I’ve heard so many people note Cape Town as their favourite city over the years. I must admit it’s not somewhere that had really been on my radar until it started attracting attention as a “digital nomad’ hotspot a few years back – and as such many Europeans and Americans arrived to brave out the northern hemisphere winter in the superior warmth of the southern hemisphere summertime. Cape Town is arguably Africa’s most cosmopolitan city: Table mountain, the Atlantic seaboard and the Cape Peninsula make for some enchanting views beyond the cities many chic bars and restaurants. But the great thing about Cape Town – as I would come to learn – is that it has just as much to offer outside of the city limits as it does within.

When I began looking into Cape Town as a serious option, it was hard to overlook the many (many) comments about what a “must do” The Garden Route is for anyone visiting Cape Town. ‘The Garden Route’ is the name for the stretch of coastline that spans between the Cape Town region and Port Elizabeth to the east. From Port Elizabeth, you can then join The Wild Coast through to Durban, and eventually wind up all the way in Joberg, if you like. It’s a big stretch of land though, and realistically you’d probably need a minimum two weeks to do it – and that’s with the convenience of your own vehicle.

Slight issue – I can’t drive! Which was a significant issue in Cape Town as it’s so dispersed and some areas with no public transport – or no “safe” public transportation for tourists, that is. So doing the entire route from Cape Town to Joberg was off the table almost immediately. The obvious choice was to concentrate on one of the smaller sections. At first, I thought I might try to go the whole way from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth travelling via Greyhound coaches that run the route once a day or the daily Baz Bus – a private backpacker service – but it still meant losing a whole lot of time travelling inbetween. So, even though I am pretty scared of organised fun, I decided to go with a (shock horror) orgainised tour group. Bok Bus, to be precise.

Bok Bus has a small fleet of minivans and specifically offers budget-friendly tours of The Garden Route and local safari options close to Cape Town. They also provide day tours to some of Cape Town’s main activities such as cage shark diving, touring the wine regions and evenings spent in the townships. I figured their 4 night (5 days) trip would allow me to visit several towns along the Garden Route as well as a night at the Garden Route Game Lodge – to get a small taster of safari life – but also minimise the chances of my introverted-self getting too mutinous.

We set out from Cape Town bright early morning after collecting various guests along the way. We were a full minibus of tourists plus our friendly driver and guide Sibusiso. Although the bus was full, it was still reasonably spacious – although I’m 5ft3 so perhaps some of the other guests would have begged to differ! Our first stop was Oudtshoorn – the ostrich farm capital of the world, apparently. The first day was probably the longest day of driving, but we did stop to break it up at Cango Caves. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of caves in my years of travel and so am often sceptical as with some caves if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, to a certain point. But actually, the cave system was interesting and very safely mapped so suitable for all ages. A particular highlight was our female cave guide giving us a really quite impressive performance of an opera-style song to show off the acoustics. The caves were previously used to hold classical concerts but were mistreated by guests; so, unfortunately, that’s not a thing any more, but would have made for an epic setting I’m sure.

After a full day of driving, we were pretty pooped so headed into Oudtshoorn town for hotel drop-offs. Bok Bus offers two accommodation types – economy backpacker hostels and private guest houses. The first night I went for the backpacker option – Backpacker’s Paradise – while the rest of the tour group (who were pretty much all couples) stayed at a nearby guest house. Personally, I think I made the right decision as it was a friendly vibe at the hostel, and I was surprised to be shown to a private room as opposed to the dorm room I was expecting! As I’m 32, I tend not to opt for dorms these days as, well, I’m old and grumpy and set in my ways, so a private room was the perfect compromise. All the fun of the hostel but with all the comfort and quiet of a hotel room.

The other guests came over to the hostel for dinner which was (perhaps unsurprisingly) ostrich braai. In case you don’t know “braai” is South African (or Afrikaans, I should say) for BBQ. Not gonna lie, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of eating ostrich as I couldn’t imagine what the taste would be like. Our guide assured us it’s a typical red meat with a pleasant flavour, so I put my faith in him and went along with it – there was also the option of chicken for anyone who wasn’t sold on the ostrich. But I have to say ostrich is pretty nice! Kind of like a very tender beef with a sweeter taste – perhaps similar to venison. The hostel served chunks on skewers as well as ostrich sausage, so it was interesting to try the different styles; the chunks were definately something I’d try again. After dinner, we sat and chatted with some delicious South African red before retiring to bed, ready for another early start the following morning.

