Exploring Cape Town & the Garden Route with Teens

Exploring Cape Town and the Garden Route with our two teens in tow turned out to be one of our best holidays for years. If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, it’s the perfect destination. From hand-in-trunk elephant encounters to fat biking through dunes to kayaking along river canyons, there are so many options for truly unique experiences. Add to this, stunning scenery, delicious food and great prices, and it’s a country not to be missed.

We stayed in three different locations: Knysna and Hermanus on the Garden Route, and Kalk Bay, a gorgeous seaside spot near Cape Town. It was very easy to drive and navigate your way around. The only real issue was the load shedding. These are scheduled electricity power outages (check out this site), due to the energy crisis in South Africa. However, with a bit of planning, it’s easy to work around them.

Location 1: Knysna

On landing in the early morning, we opted to do the big drive first, with a 5.5-hour trip to Thesen Island in beautiful Knysna. This was our home for six nights. An Air B&B, which was part of a gated community – not our usual approach, but it felt safe, if not a little privileged. All properties backed onto a series of canals leading out to the Knysna lagoon and ours came with its own kayak for exploring. It was a tranquil little spot, and we all breathed a sigh of sheer joy on arriving here. There’s nothing like the healing power of nature’s beauty to replenish the soul.

Knysna itself is centrally located for a variety of day trips along the coast. From our base here, we had the following adventures:

Elephant Sanctuary Hand-In-Trunk Experience

Without doubt, our top experience was at this ethically run sanctuary for rescued elephants, based in Plettenberg Bay. We booked onto the elephant brush down tour: 90 minutes of intimate interactions with these magnificent creatures. Each of us brushed the mud off the elephants, had a little trunk cuddle and then led them into the woods, hand in trunk! Oh my, what an exceptional opportunity! It felt unbelievably special!

In the forest, the rangers, who seemed to have genuine bonds with the animals, gave us a fascinating insight into the elephant’s anatomy at close hand. This was followed by a chance to hand feed them.

Kloofing in Plettenberg Bay

Kloofing is the South African name for canyoning, and we love a bit of this adrenaline sport! At The Crags, near Plettenberg Bay, is a professional set up run by Africanyon. After donning our kit, they drove us to the canyon. Here we followed the course of the river, abseiling, jumping from high rock faces, swimming through pools, traversing along dryer sections, sliding down natural slides and zip lining to the end. Awesome fun!

The setting, deep within the ravine, with towering walls either side, was utterly breathtaking. And all to ourselves. The experience was the right balance of relaxed fun and high-octane adventure, which could be toned down with smaller jumps, if like me, you struggle with heights!

Kayaking/Lilo Experience up Storms River

After the kloofing, we drove a little further east along the coast to the picturesque Tsitsikamma National Park. Here there are plenty of walking trails through the lush forest, but we opted for another water-based adventure: a 3-hour kayak and lilo trip along the Storms River gorge.

The sea conditions were pretty rough that afternoon, so for safety reasons, we couldn’t kayak from the harbour to the gorge. Instead, we hiked through the indigenous trees and across the suspension bridge to pick up our kayaks further upstream. The guides were clearly keen for us to have an adventure though, as from here, we kayaked back under the 77m long suspension bridge out into the choppy ocean. This was a wild and very wet ride, but the kids loved it!

Safely back into the calmer waters of the Storms River, we paddled along the beautiful gorge, with its deep caves and imposing cliffs with all manner of brightly coloured birds swooping in and out of the trees. It was so peaceful and cool down here, a blessed relief from the bright sunshine.

Once the river became too shallow for the kayaks, we transferred onto lilos to explore deeper along the gorge.

There was a great group atmosphere with everyone talking turns to see how long they could balance standing on their lilos! Rosie was the champion! There were a few deep pools in this section, perfect for rock jumping. Not to be outdone by the men on a stag do, the kids jumped from the highest spot!

Then sadly, it was time to retrace our steps along this little piece of paradise. The operation is run by Untouched Adventures. They’re not the most organised, so expect a bit of waiting around, but the trip itself made it all worthwhile.

Point of Human Origins Tour, Mossel Bay

Our next day, we headed west along the coast to Mossel Bay. Here, for something a little different, we booked onto a tour exploring a Middle Stone Age archaeological site. Hiking to the Pinnacle Point caves is an experience in its own right. With its bright red ochre rocks, against the present-day backdrop of the ocean, it’s a spectacular setting. Nestled within the caves, scientists found ground-breaking discoveries shedding light on human life from over 160,000 years ago!

