South Africa's Garden Route- Everything You Need to Know and Do

Day 1-2 of the Garden Route: Africa’s Big Five

We were all still pretty upset about the whole shark cage diving misfortune (I think Steff and Motassem might have been kinda relieved though :p) but it was time to quit sulking and begin our journey through the Garden Route. Everyone knows you can’t go to Africa without visiting a National Park and seeing the Big Five so that was our first stop. Ideally, you’d want to visit Kruger Park in South Africa; however, that would require a plane ride and a minimum of 3 days so we had to settle with Botlierskop Private Game Reserve. Unfortunately, this is a privately owned reserve so you do not get the full wildlife experience; however, the staff were amazingly friendly and the place was big enough to make the experience as ‘real’ as possible. Moreover, I preferred Botlierskop over some of the other game reserves because they offer tours to day visitors too (most others only offered their services to overnight guests). This is a great advantage because a night in a game reserve costs 4-5 times more than a regular hotel. Therefore, we stayed at the Wolhuter Holiday Accommodation which is around a 20 minute drive for Botlierskop. The drive from Cape Town to Botlierskop is beautiful and is definitely counted as one of the attractions of the trip in itself. We drove through mountains, green endless fields and wine yards. For the first time in my life, I actually drove through a rainbow!

Tip: Make sure you bring enough snacks for the night because you will be arriving pretty late and there are no good restaurants around the accommodation (we had an extremely bad/funny restaurant experience here). 

Well rested and ready to meet Africa’s Big Five, we were on our way to Botlierskop by 8 AM. We started the day with a 2-hour horseback safari. This is an awesome way to get up-close and personal with the animals. The guide was super friendly and more importantly she knew her animals! You can easily tell that these people are very passionate about what they do; you even hear their voice crackle when they speak about the animals they lost to poachers (I’ll be getting into that later).

Africa’s Big Five are the African lion, African elephant, Cape Buffalo, African leopard and rhinoceros. The term Big Five was actually coined by big-game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. 

During the first hour, the guide took us through the lower area of the reserve, we met some ghazals, buck, zebras, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. During the second hour, Maddie and I split up with another guide since we have horse-riding experience and wanted a more thrilling gallop through the reserve.

As fun as it would’ve been, we couldn’t exactly take the horses to see the lions because that is the equivalent of waving a piece of cheesecake right in front of me. Therefore, it was time to bid my loyal steed (always wanted to say that) goodbye and begin our three hour private game drive. I hate myself for not blogging this trip sooner because I forgot the names of all our guides, and that sucks because they were absolutely awesome. During the horse ride, our guide kept saying that we’d get more details about the animals during the drive, we thought she was just being humble because the information she gave us seemed fascinating enough; however, she was right. The game drive was basically a three hour National Geographic special. Our guide went as far as describing how high each buck can jump! It is truly amazing to get to know these animals and get an insight on their lives. Our guide was even fortunate enough to raise one of the baby rhinos himself; although he describes the experience as exhausting, we all saw the sparkle in his eye as he spoke about it. Honestly, I cannot say that this experience is anywhere near Kruger Park (I have been to national parks in Kenya and Tanzania and they are on a whole other level); but if you’re on the Garden Route and want a taste of Africa’s wildlife, this private game reserve will definitely do the trick.

Like I said earlier, as amazing as the place is, a private game reserve is not Kruger Park. One of the biggest disadvantages of these reserves is that the predators, specifically the African Lions, are kept in separate enclosures. In Kenya and Tanzania, spotting lions is a privilege, not a guarantee and that is in fact the authentic experience.  In our case anyway, the guide got so carried away with all the other animals that we ran out of time before getting to the lions’ enclosure (he only did that because he knew our next planned activity was all about the lions so we wouldn’t miss out). Despite the fact that I am a sucker for lions, I’m kinda glad the guide spent more time with all the other animals because we gained some invaluable insight on their lives and more importantly, the dangers they face from poachers.

