The Garden Route. Genteel and serene with its lakes, mountains, empty beaches, and palatial holiday homes. But this famous Western Cape region of fynbos and forests also harbours a scary side.
Words & Photos Dale R Morris
The Garden Route is resplendent not only in its natural grandeur and wonderful restaurants, but also in extreme adrenaline-focused activities the likes of which can turn a steel spine into a jellyfish tentacle and leave those of us with delicate constitutions hoarse from all the screaming.
From the seaside town of Mossel Bay along the N2 through Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and finally Storms River, you’ll encounter a smorgasbord of terrifyingly fun things to do.
Ever had the inkling to jump from a plane, stare a huge shark in the face, swing across a gorge, dangle over a waterfall or leap off the edge of a very high bridge?
Great, then get yourself down to the Garden Route; but bring some CBD oil, valium and adult diapers with you. You’ll probably need them.
(fear of falling)
Mossel Bay: Tandem Skydive
I’m petrified of heights.
If I stand too close to an edge, my toes start to tingle and my testicles retract. And hence, by the time we reached an altitude of 10 000 feet in a tiny open-door plane, I had basically become a sweaty palmed eunuch.
‘Excited?’ asked Arnold van Dyke, the professional skydive teacher who was strapped with a harness to my back. I peered down at the beautiful curve of Mossel Bay, so very far below and thought seriously about asking to go home. Instead, my ego took over and I gave a half-hearted ‘whoop’ of ersatz bravado.
When the time came to exit the plane, Arnie had to forcibly pry my legs out of the door, and, if the choice to jump had been mine to make, I would have bailed right there. But Arnold jumped, and by default, I went with him, squealing like a frightened pig.
‘Oh sweet Mary mother of God, I’m dying. I’m literally dying!’ Those were my thoughts for the first few seconds of freefall. Then, all of a sudden, the sensation of plummeting gave way to a weightless feeling of flight, and my screams of anguish turned into shrieks of joy.
Thirty five seconds later (a lifetime) and whoomp, the canopy opened and we drifted serenely back to earth.
Up until that moment, I had often wondered what drives people to pursue scary activities. But now I think I know. For the rest of that day I was buzzing with happiness; my brain high on dopamine.
(fear of heights)
Mossel bay and Tsitsikamma : Zipline and Bungee Jump
Alas, a dopamine hit doesn’t stay forever, so when it came time for Africa’s longest zipline, I was back to feeling like a boneless chicken. But this is by no means an ordinary ride.
Firstly, it’s more than a kilometre long and goes directly over the ocean.
If there’s a strong tail wind, you might reach speeds of up to 90km/h, requiring the deployment of a drag-race parachute to slow you down.
‘But no one has overshot yet’, the guide told me, obviously reading the unease in my eyes. My kids had already gone down, screaming and smiling. So I lifted my feet, let the harness take my weight, and whoosh, off the edge of the cliff I went.
Again, there was much shrieking and bulging of eyes but that feeling of terror quickly abated, to be replaced instead by soaring delight. And the views were to die for.
I spotted a hammerhead shark below (all the more reason not to fall off) and as I came in for my landing, waves rose up to splash me. There were even some dolphins milling around in the surf.
The obvious next step up from a zipline in terms of pure terror, would be a bungee jump. The one off the Bloukrans Bridge on the N2 between Plett and Storms River is 216 metres straight down and is among the highest in the world (the highest in Africa).
I didn’t want to do it. Standing on that edge, toes dangling, the forest below so far away it looked like broccoli, I was a shaking mess. The staff gave me the countdown, I closed my eyes and stepped over.
OMG! Somehow this was more scary than the skydive.
One, two, three extreme bounces later, and I’m upside down, spinning slowly like a hung corpse waiting to be pulled back up.
‘Want to do it again?’ they asked me when I was back on the bridge.
‘No. I do not.’ But that dopamine refill kept me with a smile on my face for at least another 24 hours.
