The Garden Route

The Garden Route is among the top tourist destinations in South Africa. Sandwiched between ocean and mountains, the lush, forested coast stretches from Mossel Bay to Plettenberg Bay and is known for its beaches, lagoons, and the handful of remaining elephants that roam the old-growth forests.

Map of the Garden Route, South Africa

Travels through South Africa's Garden Route. This map shows the mountains to the north, which trap the moisture and produce the lush greenery. Over the mountains lie arid pastures.

We spent our morning at the southernmost point in Africa and drove through the Overberg to reach our destination for the evening: Knysna. (It's pronounced "nyze-na.") We arrived in the small town around 6:30, and darkness was not too far away. The Inyathi Guest Lodge, a miniature village of wooden cottages, will be our home for the night.

Run by a young, well-traveled couple, the place has a decidedly informal feel, and once you're behind the gate, it's another world. We chatted with the owners for some time, then we set out for some food. We walked down to the waterfront area a few blocks south of town and ate at a restaurant called 34 South, named for Knysna's latitude.

The waterfront is quaint, but a bit too urban for this setting if you ask me. Think of a scaled-down version of Baltimore's Inner Harbor: a marina; a variety of restaurants; and a two-story, upscale mall with an overly modern feel for this quaint town.

Our chalet was certainly exotic by hotel standards. The only drawback was the lack of privacy in the bathroom, which was separated from the bedroom by a three-foot-long curtain in the doorway. Otherwise, the place was great.

The next morning we stopped off at the Heads, the narrow passage between the ocean and the lagoon. From up here, there is a view of Knysna and the islands in the lagoon. It's a cloudy day, but the Garden Route would not be the Garden Route without cloudy skies and frequent rain.

After the Heads, we decided to visit a nearby forest, after all, we can't visit the Garden Route without seeing some of its forests. We have some time today since our drive is not very long. We stopped off at the Garden of Eden, a small park outside town. On the way, of course, we passed by the townships outside town. The townships here are unique in that the houses within them are built from timber instead of brick or corrugated metal.

The trail takes one by old stinkwood and yellowwood trees, and a plenitude of forest tree ferns.

After the Garden of Eden, we continued on the N2 road along the coast. Coming out of the Garden Route, we passed by Plettenberg Bay, and decided to have lunch in Jeffrey's Bay. Along the way, we were stopped at a security checkpoint again, and crossed the border into the Eastern Cape province.

We arrived at Jeffrey's Bay, known as one of the best surfing spots in the world. The town is on the southern coast of Africa, but its coast looks east, which I imagine leads to enhanced waves. We walked down Da Gama Road, the main street through town, in search of a late lunch, but we settled on the Sunflower Cafe, which was conveniently located across the street from the car.

In South Africa it is typical to have a parking attendant. Some of these are official and wear government-issued IDs, but many others get themselves a fluorescent vest and take matters into their own hands. When you get back to your car, you're expected to give them a few rand for watching your car. They're kind of like human parking meters, except the money goes directly to them, not to the government. And, given that a few rand is less than fifty cents, I see no problem with the practice. I can't be worried about fifty cents, particularly when it means so much more to those doing this job.

In Jeffrey's Bay, our parking attendant was a boy whose intentions seemed diabolical. He was hanging out with a bunch of kids who were waiting around for trouble to find them.

Our server was very talkative and had strong opinions about where South Africa is going. We ran into fear-driven rhetoric a lot on this trip, but he offered the most direct opinions on the subject. He declared Mandela nothing but a terrorist and feared the inevitable war that will happen in the future. He declared that "we," meaning the Western world, will not step in to stop a hostile takeover of the government. Of course, every white person here fears a repeat of the instability in Zimbabwe, and some believe that as soon as Mandela dies, the Xhosa and the Zulu will fight one another for power. Either way, the white population, which comprises 9% of the country, fears, ironically, that they will be completely disenfranchised.

After that fascinating lunch conversation, it was about 4 pm and we checked out the beach at Jeffrey's Bay to see if there was any surfing action, then we continued on our way toward Addo, where we hoped to see our first big game.