The enthusiastic and well-informed guide showed us some of the stone tools found in the caves, which is the earliest evidence for the advanced form of stone tool manufacture called heat treatment. This cave is one of the earliest examples of a human home exploiting the sea, with their new diet of fish and shellfish allowing their brains to grow in size.

These early humans collected shells to decorate their home and ground the red ochre into powders (some of the ochre pieces dated from 160,000 years ago have striations showing how it’s been ground down), which might have been used for body or house decoration. This forms some of the earliest evidence for a complex mind capable of language and symbolic behaviour.

Honestly, it was fascinating and felt very exciting to be standing where our ancestors would have stood all those years ago!

Botlierskop Game Reserve, Mossel Bay

I’d read mixed reviews about this reserve, so we weren’t especially keen to spend the huge price tag to stay here. But the idea of a three-hour sunset safari for non residents sounded an absolutely perfect option. And oh my, it totally was!

We had an exceptional guide, hugely knowledgeable, and there is just something so very special about an African safari.

The last time the kids had experienced one was in the Kruger when they were 7&8. I remember Harry’s joy at spotting a honey badger – he literally stood up in the truck, and excitedly pointed out his lucky find! But as teenagers, it felt even more incredible. Total immersion in the glorious African bush. We spotted a huge number of mammals and colourful birds, from elephants to African hoopoes.

My top three were a gorgeous 6-week-old baby rhino, who tried to frighten us off his mum by mock charging us, promptly falling asleep with the effort; a hippo arising from the lake, opening his mouth wide; and a Denham’s bustard strutting about in full courtship mode with a puffed-up chest and flared tail.

Then, to top it all off, a beautiful African sunset which I can never properly capture on camera!

Around Knysna

There were a lot of active explorations from our base here, but we needed at least one day of relative relaxation in Knysna. For this we split up. The boys played a round of golf at the immaculate Knysna golf club, whilst Rosie and I hiked in the nearby Garden of Eden reserve (pretty but expensive for what it was).

Coming back together for lunch, we headed up to the East Head, a magical viewing point where the ocean meets the lagoon. Up here is the East Head Café, a restaurant with the most delicious fish and seafood, and its own spectacular view.

There were so many other activities available from this location from ziplining, to oyster tours, to biking trails. But sadly, even with the 6 days, we couldn’t fit them all in! Oh well, we shall have to return!

Location 2: Hermanus

Our next location was Hermanus, home of the whales. From Jun-Dec, the females of the southern right whales come to give birth in the safe waters of its bay. We hired a little Air B&B property overlooking the wild ocean, with this view:

I could sit there with a cup of tea and watch the waves crash over the rocks all day! Whilst I was unpacking, James and the kids obviously had to explore the rocks outside our window. There, they found a little penguin sunning himself on the promontory!

With only two nights here, we chose to spend it beach horse riding and fat biking. But there are a host of other options, from sea kayaking alongside the whales for the adventurous to walking the cliff top pathway for a more sedate whale watching experience.

Fat Biking Through Dunes, Gansbaai

OK, so I didn’t expect it to be, but aside from the elephant experience, this was the highlight of our trip! Our excellent guide, Dave, (Fat Bike Tours South Africa) drove us to the Walker Bay Nature Reserve, 185m above sea level, a stunning setting overlooking the ocean. From here, after a little guidance, we set off on our fat bikes (bikes with exceptionally fat tyres) down through the fynbos trail.

Then, once we’d reached the dunes, came the fun bit: riding down their steep slopes! Honestly, at the top, peering over, it looks scarily high. But Dave was extremely helpful and showed us how to safely ride them and how to go faster or slower, depending on your level of brave: low for me, high for my crazy husband and kids! It was an awesome adrenaline rush!

What made this even more special though was the quiet and tranquility of the reserve, combined with some fascinating stories about the local flora and fauna. Dave showed us the tracks of a caracal cat for example, along with the “cancer bush,” used as a natural immune booster. He even encouraged us to chew some of its leaves (super bitter!).

As we rode closer to the bottom of the reserve, we could see the baby whales playing around in the bay just ahead. A super unique experience, not to be missed!

Beach Horse Riding, Gansbaai

I love riding horses on beaches. It’s such an exhilarating experience. And with a backdrop like this, you literally cannot go wrong.

