Road Tripping the Garden Route
Late summer, great weather in the Western Cape, holiday season is over and the crowds have gone back to work or school, there is no better time for a bit of road tripping through the Garden Route. Our aim was to avoid tarred routes as far as possible, sticking to gravel whenever we could, on a meandering route from Cape Town, via Agulhas, Witsand, Mossel Bay and Wilderness, ending up in Knysna.
Hitting the road early is one of the best things about a road trip and the sun was just appearing over the mountains as we left Cape Town on the N2 National Route, heading through Somerset West and over Sir Lowry’s Pass. Dassiesfontein Farm Stall, between Bot Rivier and Caledon serves a mean traditional breakfast and a strong cup of coffee, it’s a favourite stop when travelling this route. We turned off the N2 at Caledon, hitting the backroads via Stanford and Pearly Beach, where the gravel, and the fun, began.
The route passes through the Agulhas National Park, emerging onto the R319 at Struis Baai, which is only a few kilometres from the town of Agulhas, famous for being the Southern Most tip of Africa. Actually the town itself isn’t that wonderful, we decided not to stay overnight but rather continue to the small town of Arniston, further along the coast. The Agulhas Lighthouse (Wikipedia link) is quite interesting, it’s one of the oldest in South Africa and has been warning ships to avoid the treacherous coastline since 1848.
Cape Agulhas Lighthouse
More awesome scenery and good gravel roads from Agulhas to Arniston, our first night’s stop brought us to the small seaside town in the late afternoon. We hadn’t booked accommodation and opted to stay in a self catering apartment at Arniston Seaside Cottages they aren’t actually on the seaside and while comfortable, they were rather dirty, seriously in need of a good scrub down. The town is really pretty with some awesome walks along the cliff tops and along the seafront, which was rather deserted being out of the main holiday season. A must see in Arniston are the Waenhuiskrans Caves, they require a drive along a 4×4 track, alternatively quite a long walk to reach them, then a climb down to the entrance of the caves, which can only be accessed at low tide. The name comes from the Afrikaans term “Wagon House Cliff”. So called because they are large enough to accommodate a wagon and span of oxen, the caves are really spectacular and well worth the effort, the power of the ocean that carved them out of the rock is absolutely awe inspiring.
Arniston Fishing Boats
For a wholesome meal in a traditional fisherman’s cottage I can highly recommend stopping off at Willeen’s Restaurant. It’s a bit tricky to find, just stop anybody and ask for directions though, it’s pretty well known. Located right on the beach, a short way out of town, this is genuinely authentic traditional food. The restaurant is in the front room of the owners private home, rustic decor and tasty food, well worth a try.
Malgas to Witsand
The gravel road between Arniston and Infanta skirts the De Hoop nature Reserve, running through some beautifully scenic terrain. It’s also pretty much devoid of other cars, which always works for me. It’s not in great shape, at least when we used it, it’s navigable by a sedan car but a bakkie or SUV is a lot more comfortable. The gravel road intersects the road from Swellendam to Cape Infanta near Malgas, it’s a 30 km drive along a decent gravel road to the tiny village of Infanta on the Southern bank of the river, where the Breede River meets the Indian Ocean. There’s actually not that much to see apart from a very beautiful beach which is somewhat dominated by the wreck of the SS Kadie, a steamer which came to an end on this beach in 1864. The somewhat larger town of Witsand isn’t far as the crow flies, a couple of kilometres away on the Northern bank of the river, but it’s around a 65 kilometre trip by road to reach it.
To reach Witsand, our next stop, requires retracing the gravel back to Malgas and hailing the last hand drawn ferry, or “pont” in the country from the far bank of the river, driving onto it and being hauled by hand across to the North bank. From there it’s another 30 some kilometres on good gravel before finally meeting the tar again just outside Witsand.
Witsand is the main town in the area, at the mouth of the Breede River, it’s a fishing village, but also popular with tourists, loads of Cape Town residents have holiday houses in the town. It’s pretty and probably really busy in season, although it was a bit quiet when we visited. We stopped off at a riverfront restaurant, Pili Pili, for lunch and a beer, my advice though is don’t, rather go somewhere else. The staff were pretty uninterested, it took forever to order and when the food did come it was cold, so where the beers though, which is one consolation.
Our intention was originally to continue along the gravel backroads, via Still Bay, to Mossel Bay, however time caught up with us and we opted to head back to the N2 National Route and go straight through to Wilderness, our next stop, where we planned to spend a couple of days exploring the area. I have to say that Wilderness is my new favourite place in South Africa, it’s in the most beautiful setting imaginable and has that village atmosphere that has all but disappeared from most small towns. We rented a log cabin at Pirates Creek along the banks of the Touw River, incredibly comfortable and great value for money, I highly recommend them. The village has plenty of restaurants and pubs to choose from, we ate at a different place every night and weren’t disappointed, the ones that stood out for me were; Pomodoro, great for a lunch time pizza; Cocomo, island style with great food and live entertainment in the evenings and Joplin’s, for the absolute best steaks you will ever find.
If you walk back towards the Kaiman’s River from the village of Wilderness, along an abandoned train track and through a disused tunnel you are in for a surprise. At the end of the tunnel, in a natural cave lives a man called Clifford, Cliffie to his closest friends. Clifford has lived in the cave for the past 7 years or more, using other people’s cast offs to create an incredible home for himself and the odd wanderer whom he takes in. Clifford’s Cave was a restaurant at one time, before the mountainside collapsed and closed the railway track, now it’s a place like no other you will ever see, and home to a very different man. His “garden” is the stunningly beautiful beach where the Kaiman’s River exits the gorge and into the Indian Ocean. Clifford does take in guests, there is no phone, no website and no online booking facility, just pitch up and, if he feels like it, he’ll offer you a bed for the night in return for a donation.
Next stop on our journey was Knysna. It’s always been a favourite of mine, although it has grown tremendously over the past few years it’s still a special place. Incredibly beautiful, good restaurants, a vibey waterfront and awesome scenery. We stayed at the Knysna Quays, waterfront apartments, as always they are very well equipped, all overlook the canals and all are within a short walk of restaurants and shops, I can recommend them.
Abandoned Gold Mines
Around the town are plenty of scenic drives and walking trails. We took a drive into the indigenous forest to an abandoned mine. It’s not well known that the forests around Knysna experienced a gold rush in the 1880’s, attracting gold diggers from Europe, Australia and California. A thriving town once existed at Millwood with the Bendigo Mine as focal point. Only around 600 ounces of gold were ever recovered though, some of it in large nuggets (Wikipedia), by 1890 it had all pretty much collapsed and most of the diggers migrated to the much richer goldfields of the Witwatersrand. The old mine is still there, although the town has vanished, particularly poignant to me was the old cemetery with it’s headstones telling stories of long gone people who died far from home.
Botlierskop Private Game Reserve
Last stop on the road trip was at the exclusive, world class Botlierskop Private Game Reserve near Mossel Bay. This is a real luxury lodge, quite able to hold it’s own against the best in the world. So the animals aren’t really “wild” like they are in the Kruger Park or Etosha, but the sheer awesomeness of the place makes up for that in every way. It’s privately owned and credit is due to the family for creating such a high class lodge, one of only a handful in the Western Cape. We stayed in the Manor House, which was incredibly well furnished, and the restaurant has 5 star meals on offer, or just enjoy evening drinks on the patio overlooking the grounds. There are also luxury tents suites as an alternative, each is privately situated out of site of any neighbours. Well worth a visit, I will go again, pity we only had one night there.