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South Africa Safari

The Garden Route and Overberg - Tourist Information & Activities

Western Cape Province, South Africa

Mossel Bay catamarans on South Africa's Garden Route Swellendam, South Africa Green Wheatfields in the Overberg, South Africa Lagoon between Plettenburg Bay and Keurboomstrand on South Africa's Garden Route
Return to Map of Garden Route            Return to Map of Overberg            Images © South African Tourism

South Africa's famous Garden Route started off only encompassing a narrow coastal stretch of 300 km between Mossel Bay and the Tsitsikamma Mountains.

These days, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that it sprawls all the way from Cape Town along the southern Cape coastline to Port Elizabeth.
The section of the coastline first called the Garden Route is an extraordinary region, blessed with a mild climate, year-round rainfall and unique vegetation.

To many who have visited it, the Garden Route has a mysterious allure. A most unusual part of Africa, it is also the sunny corner of the Cape where evergreen forests, verdant fields, tranquil inland lakes, sparkling bays and pristine beaches languish in a sultry Mediterranean climate.

Stretching along the southern Cape coast from Heidelberg in the west to the Tsitsikamma Forest and Storms River in the east, the region's entrance to the interior is barred by towering mountains breached by breathtaking passes and gorges. The silence evoked by its ever-changing landscape carries on its still, fragrant, sea-scented air a sense of the spiritual. With so much of the Garden Route's beauty unspoilt, visitors may feel they have been set free to play in God's backyard.

A well-developed tourist infrastructure has strung the region's towns along its coast like a string of pearls. In all of them, artists, writers, naturalists and nature lovers co-exist with those devoting their time and energies to catering to the whims and special fancies of the area's year-round visitors.

This is where the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe still steams its way between George and Knysna every day. And where the whales come to calve and mate in the many unspoiled bays. Importantly, it's an area boasting two National parks - Tsitsikamma and Wilderness - as well as numerous other provincial and private nature reserves.

A treasure trove of history, culture, food, sport and entertainment awaits you between Heidelberg and Plettenberg Bay. Indeed, the Garden Route is a veritable playground, offering every sport imaginable - from golf to scuba-diving, abseiling to mountain biking.

Beyond this, there are those unforgettable wild and lonely reaches that will touch your soul and revive your spirit.

Forest Capital
Some of South Africa’s most ancient forest remnants are here, evergreen and folded into inaccessible ravines. There is also fynbos, part of a unique floral kingdom recently proclaimed a natural World Heritage Site.

Incredible Coastline
The sensitive coastline is protected from overdevelopment by South African National Parks in three areas – the Wilderness National Park, the Knysna National Lake Area, and the Tsitsikamma National Park.

Smalltown Splendour
The towns of the Garden Route include Mossel Bay, Wilderness, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Nature’s Valley – some of South Africa’s most popular tourism towns for locals and foreign visitors.

Make a point of setting aside as many days as you can for the Garden Route, because this area can make time disappear.

Whale Watching
Southern Right whales take over the shoreline between June and November, making the long trip northwards from Antarctica to give birth and loll in the unspoilt bays. They’re often seen leaping and lob-tailing just beyond the breakers.

Elephant Connection
At Knysna you can touch, feed and walk with Knysna elephants. These are not part of the original (and legendary) Knysna forest elephants, but are rescued orphans that have become habituated to people.

Activities and Attractions
There are hikes through magnificent scenery and vegetation, some to be tackled over five to seven days (notably the famous Otter Trail and the Outeniqua Hiking Trail) and a wide variety of trails that can be done over a few hours or a day.

Every morning, the quaint steam-engine called the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe puffs its way along the lakes, estuaries and ravines between Knysna and George.

The golf courses here are among the best in the world, designed by masters and offering spectacular views.

Adrenalin-junkies can go shark-cage diving or fling themselves off the Gouritz River bridge for the highest bungee jump in the world. There is also blackwater tubing, horse riding, abseiling, canoeing, boating, surfing, diving and deepsea fishing.

