A day on the Garden Route

Plettenberg Bay, Garden Route, South Africa. Photo: Gero Lilleike
Plettenberg Bay, Garden Route, South Africa. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Words and Photographs by Gero Lilleike

I forced my eyes open at 1:30 AM. An hour later my better half and I were driving on the N2 from Cape Town on-route to Plettenberg Bay on South Africa’s world famous Garden Route. The drive to Plettenberg Bay was surprisingly short in the dark and as daylight broke, the scenic Kaaimans Pass in Wilderness lay before us. The morning air was fresh and the scenery full of life, ever-present in the glory of the breaking day. We pushed on through Knysna and then the ‘Bay of Beauty’ welcomed us home. It felt good to be back, even though only for the day.

Unknown surfer scores at Lookout. Photo: Gero Lilleike
Unknown surfer scores at Lookout. Photo: Gero Lilleike

With the warm winter sun on my back, I proceeded into town and made my way to Lookout, which only two years ago was a firing right-hand surf break that I surfed on a regular basis during my 11-month stint working in the region. The Keurbooms River Mouth perfectly sculpted the sandbank at Lookout to create what many surfers in the area believed to be one of the best waves on the Garden Route. Lookout worked best in bigger swell and broke hard, barreling all the way across the river mouth. Paddle fitness proved to be a big factor in the lineup, especially considering the long thrilling rides Lookout offered. The picture above gives you an idea of what Lookout was capable of delivering on a regular basis and it certainly got better than this. Lookout really was an amazing wave and anyone who surfed its gems will toast to that, but sadly Lookout is no more.

The old Keurbooms River Mouth at Lookout. Photo: Gero Lilleike
The old Keurbooms River Mouth at Lookout. Photo: Gero Lilleike

In mid-July 2012 heavy rains in the area forced the Keurbooms River to form a new mouth a few hundred meters up the beach which ultimately brought the world-class right hander to its knees and at a blink of an eye the perfect Lookout wave surrendered itself to the forces of nature. The pictures above and below show Lookout at present and as you can see, the river mouth has now filled out with sand and the wave that brought smiles to so many surfers faces, including my own, is nowhere in sight. I stood there reminiscing and looked out to sea and watched as a whale breached with Mt Formosa standing tall in the background. I smiled for every great memory Plettenberg Bay held for me.

Present day Lookout. Photo: Gero Lilleike
Present day Lookout. Photo: Gero Lilleike

The sun was high and I had to move on to visit some life-long friends I had made during my time in Plettenberg Bay. My first visit was with Brenda Berge, the owner of one of the most beautiful properties in The Crags called Brackenburn Private Nature Reserve. Brackenburn is tucked away in the heart of The Crags and offers superb self-catering country-style accommodation that can’t be matched anywhere in Plettenberg Bay. The surrounding Tsitsikamma forest is well suited for people who want to go ‘Into the Wild’ and experience life in the forest on the banks of the Buffels River, but remember to hike within your means, the terrain here takes no prisoners, I know.

The sun was setting and I waved my goodbyes to Brenda and Brackenburn only to shake hands with Rocky Reeder once more. In 2011, I wrote a travel review entitled Rocky Road to Heaven which showcased Rocky Road Backpackers as a must-visit destination in The Crags and on the Garden Route in general. Almost two years later and fact hasn’t changed. Rocky and Marietjie are still fine hosts as always and if you are looking for the very best backpacker accommodation in The Crags then simply follow the rocky road, there’s no turning back. Oh yes, there’s also an outdoor jacuzzi and a new putting green to rock your world this winter, so enjoy.

Wreck is always beautiful. Photo: Gero Lilleike
Wreck is always beautiful. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Inevitably, my decision to drive through the night caught up with me and I hit my pillow hard as a result. I awoke to a sunny day and decided to go for a quick walk at ‘Wreck’, which is an excellent surf spot in the armpit of Robberg Peninsula. The historical significance of ‘Wreck’ is outlined in my piece entitled The Splendour of Plettenberg Bay and I suggest you read it if you are vaguely interested at all.

Before I could say hello Plett, I was saying goodbye instead and found myself behind the wheel again, slowly making my way down the N2 with Cape Town in my sights. We drove through Wilderness and made a quick stop at Dolphin Point to take some photographs of the surf breaking in perfectly calm conditions. The sheer beauty of this place should make the Garden Route a blatantly obvious destination for anyone planning a trip to South Africa. Your flight is leaving now, get on that plane.

Perfect surf on the Garden Route. Photo: Gero Lilleike
Perfect surf on the Garden Route. Photo: Gero Lilleike

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The Splendour of Plettenberg Bay

Words & Photographs by Gero Lilleike

Manuel de Mesquita Perestrelo, a Portuguese navigator, called Plettenberg Bay ‘Baia Formosa’ or ‘Bay Beautiful’ and if you have witnessed its beauty, you would confirm this truth. One of the beautiful splendours of Plettenberg Bay lies tucked away in the bosom of ‘Ponta Delgada’ or Robberg Peninsula, a golden beach, called Wreck.   

