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Let’s Talk About the Garden Route

We have come a long way since my last post, dear readers (literally 757km). Since Addo, it has been a non-stop cruise down the Garden Route, one of South Africa’s most popular destinations for tourists. We began this trek at a private game reserve in Schotia, where we got to add hippos and giraffes to our list of animal sightings! The giraffes are very shy, and even those born in the park are wary of the vehicles and won’t let the game drivers get too close. The best part about this particular reserve is not necessarily the animals themselves, however; it’s the accommodations. We spent the night in the middle of the reserve. They’ve built three camps in the center of the South side of the reserve (which is also where they keep the lions, by the way) consisting of spacious canvas tents with bedding, a bathhouse, bathroom, and fire-heated water tank. And when I say spacious, I mean “I hope my first apartment is this nice someday”. We finished our time in Schotia with a sunrise game drive and fabulous breakfast before loading into the car and heading to Knysna.

Knysna is home to the Knysna Elephant Park, a sanctuary established to help elephant calves orphaned by poaching. The sanctuary hosts a small herd of ten elephants, though over forty have passed through the park since its establishment in 1994. We chose this experience over others mainly because the park is serious about having the elephants exhibit as much natural behavior as possible. They do not offer elephant rides, they do not hit or withhold food from the elephants, and the elephants can chose whether or not they’d like to participate in the elephant walks or guest feeding interactions. We did the morning elephant walk, where you walk alongside the gentle giants as they move into the reserve for the day. Once the elephants have picked their place (the matriarch favors a field next to her favorite scratching-post tree), we were taken to a pavilion that overlooked the park and served a picnic-style breakfast from a cafe right down the road (it was delicious; highly recommend the experience).

From Knysna, we moved on to Oudtshoorn (which I still can’t pronounce properly, it’s fine) where we spent three nights exploring the more arid regions of the Garden Route. The Klein Karoo National Arts Festival was in full swing when we got there, so we spent an evening wandering through the Afrikaans celebration listening to live music, visiting various art stalls, and watching street performers. However, the biggest festival in South Africa was not the biggest draw to Oudtshoorn. No indeed: we came for the meerkats. The meerkat experience happens in a field off of R62 (super legit, I know) where we arrived before the sun had risen above the mountains in the distance (poetic, right?). Armed with blankets and camping chairs, our guide led us about 200 meters into the field before stopping in a semicircle around the most nondescript pile of dirt I’d ever seen. He promised that he wasn’t crazy, that this was indeed a meerkat burrow, and as the sun came up we’d (probably) see meerkats. It took an hour of freezing in a field and trying not to doze off, but lo and behold, that tiny little furry head popped out of a hole in the pile of dirt and looked straight at us. In the end, we got to see the entire meerkat family as they woke up, warmed up, and then scampered off into the distance to find scorpions and other creepy crawlies to eat (and it was the best way to start a morning ever).

If you ever do make it Oudtshoorn, I highly suggest you take a day to drive the Swartberg Mountains. We hired a guide with a beefy 4x4 truck to drive for us so we could stare out the window the whole time (shoutout to Roeland, who knew more about plants and rocks than a BBC nature special). The geology of the Swartberg Mountains is unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and I’ve hiked and driven through my fair share of mountain ranges. The rocks fold and swirl around themselves (there’s one formation named The Swiss Roll) and then suddenly jut out and plunge straight down in jagged precipices. It’s breathtaking and beautiful, and there are places where you can get out and walk alongside the river and just stare up at the mountains soaring up over your head. On the other side of the mountains lies a small olive farm town called Prince Albert. It was originally founded to be a gold mining town, but no gold ever came from the mountains and the olive farmers took up their trade instead. We stayed for a lovely lunch at Mont d’Or Prince Albert (which is also a stunning B&B if you’d like to spend a night in the Klein Karoo and do some stargazing) before heading back into the wild.

We hiked a waterfall and a couple more scenic stops along the gorge before heading back to Oudtshoorn for the evening.We concluded our time in Oudtshoorn with a small excursion to the Cango Caves. The basic tour takes you through the largest five chambers of the cave system, while the adventure tour takes you deep into the mountain and involves some climbing, sliding, and working your way through some 30cm-high passageways (we most definitely did not do this). The cave system is mostly dormant at the moment due to the drought in the area (it had never occurred to me that caves could be dormant), but that doesn’t take away at all from the beauty of the limestone formations already inside. The acoustics are also to die for; a man on our tour brought a flute with him and played for us in the first antechamber. It was an extraordinarily ethereal experience. One thing to know before you go: they limit the number of people allowed in the caves per day to help with conservation efforts. If you’d like to experience the caves firsthand, making a reservation is a must (I also recommend going on a day that is not a school holiday...it was a bit crowded in those last few chambers). I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake, dear readers. But don’t worry, the adventure continues in Cape Town. With penguins!

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