Cape Town, the mother city, the legislative capital, and the seat of Parliament, with famous landmarks as Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope. The wine lands near Stellenbosch, the Whale Coast along the Overberg, Agulhas where the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean meet, and the Cape Floral Region. The Garden Route, one of the top destinations, running along the Southern Coast from Mossel Bay to Port Elizabeth, with cities like Knysna and ostrich capital Oudtshoorn.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Known as the ‘Mother City’ for its historical role in the development of modern South Africa, Cape Town is dominated by magnificent Table Mountain, its summit draped with cascading clouds, its flanks coated with unique flora and vineyards, and its base fringed by golden beaches. Few cities can boast such a wonderful national park at their heart or provide a wide range of adventurous activities that take full advantage of it. Cape Town is using some of the lessons learned during its stint as World Design Capital during 2014 to transform the city and the quality of life of its population. From the brightly painted facades of the Bo-Kaap and the bathing chalets of Muizenberg to striking street art and the Afro-chic decor of countless guesthouses, this is one good-looking metropolis. Above all, it’s a multicultural city where everyone has a fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking story to tell. When the time comes to leave, you may find your heart breaking too.
Table Mountain, around 600 million years old, can be admired from multiple angles, but no visit to Cape Town is complete without a visit to the top of this iconic mountain. Riding the cableway up the mountain is a no-brainer. The views from the revolving cars and at the summit are simply phenomenal. There are souvenir shops as well as a café at the top. The cars depart every 10 minutes during high season (December to February) and every 15 to 20 minutes during other times of the year.
Used as a prison from the early days of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) right up until 1996, this UNESCO World Heritage site is preserved as a memorial to those (such as Nelson Mandela) who spent many years incarcerated here. You can only go here on a tour, which lasts around four hours including ferry rides, departing from the Nelson Mandela Gateway beside the Clock Tower at the Waterfront. Booking online well in advance is highly recommended as tours can sell out.
CAPE OF GOOD HOPE
This 20,000-acre section of Table Mountain National Park includes awesome scenery, fantastic walks, great birdwatching, and often-deserted beaches. The reserve is commonly referred to as Cape Point, after its most dramatic (but less famous) promontory. Bookings are required for the two-day Cape of Good Hope Trail, a spectacular 21-mile circular route with one night spent in a basic hut.
KIRSTENBOSCH NATIONAL BOTANICAL GARDEN
In July 1913, the South African government handed over the running of Kirstenbosch estate (which had been bequeathed to the state by Cecil John Rhodes in 1902) to a board of trustees. The board established a botanical garden that preserves and propagates rare indigenous plant species. Today, the world-renowned garden covers an area of 2 sq miles, of which 7 percent is cultivated and 90 percent is covered by natural fynbos and forest. Kirstenbosch is spectacular from August to October when the garden is ablaze with spring daisies and gazanias.
BOULDERS PENGUIN COLONY
This picturesque area, with enormous boulders dividing small, sandy coves, is home to a colony of some 3000 delightful African penguins. A boardwalk runs from the Boulders Visitor Center at the Foxy Beach end of the protected area – part of Table Mountain National Park – to Boulders Beach, where you can get down on the sand and mingle with the waddling penguins.
The V&A Waterfront is a shopper’s paradise, offering designer boutiques, outlets selling quirky, hand-painted clothing, health and beauty stores, and shops selling homeware and specialty gifts. It also has more than 80 ethnically diverse food outlets. Most eating places have harbor views, and alfresco dining on the wharves and waterside platforms is extremely popular. Many bars and bistros offer live music, while regular outdoor concerts are staged at the Waterfront Amphitheatre. Excursions of all kinds start at the Waterfront, from boat tours around the harbor and to Robben Island, to helicopter rides over the peninsula and sunset champagne cruises off Clifton Beach. The Waterfront, which also boasts luxurious hotel accommodation, is a port of call for visiting cruise ships.
After Table Mountain, the V&A Waterfront, and Cape Point, the Winelands are the Western Cape’s most popular attraction. The towns of Stellenbosch and Paarl are famous for their elegant, gabled architecture. Viewed from majestic mountain passes, the vineyards of Worcester and Robertson fit together like puzzle pieces, and Franschhoek has an exquisite valley setting, beautiful Cape Dutch architecture, and some of the best restaurants in the country.
