On the second week of our African adventure, we reluctantly bade farewell to Cape Town and drove eastwards (Read: Cape Town: The beginning of a love affair). Whilst the first week was all about exploring an amazing city, this week was all about safaris, animals and the spectacular scenery of the Garden Route.
Days 9-10: Garden Route Game Lodge (2 nights) | Safaris
After our own safari experience in Botswana, we learnt that most safari operators have strict age limitations for their guests, and children under the age of 6 (or even older in some camps) are usually not permitted on site or to go on safaris.
This posed a challenge as I really wanted to find a family friendly place that allowed children of all ages to have a safari experience. Luckily, on Highway Route 2 east-bound towards the Garden Route, there was such a place – the Garden Route Game Lodge. This lodge openly welcomes children of all ages to join the morning and afternoon game drives so long as they are accompanied by an adult. They also offer special packages which are oriented around family visits.
We left Cape Town mid-morning with an aim to arrive at the Lodge around 4pm in time to get ready for the afternoon game drive starting at 5pm. To break up the long 4 hours drive (some 350km), we planned a lunch stop at Swellendam (2.5 hours in). Conveniently, at the highway exit into Swellendam, there stood a trendy looking bakery and eatery. The location of Tredici cannot have been more opportunistic as we saw many travelers like ourselves making a lunch/coffee pit stop before getting right back on the highway for the onward journey.
We made good time with our remaining 1.5 hours drive past Albertina, and into the private reserve of the Garden Route Game Lodge. As soon as we arrived, it was evident that they embraced being “family friendly”. The boys each got a safari cap and little safari packs with a booklet and checklist of all the animals we may spot during our stay. Each of our rooms were equipped with a microwave and a full toy box upon our arrival. The compound boasts 2 children’s playgrounds and a shallow heated swimming pool. At the restaurant, not only was there an extensive kids menu, at every meal, there were activities on the table to keep the boys occupied as well. For early morning drives, children are also given a breakfast goodies bag.
The special package we went with was the “Gentle Giants” which included a 2 nights stay, all breakfasts and dinners, 2 game drives a day (7am and 5pm), a Gentle Giants elephant encounter, a tour of the Reptile enclosure and the use of Lodge facilities. This ensured that we had plenty to do while we were on site at the Lodge. On our first game drive that afternoon we arrived, we were introduced to our guide, Tracey who was to take us along in her jeep with another Dutch family (who had a little 4 year old girl) for the duration of our stay.
The boys enjoyed having another friend in the jeep to share their safari experience with – even though the little girl only spoke Dutch, it was amazing how the children could still have fun and interact with each other!
The boys were excited to finally go out and spot wild animals. Between the 4 game drives, the boys learnt about the different types of antelopes, who the Big 5 animals were, whether zebras are black with white stripes or vice versa, why Hippos can be dangerous and what a dark colored mane on a lion meant. The giraffes and elephants were definitely Jayden’s favorites while Joshua favored the predators, lions and cheetahs, more. The highlight certainly was during our second afternoon game drive when our jeep was chased by an embarrassed and sexually frustrated rhino who, after being continuously rejected by his 3 lady friends, decided to take his frustration out on our jeep (Watch it here:). In retrospect, it was dangerous and scary, but in that moment, the boys thought it was the funniest and most exciting thrill (See the videos here)! Luckily, Tracey’s expertise in Jeep maneuvering got us out of our hair-raising situation with the rhino.
The “Gentle Giants” are the resident elephants at the Lodge and Tracey took us to their barn for a snack feed. Jayden was too scared but Joshua was brave enough to scoop handfuls of grass pellets and drop them right inside the elephants’ trunk! The elephants were grateful for their snacks, nodding their heads and playfully waving their trucks in gratitude.
The Lodge also has a Reptile Centre which housed a large variety of snakes and crocodiles. Our favorite was Tank, the 90+ years old tortoise who happily roamed the grounds chomping on grass. We all followed his slow movements in awe, imagining this perfect natural lawnmower repeating this everyday as he live out his next 100 years!
From the comfortable large family rooms, to the surprisingly delicious buffet spreads, to the detailed attention on being family oriented, this Lodge exceeded my expectations and delivered an unforgettable experience for our boys and our family as well. Even at their young age, the boys continue to relive their safari experiences with their teachers and class at school and haven’t stopped talking about the wild animals and our guide Tracey since our return home.