Visit some of the atmospheric bars and pubs along this stretch, and don’t forget to sample ales from Mitchells, a delightful micro-brewery in the Knysna area.

And of course, if you blur the boundaries of the Garden Route as almost everyone seems to do, there is even more to see.

George is a large prosperous town which forms a junction along the Garden Route, where the main road continues along the coast and another route heads north over the Outeniqua mountains to the Little Karoo town of Oudtshoorn. George lies on a coastal plateau about 8kms from the coast and is the start (or finish) point for one of the most splendid railway journeys in the world. The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe pulled by an ancient steam locomotive, chugs over forested hills, past inland lakes and across high bridges over raging river mouths. You will need plenty of film in your camera for this magnificent 3 hour ride and transport can be arranged to return you to your start point.

The name Knysna is a Khoi word but it's uncertain as to its exact meaning. It could mean 'place of wood', or it could mean 'fern leaves', but its most probable meaning is straight down' - an obvious reference to the Heads. Knysna Heads must be the most striking geological features along the entire southern African coastline. They flank a deep but potentially treacherous channel through which the sea pours in to flood the wide and breathtakingly pretty lagoon at the mouth of the Knysna River. Knysna's history began in the year 1804, the year that saw the arrival of George Rex, rumored to be the illegitimate son of King George lll. He purchased the estate known as Melkhoutkraal on the shores of the lagoon and moved his entire family and considerable entourage down to Knysna to settle.

Knysna is one of the Southern Cape coast's best known holiday destinations, situated between lush forests and the shores of the peaceful lagoon - it offers many activities and attractions of a wide variety. The most well known attraction being the heads - two great sandstone cliffs guarding the mouth of the lagoon which connects the estuary with the sea. A lookout has been erected on the Eastern Head, commanding spectacular views of the lagoon, Leisure Isle and Knysna. The Western Head is a privately owned nature Reserve - Featherbed Bay. The Knysna Lagoon is one of the few places along the coast and in the world that supports a oyster hatchery. And the Knysna oysters are reputedly among the tastiest in the world.

Millwood House Museum in Queen Street houses material relating to the history of the town, and includes artifacts once owned by George Rex. It was built from yellowwood at the end of the previous century during the gold rush. From Millwood, it was later moved to Knysna. Knysna has many attractions in the surrounding area as well, one of the most spectacular being the Knysna Forest, which is still evident in many places within the town as well. It is the largest indigenous forest in South Africa comprising of tall and ancient trees of local and exotic species, including stinkwood, yellowwood, blackwood, ironwood, white alders and Cape chestnut. Not forgetting the ferns, creepers and wild flowers which add colour to this endless green collage. The forest is vast and extremely dense in places making it impenetrable. Animal life is limited to a few small antelope and a large variety of birds, such as the famous Knysna Loerie. Home to the once great herds of Knysna Elephants, it is believed that only one lonely cow remains today. Another historical attraction are the Millwood Gold Mines. Alluvial gold was found here in 1885, which caused a rush to the area. At Jubilee Creek, the exact spot where gold was found, provides a tranquil and beautiful picnic area, with many enjoyable forest walks in the area. Buffalo Bay is the closest beach to knysna, one of the safest for swimming along the coast and enjoyed by many African holiday makers every year. It is very rocky in places, making it a great angling spot, there is also a small slipway available for small boats.

Mossel Bay
Mossel Bay has developed slowly without becoming too fashionable or sophisticated, hence it has retained a lot of sleepy small town charm, regardless of the petrol refinery on the outskirts. Surrounded by attractive scenery, the town is situated on cliffs leading down to a safe harbour and beautiful north-facing beach. Portuguese sailor Bartholomew Dias was the first European to land here in 1488 after rounding the Cape. The volley of stones that sent Dias and his crew scuttling back to their ship, indicated what the scantily clad Khoikhoi herders thought of the miracle before them.

