We’ve been at Mashatu Tent Camp for four nights and seven game drives which is just the right amount of time to have a really satisfying safari experience. We’ve soaked in the tranquility of the bush and had close encounters with more animals than I could have imagined, particularly being able to observe the mating process of lions over the course of three days. Now, however, it’s time to reverse our tracks and head back to South Africa, Polokwane and then onward to a different kind of “wild” experience along the Garden Route and the sea coast at the southern end of the country.
Along with going on safari, traveling the Garden Route is considered one of the “must-do’s” for visitors to South Africa. Sandwiched between two mountain ranges and the Indian Ocean it’s a diverse stretch of highway approximately 300km long that follows the south-eastern coast of South Africa.
Renowned for its verdant vegetation, lagoons, beaches and picturesque small towns the Garden Route is home to 10 different nature reserves and is famous for being the home of the Southern Right Whales that come here to calve in winter and in spring (July and December). As an added bonus, this stretch also has the mildest temperatures in South Africa and the second mildest in the world! In a word: beautiful.
We’ve been told that the best way to really see and appreciate all the Garden Route has to offer is to drive it yourself – so driving is exactly what we plan to do. Don’t worry though, it’s safe and easy, once you get used to being on the left side of the road! We’re spending five nights travelling along one section of the Garden Route from Knysna (pronounced ny-znah) at the eastern end through to Cape Town at the western end.
Our car rental – a little Chevy Aveo – isn’t the “hot” model my husband would prefer and it does seem to struggle a bit on some of the coastal climbs but it’s reliable and will take us from “A” to “B”: I just have to keep reminding said husband that he can’t take corners the same way he would in his Audi or we’ll end up in the ocean!
Knsyna is as different from Mashatu as is possible. It’s a pretty summer holiday town full of condos and tourists but, even better as far as I’m concerned, it’s the Oyster Capital of South Africa! Embraced within a lovely lagoon that protects the town from the wild, cool ocean winds, Knysna used to be the centre of the timber industry. Today however it’s perhaps the most famous town along the Garden Route and is known for being an arty, friendly place with a very trendy vibe. Within Knysna and the immediate area there are a wide-range of activities and sites to see – enough to keep us busy for days, It’s hard not to love this pretty little town immediately.
After our early mornings and busy days on safari we’re planning on taking it pretty easy over the next two nights here in Knysna. We’re staying in an area called ‘Thesen Island’ at the ‘Turbine Boutique Hotel’ which is, just as the name suggests, a hotel that’s been developed around and into an old steam power station. As a historic monument, all the old machinery from the power station has been restored and now forms an integral part of the hotel’s aesthetics. It’s like staying in a funky and comfortable museum and I find it very cool! (http://www.turbinehotel.co.za/).
As for activities? Well, our big adventure is an Oyster boat tour which, essentially, involves a boat ride around the harbour to check out a couple of huge estates, a lesson in oyster shucking and then the drinking of wine and the eating of oysters. Just my kind of boat tour! (Oyster Boat Tour).
The owner of the boat is a jovial South African who knows the area intimately. We cruise slowly past two large estates on a quiet section of the lagoon. We learn that both are for sale: one for 79 million Rand (US5 million) and the other for 18 million Rand (US1.1 million)- it’s tempting to ask if they would take Visa but I push the urge away with another oyster! As we cruise to the “Knysna Heads” – the opening of the lagoon to the Indian Ocean, we learn that, because of the challenges of sailing between the two cliffs, boat owners require special insurance if they want to sail either into or out of the lagoon. There are rocks on one side and a sand bar on the other so precise maneuvering. These, coupled with complex winds and human error has resulted in a number of boat crashes and sinkings – hence the insurance requirement.
Back on dry land we drive to the top of the Heads to get another perspective on the landscape. The cliffs are quite dramatic and offer amazing panoramas both out to sea and along the coast.
Our next stop along the Garden Route is the town of Hermanus or, more accurately, the Mosaic Lagoon Lodge which lies across yet another lagoon from the town. (Mosaic Lagoon Lodge).
Unassuming from a distance, up close bush-chic is the adjective that perhaps best describes this oasis. There are only five independent suites here each built to feel like its own little lodge and each opening onto the lagoon.
Each suite offers complete privacy from the others. Our king-sized bed is surrounded by a canopy of mosquito netting, much more for show than for necessity. The view from our suite is breathtaking, especially first thing in the morning.
The staff at Mosaic is incredibly friendly and very caring – they are clearly passionate about what they do. All our meals and wine with dinner are included and the food is exquisite. There is a local guide who offers up lots of daily activities to participate in….or not, the choice is yours. The whole atmosphere is so relaxing and tranquil that it’s hard to get motivated to do anything. I can’t believe we’re here for only two nights – I think I should just move in!
One afternoon, together with another couple we muster the energy to go 4-wheeling around the nature reserve owned by Mosaic. There are no speed-limiters on the machines so my speed-loving husband unleashes the restraint he’s been forced to use with our car and roars, spins and races throughout our adventure. He’s like a kid in a candy store and, though I’m happy for him, I’m glad to be on my own machine. It was loads of fun racing around the veld (fields) and, as a happy ending, we were met back at the lodge by a member of the bar staff holding a tray of a very colourful looking shots. Delicious!
The rest of our time at Mosaic is spent in bliss – we do a little hiking, I enjoy a wonderful massage and hubby spends hours dozing – I mean working – on our porch.
The lodge is privately owned and was the brainchild of an American who we happen to have the pleasure of meeting one evening. He’s as welcoming and interested in each of us as is every member of the staff. Sipping wine and watching the sun go down over the lagoon we enjoy a lively discussion around American politics and the upcoming election – indeed the “Donald” is a hot topic wherever we go! Mosaic is the type of place that you get to and never want to leave. It’s romantic, private, tranquil and beautiful and our time here is too short.
Our last stop on the Garden Route is Stony Point in Bettys Bay. Bettys Bay lies within the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve; the first UNESCO declared Biosphere in South Africa and is fiercely protected by the town’s occupants. Although it’s a summer town, Stony Point is still slightly off the beaten tourist path such that even our GPS has trouble finding it. We were told by our Mosaic guide (who hails from this area) that Stony Point is the home to one of the largest and best breeding programs for African penguins in the world. We can’t disagree as there are penguins absolutely everywhere, even at mid-day when a large proportion would be out in the sea “fishing”.
The colony lives on the site of an old whaling station which used to harvest and process whale meat in the early 1900’s. The African penguin lives only in this part of the world. Funnily, it’s also often called the “jackass” penguin because it makes a donkey-like “braying” sound. Penguins are hilarious to watch as they waddle and jump along the rocky shore.
In one area, the only barrier is a painted yellow line on the ground and a sign requesting tourists to stay on their own side of the line, particularly when the penguins are moulting. The penguins, however, clearly haven’t read the sign as they cross the line frequently and come quite close to the tourists who crouch down and wait patiently and quietly!
From Bettys Bay it’s a 90-minute coastal drive to our apartment rental in Cape Town. The cliffs and coastline are the most beautiful we’ve seen yet: sheer drops to secluded beaches with a deep blue ocean and clear sky backdrop. The drive remind us of the Ocean Road in Australia or along the coast of California and I agree that the Garden Route is really not to be missed. Too soon though the suburbs of Cape Town begin creeping into, the traffic increases and the highway turns a little inland.
It’s time to turn our focus from wildlife to the city life in Cape Town and the last leg of our African Adventure.