A center of viticulture and learning, the historic university town of Stellen bosch is shaded by avenues of ancient oaks. The streets are lined with homes in the Cape Dutch, Cape Georgian, Regency, and Victorian styles. Through the centuries, Stellenbosch has been ravaged by three fires, and several homes have had to be restored. Walking is the best way to explore the town and to see the historic buildings and other attractions. A “Stellenbosch on Foot” brochure for a self-guided walk is available from the tourist information center on Market Street.
Farms in this beautiful valley encircled by the Franschhoek and Groot Drakenstein mountains were granted to several French Huguenot families by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1694. The new settlers brought with them considerable skill as farmers, crafters, and viticulturists, leaving a marked influence on the area, which the Dutch-named De Fransche Hoek (French Corner). Visible at the top end of the main street is the Huguenot Monument, unveiled in 1948 to commemorate the arrival of the French settlers. A wide, semicircular colonnade frames three tall arches representing the Holy Trinity. Before them is the figure of a woman standing on a globe, with her feet on France.
In 1687, farms were allocated to early Dutch colonists in the pretty Berg River Valley, which is flanked to the north by Paarl Mountain. The name Paarl comes from the Dutch peerlbergh (pearl mountain), given to the outcrops by early Dutch explorer Abraham Gabbema when he spotted the three smooth domes after a rain shower. Mica chips embedded in the granite glistened in the sun, giving it the appearance of a shiny pearl. The town of Paarl was established in 1690.
In 1700, Governor Willem Adriaan van der Stel initiated a new settlement in the Breede River Valley, naming it Tulbagh, after his predecessor. Encircled by the Witzenberg and Winterhoek mountains, in 1969 the town was hit by an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. Eight people died and many historic buildings were badly damaged. The disaster resulted in a five-year restoration project undertaken along Church Street, lined with no less than 32 18th- and 19th-century Victorian and Cape Dutch homes. The oldest building, Oude Kerk (old church) Volksmuseum, dates back to 1743 and contains the original pulpit, pews, and Bible. De Oude Herberg, Tulbagh’s first boarding house (1885), is now a guesthouse and restaurant.
Darling is surrounded by a farming region of wheat fields, vineyards, sheep, and dairy cattle, but is best known for its spring flower show. Darling also lays claim to satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, who has gained fame for the portrayal of his female alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, fictitious ambassadress of the equally fictitious homeland called Baphetikosweti. His bar, Evita se Perron (Evita’s platform), is situated on a defunct railway platform and attracts crowds to hear hilarious, razor-sharp analyses of local politics.
WEST COAST NATIONAL PARK
The West Coast National Park encompasses Langebaan Lagoon, the islands Schaapen, Jutten, Marcus, and Malgas, and the Post berg Nature Reserve, which is opened to the public each spring (Aug–Sep), when it is carpeted with colorful wildflowers such as daisies and gazanias. The park is one of South Africa’s most important wetlands, harboring some 250 species of waterbird including plovers, herons, ibis, and black oystercatchers. Antelope species such as elands and kudus can also be seen, along with zebras. The park can be explored by car or on hiking trails; accommodation consists of chalets and houseboats on the lagoon.
Frost-free winters and the Olifants River Irrigation Scheme have made Citrusdal South Africa’s third-largest citrus district. The first orchard was planted with seedlings from Van Riebeeck’s garden at the foot of Table Mountain. One tree, after bearing fruit for some 250 years, is now a national monument. The Goede Hoop Citrus Co-operative has initiated scenic mountain bike trails around Citrusdal, such as the old Ceres and Piekenierskloof passes.
Clanwilliam is the headquarters of the rooibos (red bush) tea industry. The shoots of the wild shrub are used to make a caffeine-free tea that is low in tannin and also considered to have medicinal properties. Clanwilliam Dam, encircled by the Cederberg Mountains, stretches for 11 miles and is popular with water-skiers. Wooden holiday cabins line the banks, and an attractive campsite has been established right at the water’s edge.
From the north, the Cederberg range is reached via Pakhuis Pass and the Biedouw Valley, 31 miles from Clanwilliam. Traveling from the south, take the N7 from Citrusdal. The Cederberg range is a surreal wilderness of sandstone peaks that have been eroded into jagged formations. It is part of the Cederberg Wilderness Area which was proclaimed in 1973 and covers 274 sq miles. The attraction of the range is its recreational appeal – walks, hikes, camping, and wonderful views. The southern part, in particular, is popular for its dramatic rock formations: the Maltese Cross, a 66-ft high pillar, and the Wolfberg Arch with its sweeping views of the area. At the Wolfberg Cracks, the main fissure measures more than 98 ft. The snow protea (Protea cryophila), endemic to the upper reaches of the range, occurs on the Sneeuberg which, at 2,028 m (6,654 ft), is the highest peak. The Clanwilliam cedar, after which the area was named, is a species that is protected in the Cederberg Wilderness Area.
