Whether you prefer camping next to the river, in the forest, or at the ocean, there’s something for everyone in the Garden Route National Park.
It stretches across the Eastern and Western Cape, and this park is one of the most important conservation areas in the country in terms of biodiversity. It was established in 2009 by amalgamating the existing Tsitsikamma and Wilderness National Parks with the Knysna National Lake Area, and with various other areas of state-owned land.
There are four campsites in the Garden Route National Park, although only three can accommodate caravans.
I am from Cape Town, and have often travelled the Garden Route, but this journey was set to be a little different. While I’d usually lounge away the days at my campsite, this time I was heading out to visit all three camps and engage in some outdoor adventures in the park.
WILDERNESS EBB-AND-FLOW REST CAMP
The Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp is situated right on the banks of the Touws River, just outside the town of Wilderness.
Ebb-and-Flow is probably one of the best National Park resorts that I have ever visited. Apart from its stunning location with views of the river and surrounding mountains, the campsites are neat and clean, and staff members come around daily to collect trash and clean the braais.
Admittedly, the ablution facilities could do with an upgrade, but they’re better than the ones at many other national park camps that I’ve visited.
The camp is split into a North and South section – the south has camping sites and wooden cottages and cabins for accommodation, and the north offers camping and rondavels.
I prefer the north section (to your right, as you head into the camp), but to be honest, I know that either side will provide you with an enjoyable experience.
There are 37 sites directly on the river in the north section, and 24 water-facing sites in the south. In total, Ebb-and-Flow has 143 camping spots. All sites are clearly demarcated.
The campsites all have electricity and braai facilities, and there are shared water points. Ablutions are spread throughout each section.
After checking in at the neat thatch-roofed reception building, where their 3-star tourism grading for Caravan & Camping is proudly displayed, I headed in to find myself a spot next to the river. As it was not a school holiday, and was in the middle of the week, I was surprised to see quite a few sites occupied by caravans, motorhomes and tents.
Then, after setting up camp, I headed off for my first outdoor adventure: the Half-Collared Kingfisher hiking trail.
This easy 7.2 km return route starts at the railway bridge running between the north and south sections of the rest camp. From the moment that you step onto the trail, you are surrounded by woodlands of indigenous yellowwoods, white stinkwood, white milkwood, wild pear, climbers, lichens, bulbs and ferns − and many of the species of trees at the start of the route are labelled.
If you are up for a little more than the normal hike, take the Bosduif Loop path that winds up the side of the cliff to a viewpoint which overlooks the river and campsite. The first half of the trail, on the western side of the river, is a footpath that winds through the forests. Although it’s not a very strenuous hike, there is a bit of up and down along the way, and you will need to be moderately fit to enjoy the experience.
From the Half Collared Kingfisher trail, I crossed the river onto the Giant Kingfisher trail: the only route that leads to the waterfall. You can cross the river either on the pontoon, or further along via stepping stones.
It must have been my lucky day. As I was crossing, I saw the bright flash of a Kingfisher: the little blue bird was sitting on a rock in the middle of the river. I wished I were carrying a longer lens for the camera for a closer shot, but extra gear is not always possible on a hiking mission.
On the eastern side of the river there is a solid wooden boardwalk that leads all the way to a waterfall and rock pool. This is a great spot to cool off before returning on the same path.
By the time I’d walked back into camp, the sun was starting to set and the wind had picked up, but by the time I had finished having a shower to wash off the hot hike, the air was calm again.
With my fire crackling and a cold beer going down exceptionally well after the day’s activities, I sat listening to the night sounds and the river flowing by.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, I headed to the Tarentaal Day Visitor Area (completely separate from the camp) where I had booked a canoe.
From a small slip, you can take your canoe up the Touw River, all the way to just past the pontoon used for crossing on the hiking trails. You can even leave your canoe here on the banks of the river, and hike the rest of the way to the waterfalls.
Since I had already completed the hike the previous day, I just enjoyed the scenery while rowing past the campsite and up the river. When I could paddle no further, I turned my canoe around and headed back to camp.
The next destination on my Garden Route adventure was Nature’s Valley Rest Camp, just over 100 kilometres further east.
I’ve written about the rest camp on a previous occasion (Caravan & Outdoor Life issue 669, November 2017), so regular readers should know that I am fond of spending some quiet time under the forest canopy of this resort just outside Nature’s Valley.
During this visit, I would be a little more active, tackling the Kalander Trail and doing some canoeing on the Groot River Lagoon.
But, before I arrived at the camp, I made a stop about halfway between Ebb-and-Flow and Nature’s Valley.
About 10 km before the town of Knysna (coming from the west), I turned north on the Rheenendal Road and parked the Mazda BT-50 at the Krisjan-se-nek picnic area.
This is the start of the Circles in the Forest hiking trail, named after famous South African writer Dalene Matthee’s book, “Kringe in ‘n Bos”.
In fact, the trail starts and finishes at the Dalene Matthee Memorial. Fans of the book will find this walk especially interesting, as information boards along the trail describe the trees mentioned in the book.
There are two trail options – a 3.1km circle route, and a 9km circle route.
The shorter route is an easy-to-moderate walk through the forest. Take some water with you, because although you will be walking in the shade of the forest, it can be hot and humid, and there is no water along the way on this route.