I did quite a bit of research on horse riding operations as there were quite a few which looked a pretty low standard, with horses not safe for kids. We opted for Gansbaai Horse Riding company, run by Bertie. I was really impressed; the horses were clearly cared for and the whole operation felt really safe and well organised. Pearly Beach Horse Trails looks another excellent option (the horses swim in the sea with you on their expeditions) but sadly they were fully booked, so I’d advise getting in early!

On our way home, we stopped for lunch and some beer tasting at this brewery/winery with the most spectacular backdrop.

Location 3: Kalk Bay

Kalk Bay is a gorgeous little seaside town overlooking False Bay on the Cape Peninsula. Based on a personal recommendation, this was our third and final location. We loved our three nights here! Helped in part by this huge, eclectic artist’s house with its own wood fired hot tub (which was well used), but also thanks to the fantastic restaurants, tidal pools and generally relaxed feel of the place. It’s also a short walk along the ocean to the surfing beach of Muizenberg. We’re not big city people, so this was the perfect option, especially with its easy access to Cape Town.

We were a little tired by this point in our holiday, so opted for some time relaxing around the pool, but here are some adventures we did manage to fit in:

Stellenbosch for Lunch

On our way over to Kalk Bay, we took a little diversion to go for lunch and a stroll around the grounds at the heavenly Spier winery estate in Stellenbosch. James had a happy time sampling some of their award-winning wines!

Hiking Table Mountain

We couldn’t come to Cape Town and not climb its most famous natural landmark, Table Mountain. Luckily, we had a hot clear day for the adventure affording us the most breathtaking views from the summit.

We chose to hike the Platteklip Gorge route, the entrance of which is just past the cable car, with parking on the roadside. It took us about an hour to climb to the top; it’s steep and exposed to the sun, so bring plenty of water, but the route is clear and easy to follow.

The sheer rock walls at the head of the gorge near the summit provide much needed shade and a striking setting. From here, it’s a short walk to the flat top and viewing points.

On our way back, we decided to extend the walk by looping across the top of the flat mountain (when you reach the gorge, go straight, rather than left which would take you down to the bottom). It was super peaceful up here but beware as the path sometimes got a little close to sheer cliff faces for my liking!

The hike down Table Mountain was harder than up, especially for me! I was substantially slower than James and the kids, but I finally made it (after just over an hour) and enjoyed a well-deserved hot tub, pizza and beer afterwards!

Boulders Beach Penguin Colony

Rosie adores penguins and so the chance to see these cute little creatures up close on a beach was not to be missed. We started at the Boulders Visitor Centre at the Foxy Beach end. Remember to bring a card as they don’t accept cash, which we found out much to our panic, having left the card at home. Thankfully a kind couple took pity on us and paid our entry!

The vast majority of the colony hang out together at this end, and you can watch hundreds of these birds interacting from the boardwalk. We were keen to get a little closer though, so we followed the pathway to the other end of the reserve. Here, you can access Boulders Beach. Some penguins were chilling out on the boulders right next to the beach. You can also climb, hop and swim your way through these giant boulders to get super up close and personal, like Rosie did here:

Another one of those unforgettable experiences!

To Return?

To be totally honest, I was in two minds about booking a trip exploring Cape Town and the Garden Route with my two teens in tow. I’d read and heard about the high levels of crime in South Africa. Even though the Western Cape is the safest region, before travelling, I did have concerns. However, our experience was an extremely positive one and we will definitely return.

We took sensible precautions, such as not driving at night, not leaving valuables out on show, sticking to the tourist trail (not our usual vibe, but it wasn’t busy), staying in secure spots, and generally being more vigilant. By doing this, it felt completely safe. And the country is just stunning, with so much to offer, especially for active teens. We were really sad to leave and felt we could spend weeks here and never get bored.

The only aspect which made us very sad is the sheer magnitude of the townships and the dire conditions in which so many black South Africans are still living. The contrast with the white enclaves is shocking and upsetting. Nearly 30 years after the abolition of apartheid and yet it feels like not a lot has changed. There is still such a long way to go.

But tourism is at least bringing in money to a country that clearly needs financial investment. Getting it to the right place is the tricky part. Tipping in cash feels like one way, but when we return, and I know we will, I’d like to find more ways of ensuring our money finds its way into helping the situation, even if just a little bit.

Similar Posts

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *