July 2015 The SanParks Karoo & Garden Route Trip

July – winter – cold, wet & miserable in Cape Town; must get away but can’t go far as we have a big trip lined up for later in the year and can only spare barely two weeks, so what shall we do ? – Go to a cold Karoo and a wet Garden Route – brilliant decision 🙂 What were we smoking ?

Trip Map

Actually there are places on this trip that we have been through and thought yes we must go back there and very close to home too, so the result is that one does not do them. Also with SanParks, they are moderately priced and the standard, if sometimes somewhat lacking in proper attention to the detail, offers good value for money and you know what you are going to get. This was not a camping holiday and whilst we self-catered for the most part, it was actually stress free and very enjoyable.

Website SanParks:SanParks

Road to Swellendam

Road to Swellendam

So we left Cape Town early on a Saturday morning and headed up the N2 over Sir Lowrys Pass and arrived very early at Bontebok National Park in Swellendam. They have moved the entrance to next to the Weigh-bridge – cause for minor heart-attack 🙂 and there is a make-shift entrance gate with officials working out of a bakkie ! The park is totally tame, no wild animals so there are walkers and cyclists and lots of children – it is still school holidays. It is cold and a bit wet but the chalet, whilst small, has nice views of the Breede River and there is a heater. We have to ask for loo roll and some clown has put the loo sliding door back on badly so there is an eight inch gap – so it goes. We walk down to the river, this is nice & relaxing, no pressure and glad to be away from town. Nice place for a weekend get away particularly if you have small children.

Bontebok National Park Swellendam

Bontebok National Park

Bontebok Park

The next day we awake to cold and very wet weather and set off up the N2 until we can turn off and go up the Tradouw pass – very cloudy and wet but nice to drive this route again. Coming out on the other side the weather clears, smiles all round. Past Barrydale and the traffic police are out as usual, to the spectacular Huis River Pass and Calitzdorp, lovely route. We get though Oudtshoorn, where it is raining again, and as soon as possible head for De Rust and then Meiringspoort, temporary break in the weather, so lunch stop,

Rainy Tradouw Pass
Tradouw Pass

Huis River Pass to Calitzdorp
Huis River Pass

Meiringspoort Pass
Meiringspoort Pass

Traffic police out with their speed traps but we are having a slow leisurely drive and really not much traffic at all. We pass the Prince Albert turn off and onto the long straight stretch of the N12 across the ever rugged & dramatic Karoo landscape to Beaufort West where we go into town to purchase some real Karoo lamb which the butcher vacuum packs for us.

Karoo National Park – Beaufort West
Karoo Park

We return from town and enter the Karoo National Park. We have stayed here often and the place is quite busy. It is cold, but again there is a heater in the chalet, and we leave that on to heat the place whilst we go out and drive up to the lookout point and do a tour of the park. What a novel idea it would be if accommodation places had a bit of fore-thought and turned the heaters on when they know that guests are expected on cold days. Ditto air-con on for baking hot days! Yeah we wish.

View Point Karoo National Park Beaufort West
view point

The landscape of this park is always a surprise no matter how often you visit it and the sheer scale and majesty of the land around is a beauty to behold.

Breakfast is included at this park so we trot off for a friendly staffed, quick bite, before saying goodbye and driving the short distance for today to Graaff-Reinet and The valley of Desolation – Camdeboo National Park. The R61 from Beaufort West towards Aberdeen has timed speed cameras for the section until you leave the Western Cape; once in the Eastern Cape the traffic speeds up ! Road works at Aberdeen, so we just continue on to Graaff-Reinet.


