South Africa is on the southernmost tip of Africa. It borders popular and expensive safari destinations such as Namibia and Botswana. With its famous Garden Route, the country offers “Africa-light” – an accessible experience of Safari and wildlife paired with the convenience of a modern and developed country. It is also the largest economy in Africa (until Nigeria get’s itself together) and has a dramatic and controversial history. However, do not think “Africa-light” means the sights, coastlines, and national parks are any less beautiful than what you find in the neighboring countries. South Africa is vast and spectacular in its own right.
Day 0: Flight via Windhoek to Cape Town
Day 1: Arrival Cape Town in the early morning
Day 2: Hermanus & L’Aghulas
Day 3: Mossels Bay
Day 4: Knysna & Wilderness
Day 5: Tstsikamma National Park
Day 6: Port Elizabeth and Addo National Park
Day 7: Return drive to Cape Town
Day 8: Cape Town
Day 9: Cape Town and Departure Flight in the evening
Day 10: Arrival Early morning
Trip date: 02/2017
Trip duration: 10 days
Vacation days required: 6 (departure on Friday night and back to work on Tuesday morning)
Budget total: ~1130€/p.P (~110€/day)
Cost rating: Moderate (100-200€/day)
The flight was with Air Namibia via Windhoek. Changing airports there was great fun and the 30mins change time were no problem. (2 planes at the entire airport ;)) Price was very good (400€) and quality excellent, plus flight times were great. Departure 8pm and return / arrival 6am, virtually no time difference, so you could sleep both ways.
Day 1: Arrival in Cape Town
We arrived early Saturday morning in Cape Town. Which is great, because this way you have almost the full day and you can sleep on the plane. There is only one hour time difference to Germany and we had slept comparably well, so we picked up our rental car at the airport fresh and full of energy. Which I needed, because traffic flows on the left and I took the car straight onto the highway. There is no need for concern with left-side or right-side traffic, you pick it up very quickly. Also don’t fuss over manual or automatic. I no longer pick an automatic transmission (which saves you quite a lot of money if you do not specify at the car rental) and your brain adjusts fast and without any trouble. Still – my phone was on strike and google (offline) maps didn’t work. Neither did the backup with Here Maps. So manual searching plus driving a stick on the wrong side was a bit stressful and I was happy when we got to the hotel. (Note on rental cars: There is no need for a 4WD or anything fancy on the Garden Route. On the contrary, probably a less recognizable car is better due to the crime risk.)
We had picked a modern and artsy hotel in Seapoint, which is quite convenient as you can get quickly to both Camps Bay (more posh, older crowd) and the City Center / Green Bay Mall area. It is also a bit less “energetic”, which is nice as a home base to start exploring and parking is free in some areas.
First order of business was of course getting into a nice café and enjoying the feel of a new place. Over coffee (Nice Chain: Bootlegger) it was time to plan the details and activities for the next days. Cape Town sightseeing was scheduled for the end of the round trip, so day 1 was mostly unplanned and relaxed exploring. We spent the rest of the day walking up the shoreline all the way to Green Bay and the V&A waterfront. The walk (many people cycle or go running) is very nice and safe, even though they have installed horribly ugly wave breakers at the shore. 😉
The V&A waterfront is very touristy. You can find some nice, but of course expensive restaurants there and have the opportunity for some good pictures with the table mountain in the back. I think visiting once is nice, but more than enough.
Day 2: Cape of Good Hope & Penguins!
On day 2 checked out of the hotel early and headed south on the cape peninsula. I had choesen to take the eastern route along Muizenberg Mountains and went past St. James and Simons Town, two scenic coastal villages. St. James is popular for its colorful changing cabins at the beach:
In Simons Town you will also find Boulder Beach – a large penguin colony. The only other alternative is Stony Point, near Betty’s Bay. It is less crowded, but less convenient. Get here early, it can be quite crowded. But the penguins are awesome and it is quite a big colony.
After getting friendly with the little guys we continued all the way down to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope.
The boardwalk from cape point is very beautiful, but a bit windy. But don’t bother with the sign itself (long wait, and you never get a picture just by yourself) I do not really think it is that great to have a picture with that sign anyway and didn’t bother with the queue.
Better stay up on the hill and look out for these little fellas – you will see lots of them:
After leaving the Cape it was a long drive because we had booked a hotel in L’Aghulas. It is a nice and easy route, but takes you over 4 hours from Cape Point.
So didn’t achieve much there except for a light dinner AND night sky views!
L’Aghulas has one of the clearest night skies. If you get lucky with the weather you can take amazing pictures of the southern stars. I totally botched it because I had a new camera and didn’t really know how to use it yet with all the settings…. (plus it was too windy and shaky). But maybe this gives you an idea – the only one on which I caught a shooting star. 🙂
Day 3: Mossels Bay
The next morning it was time to casually explore L’Aghulas and head to Cape L’Aghulas. This is the southernmost tip of the African continent (further south than the Cape of Good Hope) and the boardwalk along the coast and up to the lighthouse is really beautiful. Going early right after breakfast meant there was nobody else.
