The Garden Route and Karoo – the ultimate 2 week road trip
Over 2000 km, 4 winding mountain passes, uncountable dirt roads. We passed through tropical greenery, arid semi-desert, and wide open landscapes stopping to see spectacular scenery, beautiful beaches, lots of wildlife and one of the natural wonders of the world – the Cango Caves. It was one of the most incredible trips we’ve ever taken.
This is a huge post with tons of photos, information, and a cool video at the bottom. You might want to take a pee or get a beer before sitting down to read. By the time you’re finished with it you’ll have sampled most of the highlights of this region (the Garden Route, Karoo, and the Cape Town area are all part of South Africa’s Western Cape province).
The basics: The Garden Route starts about 4 ½ hours northeast of Cape Town. It is a thin stretch of coastline backed by the impressive Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains. Because of this it has a Mediterranean type climate with generous precipitation. Cross the mountains into the Karoo and you’ll see a totally different geography characterized by semi-desert, open spaces, mountains, and ostrich farms.
Below: A short video to give you a taste of South Africa’s Western Cape
Day 1 – Cape Town to George via the Overberg
Going through the Overberg is the long way of getting to the Garden Route. Coming from Cape Town on the N2, get off at the exit for Gordon’s Bay. The R44 skirts the coast and is particularly scenic just past Gordon’s Bay when you have views like the above. This coastline is particularly popular for spotting whales (July to November is the best time) or cage diving with Great White sharks at Gansbaai. We didn’t do any of that though – this being the first day of vacation Lissette passed out in the passenger seat. I just kept on driving. Other great views: when coming back up towards the N2, the stretch from Brendasdorp to Swellendam has some incredible views of dry hills backed by the imposing Langeberg mountain range.
Want to do shark diving? This is the tour to take.
We had started off from Cape Town at 10 am and it was 7 pm by the time we arrived in pretty George.
Day 2 to 4 – George and surrounding area
People say that there’s not much to George. We actually enjoyed using it as a base to explore the area. George is easy to navigate with its wide, orderly streets and has points of interest in town as well as in the surrounding vicinity. I would even say that the coast in this area is the most scenic on the Garden Route.
Highlights: Go to the ‘Map of Africa‘. Located on a high hill overlooking Wilderness beach, it is a popular spot for paragliding (above). Looking the other direction, you see the scenery in the photo below (that’s why it’s called the Map of Africa). We spent Christmas day walking along beautiful Wilderness beach which stretches up along the coast as far as the eye can see. We went to the George Botanical Gardens (nice views but flowers weren’t in bloom – you can skip if you’ve seen Kirstenbosch in Cape Town) and the Outeniqua Farmer’s Market where they have lots of different food stalls and handicrafts sold by local artists (only open on Saturday mornings – but a really recommended visit). The one thing we missed was the Outeniqua Transport (railway) museum which was closing when we showed up.
George is also located right next to the mountain passes that traverse into the Karoo. More on that soon.
Information and resources on George
Where we stayed in George: Edenwood Guesthouse. A beautiful property on the edge of town looking up at the mountains. Very tranquil and we spent a lot of time relaxing and playing with the 4 dogs and 4 cats. Recommended (unless you have allergies). A couple of other recommendations: Inn Victori Guesthouse & Surfcamps and On the Beach (which is on that beautiful Wilderness Beach).
Useful links: Flytime Paragliding, George Botanical Gardens, Outeniqua Farmers Market. George Tourism.
Day 5 to 7 – Montagu Pass and the Highlights of Oudtshoorn (Little Karoo)
There are 2 passes to get from George to Oudshoorn in the Little Karoo. The most obvious is the paved and incredibly scenic Outeniqua Pass. But we were saving that for our return. On this trip we took the very rough Montagu pass, the old pass built in the mid-1800’s by convict labour.
Once across the pass (it takes about 45 minutes) the lush green of the Garden Route disappears to be replaced by semi-desert. The Little Karoo is dry and you’ll see cactus and shrubs. Impressive landscapes with red earth and majestic mountain ranges in the distance.
Oudtshoorn would end up being our favorite spot on this trip. There are a ton of wildlife, adventure, and sightseeing opportunities. The town itself is very pretty and quiet. Like George it’s very easy to find your way around without getting lost.
We did all the ‘must do’ activities PLUS had an experience that would end up being the highlight of the trip. I’ll detail that further below.
The first thing to do in Oudtshoorn is to visit an Ostrich farm. We chose the Highgate Ostrich Farm.
Do you know that an ostrich can kill a man using its dagger-like front toe? Yup. But they only kick forward and not backwards.
