TAKING THE GARDEN ROUTE
The Garden Route runs from Cape Town along the south cost of South Africa through to Port Elizabeth, probably an 8-hour drive total. Car rentals are relatively cheap so on our last day in Cape Town, we donned dark glasses, loaded the car and hit the road. At first we thought we might need a GPS system, but quickly discovered that unlike the US, which is riddled with highways, the garden route map is one simple road, straight through. Anticipate little traffic, rolling hills, mountains and miles of farmland (with a suspicious lack of actual barns and silos!). Also, don’t be surprised if you see packs of baboons along the road. These lowly hitchhikers forage the highway for the refuge of wayward travelers. Do not feed them! They can be dangerous and will take anything and everything from you. Observe from a distance and they will only steal your heart. Just a heads up, gas stations are few and far between. Pay attention and fuel up when the opportunity presents itself!
Situated halfway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, in the heart of the Garden Route, lies the seaside town of Mossel Bay, our first night along the Route. At the base of the lighthouse of Mossel Bay is The Point Hotel, built right on the rocks above a huge natural rock pool The hotel overlooks the endless blue expanse of the Indian Ocean where from your balcony and at the right time of the year, you can watch humpback and southern right whales migrate along the coast. Our arrival into Mossell Bay was on a windy, rainy night. Unfortunately, our great white shark cage dive was cancelled for the next day due to the freak storm (which one local told us hasn’t happened in over 3 years). The winds were relentless but filled the air with aromatic sea salt mist. The streets seemed to be empty but the local restaurants were bustling. We found ourselves at the King Fisher Seafood restaurant, where our friendly waitress recommended combos that would satisfy the most famished fisherman. The food, although deep fried was delish!
The next morning, we drove in the drizzle from our fizzled shark dive locale to Knysna, another 3 hours along the Garden Route. The storm continued along the coast and at certain times we drove at a snail’s pace, unable to see the road 50 feet ahead of us. We arrived at the Knysna Elephant Park Lodge by early evening. The idea of an elephant hotel seemed like a novel idea; but we did not expect what we found. Upon check in, we were instructed to drive around to the back of the establishment where we would find our lodging for the night. Around the back of the hotel was a barn, and in it was the home of a 8 colossal creatures. The mere sight of these gorgeous beasts was enough to lift our spirits ten-fold. It would only get better. We were led up a set of stairs that would take us to a living room loft space with several unique and private rooms. This beautifully decorated lounge space provided us with a birds’ eye view into the bedrooms of the massive pachyderms.
It took seconds for us to decompress, with the help of a South African Sauvignon Blanc, and only minutes to eagerly make our way down to meet our new friends. We were told that it was just about time to feed the babies and that we could actually bottle feed these curious tykes. The brother and sister elephants were newly orphaned. Without their mother, we would get to feed them that night with 2 liter Coke bottles filled with nutritious milk. We were each handed a bottle and what we thought would take several minutes, disappeared down their gullets in mere seconds. It was such a treat to be this up close and personal.
After feeding the baby elephants, we got back in the car and headed down the road to visit Monkeyland and Birds of Eden. Monkeyland sits on acres of rainforest and offers sanctuary to a variety of both old world simians and new world prosimians, alike. The animals are not caged and guests can walk amongst them as they move freely through the forest. Our knowledgeable tour guide and proprietor of Monkeyland walked us through the reserve, offering wealth of evolutionary information. A multitude of feeding provide our distant relatives with scores of fresh fruit and meats and allow an up close (but don’t touch) opportunity to observe the monkey madness. You’ll leave Monkeyland with an entirely new focus on primates of the world and the problems they are facing.
The next-door sister sanctuary to Monkeyland is Birds of Eden, which spans over a gorge of indigenous forest and is the biggest single free flight aviary in the world with over 3000 birds comprising over 220 species. Wooden bridges and walkways allow snake below the canopy offering unique bird’s-eye views of aviators that would be practically impossible for one to find in the wild. Feeding stations, similar to Monkeyland, allow one to take stock of the flock. No corners (or wings) have been cut in bringing you this visual feast.
That evening, we drove about 30 minutes away from our elephant lodgings to keep our dinner reservations at the Hog Hollow Country Lodge. The fog was still thick along the road and we considered turning back several times, but the hunger in our stomach’s inspired us to carry on. With a name like Hog Hollow (paired with an eerie fog), we weren’t sure what to expect. What we found that night, was truly enchanting.
The Hog Hollow Country Lodge is nestled off the main road into the forest, along the coast. Entering the lodge, you instantly feel like you’re walking into a gorgeous jungle home. Dinner is served at a majestic wooden table in the main room. The staff greets everyone personally, then introduces everyone by name (and memory). Each course is served with care with an explanation of the where the food came from and how it was prepared. We enjoyed a fantastic meal with travelers from around the world. Delicious wines were paired with local fare. The portions were not overwhelming and each unique in it’s composition that had you eagerly anticipating the next course that would arrive from the kitchen. The staff; though incredibly attentive were never overbearing. They seemed to blend into the shadows then magically appear the moment you had a want or a need.
