Hidden Gems

Our regular feature in which we visit some unique, hidden-away and off-the-beaten-track places and experiences you probably didn’t know existed…but which are truly worth a visit.

By Fikile Tikana

Garden Route National Park … perhaps the original Garden of Eden

Like the biblical Garden of Eden, this magnificent national park on South Africa’s Garden Route seems like the place from where all life sprang forth. Combining several parks, reserves and conservation areas into one, it is a true paradise of mountains, rivers, lakes, ancient forests, fynbos, deep gorges and exquisite coastline stretching across two provinces. And yet, driving along the N2 highway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, you could easily miss some of its most mesmerising parts…unless you turn off to explore these truly hidden gems.

The Garden Route National Park is still a relatively new park, created only in 2009 through the combining of the Wilderness and Tsitsikamma national parks, the Wilderness Lakes area, the Knysna Lagoon area and some 52,000 hectares of newly proclaimed land into one park spanning 121,000 hectares across the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces.

Considered to be one of the most important conservation areas in South Africa because of its ancient natural history, biodiversity and astonishing beauty, the park sets a new standard of “conservation without boundaries”. It is also part of a plan to increase the areas in South Africa under formal conservation protection from 6% to 8% of the country’s surface area. The park seeks to promote a new conservation model for the country, by engaging the more than 1,000 private landowners who border the park and the surrounding communities in stewardship programmes.

Some of its major features are the unique Wilderness lakes system, a 60,500 hectare section of indigenous forest – the largest in the country – and its fynbos treasure that makes it part of the Cape Floral Region, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004. The Cape Floral Region is one of the six Floral Kingdoms of the world and is the smallest yet relatively the most diverse. It is recognised as one of the world’s “hottest hotspots” for its diversity of endemic and threatened plants, and contains outstanding examples of significant ongoing ecological, biological and evolutionary processes.

It is this beauty and the natural treasure of the area that gave the region its name as the world-famous Garden Route of South Africa. The current park starts more or less at the bustling town of George in the west, then stretches across most of the area between the coast along the N2 highway, and the inland N9 highway, also known as the famous Route 62, almost all the way to Port Elizabeth in the east. Within this general area are delightful towns and villages like Wilderness, Sedgefield, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Nature’s Valley, Storms River, and Kareedouw, with the world-famous surfing towns of Jeffreys Bay and Cape St Francis at the eastern end.

The Serpentine and Touw Rivers run through the Wilderness section of the park, connecting the Wilderness Lagoon and a series of lakes – Elandsvlei, Langvlei, Rondervlei, Swartvlei, and the Swartvlei estuary at the town of Sedgefield, while the landlocked single lake of Groenvlei has no connection to the sea or the other lakes. Seen from the air, the five lakes of South Africa’s foremost Lakes District form a dramatic picture of dark, glistening bodies of water surrounded by forests, reeds and grassland, and interconnected by snaking rivers that meet up with the sea through large, blue lagoons and estuaries. All of this is locked in between the majestic Outeniqua mountain range on one side, and the sand dunes, beaches and river estuaries along the Indian Ocean coastline on the other side.

The focal feature of the Knysna Lakes section of the park is the Knysna Estuary or lagoon, with the town of Knysna nestling along its banks. The town owes its origin to the magnificent giant trees of the surrounding forests which gave rise to a forestry industry around 1763. Settlers soon arrived here, among them historical figures like Stephanus Terblanche, who owned the farm Melkhoutfontein, on which most of Knysna stands today; George Rex, the self-proclaimed illegitimate son of King George III, who founded the town of Knysna and later owned all of the land surrounding the estuary; John Benn, the legendary pilot who steered ships to safety through the Heads; and Johann Meeding, who was appointed by the governor of the Cape to try and curb the rate of exploitation of the indigenous forests. But for tens of thousands of years before the European settlers arrived, the San hunter-gatherers had lived in the area, to be joined by the Khoekhoe herders some 2,000 years ago.

A number of forestry stations can be visited in the area, as well as the Millwood ghost gold mining town – or what’s left of it. The Knysna Forest is also home to the elusive Knysna elephants, with the most recent spotting of one having occurred in 2016.

