We’re finally at the beautiful coast again! And not just any stretch of coast, the Garden Route is constantly touted as being the prettiest part of South Africa, and this was the main reason I had booked this particular route through the country. It’s rugged coastlines, turquoise waters, soaring mountains, and green forests, the perfect location for lots of outdoor activities. As I’ve previously mentioned, I would have liked more time on the coast during this trip, and much like the Wild Coast, I would have liked an extra night at a second location somewhere along the Garden Route. However, the two nights we spent there were in Tsitsikamma National Park, where we were camping right by the shore!
As we’d had the early morning game drive in Addo, our drive to Tsitsikamma took up the middle portion of the day, and I definitely slept through much of it, having woken up at 5am. When I did wake up, it was pouring with rain outside, which wasn’t a promising start, by it had cleared up to reveal clear skies and sunshine. On the way there, we stopped at a service station just after a gorge, giving us time to venture back over the bridge. The drop to the river on the valley floor below was staggering, and my fear of heights was certainly on high alert! There’s a pedestrian walkway along the edges of the bridge, beside the road, which I did walk along, but I was practically glued to the roadside, staying as far back from the barrier as was possible. The view was fantastic though, before I quickly headed back to safer ground.
When we arrived in Tsitsikamma, we set up camp first, our tents overlooking the coastline and the ocean, save for the caravans in front and around us. There was a shop and restaurant further up the coast from us, but otherwise it was just campers and natural scenery all around. Green hills climbed up behind us, while waves crashed into the rocks below. It wasn’t a beach location, like Chintsa, as we were perched atop the cliffs, looking down to rough waters below, but I think it was more impressive here! We had to drive to Storms River village to book our activities for the next day, which required a lot of coordination amongst the group, as the truck would have to drive us to and from the village the next day – definitely not walking distance – so our timings couldn’t clash. It was a little frustrating, with 16 people to organise, but we got there!
Some of us were hoping to book snorkelling as well, which operates from just up the road from the campsite, but it turned out a dam had burst in Storms River, meaning that the mouth and surrounding ocean, where the snorkelling would be, was brown and murky. The staff told us we wouldn’t see anything, so there was little point – we did appreciate them not taking advantage and taking our money anyways! We were then able to walk from the river mouth back to camp, taking in more of the coastal scenery along the way. As we were getting close to the Western Cape, the sunset was on the edge of the water, not behind in the hills as it had been in Chintsa. I sat down by the outdoor swimming pool (full of seagull feathers, so I wasn’t getting in), to watch the colours painted across the horizon. After dinner, the stars were out in full force again, and we sat outside for a long time, craning our necks skywards to admire the constellations and the Milky Way, even seeing the space station cruising past.
The next morning, our driver took us back us to Storms River village for our activities. A bunch of us had booked with Blackwater Tubing, for a half day tubing trip down Storms River. We started at the lodge they also run, with drinks provided while we waited. Once the other customers arrived, they gave us the safety talk, and handed out our wetsuits, helmets, and floatation devices. I’ve been tubing a couple of times before, in Belize and Thailand, but always just in my swimwear, so all this equipment made me think this might be rougher water than I’d experienced before! They then drove us up into the forest, an area of indigenous trees, one of the few such areas remaining, on a bumpy dirt track, to our start point. I say start point, they then inflated the tubes and we had to carry them with us down a steep hill, along a narrow path with lots of low overhanging branches, to actually reach the river. The company’s name made sense at this point, as tannins flow into the water, colouring it a dark brown, nearly black colour.
The ride down the river was a lot of fun, taking about an hour and a half I estimated. There were some calm pools where we could drift more lazily, sculling along with our arms, and taking in the scenery around us, green forest climbing up the hill sides, with us floating through the valley between the mountains. However, I was right about the rougher waters, as there were many rapids to navigate as well! This also made it clear as to why there were three guides with us, as they had to help us through these sections, with us paddling hard, while they swung our tubes round to keep us on the right paths. A lot of those sections also had quite shallow water, meaning you had to lift your bum up as high as you could within your tube; cries of “Bums up!” could be heard constantly from the guides. The whole thing was actually quite the workout for your core and arms, and I could certainly feel it in my muscles by the end! A few people did fall out on the way, some by accident, while others were trying to tip each other out, but I stayed in my tube, luckily.