Oudtshoorn is known as the World’s Ostrich Capital and was made rich with Ostrich farming. Most of the wealth was created by the export of ostrich feathers which were used in much of the fashion in Europe. Other uses: Ostrich leather and meat.
The major ‘can’t miss’ attraction in Oudtshoorn are the Cango Caves located half an hour out of town. This huge cave system extends 4 km underground.
I booked the ‘Adventure Tour‘ which includes climbing up a steep set of stairs called Jacob’s ladder, going through the ‘Tunnel of Love’, up the ‘Coffin’,squeezing through the ‘Chimney’ and finally slipping through the ‘Devil’s Postbox’. If it all sounds a bit extreme well it is – I came out of it sweaty and caked with mud. Fun adventure though.
Lissette took the easier ‘Heritage Tour‘ which just focuses on the main (large) caverns.
Below: wedging through cracks in the ‘Adventure Tour”. You have to have a certain slimness taking this tour and there’s a story that’s known to everyone around town: A few years ago a large woman came and wanted to do the tour. Guides tried to dissuade her but she got angry and started accusing them of discrimination. They let her her do it. She got stuck in the Tunnel of Love and was jammed in there for 9 hours – at the same time making everyone who had gone through before her stuck as well (you go out the same way you come in). Full story here (notice that they give her full name, city where she comes from, her weight – and how much she cost the taxpayer. How rough is that?)
So if they tell you that you’re too fat to do this tour it’s maybe not such a good idea…
If you have kids, the place to take them in Oudtshoorn is the Cango Wildlife Ranch. There you can see cheetahs, white lions, crocodiles, monkeys, and even Sumatran tigers. Although touristy, the main goal of the ranch is animal conservation and you’ll see a lot of animals here that are on the endangered list. So it’s a good cause.
It’s also famous as a place where you can get in a cage and get dipped in the water next to a crocodile. I’ve seen bloggers write about it like it’s the most exciting thing they’ve ever experienced. Honestly, it seemed to us that the crocs finally figured out that they can’t get to the people in the cage because they just basically swim around uninterested. So I’d maybe skip that. More interesting though is the opportunity to get to meet and feed some lemurs. I saw them climbing all over participants and it looked like a great chance to interact with these beautiful animals. Overall a good experience.
But our absolute highlight in Oudtshoorn? Dinner at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge.
Just outside of town, this lodge has a restaurant looking out over a lake and the Swartberg mountains in the distance. It ‘feels’ as Africa as you can get and you’re guaranteed to see animals. On this evening we saw a giraffe (across the lake), hippo, wilderbeest, and even had nyala come and graze right next to the dining area. The food was great (I had a fantastic ostrich steak) and the setting absolutely perfect. An experience we will never forget. And you know what? It didn’t cost us any more than any other restaurant in town.
Buffelsdrift was recommended by our guesthouse host Una. She even dropped us off there and picked us up at the end of the evening.
Information and Resources on Oudtshoorn
Where we stayed in Oudtshoorn: Yamkela Guesthouse. Very comfortable room, has a swimming pool, great breakfast, and the friendliest hosts (Una and Charl) that we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Recommend 100%. If you want to do something really special, stay at the Buffelsdrift Game Lodge.
Day 8 to 10 – The Swartberg Pass, Prince Albert, and the Groot Karoo.
There are two ways to get from Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo to Prince Albert in the Big Karoo: over the Swartberg Mountains via the Swartberg Pass or, taking a detour, along the river valley of the Meiringspoort Pass. On this day we were taking the Swartberg Pass.
The Swartberg pass runs for 27 km, most of it hairpin bends looking straight over the edge. It can be hard passing cars going the opposite way in some spots (see the video further below for proof). It will take about 90 minutes to cross the pass so it’s a bit of an adventure…but the views are amazing and something I’ll never forget. In fact, the reason many people go to Prince Albert in the first place is to cross the pass, have lunch, then come back over the pass.
Prince Albert is an old-fashioned one street town. No kidding, it reminds me of what an old west town would be. There are a few cafes, a museum, a church, and a beautiful 50’s style theatre. And in the middle of town, at the center of everything, the colonial style Swartberg hotel. At night, when most of the tourists have left, locals wander into the hotel’s bar (the ‘ladies bar’) and have a drink while watching cricket or rugby or discussing politics with other clients. It’s just that kind of place.
We didn’t do much in Prince Albert, mostly because it was incredibly hot (the desert heat was oppressive). It really is the kind of place to just relax and soak in the culture. Although we really liked this little town for most people 1 night would be enough.
