Exploring the Garden Route – the highlights

Located between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, the Garden Route is a stretch of coastline popular amongst backpackers and tourists looking to escape the cities and explore some of South Africa’s rural gems.

There is loads to see along the Garden Route and the options are only limited by the time and funds available to you. As we’d been volunteering near Port Elizabeth on the Kariega Game Reserve, we opted to travel back towards Cape Town as far as Mossel Bay to begin our Garden Route exploration, missing out some parts but still having an amazing time.

For ease, we’ve grouped together our activity highlights by location, allowing you to pick and choose what to do as you travel along the route in either direction.

Gansbaai

We actually visited here whilst in Cape Town even though it is actually somewhere on the Garden Route. Gansbaai is a quiet coastal town famous for being the gateway to Shark Alley, one of the largest concentrations of Great White Sharks near to the coast in the world.

Shark Cage Diving
A close encounter with a Great White Shark
A close encounter with a Great White Shark

Gansbaai’s tourist destinations are almost exclusively companies offering the opportunity to cage dive from a boat with the Great White Shark. Excursions last from a few hours up to most of the day and there are a variety of packages available – compare the different companies to find the price and inclusions to suit your needs.

Check out our post Adrenaline Cape Town [link post] for more about our experience of this amazing opportunity.

Mossel Bay

According to a leaflet we picked up, Mossel Bay boasts the second best climate in the world after Hawaii. Given the rain we experienced during our overnight stop here at this small coastal town, we would question the accuracy of this claim but wouldn’t argue with the fact that Mossel Bay is a key destination if you want to learn more about the early history of South Africa. It’s also a great place to spot dolphins for free in the early dusk, just off the beach!

Dias Complex Museum

Located just off the main road through Mossel Bay in direct view of the beach, the Dias Complex Museum is one of the key historical sites in the area. For just R20, you can explore a snapshot in the early history of the bay and the part it played in the South Africa known today.

The reconstructed ship at the Maritime Museum
The reconstructed ship at the Maritime Museum

In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias landed in Mossel Bay, thus becoming the first European explorer to stand on South African soil. In the Maritime Museum, you can see a replica of the Caravel Dias used to sail to South Africa which followed his route from Portugal and arrived exactly 500 years after his inaugural journey. You can see it in the dry dock, walk around on it and explore inside it.

The oldest post office in South Africa
The oldest post office in South Africa

Outside, you can visit the Post Office Tree, colloquially referred to as South Africa’s first and oldest post office, where messages were hung from the tree in a bolt to be picked up by ships returning to Europe. Not to be overlooked, the shell museum of Mossel Bay is said to be the biggest in Southern Africa??? and is well worth some of your time to visit.

A conch in the shell museum
A conch in the shell museum

Oudtshoorn

Ostriches on the ostrich farm
Ostriches on the ostrich farm

Known internationally as the home of the ostrich, Oudtshoorn is home to the world’s largest concentration of ostrich farms with a number offering you the the chance to visit.

Safari Ostrich Farm

We opted to go to Safari Ostrich Farm, taking a farm tractor tour to see the breeding stocks, learn about the ostriches and their behaviour, taking the opportunity to touch them, feed them and even sit on one! If you’re hungry, the on-site cafe gives you the chance to taste one too!

Anthony sits on an ostrich
Anthony sits on an ostrich
Cango Caves
A scene inside the Cango Caves
A scene inside the Cango Caves

Located about 25 km outside of Oudtshoorn, the Cango Caves are home to elaborate limestone formations and enormous underground spaces open to you to explore on an organised tour.

The colours and shapes were striking
The colours and shapes were striking

There are two tours available: the heritage tour where you’re guided through six caves to expire their features and the adventure tour which gives you the added bonus of crawling through tight squeezes and crevices as you go deeper into the cave complex.

Some amazing limestone formations
Some amazing limestone formations

Top tip: you need to book in advance for all tours here as they’re busy everyday and routinely sell out.

Plettenberg Bay

Plettenberg Bay is home to a number of animal-related projects that allow you to come up close (and at times personal!) with a number of different animal species.

