The Heart of the Garden Route

The Heart of the Garden Route must be somewhere here among the lakes of Wilderness, hidden in the emerald green of the Goukamma valley or lurking in the waters of the lazy Knysna Lagoon. This is South Africa’s most popular holiday refuge, where pleasurable pursuits include paddling up the Touws River, trading softly through the Knysna forests in search of elephants, cruising serenely across the lagoon to the Knysna Heads, exploring the forest streams where gold was panned –  and where gold may still be found.

The name of the Kaaimans River, translated literally, would mean ‘cayman’ or ‘alligator’, suggesting that the river was once home to many crocodiles. The name is, however, more likely to be a corruption of Keeroms (turn around river). Three rivers join here, within just a few hundred metres of the coast – the Kaaimans River, the Swart River and one of its small tributaries – and each of the three runs through a steep-sided ravine. In the old days farmers and traders travelling by ox-wagon found it extremely difficult to cross the rivers, the Kaaimans in particular, and the track they followed twisted and turned around on itself many times – perhaps the origin of the unusual name.

Before reaching the sea the rivers form a small, romantic lagoon, notable for its unusually dark water and for the picturesque rocky walls of the narrow gorge that has formed where the Swart River twists away westwards from the Kaaimans. On the steep western bank of the lagoon there are several quaint holiday homes dating from the turn of the century, whose occupants still have to row across the water to reach their front doorsteps.

At the seaward end of the lagoon the opposing forces of outflowing river water and inflowing tides have formed an attractive sandy beach (scarcely visible as you drive past on the N2), and at the mouth there is a raised tail bridge, mounted on tall pylons, which carries the famed Outeniqua Choop-choo across the water twice a day on its round trip between George and Knysna. A short distance upstream there remains an old causeway, accessible from the N2, which crosses the Kaaimans just above the point where the Kaaimans and the Swart Rivers join. This leads to a small spit of land between the two rivers where members of the George Skiboat Club maintain a launch ramp under shady trees.

As you travel eastwards on the N2 you cross the Kaaimans on a broad, curving bridge, then you climb the coastal headland that forms the eastern bank of the lagoon. As you round the headland there are two parking areas alongside good view sites. Looking westwards from here you have a fine view down over the lagoon mouth and the rail bridge. Looking eastwards you are treated to a splendid vista: the holiday refuge of Wilderness, the Wilderness lakes in the distance, and along the coast as far as Walker Point.

Garden Route Lakes

South Africa can offer the traveler few vistas so serene and gentle as the view down from the coastal hills to the perfectly calm waters of Swartvlei, backed by rolling hills smothered in dark green pine forests, and with line after line of ever-higher hilltops stretching away into the hazy distance until the eye settles on the jagged blue-grey outline of the Outeniqua Mountains.

Swartvlei is the largest of a string of six lakes stretching for over 40 kilometres along the southern coast from Wilderness in the west to the Goukamma River valley in the east. From west to east they are the Touws River lagoon at Wilderness, Island Lake (also known as Lower Langvlei), Lanvlei, Rondevlei, Swartvlei and finally Groenvlei.

The lakes have existed in their present form only for some 2000 years, but they are a result of several million years geological vacillation, as the world swung back and forth between ice ages and interglacial warm spells. Each successive ice age saw a massive increase in the size of the polar icecaps, and as the water froze the level of the world’s oceans dropped dramatically. When the weather became warmer the ice melted and the level of the oceans rose again. Each movement of the sea built up a line of dunes along this stretch of coast, and the lakes were formed by various low-lying areas of land being blocked from the sea by the dunes. Langvlei, for example, is simply an inundated area caught between the dunes. Swartvlei is a drowned river valley. Rondvlei is thought to have been a shallow pan excavated by wind, which has gradually filled with water.

The lakes and the area surrounding them are now incorporated in the Wilderness National Lake Area, and the aim of the National Parks Board has been to zone the entire area in such a way that the goals of conservation and of holiday recreation are both adequately catered for, appealing not only to the nature lover and the conservationist but also to the angler, the board sailor and the yachtsman.

The Touws River lagoon and Island Lake have been set aside for predominantly recreational use. Langvlei and Rondevlei are zoned for wildlife conservation and together form the ‘conservation heart’ of the lake region. They offer an unspoiled world where coastal fynbos mixes with semi-aquatic reeds, sedges, rushes and water grasses, and they constitute one of thee richest refuges for waterfowl in the whole of South Africa: of the 95 species recorded throughout the country, 75 can be seen in this relatively tiny area. This is also one of the few places in the southern African region where both the marsh harrier and the grass owl are known to breed.

Swartvlei is not only the largest of the lakes but also the deepest – and many would judge it the most beautiful, having a distinctive grandeur of its own. Although the reed beds that fill the floodplain at its eastern end are zoned as a conservation area, the main body of the lake has been set aside for recreational use.

