South Africa for me was like a destined destination. Wildlife in Kruger, Gandhi in Durban, Nelson Mandela in Robben Island and words like Soweto, De Beers, Boers, Natal, Afrikaans and Transvaal were etched in my mind since long. In my inner mind, I knew that I would be there someday. However, my first visit to South Africa gave me a different dimension about this Rainbow nation which I never anticipated before. Here I was, living a dream on the Garden Route, a breathtakingly beautiful natural scenic road route, a playground for adventure, food, fun and good life.
Invited by the South African Tourism for 10 days small town FAM on the Garden Route, we were a mixed group of around 20 people from the travel trade. For all of us, this was completely a new South Africa, never envisaged before. We were certainly feasting and longing for adventure each and every day of the tour.
The Garden Route is one of the world’s most spectacular drives with a stretch of road that winds past forested mountains, sprawling wetlands and white-sand beaches with picturesque towns spaced no more than a 45-minute drive apart. Technically, the Garden Route stretches 200 kms, from Mossel Bay in the west to Storms River in the east.
Being close to Cape Town, most trips to the Garden Route will either start or end in this city. However, we started our tour closer at Georgetown better known as George and ended it at East London. The 10 days on the road by a luxury bus was bliss as we raced pass a plethora of experiences, memorable sceneries and vivid memories.
Right after we landed in George, a sleepy quaint town in a stunning mountainous setting we were at Red Berry Farm. Our activities ranged from plucking ripe strawberries to downing a sweet pulpy strawberry squash and a mini train ride which gave us the thrill that a small baby would enjoy. Indeed, a nice way to start our exciting trip.
George’s main draw is the fact that three of South Africa’s best golf courses are found here, including the peerless Fancourt Golf Estate – an 18-hole champion course designed by South African golfing legend Gary Player.
Our first lunch was this place and we were impressed by the aristocratic service, also a very nice way to start our fine dine experiences which accompanied us for rest of our trip.
After checking into Oubaai hotel and Spa in the evening, we were ready to be picked up by a neon lighted party bus as we headed for Juus cocktail bar, one of the trending luxury bars in George. Júus offers unique handcrafted signature cocktails. Soon as you think this is it, the next one is better. This is liquid art at its best.
The next day, we went through a series of speed marketing sessions where many of the tourism products on the Garden Route were presented to us from various towns and cities. It was a real eye opener to learn about so many attractions, right from adrenaline high adventures, to eating out, to olive, oysters, wine and beer tasting, and to private game reserves, farms and ranches, to river, beach and shore activities, to ocean adventure like dolphin and whale watching and so on. You name it and they all have it here in this belt.
Wilderness is a promising seaside town. At Zucchini restaurant, we had a good time with craft beer tasting paired with original African food flavours with Ostrich, Springbok and Kudu in the platter and local African pot dishes on the menu. The Views Boutique Hotel situated on a cliff where we stayed was one of the most classy hotel I have ever stayed with azure sea ahead and it looked dreamy from my room.
Next day at Ebb and Flow, a beautiful place nearby, we all had fun canoeing for almost 3 kms up and down and then on a boat ride, I had the chance to spot 12 types of birds including the magnificent giant kingfisher and the vibrant endemic Knysna Turaco. The basket picnic lunch in the lavish green pasture was another highlight of the day and it got better by tasting the local aromatic wines along with.
The rest of the day was spent in awe and wonder as all of us sailed the sky and had a memorable time doing tandem paragliding with the Cloudbase Paragliding people. This requires skill and on the ride I witnessed how the pilot uses a combination of ridge lift and thermals to stay aloft, while you sail like a bird and witness the splendour of earth and the horizon around. This was one of the WOW factor for me.
Next was Oudtshoorn where we dined and stayed overnight at Protea Hotel by Marriott Riempie Estate. Oudtshoorn situated in the northern part of the Garden Route, has a lot of fun activities, natural wildlife and the home of Meerkat adventure. We had to wake up early in the morning for the Meerkat safari and we were glad we did it. In the chilly morning, in the arid Karoo, we were seated on portable aluminium chairs provided to us. It was a funny sight and after a long wait from nearby termite mound, a family of Meerkats came out with small babies and they didn’t care a wee bit about the 20 of us. These are fun animals to look at and to watch them close in their natural environment playing and foraging for food is quite a treat.
Our next adventure was near the Cango caves where we did two zip lines of 200 metres and 300 metres each. The first one was from mountain to mountain while the longest one was from the mountain to the base below. It had a thrill element and all of us had hair raising experiences in the wind but which could be shampooed.
