10 days in South Africa: a self-drive itinerary for The Garden Route

South Africa is one of the few countries that I fell so in love with that I decided after my first ever trip that I will return some day. Despite grappling with its share of safety concerns, the country's awe-inspiring […] The post 10 days in South Africa: a self-drive itinerary for The Garden Route appeared first on Hopping Feet.

10 days in South Africa: a self-drive itinerary for The Garden Route
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South Africa is one of the few countries that I fell so in love with that I decided after my first ever trip that I will return some day. Despite grappling with its share of safety concerns, the country's awe-inspiring natural beauty, rich wildlife, and, personally, its exquisite wines, cast such a powerful spell that they eclipse any negative aspects. I returned deeply captivated, with a strong longing to return.

While 10 days will allow one to barely scratch the surface of this country that is God’s gift to humanity, I found myself grappling with the daunting task of crafting an itinerary in a manner that neither should I leave with the regret of having missed important things, nor should I feel like I rushed things so much that I didn’t get time to enjoy the country the way it’s meant to be experienced.

In my opinion, 2 full weeks would’ve been perfect to cover everything that the Garden Route has to offer, allowing you ample time to explore each of the destinations properly. However, since we only had 10 days, I shall continue with an action-packed itinerary that compresses the plan but highlighting where and what additional activities could be added, should you be able to spare some extra time.

Pay special attention to the accommodation suggestions – the places I chose were based on providing us experiences rather than just rooms to sleep, and they turned out to be the highlight of our road-trip – South Africa and specially the garden route, has such unique lodgings that I recommend sparing some time to enjoy these as much as the destinations and national parks you’re visiting.

There isn’t another way of covering so much ground in so little time but renting a car and driving around. Driving in South Africa was surprisingly very easy, convenient and unexpectedly smooth! I don’t think I’ve had such a great driving experience in many European countries as I did in South Africa – the roads are great, the drivers are decent and the cars are fantastic, even within Cape Town!

Renting a car in South Africa

The process was smooth – we rented a car from the city center thinking that driving might be an issue in Cape Town (we’ve experience busy cities in the past and they can be a nightmare. However, that wasn’t the case here and I recommend renting your car from the airport itself when you arrive. You just need to keep a couple of things in mind:

  • If you’re staying/ parking your car in the streets, while you might see several cops and cameras around, you still need to be a bit vigilant. Do not keep any belongings on display (if you’re leaving any bags in the car, make sure to hide them under the seat or in the boot) as this might attract attention and lead to theft.
  • If your hotel is in the city center, you could either ask the security guard outside your hotel to keep an eye on your car overnight (if you park it on the street) or pay $10 or so a night to use the hotel’s private parking.
  • Parking safety issues are mostly experienced only in Cape Town city center. Once you’re out, it’s much safer. The flexibility that driving gives you over taxis and public transport, outweighs the little stress you may face when it comes to safety.
  • Given these circumstances, buying comprehensive insurance, whether from the rental company or third party, is key! Road are excellent and so are the drivers, so you could even rent a small hatchback and you won’t face any issues.

Here’s my version of the perfect 10 days self-drive itinerary that starts from Cape Town and covers majority of the Garden Route. Do take note of the suggested accommodation ideas because we landed up with some excellent ones (after a lot of research, of course) and they became the highlight of our trip of 10 days. Days 1 – 3: Cape Town

Any garden route itinerary is likely to start at Cape Town. While I highly recommend spending 4 days in Cape Town, we had to shorten our itinerary to be able to cover more ground on the Garden Route.

You may choose the activities that are very important to you and those you might be willing to skip. We ended up skipping The Castle of Good Hope, Old Biscuit Mill, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden & Robben Island unfortunately.

Click here to read Cape Town in 4 days – the perfect itinerary.     Day 4: Stellenbosch / Franschhoek

I highly recommend visiting The Cape Winelands when in South Africa! The wine is South Africa is excellent and cheap – with so much variety, thanks to the extensive vineyards located just northeast of Cape Town. There are three popular towns for wine enthusiasts – Stellenbosch, Franschhoek & Paarl. Of these, we visited the former 2 and while I highly recommend keeping 1 day for each, if you’re unable to spare 2 days for The Cape Winelands, then you must choose one of the two that tickles your fancy!

Click here to read: Visiting The Cape Winelands from Cape Town: Stellenbosch or Franschhoek? Day 5: Hermanus / Gaansbai

This is the beginning of your journey through The Garden Route. Your first stop on this day could be either (or both) Hermanus or Gaansbai. Both are coastal towns, and each offers unique experiences and attractions.

Both Hermanus and Gansbaai are renowned for whale watching, particularly during the southern right whale migration season (June to November). Hermanus is famous for its clifftop whale-watching spots, offering excellent views of these majestic creatures from land. Gansbaai, on the other hand, is known for its boat-based whale watching tours, which provide the opportunity to see whales up close in their natural habitat.

