When your heart and mind are attuned to search for the road less travelled, perhaps it’s no surprise that your car is also destined for the same uncharted paths. I say this because I’m convinced that my Land Rover’s built-in GPS is pre-programmed to find and direct me to the nearest gravel road.
On a recent trip along the Garden Route, for example, the annoying voice insistently directed me onto a dirt road running parallel to a perfectly good freeway.
It was a long weekend and my husband and I were headed to the towns of Knysna, Plett and Wilderness, which we knew would be packed with tourists. But, thanks in no small part to our GPS, we were fated to find the back routes that were dotted with only a few other cars, out-of-the-way restaurants packed with locals and wildlife sanctuaries that go above and beyond to show the utmost respect for the animals in their care.
Arriving in Knysna late in the evening, our first goal was to find a homely eatery where we could placate our grumbling tummies. The weather had turned and the winter chill had set in with a vengeance. We longed for simple hospitality, a roaring fire and plates piled with something greasy and delicious. Looking for the tourist-centric, but oh-so-beautiful Knysna Waterfront, our not-so-trusty GPS took us down some dimly-lit back roads to a garden pub we hadn’t ever heard of.
Inside Louis Steak House, Louis himself was chatting to some locals over a draught beer, while a tanned hipster was stoking the fire. Soon, to my husband’s sheer delight, he was served a hamburger bigger than his head. Happily sated and pleased with our unexpected find, we headed to bed, excited for the following day.
Our plan was to experience the wild side of the Garden Route, which is well-known for its animal sanctuaries, parks and adventure activities. But with that intention came some trepidation. It’s difficult to tell the good from the bad, the tourist traps from the legitimate rescue centres, and hard-earned money can easily be handed into the grimy hands of those operating under false pretenses. So we did our research and discovered that the Crags, on the outskirts of Plettenberg Bay, is home to South Africa’s only Fairtrade-certified animal sanctuaries.
At Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, I was delighted to discover just how hands-off they are with the wildlife, with staff members having firm stance against touching, petting and walking activities. While the sheer size and space these centres provide the animals is impressive, it’s their innovative approach to encouraging people of all ages and from all walks of life to learn about conservation that blew me away. Monkeyland even offers Pokewalks to bring teens into the forest, where they can search for virtual monkeys on their phones, while surrounded by the real creatures. The hope is that they’ll also take the time to look around them!
Among the centre’s ferns and towering yellowwoods, gibbons rehabilitated from zoos calmly examined us, totally at peace in their wild home, while a spider monkey danced gracefully through the branches and the deep roars of the howler monkeys reverberated through the trees.
Across the way, Birds of Eden is a true paradise for all winged creatures; it’s an aviary out of a dream world. In fact, such is the size of the place, that I’m sure some of those birds don’t even realise they’re living in an enclosed area. It’s close to bird heaven – providing an authentic-as-possible wild experience for these hand-raised, injured and previously abused birds.
The South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, to which these sanctuaries belong, recently acquired Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary in Plett. It provides homes to a number of big cats, including lions and tigers, as well as other predators such as hyenas, wild dogs and honey badgers.
The alliance is turning the tide regarding how big cats are kept in captivity and has taken a firm stance against any kind of interaction. Members focus on conservation education and awareness, as well as the rescue and rehabilitation of animals.
Continuing our mission to find the wilder side of the area, we headed inland and discovered the lesser-known Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve, which has provided a home to a herd of young elephants, along with zebra, eland, hippo, eland, bontebok and wildebeest, which can be viewed on a game drive or horseback safari.
The reserve has a unique relationship with the farmers whose land surrounds the property, who support its conservation efforts by providing food for the animals and supplying cattle for “lawn mowing services”, which helps stimulate the growth of the plain’s grasses and assists with tick control.
The next day was one of beaches and braais. There are many well-known beaches in the area, but we made it our mission to find deserted sea and sand, well away from the holidaymakers.
Our first stop was Coney Glen Beach near the Knysna Heads. If you venture beyond the typical tourist area, you’ll discover a magnificent, unspoilt beach. Alternatively, if you’ve made your base in the Plett area, head out of town to Keurboomstrand, where a long sandy beach beckons and you’re bound to find ample space for a game of bat and ball or a lengthy run with the dogs. If you want to fish in peace or even try your hand at kitesurfing, head to the less-frequented side of Knsyna Lagoon and discover a beautiful beach at Lake Brenton, where bushbuck roam on one side and calm waters lap on the other.
Looking for something to accompany our grunter after a day of fishing, we discovered the Wild Oats Farmers’ Market in Sedgefield – a must-visit. The market’s very popular, so you can expect it to be packed and bustling every Saturday morning, and there are some gems within that are well worth visiting. Nestled along the back wall, II Fornaio bakery serves delicious bread which, despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to find elsewhere or recreate. It’s a ciabatta that’s best heated up on the braai and which, when sliced open, oozes a delicious concoction of babotie or bacon and blue cheese. Next to Wild Oats, the Mosaic Market is home to a pizza cone stall (yes, pizza in a cone, as the name suggests), which is a delicious taste sensation you must try.
And speaking of unique foodie adventures, I was thrilled to discover a new restaurant called Bazala at the Knysna Waterfront, where we indulged in delicious homestyle potjies, fresh seafood and a typically South African peppermint crisp dessert served in glass jars. All our main meals were served on rustic tin plates, and with phrases such as “shap shap” and “howzit” scattered across the menu and walls, we felt right at home.
A walk was needed to work off all that food, so we ventured into the Rheenendal area for a hike. We learnt about the history of gold mining in the area, paid our respects at the graves of long-gone miners and infant twins who’d died here, and had a look at some of the impressive old mining equipment.
On our way back, we turned down towards Jubilee Creek, where the late twins had lived, and enjoyed a little riverside rest before following the stream on an easy ramble through the forest, passing more old mining tunnels. We found ourselves at a waterfall, where a flash of red from a brilliantly bright Knysna lourie danced above our heads.
All too soon it was time to head home, but we weren’t quite ready for the traffic of the N2, so we turned right, winding our way over the Seven Passes Route, where we travelled through the mountains, past sprawling farmlands, among forests and over gentle streams. Hitting the freeway and civilization was a shock, but nothing could wipe the smiles off our faces. And I think it’s fair to say that our mischievous Land Rover – covered in dirt – enjoyed the adventure down the garden path as much as we did!