A journey round the garden

So much to do, and so little time. That’s how the Garden Route makes you feel. Like it’s all flashing before your eyes and you don’t have time to really soak it all up.
It is kind of “to the left is Wilderness and to your right are the Outeniquas and up ahead is Knysna and there’s the Tsitsikama and here we are in Plettenberg Bay. Oh yes, and that was the Storms River gorge.”

That’s why it is important to try and take as much time as you can actually exploring the route, doing the lekker tourist trip thing and actually opening yourself up to the many and varied things on offer.

And there is a whole bunch of exciting things to do and exquisite things to see.

I put myself at the disposal of the Garden Route Tourism Marketing Association (Gartour) and asked the organisation to show me the sights and sounds, and kicked back as I let it take the strain of putting together an itinerary for me, à la international tourist.

To be honest I cannot recommend this enough to South Africans wanting to travel a bit in their own backyard — let the pros do the hard work of taking you all over the show, and just sit back and enjoy it all.

Yes, it can work out a bit more expensive than hiring a car or driving yourself, but you see so much more when someone else is driving you around in a nice, plush air-conditioned tour vehicle. And you actually learn something about the areas you are visiting along the way. It’s all good stuff.

Gartour covers the Garden Route and Klein Karoo areas and has 24 members, including hotels, game farms, houseboats, adventure tours and nature reserves.

I let Brenton Blue Tours do the hard work of driving me around the area and introducing me to the highlights of this most beautiful part of South Africa.

It was a good move, because Brenton Blue’s Colin Bredell knows his Garden Route onions and I learned more about the Outeniquas and the original inhabitants of the area on my way through the winding mountain passes en route to Plettenberg Bay than I ever had in almost half a lifetime in South Africa.

And so, to Plet. Playground of the rich and famous, and the home of Ocean Safaris and for me the chance to get up close and personal with some southern right whales on a whale-watching expedition.

Ocean Safaris has three operations countrywide and is the largest boat-based whale-watching company in South Africa.

Its mission is to observe and conserve as an environmentally conscious eco-marine business.

The company works alongside the Centre for Dolphin Studies, which is the only independent accredited research institute of its kind in the country, and together they hold official boat-based whale-watching permits for Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. This means that we were able to approach the leviathons within 50m. Which we did, with some exhilarating results.

The whales “spyhop” when you get that close, raising their heads vertically above the water to take a peek at the boat and the humans on board. And it is exciting, even with an oversized windbreaker zipped up all the way and a cumbersome but necessary life-jacket nudging you under the chin every time you look for your camera.

The safaris last about three hours and although the weather may be warm, out on the open sea it can get chilly, hence the windbreaker. Sunglasses are a must though, even if it’s overcast, because the wind in your face and the salt-water spray can play havoc with focusing.

Of course, whale-watching is a seasonal thing as the southern rights come into the bays of the east coast to calf generally between July and October each year. But Ocean Safaris offers dolphin encounters and part of each trip from Plet is devoted to the Cape fur seal colony at Robberg on the opposite site of the impressive Beacon Island resort.

From safaris on water to safaris of the traditional kind and Buffalo Hills Game Reserve. Located 15km outside Plet and 35km from Knysna, Buffalo

Hills offers accommodation in luxury tents or lodges at a private camp overlooking a game-filled plain or fully-catered ox-wagon hikes, which include guides, porterage and all meals.

Buffalo Hills is also the home of the Nyati distillery, which produces the award-winning Nyati JJJ (Jack’s Jungle Juice) Liqueurs. Game that can be spotted include buffalo, rhino, sable, giraffe, leopard and various antelope.

Another day, another tour, and it’s off to Monkeyland, one of the fastest-growing tourism drawcards on the Garden Route.

Monkeyland, as its name implies, is home to a remarkably diverse range of monkeys and apes, most of which have been rescued or donated by zoos or private collectors.

Home for the Monkeyland residents is a huge forest enclosure, fenced and designed to keep marauding baboons and vervets out.

Visitors are guided round the forest by qualified monkey experts and are accompanied by the reserve’s clever, and sometimes naughty, namesakes. Cappucins, lemurs, macacs, gibbons and orang-utans can all be seen and interacted with, as can a wide variety of woodland birds.

Miniature monkeys such as marmosets and tamarins also have a home at Monkeyland.

The tours are remarkably informative and take in one of the largest rope bridges in the country, which affords visitors the chance to observe the monkeys in the forest canopy.

Monkeyland is about to expand its interests to birds with a new project opening soon called Birds of Eden. Located in a similar large, but this time netted, enclosure, Birds of Eden will be home to a stunning range of avian species, again either rescued or donated from zoos, aviaries and private collections.

From monkeys to oysters, and Knysna. A large waterfront development has sprung up around the lagoon, and the Knysna Oyster Company has taken a nice slice of it, with views of the Heads and the distant oyster beds making it a perfect place to enjoy a glass of champagne or two and a spot of oyster tasting.

But if you can’t get enough of that lagoon, a perfect way to end the day is with a sunset cruise aboard a catamaran through the Heads. Alternatively, you could opt for a couple of nights on the lagoon, with a houseboat from Lightley’s.

The houseboats are more akin to floating caravans, with a kitchenette complete with stove, fridge and sink, a dining area that converts by night to a double bed, a shower-cum-toilet and dedicated bedroom with double bed. There is an outside deck by the boat’s wheel and a sun deck on the roof, together with a small wooden platform at the rear of the boat complete with ladder so that you can swim or snorkel at leisure in the lagoon.

Lightley’s hires the boats out by the night — all guests need to do is stock the fridge with goodies and several cold ones, head off into the sunset and drop anchor wherever the mood takes them for a night under the stars.

Garden routers looking for more traditional forms of accommodation are spoiled for choice — there’s the luxurious five-star Lake Pleasant Hotel, Tsitsikamma Lodge in the heart of the forest, the beautiful Botlierskop Game Farm set among 2 300ha of diverse habitat and Knysna Log Inn — said to be the largest log structure in the southern hemisphere.

And to round it all off, there’s the Choo Tjoe. Transnet Heritage Preservation’s pride and joy, the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, runs regularly between Knysna and George along 67km of track preserved specifically for steam operations.

The Garden Route is a holiday destination all on its own and the best way to experience it is to give yourself that all important commodity — time. It can’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be rushed and is somewhere you go to relax — after all, isn’t that what gardens are for?

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