More zipping on the Garden Route
The brand new Knysna Zipline at Harkerville Forest Station crosses a forested oceanside gorge four times, R800pp. 074 492 5603, knysnaziplines.co.za
Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours in Storms River Village has 10 ziplines suspended between giant yellowwood trees, R695pp. 042 2811 836 canopytour.co.za
Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures, 8km east of Storms River Bridge on the N2, has an eight-line tour over three waterfalls and down a gorge, R550pp. 042 280 3770 tsitsikammaadventure.co.za
(fear of narrow spaces)
Wilderness and Plett: Kloofing
Tebzzzz Moloi of Africanyon kloofing and abseiling adventures, is a big man with a loud laugh and a penchant for light-hearted jokes. It’s his way of diffusing a tense and scary situation, such as when I found myself hanging from an abseil rope halfway down a thundering waterfall, utterly paralysed with fear.
Tebzzzz was shouting at me to stop ‘throttling the rope like a chicken’s neck’ and to just relax and have some happy thoughts. He talked me down, inch by scary inch, until I was safely at the bottom of the narrow canyon through which we were about to start a half-day tour of extreme adventure.
Kloofing is a lot of fun. We floated through tapered canyons on tan-coloured water, we jumped from high cliffs into swirling pools, and we zoomed through narrow rifts on foefie slides.
The Garden Route has many such slot canyons coming from the mountains. They are often gorgeous, verdant and secretive, and nigh on impossible to access unless you go with professionals. Eden Adventures operates out of Wilderness, while Africanyon is in The Crags just east of Plettenberg Bay.
(fear of sharks)
Plettenberg bay: Seal Swim
Blame Spielberg if you like but there’s no avoiding the fact that sharks are patently terrifying, and swimming with their food might not be the best idea.
On the Cape Nature Robberg Peninsula, you can find more than 6 000 Cape fur seals. They are noisy, rambunctious and fun, and there are several companies in Plett who can kit you up with snorkel or scuba gear and take you out there in a boat to meet them face to face.
‘But aren’t there loads of Great whites here?’ I asked the skipper and proprietor of Offshore Adventures, Jaco Kruger, to which he simply replied: ‘If there is a shark around, the seals will let us know.’
Glad to hear it. But how? Through sign language?
All my concerns dissipated as soon as I was in the water. Baby seals descended upon us like a manic pack of over-eager puppies. They swirled like a shiny black tornado, blowing bubbles into our faces and sometimes playfully tugging on our flippers. It was magic, pure magic – the possibility of lurking sharks long forgotten.
(fear of speed)
Mossel Bay, Knysna and Plett: Fast Boats and Jet Skis
My next foray into near-death experiences came in the form of the Freaking Fast Waverider, a speedboat with a burley pair of 300hp engines. You sit on seats that resemble padded saddles with ‘oh shit!’ handles, while owner and speed freak Cobus van Rensberg puts on a manic grin and guns it out into the bay at speeds of up to 185km/h.
It was all too much for one little girl, so she ended up back at the jetty (with a nice cup of calming chamomile tea) and we ended up back out in the bay, at the mercy of Cobus Schumacher.
‘No need to hold back now,’ he announced, and that’s when the world became a blur of ocean spray and dizzying turns. We all came off that boat slightly stunned, with faces pulled taught, and smiles from ear to ear.
You’ll also find speed boat tours on Knysna Lagoon and jet ski hire from Central Beach in Plettenberg Bay.
(fear of looking stupid)
Mossel Bay: Sand Boarding
What could possibly be frightening about riding a board down a sand dune, I hear you ask. It’s just like skiing, right?
Which is true. But the only time I tried skiing, I was rubbish, and spent the majority of my time hurtling uncontrollably into crash barriers and trees at the cost of two fractured ribs and a bloody nose.
Back then, though, I didn’t have Leon van Rensberg and Jemin Koen to help me out and put me right. Both professional boarders, these two got everyone in our group standing up and looking cool in no time at all. But that was on a short dune.
