Category Archives: Garden Route National Park

Summertide Diary: Nature’s Valley (Garden Route National Park)

22 – 24 December 2020

Located at the mouth of the Groot River, the small holiday town of Nature’s Valley is surrounded by the western reaches of the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. The town is connected to the N2 national highway by the Groot River Pass which makes for a magnificent drive as one descends through the forest canopy to the town below.

South African National Parks manages the De Vasselot Rest Camp, which offers two fully-equipped chalets, ten rustic forest huts and a camping area on the outskirts of town. Private holiday homes are available to hire in town where there’s also a small general store and restaurant. Several hiking trails traverse the forests and beaches around Nature’s Valley, and canoes can be hired to explore the river and lagoon.

We spent two nights at the De Vasselot Rest Camp at Nature’s Valley during our 2020-21 Summertide Ramble, arriving in the early afternoon on the 22nd and departing again late morning on the 24th of December 2020. Our chalet on the bank of the Groot River had a lovely setting from which we could wonder at the beauty of Nature’s Valley.

When the sun was out we enjoyed the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets from our stoep. When it was raining, the sound of the drops hitting the river and the quacking of the raucous toad beneath the deck combined to make a soothing lullaby, lulling me to sleep right there on the veranda.

We didn’t see the sun very often during our time at Nature’s Valley and couldn’t explore as widely as we wanted to due both to the very rainy weather and government restrictions imposed to clamp down on South Africa’s “second wave” of COVID-19 infections, and we’ll definitely have to return to remedy that. Still, there were many trails that we did explore in between (and sometimes during) the rain showers, and even walking in the camp and town proved very rewarding.

One of our hikes took us on a forest trail in the early morning, and we were hoping to reach a cliff-top vantage point overlooking the Indian Ocean. But we got lost in the forest. Thankfully we could trace our steps back after realising that we lost our way. And we could swing on monkey vines (yes, strong enough to hold even me!). And we got soaking wet after it started raining. And yet there was so much life to marvel at that the hike really was still more than worth the effort. The fact that we really do want to go see that viewpoint is just another reason why we have to return to Nature’s Valley!

 

Nature’s Valley location (Google Maps) Click on the map for an enlarged view.

 

Summertide Diary: Departing Wilderness

22 December 2020

Our last morning in Wilderness and one final chance to take a walk through the camp – even if it was drizzling slightly it’s amazing to still find so much new to see!

As we start our drive to our next destination, the sun finally puts in an appearance, inviting us to pull to the side of the road and enjoy the view over Swartvlei, the largest of the lakes in the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park.

A view over Swartvlei from a lay-by along the N2-highway

If you’d like to read more about the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park, please have a look at this special feature about it that we published a while ago.

Greater Red Musk Shrew

Crocidura flavescens

One of the real highlights of our visit to the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park was an encounter with a rarely seen small mammal: a Greater Red Musk Shrew.

Although it is tiny, weighing only about 30g, the Greater Red Musk Shrew is one of the biggest members of the shrew-family occurring in South Africa. We found the shrew next to a reed bed along the Touw River – typical habitat for the species, although they do occasionally venture into gardens and houses. Greater Red Musk Shrews are insectivores, feeding on a wide range of insects, worms and other invertebrates, and like other shrews have a relatively enormous appetite needing to consume at least half its own weight on a daily basis.

These cute creatures are mostly nocturnal, so we count ourselves very lucky seeing one in daylight (although heavily overcast) and out in the open. By day they hide in grass-nests built slightly above ground level in dense grass cover.

Females give birth to up to 7 young after a gestation of only a month, mainly in the summer months. The babies follow their mother around from 6 days old by forming a “train” nose-to-tail with their siblings. Like other shrews they live extremely fast-paced lives – the young are weaned at only 3 weeks old, reaching sexual maturity when they’re 2-3 months old and then have a life expectancy of maximum 18 months!

The IUCN considers the Greater Red Musk Shrew to be of least concern in conservation terms. It is almost endemic to South Africa, occurring all along our coast from Namaqualand to Maputaland and into extreme southern Mozambique and also along the Drakensberg through Lesotho and eSwatini to the escarpment in Mpumalanga.

Joubert photographing the Greater Red Musk Shrew at Wilderness

Summertide Diary: Arriving at Wilderness

20 December 2020 (cont.)

Even though we arrived at the Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp in the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park under heavy skies, there was no reason to be gloomy. There’s no doubt that the Garden Route is one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa, no matter the weather.

There’s no containing our enthusiasm for exploring a destination once we’ve arrived and not even the threat of a downpour was going to keep us indoors while the expansive Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp beckoned outside our log cabin, however comfortable it may be.

By now you probably know that we have a propensity to extend our explorations into the hours of darkness. Most of the camps in our national parks are safe to do just that and if you apply some common sense rules like walking with closed shoes you’re likely to be handsomely rewarded with some unusual encounters, like these we had on our first night at Ebb-and-Flow.

If you’d like to read more about the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park, please have a look at this special feature about it that we published a while ago.

 

Summertide Rambles 23 December 2020

I think it’s more the inclement weather than the government-imposed restriction on beach-going in the Garden Route (an attempt at limiting crowds to curb the spread of COVID-19) that caused the beach at Nature’s Valley to be this deserted today.

We’ll be spending the next few days with close family in Jeffreys Bay but we’ll resume our summertide rambles through two of the Eastern Cape national parks on the 27th.

Summertide Rambles 22 December 2020

As the sun sets this evening we’re enjoying the serenity of the next destination of our 2020 summertide ramble: Nature’s Valley in the Garden Route National Park. From our chalet we have a beautiful view of the Groot River and the Tsitsikamma forest and mountains beyond¬† – who could ask for more?