I am certain that out of the thousands of people visiting Wreck every year, few are probably aware of the events that took place on that very beach 382 years ago. It’s an intriguing thought, but would knowing change the experience of being on that beach?

Wreck Beach, Plettenberg Bay

I have pondered many things while surfing in this beautiful bay and when I’m blissfully floating in the waves at Wreck, revelling in the splendour of this place, my mind calmly drifts out to sea into the vast expanse of the past. The sweet smell of history hangs thick in the air, for with every breaking wave, history is made and a tale is told. In my mind I scratch deeper into the ocean of the past and for a solitary moment in time, I imagine…

The history of Plettenberg Bay is as lengthy as it is remarkable and has been sufficiently portrayed by the late Patricia Storrar in her book Plettenberg Bay, and the Paradise Coast, a must read for anyone vaguely interested in Plettenberg Bay and the surrounding coastline. 

Plettenberg Bay with 'Ponta Delgada' on the horizon

In the name of history, it was Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, a Dutchman and Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, who gave Plettenberg Bay its name in 1778. Nearly 300 years before van Plettenberg set eyes on this beautiful bay, a fearless Portuguese sea farer, Bartholomew Diaz, set sail aboard the São Cristóvão from Lisbon in August 1487. Embarking into the unknown in search of a safe trade route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, Diaz made his first landing in the cape at ‘Aguada de São Bras’ in February 1488, at what is today known as Mossel Bay.

It was here that the local Hottentots or Khoikhoi first encountered the ‘pale men from the sea’. The Portuguese came bearing foreign gifts, hoping to trade cloth, trinkets, bells, caps and necklaces in return for water, food and local knowledge of this new found land.  The locals perceived Diaz’s goods unfit for trade and the communication barrier proved overwhelming, ultimately leading to conflict with Diaz spilling the first blood, killing a local with his crossbow.

Wreck viewed from Robberg Peninsula

Diaz moved eastwards, discovering a hidden lake which was most likely the Knysna Lagoon viewed through the now famous Knysna Heads. Further up the coast, Diaz discovered Robberg Peninsula which he named Cabo Talhado and ‘Baia das Alagoas’ or ‘bay of the lagoons’, known today as Plettenberg Bay. Diaz and his entourage kept pushing east, discovering Algoa Bay and finally reaching the farthest point of their voyage, the Fish River in the Eastern Cape, where Diaz turned around and sailed back to Portugal.

The route to India had now been realised and it was 10 years later that Vasco De Gama also set sail from Lisbon on the São Gabriel, to accomplish what Diaz could not, landing in Calicut, India, in 1498. Like Diaz, De Gama landed in Mossel Bay in 1497 and although De Gama had better luck trading with the locals, he too couldn’t resist conflict and proceeded to fire two bombards at the locals as well as taking aim at the helpless seals of Seal Island. This event marked the first sound of cannon fire to be heard along South Africa’s virgin coast. Many more ships would endure this ‘Great Trek’ to the east in years to come.

Wreck, Plettenberg Bay

One particular Portuguese ship, the São Gonçalo, is forever bound to the history of Plettenberg Bay. Within the pages of Drama at Ponta Delgada, also authored by Patricia Storrar, the tale of this Portuguese merchant ship is well documented, revealing a fascinating story.  

The São Gonçalo arrived in India in the year 1629. In 1630, along with two other vessels and captained by Fernao Lobo de Menezes, the São Gonçalo set sail from Goa, India, homeward bound for Portugal. Later that year, somewhere off the southern coast of South Africa, the São Gonçalo began taking on water and was eventually forced to abandon the convoy and seek refuge in the calmer waters of Plettenberg Bay.

Approximately 100 men are believed to have set up camp in the dunes of Wreck, the armpit of Robberg, leaving close to 400 men onboard the São Gonçalo to conduct repairs to the stricken vessel. Some fifty days after dropping anchor in Plettenberg Bay, disaster struck, and the São Gonçalo was tragically ripped to pieces in a storm somewhere in the bay with fellow countrymen looking on from the beach in horror as those on board perished, their dying screams fading away into the deep, dark depths of the sea. To this day, no evidence of the whereabouts of the São Gonçalo has been found.

Plettenberg Bay

Over the next few months, the castaways set about the task of building two boats in which they hoped to escape this unforgiving paradise. They eventually succeeded and split into two parties, both sailing out of Plettenberg Bay in 1631. One boat set sail for India, the other for Portugal. The boat heading for India reached Mozambique safely while the other was rescued by the Portuguese vessel Santo Ignacio de Loyola on its return voyage from India. Almost a year after being rescued near Plettenberg Bay, the men onboard the Santo Ignacio de Loyola were almost home, but at the mouth of the Tagus River, near Lisbon, the ship sank, drowning all on board.  

On the horizon I see a wave of time steadily making its way towards me. This is my ride home. I paddle onto the wave and stand to attention as it carries me gently to the shore. Somewhere beyond these peeling waves, a dark shadow looms, forever enshrouded in the mystery that is the sea, in peace, a wreck lives here.

A wave breaks in Plettenberg Bay

Historical sources: Patricia Storrar, Plettenberg Bay, and the Paradise Coast and Drama at Ponta Delgada.