We visited Hermanus on our way back from the Garden Route, as a quick break on the journey towards Cape Town. We visited Gansbaai at the beginning of the journey as it is one of the world's premier destinations for shark cage diving. Several reputable operators offer guided shark cage diving excursions from Gansbaai, providing a thrilling and unforgettable experience. We booked our experience through Cape Shark Adventures and it was amazing!

Both Hermanus & Gaansbai boast beautiful coastal scenery and pristine beaches. Hermanus is known for its scenic cliff walks, sandy beaches, and charming coastal town atmosphere. Gansbaai offers rugged coastline, scenic drives, and secluded beaches, perfect for nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers. Hermanus has a vibrant culinary scene, with a variety of restaurants, cafes, and eateries serving fresh seafood and local cuisine. Gansbaai has fewer dining options compared to Hermanus but still offers some excellent seafood restaurants and accommodations, including cozy guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts.

Suggested place to have lunch at Hermanus: Bientang’s Cave Restaurant

To summarize, if you're primarily interested in whale watching from land and exploring a vibrant coastal town, Hermanus is an excellent choice. If you're seeking adventure activities like shark cage diving and prefer a more rugged, off-the-beaten-path experience, Gansbaai may be the better option.

Keep about 2-3 hours for the drive from Stellenbosch/ Franschhoek to Gaansbai / Hermanus and 2 hours for the experience at Gaansbai (shark cage diving). From here, after lunch, head to Mossel Bay for the evening.

Suggested place to stay in Mossel Bay: Santos Express

We found this really cool hotel in Mossel Bay with a train’s compartments converted into rooms, and a terrace overlooking the beach, with attached bathrooms. The hotel also had a terrace restaurant which was open until late and offered excellent views of the blue ocean. It was an absolutely brilliant place to stay! Day 6: Mossel Bay, Private Game Drive

You can spend this day exploring Mossel Bay. Take some time to relax at the Santos beach, which is located right next to Santos Express, or if you wish for the day to be more active, hike a part of the St Blaize trail which offers breathtaking views of the coastline. The St. Blaize Trail begins at the Cape St. Blaize Lighthouse, located near the Point area of Mossel Bay, and stretches for 13.5 kms along the coastline, ending at Dana Bay. The trail winds along cliffs and rocky shores, offering breathtaking views of the ocean, rocky coves, and sandy beaches below.

In the second half of the day, you can head to Botlierskop Private Game Reserve for a game drive. Now, since we hadn’t included any visits to National Parks for game drives, we decided to experience this one, at a private game reserve about 20 min away from Mossel Bay. While the game reserve is home to the Big Five, the 3-hr game drive is nearly not enough to give you a view of all the species. The property itself is beautiful, and you can start off by having lunch at their terrace restaurant offering gorgeous views of the forest.

There are two timings (during summer) for their safaris – 10 am and 2 pm, and it costs about 35$ per person only, which I felt was very reasonable. Although we didn’t end up seeing The Big 5 (and the experience was nowhere nearly as amazing as what large National Parks such as Kruger, etc will offer) but it was a beautiful afternoon and we did see quite a bit of wildlife (buffalos, rhinos, cheetahs, etc).

Overnight in Mossel Bay. Day 7: Cango Caves, Oudtshoorn

 Cango Caves are about 1.5 hrs by road from Mossel Bay. Located just outside Oudtshoorn, these caves are a mesmerizing network of limestone caverns featuring awe-inspiring stalactite and stalagmite formations. You can take a guided tour through various chambers, including the massive "Van Zyl's Hall" and the narrow passages of the "Tunnel of Love." If you want to experience an adrenaline rush, try their "Adventure Tour," which includes crawling through narrow passages and squeezing through tight spaces, an exhilarating way to explore the deeper, less-accessible parts of the cave system. Keep aside at least 2 hours to explore the Cango Caves.

Right next to the caves, you can also find the Cango Zipline, situated in the scenic foothills of the Swartberg Mountains, offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside and rugged landscapes. The zipline course typically consists of multiple lines of varying lengths and heights, offering a range of experiences for participants of different ages and comfort levels. Some lines may span open valleys, while others may pass through forested areas, providing diverse scenery and terrain to enjoy during the adventure.

Outdshoorn is popular for their ostrich farms, so if you’re with kids, that might be something of interest to you. Children are also likely to enjoy a visit to Cango Wildlife Ranch where they can get up close and personal with a variety of wildlife species such as cheetahs, crocodiles, and lemurs.

The highlight of our trip was undoubtedly the accommodation we found in Oudtshoorn – De Cango Farm. This property stole our hearts from the moment we arrived. While the journey to reach it involves a slightly challenging drive along unpaved roads for about 4 kilometers, leaving you questioning if you're on the right path, the destination proves to be worth every bump along the way.

Nestled amidst the mountains and beside a charming pond, De Cango Farm offers a serene retreat unlike any other. During our stay, we were fortunate to have the entire property to ourselves, allowing us to bask in the tranquillity interrupted only by the soothing sounds of nature and occasional wildlife sightings.