‘You guys all seem ready for the famous Dragon Dune now,’ said Leon as he walked us up to the crest of a monster-sized mountain of sand. And that’s when my toes began to curl.
At almost 200 metres high, with a gradient steep enough to get you moving at up to 85km/h, the Dragon is not a dune to be trifled with. ‘You’ll have to lie down on your board in order to survive this one,’ said Leon, before lining us up and sending us over the edge.
The route down was a lot of fun. I didn’t crash. I didn’t die. But the slog back up, finished me off.
(fear of flying)
Wilderness Sedgefield and Plett
Paraglide, Paramotor, Microlight
The Garden Route is world-famous among paragliders. It’s got something to do with the prevalence of an ideal coastal updraft. As such, there are several paraglide schools in the area but if you simply want to try it out, there are also options for tandem flights.
Atop a huge forested dune in Sedgefield, professional pilot Michail van der Walt strapped me into a harness, lifted his chute into the air and ran with me over the edge.
Flying around in a fixed wing airplane is one thing. Flying around strung to an oversized handkerchief is something entirely different. It’s nerve-racking but also serenely peaceful, with nothing but the wind blowing into your face and a stunning 360-degree view of the Garden Route mountains and coast.
Later, we flew again from Wilderness Heights, only this time he had a huge circular fan attached to his back. It was noisy, but the added control the rotors gave allowed Michail to fly us out over the ocean where we spotted white sharks and southern right whales near the surf.
We flew along the coast, sometimes skimming the beach, and at other times high above the world. It was an exhilarating end to a fearfully fun holiday on the Garden Route.
The longest zipline over the ocean in the world costs R450pp. 068 022 918, mosselbayzipline.co.za
Numerous paraglide schools in wilderness and Sedgefield all do tandem joy flights. Costs around R850 for a 15 minute flight or R1 500 for half an hour.
Paramotor tours cost R2 500 for 35 minutes. 065 138 3210,
A 15-minute extreme ride (or slower, kid-friendly ride) in Mossel Bay costs R450 pp. They also do parasailing and inflatable tube rides. freakingfastwaverider.co.za.
In Knysna, knysnaribadventures.co.za has similar tours but at a somewhat slower pace in the Knysna Lagoon starting at R500pp.
Super-fast jet skis can be hired at R500 per 30 minutes in Plettenberg Bay from offshoreadventures.co.za
africanyon.com 082 323 4349 operates from the Crags near Plettenberg Bay, R860 for 3–4 hours; abseiling trips for R495pp.
Eden Adventures in Wilderness runs half-day canyoning for R700 pp (R550 for kids) or a full-day canyon/abseil combo for R1 100 (R900 for kids). 044 877 0179 eden.co.za
A three-hour tuition tour (with as many rides down Dragon Dune as you want) costs R350pp. 082 971 1405 dragondune.com
Shark cage diving
Excursions from Mossel Bay cost around R2 000pp. whitesharkafrica.com 044 691 3796
Both the following: offshoreadventures.co.za 082 829 0809 and plettsealadventures.co.za 079 992 5432 will kit you up for an hour-odd snorkelling with Robberg’s friendly seals for R900pp. Pro Dive will take you snorkelling for R850 or do a two-tank reef and seal scuba package for R1 200pp. 044 533 1158, plett.prodive.co.za
Luxury: African Oceans Manor on the beach, from R2 000 a room (for two). 044 695 1846, africanoceans.co.za
Budget & quirky: Santo Express Train Lodge from R200 pp. 044 6911 995 santosexpress.co.za
Plettenberg Bay/Storms River
Luxury: Fynbos Ridge from R1 100 pp. 044 533 0106. fynbosridge.co.za or Lily Pond Country Lodge from R1 300 pp. 044 534 8767. lilypond.co.za
Budget: Amakaya Backpackers, from R200 pp 044 533 4010. amakaya.co.za