I knew that there are no chalets at this park and so we decided to take the tented camp – however I was disappointed to find that this is not, in fact, situated in The Valley of Desolation; but is in fact, on the other side of Town next to The Vanryneveldspas Dam (now re-named) off the N9 to Cradock. The access is so so and there is an extensive area that one can drive around in. It was very cold and the tent that we had been assigned was deep in the shade – lovely in Summer – so we went back and got the key to another one that was at least in the sunshine for now. We drove around and saw some bird life; but as Stanley Holloway says in his monologue on “Albert and his stick with the horses head handle”; there was “Not much to laugh at all” ( said in N England Lancashire accent )



We had booked to stay here for two nights so day 1 was spent driving around the area near the dam and going into town to buy some mohair gloves. We knew it was going to be cold that night but just how cold we were soon to discover. It was freezing – quite literally –

In the morning neither of us looked like stirring and at 8.30 I put my hand out to take a drink of water from the glass that I keep next to my bed………….

Quite So……….

Stirring and getting dressed after a hot shower – the cold pipes were blocked solid – we had breakfast………Lin was still cold 🙂


At 9.30 we set off for the other side of town to go to The Valley of Desolation. – 3 and ice on the windscreen.

The drive up to the top of the Mountain is an easy one with stopping & viewing places along the way. What a pity that they do not have any accommodation up here – notwithstanding the cold at this time of year the views are breath-taking. We did discover that there is an old Cape Farmstead a way away but still in this section that they are doing up, it commands a firm position at the head of a valley. Worth looking into for future reference. I would not go back to the tented camp and in retrospect wished that we had booked into one of the many superb guesthouses that are in town. Graaff-Reinet is a very satisfactory & pleasing town to walk around in, even at night.



car view

My, how the town has grown ! Graaff-Reinet.

This is a truly wonderful area to visit and had been on our list for some considerable time, Very pleased we finally made it, but another time of year might be better and not mid-summer either !!

Back at camp stern measures were called for at supper time – forget a wine cooler…. what was needed was a wine warmer 🙂

So having spent two days at Camdeboo we travelled the very short distance to Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock. What a ride. We had heard that this was one of the most under-rated of all the National Parks…..well that is 100% correct. The drive alone from Graaff-Reinet down the N9 is quite something, there are big signs warning that the passes on this route can be closed because of snow, but in spite of the bitterly cold weather at Graaff-Reinet they were still open, with not a trace of snow anywhere in sight.

Road to Cradock

One travels over the Paardekloof Pass, the Naudes Pass and the Wapadsberg Pass – what truly incredible scenery. Magic Drive.

All too soon we arrived at the turn off to the Mountain Zebra National Park but as it was early we decided to go into Cradock for some shopping.


Another down at heel Eastern Cape town – sad to see – things are not what they used to be, it must be difficult for the people who, through age, have few choices, there are some beautiful buildings but the town is litter and stroller torn.

Having shopped at the “Spar Shopping Centre” ugly, out of time & place development, we retreated smartly back to the park some 5 kms or so. The entrance to the park is 12 Kms from the reception centre – quite something for Sanparks I think, all at 40Kmph; but it is wonderful, the scenery which at this stage was just a hint, beckoned us forth into the folds of the mountains.

Pleasant arrival and we had been fortunate to be able to book one of the mountain cottages, sadly for only one night, the next we spent down in a standard chalet which whilst satisfactory did not compare with being up on our own in the mountains.

Mountain Zebra – Lin doing the usual, looking for Lions – Mountain secluded cottage – magic

The circular drives, over many kilometers, cannot be accurately described no more than the photos can do justice. You need to go and explore this place for yourself. Along with Desolation Valley this was a place we really wanted to visit, but I have to say that Mountain Zebra was the highlight of the tour, a definite must go back and book both of the mountain cottages which are in different locations.

Mountain Zebra




So after two magic days here with cold but sunny weather and with heavy hearts we left for the direction of Addo National Park. The weather forecast said heavy storms and rain and we had booked into the tented camp at Spekboom but after a pleasant drive via Cookhouse & Patterson to Addo we chickened out and decided to upgrade and rather to take a chalet at the southern end of the park, near Colchester, at Matyholweni, where we had stayed before. All good.