The time for peasants was over, it was time to meet and walk amongst the kings of the jungle, African Lions. Before you freak out, believe me when I tell you that I am absolutely against and utterly disgusted by animal cruelty. I’ve read and watched documentaries about drugged tigers in sanctuaries and elephant conditioning and taming in some regions of the world. I have shed tears over the way baby elephants are buried up to their necks in mud while enduring days of torture to break them into ‘obedient’, ‘domestic’ animals. Hence why I did my research before booking the Walking With Lions experience and still feel a little unsure about it today. The lions you walk with are the ones living in the game reserve, they are not caged or put it in displays in zoos. Nevertheless, reserves are not the same as being free in the wild, so why are they there in the first place? According to our guide, the lions were either rescued from poachers or from fatal injuries (fights against other lions for pride leadership). Moreover, the lions were not tamed, it is strictly forbidden to pet, touch or come anywhere near the lions. You had to keep a safe distance, never give the lion your back and maintain a height over 1.5 meters at all times. It made me feel better to see the lions were still treated as the predators they are, they were feared and respected, even by the guides. It was made clear that we were joining the lions on a walk, not the other way around. They stopped when they wanted to stop and walked when the willed it, they controlled the reigns not us. Finally, I compared the weight and physique of the lions to those in the wild and found them to be very similar. That is not the case with zoo lions though since they are fed way too much and kept in small enclosures. However, I recommend you contact Walking With Lions before booking your experience with all the questions you want answered anyway.

Overall though, it was a wonderful experience. being so close to such majestic and powerful creatures was beautifully humbling. The way they walked side by side, the way they marked their territory with every step and the way they never really stopped hunting… they really are the kings of the jungle.

Ironically speaking, African Lions live in savannas, grasslands, dense bush and woodlands, not jungles. So why are they titled the kings of the jungle? Well that actually comes from different African dialects (Swahili, Zulu, Afrikaans, etc.) where they refer to these regions as the ‘jungle’. The example the guide gave us was: if he found me in the Savanna in the middle of the night, he would say ‘Hey! What are you doing in the middle of the jungle at this hour of the night?!’ The real question though is… what are you doing here in the middle of the night Uluthando, what are you doing? 

Finally, it was time to bid the animals farewell and make our way to the beautiful small town of Storms River where I would face my greatest fear… Bungee Jumping!

Day 3 of the Garden Route: Adrenaline Dose

Today, we flirt with death. We started off the day with a zipline tour through the jungles Tsitsikamma which is located around a 30 minute drive from Storms River. We booked this tour with Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours and were very happy with their service. The entire thing takes around 2.5 hours and consists of around 10 ziplines, some are speedy and thrilling while others are more chilled and allow you to take in the sights. After completing the tour and having breakfast (included in the zipline package), we made our way back to the hotel where we sat around in a circle reviewing all our life’s choices and sulking about the decision to bungee jump.

I kid you not, I can feel the anxiety kick back in just by writing about it. I can still vividly see us sitting around our lodge, no one spoke to the other, we were too preoccupied with our own thoughts. Each one of us considered backing out at least a 100 times, but pride got in the way and pushed us on.  Mohamed said he wasn’t going to do before we even started planning the trip, so he was loving life at this moment. As the rest of us debated with ourselves and with each other, he sat there with the biggest smile on his face. I think we went through all 5 stages of grief in that one dreadfully long hour. Finally, the wait was over and it was time to drive to Bloukrans River. Bloukrans Bungee is 216 meters high, it is known as the highest bungee off a bridge and the third highest bungee in the entire world (highest bungee ever being 230 meters high off a skyscraper in Macau). You can book your jump now via Face Adrenaline; I am still alive thanks to them so obviously I do not have any negatives things to say here.

