Katie McGonagle seeks out South Africa’s biggest thrills along the famous Garden Route
Leap of faith
Five, four, three, two, one… BUNGEE!
As I flung myself head first off the world’s highest bungee bridge – stack two Big Bens on top of each other and they still wouldn’t reach this dizzying 216-metre precipice – I would like to say I felt a thrill of adrenaline, a rush of excitement or, frankly, anything at all.
But freefalling through the air at 75mph attached to a big rubber band, I would be lying to say I felt anything except heart-thumping, screaming-at-the-top-of-my-lungs terror.
My pulse is racing a little faster even at the thought of it, but now that sense of panic is accompanied by a dash of pride. I jumped off the world’s highest bridge bungee – and I survived.
On the way, I learnt two things: one, I’m not a very good adrenaline junkie and should really stick to ground level from now on; and two, that anyone looking for adventure will find it in spades in South Africa.
The Garden Route might be renowned for its scenery, sumptuous food and wine, and family-friendly stops. But it is also fast becoming the new adventure capital of the world.
A bridge too far
We were at Bloukrans Bridge in the Western Cape, halfway between George and Port Elizabeth, where the Face Adrenalin team has been giving serious thrill-seekers their fix since 1990.
Even the walk to the platform would be enough excitement for most, as the wire mesh walkway offers rather alarming glimpses of the gentle stream a long way below (nervous types, don’t look down). The Bridge Walk costs from £5 and the jump from £43.
I had already got my head for heights before the bungee after spending the morning zip-lining through verdant forest on the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour, a half hour drive away.
Flying 30 metres above the forest floor along a network of 10 zip-lines up to 100 metres long would be exciting at any time, but we were there just after a few days’ rainfall, so the lush greenery and humid atmosphere – not to mention the array of birds and other wildlife that our guides pointed out along the way – made it feel more like the tropics than South Africa.
Prices start at £27 for the three-hour tour. It is also an optional extra on the eight-day Coast to Cape Town small-group safari by overland specialist Acacia Africa (from £695 land-only).
The rainfall also made our next stop, quad biking with WildX Adventures, even more enjoyable. After all, what fun is quad biking without a bit of mud? The bush trail started off simple then moved onto more challenging twists and turns, and with an hour-long adventure from £16, there is no arguing about its value for money.
Walk on the wild side
Catching our first glimpse of Plettenberg Bay, it was easy to see why Portuguese explorers christened it ‘bahia formosa’ (beautiful bay), thanks to the gentle mist stealing across the mountains, slowly clearing to reveal bright blue skies and waves crashing on the golden beach.
Tempted as we might have been to flop down on a beach towel and soak up some sun, there were more exciting things in store.
We had barely donned wetsuits and clambered into an inflatable boat when the Offshore Adventures team zoomed us away from that gorgeous beach, riding the waves at breakneck speed to reach the colony of Cape fur seals just around the bay – although we did slow down when a pod of dolphins swam playfully alongside the boat.
But the dolphins were only the warm-up act, as waiting around the corner was a bay full of seals, bobbing their brown heads in and out of the water.
They were even cuter close-up, as we donned snorkel masks and hopped in to see their silvery-brown bodies weaving back and forth under the water, before flapping their fins or splashing water over each other (seal swim from £27, viewing-only from £14).
They weren’t the only adorable creatures around. Game viewing is nothing new in South Africa, but the horseback safari at Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve was something special, offering the chance to feel far closer to the animals than is possible from the confines of a 4×4 (£23). The only drawback was that as lions can spook the horses, they were out of bounds.
The experienced guides (and horses) were ready to reassure nervous riders, but any uncertainty was forgotten as soon as we saw mother and baby giraffes having a nibble at the trees, white rhinos grazing in the mud and hippos hanging out by the water’s edge. A herd of zebras came so close that they practically posed for photos, while springboks bounced along in the distance.
Amid all this excitement, one thing was clear: anyone who thinks the Garden Route is just a leisurely coastal drive should go and see it for themselves.
South Africa offers great value and even better food and wine, so encourage adventurers to refuel at our pick of restaurants in charming harbour town Knysna.
The Olive Tree, 21 Main Street: This was as relaxed as a restaurant could be, with no-frills food that put taste and top-notch ingredients first. Highlights of the menu were tender beef fillet, turbot-like fish kingclip, and local speciality ‘bobotie’ spring rolls filled with minced beef, dried fruits and a spicy sauce.
JJs, Knysna Waterfront: Vegetarians beware – this was a meat-lover’s dream. I tasted zebra, ostrich and kudu, although I missed out on the crocodile carpaccio. The bar-cum-restaurant had a friendly atmosphere and generous portions.
Tapas and Oysters, Thesen Island: The winner of the annual Knysna Oyster Festival was bound to serve up a good feast. But the tapas here went way beyond tasty – and was enjoyed with live music and livelier surroundings.
Find out more:
A 10-day Cape Town, Garden Route and Safari self-drive starts at £1,499 with Travel2, including superior car hire from Avis and flights from London.
Premier Holidays offers a five-night Garden Route self-drive from £295 in low season, including four-star B&B accommodation and car hire, but excluding flights.
Combine the Garden Route with Cape Town and the Winelands on Virgin Holidays’ 10-night fly-drive, including flights via Doha. Prices start at £1,559 including B&B and car hire, for departures on September 2.
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