5 Incredible Garden Route Experiences
You might have heard of South Africa’s famed road trip – the Garden Route. For many people this fabled journey represents an uncovering of the natural beauty of South African landscapes between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Don’t get me wrong, I'm a big fan of breathtaking views, but aside from gasping for air while I gaze at a landscape, what can you actually do on the Garden Route? In no particular order, here are five incredible things you can only experience on this iconic drive:
Dangle from Table Mountain
So you’ve made it to the top of the mountain. Either you’ve taken the five-minute ride in the 360-degree rotating cable car, or you’ve ascended 1,086 metres on foot (which takes substantially longer). Regardless of how you’ve reached the flat-topped summit of Table Mountain, one thing is for sure… you will need to get back down. How about opting for the most direct route: tie into your harness, lean back and kick off as you abseil down one of the mountain's vertical faces? I should point out that the abseil doesn't take you to the bottom of the mountain, so at the end of your descent you still have a 30-minute hike back to the top. So you'll need to take the cable car down after all, but at least you’ll have your adrenaline high to keep you company.
Surround yourself with penguins
Armed with flip flops, a beach towel and swimwear, it’s fair to say that you don’t look as though you're set to spend time in the company of penguins. But these penguins don’t have the bitter Antarctic climate to contend with, these are African penguins and they’ve picked a home in the sunshine. Boulders Beach is less than 90 minutes’ drive from Cape Town and, aside from being a lovely place to enjoy a bit of sand and sun, it’s also home to a large colony of African penguins. The best place to head to for photos is the viewing boardwalk but the modest entry fee also grants you access to the beach too where the penguins are frequent visitors, although in significantly fewer numbers. Set yourself down on a spot on the sand and you could easily find a few rogue penguins waddling past to have a peak at you.
Segway among the vines
A day or two spent in South Africa’s Winelands gives you the opportunity to sip world-class wines and dine on exceptional cuisine while surrounded by mountains, vines and rolling hills. Sounds idyllic right? Well, it really is. But when I had the opportunity to hop on a Segway tour of the vineyards and farmland that surrounds The Spier Hotel in Stellenbosch I jumped at the chance to try something unique. We chose the 9am tour, which meant the temperature was perfect. A thorough training session saw my Segwaying skills develop from a tortoise-speed crawl in a straight line on tarmac to bumpy off-road tracks at maximum speed. Segways can hit 12mph, which can feel pretty speedy when you only have a cycle helmet for protection. But this tour is not just about feeling the wind in your hair. In addition to leading the group around the grand estate, our guides shared a wealth of knowledge about the ecology of the area and the vines. Thrilling and insightful, and now time for a chilled glass of Chenin Blanc…
Say good morning to a meerkat
Touted as the ostrich farming capital of the world, there is no doubt you’ll see plenty of these giant birds when you visit Oudtshoorn. Yep, this town has a long (ost)rich history when it comes to the largest birds on the planet, but don’t let them steal the show. Make time for another South African resident of much smaller stature: meerkats. In fact, it would take seven meerkats stood upright, one-on-top of each other to match the height of an adult ostrich. At Buffelsdrift Game Lodge you have the opportunity to watch as a colony of meerkats start their day. We arrived at the lodge in time to catch the sunrise on their decking, which overlooks a waterhole (complete with resident hippos) before we were driven to the colony to begin the waiting game…
After about 30 minutes of jokes about meerkats oversleeping, as well as learning some really interesting facts about the colony, the first meerkat cautiously poked his head out of a burrow. Within 10 minutes the whole colony were standing to attention, just metres from our vehicle. The younger ones were play-fighting and chasing one another, while the older ones kept watch. At no point do any of them seem in the least bit bothered that a bunch of grinning tourists are watching.
Get into the wild
No visit to South Africa would be complete without getting on safari. Right at the end of my trip I stayed at Long Lee Manor in Shamwari Game Reserve. And what a way to finish! As soon as I had checked in, before I had even set foot in a safari vehicle, I was gazing out over the reserve where I could see zebra, springbok and, in the distance, a lone elephant magnificently silhouetting itself against the skyline. I could see all this, just from the hotel! Needless to say, I was chomping at the bit to get out on a game drive. And when I did I was not disappointed. Within minutes we were among a herd of zebra that were accompanied by a family of warthogs. Another 10 minutes later and our jaw were hitting the floor as an adult male and female lion passed just a few metres from our vehicle. This place is just incredible, what would we see next?
...A herd of elephants! We approached slowly and kept a respectable distance but, once they were comfortable with us being there, they just ignored us completely and surrounded the vehicle. I was buzzing. Surely this must be the most successful game drive ever? There was no way it could get any better. Oh wait! Rhinos. Seven of them. Grazing and playing on the open plains. I admit I must have been pretty lucky to see all of this wildlife on one game drive, so my advice would be to spend three nights in a safari park and give yourself a time to see as much as possible. It’s simply the best way to end an unforgettable South Africa holiday.