In some ways the most interesting of the lakes in Groenvlei. Several thousand years ago Groenvlei was linked to Swartvlei but the two were eventually separated by windblown sand. Groenvlei then converted gradually to a freshwater lake, the only one in the region. Algae growing in the freshwater environment give the lake a greenish tint – hence its name. It was formerly also known as Lake Pleasant. Another consequence of its being fresh water is that it has become home to a large population of the North American black bass, the prized quarry of local and visiting anglers.

At the western end of Groenvlei there is a stylish old hotel and a large holiday resort, both of which retain the old name of Lake Pleasant. Immediately behind the hotel you will find a gravel track that leads south over the coastal hills and that brings you after 4 kilometres to a small parking area overlooking a wild stretch of beach at Platbank – also known locally as Groenvlei Beach. Wooden steps lead down to the beach, which is especially popular with surf anglers.

The N2 runs along the crest of the huge dunes that separate most of the lakes from the sea, and it offers splendid views. But it is also possible to explore the region more intimately by following any of a network of mostly gravel roads leading among the lakes then climbing the forested hills behind them.

Exploring the enchanted depths of the high forest

Stretching for 177 kilometres between the mountains and the sea, the high forest of the Garden Route is one of Southern Africa’s richest botanical treasures. Slanting shafts of sunlight lance down into magic glades where trunks of ancient hardwoods rise like cathedral columns. More than 80 kinds of trees grow here, from venerable giants soaring towards the sky to exquisite small shrubs with dazzling blossoms and haunting perfumes. Many of the trees produce valuable timber used in building, the making of furniture and craft work. Elephants, leopards, monkeys and many birds have their homes in the forest’s enchanted depths. It is a place of beauty, mystery and, for those who wish to delve deeply into its secrets, a place to learn.

The high forest of the Garden Route is the largest indigenous forest in Southern Africa. Originally it covered more than 110 000 hectares, but fires and the predations of man have reduced this to around 40 500 hectares. This area of naturally growing trees is greatly enlarged by softwood plantations of pine and gum trees.

The name “high forest” refers to the height of the trees rather than the altitude at which they grow. The giant among them is the common Yellow-Wood, which can reach up to 50 metres and live for 1 000 years. In several areas, the forestry department has constructed special paths which take visitors to particularly impressive specimens. One of the most famous is a Yellow-Wood known as King Edward’s Tree, which is 46 metres high with a girth of 9,5 metres and thought to be about 700 years old.

The timber of the common yellow-wood, hard and handsomely coloured, is much in demand for furniture. Selected trees are auctioned before being felled and carted away by the buyers. The hard, pale timber of a slightly smaller species, the real yellow-wood, is also highly prized.

Many a pioneering railway has been laid on the hard, durable sleepers produced from another forest giant, the Black Ironwood tree. Today, railway sleepers are usually made of concrete, but Ironwood is often used for flooring and veneers. In March, the blossoms of the ironwood spread a creamy canopy over the forest.

South Africa’s history also owes much to the Stinkwood tree. Its timber was used to build the trek wagons, surely among the toughest vehicles ever built. This tree takes its name from the characteristic pungent odour of the wood when it is first cut.

Some of the smaller trees, while not so highly valued for their timber, nonetheless enhance the beauty of the forest, displaying attractively coloured foliage and sweetly scented flowers. Among these are the Keurboom, with its fragrant pink blossoms, the Wild Pomegranate, with its clusters of red flowers, and the mauve-flowering Cape Chestnut.

One of the best places for exploring the forest is an area known as the Garden of Eden, 16 kilometres from Knysna along the trunk road on the way to Plettenberg Bay. There is a picnic site with paths branching into the deeper parts of the forest, and many typical tree species are identified by numbers. The Garden of Eden is also a favourite haunt of elephants.

Wild pigs and small forest antelope such as the Blue Duiker can also be seen.

Because of almost permanent dampness of the forest floor, however, most of the wild life consists of tree-dwelling species, including monkeys, leopards, tree hyraxes, snakes and birds.

Many varieties of ferns and creepers decorate the forest, and the Dale of Ferns, is a happy hunting ground for specialists in this field. For all its marvels, Southern Africa has always been short of rain and the regions where forests flourish are comparatively few. This makes the great forest of the Garden Route more precious – a place of rare wonder.

A walk through the leafy Wilderness

“In some places you see hill rising behind hill, like billows on the sea, each fainter in the distance, an each clothed with dark, glossy evergreen woods. In others, you have glens where lofty trees of giant growth, heavy with lichens, support their living roof of leaf-clad branches high overhead, whilst a tangled wilderness of underwood, itself composed of trees and tree-like creepers, fills the space between…”

So did the Duke of Edinburgh describe the Knysna forest during his visit to the region in 1867. Large tracts of this forest still exist within a few kilometres of Knysna, remaining virtually untouched by man. To walk through the depths of this forest is to all but lose yourself in a still, dark, grey-green world, the home of the last few Knysna elephants and of a wide assortment of birds, whose striking calls occasionally rupture the almost tangible silence.