The next morning we woke after a restful night to the shuffling of massive feet and deep heavy breathing. Our elephant housemates were awake! It was 545am, and time to let them out for a walk around the sanctuary. We scrambled on top of our mighty beasts and were off to explore the terrain with a spectacular sunrise to light the way. We were so thankful that the storm had passed and the fog lifted off the surrounding jungle like a veil. Throughout the trek our guides taught us about the secret lives of elephants, their social importance and roles in the pack and how many of them came to be here at Knysna Elephant Park Lodge. At the end we were allowed to pose with our perspective bulls and several others in the herd. These gentle giants were as gracious as the staff at the Lodge. A definite must on your South African journey.
On our third day along the Garden Route, we left our new elephant friends and headed straight to the beach at Plettenberg Bay. Our epic day that began with a sunrise trek on the backs elephants was to transition to the temped waters of the Indian Ocean with Ocean Adventures Kayaking. The skies had cleared but due to the previous days storm the swells along the coast were higher than normal. Our instructor ran through a safety briefing then saddled us into our perspective kayaks. Cameras were not a good idea on this trip as we soon discover that capsizing happens very easily! Needless to say, there were no digital momentos to be had.
Once we had breached the break in the waves, we found ourselves in open water clipping along almost effortlessly. We relaxed and began to take in the awesomeness of this ocean. Within minutes we noticed several fins lazily swimming along side of us. A second look and an affirmation from our guide would tell us that these were actually hammerhead sharks! In all, we saw about 30 of them that day, ranging from 2 to 5 feet in length. They were harmless and curious. When we asked if they bite our instructor’s response was simple, “If you put your hand in their mouths, then yes.” We were told it was extremely rare to see this volume of hammerheads, and that the storm had most likely changed their course and brought them into the bay area.
After ocean kayaking, we were famished. Fortunately, we had a planned lunch in the only wine estate located on the Garden Route. Bramon Wines was our next stop on this epic day. The welcome wagon at Bramon’s Estate was nothing short of visiting an extended family. This family’s constitution was based on nourishing the senses. We passed through the indoor dining area to be escorted out into the vineyard itself, where we sat at an umbrella covered picnic table nestled among the vines. The backdrop was a rolling vineyard that eventually met with a majestic mountain range (which at certain times of the year is peaked with snow). We were so impressed that one could serve us only a burger and fries and we wouldn’t have batted an eye.
Physically exhausted from kayaking and mentally psyched for the afternoon’s bungee jump, we were in desperate need of a tonic…in the form of squeezed and stopped grapes. We started with a brilliant house Sauvignon Blanc (The Crag). It was firm and crisp with zesty lime undertones. It went down way too well and paired with absolutely everything we ate. Green fig preserves, white rock & cranberry cheese with fresh baked bread awaked our senses and prepared our palates for the tapas style dishes. We tried everything form the Spanish meatballs to the springbok carpaccio and smoked salmon. We wrapped up our meal with a chocolate caloric rush called “The Picasso”. It earned its name in my book as did Bramon wines…an absolute masterpiece!
After lunch, our next stop was 40 minutes down the road at Bloukran’s Bridge. Through Face Adrenalin, we were about to plunge into terror from the highest (Guinness Book Certified) bungee jump in existence. The Bridge spans a canyon along the Garden Route. After strapping in, checking out the view and signing our lives away, we headed out to the bungee platform underneath the bridge.
With a DJ booming techno music and a range of personalities amongst the staff, we were given quick instructions on the proceedings that followed. With a 100% safety record plus double, triple and quadruple safety checks, one can feel somewhat at ease until you are led to the edge and peer into the gorge below. At this point there is no turning back. You plunge head first into a 216 meters drop (over 700 feet). It’s a terrifying and electrifying blur so make sure to purchase the video if you want to relive your dance with death.
After risking our lives at Bloukran’s Bridge, we had another 2 hour drive onto our final destination along the Garden Route in Port Elizabeth. This seaside town is somewhat of a business hub along the route. It includes a domestic airport, miles of beaches along the city, restaurants hotels and casinos. We spent the night at the gorgeous Windermere boutique hotel and we HIGHLY recommend it. It has nine extremely spacious rooms and is ideally positioned for easy access to the airport, beaches and city of Port Elizabeth. It is also within walking distance to the area’s best restaurants. The owner welcomed us like we were coming home. Breakfast is served outside under a veranda covered in grape vines. The Windemere is truly an amazing hotel. After our night, we woke the next morning, said goodbye to Port Elizabeth and took an hour-long flight to Durban where our mountain adventures began.
