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.
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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area, what you see today are only the remnants of one of Africa’s great forests; much of the indigenous hardwoods have been replaced by exotic pine plantations, and the only milk and honey you’ll find now is in the many shops servicing the Garden Route coastal resorts.
Storms River Mouth
In contrast to the languid lagoon and long soft sands of Nature’s Valley, Storms River Mouth presents the elemental face of the Garden Route, with the dark Storms River surging through a gorge to do battle with the surf. Storms River Mouth Restcamp, sited on tended lawns, is poised between a craggy shoreline of black rocks pounded by foamy white surf and steeply raking forested cliffs, and is without a doubt the ultimate destination along the southern Cape coast. Don’t confuse this with Storms River Village just off the N2, which is nowhere near the sea. Even if your time is limited and you can’t spend the night at Storms River Mouth, it’s still worth nipping down for a meal, a walk or a swim in the summer.
Walking is the main activity at the Mouth, and at the visitors’ office at the restcamp you can get maps of short, waymarked coastal trails that leave from here. These include steep walks up the forested cliffs, where you can see 800-year-old yellowwood trees with views onto a wide stretch of ocean. Most rewarding is the three-kilometre hike west from the restcamp along the start of the Otter Trail to a fantastic waterfall pool at the base of 50m-high falls where you can swim right on the edge of the shore. Less demanding is the kilometre-long boardwalk stroll from the restaurant to the suspension bridge to see the river mouth. On your way to the bridge, don’t miss the dank strandloper (beachcomber) cave. Hunter-gatherers frequented this area between 5000 and 2000 years ago, living off seafood in wave-cut caves near the river mouth. A modest display shows an excavated midden, with clear layers of little bones and shells.
If you’re desperate to walk the Otter Trail (5 days; 42km; book through SAN Parks), which begins at Storms River, and have been told that it is full, don’t despair. A single person or a couple do stand a chance of getting in on the back of a last-minute cancellation, so it may be worth hanging out at the Mouth for a night or two.
Swimming at the Mouth is restricted to a safe and pristine little sandy bay below the restaurant, though conditions can be icy in summer if there are easterly winds and cold upwellings of deep water from the continental shelf.
Knysna Elephant Park
Heading east from Knysna along the N2, you come to the Knysna Elephant Park. The park was established in 1994 to provide a home for abandoned, orphaned and abused young elephants, and opened to the public in 2003. The youngest of its charges are reared by park staff, who hand-feed them forty litres of baby formula a day, and sleep next to them at night. Of the activities on offer, the most popular are the roughly hour-long tours, which leave every half hour, where you’ll get the chance to touch and feed one of the pachyderms. You can also take a two-hour ride on an elephant or a guided nature walk of the same duration alongside one.
Visitors principally come to Plett for its beaches – and there's a fair choice.
- Central Beach Right at the central shore of the bay, this is where the fishing boats and seacats anchor a little out to sea. The small waves here make for calm swimming, making it an ideal family spot.
- Keurbooms Beach On the northern side of the Keurbooms Lagoon, the beach feels less developed than those on the other side and stretches for over 10km along a section of coastline where you can see groups of dolphins playing in big breakers.
- Lookout Beach One of the nicest stretches of sand for bathers, body-surfers or sun lizards, Lookout Beach has a marvellously located restaurant, from which you can often catch sight of dolphins cruising into the bay.
- Lookout Rocks To the southeast of Lookout Beach, attracts surfers to the break off a needle of rocks known as the Point.
- Robberg Beach Just south of Beacon Island, the beach stretches for roughly six soft, sandy kilometres to the Robberg Peninsula, offering excellent long beach walks. It's also accessible by road at several points along the way.
Whaling and gnashing of teeth
For conservationists, the monumental 1970s eyesore of the Beacon Island Hotel, on a promontory on the southern side of the Piesang River mouth, may not be such a bad thing, since previously the island was the site of a whale-processing factory established in 1806 – one of some half-dozen such plants erected along the Western Cape coast that year. Whaling continued at Plettenberg Bay until 1916. Southern right whales were the favoured species, yielding more oil and whalebone – an essential component of Victorian corsets – than any other. In the nineteenth century, a southern right would net around three times as much as a humpback caught along the Western Cape coast, leading to a rapid decline in the southern right population by the middle of the nineteenth century.
The years between the establishment and the closing of the Plettenberg Bay factory saw worldwide whaling transformed by the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. In 1852, the explosive harpoon was introduced, followed by the use of steam-powered ships five years later, and the cannon-mounted harpoon in 1868. In 1913, Plettenberg Bay was the site of one of seventeen shore-based and about a dozen floating factories between West Africa and Mozambique, which that year between them took about ten thousand whales.
Inevitably, a rapid decline in humpback populations began; by 1918, all but four of the shore-based factories had closed due to lack of prey. The remaining whalers now turned their attention to fin and blue whales. When the South African fin whale population became depleted by the mid-1960s to twenty percent of its former size, they turned to sei and sperm whales. When these populations declined, the frustrated whalers started hunting minke whales, which at 9m in length are too small to be a viable catch. In 1979 the South African government banned all activity surrounding whaling.
Whale- and dolphin-watching in Plettenberg Bay
Elevated ocean panoramas give Plettenberg Bay outstanding vantages for watching southern right whales during their breeding season between June and October. An especially good vantage point is the area between the wreck of the Athene at the southern end of Lookout Beach and the Keurbooms River. The Robberg Peninsula is also excellent, looming protectively over this whale nursery and giving a grandstand view of the bay. Other good town viewpoints are from Beachy Head Road at Robberg Beach; Signal Hill in San Gonzales Street past the post office and police station; the Beacon Island Hotel on Beacon Island; and the deck of The Lookout restaurant on Lookout Beach.
Outside Plett, the Kranshoek viewpoint and hiking trail offers wonderful whale-watching points along the route. To get there, head for Knysna, taking the Harkerville turn-off, and continue for 7km. It's also possible to view the occasional pair (mother and calf) at Nature's Valley, 29km east of Plett on the R102, and from Storms River Mouth. For more information about whales, see the section on Whale-watching and other activities.
The Knysna elephants
Traffic signs warning motorists about elephants along the N2 between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are rather optimistic: there are few indigenous pachyderms left and, with such a large forest, sightings are rare. But such is the mystique attached to the Knysna elephants that locals tend to be a little cagey about just how few they number. By 1860, the thousands that had formerly wandered the once vast forests were down to five hundred, and by 1920 (twelve years after they were protected by law), there were only twenty animals left; the current estimate is three. Loss of habitat and consequent malnutrition, rather than full-scale hunting, seems to have been the principal cause of their decline.
The only elephants you're guaranteed to see near Knysna are at the Knysna Elephant Park or the Elephant Sanctuary, both near Plettenberg Bay.