The Garden Route: Skimming South Africa’s Coast

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A year ago when my mom and I were planning our South African tour, I knew we wanted to see more than just Cape Town and a game park. Neither of us had been there before—in fact, it was our first time in Africa, period—and we’d allotted nearly three weeks to explore. I’d heard of the fabled Garden Route—South Africa’s equivalent to America’s iconic Highway 1, a path I’ve taken many times being a California resident—and thought that would offer us a great glimpse of coastal South Africa. But just where to go and what to see was the problem. There was just too much, and we only had five days between bidding my sister farewell in Cape Town and catching our flight to Hoedspruit for our safari. Ideally, you need two weeks to cover the 800-kilometer stretch that runs from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, but we didn’t have that, so we worked with what little time we did have. And that’s precisely how we found ourselves covering roughly 1,000 kilometers—500 each way—in just five days.

I consulted a local journalist for some planning help, as well as enlisted the advice of my travel writing colleague, Andrew. He sent me in the direction of Grootbos, a massive nature reserve and one of the most impressive five-star eco-lodges I’ve ever visited. We drove the first two hours outside of Cape Town, over the windy ways of the rugged mountains that flank the Western Cape, and along the road where it hugged the coast, through the town of Hermanus to Gansbaii, where we would take Andrew’s advice and bunk at Grootbos for the night.

Everything about this place blew my mind from the lodging—all the villas had at least two bathrooms, a living room, kitchenette, a stand-alone bedroom, a wrap-around porch with views of the ocean—to the common areas.

The food was nothing to scoff at either. That was one of the biggest thing that surprised me about South Africa: We did not have a bad meal anywhere. The dining experience was similar to the San Francisco cuisine I’ve come to know so well and love: organic ingredients, fish plucked fresh from the sea, gourd-like vegetables populating each dish.

Gansbaii is most well known as the premier spot to do great white cage diving, and well, as that’s the one adventure I’d ever rule out completely, I thought I’d try to overcome my phobia and at least tag along on the boat for the day. Trips out onto the rocky Atlantic all depend on the weather, and it was on the fringe of winter, nippy and quite windy, so trips were canceled for that day. All the better, my mom and I were taken on a Land Rover ride to see the sprawling estate—the richest botanical gardens in the world—comprising Grootbos instead. (It’s also home to the biggest milkwood forest in the world, spanning 60 acres.)

Our guide was very knowledgeable about all the plants growing on the property—there are more than 700 of them, all endemic to the area—as well as the wildlife. We didn’t see any big game, as it was early in the morning. Apparently, dusk is prime time to see some animals. But we did see some feathered friends when we ventured into the farm territory.

By far the coolest part of Grootbos is its giving-back approach. The staff selects natives from the villages each year to go through an intensive training program, Green Futures, learning horticulture and computer skills, in hopes they’ll gain the skills they need to be employable and go on to work for the municipality or other enterprises. (South Africa has a staggering 35 percent unemployment rate,  which is even worse outside of the bigger metropolitan areas.) Hundreds of villagers apply each year, and all are required to write essays and be put through an extensive interview process.

The program primarily serves to educate them about native South African plants, particularly as 97 percent of them have been removed from South Africa entirely. All the students learn an average of five plants a week, a total of 900 by the end of the program, including their traits, how they grow and what their pollinators are. The students run a nursery, where they sell the fruits of their labor. The money earned goes toward paying for the next class’ schooling.

Addtionally, there the women’s project, “Growing the Future,” that puts eight women a year through an intensive agriculture program, including food production, life skills, growing vegetables, beekeeping, tending to the chickens and pigs, making their own compost, learning organic farming, the works.

Pretty cool place, eh? Once my mom and I felt well educated, we packed our rental SUV and continued down the Garden Route. From there, it was off to Mossel Bay and Oudtshoorn in search of ostriches…

COMMENTS
  • February 7, 2011

    The Garden Route was So spectacular. I could have spent a Lot more time there. I heard about other programs to help local people learn to help themselves. We almost crossed paths here.

  • February 7, 2011

    Such a cool place!!! I <3 SA! Great pics!

  • February 7, 2011
    Allison

    I loved reading this!! Brought back memories of a study abroad trip I did in South Africa in 2007. Definitely in my top 3 favorite countries in the world.

