Tranquillity and solitude in the heart of the Garden Route – a visit to Goukamma Nature Reserve
Story and photos by Alex Aitkenhead, www.alexaitkenhead.co.za
Deciding on our holiday adventure in the garden route required careful planning. We wanted to experience the Ancient Knysna forest, surf the warm waters at Buffalo Bay, see new forest bird species, yet miss all the crowds. With the new lockdown rules in place and the closing of the beaches as a result of the second wave of the COVID 19 pandemic, how would our Garden Route experience be affected? Would Goukamma embrace all these requirements and more?
This charming nature reserve is managed by Cape Nature, situated on the Cape south coast in the Western Cape. With Sedgefield and Knysna just a short drive away, this made for the ideal getaway. The Reserve covers an area of 2500ha, while the Marine Protected Area extends along approximately 18km of coastline from Buffalo Bay to Sedgefield. With extensive Dune fields and some of the highest vegetated dunes in South Africa. Wide, unspoilt beaches, coastal dune forests and the Goukamma river estuary all compressed in one small area. A paradise for walkers, hikers with more than six listed trails to choose from, depending on your fitness and time constraints.
Just over the vegetated dunes is one of two unique freshwater lakes in South Africa, Groenvlei (Lake Pleasant) with no in-flowing rivers and only an underground link to the sea. This section of the Reserve offers a unique experience, both in the natural setting and the fact that it is a freshwater ecosystem. Unfortunately, no camping is allowed in Goukamma, but a pleasant variety of accommodation options are available.
On the coastal side of the vegetated dune field, we were fortunate to secure five nights at the Fish Eagle loft, located above the Otters Rest main house in the reserve’s Goukamma section. Sweeping views across the valleys in the west and the estuary mouth in the east, dramatic sunsets are the rewards for this unique setting.
If you’re looking for complete privacy, consider the River Lodge, Forest Lodge, or the Vlei Lodge. They are situated in the Buffalo Valley section, far away from the main Goukamma operational offices. Three recently renovated luxury lodges overlooking the scenic Goukamma river and estuary is another excellent offering.
Cape Nature has two accommodation units available in the Groenvlei section, the Mvubu Bush Lodge and the rustic Groenvlei Bush Camp (due for an upgrade this year). All the accommodation units are self-catering. As an avid birder, we were impressed with the variety of bird species we recorded during our five-day stay. We can recommend with confidence that Goukamma as a birding destination is outstanding. Although Goukamma diverse habitat supports many animal species, it was disappointing that we did not encounter any animals over this period.
Up early for some of the unique forest birds and at night, we searched for Owls and Nightjars. Due to the natural environment’s diversity, more than 200 birds have been recorded in this nature reserve. Birding being my main priority, we were very impressed by the variety of birds encounter in each ecosystem.
Time seemed irrelevant in this setting, surrounded by the Indian ocean and the Goukamma river, the crashing waves and sounds of the dark water lapping on the shore: two powerful forces of nature controlling our mood. Goukamma is the Khoisan word for “dark waters” in reference to the rivers’ water being coloured by natural occurring tannins in the soil.
Take the Blue Ferry and cross over the Goukamma River, to explore one of the six-day trails, experience beautiful coastal fynbos together with dense concentrations of milkwood, yellowwood and candlewood found in the coastal forest. Soak up the solitude of miles of unspoilt beaches as the powerful waves chase the rare African Black Oystercatcher. We hiked some of the shorter trails on the Goukamma side, the scenic Blombos trail at Groenvlei is a must if you are feeling energetic.
Hire a canoe and take a slow meander up the river, one can picnic, swim and fish in the lagoon. Head down to Buffels Bay and surf in the warm water or work on your tan, if this is too stressful, kick back and enjoy the views from the large sundeck while relaxing. The reserve welcomes day visitors and one can braai and picnic right on the water’s edge. Goukamma has it all.
Undoubtedly, we will return to complete some of the walking trails that we didn’t have time to appreciate and hopefully record some of the rare birds we missed. Leaving the coastline and heading deep into the Knysna forests, the tented decks in the Diepwalle section would be our next destination. No holiday experience in the Garden Route is complete without exploring these lush green forests.