On the longer route, the trail drops down to the river and to a lovely, large, forest pool with a waterfall.
NATURE’S VALLEY REST CAMP
Although I’ve covered this campsite extensively in previous editions, I’ll give a quick summary before we get to the adventurous coverage.
The resort is situated at the bottom of the Grootrivier Pass, about 500 metres from the town of Nature’s Valley. It is a paradise for birders and hikers. The campsites (65 in total) are situated under a dense indigenous-forest canopy. There are no power points, but sites do have water. Ablution blocks are spread throughout the camp.
What I have not touched on previously are the outdoor adventures just a stone’s throw away from your campsite.
There are two activities that start out from Nature’s Valley Rest Camp: The Kalander hiking trail, and canoeing up the Groot River lagoon.
As I had already done a hike for the day, I headed for the water. The lagoon at Nature’s Valley is suitable for canoeing, kayaking and sailing.
Canoes are available for hire from the Rest Camp, and you can get to the water directly from the camp. From there, you could either head upstream (left), to explore a labyrinth of passageways through the reeds, or you could head down (right) and actually paddle all the way to the beach. Park your canoe on the sand and head over to the ocean.
If you go inland, keep your eyes open for the elusive otter, and a large variety of wetland birds.
Speaking of birds, the Nature’s Valley area is famous for sightings of the Loerie. I spotted a couple of them in the trees right above me when I was sitting next to the fire at sunset.
The next morning I was up and about early, ready to tackle the Kalander Trail. It’s an easy hike through the forest, and starts just opposite the entrance of the Rest Camp.
The trail is only some 4.8 kilometres long, and takes you up the Kalanderkloof Mountain to a lookout point that provides a stunning view of the forest around, and below, the mountain.
STORMS RIVER MOUTH REST CAMP
The final stop on my Garden Route adventure was the famous Storms River Mouth Rest Camp. I was excited about the “grand finale” of my trip, as I had organized a kayak-and-lilo voyage up the Storms River Gorge.
I arrived a couple of hours before sunset, and was lucky enough to get one of the best spots in the camp. (Site number 68 is situated right at the end of the camping area: to the right as you enter the camp.) This is one of the “view and power” sites, so it’s really as good as it gets − on top of the rocky cliffs, and just metres from the Indian Ocean below.
The camp has communal ablution, laundry, and washing-up facilities. Apart from the 90 camping sites (some with electricity), visitors can also stay in forest huts, oceanette units, cabins, or honeymoon cottages.
The camping sites at Storms River are completely open to the elements – no shade and no wind protection – unless you hunker down on the few sites with some trees.
But the weather was great, and I almost immediately headed to the far east side of the camp to hike to the suspension bridge.
There are four short hiking trails, the longest of which will take you about 3 hours. The Mouth trail starts at Sandy Bay (next to the restaurant) and winds along a boardwalk to the mouth of the Storm River, where you will find the famous suspension bridge stretching 77 metres across the river mouth. The hike does have some proper up-hill and down-hill sections, but it’s only 2km, and there are plenty of places to stop and rest along the way.
If you cross the suspension bridge, you can continue to the lookout point on the plateau.
By the time I got to the lookout point, I was hot and sweaty… it was a gorgeous day. I was also hungry. So, after taking loads of pictures, especially of the bridge, I headed back to camp for some chips and a well-deserved beer, before taking a shower and checking in at the camp’s restaurant: the Cattle Baron Seafood Grill and Bistro.
The restaurant had actually burnt down in a devastating fire last year, but they had now erected a giant tent and were still serving their famous meals. I know Cattle Baron is famous for their steaks, but I was at the ocean and in the mood for seafood. After a giant plate of calamari, I decided to turn in for the night; the sound of the waves just metres from my rooftop-tent door were lulling me to sleep.
On my final day in the Garden Route National Park, I was up early; and (after getting a coffee from the restaurant) I checked in at Untouched Adventures situated at the harbour near the parking lot.
Gearing up in a wetsuit, I joined my guide to paddle out into the ocean and up into the Storms River Gorge! The hidden world of the gorge is only accessible to the public via a kayak adventure.
After about 30 minutes’ rowing, you swap your kayak for a lilo in order to head deeper into the gorge.
During the trip, the guide shares loads of interesting information about the gorge, the caves, the archaeology, the climate, and more.
On the way back, you can stop to do some jumps from rock outcroppings. This is an activity I would recommend to anyone.
Something else I would love to do, but which I did not have time for, was to go scuba diving or snorkeling. (Spellchecker is sure this is wrong. It isn’t.)As we were paddling back to the harbour and I looked down into the ocean, I could have sworn the visibility was about 10 metres!
THE ROUTE HOME
It had been an exhausting few days, so I spent my last night on the road staring out over the ocean and just relaxing.
The next day, on my way home, I did make one more stop.
About 2km from the entrance to Storms River Village, there is a 500m wooden boardwalk through indigenous forest that leads to the yellowwood giant.
The 800-year-old yellowwood stands 36 metres tall and has a trunk-circumference of 9 metres.
I vaguely remember the first time I saw this tree, many years back on a family holiday, when I was a little boy. And although I am now all grown up, the giant tree is no less impressive.
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By Francois Huysamen