South Africa’s Garden Route offers some great scenery with the chance to see it at your own pace. Whether travelling by public transport, the South Africa backpackers’ favourite Bazbus or in a rental car, you can pick and choose your stops whilst deciding how long to spend in each town along the way. Starting from Mossel Bay (around four and a half hours from Cape Town) to Tsitsikamma, the Garden Route has something for everyone.
After doing a little research my itinerary involved stops in Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenburg Bay and Storms River. I was travelling on the Bazbus, a hop-on hop-off bus service that runs along the south coast between Cape Town and Durban then up to Johannesburg. They offer multi-trip tickets based on either the number of journeys or number of days, making it possible to see the best of South Africa, including the Garden Route.
Due to the Bazbus’ daily bus schedule between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (in the middle of the south coast) I had 24 hours in each town to see as much as possible. I then had a choice between spending another day or, if I didn’t think there was enough worth seeing, heading on to the next destination.
I chose to spend my first night on the Garden Route in Wilderness as the earlier stops of Mossel Bay and George, the largest town on the Garden Route, offered nothing of great interest. As the bus neared Wilderness we could see huge plumes of smoke billowing across the horizon. The sky became very dark and it looked more like night than one o’clock in the afternoon. By the time we arrived at our destination there was ash falling from the sky, lightly covering the ground. Forest fires had started just hours before my arrival and would continue for my entire time on the Garden Route. Luckily I was never in any serious danger and it didn’t affect my plans too much, but I saw much of the devastation in the aftermath.
After checking into my accommodation in Wilderness I went for a walk. I had little time to decide if it was worth staying more than one night or book a seat on the next day’s bus, so I was eager to get moving. If I was only going to be there for 24 hours then I wanted to see as much as possible.
Wilderness itself is a typical small town with a nice array of restaurants and shops. There is also a beach which is a nice place to stop for a swim or just relax, when there’s no ash raining down from the heavens.
There are a few activities available in Wilderness, the most popular one being kayaking and the best place to rent kayaks happened to be where I was staying, Fairy Knowe Backpackers. Alternatively, the Map of Africa is a viewing point overlooking the area and gave a clear perspective of some of the ongoing forest fires. The viewpoint is better reached by car but is possible by walking from the centre of town. It takes about an hour and a half to walk up, following the main road uphill as it twists around the surrounding hills until you pass through a small community.
A popular hike in the area is to a small waterfall close to the Fairy Knowe Backpackers. This is a much more scenic walk through woodland with various routes open to you. The not so great part is the price, which is expensive for such a short walk (R142 for non-locals, almost £8). You can spend a couple of hours in the area and in my opinion the waterfall at the end is not so spectacular that you need to see it.
After leaving Wilderness my next port of call was Knysna. This is a bigger town than Wilderness but with less to do regarding activities. One thing you can do is rent a bike and cycle across to Knysna Heads. It’s an easy flat ride (unless you want to cycle up to the top of the Knysna Heads) and gives a great view of one of the most dangerous harbour entrances in the world and the lagoon enclosed beyond. I rented my bike from the shop close to my accommodation at Jembo’s Knysna Lodge, which was not only very cheap but the guy who owned it was really friendly too.
Something else I enjoyed on my visit to Knysna was Mitchell’s Brewery. Whilst the production has been shifted over to Cape Town, there was still a restaurant where you could try and/or buy some of their tasty beers. The beer tasting was very good value and this included a pint of your favourite beverage at the end. They also do really nice burgers and on Wednesdays it’s buy one get one free.
From there it was on to Plettenburg Bay, commonly known as simply ‘Plett’. It’s a coastal town with good seafood and incredible long, wide beaches. The nature reserve at Robberg is also a great area for hiking with some amazing scenery.
I was planning to stay more than just a day in Plett as it initially seemed there was plenty to do. However, the majority of the activities are on the expensive side and without other people wouldn’t have been as much fun. Bazbus give you a list of their preferred accommodation and stop at each of these for pick-ups and drop-offs. Somehow I always managed to choose the hostel no-one else was staying at. The bus would stop at the first place and either I’d be the only one getting out or everyone except me would leave.
One activity I was seriously considering in Plettenburg Bay was a skydive. It had been a few years since my first two skydives and I was eager to do a third. The spectacular beaches with the wilderness in the background would have made for incredible viewing from up high. However, I managed to talk myself out of it, justifying that I needed to save money after spending a little too much so far on my African journey.
My final stop on the Garden Route was Storms River. With the extra distance to cover along the south coast I arrived late at around 7pm. This meant I had little time to do anything that day. For this reason I booked two nights in Storms River, with my full day to be spent at the nearby Tsitsikamma National Park.
As I was driven into the national park I could see the devastation from the forest fires. They were starting to die down but there were large areas of charred trees still smoking away. It would be another few days before the region was completely safe again.
Tsitsikamma is a spectacular national park, situated on South Africa’s coast. There are several hikes available, two of which I completed on my day visit. The first was up to a viewing area which takes around an hour and a half for a round trip. The climb up is relatively straightforward if a little taxing, depending on your fitness level, but it’s worth it when you reach the top. At the bottom of the trail, after passing through forest paths, you’ll find a suspension bridge. It makes a great photo opportunity but try not to hold up the line of people waiting to cross.
On the other side of the national park is a longer trek which takes around three hours to get there and back. It’s a much flatter hike but does involve scrambling over rocks for part of the way. At the end of trail is an amazing waterfall. A perfect place to sit back and relax as you watch the water cascade down over the rocks into the sea. If you’re feeling brave you can also have a little swim in the cold water as a reward for your work. The trail makes up most of the first day of a longer multi-day hike known as the Otter Trail.
This was my favourite part of the Garden Route. Not only is the Tsitsikamma National Park incredibly stunning, but there are plenty of affordable excursions which involve a combination of activities such as stand-up paddle boarding, canyoning, kayaking or rafting. However, be cautious as you may need to organise getting yourself to the park and pay entry inside as not everyone includes this in their prices.
This is why for my second day in Storms River I arranged to go tubing through my hostel, Tube ‘N Axe. The activity didn’t involve entering the national park, so no further charges were added to the base cost. However, in the end the excursion was cancelled as the other two people I was going with wanted to get out of there before getting caught up in the local fires. The wind had picked up again and some routes out of the area were closed off. Not wanting to do it alone I sat by the hostel pool until the Bazbus arrived to take me away. The bonus of this was I spent the next several hours having a few drinks with some South Africans from Pretoria who were planning on doing the Otter Trail hike the next day. The ongoing fires were likely to restrict their progress, but they were going as far as they could anyway.
Those were my stops on South Africa’s Garden Route and, while it did feel fast with just one or two days in each place, I feel like I would’ve lost days I needed later in my trip by staying longer. The scenery is incredible wherever you choose to stay and it’s difficult to be disappointed. As always it depends on how much time and money you have and what you want to experience. However, the Garden Route is definitely something worth a few days of your trip to South Africa.