Tips & Tidbits
- Thick clothes and jackets are recommended on game drives as it can get quite windy and chilly in the early mornings and late afternoons.
- Unlike in movies or cartoons, the wild animals are not dotted all over the open plains, and predators like lions, cheetahs and leopards are difficult to spot. In retrospect, we should have managed the boys’ expectations a bit more so that they knew they had to be patient during the game drives, to be alert and search for the animals and to listen more carefully to the guide as Tracey explained and taught us more about the habitat and nature of each of the animals.
Day 11: Mossel Bay | Diaz Museum | Hog Hollow Country Lodge
Never ones to miss out, the boys woke up early again for our final game drive at 7am. We all wanted to find the mommy cheetah and her 3 cubs before we got back on the Garden Route. Tracey had a sixth sense in terms of their whereabouts and she was dead on! Well hidden in the bushland, the little cubs played around their weary mother but were too far off the road for us to spot them clearly without binoculars. Extremely pleased, we had ticked off all the animals in the Reserve upon leaving the Lodge, including the Big 5: Cheetah, Lions, Elephants, Rhino and Buffalo.
On route to our next accommodation along the Garden Route, we stopped by Mossel Bay’s Bartholomue Diaz Museum. The main attractions were the Post Office Tree and the life size replica of the Diaz caravel boat.
The replica wooden caravel was amazingly detailed, and with an additional ticket, we could go on board the boat and explore the tiny cabins under deck, and climb on the upper deck for a better visa. We could really let our imagination run wild and pretend we were pirates on the sea looking for new lands and treasures. The famed Milkwood tree with a shoe hanging off it has been used as a postbox between sailors since 1500. To relive history, we purchased 2 postcards and the boys mailed their dictated messages via the Post Office Tree.
It was so much fun watching their excitement upon receiving their postcards a week or so after we returned home.
Along the Garden Route is a place called Wilderness – I just thought it was the coolest name for a relatively remote town in the middle of Africa! Here, we stopped by the Timberlake Organic Village for lunch + oysters. This is because after we ordered our meals at Zucchini Restaurant, Jeff walked past the Oyster Shack and suggested we try out some wild oysters. The shape of these ones are certainly wild and irregular, with the oyster itself filling in whatever shape its shell takes. Freshly harvested that morning, these wild ones tasted of the salty sea without the signature sweetness from cultivated ones. It was certainly an experience but I have to say, I prefer the sweet fat plump ones!
Finally after all the detours, we arrived at Hog Hollow Country Lodge. We were greeted with the friendliest African welcome and management had a surprise installed for us. Our booking was upgrade from 2 standard rooms to their 3 large bedroom family villa!
Tired from the long drive, we stayed in our villa teaching the boys to play pool and ping pong upstairs, and enjoyed a lovely 3 course dinner at their dining room with other guests.
Day 12: Knysna | Tapas & Oysters | Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary | Beach & Lookout Deck
The only rainy foggy day of our entire trip. This also happened to be the day we booked the Knysna Featherbed Eco Tour. Luckily, we were able to reschedule it to the next day so we spent the wet morning exploring the little quaint township of Knysna and heading across the Knysna “Lagoon” to Thesen Island for brunch.
We happened upon a placed called Tapas & Oysters – somewhat of a strange name for a restaurant which incidentally served tapas, burgers, sushi and oysters! The boys were keen for sushi probably because they haven’t had rice or Asian food for over 10 days now, and we were tempted to try the local Knysna oysters at source.
Once again, the cultivated oysters were fat, plump and naturally so sweet that even my mom, who was worried about her iron levels, had to order at least half a dozen! So as it ended up, we found a gem of a place on a dreary wet day in the most unexpected weirdly named restaurant!
Even after 2 days of safari, the boys were not done with their desire to see wild animals. With the rain easing, we drove back towards Plettenberg Bay to visit the Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary. Jukani has large fenced enclosures that mainly housed predator cats. As we followed the guide through the sanctuary, the boys were able to see for themselves different cat species like jaguars, cheetahs, lions (including the special South African white lion), caracals, tigers and leopards up close.
What was scary and interesting was that when we arrived at the spotted hyena enclosure, we noticed that the mother hyena was particularly interested in Jayden – her eyes followed him and she tracked his every move. It confirmed some of the stories we’ve heard about Hyenas, and in fact, Jayden was the right size as her prey! The end of our tour coincided with meal time for the cats, and our guide advised us to move along past the lion enclosures so as not to linger and “tempt” them. After seeing the hungry eyes of the Hyena mommy, we were glad to move right along!