So this is how the whole bungee jumping things goes: First, you sit around for an hour or so questioning the soundness of your mind for signing up in the first place, during that hour, you’ll go through a whole swirl of emotions, none of which are pleasant. Next, you get in your car with a tingling anxiety reaching down into your stomach which you try to get rid of by listening to a bunch of motivating songs like ‘Lose Yourself’ and ‘Till I Collapse’. By the time you get there, you’re feeling a little better but that quickly fades when you get your first glance of the bridge and the people jumping off it. Whilst waiting for your time to sign up and weigh in, you just stand there with a yellow face watching other people jump. Some of the ‘older’ crowd will even attempt at small talk with this particular opening ‘why on earth would anyone do that to themselves, I wouldn’t do it if they offered me a million dollars’ to which you’ll reply ‘I’m actually about to do it in a bit’. Some of them took a few more stabs at us after we told them we’d do it, other just shook their heads in confusion. Finally, you sign a few papers with unsteady hands and make your way to the bridge. There is nothing worse than the wait, its kinda like taking a bandage off, each jumper is another lost hair. Luckily, I was chosen to jump first. I’ll tell you this much, this video taken was hilarious. My expression was literally the face of fear, I was not laughing, not smiling, not even crying… it was just good old fear! HOWEVER, as soon as you drop (they tell you to jump but my knees buckled and all) all fear disappears, the adrenaline kicks in, the world grows silent around you and its almost like your own heartbeat is the only thing you can actually hear. Exhilaration, excitement and so many other words that still won’t do it justice, the only thing that would is for you to just try it yourselves. I am afraid of heights so I promise I know what you’ll go through but I also promise that it is all so worth it!!!

Despite the post adrenaline exhaustion, the plan was to keep the day going on a thrill high. The next activity on the list was Black Water River Tubing. Due to lack of time, we opted for the half day of tubing, which I thought was more than enough anyway.

What I thought we’d be doing: To be perfectly honest, when I booked this tour I genuinely thought it would be a thrilling, adrenaline packed ride in a tube through white waters. I imagined freezing cold water, small waterfalls and turbulent tides. I imagined painfully funny falls, clumsy flips and toe stubbing crashes :p

What we actually did: Well, the waters were nor white or turbulent. That isn’t to say it’s not a great tour, I still recommend this activity; however, book it knowing its a relaxing ride through the river and nothing else. Needless to say I think we were all secretly glad to find it was chilled out as it was the perfect recovery after bungee jumping. The guides in this trip were particularly awesome… and a little crazy. They made the weirdest noises as we rode down to the river and of course I joined as best I could (weird noises are my forte but I had lost my voice from earlier). Once in the river, we sat back in our tubes and let the water carry us around half the time, the other half, we had to actually peddle on using our hands, a funny yet tiring thing. All in all, it wasn’t what I expected but it was still hilarious. Oh, and we did get some stubbed toes (Maddie can’t spend a day without stubbing a toe or two and claiming they ‘fell’ off).

It was on this tour that I received my “famous” nickname, Nomvula, which is Zulu for bringer of rain and often given to babies who are born during storms… or at least that is what I was told. There is actually a song called Nomvula too check it out: Nathi- Nomvula

After one of the most memorable days of my life, it was time for a filling dinner and a goodnight sleep at the Swallows Nest Country Cottages in Storms River.

Day 4: Animals, Adventures & Beautiful Sunsets

You know a town is full of thrilling adventures when it’s literally named ‘Storms River’, it is honestly the coolest named town I have ever visited. Unfortunately though, Storms River was as far as we would get to on the Garden Route. Since we were running out of days and booked our flights back from George, it was time to head back west. Our next destination was Knysna, an insanely scenic coastal city which offers a variety of fine dining restaurants, outdoor adventure trips and animal sanctuaries… talk about a place that has it all!

