it is not a motorway and in many parts will be a single carriage way. About 40min outside the city you will come to Sir Lowry’s Pass, where the road climbs over the Hottentots-Holland Mountains between Somerset West and the Elgin Valley. From the view site at the top of the pass you can get sweeping views over the entire False Bay – it is definitely worth stopping to take a photo. (Watch out for Baboons – they will be in your car in a flash if there are open windows!) From the pass your drive continues through pretty farmlands and vineyards to Hermanus, which is a great place to stop and spend the night.
There are many good accommodation options, great restaurants (especially on some of the wine farms) and from September to November each year the village becomes a Whale-watching hot-spot, as dozens of Southern Right Whales visit the bay to mate and calve, and are easily viewed from the harbour.
From Hermanus your next stop is Mossel Bay, the official start of the Garden Route. Here the adventurous can go Cage-diving among Great White sharks or enjoy a seafood meal at a restaurant (Kaai 4) perched right on the sand dunes. Then, continue your exploration as you drive east towards Knysna. The entire area between Mossel Bay and George is just packed with one attraction after the other, and this is no time for you to stick to the main road! Follow your nose and visit all the beautiful seaside holiday villages like Hartenbos, Ballots Bay, Brenton-on-Sea, Herolds Bay, Wilderness and Sedgefield, to find your personal favourite.
Knysna is a delightful village to spend a few days feasting on fresh seafood and oysters, admiring the art galleries and enjoying the beaches and the Knysna Elephant Park, a sanctuary for rescued African elephants. Moving further east you will come to Plettenberg Bay, one of the country’s premier summer holiday destinations where the emphasis is on fun in the sun. There are great beaches, lots of water-based activities and excellent golf courses!
From Plettenberg Bay the last leg of your drive will take you to the Tsitsikamma Forest and Storms River, the official end of the Garden Route, and then on to Port Elizabeth.
Nature and Game Reserves
If you want to experience a taste of South Africa’s wonderful flora and fauna, the Garden Route will not disappoint! There are a string of Game Reserves to visit starting with the Garden Route Game Lodge, Botlierskop and Gondwana Game Reserves, all of which are near Mossel Bay, and offer visitors an authentic Big Five safari experience.
Near Port Elizabeth you can visit, the Addo Elephant National Park, the country’s only Big Seven Game Reserve, where you can see all the Big Five in truly authentic surroundings, as well as Whales and Great White Sharks in the Marine Reserve.
Hikers, nature and bird-lovers will enjoy the Tsitsikamma National Park near Stormsriver, the Keurbooms River Nature Reserve near Plettenberg Bay , the Knysna Indigenous Forest and the Wilderness National Park.
Golf – this part of the coastline is an absolute Mecca for golfers and is home to several of the country’s best resort golf courses; you can play a different course every day!
Beach – Surfing and diving are excellent at Victoria, Buffalo and Herold’s bays, while the entire coastline offers great opportunities for anglers.
Adventure – there is plenty to get the adrenalin flowing, such as Blackwater Tubing and Canyoning in the Storms River, Bungee Jumping from the Bloukrans Bridge (the world’s highest jump at 216mt) or Shark-cage Diving. A little less daring but still very enjoyable is the Tree Top Canopy Tour at Stormsriver.
Hiking – the Otter Trail is a famous hiking trail in the Garden Route National Park, where the Tsitsikamma Forest meets the Indian Ocean. The 42km trail passes through some of South Africa’s most majestic coastal scenery and takes 5 days to complete.
If you are returning to your starting point after your Garden Route tour, a great alternative to re-tracing your footsteps would be to choose Route 62 for one leg of your journey. Route 62 is the inland counterpart to the Garden Route and meanders from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, visiting many lovely little farming towns along the way, and includes the longest wine route in the Cape! The inland mountain scenery is just as spectacular as the Garden Route and many people actually prefer Route 62 as it is a quieter road with plenty of places to stop for tea or a lazy lunch.
A few of the little villages you should not by-pass in a hurry are the spa town of Montagu, arty Barrydale and Calitzdorp. In Oudtshoorn you could visit an Ostrich Farm and explore the really amazing Cango Caves.
You will drive through some of South Africa’s most scenic mountain passes, including the very dramatic 27km Swartberg Pass.
Route 62 is substantially longer than the Garden Route (850km) so you really need to have enough time to enjoy it properly – depending on how much time you would like to have to relax along the way, 2-4 days would be ideal.
Hints and Tips for Self Drive holidays in the Garden Route.
Traffic: There can be heavy traffic all along the Garden Route during holiday periods. Travel outside of school holidays if possible and try not to leave Cape Town on a Friday afternoon, when thousands of locals head east for the weekend.
Fuel: Almost every little village in the Garden Route has a fuel station, but to be sure that you will not run out of fuel fill up in good time – on some inland stretches of road facilities are scarce.
Bookings: If you are travelling during peak holiday season you will need to book your overnight accommodation well in advance. Also, if you would like to do the Otter Trail you need to book about a year in advance – it’s that popular!!
How does self drive compare to an organized tour?
On organised tours you may be able to leave the driving to someone else, but you also have to follow their rigid schedules, which could really diminish your experience. Plan ahead, take your time and make the most of the opportunity to explore the beautiful coastline.
What about safety?
Yes, but take some common precautions. Keep your vehicle doors locked at all times and do not leave your belongings in sight – lock your luggage in the boot when you park anywhere. Observe the rules of the road, don’t pick up hitch-hikers, and never drink and drive!
Road conditions, left or right, do I need an off-roader?
Yes it is! We drive on the left side in South Africa, which takes a little getting used to for visitors from Europe and the USA, but we have an excellent road network and the best tourist infrastructure in Africa, making this the ideal destination for a self-drive holiday. So no, an off-roader in 99% of all cases is not necessary.