One of the most beautiful drives in South Africa, the Garden Route offers a little of everything for which this sun-drenched country is famous: spectacular landscapes, fascinating wildlife and adventurous adventures. The route stretches for more than 200 kilometers from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape, to the Storms River in the Eastern Cape, and snakes between soaring mountains and the surf-caressing beaches of the Indian Ocean. Along the way, travelers can boat on sparkling lagoons, hike through lush coastal forests pruned by rivers, explore caves and panoramic mountain passes, and bungee jump into a deep gorge.
Animal lovers will find plenty of attractions, from elephant back rides, cheetah encounters and bird sanctuaries to ostrich farms and whale watching tours. The most popular towns along the route are Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, but Mossel Bay is home to a fascinating museum complex, and George is the largest town and transport hub. A minimum of four days is recommended to explore this stretch, but with all the different attractions, travelers can easily spend weeks exploring this region. During the busy summer months (December to February), travelers should book accommodation well in advance.
Read also: Explore Knysna
1 Robberg Nature Reserve, Plettenberg Bay
About eight kilometers from the popular coastal town of Plettenberg Bay, the beautiful Robberg Nature Reserve is a national monument and a paradise for hikers. It lies on a four-kilometre-long peninsula, at the foot of Seal Mountain, where some of the rocks are 120 million years old and caves bear witness to prehistoric man. The reserve is an important breeding ground for many waterfowl, and hikers can also spot whales and dolphins (in season), as well as seals lying on the beach and bobbing in the crashing surf.
Their awesome predator, the great white shark, also lurks in the waters here. Before embarking on a hike, visitors should stop at the visitor center in the parking lot to learn about the local flora and fauna. From here hiking trails run through the peninsula and vary in length and difficulty, from a gentle two kilometer walk to the challenging ten kilometer walk around the rocky and rugged point along pristine beaches and along steep cliffs. Walkers should wear sensible shoes and bring binoculars, sun protection, plenty of water and a picnic to enjoy while looking at the spectacular coastal scenery. A hut offers space for hikers who want to spend the night.
Official site: https://www.capenature.co.za/reserves/robberg-nature-reserve/
Accommodation: where to stay in Plettenberg Bay
2 Storms River Suspension Bridge
A highlight of the beautiful Tsitsikamma National Park reserve (now part of Garden Route National Park) is the Storms River Suspension Bridge. Stretching for 77 metres, the bridge spans the swirling waters of the estuary as they merge with the Indian Ocean. Standing on the bridge, less than seven meters above the water, visitors can feel the exhilarating power of nature surrounding them. The walk to the bridge is also beautiful. The path winds through bird-rich forests, past waterfalls and beautiful sea views. Keep an eye out for dassies (rock hyrax) that live among the rocks near the bridge. For those who want a longer hike, the 42 kilometer Otter Trail runs between Storms River Mouth andNature’s Valley with overnight stay in huts along the route. This part of Garden Route National Park is also home to many species of birds, monkeys, smaller antelopes and varied marine life. Dolphins and whales are often sighted off the coast. Not far from Storms River is the Big Tree , a giant yellow timber tree, said to be 800 years old, making it South Africa’s oldest and largest tree. For a dose of adrenaline, visitors can experience an aerial view of these ancient forests on a Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour .
3 Birds of Eden, Monkeyland en Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary
About 16 kilometers from the beautiful beaches of Plettenberg Bay, animal lovers can enjoy educational wildlife experiences at three affiliated sanctuaries owned by the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance. At Birds of Eden, the world’s largest dome protects two hectares of native forest where birds representing more than 280 species from around the world fly free. Visitors can view the birds from two kilometers of boardwalks, including a canopy walk. Many of the birds – especially the parrots – were previously pets and have no fear of humans, allowing for close-up views and fantastic photo opportunities. Favorite sightings include Knysna lories, billed toucans, blue cranes, crowned cranes and the stunning blue and gold macaw.
Next door, Monkeyland is a sanctuary that has rescued and rehabilitated more than 11 species of previously captured primates in a natural forested environment. Monkey safaris take visitors to see lemurs, loombuilders, squirrel monkeys and a host of other charismatic primates along a 128-meter-long canopy walk and viewing platform. Multilingual tours are also available.
Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary rescues big cats and rehabilitates them in the most natural environment possible. Here visitors enjoy a guided introduction to these graceful creatures with the chance to learn about their history and unique personalities. Highlights are the white lions, cheetahs, tigers and the beautiful black leopards.
4 Knysna Heads & the Knysna Forest
Situated on a lagoon between lush forests and the sparkling sea, Knysna is one of the most popular towns on the Garden Route. On the seaward side, two gigantic rocks, called the Knysna Heads , flank the mouth of the lagoon. Visitors can explore the area from the water on a cruise or along walkways with plenty of panoramic views of the treacherous sea below and the jagged multi-colored rocks that line the coast. Cafes offer scenic patios to enjoy the views. Seafood lovers should sample some delicious local oysters when visiting Knysna; the annual Knysna Oyster Festival , held in late June or early July, is one of the city’s most famous events.
In the lush forests surrounding Knysna, scenic trails meander past rivers and waterfalls where large herds of elephants once roamed. The flora includes giant yellowwood trees, some of which are between 400 and 800 years old, as well as stink forests and the beautiful pink chestnut grove. Hikers can also spot antelope and a variety of birds, including the Knysna lorie. Favorite walks include the Circles in the Forest , the 3.4 kilometer Jubilee Creek trail, and the 5.6 kilometer Millwood Mine Walk , which leads to the remains of a prospectors’ settlement.
5 Editor’s Pick Knysna Elephant Park
At Knysna Elephant Park, animal lovers can enjoy a rare wildlife experience with a herd of rehabilitated elephants. Under the careful guidance of experienced handlers, visitors can walk with the elephants, ride them, feed them and interact with these majestic pachyderms. The park was active for more than 20 years and was the first sanctuary in South Africa to care for orphaned African elephants. Many of the residents were rescued from culls or circuses and rehabilitated by staff. The experience begins with an educational presentation and safety briefing before visitors interact with the elephants at their chosen level, as long as the elephants are happy to cooperate. This is a must for nature lovers.
Address: Harkerville, Plettenberg Bay, 6600
Official site: https://knysnaelephantpark.co.za/
6 Featherbed Nature Reserve, Knysna
Featherbed Nature Reserve, Knysna
A daily ferry service from Knysna takes visitors on a cruise on the Knysna Lagoon to the beautiful Featherbed Nature Reserve on the Western Head. A visit to this beautiful private sanctuary includes a 4WD journey with stops at panoramic viewpoints and a 2.2 kilometer guided walk with fascinating information about the local flora, fauna and history. After exploring the reserve, visitors can enjoy a delicious buffet lunch in the outdoor dining area under a canopy. The company also offers cruises to Knysna Heads aboard their double-decker floating restaurant, as well as sailing trips and sunset cruises on the Knysna Lagoon.
Official site: https://www.knysnafeatherbed.com/featherbed.htm
7 Swartberg pass
The Swartberg Pass is one of the most scenic mountain passes in the world, with stunning rock formations and breathtaking views. Past the Cango Caves , the road climbs over the Swartberg range, which forms the boundary between the Small and Great Karoo and extends for 200 kilometers rising to 2,326 meters in some areas. The 27 kilometer long pass zigzags and snakes out of Oudtshoornin the south to Prince Albert in the north. Built using forced labor in 1881-88 by Thomas Bain, a South African road engineer, the road is mainly gravel, but in dry weather it is negotiable by 2WD. Stunning views greet travelers at every turn and the vegetation is equally beautiful, with an abundance of proteas. Viewpoints along the way offer beautiful panoramas. Be sure to bring a camera and check road conditions before heading out.
8 Cango Caves
About 29 kilometers north of Oudtshoorn, at the foot of the Great Swartberg, lie the impressive Cango Caves. In earlier centuries these stalactite caves were occupied by Bushmen, who left behind petroglyphs, of which little can now be distinguished. Visitors can choose between a Heritage Tour or Adventure Tour. Both take visitors into a series of enormous rooms with impressive stalactites and stalagmites enhanced by spectacular lighting effects. The Van Zyl Hall is named after the man who first ventured into these dark caves in 1780. This enormous 70 meter long, 17 meter high room has a brilliant spotlight and can accommodate 1,000 people. It has excellent acoustics and concerts are occasionally held here. The Adventure Tour starts at the same point but goes deeper into the cave system and requires some winding and climbing. Booking in advance for the tours is essential.