The Tsitsikamma section constitutes the eastern part of the park and includes the beautiful Tsitsikamma Forest, the quaint hamlet of Storms River with its shrine to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, and the breathtakingly beautiful Storms River Mouth. The name Tsitsikamma is derived from Khoisan, meaning “place of much water”.  The rugged coastline of this area includes a wonderland of inter-tidal and marine life and has a long history of marine and forest utilisation one which people living in the area have relied on for thousands of years. Along the coast are many cultural heritage sites ranging from erstwhile Khoisan-inhabited caves, shell middens and rock art to more recent cultural historic sites such as the ruins of small fisher settlements, remnants of the past forestry industries and grave sites.

There is an absolute abundance of activities to be enjoyed in the park, with more than 20 hiking trails or walking routes, including the world-famous Otter Trail, spread throughout the park. Other activities include forest excursions, nature walks, canopy tours, bird-watching, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, river tubing, snorkelling and scuba diving, boat cruises and more. The towns of the area offer excellent restaurants, pubs and many quaint little shops and boutiques.

A variety of accommodation is offered throughout the park, ranging from old foresters’ homes, to tree-top chalets, coastal and mountain chalets, forest huts, log cabins, and camping sites. Excellent B&B establishments are also found in all the towns of the area.

  • For more information, call SANParks central reservations at +27 (0)12 428 9111 or mobile +27 (0)82 233 9111; the Wilderness Section on +27 (0)44 877 0046; the Knysna Lakes Section on +27 (0)44 302 5600; the Tsitsikamma Section on +27 (0)42 281 1607; the Nature’s Valley Section (part of Tsitsikamma) on +27 (0)44 531 6700; or visit their website at www.sanparks.org/parks/garden_route/tourism/general.php


McGregor… quaint jewel of the Langeberg Valley

A visit to McGregor is a conscious decision: y ou can’t just drive through it and suddenly stop for a coffee and look around. A bout t wo or so hours’ drive from Cape Town, and located half way along the Road to Nowhere, McGregor is the best-preserved Victorian village in the Western Cape, if not South Africa. In a not-so-sleepy hollow, McGregor was established in 1861, and is flanked on the north and south by the Langeberg and Riviersonderend mountains, respectively.

Originally known as Lady Grey, after a governor of the Cape of Good Hope, the village was re-named McGregor in 1904, after much-loved minister, Andrew
McGregor, who had worked in the district for forty years. Robertson is the closest town, and it is only from there, that you get to McGregor. Here you will find an eclectic group of people, from artisan bakers, goldsmiths and cooks, to garagiste and boutique wineries, all of which produce award-winning wines.

Creativity abounds among the folk who live in the village, with intellectuals, authors, poets and artists, with art galleries and working studios dotted around the village. One of the best-known, is Millstone Pottery, home to renowned potter Paul de Jong, who with his wife, Nina Shand, run regular workshops on various aspects of ceramics and pottery. For those whose interests don’t lie in wine and the arts, but in the more physical and active, there are two nature reserves that offer great walks and hikes.

The Kleinberg Reserve is an area to the west of the village, and which the local Heritage Society works hard to protect. The society also curates a museum full of fascinating artefacts and facts about the village and its social and natural history. Just outside the village is Cape Nature’s Vrolijkheid Reserve which has one of the country’s few braille trails. Not far from Vrolijkheid is Eeseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary, which is exactly that – a sanctuary for neglected and abused donkeys. Between Thursday and Sunday, visitors can meet, and even adopt, a donkey, or just have a bite in the little restaurant that overlooks a tranquil dam.

Speaking of food, McGregor is not entirely spoilt for choice when it comes to eateries. A word to the wise: ask a local who will give you tips a bout what is open when, like Bemind Winery, on a Monday, for traditional vetkoek, and because things change – often! Over the weekends, Café Tebaldi’s is the gateway to Temenos, the well-known retreat located in the village’s most beautiful gardens, which offers a light lunch or an evening a la carte menu on a Friday or Saturday.

For a special dinner and fine country cuisine, head to Lady Grey Restaurant at Lord’s Guest Lodge, after you’ve had one of the best toasties in the world at How Bazaar. The new kid on the block, la Pizza Pazza, does fabulous focaccia and, of course traditional Italian pizza, and is situated adjacent to Grape De-Vine a boutique wine shop bar. Both of these establishments open on to a courtyard where you will find both fellow travellers and locals, where you can live the old saying, “arrive as strangers, leave as friends”. McGregor is an increasingly popular destination for mountain bikers, having twice been a spectator point for the Cape Epic, and having three times been included in the route. It’s also home to the three-day Ride2Nowhere (http://ride2nowhere. co.za), which emerged from the Epic, and which is now in its seventh year.