Monkeyland

A gibbon chilling
A gibbon chilling

This sanctuary for rescued monkeys and apes is home to more than 500 examples of 11 different species is the world’s first multi-species environment. Monkeys inhabit here by choice as there are no fences to keep the general population inside (although there is a low-level fence to keep predators out). They are fed by staff at the sanctuary only on a strict diet (no public feeding opportunities are available) that meets each species needs.
A spider monkey at Monkeyland
A spider monkey at Monkeyland

The compulsory guided tours are focused on educating visitors on the lifestyle and characteristics of each species as you explore the area.

Top Tips: If you want to visit both Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, be sure to purchase the combo tickets on arrival at your first location. Also, there are lots of mosquitoes inside the sanctuary: be sure to make use of your favourite insect repellent or slap on the complimentary one provided!

Birds of Eden
These bright birds caught our eye
These bright birds caught our eye

Located on the same site as Monkeyland, this is the world’s largest free-flying aviary with birds of all shapes and sizes free to love around this enclosed valley and wetland area which is still fully exposed to the elements. You walk along a well built path or walkways that descend through the tree canopies and along the valley floor allowing you to come as close to the birds as they choose to allow you to come.

These elegant birds stood out in the drizzle
These elegant birds stood out in the drizzle

There are hundreds of different species present, with a guide available to purchase and binoculars available to hire from the ticket office.

Lawnswood Snake Sanctuary

Located on the N2 heading away from Plettenberg Bay towards Port Elizabeth and only a short distance from the turning for Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, this small sanctuary was our first stop of the day and easily the most interactive.

Claire with one of the small snakes
Claire with one of the small snakes

Home to dozens of rescued snakes, this sanctuary rehabilitates, releases and educates about snakes of all different shapes and sizes. Visitors have the opportunity to interact with up to three different species of snakes of varying sizes as your expert local guide puts you completely at ease and tells you the truth about these interesting reptiles.

Anthony posing as the snake moves around him
Anthony posing as the snake moves around him

When you’ve finished looking at the snakes, you can also visit the crocodile and tortoise enclosures and check these interesting characters out too!

One of the monitor lizards
One of the monitor lizards

Tsitikamma National Park

Although we didn’t go here ourselves (we did drive through it), this is a highlight of many Garden Route travellers. Home to many adventurous pursuits, the most (in)famous is Bloukrans Bridge which, at 216 m, is the world’s highest commercial bungee jump.

Top Tips: Visiting here is easiest from nearby Storms River which is also a BazBus stop. The activities here can book up fast so it is worth checking availability in advance.

Jeffrey’s Bay

Jeffrey's Bay beach
Jeffrey’s Bay beach

Whilst much of the Garden Route boasts coastline popular with surfers, Jeffrey’s Bay is by far and above the most popular destination for surfers the world over. Jeffrey’s Bay hosts an international surfing competition annually, who come to use the famous supertubes that form here, particularly in the winter. Most hostels offer discounted surfing kit hire and many offer surfing lessons too for all abilities.

Jeffrey’s Bay Shell Museum
Inside the Jeffrey's Bay shell museum
Inside the Jeffrey’s Bay shell museum

Located inside the same building as the tourist information centre, this shell museum is a collection that was donated by its founder on her death. Housed in a single room, this free exhibition provides an interesting respite from the surfing focus outside.

Surfing Museum
Jeffrey's Bay surf museum
Jeffrey’s Bay surf museum

South Africa’s home of surfing wouldn’t be complete without a museum documenting the rise of the sport and location as a key destination on the surfing calendar. Located inside the QuickSilver store, the first floor is dedicated to memorabilia from surfing early days in Hawaii to its development in South Africa with a poignant tribute to some surfers who have died both in related and unrelated circumstances.

Now that you’ve got loads of ideas about what to do when travelling along the Garden Route, check out Part 2 coming soon for ideas about how to travel, where to stay and the best places to eat. If you’ve got any other great places to visit or things to do along the Garden Route, we’d love to hear about them – please comment below!

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