Official site: https://www.cango-caves.co.za/
9 Oudtshoorn Ostrich Farms
In a fertile valley, Oudtshoorn is the largest town on the Little Karoo and the world’s most important ostrich breeding centre. Many visitors following the Garden Route take a side trip here (about 70 kilometers) to admire the beautiful scenery of the surrounding Swartberg and Outeniqua mountains and visit one of the ostrich farms. Safari Ostrich Show Farm , Cango Ostrich Show Farm , and Highgate Ostrich Show Farm offer educational and fun tours where visitors can learn about ostrich breeding, stand on ostrich eggs to demonstrate their strength, and even ride one of these super-fast feathered beasts .
Another popular tourist attraction in Oudtshoorn is Cango Wildlife Ranch where visitors cage dive with crocodiles and interact with lemurs and cheetahs. The ranch is also home to a snake park, an Australian rainforest exhibit with wallabies and birds, and a host of other fascinating animals, including white lions, leopards, tigers, flying foxes and an array of colorful birds.
10 Wilderness National Park
Now part of the Garden Route National Park , Wilderness National Park lies between the Garden Route towns of George and Knysnaand extends from the mouth of the Trouw River in the west to Sedgefield in the east. To the north, this beautiful park is bordered by the Outeniqua Mountains and to the south it descends to the Indian Ocean. Along this stretch of coast, lakes, wetlands and estuaries become interconnected and the mixing of fresh and salt water creates an astonishingly diverse flora and fauna. The national park is a paradise for waterfowl, including the gray heron and five species of kingfishers. Campsites and tall log cabins are available to visitors, as are facilities for water sports on the lakes, such as canoeing, fishing, windsurfing and sailing. Segway tours are another fun way to explore the park.
Goukamma Nature Reserve , a few kilometers east of the Wilderness National Park, lies the mouth of the Goukamma River with rolling dunes, striking birdlife and well-defined hiking trails. The Kingfisher Trail through an intertidal zone to a waterfall and is a popular day hike in the park. The region is particularly beautiful in spring when wildflowers litter the landscapes.
Official site: https://www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/
11 Blue Cliff Bungy
About 40 kilometers outside Plettenberg Bay on the way to Storms River, Bloukrans Bungy is the world’s highest commercial bungee jump and operates from the highest bungee bridge in the world. Even crossing the bridge can bring butterflies to your stomach, but many brave souls take the plunge and dive 216 meters into the dizzying deep gorge below. Those wanting to capture a bird’s eye view can bring their own GoPro, but videos and photos of the jump are available for purchase after the dive.
Address: Bloukrans River Bridge, Tsitsikamma, Plettenberg Bay, 6600
Official site: https://www.faceadrenalin.com/
12 Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex, Mossel Bay
Although Mossel Bay’s landscape is now marred by industrial development and oil rigs, this seaside town is home to the excellent Bartolomeu Dias Museum complex. It was built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Bartolomeu Dias’s landing in Mossel Bay in 1488. Within the museum complex, the reception and information center is located in the granary where visitors can view specimens of local plants and flowers. From here, an ethnobotanical garden leads to the other museums. Opposite the granary is the Maritime Museum in a former grain mill and sawmill. The star exhibit here is a replica of the caravel in which Diaz rounded the Cape. The Shell Museumshowcases a collection of shells from around the world and aquarium tanks with live shellfish in their natural environment. Outside the Mossel Bay Shell Museum is the Post Office Tree , a large milkwood tree next to a spring from which ships kept track of their water supplies. Mariners sailing east used it as a mailbox by depositing letters here, which were collected and delivered by ships on the journey home. Also in the complex, the Munrohoek Cottages were built around 1830 and restored in the mid-1980s. They are among the oldest buildings in Mossel Bay.
Address: 1 Market St, Mossel Bay, 6500
Official site: https://www.diasmuseum.co.za/