Sun, Surf, Shells and Sandtraps on South Africa's Garden Route (March 4-10, 2012)


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March 17th 2012
Published: March 17th 2012
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This leg of our journey involved two more of my favourite things - beaches and all things golf. Despite this area's name - Garden Route, our goal was to follow the coastline as closely and as much as possible and if there was a beach, we would find it. The golf, well, you got a taste of that in one of my previous entries and for more, read on.

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Cape Town to Hermanus

We drove out of the city on the four-lane divided N1 thinking that the end goal, the town of Stellenbosch, should be reached quickly. Stellenbosch is both the centre of the Cape's wine growing as well as a university town with deep Afrikaans historical roots. Once we got off the N1, we immediately started seeing vinyards. Unfortunately it was Sunday and many of the farms are closed to the public and don't offer tastings that day. Not that we could do much tasting as we need even more concentration as usual for driving on the left. The centre of town itself was pretty quiet as well. We walked around among the historic buildings for a while, reading the information supplied by our guide book. Then we tried to have a couple of hot drinks at an outdoor cafe, unfortunately the service was extremely slow. Ultimately the town was a bit of a let down. Even seeing the "Big Easy" restaurant owned by one of our favourite RSA golfers Ernie Els didn't really get us excited. So we headed back to the coast, and our favourite scenery - beaches. The first was at Strand, which is quite built up with high-rise units, but this didn't take away from the ultimate beauty of the water if you turn your back to them. And there were others like Rooiels (nothing to do with Ernie) with stark coastline and modern, upscale and funky dwellings. After driving the very scenic coast - behind the beaches are craggy hills of every size and kind - we landed in Hermanus, one of the few Cape coastal towns that is not centred on a beach, but on high cliffs and bluffs over raging seas. This town is famous for whale watching in the right season, which it was not. But it was beautiful to walk the cliff trail before dinner and a good nigh sleep at our B&B.

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Hermanus to Cape Agulhas

This day's drive pretty much took us along the coast again, including through a strange "hippie" beach area (at Hangklip) with extremely loud music and off the main road that was full of variously intoxicated young people, many of them apparently sleeping off their previous binge in the back of their cars. We stopped in Gansbaai to see if we could get a boat cruise out to see seals and sharks (the latter generally eating the former, if you're lucky). Unfortunately most boats go out early in the morning, but in any event this day the water was too choppy for cruising. If you leave the main road you discover that the back roads are mostly unpaved, but usually in good enough repair that they are passable by a regular car, which is what we're driving. We had to take one such detour away from the coast because there simply was not a coast road going over a particular estuary. We reached Cape Agulhas at about 4:00 PM. This town is also a bit too rocky for beaches although it does have a beautiful tidal pool (as does Hermanus). We tried to get onto the beach around the corner of the cape at Struisbaai, but the coast itself was pretty well blocked by holiday homes there. Again we took a walk, this time passing through our first stretch of waterfront where many shells had washed up. As many of you know, Barbe and I are big shell collectors, so the debris-less white sand beaches were sometimes disappointing on that front compared to what we see on the Florida Gulf coast where the shells are thick on the beaches. We each filled our pockets and will have to figure out if or how we get them home.

Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point in Africa and this made it a huge landmark of our journey. If you're the arguing kind, you'd say this was where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet not at the Cape of Good Hope. But the smaller number of tourists here somehow made it a more attractive stopping point on our trip.