This day was easier driving and even with several coffee stops on the way it took just over 3 hours to get to Mossels Bay. Mossels Bay is a beautiful coastal city, with long beaches and clean air. When you stay up in the hills and I would not recommend to walk down. Rather take the car down to the coast. It is a bit of a climb and some city quarters you have to cross are not so safe.
A famous sight in Mossels Bay is the oldest “post office” in Africa: A 500 year old tree where the sailors deposited messages in old shoes. The park around the “post office” is very nice and houses several little museums. Recommended!
Day 4: Sandboarding, Wilderness & Knysna
On the fourth morning of the trip it was time for some action. Too much driving and too little movement in the days before, so I had signed us up for “Sandboarding”.
Just south west of Mossels Bay is the famous “Dragon Dune” and you can ride (actually more surf) the Dragon! There are different kinds of boards and dunes you ride, but it is amazing and you get speeds of up to 80km/h!
Met a couple of pretty cool South Africans coming all the way from Pretoria to do this and it was great fun. (And doesn’t need much skill, in case this is not apparent from the picture 😉 )
This took almost all morning and was pretty damn exhausting. You have to walk all the way up the sand dune for every ride down. Cudos if you manage more than 5 times 😉 So for lunch we drove further east towards Wilderness. This is another small coastal village and offers the usual, with some nice cafés and beaches. What is pretty cool in Wilderness are the abandoned railtracks, which offer a great trail along the coast and some good picture opportunities.
For the evening we headed to Knysna. The city is beautifully located in a lagoon and the view of the Knysna heads (the rocks at the lagoon entrance) is very nice. Sadly the weather was pretty bad that evening, so no chance for lagoon pictures. A second thing Knsyna is very popular for are fresh mussels. So in case you are into seafoods and mussels: Go to 34° South.
Day 5: Birds of Eden and Tsitsikamma National Park
This day of the tour was all about Tsitsikamma National Park. The park is huge, offers many multi-day hikes and shorter treks and there are lots of sightseeting points in and around the park. The first stop was actually by accident. I would normally never go into Zoos or animal parks, but driving up from Knysna we stopped at the Birds of Eden in Plettenberg Bay as I had taken the wrong exit. Skip adjacent Monkey Land, but the Birds of Eden sanctuary was worth it! They have so many free flying birds and the entire sanctuary is well-designed with beautiful trees, rare flowers, rope bridges and little rivers and waterfalls. It takes longer than you’d expect. I’d say minimum 2 hours.
Our next stop in the park was Nature’s Valley. It was highly recommended in many guides, but I did not like it much. Weather wasn’t great, so that might’ve had an impact and it might be good to start a hiking trail here, but if you are short on time, I’d skip this in favor of the other locations in the park. Rather I recommend to spend more time at the Storms River Gorge and the Suspension Bridge. The coastline there is rough and beautiful. There is even a diving station here! Sadly I did not bring license or gear, so this was not an option.
The hike to the suspension bridge and beyond is easy and very nice.
Good if you just want to take a 1-2hr hike/walk and not a multi-day trail. Although technically this is what Tsitsikamma is ideal for. Another important stop is the Big Tree. This is an approx. 800yr old yellowwood tree and as the name suggests: Huge. They have built a nice (and accessible) boardwalk through the little forest around the tree (45mins), which I enjoyed a lot for a leisurely walk. This was also the last stop in Tstisikamma and we drove on to Port Elizabeth, the eastern most stop of the garden route tour.
Day 6: Addo Elephant Park & Port Elizabeth
You should drive very early from Port Elizabeth to Addo Elephant park if you want to see leopards and lions. The park opens at 7am and that is the latest you should be there! I was lazy and chose a long sleep over this so no leopards for me ;). In Addo you have several options: You can join a guided tour, have a tour guide join you (in your car), or self drive. There is absolutely no need for a guided tour. All routes are clear and the park rangers explain everything perfectly. And you will see the tour rides on the roads, so you can just follow or stop next to them and enjoy the sights. There are mostly gravel roads, but in very good condition and any regular vehicle is totally fine. You will be able to see four of the big 5 in Addo. This includes antelopes, zebras, rhinos (if you get lucky in the evening), buffalos, warthogs, turtles, lions and leopards (early morning if you get very very lucky) and of course lots and lots of elephants. Only for the early morning or late evening animals you should check at the ranger stations for the last sightings.
And then there is the famous and all powerful dung beetle:
Be careful when you drive on the roads – these little guys are crossing everywhere.
We spent most of the day in Addo – it is huge – and then just explored Port Elizabeth in the late afternoon / evening. Actually there is not much to see in P.E. Planning too much time for Port Elizabeth is [not recommended] – better opportunities to spend your time are just around the corner.