There is no better way to start your day than with a nice little stroll through an animal sanctuary. Especially when two cheetahs decide to join you on your walk! It’s truly a humbling and breathtaking experience to walk side by side with such elegantly majestic creatures. I booked the Morning Cheetah Walk with Tenikwa Wildlife Center and was happy with their services. Once again, I did a little bit of research to make sure that the animals there are not mistreated in any way, and that they are there for their own protection; however, you should do your own research too before booking any of these tours. The walk is around 1-2 hours long, the cheetahs set the pace and you follow. Unlike the lion walk, the cheetahs are a lot more chilled out, you can sit next to them when they decide to rest and even pet them gently. However, do not get too comfortable and make sure you follow the guides’ directions. They stressed so much on ‘not making loud noises when you are behind the cheetah’. Maddie of course decided to completely ignore their advice (because she is the wildlife queen obviously) and almost got her face bit off… I must admit I was torn up between concern and breaking into hysterics.

A wildlife experience is never complete without an up-close and personal experience with some elephants. For this, we booked the Walk Trunk in Hand with Elephant Tour with the elephant sanctuary at Plettenberg Bay. All the elephants in the sanctuary were rescued from poachers and it was heartbreaking to see the conditions some of them were in. You really begin to question the human race when your eyes fall upon an elephant missing half of its trunk, or another that will never be able to walk without a limp again and for what? So someone in the world can brag about owning ivory. Despite their former ‘injuries’, the elephants were not any less majestic and the guides were extremely friendly and knowledgable. Everyone gets a chance to walk trunk in hand with the elephant for around 30 meters or so which is pretty cool, you’ll be surprised at how rigid and powerful an elephant’s trunk actually is. After that, the guides sit us down and teach us a few things about elephants before allowing each group to feed the elephants and take pictures. Feel free to ask the guides for more information during this time too, they were glad to teach us more about the elephant’s skin, ears, legs and much more.

Although the plan was to have lunch at this point, there just wasn’t enough time. This is the thing about South Africa, there is just too much to do that if you try and squeeze it all in one week, you will go hungry throughout the day… totally worth it though!

Canyoning is one of my favorite activities, and it is surprisingly not very well known so allow me. Canyoning is an activity which involves traveling through canyons (ideally, filled with water) using a variety of techniques that may include walking, hiking, abseiling, scrambling, climbing, zip-lining, swimming, cliff-diving and sliding. It is more or less nature’s version of a waterpark. So obviously, I was thrilled to find canyoning tours in Knysna and booked the Short Canyoning Trip with Africanyon. Honestly, I went into this trip with already high expectations and yet they easily exceeded them. The three guides that joined us were hilarious and just a lot of fun. Right off the bat, we were taking the piss out of each other and making jokes as we made our way through the jungle. I am writing this 6 months later so I do not remember the names of all the guides, I know one was named Puna, the second made fun of my Nomvula nickname so I gave him a name that went with Puna... The trip starts off with a 20 meter abseil down into the canyon, it’s great because the cold water just surprises at the bottom as you plunge into it. You then walk and swim through the canyon whilst jumping off a few cliffs (6-8 meters high) and slide down some waterfalls. There is also a cool zip-line by the end of the tour that takes you right through the canyon as it starts to get really narrow; it was awesome because you can literally reach over and grab the rocks on either side of you if you just stretch your arms out (wouldn’t do it though unless you wanna break your fingers). As you get to the end of the zip-line, it’ll seem as though you’re about to go crashing into a rock and your heart skips beat before the guide loosens up the line leaving you plunging yet again, into the freezing cold water. Unfortunately, our cameras were not big fans of water so I have no pictures of the canyoning trip.

Our encounters with the animals were not over just yet! We still had a little more time, so we made our way to Monkeyland. I cannot say this sanctuary was as thrilling and interesting as the previous ones but it is still worth visiting, especially since it costs less than $15. You get to roam freely around the sanctuary whilst getting up close and personal with more than 10 different species of monkeys. The guides were very well informed and dropped some cool knowledge on us. Who we kidding anyway, you know you can’t pass up the chance of watching some grumpy looking monkeys enjoy their evening meal!

Like I said earlier, we missed lunch… we were pretty much starving by this point. So, we decided to stop for dinner at a beautiful spot known as the Knysna Heads. If you are driving the Garden Route, then catching sunset here is a must-do. You can sit on one of the many benches and enjoy the view or enjoy a tasty, romantic dinner right by the waterfront. When I close my eyes and imagine some of the most relaxing moments of my trip to South Africa, two images spring to mind: Wilderness beach and the Knysna Heads.