Natures Valley
The Groot River forms the western boundary of the untouched Tsitsikamma Forest and Coastal National Park, which extends all the way to Storms River Mouth. In the forest you will encounter a world of giant yellowwoods, forest ferns, clear streams and magnificent birds. But head towards the sea and you will get a completely different picture where the dominant features are a narrow coastal strip with massive cliffs and isolated beaches.

This is the tourist capital of the Little Karoo and ostrich capital of South Africa with thousands of the beady-eyed birds all over the place. Big bodies but small brains, these long legged monsters eat pebbles to aid digestion and are particularly attracted to the odd earring or glinting necklace from unsuspecting tourists. At the turn of the century ostrich feathers were in such demand that the fashion conscious paid a premium and feathered the nests of the barons who built magnificent mansions known as ‘Feather Palaces’. This fine architecture can still be seen around the sedate and pleasant town.

There are several ostrich show farms which still sell the beautiful downy feathers but now make more money out of the desirable soft strong knobbly leather. There is also an export demand for the eggs, one of which makes an omelette for 20 people. At the show farms you can ride the birds in an ungainly and embarrassing manner or eat them in the restaurant. The meat is deliciously tender and contains no cholesterol.

There is no shortage of things to do in this locality with a tour through the fascinating Cango Caves of stalagmites and stalactites, and Cheetahland, a place where you can stroke the fastest animal on earth while it purrs.

There are some spectacular mountain passes with the Swartberg Pass the most sensational in South Africa. The wonderful twisted sedimentary layers of rock sport colours that look as if a painter were splashing about with his palate. The 24 km road has some awesome sheer drops and hair pin bends leading down to great echoing canyons.

Plettenberg Bay
Originally christened "Bahia Formosa" (beautiful bay) by early Portuguese explorers, Plettenberg Bay can now be accessed by first class national roads, by sea or by scheduled air flights.

The great forests lying at the feet of the fabled Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountains are the gateway to the incredible indigenous African wealth of Plettenberg Bay, which lies on South Africa's spectacular south coast 210 kms from Port Elizabeth and +/- 600 km from Cape Town. The Outeniqua-Tsitsikamma indigenous forests are a unique mixture of Cape Fynbos and temperate forest and offer the nature lover world-renowned hiking trails and an exciting opportunity to see the last remaining forest elephants of South Africa. The entire area teems with birdlife. Nearly 300 species are to be found in the great variety of habitats ranging from fynbos to forest to wetlands.

No less than ten important nature reserves embrace the varied ecosystems of the area as well as unique marine reserves, home to soft coral reefs, dolphins, seals and a host of other marine life. The bay itself is Nursery to the endangered Southern Right Whale which come here to calve in the winter and spring (July to December).

The area is of course a sports paradise and boasts fabulous trails for hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders and canoeists. The highlight of the area is undoubtedly the rivers, beaches and the bay with its ideal conditions for all facets of watersports, including sailing in the safe waters of the Bay, superb rock and surf fishing and scuba diving spots. Alternately one can simply stroll along its clean, sandy beaches stretching for miles along the Indian Ocean or enjoy its safe swimming areas. At night, Plettenberg Bay is alive with pubs, night-spots and fine restaurants. A wide range of accommodation offers luxury hotels, exclusive country retreats, cosy bed and breakfasts, self-catering chalets and excellent camping facilities.

Storms River / Tsitsikamma
Tsitsikamma is the Khoi-San word for a place of many waters. It is the perfect description of this exquisite area but does not do justice to the overwhelming experience the Tsitsikamma provides for those fortunate enough to visit it and to indulge in its unique pleasures.

The Tsitsikamma National Park is internationally recognized for its forests which harbour and conserve the giant Outeniqua yellowwood - one of the few true monarchs of the world's forests. This enormous tree is one of the most successful species in existence, having survived unchanged for millions of years. Tsitsikamma National Park is also Africa's oldest and largest marine reserve, playing a vital role in the preservation and conservation of marine fauna and flora. Tourists, and particularly hikers from all over the world, visit the area which is known for its rugged, unspoiled coastline - a photographer's dream.