Need to rent a Car? We use Rentalcars.com for our car rentals. They dig up offers from all the major car companies so you get the best deals.
Information and Resources on Prince Albert
Where we stayed: The Swartberg Hotel. Big beautiful hotel that belongs in another era. Incredibly comfortable, fantastic breakfast. The place to stay in town.
Links: Prince Albert Tourism
Days 11 to 14 – The Meiringspoort Pass, the Outeniqua Pass, and on to Knysna.
For those traumatized by the Swartberg Pass (like Lissette), there is an alternative to getting back to Oudtshoorn: the Meiringspoort pass. This paved pass cuts through the mountains along a river valley. And although it is a bit of a detour, requiring you to drive north-east into the Groot Karoo before getting to the pass, the actual driving time is actually the same as the Swartberg Pass.
Having passed through the Meiringspoort Pass and through the Little Karoo, we this time crossed the scenic Outeniqua Pass to get back to the coast (and the Garden Route).
Knysna is considered to be the tourist center of the Garden Route. I’ll be honest – the town itself didn’t hold much appeal to us. As towns go, we actually preferred George as a base than Knysna which, during our stay, was continuously traffic-clogged. BUT: Knysna makes a good base to explore 1) the Knysna Heads (one of our highlights along the Garden Route) and 2) the many tourist attractions on the Eastern end of the Garden Route.
The town is located within a huge lagoon. At the mouth of the lagoon, two huge cliffs protect the entry to the lagoon. These are the Knysna Heads. You can drive to the top of the Heads, park your car, and wander along the many scenic viewpoints looking back at the lagoon as well as out over the Indian Ocean.
You can also drive down to the beach below. That’s what we did. We spent all of an afternoon doing all the above and it was the highlight of our time in Knysna itself.
The Easternmost part of the garden Route has some fantastic wildlife parks as well as national Parks. Lots to see and do. We didn’t have a chance to see everything but here are highlights of what we did do.
Birds of Eden is the largest aviary and bird sanctuary in the world. The facilities are fantastic, with suspended walkways, lakes, and a waterfall. They rehabilitate birds and provide them with a safe place free of predators. What they’ve done here is incredible.
*note: right next door (sharing the same parking lot) is Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary. We would have gone if Lissette wasn’t deathly afraid of monkeys. But if you’re here you can spend almost an entire day seeing birds and monkeys at the two different sanctuaries.
A highlight for us, again close to the above, was the Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary. Here we learned about different snakes, their habitats, and their behaviour. We saw Puff Adders, Cape Cobras, Black Mambas, Green Mambas, Boomslang, as well as a variety of large pythons (which we had the opportunity to hold). The hour tour was excellently done and hands on. We had a bunch of kids in the group and they loved it.
Within a few hundred meters of the snake sanctuary is the Bramon Wine Estate. We finished a day of visiting animals by having a late lunch with a bottle of wine. It’s the only winery in the area as far as I know and it was perfect finish to the day.
What’s better than a walk on the beach after a late lunch and a bottle of wine? This is Keurbooms beach right outside the town of Plettenberg Bay.
Information and Resources on Knysna
Where we stayed: Russel Hotel, centrally located, right in town – nothing fancy but comfortable, great people, and really good breakfasts. Or, a fancier option is Azure House. It has a pool and great views of the lagoon.
.Links: Birds of Eden, Monkeyland, Lawnwood Snake Sanctuary, Bramon Wine Estate, Knysna Tourism.
More Information on the Garden Route and Little Karoo: A couple of years ago my South African friend Tony contributed this very detailed guide to the Garden Route and Little Karoo. It is the bible to this area as far as I’m concerned. On this 2 week trip we visited many of the places in his guide, even added a few of own – but we also missed a few big ones. So between this post and his guide you should have everything you ever need to know about this region of South Africa.
Don’t want to drive? This 6 day tour covers many of the highlights I’ve covered above, it’s all-inclusive, inexpensive…and you don’t have to drive.
About the driving:driving in South Africa is quite easy, the hardest thing for me as a part-time (North American) driver was driving on the left hand side and roundabouts. But I got used to those fast. Roads are good, drivers generally not aggressive, and I love the ‘car guards’ and full-service gas stations. They make life easy for you in South Africa.
If you made it all the way down here, thanks for reading!
Related: 8 reasons to go to South Africa
Related: The BIG Guide to South Africa
Related: The 5 Best Hikes in South Africa
So, what do you think? What would be your highlight in the region?
PS. Looking to book flights, hotels, tours, or rent a car? Have a look at our Travel Resources page.