Wilderness in the Garden Route, South Africa

This appealing little town is an ideal base for exploring the Garden Route and has a superb swathe of sandy beach. Check locally for demarcated areas for swimming and surfing. Children should be supervised in the sea as there are strong rip currents. One of the safest spots for swimming is in the Touw River mouth. Except for the few hectic weeks at Christmas and New Year, Wilderness is generally very relaxed and has an excellent range of accommodation. The advantage of staying here is that you are also within a day's drive of all the interesting sights of the Little Karoo. The highlight, however, is Wilderness National Park, a quiet, well-managed park, with three levels of self-catering accommodation and a campsite.

The town itself doesn't have much of a centre, but stretches instead up the lush foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains and along leafy streets by the lake and river. The supermarket, restaurants, post office and tourist office are by the petrol station, where the N2 crosses the Serpentine channel.

Getting to Wilderness

Wilderness Tourism Bureau
is a very helpful office, especially when it comes to finding good-value accommodation during the peak season.

History of Wilderness

The first European to settle in the district was a farmer, Van der Bergh, who built himself a simple farmhouse in the 1850s. It was in 1877 that the name was first used, when a young man from Cape Town, George Bennet, was granted the hand of his sweetheart only on condition that he took her to live in the wilderness. He purchased some land where the present-day
Wilderness Hotel 
stands and promptly named it 'wilderness' (of dense bush and forest) to appease his new father-in-law. At this time the only road access was from the Seven Passes Road between George and Knysna. Bennet cut a track from this road to his new farmhouse. In 1905 Montagu White bought the homestead from Bennet and converted it into a boarding house. It wasn't a great success: the area was undoubtedly beautiful, but the swimming was dangerous and access was still a problem. When the property changed hands in 1921 the farmhouse/boarding house underwent further alterations and the Wilderness Hotel came into being. In 1907 the railway line from
Mossel Bay reached George and six years later, Oudtshoorn. It wasn't until 1928 that the
link between George and Knysna was completed. By 1928 a second hotel, now known as the
Fairy Knowe Hotel
, had been built by the river. In 1985 the original Wilderness Hotel was destroyed in a fire - the new building is the smart four-star hotel of the same name.

Wilderness National Park

Since the accommodation is provided by SANParks it is excellent value, especially for four or more people, and this is one of the most relaxing places to stay along the Garden Route. The main attraction is the water and the birdlife in the reed beds but there are some excellent hikes and a beautiful sandy beach. Each of the accommodation units has a folder with maps and details of all the possible hikes and routes in the park.

Four kilometres east of Wilderness, off the N2, a gravel road drops down the edge of the hill to the main camp next to a river. The park covers 2612 ha and incorporates five rivers and four lakes as well as a 28-km stretch of the coastline. The series of freshwater lakes is situated between the Outeniqua foothills and sand dunes which back onto a beautiful, long sandy beach. As this is such a stunning and unique ecosystem, the land around the national park is also protected by SANParks - this area is referred to as the National Lake Area. The four lakes are known as Island, Langvlei, Rondevlei and Swartvlei. There are bird hides on Langvlei and Rondevlei.

There are two ways in which to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, on foot or in a canoe. You can cover more ground by walking, but canoeing is ideal for seeing birds. There are five trails in the park. The
Pied Kingfisher Trail
, a 10-km circular route, can be completed in four hours. It follows the river in one direction and the beach on your return. The other walks are also forest walks, except for the 3-km
Dune Molerat Trail 
which takes you through dune fynbos where you may see proteas in flower in season.

The main camp has canoes and pedalos for hire - these should be arranged through
Eden Adventures
. One of the more interesting short routes is to continue up the Touw River past the Ebb and Flow Camps. This quickly becomes a narrow stream and you have to leave your canoe. A path continues along the bank of the stream through some beautiful riverine forest. Eden Adventures also have mountain bikes, some with child seats, to rent out for use on the trails in the park.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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