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…