So here we are in the car park at Addo, fortunately, and decide that now would be a good time for lunch…………….yawellnofine……..the bloody back door of the Cruiser won’t open AGAIN……….Everything does not keep on going right Toyota…. as a matter of fact.

We have experienced this problem from time to time, including during our trip to Tanzania but usually one way or another we get the door open. No Way Jose. Nix. Nothing doing, I even unpack the back via the rear side door and crawl like a miner on top of the fitted box system and try to open from inside. Nothing doing. Oh hell what to do, lunch is in the back and I am hungry !!!!

So we consider our options and the only thing to do is the call JB, the Cruiser Whisperer, in Parow in CT. Nope, he has NEVER encountered this problem. But he has a similar car in the garage at the moment, give him 10 and call back. JB magic man that he is manages to talk me through removing the cover et al that encloses the locking system for the rear lock, yes well text book with lots of space is one thing, but I am seriously squashed into a minute space with my head at an awkward angle – total sense of humour loss – this cover has NEVER been removed, my previous maintenance company ASSURED me that they had fixed the problem – Oh Yeah – what were they smoking………Long story short I manage to get the bloody door open and we can access lunch and the fridge. Oh Joy. This is but the beginning of the problem as getting it open once, was all well and good, but once closed again it still would not open. Thank heavens for Bloudraad, I never travel without it – (wire like coat hanger wire) – I rig up a system so that we can stand at the rear passenger door and pull on the wire to move the catch to open the rear door. I ask you. You simply could not make this up.

As Joseph Conrad so memorably said: There comes a point in development when it ceases to be a true progress – quite so – Toyota take note 🙁

Stuffed lock

So having been seriously delayed and having had lunch we started our journey through the park to the southern end for the night.


Driving through the park where were the elephants ??

Spot the Elephant

No No they were all up on the main roads hassling the cars as is their want ………..
Go Pro dashboard camera shot

True to form the storm, of course, did not hit that night; but in the morning back on the N2, direction Port Elizabeth, the shit really hit the fan, big time. We by-passed PE for the stretch to Humansdorp, where we re-fueled for the first time since leaving home – the wonders and joys of the long range tank; you simply could not believe the modern cars that had managed to go off a perfectly straight, good section of road, into the bush, the traffic services had their work cut out, but again given the speed these morons were travelling at, and in such circumstances, one can but not be surprised. I am not surprised !

Destination Storms River Mouth National Park – another park on our want to visit list.

The rain was with us for most of the way but it did lessen once away from Humansdorp. The N2 shadows the old road R 102, which we would have preferred to be on, but it was made very clear on the signage that the Bloukraans Pass was closed – so the buggers caught us for the toll road tax. I wonder if the pass was REALLY closed.

Arriving at the Reception centre for the park, in the rain, was no biggie as they were very pleasant and directed us to our chalet on the seas edge, some way down the road. How nice could it have been if this person had thought that the allocated chalet had a serious mud issue outside the front door, unlike the adjacent empty chalets; and if someone could have turned the heaters on. Dream on. Cold & wet but dramatic seascape. Very nicely organised park with lekker restaurant and great walks and views – would hate to be here in season, it must be hell on legs/Wheels.

Storms River Mouth National park



With the rain letting up for a while we went for a long walk down to the actual river mouth and over the pedestrian crossing bridges – very well done and then we went out of the park for a drive back along the N2 to the Van Stadens Bridge to get a look at the gorge from the bridge whilst the lorries stormed past soaking us with diverted rain.


We had a great steak dinner at the restaurant that night – warm and cosy with friendly waiters and good food – they allowed us to bring our own wine and in the morning we set off for the short trip to The Garden Of Eden near Knysna

Leaving Storms River National Park

The road from here was populated by aggressive drivers and lots of fixed speed traps and long stretches of double white line, no over-taking, which in typical South African fashion is merely a suggestion. I can understand the frustration of the locals and people who have to travel this route on a regular basis – bloody tourists – doing the Kyk daar bit is enough to drive anyone mad – we have it in Cape Town too. But given the bends and features of these roads it must be hell on wheels in the main holiday season – to be avoided at all costs in my opinion.