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Cape Agulhas to Outshoorn

We continued travelling close to the coast until Mossel Bay, where there is a large museum honouring the apparent first arrival of Europeans from Portugal to South Africa in 1488. Bartolomeo Dias' journey was recreated in 1988 in much the same way similar voyages to North America have been commemorated. Here they have managed to get the entire replica ship that was used in 1988 inside the museum. There is also a significant and well developed display - no doubt supported by Portuguese finances - describing Portugal's long and extensive contribution to early maritime exploration. Luckily for us there was also a large shell museum, to make up for the disappointment of another day of seas too rough for a seal and shark cruise. We then worked our way inland through a couple of mountain passes to Outshoorn, a large farming area that we had picked because there is a small but well studied group of meerkats on the plains. B and I watched the BBC series Meerkat Manor about these unique desert dwellers and have become enamoured with these charming creatures. We had to meet our guide at 5:45 a.m. as it is crucial to catch the meerkats as they come out of their burrows in the morning. He took us to a mound with several holes into which he had watched the animals bed down the evening before. Because these small mammals don't have very good body temperature regulation, their first task of the day is to stand in the sun and warm up. So all you have to do is wait for them to come up, which they do with the first rays. We sat in camp chairs and watched them vie for the warmest rays for about 45 minutes then followed them for about 15 minutes more as they began their day's foraging for food. Eventually they moved too fast and far away to catch up to and we left them. It was nice to get back to our very nice room and balcony to watch the birds before setting out on the next day's drive. "Guest farm" really did not do justice to the accommodations we enjoyed that night!

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Outshoorn to Knysna

After a late breakfast following our meerkat encounter we set out for a driving sightseeing tour north of the city in what is known as the Klein (little) Karoo. This area boasts spectacular mountain scenery, panoramic views and drives through two passes - the Swartburg and the Meiringspoort Passes. And all this was true, along with the added bonus of white-knuckle driving. We headed up the Swartburg with me at the wheel and quickly came to gravel. Then we quickly moved to steeper and narrower (barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other) switchbacks as we headed up and up and up. We finally reached the top and enjoyed amazing views for miles in all directions. Then it was back down on even more treacherous surfaces (much worse than on the way up) with my hands clutching the wheel for dear life and in 1st low gear all the way down. It took us most of two hours to go some 24 kms! Chalk it up to another 'glad I did it, never want to do it again' - at least not in our little Chevy putt-putt-whatever rental car.

The Meiringspoort Pass was far less nerve-wracking, being flat and 'tarred' as they say over here but no less beautiful as it wound its way between two mountains and followed a river course between them. Outstanding geology!

We arrived in Knysna late in the day. Our B&B was a lovely little spot just below Knysna in a little community named Brenton-On-Sea located directly on the ocean with nothing between it and Antarctica. And as it happened, our host Derrick turned out to be as big a golf nut as I am, naming his five rooms after famous past and present RSA golfers (I will let you guess which ones) and setting one of his cable channels to the one carrying that week's PGA golf tournament so I could get my fix (the WGC Championship at the Blue Monster at Doral, Miami - won by Justin Rose; see, I told you I was a nut).

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Knysna to Plettenberg and on to Port Elizabeth

We enjoyed 3 nice days in Knysna and surrounds. We toured the town waterfront, with nice shopping and good restaurants - nothing like a new pair of snazzy golf shorts (I am so sick of my safariwear) and a good Italian dinner to lift some flagging traveller spirits. We spent a great morning walking the length of Brenton Beach and sunbathing (but still no swimming - water is way too cold for my taste) and later drove around the estuary on which Knysna is situated and up to 'The Heads'; basically the tall and narrow cliffs opening to allow the ocean into the surrounding flat area to create a huge saltwater estuary and marsh system (see pics to get a better idea of this natural phenomenon than what I can describe). We also spent a morning touring up the coast to Plettenberg Bay but first stopping in and peeking at the golf course mentioned in my previous blog entry (see Overland 3), Pezula. Set high up in the sand covered sandstone cliffs near Knysna, it features infinity greens overlooking the ocean, rolling fairways and lovely fynbos botanical specimens. What a beaut! On our way back from the "Birds of Eden" giant mesh tent aviary with some beautiful local and exotic non-African specimens, we stopped to get a view of yet another beach, Keurboom Strand, and were treated to the sight of a large school of dolphins actually surfing in the waves heading into the beach.

After our sojourn in the lovely Knysna area, we hit the road again and travelled to our Garden Route endpoint of Port Elizabeth and our final animal safaris in Africa - Addo Elephant National Park and Kruger National Park.

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Additional photos below
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