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Mon 19 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Winelands to whale coast

The lush Garden Route, along the Southern Cape, is South Africa's acknowledged recreation ground. Here, between Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay, you’ll discover amazing wildlife, spa resorts and top restaurants.

The lush Garden Route, along the Southern Cape, is South Africa's acknowledged recreation ground. Here, between Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay, you'll discover amazing wildlife, spa resorts and top restaurants.

Green is the overriding colour of the South Africa coastline.

The subdued green of the impressive mountains, the grape-green of the vineyards, the verdant carpet covering the golf and polo fields, the brownish green shimmering through the unique Fynbos vegetation, and last but not least, the emerald green that sparkles in mystic lagoons and ocean waves.

Driving around, you’ll find the idyllic landscape dotted with whitewashed farms dating from the 18th century.boasting elegant façades and decorations. - Facillam, Sed.

There are no botanical gardens along this, the Garden Route, just this astonishing palette of green.


Travelling from Cape Town to the Garden Route provides an opportunity to start with a couple of relaxing days in the Winelands. Here you can submerge yourself in the heritage of the French ‘Hugenoten': the Huguenot immigrants who brought their wine-growing culture, to which the Dutch colonists, the Boers (‘Farmers') added their language and architectural style.

Driving around, you'll find the idyllic landscape dotted with whitewashed farms dating from the 18th and 19th century, boasting elegant façades and decorations.

One of the most interesting and well-restored places is the historic centre of Stellenbosch. In this European-influenced atmosphere you can easily unwind.

Settle down in one of the charming five-star resorts, do some wine tasting and get yourself a superb dinner, perhaps in the famous Tasting Room of the prize-winning resort Le Quartier Français in Franschhoek. This has become the number one restaurant in South Africa thanks to the remarkable haute cuisine of Dutch chef Margot Janse.

Marine Big 5

From the Winelands it's only an hour's drive to the rocky southern coast, where steep cliffs alternate with sandy beaches. Starting from mid-July, you'll find groups of people simply staring out over sea.

Like a fisherman's wife awaiting the return of her beloved. But the creatures these people are searching for are not human, but whales!

The small village of Hermanus is the self-declared tourist centre of the Whale Coast. Here you'll find everything you need, from whale guides to whale memorabilia. And of course there are spectacular whale and dolphin watching tours for a real close encounter.

Every year these giant sea mammals return to the warm, shallow waters of the South African bays to mate and give birth. It's an exciting period for them too, which makes them nonchalant, playful and curious.

The Southern Right Whale, a colossus of 50 tons with a pockmarked head, often swims inshore in these waters.

They come so close to the shoreline that they can be admired from ramparts and cliffs at a distance of only twenty metres, while the Humpbacks prefer deeper waters for showing off their magnificent jumping skills.

By the beginning of December the whales have burnt off all their blubber and are forced to return to the cold, but nutritious Antarctic seas to feed, leaving behind the other members of the ‘Big 5': dolphins, African penguins, seals and great white sharks. The latter will give a thrilling close-up of his jaws to anyone brave enough to join a cage-dive adventure.

Endangered flora

Besides the fauna the Cape region also has unique flora. The Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest, but richest of the world's six vegetation zones. It's dominated by Fynbos, a scrubby ecosystem with groves of Protea, the national flower of South Africa.

Unfortunately the Fynbos is now endangered, thanks to agriculture and building activities. But sometimes help can arrive in an unexpected form: a spa resort. Little more than a decade ago, Grootbos Nature Reserve was just another goat farm.

Now this private estate is again covered with the original vegetation of Fynbos and Milkwood. The owners have also set up a small gardening school. The courses, which are free, are open to promising students from nearby townships.

It's just one of the many examples of how devoted entrepreneurship is dealing with the social issues of modern South African society.

Gourmet oyster

Leaving the Victorian lighthouse on Cape Agulhas - Portuguese for ‘Cape of Needles', the southernmost tip of Africa - we head for the heart of the Garden Route.