Sanparks, of course, do not tell you that clocking in at the office at Garden of Eden, coming from the PE end, for the Tsitsikamma National Park – Tree Top chalet, is across a double, no right turn, white line – great going there guys. So you drive for miles past until you can find a place to turn around and venture back, not even sure if this is the place where you should go – time for a website upgrade guys.

The guy at the reception was less than knowledgeable, but we sort of worked out what he was trying to tell us. Basically we had to cross this busy main road to a dirt road diagonally opposite, sort of, and head for two Km’s into the forest and through two locked gates, to which we had a keys and a remote.

The locked gate appeared and it was open. Not much use as you could jump over it easily – this was in the area of the walkers & cyclists car park – huge signs warning about not leaving stuff in your cars if you wanted it to be there when you came back – Oh Joy 🙂

The second gate had a remote control – yawellnofine – it was functional only to a degree and in fact the motor was not locked so by a process of elimination we realised that in order to operate this we needed to open the switch, open the gate manually, and then close it and close the switch – great Security Guys – Not !

The cleaners were at the Chalet – very nice and upmarket – two bedrooms – fully equipped – dishwasher, washing machine, tumble dryer, and heaters that did not work; nor were put on when we returned there later in the day. We had to ask for them to deliver one that worked, which they did; but in the meantime discovered the cache of firewood and started a fire in the fireplace in the lounge. The chalet is fully alarmed with security back up and armed response, oh yeah ? like I don’t think so. I set the alarm off and no one came. Big deal.

Tree top chalet Harkerville Forest near Knysna


The Chalet is situated in a densely overgrown forest, it is the only one, it is a luxury chalet and actually very well thought out and put together, out on the stoep is a very good, built in, stainless steel braai, with all utensils which we used the second night. 100 metres down the road is the water pump and a generator which kicked in within 30 seconds of the power going off for load shedding; the new South African pastime the whole family cannot enjoy.

We followed the dirt road for miles through the forest until we came out at a locked gate for which I found I had a key on the chalet key ring – pleasant surprise – This brings one out at the Kranshoek Forest Station – the whole area would seem to be an off-road cyclists dream. Driving on brought us to a beautiful look out point over the Ocean and the sun came out to assist.



The second day we decided to go down and have a good look at what Knysna has become, not a happy story. The racetrack N2 down into the town has, apart from the many speed-traps, an ever-growing squatter problem which apart from being an eyesore is just terrible for those who live in such an existence, the main centre of this is the Diepwalle Forest and Mountain route turn-off, which I think must put a lot of people off from taking this route through the ghetto.

Sidebar: On our trip we saw that in the Eastern Cape, around all the towns, that community housing had been built en masse – we rarely saw any evidence of shacks. Cross the border back into the Western Cape and yep you’re back in squatter camps & shacks – shocker – but then again these people have either come or been “persuaded” to come in search of a better life – yep, sitting in a shack, in a wet climate, clinging to a hillside in a disease ridden camp with high crime and no job prospects has to be a better life ? I can’t think so. There has to be a better way.

At The Heads

from heads

The town has simply burst at its seams and the quaint little village image is a myth. Up at The Heads more and more upmarket, “architect” (all vying for megalomaniac of the year status) designed homes, cling to their little bit of hillside, the steep roads cannot cope with the large lorries needed for such enterprises. Yes the views are nice when looking away from town but things are tamer down at Leisure Isle where at least there is a feeling of some space around you. Thesen Island could be anywhere and the hackneyed “Waterfront” development ditto.

Urban Sprawl

Having had our fill of what Knysna now appears to be we headed out and over to Belvedere & Brenton-on-Sea. We were told that there is a lot of crime in these areas but frankly I can’t see it, security is low end and any crime would have to be drive in type as these areas are far from the source of crime.

