Indisputably one of South Africa’s most sought-after destinations, the Garden Route offers a wealth of natural beauty, famous landmarks and delicious restaurants to tempt even the most timid of hermit crabs into a wintertime road trip. Having experienced insufferable cabin fever over the last few months, I was more than ready to pack the car with cameras, clothes and the like and set off into the sunrise.
Fortunately, the opportunity arose to explore not only the Garden Route but the heart of the Klein Karoo – the historical town of Oudtshoorn – followed by Wilderness and finally, the golden sands of Noetzie beach in Knysna. During the course of the week, we ate, photographed and thrifted our way along both sides of the Outeniqua mountain range and I had the chance to document three unique destinations destined to make the most of their surroundings.
Buffelsdrift Game Lodge, Oudtshoorn
Overlooking the snow-capped Swartberg mountains, Buffelsdrift Game Lodge offers visitors a luxury clamping experience replete with game drives, hippo sightings and a chance to get up close and personal with the mightiest of the Big Five. Invoking all my Out of Africa fantasies, our canvas-lined suite came replete with kingsize bed, outdoor shower and a roll-top Victorian bathtub with a sweeping vista out over the dam. Resident female nyala graze right around the tent, snacking on spekboom and if one is lucky, posing for a picture, their beautiful big ears and velvety brown eyes turned curiously towards the camera. Catering to couples as well as families, tents at Buffelsdrift are split into three categories – Waterhole, Horizon View and Family. We stayed in a Horizon View tent and enjoyed the elevated panorama that included a proper African sunset on our first evening. The tent itself is equipped with a bar fridge, coffee station and air conditioning as it can get rather warm in the afternoons. For the summer months, an azure swimming pool is available to guests – just be sure not to attempt a dip in the dam as it’s home to a few hippo!
A morning game drive is de rigueur and we were fortunate enough to spot a family of meerkat and a few of the 19 Southern giraffe that call the reserve home – thus moving from the smallest to the tallest animals with only a few zebra in between. Buffelsdrift is also home to some of the “ugly five” – a rather unkind moniker that includes hyena, Maribou stork, vulture, warthog and black wildebeest – the latter of there are only around 18 000 left in the wild. My favourite sighting was a pair of white rhinos sunning themselves amongst the aloes. Speaking of aloes, the reserve is home to a fantastically tall specimen – over 6 metres tall – that has been dated to be about 300 years old. Boasting a diverse ecosystem of flora, Buffelsdrift is a biodiversity hotspot, what with three different biomes (Karoo succulent, fynbos and Albany thicket) all existing symbiotically with one another.
My highlight of our stay at Buffeldrift Game Lodge had to be feeding the elephants. Jabari, Malaika and Bulelo were orphaned when their mothers were killed by poachers in the Kruger and have since been hand-raised here in Oudtshoorn. Free to roam the reserve, the ellies are sure to return to their feeding spot three times daily for treats of pumpkin and fruit. Integral to raising awareness and support for conserving our precious wildlife, non-harmful animal encounters like this are so educating and make for a truly unforgettable experience. Each armed with a few pieces of gem squash, we held up our offerings for the elephants, who in turn gently took the vegetables using the tips of their trunks. Absolutely majestic animals that are as graceful as they are powerful and as endearing as they are admirable, this was one adventure that will stay with me for a very long time.
Wilderness Bush Camp
It’s been a childhood dream of mine to spend a holiday in a proper little log cabin nestled in the indigenous forest overlooking Wilderness. My favourite Garden Route town by far, Wilderness holds many happy memories from when my grandparents had a house here and I would spent school holidays beach combing and bodyboarding in the warm water or hiking through the jungled trails.
Fortunately, I got to realise this dream with a stay at the beautiful Wilderness Bush Camp last month. Located high on the bluff, the property’s selection of cottages enjoy the best views out over the ocean and lagoon. Tranquility is the word for Wilderness Bush Camp and we soaked up every second of it. I take great appreciation in the smaller details and I reckon we most enjoyed time spent on our log cabin’s little stoep – looking out over the lagoon as dusk gave way to night, the town’s lights twinkling as darkness fell. Dawid lit us a fire and we huddled around it, sharing wine and stories long into the evening – a simple experience that has added to my affection for this jungled Garden Route paradise.
While our cabin was best suited to braaing, no visit to Wilderness is replete without a meal at Pomodoro. A family-run restaurant so like the places my late father used to love, Pomodoro is an absolute institution – serving up Italian comfort food from their cosy eatery in the village. Opt for their famous wood fired pizza or sample something from the pasta menu. Everything is delicious! To work off our lunch we took a stroll along Wilderness’ meandering boardwalk path. A favourite spot of Dawid’s for photos, the boardwalk is a wonderful vantage point from where to experience the lagoon. Twisted old milkwood trees dip their branches into the water and here and there waterbirds can be spotted going about their business.
Pêrlekuil Castle, Noetzie
A seaside getaway over the winter months has it’s advantages. For one, the beach is empty – bar a handful of fisherman silhouetted against the sea – and one can comb the sand at leisure, take long introspective walks at sunset and generally revel in the aloneness off-season provides. Secondly, tourist towns like Knysna – always so chaotic in December – are quiet. There’s ample room in your favourite restaurant, no queues for ice cream and an assured parking space at the Quays. Luxury.
Thirdly, exotic getaways such as Pêrlekuil Castle are open – their schedules not as heavily in demand as during the summer months. One can book spontaneously and avoid disappointment. One can book for two and not feel guilty about taking up the entire place to yourselves. Unquestionably unique, fantasy-inducing even, the castle offers anyone looking for a remotely romantic getaway an endless supply of inspiration. Making the most of the outdoor kitchen, we cooked up a Mediterranean feast made to be enjoyed over a few bottles of wine and an ocean view.
Known in the San dialect as “place of dark water”, Noetzie has to be one of the most pristine beaches I’ve had the pleasure of exploring. Golden sand shaped by both the rolling ocean and the tea-dark water of the river, it’s heavily forested banks evoking my university reading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Massive walls of rock, painted in rust-hued lichen, rise from the beach like seaside cathedrals and hundreds of gulls and odd few oystercatchers bathe in the estuarine stream. A painterly sunset gifted to us on our final night silhouetted the other three castles found on Noetzie beach as well as the original fishermen’s cottages – so charmingly rustic and a look into what life was like here almost 100 years ago.
Built in the 1960s as a family home (and loosely modelled on the original 1920s castle on the main beach), Pêrlekuil has since been added to, with the last renovation completed in 1990. Solely for the sure-footed, the climb down to the castle is not for the faint-hearted, but George – a Buccara Africa employee and absolute godsend – is there to assist with luggage. The trek however, is more than worth it. A castle at the very lip of the sea, entirely private for one to explore and enjoy.
Featuring 6 sumptuously furnished bedrooms, circular dining room, open hearth and large country-style kitchen, Pêrlekuil Castle is made for entertaining. While we only occupied one of the rooms, we did make the most of the castle’s terrazzo-style outdoor kitchen overlooking the ocean. Situated under a weathered milkwood tree, two long tables cater to larger parties and plenty of surface space means streamlined feasting is easily attainable. The obvious drawcard is the proximity to the sea – the waves rolling the shoreline boulders smooth an ongoing refrain to a stay at the castle. In the late afternoon, a salty marine mist arrives, mixing with the minerality of a good Sauvignon Blanc and curling my hair. What with the array of eats on offer – snoek pâté from Sedgefield’s popular Wild Oats farmer’s market, smoked aubergine dip, fresh breads, grassy olive oil – and the view, we stayed out until just before sundown, our eyes barely leaving the azure ocean.