There are still a few places along the Garden Route where you can escape the crowds. Nature’s Valley is one of them, and comes packaged with a whole lot of ‘Tsitsikamma Sutra’…
Words and Pictures: Jacques Marais
Shortly after I finished my book on South African dorps, one of the questions I constantly had to field was: “What is your favourite dorp in South Africa”? Generally I duck and swerve, saying this is like asking someone what their favourite car is, and that it actually depends on whether you’re heading onto the Autobahn or a back-road gravel pass.
I think of dorps in the same way. If you’re keen on Karoo skylines, rugged Swartberg peaks and creaky windmill symphonies, start packing for a weekend away in Prince Albert. Dreaming of sub-alpine mountain runs, a dusting of winter snow and soaring Lammergeier Vultures? Villages such as Rhodes and Rosetta – abutting the dramatic buttresses of the Drakensberg – immediately spring to mind.
Nababeep (floral profusion and craggy canyons); Alldays (baobabs and an utterly wild African vibe); Riebeek-Kasteel (wine, art and an immensely entertaining Olive Festival)… my list is on-going. However, if you had to force my hand and I absolutely had to admit to a favourite place, chances are the scenic and oh-so-friendly Nature’s Valley would be it.
I realise I may be biased (the nearby Eastern Cape is where I grew up, after all), but this unspoilt and sprawling haven on the mouth of the Groot River manages to tick most of my childhood summer holiday boxes. Plus there’s the utter un-urbanity of the village, with no town centre, a refreshing lack of walls or fences, and rustic homes hidden in milkwoods and gardens one could easily describe as feral.
Getting to Nature’s Valley is as easy as turning south off the N2 at The Crags, about 15km east of Plettenberg Bay, and following the R102 for 20km to the edge of the Indian Ocean. The transition from highway snarl-ups and speed traps to meandering back roads time-warps you into a slowed-down and magical wonderland.
Towering yellowwood trees hem in the serene Groot River estuary, creating a safe area perfect for swimming, fishing and paddling. Follow the waterway towards the ocean, and you will find a truly spectacular beach unfolding at the foot of the rugged sea cliffs that rise to expansive fynbos ridges. With forest and mountains all round, you can but imagine how many secrets this beautiful valley holds.
Or you could ask one of the Garden Route locals, of course… “The coolest walk is definitely the rugpad, known to most walkers (and a few trail runners) in the area,” says local hiking guru Colin Wylie. “Bring swimming kit as you will have to fjord the Salt River at some stage, as you take in the Robinson Crusoe vibe among towering tree ferns and black-water pools.”
This bearded backwoodsman urges his clients to bring a head torch and to extend their walks to well past sundown. “This is your best chance of nose-to-whisker encounters with the rare Cape clawless otters foraging along the river banks,” he says with a smile. Daytime walks can be tailored to focus on botany, birding or any subject of your choice.
If you’re keen to explore on your own, get a map from the De Vasselot section of the gorgeous Garden Route National Park, situated here at the mouth of the Groot River. The trails network in and out of the indigenous forest and fynbos biomes, with riverine and coastal crossover to further add to the divergent fauna and flora. Share the shadows with shy bushbuck or look up and revel in the neon splashes of Knysna Turaco and Narina Trogon.
Beyond the edge of this emerald kingdom, you might expect to notice the effects of urban creep, but not so in Nature’s Valley. No banks or services stations or shopping malls can be found in the village, and it certainly seems as if serenity has staked a permanent claim here, where a few hundred permanent residents live their lives in a delightfully laid-back way.
It is this attitude that is part of the attraction of the town, and their forward-thinking ratepayers association has taken a hand in all local development issues to ensure there is no negative environmental impact. Events and festivals are generally avoided, except in the case of the annual Otter African Trail Run, where the organisers proved their commitment to leaving zero impact.
This ecologically sensitive approach extends beyond terra firma to the ocean. Nature’s Valley is a prime fishing spot, with anglers most definitely benefiting from the adjacent Tsitsikamma Marine Protected Area. “During low tide, the rock pools offer hours of amusement to kids of all ages, with anything from sea urchins, starfish, anemones, feather stars, klipvis, blennies and zebras darting hither and thither,” says marine ecologist Kyle Smith.
During summer and autumn, you may even encounter sub-tropical species such as the raccoon and pearl butterfly fish. In calm conditions, a snorkel in the bay can be incredibly rewarding, and close encounters with bottlenose dolphins are a distinct possibility. “In the end, it is Nature’s Valley’s ‘sense of place’ that makes it special to me,” adds Kyle. “It’s a place to unwind, to relax, to revive, to enjoy, and to simply be.”
The Insiders’ Guide to Nature’s Valley
- Bird in the Bush: As one can expect, the Tsitsikamma Forest here literally teems with birds. The Knysna Turaco may be an obvious twitcher’s tick, but this is prime Narina Trogon territory. Tip: Get the Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa app for your phone so you can recognise their call.
- Tuck In: If you feel like ‘un-fussy’ food, the Nature’s Valley Restaurant & Trading Store near the beach is just the place. Tip: The burgers will definitely hit the spot. 044 531 5835, www.naturesvalley.iowners.net
- Get Slotted: Suit up to descend to the spectacular Salt River on a half-day trip, and you will get to abseil waterfalls, rock-jump into black-water pools and negotiate the rapids en route to the Indian Ocean. Tip: Wearing a wetsuit protects you from bumps and scratches, and keeps you warm. www.africanyon.co.za
- Local Stays: Keen to live like a local for a few weeks? Check out the rental options in the valley. Tip: Leaving after two weeks may be a traumatic affair. Just saying. 078 977 1924, www.natures-valley.com
- Feeling Beachy: Nature’s Valley beach undoubtedly rates as one of SA’s Top 5 coastal strips, in my humble opinion. The adjoining eco-systems, including the Groot River estuary, are consistently monitored by the Nature’s Valley Trust, an NPO set up by the local ratepayers organisation. Tip: Ascend the sea cliff trail to the eastern side of the beach for gorgeous views. www.naturesvalleytrust.co.za
- Walk Wild: Legendary hiking awaits along The Otter, rated by many a rambler as SA’s premier multi-day trail. Lose yourself along the Indian Ocean shore for five days as you follow the coast from Storms River Mouth westward to Nature’s Valley over a distance of some 42km. Tip: You can run this distance once a year during the Otter African Trail Run. www.sanparks.org
- Camp in Style: The Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park certainly boasts some of the most serene camp sites in SA at De Vasselot. Communal ablutions, laundry facilities and braai areas are part of the deal. Tip: The vervet monkeys will claim any foodstuff left unattended, so make sure you close your tent or chalet. www.sanparks.org.za
- Happy Feet: Superb trail-running options abound, including the short Salt River Trail (used as a prologue for the Otter African Trail Run). Tip: You can extend your run to 12km by following the Dassie Route.
www.theotter.co.za www.gardenroutewalks.co.za for excellent walks in the area.
- Lagoon Life: The Groot River estuary offers superb paddling, swimming and fishing. Canoes may be rented from De Vasselot Camp Site, or bring your own windsurfer or stand-up-paddle boards. Tip: Make sure you are au fait with fishing regulations by getting a pamphlet from national park offices. www.sanparks.org.za
- Pool Play: There are rock pools at both ends of the 3km Nature’s Valley beach; get the kids together and stroll down for hours of educational outdoor fun. Tip: Get a tide table and make sure you explore at low tide. www.swell.co.za