 

Summertide Rambles 21 December 2020

A rainy day here on South Africa’s Garden Route today – always welcome in a dry country such as ours – so we took a short hike in the Woodville Indigenous Forest, where an 800 year old Outeniqua Yellowwood that towers above the canopy is the star attraction. There’s just something so magical about the smells in a rain-soaked forest.

Summertide Rambles 20 December 2020

It’s the fifth day of our 2020 Summertide Ramble, and we’ve moved again – this time about 200km due east to the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park, where our cosy log cottage in the Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp has a lovely (if overcast and rather chilly at the moment) view over the wetlands of the Serpentine River just before its confluence with the Touw River.

Tsitsikamma (Garden Route National Park)

When it was proclaimed in 1964, Tsitsikamma was the first marine national park in Africa. Since then it was progressively enlarged as more areas on land and sea was added to the Park, and by the time it was incorporated into the Garden Route National Park alongside Wilderness National Park, Knysna National Lake Area, and extensive tracts of state forests in between in 2009, the Tsitsikamma section covered an 80km stretch of coastline, extending on average 5km out to sea.

The name “Tsitsikamma” is a Khoekhoen word meaning “place of much water”, which is very apt as the region receives on average around 1,200mm of rain annually. This is a rugged but exceptionally beautiful area, with forested slopes, shear cliffs tumbling into the sea, deep ravines cut into the mountains by dark rivers over millennia, and enormous waves pounding unrelentingly onto the rocky shore.

The easy trail leading to the suspension bridges at the river mouth, about a kilometre from Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, the Tsitsikamma’s main tourst facility, really gives the visitor an excellent introduction to the Tsitsikamma-area; bringing you into contact with the beach, ocean, forest and river, and many of the creatures that find a home there.

Notably, Tsitsikamma’s list of recorded mammals is dominated by marine animals rather than the large terrestrial game species normally associated with a national park in Africa. That being said, visitors should count themselves lucky to see one of the seven whale or five dolphin species that ply these waters – we were fortunate to see a pod of Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins in the surf and a handful of Humpback Whales breaching far into the sea. On land however the Chacma Baboons and Rock Dassies are ubiquitous inhabitants of the camp. And with almost 300 bird species recorded, many of which closely associated with the ocean and rocky beaches, the Tsitsikamma section is a birdwatcher’s delight. Most of the Garden Route National Park’s 25 species of snakes are seldomly seen, so we were thrilled to witness an altercation between a deadly venomous Boomslang and Southern Boubou while walking around one morning.

Walking around after dark, and seeing the healthy population of frogs and toads at Storms River Mouth, we realised how grossly inadequate our old guidebook on South Africa’s amphibians was to identify the 24 species that’s been recorded in the Garden Route National Park. We remedied that soon after we got back home!

As already mentioned, Storms River Mouth Rest Camp is the Tsitsikamma section’s main visitors facility and understandably one of the Garden Route’s top attractions. Here, wedged between mountain and sea, overnight visitors have a choice of spectacularly located accommodation and camping sites, serviced by a restaurant and shop that stocks basic food items and curios. There are picnic sites for day visitors and a small swimming beach. Guided boat tours and more adventurous activities up the Storms River gorge can be undertaken daily. Unique snorkeling and scuba trails allow visitors a glimpse into the underwater world of the Tsitsikamma, and on land several walking trails lead deep into the forest. At the eastern side of the Tsitsikamma section lies the more rustic Nature’s Valley Rest Camp, just outside the small holiday town of the same name. The renowned Otter Trail, covering a distance of almost 50km between Storms River Mouth and Nature’s Valley over 5 days, is rated as one of the best and most scenic hiking routes on the planet.

Storms River Mouth was the sixth destination on our December itinerary through eight of South Africa’s national parks. It is easily accessible along a good tarred road that turns off the N2 highway between Plettenberg Bay and Port Elizabeth.

Diepwalle (Garden Route National Park)

Originally, most of South Africa’s Garden Route between the mountains and the sea was covered by dense forests. Unfortunately these forests have been exploited on an industrial scale for wood and ivory since the 1760’s and the town of Knysna owns its existence to the lucrative trade that required access to a harbour for exporting. At various times attempts were made to protect pockets of forest from harvesting, but it is not until the 1880s, when a professional forester was appointed as superintendent by the colonial government, that any real effort went into the protection and sustainable use of what remained. Today only about a third of the indigenous forests remain, with a large proportion of it being protected in the Garden Route National Park, proclaimed in 2009 when several state forests were amalgamated with the Wilderness and Tsitsikamma National Parks and the Knysna National Lake Area.

North of Knysna, the Diepwalle State Forest was one of those pockets of forest afforded protection. One of the main attractions here is the enormous King Edward VII-tree, an Outeniqua Yellowwood tree estimated to be over 600 years old, towering almost 40m above the forest floor and so named by a group of British officials who were entertained to a picnic here in 1924. Diepwalle is also known to be part of the range of the last few remaining Knysna Elephants. In the 1880s it was estimated that between 400 and 600 elephants still roamed the Garden Route, yet today, a little over 100 years later, there may be only one lone cow remaining (even elephant researchers and park staff differ on exactly how many are left). Unless they are exceptionally lucky, the only contact visitors are likely to have with a Knysna Elephant is not along the Elephant Walk trail through the forest, but rather with the skeleton of one that is on display at the Forest Legends Museum at Diepwalle.

Diepwalle is easily accessible from Knysna, a short drive along the gravel R339 (Prince Albert’s Pass) leading to Uniondale. We spent a morning in the area while on our December holidays visiting eight of South Africa’s national parks. Guests can stay a night or two here on the unique camping decks set among the trees in the deep forest shade. Apart from the fascinating museum, there’s also picnic sites and a community-run tea garden serving delicious treats.