This seaside village, named after Betty Youlden, the daughter of a property developer who lived here in the 1900s, is a popular weekend retreat. Hundreds of timber holiday cottages are scattered throughout the dunes, while the beach offers tremendous views across False Bay to the Cape Peninsula. Of significance is the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden on the slopes of the Kogelberg, which rises behind Betty’s Bay. Harold Porter, a partner in a property agents’ business in the village, bought this tract of land in 1938 to preserve the rich mountain and coastal fynbos vegetation. More than 1,600 species of ericas, proteas, and watsonias – one of the densest concentrations in the Southern Cape – attract sugarbirds and sunbirds. The Leopard Kloof Trail runs through dense riverine forest to a picturesque waterfall. The penguin reserve at Stoney Point protects a small breeding colony of African penguins.
Originally established as a farming community by Hermanus Pieters, the town became a fashionable holiday and retirement destination due to the sunny climate and attractive location. Fishermen and sailors also found a relatively easy life, while visitors frequented the Windsor, Astoria, and other august hotels. Today the town’s grandeur is a little faded, but it still has plenty to offer most tourists. The focal point is the Old Harbour Open-Air Museum, which traces the history of the town’s whaling days, and contains a whale skull and old weapons. Fishermen’s boats dating from 1850 to the mid- 1900s lie restored and hull-up. There are also bokkom stands, racks on which fish are hung to dry in the sun, and reconstructed fishing shacks.
Today, Hermanus is famous for its superb whale-watching sites. Every year, southern right whales migrate from the sub-Antarctic to calve in the shelter of Walker Bay. They arrive in June and leave again by December, but the peak whale watching season is from September to October when visitors are more than likely to sight the large mammals frolicking offshore. The town’s official whale crier blows his kelp horn as he walks along Main Street, bearing a signboard that shows the best daily sighting places. Hermanus has a beautiful coastline. Unspoiled beaches such as Die Plaat, a 7-mile stretch from Klein River Lagoon to De Kelders, are perfect for walks and horse riding. A clifftop route extends from New Harbour to Grotto Beach – the regularly placed benches allow walkers to rest and to enjoy the superb views. Swimming is generally safe, and there is a tidal pool below the Marine Hotel, to the east of the old harbor. Activities nearby include the Rotay Way, a 6-mile scenic drive, and the Hermanus Wine Route, which features four vineyards in the pretty Hemel en Arde Valley.
Approximately 12 miles east of Hermanus lies Stanford, a rustic crafts center. The heart of this little village contains many historic homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and has been proclaimed a national conservation area. The early school building and Anglican Church both date back to 1880, while the reputedly haunted Spookhuis (ghost house) is dated about 1885. Fernkloof Nature Reserve boasts 25 miles of waymarked footpaths, a 3-mile circular nature trail, and more than a thousand species of fynbos.
The name Gansbaai (Bay of Geese) originates from the flocks of Egyptian geese that used to breed here. Gansbaai is renowned for the tragedy of HMS Birkenhead. In February 1852, this ship hit a rock off Danger Point, 6 miles away, and sank with 445 men – all the women and children were saved. To this day, the phrase “Birkenhead Drill” describes the custom of favoring women and children in crisis situations. From Gansbaai, there are several boat trips to Dyer Island, where you can watch great white sharks feed on the seals that breed on nearby Geyser Island. This area is also home to large numbers of African penguins, another food source for the great whites that congregate here. Nicknamed “Shark Alley”, the channel between the islands and the mainland is a popular destination for shark-diving.
Cape Agulhas was named by early Portuguese navigators – the first to round Africa in the 15th century. At the southernmost point of their journey, the sailors noticed that their compass needles were unaffected by magnetic deviation, pointing true north instead. They called this point the “Cape of Needles”. At this promontory, where the tip of the African continental shelf disappears undramatically into the sea to form what is known as the Agulhas Bank, the Atlantic and Indian oceans merge. The only physical evidence of this convergence is a simple stone cairn. This is one of the world’s most treacherous stretches of coast. The often-turbulent waters are shallow, rock-strewn, and subject to heavy swells and currents.