GETTING IN TO THE DRAKENSBERG MOUNTAINS
For adventure near Durban, hire a car service or rent a car and head north of the city to the Drakensberg Mountains. The range is over 600,000 square acres and forms the boundary beteen South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and offers some of the country’s most aw-inpsiring landscapes. The park extends from the Royal Natal National Park in the north to Kokstad in the south. It’s said that J.R.R. Tolkien, a native South African, was inspired to write Lord of the Rings after visiting the Drakensberg. We chose the northern region as our destination.
After a 4-hour drive from Durban with our ears popping along the way as the elevation rose, we finally arrived at our mountain oasis, Tendele Camp Lodge. The Lodge is situated in one of the most picturesque settings in the country, with a view of the world-famous Amphitheater (a natural rock formation) from every bungalow.
Wonderfully rustic, do-it-yourself cabins are sprinkled atop the mountain just steps from some of the most fantastic trails for hiking or horseback. After quick-passing summer storms, visitors can often hear the rumble of boulders in the Tugela River below. Cottage-like accommodations are simple and clean, set up for cooking indoor or out. Just be sure to stock up at the grocery store either on your way to Thendele or in the gift shop at check-in. WARNING! The campgrounds are crawling with baboons that will take advantage of any opportunity to pilfer from you. Keep doors locked and prepare for a showdown if the baboons find a way into your abode. Foolishly, we left a door ajar and within moments, a large male had found his way to our countertop and was sifting through the garbage. My shrill cries echoed across the mountain range and deemed loud enough to scare this boundary-crossing baboon away.
The next morning, we woke at 6am to start our 6 hour hike. Don’t bite off more than you can chew… unless it’s a power bar. You will need plenty of these on your hike to Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world. This trail requires a strong heart, some upper body strength, time and plenty of water/snacks and patience. If you have all of the above you will have an extraordinary experience. The paths can be simple and not “well trodden” so be cognizant of this. Fortunately, you will pass others who are happy to point the way to the hidden entrance or best and safest route. Anticipate your clothes getting wet. At these altitudes you can be enshrouded in mist for most of the time so it’s truly a walk in the clouds. As refreshing as the cool mist can be, it makes for a muddy walk and slippery surfaces, so wear appropriate foot wear and layers that can be shed. Also, remember to sign in/out when you enter a trail. If you get lost, it’s much easier for a ranger to track you and offer assistance.
After our hike, we’d spent enough time watching the monkeys and birds soar effortlessly above our heads. It was now our turn to experience flying through the canopy. Driving south about 2 hours to the Central Drakensberg, we found the largest canopy tour in South Africa at Drakensberg Canopy Tours. A matrix of newly installed cables zips you across a ravine up to 12 times, about 150 feet above the base of the canyon. After a light rain, the cable’s speed increases by 10%, and take you on a journey that not only speeds up the heart but opens it to the natural wonders around you. Skilled professional guides hook you, unhook you and make sure the experience is a safe one, while explaining the natural flora and fauna around you. Pay attention, there is a quiz at the end!
Nothing creates bonds with strangers faster than team work. Four Rivers Rafting in the Central Drakensberg is a prime example. Within minutes of boarding and reviewing safety measures, the conversation and excitement transcends the cultural and social barriers. The rapids down the Tugela River were intense. Safety drills had us prepared for what lie ahead. As the water became swifter, our excitement boomed. The terror of churning rapids tests both your inner and outer strength.
Water levels were high this time of year, and we had to portage a couple times. Fortunately it was a beautifully sunny day so all was not lost on these down times. There was a healthy balance of work and play. When the river widened we were allowed to jump ship and take a dip in the swift rivers. If nothing else short of wonderful, this is truly a friendship making, character building experience.
A day packed with adventure, be it hiking, canopy tours or white water rafting can only be topped with a fantastic meal. Our host, The Drakensberg Sun Resort had a buffet fit for a king (or queen!). The hotel is an excellent choice for the Central Drakensberg, situated high in the dramatic landscape of the Cathkin Peak. It offers breathtaking views and fresh mountain air. Extensive use of natural materials, polished wood and rich earthy colors make the Resort one of the most striking country resorts in South Africa.
With the accent on comfort, the luxury rooms and suites offer uninterrupted mountain views. Sadly, we could only stay one night, then back to Durban to continue our adventure on to Victoria Falls the next day. For an overnight stay in Durban, enjoy the Southern Sun Elangeni Hotel, situated on Durban’s North Beach with breathtaking views of Durban’s Golden Mile and the warm Indian Ocean. The hotel has three superb cosmopolitan restaurants which provide a choice of cuisine from authentic Japanese to ethnic Indian.