To experience the forest at first hand, follow the 20 kilometre Elephant Walk from the Diepwalle Forestry Station – reached from the R339 towards Uniondale.

The full walk is divided into three great loops, each of more or less the same length, so you may, if you wish, undertake only one third of the full distance. The route leads past the giant King Edward VII Tree, a massive Outeniqua yellowwood, and takes in several picnic sites. Along the way you can appreciate the rich variety of species the forest contains – Cape Beech, Knobwood, Blackwood, White Pear, Bladdernut, White Stinkwood and tree Fuchsia. Although the odds against seeing an elephant are high, walkers have glimpsed them along this route.

A second, shorter trail, known as the Terblans Walk, leads through the Gouna forest several kilometres west of Diepwalle (reached by driving from Diepwalle along the side road known a Kom-se-pad). The walk, with a natural swimming pool en-route, is circular and only 6,5 kilometres long, but you could take a whole day to enjoy the forest at your leisure – and you are more likely to spot an elephant in this remoter part of the woods.

Knysna history – European settlement

The first Europeans arrived in the area in 1760, and the farm Melkhoutkraal (literally translating from Afrikaans as ‘milk wood kraal’) was established on the eastern shore of the Knysna Lagoon. Stephanus Terblans, the first European farmer to settle in the area, was given a loan permit to farm here in 1770.

Upon moving to Knysna George Rex, a British-born entrepreneur credited as being the founder of Knysna, acquired the loan rights to Melkhoutkraal in 1804 and later, in 1816, to the farm Welbedacht, which he renamed Eastford. He gave 80 acres (32 ha) of Eastford to the Colonial Government, on which the Royal Navy established the township of Melville. Rex’s properties were sold when he died in 1839.

In April 1817, the transport brig Emu, belonging to the Cape Town Dockyard, was the first European vessel to enter the Knysna heads. She struck a rock, now known as Emu Rock, and was holed. Her crew ran Emu ashore to prevent her sinking. In late April HMS Podargus arrived to render assistance. After surveying the area, Podargus sailed safely into the Knysna and retrieved Emu’s cargo.

The next major settler in Knysna was Captain Thomas Henry Duthie, who married Caroline, George Rex’s daughter, and bought a portion of the Uitzigt farm from his father-in-law which Rex had named Belvidere. The construction of a small Norman-style church was commissioned by Duthie on his property, and was consecrated in 1855. The settlement’s population grew slowly, and Englishmen such as Henry Barrington and Lt. Col. John Sutherland, who established the settlement of Newhaven on a portion of purchased land, settled in the area. At the time, Knysna was a field cornetcy of Plettenberg Bay within the Magisterial Division of George. In 1858, Knysna became a separate Magisterial Division, new stores and accommodation facilities were opened, and Knysna became the new commercial centre of the region.

On their way to New Zealand, the Thesen family who were travelling from Norway fancied the little hamlet of Knysna so much that they decided to stay, bringing with them their knowledge of commerce and sailing. Soon, timber was being exported to the Cape from the vast areas of forest surrounding Knysna, and a steam sawmill and small shipyard were established. Later, these were relocated to Paarden Island, later known as Thesen’s Island.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Summer is around the corner

Beautiful sunset at Brenton-on-Sea, Eden, Western Cape, South Africa.

Passes Route

The first gravel road linking George and Knysna was laid in the 1860’s along a rough wagon trail. The road remained the principal route between the towns until the trunk road was built after the Second World War. The modern road follows the coast, while the old road, known as the Passes Route, runs inland. It is a delightful 82 kilometre drive through lushly forested areas.

Where the route crosses the Swart River it rises to a pass through the forest, then winds from a plateau to the Kaaimans ‘crocodile’ River and the bridge over the Silver River. At Ginnesville a branch road leads to Wilderness. The ravine crossing of the Touws River (river of the ford) is another of the passes on the Passes Route.

After crossing the Kleinkeur River the old road reaches Woodville forest station. A permit can be obtained here to explore a circular drive to Bergplaats and Kleinplaat forestry stations.

The Passes Route again crosses the Swart River and climbs to a plateau beyond Karatara, where there is another forestry station. East of Karatara River, is Barrington, with the forestry reserve of Farleigh to its north.

The road now enters the forest of the Homtini Pass and winds to the bottom of the turbulent Homtini River gorge.

Beyond the eastern summit of the pass a turn-off leads to the abandoned gold town of Millwood.

