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The Garden Route and the Little Karoo Travel Guide

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  • Photo: Andrea Willmore/Shutterstock

Plan Your Garden Route and the Little Karoo Vacation

This region is a study in contrasts. The forested mountain ranges of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma that shadow the coastline trap moist ocean breezes that then fall as rain on the verdant area known as the Garden Route. Meanwhile, these same mountains rob the interior of water, creating the arid semi-deserts of the Little and Great Karoo. Even within these areas, however, there is significant

variety.

The Garden Route, which generally refers to the 208-km (130-mile) stretch of coastline from Mossel Bay to Storms River, encompasses some of South Africa's most spectacular and diverse scenery, with long beaches, gentle lakes and rivers, tangled forests, impressive mountains, and steep, rugged cliffs that plunge into a wild and stormy sea. It’s this mix that has earned the Garden Route its reputation for being one of the most scenic routes in South Africa. Though the ocean may not be as warm as it is in KwaZulu-Natal, the quality of accommodations tends to be far superior and the atmosphere more tranquil.

The Garden Route also offers great variety for all ages. The backpacking crowd loves it for its great beaches, adventure activities, and accessibility, whereas more sophisticated visitors revel in the excellent seafood, scenery, golf courses, and superior guesthouses and hotels—many with attached spas—where pampering is the name of the game. A Garden Route trip also makes a fabulous family vacation destination, where little ones can frolic on a beach, visit an animal sanctuary like Monkeyland or Birds of Eden, or go for a magical forest walk. Few would wish to pass up the opportunity to see whales and dolphins. With numerous guided, catered, and portered multiday hikes and loads of pretty day walks, the Garden Route is ideal for avid ramblers.

A trip into the Little Karoo in the interior, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of what much of South Africa's vast hinterland looks like. This narrow strip of land, wedged between the Swartberg and Outeniqua ranges, stretches from Barrydale in the west to Willowmore in the east. It’s a sere world of rock and scrub, famous for its ostrich farms and the subterranean splendors of the Cango Caves. Unlike more classic safari destinations, the Little Karoo’s treasures are not handed to you on a plate. Scour the apparently dry ground to spot tiny and beautiful plants. Hike into the hills to admire the fascinating geological formations of the Cape Fold Mountains and to look for rock art. Or simply pause and drink in the space and the silence. Also special to the Little Karoo are the many dramatic mountain passes that traverse the mountains to the coast or even deeper into the interior, the most famous and precipitous of these being the Swartberg Pass between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert.

The national parks of Wilderness, Knysna, and Tsitsikamma, once separate entities, are now part of the Garden Route National Park. Each area offers a distinct experience from lakeside to forest to dramatic shoreline.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Whale-Watching. Some of the best boat-based whale- and dolphin-watching in the world can be found at Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route. And although Plett is the best, there are also good trips to be had at Mossel Bay and Knysna. You can often watch these friendly cetaceans frolicking from the shore, as well. If you really want to feel part of the ocean, your best bet is a kayaking trip in Plett.
  2. Animal Encounters. The Crags area, just outside Plettenberg Bay, is the place to go if you want to spend a day with the animals. Visit with rescued primates at Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary or amble through the world's largest free-flight aviary next door at Birds of Eden. Other spots for animal-watching include the ostrich farms and Cango Wildlife Ranch at Oudtshoorn and—for free-roaming big game like elephants and lions—the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve close to Barrydale.
  3. Adventure Sports. If you’re itching for a taste of freefall, you've come to the right place. The highest commercial bungee jump in the world (at 700 feet) can be found at Bloukrans Bridge. If you really have an appetite for heights, you can leap out of a plane with Skydive Plett. For something a little bit closer to the ground, nothing beats the canopy tour at Tsitsikamma, where you fly through the trees (via cables and a harness) with the greatest of ease.
  4. Scenic Hiking. Enjoy the best of nature in comfort on an escorted, guided, portered, and catered hike, locally called "slackpacking." The Dolphin Trail, in the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, offers the chance to walk along remote and rugged coastal terrain but with indulgent accommodation. The Oystercatcher Trail in Mossel Bay lets you explore a wide range of coastal scenery, from cliff-top paths to long beaches, and the food emphasizes traditionally cooked local seafood. The Garden Route Trail combines long and short day hikes with some paddling through the wonderful wetlands of the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park.

When To Go

When to Go

There's no best time to visit the Garden Route, although the water and weather are warmest November through March. The high season is from mid...

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