There’s a stretch of the N2 that just seems to go on forever somewhere between Cape Town and Mossel Bay.
If it’s a road you travel often, you probably know how it goes: once you’ve made it over the Houw Hoek Pass and hit that nice wide open piece of highway approaching Caledon, it’s kind of auto-pilot all the way from there.
Maybe stop for a pie at Ou Meul Bakery in Riviersonderend and then full steam ahead, passing – as quickly as possible – Swellendam, Heidelberg, Riversdale (unless you take a quick toilet break at the Engen), Albertinia and the brightly painted fishing boat marking the entrance to Stilbaai.
To many travellers, these names have become markers of sorts, measuring how many kilometres are left to go before they hit the real deal – Hartenbosch, George, Wilderness, Knysna, Plett.
However, and here’s a little secret just between us, in your rush to the forest and coast, you may actually be missing the best part!
Allow me to introduce you to the Explore’s Garden Route. Comprising the Hessequa district towns of Albertinia, Gouritsmond, Heidelberg, Melkhoutfontein, Riversdale, Slangrivier, Stilbaai and Witsand, the Explorer’s Garden Route offers a perfectly off-beat escape from the madding crowds and predictable attractions.
Looking for forest trails? There are plenty! Craving a seaside break? Hessequa is the first and only municipality to have all its beaches feature in the Blue Flag program. Enjoy good food, wine or maybe gin? It’s all there too.
Check out these top 8 great experiences to have in the area:
1. Whale watching in Witsand
While Hermanus is widely accepted to be the whale watching capital of South Africa, the coastal hamlet of Witsand is an excellent alternative. In fact, it is known as our coastline’s official Whale Nursery, as Southern Rights gather in their droves to mate and calve between July and November every year. Various elevated lookout points are dotted along the shore, offering expansive views of the sheltered San Sebastian Bay.
Witsand is located about 45mins drive from the N2 turnoff just after Swellendam. While you can follow the tarred road all the way into the town, we suggest a little detour via Malgas to take the pontoon over the Breede River. It’s a quintessential Hessequa experience!
2. Mountain biking around Riversdale and cooling off in the Korentepooort dam
Resting peacefully high above the town of Riversdale is a picturesque mountain peak known as the Sleeping Beauty, because, well, it forms a perfectly pretty silhouette of a slumbering girl with long lashes, a petite little nose and pouty lips. And while she’s pretty to look at from far, her foothills are covered in a network of mountain biking routes to explore from closer by.
And if you’re the competitive type, the town hosts two big MTB races every year that are an absolute must try. Both the Hessequa MTB Challenge (normally taking place in May) and Al-2-Hez (usually set for September) offer mountain bikers of all experience levels an opportunity to test their mettle on a variety of terrain, including forests, gravel roads, fynbos vegetation and tar. Training for these events take place on all the farm roads surrounding Riversdale and the other towns in the area.
Once you’ve spent some time exploring the tracks, head out to the gorgeous Korentepoort dam (located about 16km outside of Riversdale) for a chilled out afternoon of swimming, picnicking and watersports. Surrounded by pine plantations and with the famous Sleeping Beauty in the background, the dam provides a perfectly pretty spot to while away a summer’s day. Getting in will cost your R5 per person and R30 per vehicle.
3. Hiking Grootvadersbosch, just outside Heidelberg
Hidden among the flat farmlands and fynbos generally associated with this part of the world, you will find a patch of indigenous forest as lush and mysterious as the Tsitsikamma itself. Run by Cape Nature the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve is an outdoor lover’s delight – there are hiking and mountain bike trails a-plenty, bird hides hidden among tall trees and a neatly maintained campsite.
The reserve comprises 250ha of Knysna-type forest and is the most noteworthy in the southwestern Cape. Among indigenous trees like red alder, stinkwood, yellow wood and the dominant iron wood, a few exotic species such as camphor, Australian blackwood, eucalyptus, ash, Californian redwood and oak can also be found. Planted here during the late 1800s and early 1900s, these trees were used to cover the area that had been denuded by woodcutters. Cape Nature is, however, working hard to reforest with indigenous trees only.
Check out the Cape Nature website for more details
4. Fynbos-flavoured gin at Inverroche Distillery just outside Stilbaai
Fynbos-infused gin? Yes please! Located on the banks of the Goukou river, close to where it meets the Indian Ocean in Stilbaai, Inverroche is a progressive craft distillery producing a range of uniquely South African spirits, using rare hand-harvested wild Fynbos botanicals.
While they are best known for their gin, they do also produce spiced rums and liqueurs. They offer daily distillery tours where you will get to meet Magnanimous Meg, the custom-made, wood-fired copper pot still used to produce their legendary spirits and, yes, gin tastings too. Check out the Inverroche website for more details
5. Swimming, fishing & fun in Stilbaai
If you’re looking for a fun-filled seaside break, Stilbaai is definitely for you! Whether you enjoy fishing, surfing, beach-combing, sunbathing, canoeing or just chilling, this steadily growing coastal town has it all. With the Goukou River rushing into the sea, Stilbaai offers a great combination of fresh water and ocean activities as well as some breathtaking scenery.
As you enter the town, look out for the beautifully cultivated Tuin-op-die-Brak. The garden, which is maintained by a collective of passionate local gardeners, is a botanically correct nature park featuring more than 240 plant species characteristic of the Hessequa environment. Another quirky attraction the town offers, is the ‘Feeding of the Eels,’ at the Stilbaai Tourism Bureau’s pond. Fed by a natural fountain, the pond has been home to a few generations of fresh-water eels, which get fed by hand on a daily basis at 11:00 (apart from Sundays). Sounds crazy, but it’s true!
6. Wine, olive and cheese tasting
If you’re into intimate, boutique tasting experiences, Hessequa will make you a very happy camper indeed. For wine, visit the Baleia Bay or Edenberg cellars, both in the vicinity of Riversdale. Baleia Bay wines are cultivated on the Dassieklip farm just outside town. Their product offering currently includes an award winning Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Edenberg is located on one of the oldest farms in the area and each and every bottle of wine is produced by hand – from harvesting to packaging.
As far as cheese and olives are concerned, Kasselshoop’s handcrafted cheeses are an absolute must-try, while Botterkloof has a wide array of Olive Products. Both are located en route to Stilbaai, which makes for a convenient two-delicious-birds-with-one stone scenario! Kasselshoop is family-run and offers cheese and wine pairing tours, while Botterkloof’s farmstall is jam-packed with all sorts of delights, of which olives are the crowning glory.
7. Bird watching in Gouritsmond
While the whole of the Explorer’s Garden Route is great for anyone with an interest in bird-watching, Gouritsmond has established itself as a capital of sorts. No less than 232 bird species have been identified in the area, among which sea, land and freshwater birds feature. Bigger bird species include the African Fish Eagle, Blue Cranes and secretary birds and when the sun sets, the Fiery Necked Nightjar will charm you with its haunting call. There are three short, circular hiking trails, allowing visitors to enjoy birdwatching among fynbos vegetation.
8. Biltong and roosterkoek
Last but not least, indulge is some proudly South African padkos. Located right next to the N2, you will find Heidelberg’s Biltong Fabriek, which has a rather mind-boggling array of, yes you guessed it, biltong and droëwors. Then there are the roosterkoeke in Albertinia – best served plain and simple with a dash of butter, some apricot jam and cheese. But if you like something fancier, the options for toppings are endless.