The road forks again after passing the forestry settlement of Rheenendal and the left-hand gravel road leads through the Phantom Pass to a steep but easy road from which glorious views of the Knysna River valley can be seen.

The Magic of the Garden Route

From Mossel Bay to the Storms River is a necklace of bays, beaches, cliffs and rocky capes strung together along a line of pounding white surf. The mountain ranges crowd close to the shoreline and, with a rainfall of around 2 500 millimetres on the peaks, bring a plentiful water supply to the narrow coastal terrace. Here every square metre of soil seems to nourish jumble of trees and flowering plants that a cultivated garden would pale into insignificance in comparison.

The 227 kilometres of this coastline is the Garden Route, a region of eternal freshness and greenery.

The climate is mild and equable. Rainfall is scattered throughout the year, most of it falling at night. A blight of most of the African continent is thus avoided – rainfall concentrated into a short season of floods followed by months so dry that rivers become sand and the vegetation so dead that it is simply a fire waiting to be started.

From the time of its first discovery by man this coastal terrace has delighted visitors. The French explorer, François Le Vaillant, passed this way in the 1780s, and the description he has left might well apply today: “The land bears the name Outeniqua, which in the Hottentot tongue means ‘a man laden with honey’. The flowers grow there in millions, the mixture of pleasant scents which arises from them, their colour, their variety, the pure an fresh air which on breathers there, all make one stop and think nature has made an enchanted abode of this beautiful place.”

Seldom cooler than 20°C, the coastal waters teem with game fish. Divers find a magic world of brilliantly coloured sea plants, molluscs and vast shoals of little fish. Suddenly, a rocky shoreline will give way to a secluded, sandy beach. Victoria Bay is renowned as one of the world’s best surfing beaches. The rivers, deeply stained with the amber colour of the soil have lovely stretches navigable by small boats; the wild flowers and the high forests offer long, cool drives down tunnels of shade beneath the trees; there is a mining ghost town to explore, and gold still to be panned in several steams.

Along the Garden Route is little to harm man other than his own folly. For the continent of Africa this is indeed a rare pleasure. There are no malarial mosquitoes, no bilharzia worms in the rivers, no crocodiles or other predatory animals and save leopards which keep to themselves in the mountains. A few elephants still survive in the depths of the Knysna Forest, but are seldom seen.

At some time or another, nearly every South African with the means to go on holiday spends some time on this coast. For visitors to the country it is one of the highlights of a complete tour. The region is excellently served by roads and has a delightful branch railway from George to Knysna still (and it is hoped for years to come) worked by steam locomotives. The region has numerous places of accommodation, caravan parks and camping grounds.

In the heart of the Garden Route is a quaint little town called Brenton-on-Sea. This small town lies on the edge of the shoreline a few kilometres from Knysna. For more information to buy vacant land or a house, please call Sophie Joubert on 082 572 2729.

Things to do and see

Angling
Musselcracker are prolific in Mossel Bay. Along the entire coast elf, kob and leervis run in autumn and winter and off the cliffs are many big rock feeders. Knysna lagoon offers sport for the fisherman with light tackle – galjoen, hottentot, roman, grunter and kob.
Plettenberg Bay is a favourite of fishermen. Gillies – or guides – can be hired. Large rock feeders are common. In autumn there are shoals of elf and notably large yellowtail. Big catchers are often taken.

Canoeing
The rivers of the Garden Route are ideal for canoes. The upper reaches simply lose themselves in forest. The Kaaimans waterfall can only be reached by canoe. The chain of lakes between Wilderness and Knysna is linked by serpentine waterways.

Camping and caravanning
There are caravan and camping grounds within easy access of all towns listed in this section.

Diving
Marine plants are rich along the coast, matching the beauty of the flora on shore. Small fish are numerous and many sea-horses live in Knysna lagoon.

Rail journeys
A pleasant way to see the wonders of the Garden Route is from the windows of a train. The line from George to Knysna passes through marvellous scenery. The trip from George over the Outeniqua Mountains to Camfer and Oudtshoorn includes one of the grandest railway passes in Africa, with tunnels, cuttings and tremendous views.

Surfing
The waves at Victoria Bay are majestic, especially in winter. There is also surfing in Mossel Bay and Buffalo Bay.

Swimming
The beaches at Plettenberg Bay are particularly safe. Mossel Bay also has fine swimming beaches with little trouble from sharks. The rivers of the Garden Route, free of the parasites of tropical rivers, provide excellent fresh-water swimming.

Walking
The whole Garden Route is memorable walking country. The walker sees the best of it. One of the most rewarding of all South African wilderness trails is the Outeniqua Trail. It takes 7 to 14 days to complete. The Otter Trail in the Tsitsikama national park is a 3-day hike.
Exploring any part of the high forests by foot takes the walker along scenic paths, silent, solitary, cool and lovely.