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  • Gabby Sykora

Garden Route Gems: A Journey of Discovery and Delight

The time had come to bid farewell to the Karoo, and we had prepared for an early departure the next morning. The drive out of Beaufort West, en-route to our next 'home,' was remarkably serene. Each of us absorbed the beauty of the vast open plains surrounding us. I found the gradual transformation of the landscape particularly captivating, with hills evolving into breathtaking mountain ranges before my eyes.

As we ventured into unknown territory, a sense of being like ducks out of water enveloped us. We knew our destination and the experiences we sought yet shaping it into a coherent route proved challenging. Almost as if it were a ‘sign’, we encountered a sign pointing to Meiringspoort. Embracing the unknown, we followed the sign and embarked on a short walk to a waterfall that left us breathless upon arrival.

Left to right: Meiringspoort; Meirningspoort Waterfall; Swartberg Pass

Realizing the opportunity for a refreshing dip, we hurried back to the car for our swimming gear. The water, though chilly, proved invigorating. Luca opted out of the swim and venture up the other side, where he settled on an overhang and simply enjoyed the moment from way up high. Soon we resumed our journey, awe-struck by the unexpected paradise Meiringspoort had unveiled.

Luca Observing the Vast Landscape

We headed towards the Swartberg Pass, where once again, our senses were overwhelmed. The landscape along this pass was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Towering mountains, rugged cliffs, and panoramic views stretched before us, creating a truly breathtaking spectacle. The Swartberg Pass, with its winding roads and dramatic scenery, offered an unforgettable journey through nature's magnificence, leaving a permanent mark on our minds.

Time out on The Swartberg Pass

Pausing for a snack at one of the picnic sites along the route, we leisurely settled on overhanging rocks, immersing ourselves in the breathtaking surroundings. Here, we delighted in the sighting of a pair of Cape Rockjumpers, while Luca had the fortune of getting visuals of a Cape Siskin. The vast landscape adorned with proteas buzzed with the vibrant activity of Malachite Sunbirds, revelling in the sweet nectars of the bushes. It was along this stunning pass, that I was introduced to some remarkable new species, including the Black-Headed Canary, Southern Double Collared Sunbird, and the Grey-backed Cisticola. One of my main target species for the trip was my favorite bird, the Cape Sugarbird, and although trying exceptionally hard here, we as the birders like to say ‘Dipped It.’

The Magical Wonder of the Cango Caves

Exiting the pass, we proceeded to the world-famous Cango Caves, where we were yet again captivated by astounding beauty. The enchanting hidden world unfolded before us, adorned with mesmerizing stalactites and stalagmites. The intricate formations seemed to dance in the play of light, creating a surreal atmosphere within the cave chambers. The Cango Caves, with their mystical allure and geological wonders, added another layer of awe to our journey, leaving a lasting impression of nature's artistry.

As the day progressed, we headed towards Sedgefield, engaged in continuous conversation about our already incredible experiences. Driving along the Outeniqua Pass, the sense of wonder persisted. The pass, adorned with scenic beauty, served as a mesmerizing gateway into George. Despite being a sizable city, George retained a distinctive character, and we absorbed the picturesque scenes as we traversed through.

Pili Pili Beach Restaurant

Upon reaching our accommodation in Sedgefield, a charming log cabin nestled in the forest with a view of Lake Pleasant, we unpacked and prepared to venture out for dinner. After a day filled with adventure, we were ravenous. Our destination: Pili Pili Beach Restaurant. What a delightful treat! The meal left its mark, ensuring it would be remembered for years to come.

With satisfied stomachs and content hearts, we made our way back 'home,' settling in for the night as the gentle rain started to fall on the lush canopies surrounding us.

The next morning, our exploration continued. Our initial destination was Swartvlei Beach, where we were delighted to add the Brimstone Canary to our growing trip list. Despite the overcast morning, we ventured to the lagoon, spotting some of the more common waders. Personally, in love with disused railway lines, I seized the opportunity to capture a few pictures.

Listening out for bird calls

Our journey then led us to the Sedgefield Lagoon, an area known for its unique charm and birdlife. Engaging with local birders, we gathered insights on key spots to explore. While my mom captured her customary photos of Luca and I, Luca heard the distinctive call of the Knysna Warbler. Instantly, we were on the move. Unfortunately, it turned into one of those "so close, yet so far" moments, as getting a visual of the elusive bird remained just out of our reach (or sight, to be precise). We encountered other birders hidden in the undergrowth, sharing our hope to catch a glimpse of this mysterious bird. Regrettably, they, too, admitted defeat and departed with a sense of deflation.

Some fun in Sedgefield

Undeterred though, we maintained optimism, keeping the elusive Knysna Warbler high on our target list. We proceeded to explore 'The Island' of Sedgefield at a leisurely pace, encountering my first Eurasian Whimbrel, the initial sighting of many to come. Along the way, we stopped at the recommended locations, where we were treated to spectacular views of a roosting spot for the Black-crowned Night Heron and the nesting site of the remarkable Goliath Heron, a Western Cape rarity. Next stop, Rondevlei in the Wilderness National Park. Visiting in the heat of the day, was perhaps not ideal as there was very little activity across the water. I did, however, manage to see a Cape Bulbul here, which was another welcome lifer.

Ronnie enjoying the sun on Myoli Beach

After dedicating a significant amount of time to birdwatching in the past few days, we decided to take a break and head to the beach for some relaxation under the sun. Enjoying the crashing waves and soaking in the beach atmosphere, our appetites were whetted. To our delight, upon returning to our beach spot, the much-talked-about Chicken Strips and Chips from the previous day were awaiting us. With the weather taking a turn, we left the beach and returned to our accommodation. However, not ones to stay idle for too long, our curiosity led us to explore what lay beyond the mountain of Lake Pleasant.