The spacious terrace, situated on a wooden platform overlooking the pond, served as the perfect communal space to unwind and soak in the breathtaking views. You could hop on a kayak and explore the pond on your own. Each room, thoughtfully designed with an open shower and bathtub overlooking the surrounding jungle, contributed to the overall sense of beauty and serenity that envelops the property. The property also gives you access to a kitchen, replete with cookware, pots, and pans, so that you can make your own food. However, they do not offer any meals, it’s self-catered only. There are no restaurants for miles so if you’re not a fan of cooking your own meals, then make sure to grab something before you get here.

Day 8: Wilderness National Park

While Outdshoorn is a slight detour from the Garden Route (but a highly recommended one), Wilderness National Park brings you back the route and close to the coast again. Located at a 1.5-hr drive, I recommend arriving early here to be able to spend the entire day exploring this natural paradise renowned for its pristine landscapes. The park encompasses an area of lush indigenous forests, tranquil lakes, and winding waterways, offering breathtaking scenery at every turn. We saw many people camping overnight in the valley as well and wished we could’ve done that! Nevertheless, we spent a great day exploring the dense forests, sparkling rivers, and serene lakes, all surrounded by the majestic Outeniqua Mountains.

I’d recommend starting with a canoe tour because the last one departs quite early in the afternoon, following which you can then do one of the popular hiking trails. We did the Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail, which is undoubtedly the park's star attraction, winding through dense forests and ending at a waterfall, providing ample shade and a cool, tranquil atmosphere. The terrain is gentle, with only a few minor inclines and steps to navigate along the way.

The trail is well-marked and maintained, ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience for walkers of all ages. Wooden walkways lead you through the lush vegetation, offering glimpses of the park's diverse flora and fauna. One of the highlights of the trail is crossing the river via a ‘Pontoon’, a unique and thrilling experience that adds an extra element of adventure to the hike. The Pontoon operates like a raft, allowing walkers to pull themselves across the river using a simple pulley rope system. It's a fun activity; the excitement of each river crossing is palpable, adding to the overall enjoyment of the trail.

Recommended overnight stay: Forest Edge Nature Lover’s Retreat.

Now, this lodging is a 20-minute detour from Knysna, a favoured destination for many, in a small town called Rheenendal. Yet, for us, passionate about nature, our foremost goal was to find accommodation amidst serene woodlands, far from bustling crowds and the urban hustle. Hence, we didn’t mind such diversions that led us to discover exceptional places to stay like this one.

Also, this lodging is a self-catered one so make sure that you arrange for your meals before you arrive here. If you’re not a fan of cooking your own meals, grab a bit at one of the restaurants at Knysna before coming here as you’re unlikely to find anything for miles!

Here are some recommended places to eat on the Knysna waterfront for seafood lovers: 34 Degrees South; Drydock food. Day 9: Tsitsikamma National Park, Plettenberg Bay

This is the last destination on the 10-days self-drive itinerary for the Garden Route. While driving towards Tsitsikamma National Park, I recommend making a pit stop at the Knysna Heads viewpoint, offering a breathtaking panorama of one of South Africa's most iconic coastal features: the Knysna Heads. It’s only a 10-min detour from your road-trip but totally worth the scenic coastal views that you’ll get to enjoy from here.

A coastal paradise, Tsitsikamma National Park is a stark contrast to the Wilderness National Park in terms of the stunning coastal views it offers. Prepare for hiking trails and walking paths that offer views of dramatic rugged cliffs, secluded beaches, and pristine wilderness. One of the key highlights of this national park is the Bloukrans Bridge, famous for being the site of the world's highest commercial bungee jump. Overlooking the Bloukrans River gorge below, you could just walk across the bridge and be privy to insane views, enjoy a picnic at one of the hidden spots, or indulge in an adventure such as river tubing or guided canoeing. Irrespective, prepare to spend a day here because you’ll not get enough of the dramatic views.

Recommended stay in Plettenberg Bay: Knysna Elephant Park Lodge

Yet another accommodation which I chose for the experience rather than just a place to sleep, I highly recommend this one! While many people just visit the Elephant Park during the day to enjoy extraordinary elephant encounters in a controlled, free-range environment, staying in the lodge gives you the opportunity to watch these lovely animals up close and personal! All the rooms are connected to a communal lounge overlooking the elephant play pad, a room where these majestic, gigantic creatures come at night to play with each other! It’s such a brilliant experience, to sit with other guests, have a glass of wine, and watch the graceful and intelligent animals put on a great show by just being their naughty, playful selves!

The lodge has a restaurant on site, but it closes early, so make sure to grab something to eat before that. It does not offer self-catering either which means cooking yourself isn’t an option either. Should you find yourselves hungry late night, you’d have to get yourself to Plettenberg Bay city center, which is about 15-20 min drive from the lodge.

On the following morning, do not forget to avail the free guided elephant interaction included in your stay package. Buy a bucket (or two) of fruits from the reception to feed them!

Day 10: Drive back to Cape Town

It’s time to head back to Cape Town after a wonderful 10-day self-drive road-trip of the Garden Route. Prepare for a long drive though – you could stop anywhere on your way back, which you might have felt you missed on your journey earlier. A non-stop drive from Plettenberg Bay to Cape Town is likely to last 6-7 hours so start early!


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