The Garden Route – Where is Everyone?

I was exhilarated as I set off on my own along the Garden Route – the stretch of coast to the east of Cape Town featuring some of the country’s most scenic mountains, beaches and rivers. I bought a ‘hop on, hop off’ ticket on the BazBus, the door-to-door backpacker service, and chose Mossel Bay as my first port of call. Waiting outside the security-coded fortress of my hostel for the early morning pick-up, I felt ill at ease for the first time in Cape Town. The street was deserted, and there I was with all my belongings including an expensive laptop and lots of cash. I was so jittery that it must have been obvious I had something worth stealing. I told myself to get a grip and tried to adopt the nonchalant demeanour of someone whose backpack contains nothing but tacky souvenirs and smelly clothes. Fortunately, the bus turned up as scheduled. It was virtually empty though – an ominous sign that South Africa’s low season might be somewhat lower than I imagined.

Leaving Cape Town, we passed eye-openingly long stretches of townships which bore a closer resemblance to the shantytowns of Kenya than anything I had seen on organised tours in South Africa. I presumed this was Khayelitsha, the largest township with around half a million inhabitants. As we drove further around the Peninsula, a fantastic view of the city and Table Mountain stretched behind us, and our driver kindly obliged with a photo stop. I stepped out of the bus and for the first time in my life was quite literally blown over by the force of the wind. It took a major effort to fight against the wind and get back into the bus!

The hostel I had chosen in Mossel Bay would have been lovely, if it weren’t for the fact that I was the only tourist there. My fears were confirmed: the Garden Route was deserted. That night I had a 14-bed dormitory to myself – very bizarre and frankly unnerving. Plus, the weather was dismal. I had envisaged lots of hiking, exploring and socialising with other travellers, but my week on the Garden Route became more about relaxing in the peaceful surroundings and rediscovering
reading, running and healthy eating – three things I hadn’t done much of since leaving home.

Wilderness Beach. Beautiful.
I still had a good time. I loved Wilderness. My hostel there was slightly more inhabited than Mossel Bay and was perched on a hill above one of the finest beaches I have seen on my travels. It was fabulous running along miles of sand with the Indian Ocean clawing at the beach, and then watching the sun set from the hostel balcony. Whales, dolphins and sharks are all prevalent off the South African coast, and I don’t think I’d ever get used to such an abundance of amazing sea life. Whilst jogging, I came across a jelly fish the size of a dustbin lid stranded on the beach. I also stopped to watch a fisherman engaged in a battle with something tenacious and energetic on the end of his line. A small crowd joined me, and fifteen minutes later he managed to reel in what was clearly a shark, around two feet long. He proudly told us that it was a ‘baby raggy’, a spotted ragged-tooth shark, and then proceeded to let it go.

My concession to extreme sports - 
the Flying Fox / Zip Line tree canopy
'tour' in Tsitsikamma National Park
At night, it took me a while to realise that the incessant crashing noise in the background wasn’t an annoying generator in the neighbour’s garden, but the sound of the sea. The hostel landlady told us that Europeans are always shocked, and she often gets complaints of a mysterious roaring noise during the night! It was certainly a million miles away from the gentle lapping waves that had lulled us to sleep on the coast of Tanzania. South Africa’s sea is deafening.

One place I would like to revisit in good weather and with companions is Nature’s Valley. As the name suggests, is the most unbelievably remote and tranquil spot. Wild Spirit Lodge, on the doorstep of Tsitsikamma National Park, overlooks a lush valley, with scores of hiking routes, waterfalls and mountains all around. This would have been very appealing if it had stopped raining for even five minutes, if the mist had lifted, and if I had other people to enjoy it with. Rather worryingly for the rest of my trip, I realised that I just didn’t fancy setting off on a trek alone, especially in miserable weather.

As it is, my abiding memory of Wild Spirit Lodge is being woken up in the night by strange, rhythmic scratching and rasping sounds. There was definitely something pretty large making its way around the room and up the walls. The two Belgian girls in the dorm had also awoken and we whispered to each other in panic, before deciding upon a sensible course of action – hide under the bed sheets and ignore it. We woke in the morning to find droppings over all the spare beds. Bats!

I was glad when I reached Port Elizabeth, from where I was flying to Johannesburg and on to Australia. I had met some nice people in hostels and the Garden Route was evidently a perfect place to commune with nature, it was just a shame I had visited it in September.

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