This, in turn, has spawned two other events, the Run2Nowhere (http://run2nowhere.co.za/ raceinfo/), which started as an informal trail run, which from 2018, has a dedicated weekend, with both events starting and finishing in the heart of McGregor and in the shadow of the iconic Dutch Reformed church. They take place on two consecutive weekends at the end o f August and beginning o f September 2018. The R2N events conclude on 8 December with a one-day mountain bike race, which starts and finishes at McGregor Winery (http://ride2nowhere.co.za/race2nowhere/) Small though it is, McGregor has ample accommodation ranging from budget and backpacker type, including high in the mountains, to country, farm-style and luxury self-catering as well as bed and breakfast accommodation. Properties range from historical, un-renovated and renovated to properties that are new-builds that honour the Victorian style of the village, but introduce modern touches.


The Knysna Oyster Festival… a mouth-watering annual event

While the town of Knysna is by no means off the beaten track or a hidden from sight, one of the perhaps lesser-known of its many attractions is its mouth-watering annual Oyster Festival. It has become an increasingly popular event on the Knysna calendar, but many people may still be unaware of it, and are thus missing out.

Attending this unique festival is the ideal winter break and will have you coming back next winter to this jewel of a town on South Africa’s Southern Cape coast and Garden Route. This year the Pick ‘n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival takes place between 29 June and 8 July. It offers much fun and entertainment for the whole family to enjoy.

Visitors can choose from entering some of the country’s top cycling and road-running events during the festival. This year’s sporting events include the Momentum Knysna Cycle Tour mountain bike events on Saturday 30 June, with 80km, 50km, 30km, and 15km routes, as well as the newer 30km E-bike race. The Momentum Knysna Cycle Tour road cycling events will take place on Sunday 1 July, and will offer a 115km and 50km route. The Momentum Knysna Cycle Tour has also confirmed that the 115km road race, along with the 80km and 50km mountain bike races, will be seeding qualifying events for the 2019 Cape Town Cycle Tour.

Two firm favourites and hotly contested events, the Momentum Knysna Forest Marathon & Half Marathon will take place on Saturday 7 July. The route will take runners along a scenic route that ends along the Knysna Lagoon towards the Knysna Heads. Entries for all sporting events are already available online. An adventure-filled programme will keep the kids busy too, along with the Momentum Health Kiddies Area which will be open for the duration of the Festival. There will also be special golf days, a soccer tournament, chess competitions, and bowls tournament.

Golf enthusiasts can tee off at any of Knysna’s superb golf courses situated in some of the most stunning dramatic coastal scenery: the Simola Golf Estate, the Knysna Golf Club or the Pezula Championship Course. As you follow the little white ball around the course, take in the unbeatable views of mountains, forests, the lagoon and the rugged coast around The Heads. Then relax for a refresher at the 19th hole before heading off for those deliciously juicy oysters.

Adventure options in and around Knysna are also in abundance, and include anything from canopy tours, to forest and mountain hikes, mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, surfing at nearby Buffels Bay, and more. You can also visit the unique Millwood Mining Village and museum, the Knysna Elephant Park, one of several parks and reserves in the area, or go on a cruise on board one of the Knysna Lagoon ferries. Or you can browse around in the many quaint little shops and boutiques lining the main road and the lagoon-side Knysna Waterfront.

For the duration of the Oyster Festival the town’s restaurants will offer especially themed menus, with the main attraction of course being the oysters. These can be enjoyed in copious quantities in restaurants or at the Pick ‘n Pay Knysna Oyster Festival grounds. The town will also be hosting a variety of concerts, fashion and comedy shows. There won’t be any time to get bored, but of course if you just want to chill out, you can simply relax at one of the many excellent accommodation establishments or in the natural scenery surrounding this wonderful town. For the more active, there are over 100 events planned for the 10-day festival.

The town and surroundings have recovered well from last year’s devastating bush fires, so you won’t be disappointed. So don’t get caught napping: make your bookings right now.

  • For more information call Knysna Tourism at Tel +27 (0)44 382 5510 (Knysna) or +27 (0)44 343 2007 (Sedgefield) or email to info@visitknysna.co.za; marathon entries at www.knysnamarathonclub.com/forest-marathon; cycle tour entries at www.knysnacycle.co.za; or visit the Knysna Oyster Festival website at http://www.oysterfestival.co.za/.