Voyage’s end at an ancient, evergreen land

The Southern Coast, after several hundred kilometres of low-lying sandy shores, reaches Cape St Blaize and curls into a gentle blue bay. The golden sand continues around the bay, punctuated by sleepy river lagoons, but now a high range of mountains comes into view and the sands give way to a gigantic coastal shelf that juts out into the sea.

The mountains are the Outeniquas, and they bring year-round rains to the land at their feet, keeping it constantly emerald green. Where the coastal shelf meets the sea, waves have ground it away into high cliffs of orange-red rock, and here and there have carved coves and inlets. Many a ship has come to grief on this violent shore, and legend has it that a chest of treasure lies caught here in the rocks amid the foaming surf.

A mere 110 kilometres, or one and a half hours drive, from Knysna lies the booming town; Mossel Bay where giant waves relentlessly punish the awesome, towering cliffs that line the southern shore of Cape St Blaize, baring the rock strata and gouging out huge caverns. And yet, just 3 km along the coastline, tucked away around the corner of the cape, the water in the sheltered little cove known as Munro’s Bay is as calm and gentle as an inland lake… which is why this spot was the first landing place of Bartholomeu Dias and his men. Today the calmness of the water in the bay, one of the most sheltered stretches of open sea along the entire southern African coast, attracts thousands of holiday-makers and water sport enthusiasts.

All along the Mossel Bay shore there are beaches sprinkled among the rocks. Even at the very point of Cape St Blaize there is a sandy channel set between two rocky ridges that have long been treated by locals as the town swimming pool – known to all as the ‘Poort’. Travelling around the great bay from here the first major inlet is the harbour, then comes Munro’s Bay, Santos Beach, a string of little beaches separated by rocky ridges and known collectively as Die Bakke, the Pansy Beach and the long golden stretch of Dias Beach, which in summer become the vibrant heart of the holiday town. The coast immediately behind the shore is kept tidy and attractive with green lawns and a succession of neat camping grounds, and caravan sites, interspersed with clusters of luxurious holiday chalets.

Anyone tiring of the lovely beaches will find the town itself has much to offer. Its history is well presented in a new museum complex near the old Post Office Tree where Pedro d’Ataide posted South Africa’s first ‘letter’ in 1500. A section of the museum is devoted to maritime history, another to a shell collection with fine specimens gathered from various seashores all over the world.

Also interesting is a drive or walk past the harbour to the Point at Cape St Blaize. You will pass a large number of sturdy stone houses: there are at least 200 of these, many of them built during the last century by immigrant Cornish stonemasons. The majority of the houses in the town are built in ranks that climb up the hillside, with the result that most residents wake in the morning and retire at night to magnificent views out over the little harbour and across the bay to the jagged blue-grey line of the Outeniqua Mountains in the distance. At the Point, directly above the sandy Poort, you will see a cave in the cliff face beneath the Cape St Blaize lighthouse; this was long the home of so-called Strandlopers. From the south side of the cave a narrow footpath zigzags up towards the base of the lighthouse then leads east for several kilometres along the clifftops, offering grand vistas down over the majestic cliffs.

Mossel Bay offers a variety of holiday accommodation and recreational activities. Especially popular is the range of opportunities for the angler, produced by the varied character of the shoreline and the extreme differences in sea conditions; Mossel Bay is also one of South Africa’s leading centres for powerboat fishing.

Recently the development of offshore oil wells in the region has begun to transform what was once a slightly sleepy coastal town into a bustling growth centre, but this is unlikely to mar the appeal of the place for holiday-makers. The town will remain blessed with an attractive blue-sky climate and there are so many beautiful beaches along the shore that they can absorb huge numbers of holiday-makers without being spoilt.

George, Western Cape

The English novelist Anthony Trollope praised George in 1877 as ‘the prettiest village on the face of the earth. Overlooked by the George Peak, and Cradock Peak of the Outeniqua Mountains, George nestles on a coastal plateau in a setting of parkland and garden. Flowers seem to bubble over the walls of every garden and trees grow wherever man has failed to cut them down. Only 8 kilometres from the sea and with an adequate rainfall, balmy climate and altitude of 226 metres, George has the best of several worlds. It is the principal town of the Garden Route.

Founded in 1811, it was named after George III. It grew as an administrative, communications and timber centre. One of the oak trees which were planted along the streets during these early years has been proclaimed a national monument. A chain, to which slaves are said to have been fastened and sold at auction, is embedded in the trunk of the tree.

Because of the widespread destruction of George’s wealth of indigenous forest, in 1936 the government prohibited the felling of trees in the town for 200 years. The decision has ensured the preservation of stinkwood and yellow-wood trees.

George became a municipality in 1837 and in 1850 Bishop Robert Gray, founder of the Diocesan College for Boys in Cape Town, consecrated the town’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. George’s Dutch Reformed Church, built in 1842, is the town’s oldest church. The Church of St Peter and St. Paul, built the following year, is the oldest Roman Catholic church in South Africa. Among other old buildings here is the Town House, built in 1847 at a cost of £478.

The George Museum has South Africa’s largest collection of old gramophones, all in working order. Other displays include the skeleton of a whale stranded on Buffalo Bay and 75 mounted horns of the antelopes of South Africa.

This is the only region of South Africa which produces hops – imported varieties have been successfully transplanted in recent years.

George has a flying club, 18-hole championship golf course, several hotels and caravan parks.