Day 5: Scenic Drives & Tight Caves

Despite all the crazy fun, I must admit that the past few days have been hectic. That is why we decided to have a little lie in this morning (I mean getting up at 9 instead of 7 before you get too excited :P). The plan was to drive to Oudtshoorn (will never be able to pronounce the name of this city properly) via the 7 Passes Scenic Route and Wilderness beach since we couldn’t get enough of it the first time. Now, I am still sure that we somehow did not take the correct route even though all the signs did clearly say “7 Passes Scenic Route”. The reason I say this is because the route was anything but scenic! It was a gravel road with a mountain to your left and trees to your right, so you basically couldn’t see a thing. Every time the road curved, we expected a jaw-dropping view to just take us by surprise, but that view just never showed up. Now, I still think we might have somehow taken the wrong turn, so if you have been on this route please either confirm what I am saying or correct me in the comments section below. Advice: take the coastal road or any other road for that matter, they’re all stunning; just do not take the 7 Passes Scenic Route! On the bright side, we did stop by Wilderness beach one more time to get a look at it during the day. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and windy so we did not get to enjoy it as much as we hoped but if you are into paragliding, this is where it’s happening! You can also try tandem paragliding here to enjoy aerial views of this scenic beach. (Sorry for the terrible photo, we did not have a proper DSLR camera at the time)

We got to Oudtshoorn just in time for our 3:30 PM Cango Caves Adventure Tour. If you are claustrophobic, then this 1.5 hour escapade will definitely test your limits. You will be scrambling through holes, climbing into confined gaps and crouching through tunnels but the rock formation in there is definitely worth seeing. So if you are okay with tight spaces, go for it and if you are not, then challenge yourself, grasp the adventure and… go for it!!!

Finally, end your day with some Ostrich steak at The Black Swan restaurant. Oudtshoorn is known for it’s abundance in ostrich farms so be sure that the steak will be fresh! If, for some reason, you are weirded out by the idea of eating ostrich, then don’t worry, they have plenty other options on the menu (I am disappointed though :p).

Day 6: First kisses, Neck Massages & Fair-wells

Don’t get too excited just yet, this is not the kind of neck massage you are expecting… read on!

Last day of the trip is always the most depressing. Everyone is coming to terms with the fact that they have to leave this dream world and enter back into reality. We start thinking about all the work e-mails waiting impatiently in our inboxes and our credit card bills sneaking up on us with garrotes. Therefore, I had to end the itinerary with a little entertainment and a good laugh; hence our visit to an ostrich farm. To be honest though, there were mixed feelings about this visit: Mohammed loved it, I found it hilarious but Maddie and Steff were extremely weirded out by the ostriches!

Now onto the neck massage, as promised, it is not what you expected. Your guide at the farm will hand you a bucket of ostrich food then place you right by the fence with your back towards the ‘vicious’ (they are actually quite dangerous) animals. You’ll hold the bucket up in front of your face until the ostriches begin to feed. As a result, their necks will brush up against yours giving you a true ‘South African’ neck massage.

Ostriches are extremely powerful despite their fragile and clumsy looking bodies. Therefore, if you are light enough (below 80 kgs) do not feel bad trying to ride one around. It is challenging and extremely funny.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Honestly, it's been more than three years since this trip and as I sit here writing, I cannot help the sense of longing and nostalgia from overtaking me. Despite the terrible quality in photography, the stories and adventures of this blog will forever put smiles on the faces of everyone involved. After all, this is why we travel is it not? It is to create cherished memories, to meet new friends and to try things that are way out of our comfort zones. I thank God everyday that I was able to do these things on my travels and urge you to try the same. If you do not want to plan your own vacation, then please do join us on our upcoming adventures and you're sure to experience an adventure of a lifetime.

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