The Garden Route is a thin stretch of coastal plain, spanning a mere 196 KM between Mossel Bay and Storms River Mouth and can be covered along the excellent N2 motorway in just over two hours. The route passes through an alluring mix of forest and sand dune lined lagoons with some fantastic beaches, and it’s easy to see how it become known as the Garden of Eden to early Dutch settlers.
Most travellers experience the Garden Route as part of a longer trip between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth (750KM, 8 hours), and it’s all too easy to zip along the N2 in a day. A better plan is to take your time , turn off the highway now and then , and explore some of the secluded beaches, forests and mountain passes along the way.
From Cape Town to Mossel Bay, it’s around 390KM (4 hrs 30) along the N2, though many visitors will probably want to turn off the road to visit the wine region around Stellenbosch, and follow the coastal R43 road through Betty’s Bay with its Jackass penguin colony, and on to Hermanus . If you visit between June and November, Hermanus is a great place to spot Southern Right Whales which come to Walker Bay in large numbers to calve. Hermanus is one of the few places in the world where you can whale watch without getting in a boat- the whales are often so close to shore that you can see them from the clifftop paths!
From Hermanus you can follow the R316 road to Bredasdorp, then head South to Cape Agulhas if you want to visit the most Southerly point in Africa. Most of the roads are unpaved in the interior of the ‘Whale coast’ but were in generally good condition last time I drove in the area around 6 years ago.
Picking up the N2 again and heading East, you come to the historic town of Swellendam, which was established in the mid 1700’s and is the third oldest white settlement in South Africa. Situated around half way between Cape Town and Mossel Bay, in some lovely countryside, Swellendam is a good stopping off point en route to the Garden route. It’s also a good base for visiting the Breede River Valley and the Little Karoo region.
The N2 then passes through the towns of Heidelberg, Riversdale and Albertinia and on towards Mossel Bay. The town of Mossel Bay is something of an inauspicious ‘official’ start for the garden route with some industrial developments on its outskirts. It’s a small town with an interesting museum, and the St Blaize lighthouse which you can climb, and, if you’re lucky, spot whales and dolphins. There are also opportunities for shark cage diving encounters via the company below, who offer a wide range of extreme sport opportunities in the area.
The N2 then heads North East passing by the town of George, which lies 5 miles North of the main road. George lies at the foot of the Outeniqua mountain range and is home to the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe, a steam train which runs parallel to the N2 all the way to Knysa. George is also home to some world class golf courses and was also the parliamentary seat of ex president PW Botha.
Around 9km south of George and 3km off the N2 is Victoria Bay, one of South Africa’s top surf beaches. Set in a cove between cliffs with a single row of beach front guest houses, it’s one of the nicest spots on the Garden Route, though parking can be difficult in Summer.
Back on the N2, after passing through (literally, the road intersects the town!) the now badly named seaside town of Wilderness, which is home to some nice beaches, you arrive at Wilderness National Park, a 20KM stretch of forest with nature trails, lagoons and lakes.Its also a prime birdwatching spot. There are two rest camps here and its possible to rent canoes, but like the town, Wilderness National Park is a bit too close to the highway to feel like you’re really miles from anywhere!
Between Wilderness and the next seaside town-Sedgefield, you pass dark coloured lakes on your left which eventually join the sea via a lagoon just past Sedgefield.Sedgefield has a nice beach which feels unspoilt as the houses are hidden behind the sand dunes. It’s also a good base to explore Goukamma Nature and Marine Reserve, which is popular with anglers, and also offers the possibility of seeing mammals such as bushbuck, mongoose, vervet monkeys and otters.
Just over 100km from Mossel Bay you reach the seaside town of Knysa (pronounced Nize-na), which is the main tourist hub on the Garden Route. Despite having no beach of its own, it has a tidal lagoon sheltered from the sea by two rocky promontories. The centre of town has some nice Georgian and Victorian architecture , and art galleries, craft shops and cafes give the town a laid back feel, though in Summer, expect major traffic congestion along Main Street.
Other activities in town include cruising the lagoon on Knysa ferries or the MV John Benn and visits to the nearby township of Wiklokasia run by the company below-
Many travellers stop at Knysa to access its famous forests which surround the town. In times gone by the forests were home to large herds of elephants. Only 100 years ago Knysa Forest was home to a herd of 600, but that number had reduced to less than a dozen by 1980. Today there are still roadsigns along the N2 between Knysa and Plettenberg Bay warning of elephants crossing, but , despite reputed sightings, it seems unlikely there are any wild elephants left in the forest. One place you are guaranteed to encounter an elephant is Knysa Elephant Park, about half an hour along the road from Knysa. Here orphan elephants roam amongst 148 acres, and visitors can experience getting up close to a pachyderm, and also have a meal, stay overnight and even get married. More details via the link below –
33KM east of Knysa is Plettenberg Bay (Plett to locals), an attractive upmarket resort with 6 miles of sandy beaches, and close proximity to the Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Robberg Nature and Marine Reserve which has some of the best hiking opportunities on the garden route. You can also often spot whales and dolphins from one of a number of point in town such as the Southern end of Lookout Beach, the Robberg peninsula, Beachy Head Road at Robberg Beach and Signal Hill in San Gonzales Street.
After passing the small village of Nature’s Valley, the road meanders into Storms River Village which is just off the N2 away from the coast. The village is an extreme sports centre and claims to have the worlds highest bungee jump from Bloukrans Bridge. The site below gives more information if you’re tempted!
Storms River marks the official end of the Garden Route. Port Elizabeth is around 170KM to the East along the N2. The road passes Tsitsikamma National Park with its beautiful forests, and then runs just North of Jeffrey’s Bay (J Bay to locals) which has some of South Africa’s best surfing waves.Port Elizabeth itself is an industrial centre emphasised by the factories and smoking chimneys along the N2. It has some pleasant beaches and a revamped seafront area though and prides itself on being South Africa’s ‘Friendly City’. Other attractions include Settlers Park botanical gardens in the centre, some dive sites around the St Croix Islands and the Addo Elephant National Park, 72KM North of town and home to over 300 elephants.
There are a number of websites which can help plan your Garden Route roadtrip such as the one below-
All the multinational car rental companies and most of the SA Based ones will allow one way rentals so you can pick the car up in Cape Town and drop it in Port Elizabeth or vice versa. See my South Africa page for more details.