From the town tow dramatic steam train journeys can be taken. The main railway line from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth crosses the Outeniqua Mountains through what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful railway passes. In 25 kilometres the railway climbs by means of zigzags, tunnels and cuttings to an altitude of 715 metres before descending into the Little Karoo. The second railway journey from George is along the branch line to Knysna, through tunnels and forests, across lakes and cliffs overlooking the sea. The climax of the arrival in Knysna, with a long approach by bridge over the lagoon, is unforgettable!

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.

Belvedere and Brenton

An attractive drive along the western bank of Knysna’s lagoon, winding down the hillside, brings you to the charming little Holy Trinity Church at Belvedere, a perfect example in miniature of the Norman churches built in England during the 11th and 12th centuries. The church was erected here in the mid-19th century by Thomas Henry Duthie.

Duthie, a captain in the 72nd Highland Regiment, was stationed at the Cape and went on a hunting trip to the Knysna area, where he met his future wife Caroline, the daughter of George Rex. After living for a while in England they returned to Knysna and Duthie bought from his father-in-law the estate of Belvedere (beautiful to be hold) – a splendid tract of land here on the western banks of the lagoon. With the help of his neighbours he then set about building this little church. The work took five years, and a great many difficulties and obstacles had to be overcome. The bell that now hangs above the main door was cast in England and was lost overboard in the lagoon, being recovered only several months later.

Continuing coastward, the road climbs steadily, offering grand vistas over the lagoon, and after cresting the hills and passing a side road to the lagoon again at Brenton, drops to the resort of Brenton-on-Sea, an assortment of smart holiday houses sprinkled over the coastal hillsides. The road ends at a small hotel, where a short path will take you down to a wide stretch of golden beach reaching away to Walker Point in the distance. About a kilometre east of here is another beach, more gently sloping and preferred as a bathing beach by locals and regular visitors, but getting to and from it involves a considerable hike.

Millwood

In the late 1870’s alluvial gold was found in the forest streams west of the Knysna River. It took a while to assess the value of the find but by 1887 the rush was on. Where once there had stood only a small water-powered sawmill in the forests, suddenly there appeared a town with six hotels, three competing newspapers, over twenty shops and banks, and a population estimated at more than 700 fortune-seekers.

There was gold, both alluvial and reef gold, but not very much of it. After a few exciting years the mines began to close, the diggers moved on to the Witwatersrand and the site of the short-lived boom town returned to nature. Today it is almost impossible to believe that a town once existed here. What was once its main street is just another track through the forest.

To explore the old goldfields, take the Rheenendal road and immediately after passing through the village turn right onto a gravel road signposted Bibby’s Hoek. This brings you to the shady picnic site of Krisjan-se-nek in the heart of the indigenous forest. Driving on from here, keep left where the road divides, and at the second fork go left again. This road leads down into Jubilee Creek, an attractive picnic and braai area and one of the streams where alluvial gold was found. A footpath leads upstream along the right bank, bringing you eventually to several old mine openings and a small pool at the foot of a waterfall.

When you drive back from Jubilee Creek turn left at the first fork. After about 4 kilometres you reach the site of Millwood, passing on your right a road to the old town cemetery, and then reaching a fork. The road leading left here, merely a forest track now, was once Millwood’s main street. If you take the road leading right, and at the next fork go right again, you will eventually reach the boiler of an old steam engine in a clearing on your left; this was the site of the stamp battery for the old Bendigo mine.

A sign her points downhill to the opening of the main Bendigo tunnel, which you can reach most easily by driving back the way you came and taking the first turn to your left. The tunnel reaches 200 metres into the hillside but is too dangerous to explore.

The Old Road through the Passes

Before the modern highway was built along the coast, anyone wishing to travel between George and Knysna had to take the old inland road that led through almost impenetrable forests and had to negotiate no fewer than seven difficult river-valley passes. This old road can still be and it offers modern explorers a way to see the back country – a rural world of farms and forests, where life is lived at a far slower pace.

To get onto this old road you drive out of George on the N2 for Knysna and almost immediately turn left for Saasveld. After a few kilometres you pass the Saasveld Forestry School on your left, and then you drive through the first two passes, crossing the Kaaimans and Silver rivers. The turn-of-the-century stone bridges over the rivers are national monuments (as are the passes themselves). After crossing the Silver River you continue straight onto gravel for Knysna, then cross the Touws River on an iron-Girder bridge and come to a T-junction with a tarred road, where you turn left for Knysna.

After about 3 km a gravel track on the left leads to the Big Tree picnic site (with the convenience of braai places, picnic tables and toilets) and from here a short path crosses a wooden footbridge over a forest stream to bring you to the Woodville Big Tree – a massive Outeniqua yellowwood estimated to be roughly 800 years old. A short forest walk starts at the Big Tree and will take you through an attractive area of indigenous woodland.

Back on the main road, you continue your journey on tar for a few kilometres and immediately this ends you cross the Diep River, and thereafter the Hoogekraal, passing through a valley richly blanketed in forest. After crossing the Karatara River and then the Homtini you reach the bottom of yet another deep valley covered in a great expanse of indigenous forest. Shortly afterwards the road surface reverts to tar. (A turn-off here to Bibby’s Hoek leads to the Millwood goldfields of last century and makes a fascinating excursion, both in the historical sense and in that you are taken deep into the heart of typical Knysna forest). Soon after passing through the little country village of Rheenendal you catch your first glimpses of the Knysna Lagoon and the Knysna Heads and then reach a T-junction with the N2, where you turn left to wind down from the hills into the valley of the Knysna River. The more adventurous can reach Knysna via the steep Phantom Pass.