Sometimes the calm pools, normally found after the rapids sections, weren’t actually that calm, and we would cling to branches and foliage on the shore to stay in place, while waiting for the rest of the group to come through. At one point, a few people thought it would be funny to form a human chain, which had me at the top holding on to a branch with my hand, and at least five people connecting to me, holding each other’s tube handles! Our ride ended at a small bridge, where the water was shallow enough to hop out, and we could easily climb on to the road, where the truck was waiting to take us back again. I was one of the first to reach it, and so stood atop the bridge, wetsuit stripped off again to let my skin breathe – they are a bit stifling after a while, especially in the hot sun – munching on the chocolate bars they gave us to restore our sugar levels, and watching everyone else float in. Back at the tubing lodge, we were provided with lunch, which included homemade ciabatta rolls, and could dry off and change, before our truck took us back to the campsite.
We’d had to wait for another group to finish their activity that morning as well, meaning it was mid-afternoon by the time we got back to camp. Slightly annoying, but there were still a few hours of daylight left, so a couple of us decided to tackle one of the hiking routes. There were a few options near where we were, of varying lengths, but it was the waterfall hike that we were most intrigued by, following the coastline west. It actually forms the first part of the Otter Trail, a five day coastal hike along the Garden Route, with overnight stops in huts along the way. I’d quite like to do the whole thing some day, but there certainly wasn’t time on this trip. It was actually later than advised in the day to start the waterfall trail, as it apparently would take a couple of hours there, and the same back. We were determined to give it a try though, and did it at pretty quick speed, so we did the round trip, including 20-30 minutes at the waterfall itself, in about two and half hours, with time to spare before sunset.
The route was fairly level most of the time, without very much incline, but the path wasn’t even a path at times! The first stretch was, a rough dirt track following the hillside around the coast, with stunning views of the ocean and rocks below us, both in front and behind. We wove in and out of the tree line as well, occasionally coming across wooden stairs to take us either up or down the more difficult terrains. Then we encountered the more difficult part, a few stretches of rocks, bridging the gap between the hill and the sea (no sandy beaches here), which we had to jump, climb, and carefully balance on as we picked our way across. Often you had to use all four limbs, and occasionally had to double back to take a different route, though there were yellow arrows and paw prints sprayed on some of them to indicate the best path. It was definitely a test of agility and balance, as well as a leg workout, counteracting all that arm and core work we’d been doing that morning! We were moving quickly though, only stopping to snap more photos of the landscape, those beautiful turquoise waters, with the waves crashing into the rocks around us, and we made it to the waterfall in an hour flat!
The waterfall itself was gorgeous, tumbling down over the cliff face to meet the ocean below. There was a plunge pool in the middle, a large area of calm water, which then cascaded down a second rock face to the ocean. Unlike the blue sea behind us, the waterfall and plunge pool were dark in colour, due to the same tannins as in Black Water River that morning. The ocean certainly looked more inviting to swim in, but the water is much too rough and dangerous around the rocks, but the plunge pool is calm enough to take a dip. We figured why not, as we may never get the chance again, and the tannins that cause the dark colour are harmless. The water was freezing, which was kind of refreshing in the hot sun, but not entirely ideal. We stayed for a while, taking photos and swimming closer to the falls themselves, though it was impossible to see where the rocks were below us, so we had to go carefully. After a while, we retraced our route back to the camp, going a little slower this time, now that we knew how long it took. So although there isn’t much incline, the rocks mean that this certainly isn’t the easiest of hikes, but it was well worth it for the views along the way, and at the waterfall itself.
Back at camp, we were just in time to shower and change before our braai dinner – the South African term for a barbecue. Like the night before, we sat outside watching the stars for a while, but it was very cold down by the southern coastline. There isn’t anything else to do at the campsite (no bar, as with previous ones), and it got dark of course, so we all headed to bed pretty early again. Tsitsikamma was definitely what I had been expecting of this trip, all that spectacular coastal scenery! As mentioned, I would have liked more time on the Garden Route, with a night somewhere else along the way, and having to drive to the village made it a bit awkward for the group, but overall, this was a beautiful part of the country, and I’m glad I squeezed in a couple of activities, to make the most of it.