To our surprise, we found ourselves in the Goukamma Nature Reserve, driving across to the shoreline of the Ruygte Valley. Once again, we were captivated by the stunning beauty, this time by the cliffs meeting the shore. A leisurely walk along the serene beach, with the waves gently passing my ankles, proved to be just what I needed. Naturally, the guys discovered an old landslide and embraced the timeless saying that "Boys will be boys," showcasing their adventurous spirit.

Strolling along the beach at the Goukamma River Mouth

The next morning, we were greeted by the enchanting call of the Knysna Turaco, serving as a delightful reminder of why we had chosen this beautiful cabin in the forest. Terrestrial Brownbul, Forest Canary and the Black-Bellied Starling were great birds to add to our ever-growing list and were seen too, from our cabin.

Terrestrial Brownbul

Despite the persistent soft rain outside, we were undeterred and soon made our way to the highly acclaimed Wild Oats Market in Sedgefield. It proved to be another unparalleled experience. Amidst the gentle rainfall, we explored the market's offerings, indulging in the incredible array of fresh produce and homemade goods. From artisan breads to an assortment of cheeses, we couldn't resist making various purchases. For those who know me well, it's no surprise that I gravitated towards the cheesecake section, where I was spoilt for choice. Armed with a slice of every available flavor and accompanied by a fresh bottle of Kombucha, I sought out the family, who had settled into a corner sheltered from the rain, to savor the delectable treats from the diverse array of stalls at the market. It was as we were leaving the market that I heard a "Hello Gabby!" from behind. It was a lovely surprise to have bumped into yet more YWP members, Olivia and Ethan Vleggaar, so happy to meet members from all around our incredible country.

What a pleasure meeting Olivia and Ethan Vleggaar

Recognizing that the rain wasn't letting up, we decided to head towards Ebb and Flo to embark on the Half-collared Kingfisher Trail. The trail, shielded by a canopy of intertwining trees, provided some protection against the persistent weather conditions. Despite the rain, the hike proved to be eventful, involving a river crossing by pontoon and reaching halfway to a waterfall, where we stopped only briefly due to the ongoing rainfall.

Left to right: Heading out on the Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail; Luca spotting the Red-Chested Cuckoo;

The Birding Life, along on every adventure

During the hike, we encountered impressive bird sightings, including the Cape Batis, Olive Bush Shrike, Red-Chested Cuckoo, and a remarkably confiding Chorister Robin Chat. However, the star of the show returned – the Knysna Warbler. This time, determined not to leave without a sighting, we put on our patience pants! After a mini stakeout amidst the undergrowth and bewildered looks from passing hikers, the Knysna Warbler finally approached, perching on the foliage below and filling the air with its incredible call. Victory! We had our lifer and main target for the trip. Overjoyed, we exchanged high fives and continued our journey back.

A quiet moment waiting for the Knysna Warbler to make an appearance

Just before reaching the pontoon for the return crossing, a Narina Trogon flew overhead and landed in a nearby tree. Luca managed to capture some incredible shots, but mostly, we stood in awe of its beauty. Back at the Ebb and Flo base, we were on a high from yet another breathtaking experience.

Our days passed swiftly, and we soon found ourselves on our final full day in the area, which happened to be New Year's Eve. We planned to spend the day in and around Knysna. Despite the persistent rain, there was a sense of making the most of our time along the Garden Route, appreciating the beauty regardless of the weather.

Left to Right: Tasty Hot Chocolate, Scrumptious Breakfast and Scenery in Knysna

Navigating through the quiet streets of Knysna, we made our way to the lookout point. The Knysna Heads always impress, but as we gazed out over the breathtaking view, a heavier rain shower dampened the experience. Quickly retreating to the car, we decided to seek refuge in a charming coffee shop for a comforting hot chocolate. The inviting aroma of breakfast led us to indulge in hearty breakfasts instead. Leaving the Heads behind, we headed towards Leisure Island, pausing to observe waders on the estuary's edge. Luca, spotting a path, explored further, and soon we all joined him on the Steenbok Nature Reserve trail. A walk along Roger's Way led us to a pristine beach, offering a different perspective of the Knysna Heads. Of course, Luca, equipped with binoculars and camera, embarked on his own exploration, prompting a silent prayer for the camera's safety amid rising waters.

Luca Wading Through the Water at Low Tide

Our appetites reminded us it was time to eat once again, but not before a scenic drive along the Phantom Pass. Making a brief stop for a walk to an abandoned railway, we were entertained by Knysna Turacos flying about in the treetops. A relatively serene drive ensued, marked by the excitement of spotting a sunbird, marking Luca's 400th bird species for the Spring Fling Challenge that was ending that evening. A great number to have ended the year and challenge. Lunch at The Bell Tavern, Knysna's smallest pub, proved eventful with apparent staff shortages, but dear old Stanley had stepped in to help. When asked what the vegetables of the day were, he promptly replied "I only like chips, so I don't know." Needless to say, we all got chips!!

The Bell Tavern - The smallest pub in Knysna

Back at our cabin, packing ensued as we planned to depart early the next morning for our next 'home,' The Storms River Village in Tsitsikamma National Park. No New Year's eve party for us, as exhaustion had set in. Here's to a fantastic end to 2023, and may 2024 bring many more adventures. Part 3 to follow soon, Cheers!






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