Departing from the hostel directly to the ostrich farm, I couldn’t help but feel just a tiny bit bad about enjoying dinner quite so much. This particular ostrich farm is more for a tourist attraction than a functioning farm – guests are shown around the premises right from a few games of ostrich trivia, to hatching rooms (complete with cute little babies) and fully grown adults. To be honest I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this kind of tourism in 2019. I think the days of caged animals as a spectacle is truly on its way out. That said, being that Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world it would have been thoughtless to have passed through and not seen what the fuss was all about.

 

On to our next stop – we headed towards the coast to link up with The Garden Route proper and see precisely what was it about this 300km stretch of pristine coastline that draws in tourists and locals alike throughout the year – rain or shine. Driving up through Wilderness, we stopped off at the popular Map of Africa lookout which gave spectacular views over the valley below. We also stopped to grab a shot of the stunning Wilderness coastline before heading just down the road to Knysna (pronounced “neece-na”) – which has gained popularity as the quaintest town along The Garden Route. Set on the waterfront Knysna offers plentiful holiday homes overlooking the water and a nice-yet-touristy waterfront market area offing knickknacks and fish restaurants. Unfortunately, we didn’t get time to check out Knysna village, which is set away from the waterfront – but I’m told it’s worth a look. After a quick break for lunch and souvenir shopping, we headed back up the mountainside – this time for a bird’s eye view of Knysna waterfront and surrounding area.

Back to the bus! It was time for one last slog of driving before we could turn in for the night at Storms River Village – a charming little purpose-built town with guesthouses, a few restaurants and a fantastic array of floral accents. But first – a quick pit stop at the world’s highest bungee jump: Boulkrans Bridge Bungee. Naturally, there was no way in hell I was going to throw myself off of it – and thankfully – my bus mates felt the same way. But it was interesting to see those braver than us take the plunge as the sun started to sink in the late afternoon sky.

Arriving at Andelomi Forest Lodge guesthouse in Storms River Village, we were just in time to be warmly welcomed by the lady of the house and have a cheeky little lay down before dinner. The guesthouse served up dinner in their private dining room with plenty of wine to encourage burgeoning friendships! Guests could choose between traditional SA dishes like bobotie – a mince and egg-based dish – but also with plenty of western faves like lasagne, grilled chicken and so on. Basic but hearty – I think most of us were relieved we didn’t have to go back out again as tour-fatigue was coming in fast.

My room was a cute twin bungalow complete with a little patio that overlooked the beautiful gardens. It has to be said the gardens at this guesthouse are one of the highlights – jasmine flowers gave off a delicate aroma that danced around the entire complex. Inside my room, I was absolutely delighted to find a kettle and tea bags! I don’t mean to sound like an uncultured Brit (although I definately am) – but there is something nice about having a little slither of home. It was September when I visited, which is spring-time in South Africa, this meant the days were mostly pleasant. Still, the nights could be chilly – perfect tea-drinking weather, you might say.

Up bright and early, we assembled for breakfast in the private dining area. Buffet choice plus eggs cooked to order and coffee that actually tasted alright (I am always surprised when this happens – I’ve been burned too many times.) Piling back into the minivan it was thankfully only a short drive to the Tsitsikamma National Park where we took a short hike along the jagged coastline. With the day slipping away it was time to head to The Garden Route Game Lodge for our final night. I hadn’t thought initially I would get a chance to do any kind of safari as I was pressed for time, so it was great to get a flavour for it, even if it was fleeting.

The lodge itself is on a large reserve based just 3.5 hours from Cape Town and has to be one of the most pleasant places to see the big 5 when visiting the Western Cape. It has three different types of luxury accommodations available to guests: sunset suites, wooden lodges and private chalets. These feature several various luxuries depending on which you choose. The lodge accommodation where I stayed was great – circular huts with all the mod cons you could want – including mini bar, ensuite and wifi – but still with all the safari-style charm you’d hope for. With cute little verandah’s looking out over the reserve it has to be the perfect place to crack open yet another bottle of delish South African wine and toast the sunset. While superior suites offer luxuries like outdoor bathtubs and private golf cart to drive aroun,  standard chalets encircle two beautiful infinity pools and seemed like the best option for families. The lodge has a kids pool to accommodate little ones, while adults can relax undisturbed in the adjacent adult pool.

