The Garden Route, a slender stretch of coastal plain between Mossel Bay and Storms River Mouth, has a legendary status as South Africa’s paradise – reflected in local names such as Garden of Eden and Wilderness. This soft, green, forested swath of nearly 200km is cut by rivers from the mountains to the north, tumbling down to its southern rocky shores and sandy beaches.
The Garden Route coast is dominated by three inlets, of which the closest to Cape Town is Mossel Bay, an industrial centre of some charm, marking the official start of the Garden Route. Knysna, though younger, exudes a well-rooted urban character but has a major drawback – unlike Plettenberg Bay, its eastern neighbour, it has no beach of its own. A major draw, though, is the Knysna forest covering some of the hilly country around Knysna, the awe-inspiring remnants of once vast ancient woodlands.
Between the coastal towns are some ugly modern holiday developments, but also some wonderful empty beaches and tiny coves, such as Victoria Bay and Nature’s Valley. Best of all is the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, which has it all – indigenous forest, dramatic coastline, the pumping Storms River Mouth and South Africa’s most popular hike, the Otter trail.
Khoi herders who lived off the Garden Route’s natural bounty considered the area a paradise, calling it Outeniqua (“the man laden with honey”). Their Eden was quickly destroyed in the eighteenth century with the arrival of Dutch woodcutters, who had exhausted the forests around Cape Town and set about doing the same in Outeniqua, killing or dispersing the Khoi and San in the process. Birds and animals suffered too from the encroachment of Europeans. In the 1850s, the Swedish naturalist Johan Victorin shot and feasted on the species he had come to study, some of which, including the endangered narina trogon, he noted were both “beautiful and good to eat”.
Despite the dense appearance of the area, what you see today are only the remnants of one of Africa’s great forests; much of the indigenous hardwoods have been replaced by exotic pine plantations, and the only milk and honey you’ll find now is in the many shops servicing the Garden Route coastal resorts.