About 400 km east, between the beach resorts of Mussel Bay and ‘millionaires paradise' Plettenberg Bay, the small coastal plain is wedged between the ocean and the elongated mountain chains.

All along the coast, beach houses, boutique hotels and resorts adjoin tennis courts, sophisticated yachting clubs and, just outside Plettenberg, even polo fields, such as Kurland, where might run into Prince Charles of the UK. This is where the rich and famous might spend their weekend, business break or family vacation.

For demanding people, there are even helicopter landing pads and a convenient domestic airport near George. From here you can catch the historic Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe steam train to Knysna.

Although this is primarily a tourist fantasy ride most appreciated by children, parents will enjoy the famous Knysna oysters on the waterfront, freshly served with a glass of champagne. It's a stylish combination for which this picturesque Victorian village is world-renowned. As are the lobsters, of course.

Day-trip to the desert

Had enough of water activities? Done enough shopping? Fed up with all the surfing? And seen the mysterious sunset over Knysna lagoon? Then turn north for the Little Karoo, a semi-desert reached by passing through the Outeniqua Pass, which winds up through the green-blue majestic mountain landscape, providing overwhelming panoramic views.

The ostrich farms around Oudtshoorn make an interesting day-trip for everyone. They are bred merely for their meat, skin and feathers, but bags, shoes and accessories made from real ostrich leather are also luxury goods, a ‘hot' fashion must-have. About five of the roughly 400 farms offer specialised tours, giving inside information about this flightless bird capable of carrying a small person.

Outdoor sports

Tsitsikamma National Park is the end of the Garden Route, and certainly not to be missed. This is the place to be for nature lovers and those fond of outdoor sports such as mountain biking and horse riding.

Adrenalin junkies will find the world's highest bungee jump on the Bloukrans River Bridge - a free fall experience of 216 metres.

Tsitsikamma was named by the Khoisan, the early inhabitants of the area, and means ‘place of much water'. And that's certainly correct. Just sit and watch the booming breakers of the Indian Ocean, or listen to the splashing streams running through the river gorges and rocky ravines.

No wonder Tsitsikamma is also loved by botanists and hikers. This is where you'll find the last remains of the Afromontane rainforest - Blackwood, Stinkwood and Yellow Wood trees that can be over 800 years old.

Or sign up for the magnificent Otter Trail, a strenuous 5-day trek along 80 km of savage coast, fording estuaries at low tide, and enjoying inter-tidal life. At night you might even hear the sounds of wildlife creeping about: leopards, antelope, bush pig and the dog-sized caracal cat.

Once this region was also the natural habitat of the Knysna elephant, but there are only four to six of these creatures left. They are the well-kept ‘Knysna secret'.

Living high in the remote mountain valleys, hiding in the dense bush where even rangers rarely glimpse them, their protective coloration is as mysterious as the African forest.

Social projects with ecotourism

Apart from all the luxury you can enjoy along the Whale Coast and Garden Route, several entrepreneurs have dedicated themselves to the care and support of their society.

More and more, the successful companies in South African ecotourism are turning their attention to local townships, and investing a substantial part of their profits in education and social development.

One such project is the Grootbos Green Futures Foundation, a horticultural college run by the Grootbos Nature Reserve. The reserve has also initiated a second project in the township itself, a children's football club for which the subscription is ‘one sack of garbage'.

Thus it not only stimulates the children's social skills, but also raises their environmental awareness. In the millionaires village of Plettenberg Bay, we met the owner of Oceanblue Marinetours who financially sponsors the Qolweni township crèche, making it possible for the mothers of around 200 children to work and support their families.

And just outside the Tsitsikamma National Park there is the Canopy Tour, proud to have set up a job creation scheme for underprivileged locals.

Yes, the Garden Route is the ultimate playground of South Africa, but in spite of that you can still contribute to the social welfare of the local people, who live in this wonderful, abundant countryside.

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