After a well-deserved micro-rest, it was time to pile into the jeeps for the first of our two game drives. Unfortunately, the weather had gotten progressively worse as the day went on and was – dare I say – a bit cold. Definitely pack warm clothes for the drives as it gets pretty nippy in the vehicles which of course are all open-sided. We saw Kudu (a type of gazelle-like creature), Buffalo, Zebra, Springbok (another gazelle-like creature) as well as a mother Cheetah with her cubs – and what had to be the highlight – a Rhino and her 3-week-old baby. He didn’t have his horn yet, bless him, just a blunt little nub. Another highlight, which I didn’t realise we would get to do was to stop and have a glass of wine! You have to love South African wine culture, there really is nowhere you can’t have one! Our guide ansered a host of out questions as we drove around before parking in a “safe” area where we all dismounted and enjoyed some cheeky drinks and nibbles.

Being that we were now basically human-popsicles, it was time to head back to the lodge and warm up around the rustic bonfire bar before retreating to our rooms to prepare for dinner. Dinner in Serengeti’s Restaurant is served buffet-style which works well for catering to the 120 potential guests all eating at once. Here you’ll find all the staple prepared dishes like curry, fresh salad, pasta but the highlight has to be the grill station where you could choose between several types of meat to have grilled up right in front of you. While there was chicken and beef for the unadventurous, I took the opportunity to try some more ostrich and a lump of new meat – African Kudu, which was so good. Kudu tastes just like very tender beer – also similar to venison. Drinks are freely served as well as an option to order dessert.

Fully stuffed with all kinds of weird meat and merry on hearty South African red I scuttled back to my lodge for the night – but not before running into a small heard of Springbok (which are apparently allowed anywhere on the reserve – even in the lodge area!) Needless to say, I scared myself very temporarily – but they are completely harmless and just stared with cold indeifference at me as I scurried past. We were set to do our early-morning game drive, so it was straight to bed! Sadly in the morning, the weather had deteriorated even more, and it was – as the British like to say – “pissing it down.” The temptation of staying in bed was strong, but we dragged ourselves out to the jeep and were able to see hippos and elephants, so worth it, in the end, I suppose!

After a yummy buffet breakfast it was time to turn back towards Cape Town – but not without a few stops along the way. Hermanus is a locally known spot for watching humpback whales directly from the shore. While it was cool to see Hermanus as a destination was just okay – or maybe its because it was a Sunday and most things were closed, but I feel like it could easily be skipped if you’re pressed for time.

Our second stop, however, was 100% necessary. Interestingly, I didn’t think I really cared about stopping off to see the penguins in Betty’s Bay as I’d already ventured down to Boulder’s Beach in Cape Town to see the colony there. The Boulder’s Beach location was really over-crowded and a bit of a letdown – so I wasn’t thrilled to relive it. But Betty’s Bay was so much better – probably helped by the fact we were the last group of the day (it closes pretty early – 4pm) and of course because most people who go to see the penguins go for the easier option. But, if you have the time it’s well worth the extra drive time to Betty’s Bay. The scenery is really dramatic – significant rock formations and quirky houses that seem as if thrown-together. And lot’s of penguins, naturally.

Suddenly it was just a short stretch of coastal road that lay between us and Cape Town – a very scenic stretch though, thankfully! As we glided around the mountainous landscape, it was hard to deny Cape Town’s metamorphosing beauty. This was cemented as we passed a pack of baboons casually idling along the roadside. Baboons are actually classed as pests in South Africa and supposedly often seen on specific stretches of road. But even still it was fun to stop and watch them frolic in the late afternoon sun.

Bok Bus Highlights:

– Sick views
– Comfortable accommodations
– Braai
– The Garden Route Game Lodge
– Penguins!

If I had to give any constructive feedback on the tour, it would simply be that there was a LOT of driving. At points, it felt like it might have been more pleasant to have not travelled quite as far along the route and have had more time to spend exploring. With that said – the Bok Bus guides can tailor each tour to suit guests – so it depends what kind of people you end up on the bus with no doubt. Lunch options could also be a struggle for some as most days we were only able to pick up something from the convenience store or supermarket to eat in the van while driving. So depending on your dietary needs that could cause a problem. I felt like I ate a lot of potatoes chips and dried fruit – so maybe worth bringing some items with you from Cape Town to spice up lunch on the go.

All in all, the level of organisation by Bok Bus was great – from liaising with the customer care team to the knowledgeable guides – I always felt taken care of. I think Bok Bus is ideal for anyone looking for a budget way to enjoy The Garden Route and anyone not wanting to self-drive. I had expected to be paired with backpackers. But actually, we were a mixture of all-sorts – all just wanting an excellent alternative to some of the (insanely costly) tours compares that run this route.

If you’re interested in taking a tour with Bok Bus check out their website for more info.

**Please note: although I was hosted by Bok Bus on this tour, all opinions given are my own.**