Belvedere both old & new parts are quite delightful and the vintage church a joy to see.


The church was open for viewing – no one in attendance – and whilst there were areas that were alarmed to allow for this it was frankly nice to find a church actually open for viewing these days. It is well kept and all the brasses were highly & lovingly polished. Taking a closer inspection of a stained glass window I was shocked to see what I thought was a touch of antisemitism ! Surely not – Star of David about a banner saying Noisy Noisy Noisy ! Yes well, script can be difficult to decipher sometimes.

Work it out yourself 🙂

The new part of Belvedere is well ordered and all in all quite a pleasant place to live I would think. Continuing along the road in the Knysna National Lake Area we went down to Brenton-on-Sea which is also a pleasant little seaside small town. The weather was being kind.


The Sanparks part of our trip at an end, we were homeward bound, but did not really want to do a long trek home on the N2. In order to split the journey it was decided that we would go via one of our favourite locations: The Retreat at Groenefontein above Calitzdorp on the R62.

We headed for George – what a huge town that has become too, with the ever present out of town huge shopping mall – more sprawl – It was raining again so we beat a quick route through town and up the Outeniqua Pass in the rain and low mist, so viewing was there none. We recalled a previous trip down this pass to George when we had got a loan Pajero stuck in low 4 wheel drive at Die hell and had to travel at 40 Kmph all the way to George to get help – we were not popular with the traffic banked up behind us. When the car had cooled down it released its hold – knowledge gained.

Into Oudtshoorn and out the other side and along the R62 in the driving rain to Calitzdorp. Entering town, just before the 60 Zone, on a no-see rise, a moron in a beat up car tried to overtake me towing another car in the face of on-coming traffic ! Driving SA style.

The Besemkop dirt road up out of town past the dam and into the hills was a mud bath of note, there are several river crossing causeways on this road and they were all flowing quite strongly but nothing that the Cruiser couldn’t handle, this for 18 Kms until the turn off through the forest of overgrown bush & trees into Groenefontein where we were welcomed back like old friends by Marie Burton the ever fastidious, OTT and attentive owner.

The Retreat At Groenefontein Website:The Retreat

We were to be their only guests this day, a large party having left the day before and thus she persuaded us to take one of their luxury cottages rather than the main house as we could heat that with the fitted stove. I like staying in the old house but could understand why she would prefer us to do this on this occasion. This guesthouse is an amazing place to stay, there are wonderful walks and birding activities, and the Swartberg Pass, a short distance away – if this ticks any boxes beat a path to Marie’s door, they are always full in season with inter-national guests and you never know whom you may meet for dinner that night. We have spent some wonderful times here and were glad to be back, albeit that the weather was not kind.

The Old House at Groenefontein

Birds playing hard to get in the rain

One of the wonderful views – better in the sunshine

Next morning after a good warm night and an excellent breakfast we headed for home along the R62. The traffic was light, so easy going, but it was still cold & very wet. I had seen on my mobile media that the bridge on the other side of the Huguenot tunnel at Paarl was closed due to high winds the night before which had caused trucks to fall over and sure enough when we got near the tunnel the traffic was all being diverted over the old pass. This added about 45 minutes to the journey home as we sat at about 10kmph all the way in convoy behind huge slow trucks. The upside to this was, weather notwithstanding, that we got a good chance to enjoy the scenery as we crawled by. Arriving home just after lunch time, which is always a great time to get home as one misses the heavy daily traffic. All good at home – just a cold house 🙁

2790 km’s travelled – it was a good getaway – some old favourites re-visited but the highlights most definitely: Mountain Zebra Park at Cradock and the actual Valley of Desolation in Graaff-Reinet. If you have not been there do yourself a favour and make the effort.

More photos at:photo album

🙂 🙂

Trip Map