Arniston’s name originates from the British vessel Arniston, which was wrecked east of the settlement in May 1815. Tragically, of the 378 soldiers on board, who were homebound from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), only six survived. The little fishing settlement is located some 15 miles southeast of Bredasdorp, off the R316, and is characterized by its turquoise waters. The locals call the village Waenhuiskrans (wagon house cliff ), after a cave situated 1 mile south of the modern Arniston Hotel that is large enough to accommodate several fully spanned ox wagons. The cave is accessible only at low tide, however, and visitors should beware of freak waves wash ing over the slippery rocks. Kassiesbaai is a cluster of rough-plastered and thatched fishermen’s cottages with traditional tiny windows to keep out the midday heat. This little village lies to the north of Arniston, very close to undulating white sand dunes. Further to the south lies Roman Beach, which is especially good for youngsters, with its gently sloping seabed, rock pools, and caves. Continuing further from here is a windy, wild rocky point that attracts many hopeful anglers.
DE HOOP NATURE RESERVE
This reserve encompasses a 31-mile stretch of coastline, weathered limestone cliffs, and spectacular sand dunes, some of which tower as high as 295 ft. De Hoop’s main attraction is a 9-mile wetland that is home to 12 of South Africa’s 16 waterfowl species. Wildlife can also be seen in the reserve, and there is a short circular drive from the rest camp to Tierhoek. Species to look out for are the rare Cape mountain zebra and bontebok, eland, grey rhebok, baboons, and the yellow mongoose. A mountain bike trail traverses the Potberg section of the reserve, which contains a breeding colony of the rare Cape vulture.
Nestling in the shadow of the Langeberg Mountains, Swellendam is one of South Africa’s most picturesque small towns. The country’s third oldest town, after Cape Town and Stellenbosch, Swellendam was founded by the Dutch in 1742 and named after the governor and his wife. The thatched-roofed and whitewashed Drostdy was built by the Dutch East India Company in 1747 as the seat of the land drost, or magistrate. It now serves as a museum of Dutch colonial life. Built shortly afterward, the Old Gaol is situated at the rear of the Drostdy. Originally it was a simple, single-story building with lean-to cells, but it was subsequently enlarged to include an enclosed courtyard created by linking the two cell blocks with high walls. Swellendam is renowned for its many fine old buildings. The Oefeningshuis was built in 1838 as a school for freed slaves. An interesting feature of the building is the clock designed for the illiterate: when the time painted on the sculpted clock face matches that on the real clock below, then it is time for worship. Also noteworthy are the imposing Dutch Reformed Church, the wrought-iron balconies of the Buirski & Co shop, which opened for trade in 1880, and the elegant Auld House on the same street.
This pretty village, which is part of the Four Passes Tour, has several attractions. The Fransie Pienaar Museum, which hosts one of the world’s largest fossil collections, also houses the tourist information center, where guided walking tours of Prince Albert can be booked. The Prince Albert Gallery, opposite the museum, was set up by local artists who wanted to find a venue to show their work. There are regular exhibitions of paintings, sculpture,s and photographs. The Gallery Café is open for dinner. On Saturday mornings, in the square opposite the museum, there is a food and crafts market, and each April, Prince Albert holds a popular olive, food, and wine festival, with live entertainment and stalls selling local produce.
The town of Oudtshoorn was established in 1847 at the foot of the Swartberg Mountains, to cater to the needs of the Little Karoo’s growing farming population. It gained prosperity when the demand for ostrich feathers – to support Victorian, and later Edwardian fashion trends – created a sharp rise in the industry in 1870–80. The Karoo’s hot, dry climate proved suitable for big-scale ostrich farming – the loamy soils yielded extensive crops of lucerne, which forms a major part of the birds’ diet, and the ground was strewn with the small pebbles that are a vital aid to their somewhat unusual digestive processes. Oudtshoorn’s importance as an ostrich-farming center continued for more than 40 years, and the town became renowned for its sandstone mansions, built by wealthy ostrich barons. However, World War I and changes in fashion resulted in the industry’s decline, and many farmers went bankrupt. Ostrich farming eventually recovered in the 1940s with the establishment of the tanning industry. Today, ostrich products include eggs, leather, meat, and bonemeal. The town also produces crops of tobacco, wheat, and grapes.
