The Garden Route, a coastal drive that spans roughly from Mossel Bay (a few hours' drive east from Cape Town) to Port Elizabeth, about 250 km further east, is one of South Africa's most popular and most hyped tourist areas. While we found some of the bigger cities overly developed and overrun by tourists seeking "adrenalin" activities such as paragliding and bungee jumping, the drive's scenery was impressive, and we found plenty of friendly and mellow spots to spend our time.
Our first stop was Wilderness, a small town near the beginning of the route, where we stayed at the Wild Farm. We took a lovely walk through the Wilderness National Park, along a river and to a sun-drenched waterfall, then on the way back stopped for a view of the long beach and the "Map of Africa": an oxbow in a river which creates an outcropping that looks something like the continent. But the highlight was at the backpackers' itself, where they have a large organic garden from which they encourage guests to help themselves. We made two wonderful meals with the freshest possible onions, peppers, celery, carrots, beets, strawberries, a leafy green they call spinach here, but looks to us more like swiss chard, and various herbs. As sometimes-vegetarians and wanna-be locavores, we were thrilled to be able to partake in such fresh, locally-grown produce.
On the way to our next stop, we took a break in Knysna (NYES-na) for a quick, fresh oyster lunch, then moved on to Plettenburg Bay, where we stopped for a hike around a National Park on Robberg Peninsula. It was a great coastal walk with lots of interesting things to see: three geologic layers neatly stacked and exposed, pristine beach, sweeping rocky coast, caves with signs of habitation tens of thousands of years ago, and plentiful wildlife: seals, sharks, and large rodents called dassies. Much to our dismay, we didn't see the elusive Blue Duiker: a member of the antelope family standing only about a foot high!
From there, it was a short drive to Nature's Valley, where we stayed at Wild Spirit, a small, family-run backpackers' which is destined to be one of our very favorite places we stay during the whole year. One thing that we've learned by now is that often what makes a stay in a certain area is not necessarily the activities or food on offer, but the backpackers' you choose to stay in. And South Africa has no shortage of amazing places to stay. The family and all the other employees at Wild Spirit are some of the most outgoing and helpful people we've ever met, and every interaction takes place with a smile. One small example is that when Claudia asked the owners' daughter where to get a haircut nearby, her face lit up and she told us that she cuts hair, and in fact had just been thinking of advertising her services on the central blackboard. With little delay, Claudia was sitting in a plastic chair overlooking the splendid valley of Tsitsikamma National Park and receiving a professional-quality cut.
During our stay here we went canoeing, where we saw baboons in the cliffs above the river, and we also went on a hike through the National Park that took us through all the ecosystems of the Western Cape, including forests, meadows of fynbos, beach, and rocky cliffs leading to a lagoon where the river meets the ocean, where we took a chilly but refreshing dip.
We also happened to be at the backpackers' on a Saturday night, which was drum circle and potjie night. Potjie is a traditional South African stew, which is cooked over a fire in what looks like a witches' cauldron and it is full of flavor. We had a vegetarian version as well as a lamb version, both delicious. We also learned how to drum that night on djembe drums from Ghana. One of us had quite a bit of rhythm, and the other had to try really hard to keep up with simple beats. We'll let you guess which one is which!
We met two other couples at the Wild Spirit who had intended to stay only two or three nights, and had thus far stayed over a week, and heard stories of past and present staff who stayed months or years at a time. While we certainly understand the magnetic nature of the place, and had pangs of "maybe we could just stay here indefinitely and see what happens", we pried ourselves away in order to keep on track and see the rest of what South Africa has to offer...