With some time left before dinner, we went for a drive to check out the famed beaches along the Plettenberg Bay coast. Though windy and chilly, we found Arch Rock Beach, a stretch of beach with silky soft sand that we vowed to spend more time on a hot sunny day.
Then closer to the Plettenberg Bay township we found the Lookout Beach, which was also home to the popular Lookout Deck & Restaurant. How could this place go wrong if they offered strawberry daiquiris by liter jugs!! The waitress should have warned us about the portion size at this place though, because we ended up having to play a game to see who would finish up the left over grilled prawns. Funnily enough, Joshua made sure he deliberately lost so he could chow down a few more prawns! Mission accomplished!
Day 13: Featherbed Eco Experience Tour | Arch Rock Beach | Enrico Restaurant
The sun returned and the skies cleared this morning as we returned to Knysna for our Featherbed Eco Experience Tour. The tour included a boat ride through the clear Knysna estuary into the Featherbed Private Nature Reserve, with a trailer waiting to drive us up to the headland stopping at spectacular and breathtaking viewpoints. From there, we could either take the trailer back down or hike 2.2 km down towards the jetty. The hike was well worth it (since most of it was downhill) with signposts introducing the varied flora and fauna, views of the dramatic cliffs and angry waves, the option of visiting ancient sea caves and the walk along the crystal clear waters of the estuary. With all the stops and starts to take photos, we were one of the last ones to arrive back at the jetty restaurant for the buffet lunch. The exercise ensured great appetites, and full bellies ensured a drowsy shut-eye ride back to Knysna.
We returned to the Arch Rock Beach, this time, organized and equipped with beach toys and an umbrella. On a sunny weekday afternoon, we had the beach all to ourselves! The boys spent hours happily rolling around on the sand, building sand castles (and proceeding to destroy them straight away!), digging a ditch to “look for water” and investigating the sudden appearance of hundreds of sea “plough” snails on the shore. These snails are scavengers, and they emerged from beneath the sand as pieces of dead jellyfish carcasses started to wash ashore. The boys looked on in fascination as the snails piled on to consume the jellyfish.
As the sun set, we grabbed a table at Enrico Restaurant right next door for dinner. If we had known that this was such a popular joint, we would have put our names down before we headed to the beach! The boys were very hungry after our beach adventure and managed to scoff down an entire large pizza between the two of them (also because it was delicious)!
Day 14: Storms River Suspension Bridge | Monkeyland
East of Plettenberg Bay is the Tsitsikamma National Park, a beautifully scenic part of the Garden Route renown for its dramatic coastline, indigenous forests and river mouths running into the ocean. One such is the Storms River mouth where a long suspension bridge has been built across it. The hike to the suspension bridge involved many steps along the wooden walkways – though not overtly strenuous, it was at times difficult for the boys’ little legs to muster.
The reward was the amazing views from the bridge into the mouth of the river, and the appreciation of the power of the sea. By the time we made our way back to the carpark, everyone was hungry! Luckily, there was a seaside restaurant right in the national park which satisfied our final cravings for fresh oysters on this trip!
We rushed back just in time for the last tour at Monkeyland!! Monkeyland is the world’s first free roaming multi-specie primate sanctuary, so as we entered, many monkeys welcomed us by swinging overhead or walking towards us to check us out! We were guided through the sanctuary spotting the 11 different species along the way – but the best part was the suspension bridge. Apparently, the bridge is a favorite amongst all the monkeys and they were all there waiting for us to walk across. It felt like we were test subjects, and they were taking bets on how well we will brave the gauntlet that is the bridge. As we did, the monkeys jumped off or hung around – but the golden gibbons and lemurs decided to play tricks on us by blocking our way or swinging between the walkway forcing us to duck!! They really were a cheeky bunch!
After an exhilarating visit at Monkeyland, we returned to the Hog Hollow Country Lodge and joined other guests at the dining room for a wonderful meal on our last evening in South Africa.
Day 15: Drive to Port Elizabeth Airport
All great holidays must come to an end. During our 2.5 hours drive to the Port Elizabeth airport, we looked back on all our favorite moments in the last 2 weeks with the boys, laughing at all our silly stories and escapades and putting to heart our warm and fuzzy family moments. It was a bitter-sweet goodbye to South Africa; the only comfort was that returning is a sure bet.