Deep in the foothills of the Swartberg Mountains lies an underground network of chambers and passages, where dissolved minerals have crystallized to form stalactite and stalagmite dripstone formations that resemble fluted columns and delicate, ruffled drapes. The complex was first explored by Jacobus van Zyl after his herdsman stumbled upon the cave opening in 1780, but rock paintings and stone implements discovered near the entrance indicate that the site was occupied as early as 80,000 years ago. Only Cango 1 is open to the public. Access to Cango 2 and 3, discovered in 1972 and 1975 respectively, is prohibited in order to preserve the crystals. Some of the dramatic dripstone formations in Cango 1, which is 2,500 ft in length, are the 30-ft high Cleopatra’s Needle, which is believed to be some 150,000 years old, a dainty Ballerina, and a Frozen Waterfall. The largest chamber is Van Zyl’s Hall, 350 ft long and 52 ft high. An hour-long standard tour takes in the first six chambers, while the full tour is a 1.5-hour hike with 416 stairs that is best attempted only by the fit. The temperature inside is a constant 64°F, but humidity can reach an uncomfortable 99.9 percent.
THE GARDEN ROUTE
The Garden Route, from Wilderness to the end of Tsitsikamma, where the N2 heads inland for the last stretch to Port Elizabeth, is a scenic treat. Upon leaving the town of Wilderness, vehicles can park at Dolphin’s Point for an uninterrupted view of the coastline with its long white rollers. After Wilderness, the N2 hugs the coast almost all the way to Knysna. From here it passes through indigenous forest as far as Storms River. Between Nature’s Valley and Storms River, detours can be made off the N2 to cross the spectacular old pass routes of Grootrivier and Bloukrans. Lush vegetation, mountains, lagoons, rivers, and the sea combine to make this route a visual feast.
The wide streets of George were laid out in 1811 during the British occupation of the Cape. Named after King George III, the town is today the Garden Route’s largest center, primarily serving the farming community. Victoria Bay, 6 miles from George off the N2, is the closest beach, nestled in a pretty narrow cove. The Outeniqua Transport Museum provides an insight into the history of steam train travel in South Africa. The Outeniqua Nature Reserve is the starting point for 12-day walks in the indigenous forest of the Outeniqua Mountains. At least 125 tree species grow here, and more than 30 forest birds have been recorded. The Tierkop Trail is a circular overnight route that covers 19 miles. The difficult Outeniqua Trail between here and Knysna covers 67 miles in seven days.
Six miles east of the city of George is South Africa’s lake district. This chain of salt- and freshwater lakes at the foot of forested mountain slopes forms part of the Wilderness sector of the Garden Route National Park. Protecting some 19 miles of unspoiled coastline, the park features two long white beaches – Wilderness and Leentjiesklip. However, note that swimming is not safe here due to the strong undercurrents. Birdlife viewing in the park is excellent. The area is also popular for angling and a variety of watersports, and a scenic drive starting at Wilderness runs along Lakes Road, which skirts the lake chain and meets up with the N2 at Swartvlei. There are many hiking trails in and around Wilderness as well. Horse trails can also be followed, and other activities such as paragliding and abseiling can be enjoyed here.
Furniture, boat building, and oysters cultivated in the lagoon are Knysna’s major industries. Today it is one of the Garden Route’s most popular tourist destinations. The Knysna Quays is a modern complex developed around the old harbor, complete with restaurants, boutiques, and souvenir shops. An extensive marina has been built on Thesen Island, linked to the town by a causeway, and has apartments, hotels, a manmade beach, and a pleasant park with bird hides overlooking the lagoon.
Upmarket Plettenberg Bay, 19 miles east of Knysna, is the holiday playground of the wealthy. A coast of rivers, lagoons, and white beaches, “Plett”, as it is called by the locals, earned the name Bahia Formosa (“beautiful bay”) from early Portuguese sailors. South of the town, the Robberg Nature Reserve juts out into the sea, its cliffs rising to 486 ft in places. The three trails on offer range from a 30-minute stroll to a four-hour hike, all offering fantastic views of the dramatically churning seas and pristine secluded bays. The reserve also extends 1.2 miles offshore, protecting a range of vulnerable fish species, and dolphins are often seen, as are whales, in spring. On the east side of the Keurbooms River Bridge on the N2, 4 miles east of Plettenberg Bay, Keurbooms River Nature Reserve encompasses the headwaters.
Tsitsikamma is a San word meaning “place of abundant waters”. It is part of the Garden Route National Park and extends for 42 miles from Nature’s Valley to Oubosstrand, and stretches seawards for some 3 miles, offering licensed snorkellers and divers a unique “underwater trail”. Within the park’s boundaries lie two of South Africa’s most popular hikes, the Tsitsikamma and Otter trails. Primeval forest, rugged mountain scenery, and panoramic views contribute to their popularity with hikers.