Editor’s Note: Travel is complicated right now, but here’s a virtual trip to South Africa which may inspire your future travel plans.
Addo Elephant National Park
Addo Elephant National Park is perhaps one of the best national parks in South Africa outside of the other famous South African national park, Kruger National Park. Sitting out on the balcony at Nyathi Rest Camp overlooking a large grassy clearing is the perfect end to a day of game-viewing.
A large bull elephant quietly wanders through the bush at the edge of the clearing, selectively picking the best-looking leaves while eyeing a place to rest.
A troop of baboons noisily corral their young and, with the babies clinging onto their mother’s backs, and disappear into the trees. As the fabled South African sun dips below the horizon, I reminisce on swimming elephants and prowling jackals, sure that they will be some of my most treasured memories.
Our plan is to explore the famed Garden Route in South Africa. Our journey began with a train, traveling from York in the northeast of England to the international hub that is Heathrow airport. Then it’s a 12-hour flight traveling more than 8,000 miles to the renowned city of Cape Town.
Circling high above the city gives a unique perspective of Cape Town—the docks, the skyline and the towering mountain that overshadows it all.
We spend a night in Cape Town to wash off the grime that comes with long-haul travel. We take a quick trip to Bloubergstrand beach to gaze at Table Mountain from its most iconic angle, before heading to the V&A for some amazing seafood.
We are up early, eager to depart the hustle and bustle of Cape Town and eager to escape on a self-drive along the Garden Route on our South Africa road trip. Driving east out of the city, gazing out the car window, we watch the urban landscape fade into a more natural one.
The views become wider, the land occupied only by occasional farms, leaving it open and free. This land feels worlds away from the tight streets of York, but despite its unfamiliarity, the wide-open space and far off mountains fill me with a sense of happiness and adventure.
Leaving Cape Town for The Garden Route
We settle into quiet contentedness as the miles wind by. One short road trip of six hours and we arrive in Knysna, our first port of call along the Garden Route in the Western Cape. We arrive at our Airbnb late in the afternoon.
We want to avoid hotels, instead opting for self-catered B&Bs wherever possible, giving us the freedom to explore some of the lesser-traveled parts of this magnificent Western Cape country.
We’ve booked a B&B with an amazing pool and garden area. Wanting to make the most of the dying sun, we dash to the supermarket to pick up all the essentials for a braai, before settling down by the pool.
The sun blazes hot orange and slips below the horizon when we started cooking, and our coals are just the same. The fat drips from our rolls of boerewors causing the flames to leap above the grill.
We are tired, but the smoky aromas give us a surge of energy, enough to cook and eat before collapsing into a meat-induced sleep.
Garden Route National Park
It’s worth noting that the Garden Route National Park offers a plethora of self-drive road trips and opportunities for backpackers to hike these stunning South African small towns.
If you can, you should create a South African road trip itinerary including Oudtshoorn Karoo semi-desert, a boat cruise along the Knysna Lagoon, the Cango Caves just outside of Oudtshoorn and whale watching in the town of Hermanus.
Road Trip to Knysna Heads and Keurboomstrand
I can hear the alarm ringing from the depths of my sleep. I crack an eye open, turn off the alarm and look at the time, 5:30 a.m. Waking up to watch the sunrise over Knysna Heads is a lot less appealing now.
I slowly kick my feet from under the blanket and plant them on the floor. Flicking on a light I make the rounds to wake everyone.
Bleary-eyed, we bundle ourselves into the car and make the short self-drive to Coney Glen Beach. We make our way down the beach to a spot we think looks ideal, and slowly the pinks begin forming on the horizon, then the yellows and oranges. The light strikes the Knysna Heads behind us making it glow red.
The incoming tide brings us back to reality. Well worth waking up for, we all agree. Rumbling stomachs and coffee cravings take us back to the B&B. With breakfast and packing done, we are back in the car for the second self-drive to Keurboomstrand.
Keurboomstrand was meant to be a day at the beach exploring the caves and arches. When we arrive at our B&B, we peer at the ominous gray clouds overhead, questioning our previous plans to go to the beach.
The owner tells us there is brilliant bird-spotting right from the balcony, and, just like that, the beach plans are canceled.
And my oh my, was she right. There are sunbirds of all descriptions and the enchanting Knysna lourie swooping around the house all afternoon. I can’t claim to be a birdwatcher, but today is spent snapping pictures of these amazing birds that call this Western Cape province home.
Best Road Trip: Traveling to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape
Today, we are back on the road, heading to Port Elizabeth and then north to Somerset East. But before any of that, we stop at Bloukrans Bridge and Storms River Bridge, which both turn out to be fantastic.
Walking down the side of Storms River Bridge I peer down through the metal grating under my feet. I can see the river raging 100 meters (328 feet) below. Every passing truck shakes the bridge. I snap some photos before retreating to the safety of solid land.
At an unassuming gas station, we stop to buy some koeksisters, a South African sweet treat. These pastry twists are deep-fried and dipped in sugar syrup and taste so good! With sticky fingers, we’re back in the car heading for a little town called Somerset East, well off the beaten path of most tourists.
Specifically, we’re headed to a B&B called Glen Avon Farm just outside Port Elizabeth. Turning off the R63 down a one-lane dirt road with mountains on either side makes us feel quite adventurous. Little do we know what lies at the end of this road is a South African diamond.
