Capes Secret Garden

The Cape's Secret Garden - South Africa's famous Garden Route has a therapeutic mix of beach, nature reserve and inland retreat to satisfy all your senses. Carrie Hampton went looking for all this and found it!The most relaxed people I have ever met seem to live by the sea or in the mountains, so in search of Nirvana, I took a circular trip from Cape Town along South Africa's coastal Garden Route returning via mountain passes and vineyards.The lush coastal plain is bordered on one side by the purple hued granite and sandstone mountains. Almost every town and beauty spot along this 800k stretch is worth stopping at and I chose a therapeutic mix of beach, nature reserve and inland retreat to satisfy all my senses.My emotions were stimulated too by watching Southern Right and Humpback Whales blowing and breaching from the high cliff road en route to Hermanus. This was once a centre for whale hunting but now celebrates their preservation with a Whale Festival every September. During August to October you are pretty much guaranteed to see whales along the Cape Peninsula and the Garden Route.

Enter a Lush New World

Leaving the sandy Cape Flats behind, you must choose between the long elevated coastal road or the scenic mountain pass after which you will enter a lush new world of vast undulating hills tinged gold with silently growing wheat.This inland route was once the only passable wagon track back to Cape Town from outlying towns. The southern most tip of Africa - Cape Agalhus - with its grand lighthouse is a lengthy diversion off this main road and more for the 'been there done that' value than its spectacular scenery.I continued through fertile farming country to the historic town of Swellendam, which in 1795 declared itself an 'Independent Republic'. Three months later, with the first British occupation of the Cape and a new bureaucracy, the little republic quietly expired. Here I took 'high tea' at the gracious Klippe Rivier Country Guest House with views across the dam to the Langeberg mountains beyond.This 1825 white-walled, thatched and gabled homestead epitomises the finest qualities of the Western Cape's architectural heritage and as such has been declared a National Monument.The 'Garden Route' according to the maps actually begins at Mossel Bay, where the main road runs close to the coast and the lushness increases with each kilometre. The chain of salt lakes and forested slopes of the Wilderness area has been described as 'resembling the entrance to paradise'. Wooden stilted chalets dotted over the hillsides exude a strong Canadian/Swiss flavour.

Royalty In Knysna

Knysna is the most popular resort along this coast and is famous for its Outenique Choo Tjoe a steam train, large and luscious oysters nurtured in the tidal lagoons, its furniture and carved birds of indigenous wood, its lone female elephant who wanders the forests and is sadly the last of a sub species, and the Knysna Heads where cruising yachts surf into the lagoon on giant swells through a narrow rocky channel.It is also famous for one of the most enduring rumours in history: whether George Rex - Knysna's most famous early 1800's inhabitant - was the illegitimate son of King George III of England? He was certainly treated as such and his presence made it very fashionable to settle in Knysna.Plettenberg Bay just 40k's further along the coast is a huge horseshoe of white sand and surfable waves, harbouring dolphins by the dozen and excellent viewpoints for whale watching. The town centre is one street long with just enough restaurants and shops to satisfy and not too many to overburden the pocket.The wooden beach bar is the perfect place to sip a few cocktails and watch boogie-boarders tumble and beachcombers stroll. There are of course plenty of hotels, country houses and guesthouses but a 'back to nature' lifestyle is prevalent here, with beautifully situated camp sites and caravan parks.The sea-side part of my trip having been more that satisfied I continued past Cape St Francis whose agreed policy of white washed walls and thatched roofs gives the place a picturesque toy-town quality. Nor did I divert to surfers paradise, Jeffrey's Bay where annual surfing competitions are held every July in 'super tubes' up to half a kilometre long.

Elephants Everywhere

I had reached Port Elizabeth and the Addo Elephant Park - the closest National Park to Cape Town with large animals. There are no big cats but there are plenty of elephants including pink behind the ear babies not yet in control of their long trunks.Also 38 highly endangered black rhino, a large herd of buffalo, zebra, antelopes and the rare important flightless dung beetle, which is absolutely necessary to clean up you know what from you know who. An uncommonly straight-faced parks officer told me, 'We are very worried about the decline of our dung beetle population.'Considering an adult elephant deposits upwards of 150kg of dung every day - about one drop every 15 minutes - he has every right to be concerned if the dung beetles stop doing their job.Accommodation at Addo is in thatched rondavels with a communal kitchen, or fully equipped basic but comfortable chalets, all of which overlook a well-trodden path to the floodlit water hole.Both day and night you will see more elephants than you could wish for and maybe a shy rhino, and late into the evening the silver-backed jackals strike a sudden eerie note with their synchronised howling Bring some steaks with you or buy food at the shop to barbecue on your own balcony as this is far preferable to the restaurant food.I spent two beautiful moon lit nights and sunny cotton-cloud days driving through the reserve becoming adept at spotting anything that moved and sad to leave I headed further inland and west for the hills and the town of Oudtshoorn. Situated on a plain between the Swartberg and Langeberg mountain ranges, Oudtshoorn is famous for Ostriches - there are about 300,000 of them.

Ostriches Love Shiny Things

I rode one ungainly during a visit to Highgate Ostrich farm and retained from the tour such useless information as; an ostrich egg weighs 1½kilos and takes an hour and a half to hard boil.Not the brightest of birds, an ostrich carries around more than a kilo of stones in its stomach to aid digestion and the odd diamond ring and gold necklace, which it has pecked off an unsuspecting tourist. Be warned - they have a penchant for shiny things!In the foothills of the Swartberg mountains behind Oudtshoorn are the spectacularly formed Kango caves, commercialised into a tourist attraction of note. Not to be missed is a drive over the Swartberg Pass where the road serpentines and twists down flame-coloured precipices and the warped and arched sandstone rocks form a canyon full of echoes. This pass is said to be one of the most beautiful in South Africa.

Little Sanctuary In The Mountains

I finally succumbed to total hedonism on my last night on tour. The sun set into a raspberry sorbet, a bottle of champagne cooled in the fridge and I drank it in the most delightful, luxurious and tranquil spot in the Montague mountains behind Cape Town.The Little Sanctuary 'Haven of Rest' is not as the name might suggest a place where you come to retire, but a place where you come to indulge. It lies in 10 acres on a private hillside close to the therapeutic Hot Springs overlooking Tuscan-style hills of neatly rowed vines.Each cottage has an ample spa bath and sauna/steam shower and the bed is swathed with muslin curtains and piled with plump cushions. Breakfast is served in bed complete with a silver dome over the eggs of your choice and fresh juices, muffins and aromatic coffee.There are plenty of hiking trails, wine cellars, sports facilities and arts and crafts in Montague, but I just took to the healing waters as the Afrikaner Foretrekkers did so long ago, and wallowed in a tidal wave of bubbles in my spa bath. My skin had never felt so soft and I glowed with an aura of tranquility.I had achieved my aim of attaining a state akin to that which my yoga teacher talks of and returned to reality a hopelessly laid back case. I decided that if this is the result of a trip along Cape Town's Garden Route I will definitely be back next year for another dose.

Copyright © 2002 Carrie Hampton.

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