Day 7 + 8 : Driving Day via Oudtshoorn and back to Cape Town
After sleeping late, it was time for the long drive back to Cape Town. This time we took the northern route, via Swellendam and the Swartberg area. We added an overnight stop in Oudtshoorn, where you can enjoy options such as visiting an ostrich farm or a vineyard. Oudtshoon itself is small but quite beautiful and you can spend a nice afternoon just in the town. The next day was the second half of the long drive back, of course with lots of coffee and food stops on the way. What I can recommend in particular is Cafe Rosa in Robertson. They have a little gallery and botanical garden out back which is great to sit in and relax. Finally reached Cape Town in the afternoon and enjoyed the beaches after the long drive.
Day 8: Cape Town
We had gotten into a habit of taking it slow and sleeping late. So for this morning I had planned brunch in one of the most recommended brunch locations of Cape Town: Four and Twenty. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but I don’t think you can reserve and we showed up 5(!) mins after they opened up, only to get the last seats available! But it was absolutely great and the area around is nice for a walk as well. Since the cafe was located in Wynberg, it was only a short drive to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. The “gardens” in fact are more like a reserve or huge park. There are lots of different trails and many of them very beautiful. Many locals come during the weekend to picnic and relax. The flora is very diverse and I recommend to try some of the more remote trails and the canopy walkway. Also there are often open air concerts and other events. We got lucky with a concert in the afternoon and the cool thing is: No need to pay the concert fee if you are in the park already. Just stay somewhere nearby, you will have great acoustics and a perfect location.
We stayed several hours and still had not done all trails and routes. For the late afternoon / evening we headed to Camps Bay and Clifton. You can see many luxury residences in that area and the bay view is nice with the coulds piling up at the mountain peak. It is a safe and somewhat slow area.
We ended a relaxed and beautiful day with a sunset walk back to Seapoint:
Day 9: Cape Town & Departure
The last day and time for the standard tourist stuff. That meant going up to table mountain. You should go early – the crowds are really bad. But check the weather forecast, if clouds are low or it is hazy you will see nothing. Same as the last few days, the forecast wasn’t too promising, but it was the last day so up we went. Table Mountain is considered one of the new world wonders and of course it is impressive. The ride up is already pretty cool:
However I was not so lucky with the clouds, so not too much to see of the city or robben island. Also I got the feeling this is was a typical case of: “You must do it when you are there. But probably once is enough…” . This was the only semi-clear shot I managed and I had to edit heavily as you can see:
As I saw this little guy up there – pretty relaxed despite all the tourists:
The rest of the day we spent strolling through the city center. We also entered one of the townships (really scary and [not recommended] to do that by yourself!). In the late afternoon it was then finally time to head to the airport, return the car, and board the flight back home.
There are many fanastic picture opportunities in both Cape Town and along the Garden Route. Here are my essential recommendations:
- Oldtown and its colorful houses
- Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
- Table Mountain (both the mountain, for example from the V&A) and the city from the mountain top
- Beautiful beaches and residences in Camps Bay and Seapoint for Sunset
- Beautiful city views and coastline in Mossels Bay
- Nature shots in Tstisikamma. In particular Birds in the Birds of Eden habitat, the coastline near Storm River Gorge and the old yellowwood trees
- Coastline near the Cape of Good Hope
- Colorful changing cabins in St. James (and the little fishing villages themselves)
- Penguin Colony in Boulder Beach or Stony Point
- 4/Big 5 in Addo (for leopards and lions be early, for rhinos be late, and bring a tele lens for both ;))
- Southern night sky with clear air in L’Aghulas (place is safe even at night)
- Abandoned rail tracks in Wilderness and a beautiful shore walk
- During high season, hotels sell out quick. B&Bs are fine and high quality.
- Addo requires pre-registration online for some activities and tours
- Table mountain is very crowded, there are online tickets. Check weather forecast!!!
- Popular restaurants and brunch places fill up fast in Cape Town
- Sandboarding needs to be booked at least some days in advance
- South Africa and in particular the major cites have a high crime risk. Carjacking and violent robberies are common.
- Do not go up to the mountain peaks at sundown for sunset / night shots. Several assaults and rapes have happened to tourists!
- Avoid the city center and certain suburbs at night.
- Do not go out at night by yourself and on foot in several city areas of Cape Town.
- Do not stop at red traffic lights in remote locations at night. Keep driving.
- Do not stop to help people at the road side, even when approached.
- Do not drive into the townships by yourself.
- The rest of the Garden Route is much safer than the major cities. But still be vigilant.
- Do not use the public trains in / around the major cities.
- Smash and grabs are common. Do not leave your bags on the seats of the cars when driving and always lock everything right after entering the car. Ideally park in a supervised area or at least a public and well lit zone. In many areas “car guardians” are “working” that watch your car for a tip.