Talk oak trees line the drive, providing relief from the hot South African sun. At the end of the road, there’s a collection of small self-catering cottages, each completely unique and some built as early as 1812. Their thatched roofs and whitewashed mud walls make the interior cool and comfortable.
Glen Avon: A South African 1800s Farmhouse in the Wilderness
Glen Avon is a working farm, mainly sheep and cattle, but it is charming. More tall oaks and ancient stinkwood trees dot the meadows near the river.
There are many original farm buildings, like the old mill, which we explore upon arrival. The farm was first established by Robert Hart in the early 1800s and is still run by the same family.
A few hours after our arrival we meet Gregg, one of the descendants of Robert and an owner of the farm. He invites us to join him the next morning during his rounds to check the cattle grazing higher on the mountain. We meet him at 8 a.m. in front of his farmhouse.
He gestures to an old yellow pickup truck and we climb into the back. His two collies race out the farm gate and head up the rough road into the mountains.
The truck fires up and we begin bouncing down the road, white knuckles gripping a metal bar over the cab. We quickly realize this isn’t going to be a smooth ride and no sign of safety belts.
The cattle graze on top of the wilderness because there are more grass and less acacia, Gregg tells us as we disembark in the pasture.
Gregg lays out some salt for the cows, then takes us to a small rocky outcrop where he gestures to a black scar in the land. He tells us how fires on government land get close to his pastures but the fire break he maintains protects his land.
Gregg also told us how lightning is a big threat to cattle, striking them while they graze on the mountain. He and his brothers have been working the land for generations and have an incredible wealth of knowledge.
On the way down, he stops to point out a troop of baboons and a sable off in the distance. The sables were purchased by the farm in an effort to conserve native species but it’s expensive and challenging work.
The next few days are spent hiking the farm trails and braaiing under starry skies. Eventually, our time is up, and we pack the car for the self-drive, long drive road trip to Addo Elephant Park.
South Africa Road Trip: Addo Elephant Park
We arrive late in the afternoon and weren’t expecting to see much as we drove over the hill to a watering hole.
As we crest the rise and look out over the small lake a sight greeted us that we could have never imagined. A heard of at least 50 elephants and some 15 young frolicking, swimming and splashing in the water.
Slowly coasting down the hill, we quietly shut off the engine. The soft trumpets and splashing sounds carry over to our car. The wet elephants on the bank toss clouds of red dust onto themselves to cover from the sun.
Tucked in at the center of the herd, we occasionally glimpse tiny newborns. We sit and soak in the scene. Watching the juveniles play in the water and babies holding trunks with their mothers, we realized how intimate and loving these wild giants can be.
Eventually, the gentle giants grow tired of the watering hole and quietly disappear out of sight into the bush.
We rise early in the mornings, sitting quietly beside watering holes watching hyena and jackals prowl. We also take great pleasure in spotting the smaller fauna, from dung beetles marching beside the road, to scrub hares cooling under a thicket. Addo is not only a haven for elephants but for numerous other species as well.
Everything in Addo is special, but the way the setting sun lights up the sky will forever be in my memory. Bright hues of red and yellow silhouetting a far-off mountain range as the day draws to an end. Addo is a magical place, but unfortunately, our time has run out.
The end of a trip can be sad, but you leave richer in memories and experiences. The world is big and there are plenty of new places to discover. But South Africa really is special. I’m sure I will be back seeking more South African “diamonds.”
Road Trip Itinerary
Somerset East and Addo Elephant Park can be accessed from Port Elizabeth, but the whole road trip is best done as a circular route from Cape Town. Car rental is available at Cape Town airport for adventurers and road-tripping.
Booking is available directly through their website, along with an inquiry contact form. It offers three studio rooms in the quiet suburb of Hunters Home. A short drive from Knysna waterfront or the Knysna Heads in the opposite direction.
Conveniently located along the Garden Route with plenty to do, such as Titsikama, Knysna Elephant Park and Plettenberg Bay. Approximately $90 per night room only rate, self-catering with kitchen and braai space outside.
Where to Stay in South Africa
Bela Floresta is a private guest suite with fantastic views looking out over the forested hills to the ocean. The rich birdlife makes this stay one of a kind. Fantastic access to quiet pristine beaches in Keurboomstrand. Self-catered with simple kitchen facilities.
Glen Avon Farm offers fully restored cottages or a farmhouse, situated just outside the town of Somerset East, north of Port Elizabeth. This self-catering farm oozes charm and personality well geared up for visitors with hiking trails and a great selection of books. Good location to visit Addo Elephant Park. Approximately $26 per person per night.
Nyathi Rest Camp is without a doubt one the best places to stay in Addo. This camp is in the northern section of the park situated beneath the Zuurberg mountain range. Each of the lodges sits on stilts high above a floodplain.
This gives amazing views from the balconies and bedrooms out across the plain. You can sit on your balcony and watch elephants, baboons and maybe a rhino or lion. Around $150 per night plus an additional conservation fee.
Author Bio: Josh McClean is a young eager travel writer and photographer. Finishing his final year at university he is looking forward to having more time to travel and explore. With a particular love for wildlife and hiking, he has a long bucket list of places to go.