In the Cango Caves situated in a limestone ridge parallel to the well known Swartberg Mountains, you will find the finest dripstone caverns, with their vast halls and towering formations. It is one of the world’s great natural wonders sculptured by nature through the ages .The caves are fascinating limestone formations in a wide variety of colours. This process of `cave making’ takes millions of years. I was speechless in this underground wonder world.
Next we had our lunch and olive tasting at Surval Boutique and Olive Estate and I was amazed to know that even olives grew in the Garden Route. We tasted 4- 5 different kind of olives and olive oil with local bread. That was like living a Mediterranean life in the tip of Africa.
Further as a wild life enthusiast, I went for the bush safari at the private reserve called Buffelsdrift Game Lodge. One can experience African wildlife species including Elephants, Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Giraffe, Lions, and hippos right by the watering hole along with birds. Our other group tried the crocodile cage diving encounter at Cango Wild Life Ranch where these mighty Nile crocodiles take meat from guide’s hands while standing on a moving jetty and it seems quite an incredible show from the group’s reaction.
Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world. One can find many ostrich farms by the road .A trip to the High Gate Ostrich Farm was well spent learning about the Ostriches, its eggs, meat and feathers followed by a nicely attempted Indian meal.
Our 5th day in the town of Knynsa was marred by rains and high winds and we had to let go the activities like the whale watching because of less chance of sighting them in the bad weather. Even our biking and hiking tour came to a standstill but we compensated with shopping at Sledgefield market and a lunch on Featherbed Nature Reserve Cruise which was outstanding. En route, we did many hotel site inspections and in Knysna, the Protea Hotel at the waterfront and Turbine Hotel and The Loft Boutique Hotel in Thesen Island were all spectacular properties.
One of my finest meals again was at the Knysna waterfront at 34 degree South where I relished a good portion of periperi chicken and a whole succulent fish with many a shots of Amrulas as we retired for the night at Protea Hotel.
Next day came the highlight of the trip which was bungee jumping at Bloukrans with Face Adrenalin guys who operate the show. Situated underneath the Bloukrans Bridge, it is the highest commercial operation bungee jumping place in the world at 216 metres. The place looked happening but with an amalgamation of emotions, anxiety, will power and bravery .Not all of us jumped and for those who didn’t it must be the biggest regret in this life unless you are back in South Africa on this astonishing route.
At Plettenberg bay, a coastal town on the route, we again had a great session of wine tasting and lunch at Kay & Monty Wines. They offered us delicious platters of cheeses and meats paired with locally sourced artisanal breads and wines of course. The horses on the farm made us guys feel like cowboys in Hollywood movies.
Monkeyland in Plettenberg is the world’s first free roaming multi-specie primate sanctuary. Its mission is to educate and foster greater understanding of our primate cousins and the threats and challenges they are facing mainly in the pet industry. We were really engrossed by the 2 kind of lemurs and the gibbons of the sanctuary. Adjoining is the Birds of Eden’s unique two hectare dome enclosure; the world’s largest which spans over a gorge of indigenous forest. Currently it is home to over 3,500 birds from over 280 species, with the main focus being African birds. This place was like heaven for a birder like me and had a great time identifying them with our guide.
Our other highlights of the tour were the Adrenalin Addo Giant Swing, a gut wrenching experience for some and the many miles and animals covered at Addo Elephant National Park game drive. The quad biking and segway safari at Areena was an epic self driving experience with giraffes and ostriches for company. The game drive at Inkwenkwezi private reserve where we saw a family of white lions was power packed and quite a marvellous sight and the Emerald Vale Breweries where we learnt the beer manufacturing process and did the beer tasting was quite involving. Feeding corn to a majestically tall giraffe some place was a hilarious and out of the world.
Port Elizabeth (or PE as it is commonly called) and East London were the two cities on the route where we also had some good time. PE beaches are well known for their safe swimming, wide choice of water sports and frequent dolphin sightings. At East London, we did a mesmerising Helicopter tour of the city and the coast and then a boat tour before finally departing to Johannesburg and back to India. Our stay, meals and shopping in different part of these cities are also worth mentioning and unforgettable.
For me this part of South Africa has been spectacular showcase of extreme adventure, tranquil retreats, plenty of arts and crafts, good restaurants, divine food and wine with splendid wildlife and lovely people. My personal journey on the Garden route has been remarkable and will be cherished for life.
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