    • February 7, 2011
      Kristin

      I agree! It’s currently at the very top of my list. While I wouldn’t change anything about my undergrad study abroad experience in Scotland, if I’d known now what I do about South Africa, I might have made a different decision entirely!

  • February 7, 2011
    SVV

    I’ve got a sudden craving for breakfast.

    • February 7, 2011
      Kristin

      BACON!!!!

  • February 7, 2011

    How beautiful! I would have just been happy with the fantastic food and the gorgeous drive, but the farming program is pretty awesome, too.

    (Also, voting is done and done. Merde!)

  • February 7, 2011

    Excellent place to stay and learn. I am glad your friend pointed you there. I would like to try the food. You don’t hear about South African cuisine a lot and that is why I would like to try it.

    • February 8, 2011
      Kristin

      No you don’t. It was very similar to coastal California cuisine, but with more game (springbok, bison, etc.). It was delicious!

  • February 7, 2011

    Forgot to congratulate you for your Blogies nomination. I will sure vote for you.

  • February 7, 2011

    I’m taking notes from your South Africa adventures so I can plan mine accordingly. I’m thinking August….

    p.s. Good luck with the Bloggies! I voted!

    • February 8, 2011
      Kristin

      Oh good! I’m going to do the Garden Route posts in succession for once, so glad they’ll be useful for somebody =) You’re going to looooove South Africa!

  • February 8, 2011

    Congrats lady…That’s awesome!

  • February 8, 2011

    I am so excited you are posting these at last! We’ve arrived in Mexico to meet up with our boat, so it’s coming at a time when I’m feeling particularly tender about our beautiful western cape. Grootbos is gorgeous.

    • February 8, 2011
      Kristin

      About time, right? It’s honestly bittersweet as that was one of the best trips I’ve been on in my life, and I have such a pang of longing to go back to South Africa (and maybe even live there, which likely won’t happen!). The good news is that two of our closest friends out in the Bay Area are getting married west of Cape Town next March, so we’re really hoping to go–and I’ll get to bring Scott this time! Fingers crossed we can make it happen…

  • February 8, 2011

    I love this!! I love your life! Congrats on the Bloggies contest I’m going to vote for you!!!

  • February 8, 2011

    I kinda wish you would have been able to do that shark dive because I would have liked to see what you thought (or what your mom thought about it). I would actually never do that myself either. I would have nightmares and probably never surf again.

    This sounds like a great trip to have done with your mom. My mom really wants to visit S. Africa and I told her I would go with her when she is ready. 🙂

  • February 8, 2011

    Your photos are amazing. They always are but there’s something about these… Congrats on the nomination by the way, going to vote now!

  • February 8, 2011

    the place you stayed at looks pretty awesome. its a great thing if those guys are educating the local people

  • February 9, 2011

    The place looks amazing – I love South Africa! The only thing I cringed at was the use of the word “natives” in your post… there’s just something about it that reminds me of old men in safari suits traipsing through the African jungle in the 1800s using the “natives” to carry their stuff. Having said that, great program that the place is doing to help out in the community 🙂

    • February 9, 2011
      Kristin

      Rebecca,”natives” isn’t a derogatory term. I use “natives” anytime I’m in a country not my own to differentiate the people who live there from tourists, “foreigners,” like myself. Maybe I should have used “locals” in this case because people always seem to get so offended over certain terminology when it comes to Africa (see my Rwanda children portraits if you want to know what I’m talking about). But I was simply implying that only native South Africans are chosen for such positions, i.e. internationals are not allowed to apply.

  • February 9, 2011

    Very cool post! I’ve read that there are several sustainable farms in that area but we didn’t visit any of them (terrible of us, I know). We did feast on lots and lots of good food from organic farms so that counts, doesn’t it?

    • February 9, 2011
      Kristin

      Totally counts! Man, I still have dreams about the food there. Who would have thought South Africa would become one of my favorite dining destinations?? (One thing’s for certain: Rwanda definitely was not!)

  • February 11, 2011

    Congrats on the Bloggies nod! And great to see how the Garden Route has changed. I was down there, OMG, over 15 years ago and it was nowhere near as developed or foodie as it sounds like it is now. Thanks for sharing.

  • February 11, 2011

    So beautiful! I planned my SA trip after my bachelor graduation.. which means I have wait a year and a half!

  • March 3, 2011

    The fact that I rarely had a bad meal while in South Africa is one of my favorite memories too (and I was there for 4+ months!).

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