South Africa Travel Journal: The Garden Route to Cape Town

The narratives I read from the tourist and other travel brochures about the Garden Route, made my nomadic heart beat faster. So I couldn't be more excited as our plane touched down in Port Elizabeth, where we were to start the drive through the Garden Route to Cape Town.

The Garden Route was incredible. It stretches for less than 300 km, yet the range of topography, vegetation, wildlife is remarkable: indigenous temperate forest, pine plantations and ‘fynbos’ (thick bush), mountains running alongside rocky coves and beaches, gorges, rivers, lagoons, and mountain passes. While tourism may have taken over much of the coast, and tree plantations for commercial use may have taken their toll on the forest and fynbos, the Garden Route remains breathtakingly beautiful.

As a nature lover and a photo enthusiast, I had my camera ready so I could film the whole drive, but holding the camera was cumbersome that I decided to keep the memory of the scenery in my brain instead. One of my favorite roads was the road through the Tsitsikamma forest to Storm River Mouth. It soon became a hillside drive overlooking the craggy coast below. The end of the road featured the most famous part of the Tsitsikamma National Park, the scenic Storm River mouth.

Then back on the main road N2, we stopped to experience walking the Storm River Bridge and to see the views of the mountain, river, and gorges walled by amazing rock formations, mostly limestone, weathered by thousands of years of waves and winds, proving that nature is the greatest sculptor.  Just a little below the street level, there was an underneath pathway for people to cross the street and the bridge safely.  Passing through the underneath pathway allowed me to view the bridge's very high arched support beams.  Next, we stopped at the Blourkan Bridge to watch the bungee jumpers at ‘Face Adrenaline,’ the highest jump site in the world.

The road then heads through the most famous part of the drive, Knysna described in our itinerary as “a veritable Garden of Eden and paradise for nature lovers; a natural paradise of lush, indigenous forests, tranquil lakes, and golden beaches.”

We did not do the road in any kind of linear fashion. We stopped to see the amazing views of “Brenton on Sea” before heading to our hotel. We stayed in Knysna for 3 nights and our hotel was nestled on the banks of a lagoon. While relaxing on the hotel patio, I saw some of the colorful birds described in our itinerary, and I took photos of the sea birds and the landscape.

The following day, we ferried along the lagoon to the mouth of the open sea to Featherbed Nature Reserve for an eco-adventure tour. From the lagoon, I saw the “Knysna Heads” two enormous sandstone cliffs that stand like sentries at the entrance to the Knysna Lagoon from the sea. While traveling by a four-wheel drive to the top of the hill, our local guide talked about the flora and fauna, and the Blue Duiker said to be one of the smallest and most endangered of the antelope, found in the area. I was not totally disappointed even though I didn’t get to see a Blue Duiker for when we reached the top of the hill we were treated to a stunning view. At the edge of the cliff, there was a sight of the South African blue skies reflected on the shimmering waters of the ocean crashing on the rocky shore.

I joined our local guide on a two-kilometer hike through the milkwood forest and onto the sandstone cliffs that feature arches, caves, cliffs and other wonders.  As we descended, our guide talked about the perils of the sea and the difficulty that the early explorers encountered. But, I have always been fascinated by the power of water and its hold on the human heart and imagination.  I walked down the cliff underneath the arches to hear the waves crashing their sound up the arches and to my ears, the cool breeze hitting my skin.  It was an absolutely amazing hike.

Two days later, we said goodbye to Knysna and continued with a scenic drive that took us along the Outeniqua Pass, deep gorges and ravines, and misty mountains. The scenery turned a little less dramatic and arid as we neared Oudtshoorn, the Ostrich Capital of the World. We toured an ostrich farm where a local guide explained about ostrich farming, different types of ostrich, breeding, and showed us some eggs, incubators, the difference between a fake vs real bag made from ostrich skin (available at the gift shop). Although bird-riding is one of the activities I could check off my bucket list, I’m not proud of what I did. I regret that I let myself got wheedled into riding an ostrich for other tourists entertainment.  (On a positive note:  It appears that I was one of the last ones to ride the ostrich as two of the major ostrich farms stopped the practice two days after my trip). See note below.

Next, we headed to the Cango Caves, the road to the Cango Caves was bordered by red rocky hills on one side and small ostrich farms, with occasional vegetation on the other side, then it opened into an expanse of semi-arid land where I saw a few antelope. Cango Caves are another one of South Africa’s great natural wonders and one of the largest caves I’ve seen. The natural color lights used throughout the cave made me see and appreciate the towering stalagmite formations, especially the famous Cleopatra’s Needle, which stands at 30 feet high and is at least 150,000 years old. 

It was early in the morning when we left our hotel/lodge to get on the road again. The view of a quaint town surrounded by the mountains covered in the morning clouds with the rays of light trying to break through was amazing. The stunning landscape never left my sight for about 20 minutes. Then we climbed up the mountain pass. A few minutes later, the clouds turned into a thick fog and transformed the landscape right before my eyes. It was an incredible sight.

We stopped in small towns like Mossel Bay, best known as the town where the first European landed in the 15th century; Albertinia for some aloe-forex shopping; and stopped for lunch at Swellendam, nestled in the foothills of the Langeberg Mountains. The picturesque town was filled with wonderful examples of the traditional whitewashed Cape Dutch architecture. 

From there, the landscape turned into expansive barren lands with occasional trees that I referred to as 'umbrella trees'.  However, our guide told me that they're not the type of the iconic umbrella (acacia) trees found in the African savannah.   Perhaps it was the image of  Africa I conjured up in my mind but did not see from my trip to the Garden Route that haunted me.


1. I'm saddened to hear about the fire that swept through the town of Knysna last week and the 8 people killed in the fire, and the thousands of people who got displaced. I'm also saddened to hear that Cape Town suffered its worst storm in 30 years. I'm very fortunate and blessed to have been able to travel to South Africa Western Cape and saw the incredibly beautiful landscape before the calamities occurred.  So I'm posting my journal to share the beautiful landscape that I have had the privilege to see and photograph before the calamity.

2. Bird-riding loses luster in South Africa's ostrich capital

2. All photos by the author



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