The region has many wonderfully scenic hiking trails of which it is justifiably proud, though its greatest asset remains the world-renowned Otter Trail. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that remains indelibly imprinted on the mind.

This exceptionally pretty area offers a unique system of lakes, rivers and wetlands with much alpine style accommodation on heavily wooded hillsides with the sea beyond. The coastal road runs along a narrow strip between the Indian Ocean and the chain of lakes, one of which reputedly contains a mermaid. This is no new legend as ancient Bushman paintings in the mountains depict a woman with a fish tail. She does not seem to interfere with the present day pleasures of boating, yachting, swimming, fishing and canoeing, which is a delightful way to explore the tranquility of the national park area and its abundant bird life.

In the most southerly region of Africa, only one hour east of Cape Town, lies the Fairest Cape's best kept secret, a fertile area surrounded by mountains and sea. Simply called the Overberg, it is the traveller's reward for breaching the mountain barriers which divide it from the rest of the country. To early settlers it represented the land beyond the mountains of Africa, a region rich in resources as well as boundless treasures.

Overberg literally means 'over the mountain' and it derives from the early settlers in Cape Town who went over the mountains by ox and wagon to see what was on the other side. They found a fertile coastal belt which now is intensively farmed with fields of wheat and herds of sheep. Some considerate farmers have even put signs up on the edges of their fields to tell travellers what kind of crop they are looking at. The villages and towns are all quite charming, some nestling amongst the mountain ranges and others in lowland river valleys.

The Overberg coast, also called the Whale Coast, has the distinction of splitting the oceans. At Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of the continent, the waters are cleaved into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The foothills of the mountains, covered in a wealth of indigenous fynbos, roll down through green and gold wheat and sheep country to the lighthouse here. Apart from the cry of seagulls and the endless beat of the surf along a holiday-friendly shoreline - which also gives rest to the wreckage of scores of luckless ships - silence prevails and solitude is easy to find.

A scattering of tiny seaside resorts in the vicinity attract regular caravanners, campers and fishermen. In contrast is Hermanus, a bustling town where crowds flock to watch migrating whales between June and November. The region offers visitors a myriad other activities, such as golf, hiking, birdwatching, canoeing, mountain biking, architectural tours, historical tours, fynbos and flower trails and, of course, unending opportunities to indulge in fine food and wine.

This superb coastal area, stretching from Hangklip to the mouth of the Breede River, can be approached from the Cape Peninsula over the dramatic Sir Lowry's Pass along the N2 national road, by a coastal road carved from the sea cliffs from Gordon's Bay, through the Kogelberg Biosphere - the only one in South Africa. The area can also be journeyed into from other regions of the Western Cape Province such as the Winelands, the Garden Route, the Breede River and the Klein Karoo.

The Cape Helderberg, or Helderberg basin, includes the towns of Gordon's Bay, Sir Lowry's Pass, Somerset West, Macassar and Strand. The Hottentots Holland and Helderberg Mountain ranges provide a lovely backdrop against which the valley descends into picturesque vineyards and the spectacular False Bay coastline. The vast expanse of white, sandy beaches, warm water, cliffs and coves make the area a tourist and photographer's paradise. Less than 30 miles from Cape Town, the Helderberg is the gateway to the Overberg, Winelands and the Garden Route. The Helderberg also has its own wine route with over 20 estates, one of which is the historic Vergelegen in Somerset West.

This is an unexpected oasis in the barren landscape of the Little Karoo, as it lies on the other side of the mountains from the lush coastal belt. It nestles below the forbidding ramparts of the Swartberg Mountain where several stunning passes wind their way through the rocky mountain range. The Seven Weeks Poort Pass is one of the loveliest and most remarkable for its scenery and road building. A visit to Calitzdorp in July would coincide with their annual Port Wine Festival but wine tasting is available all year round.

Legend has it that the extraordinary mountain peaks to the west of Ladismith, were cleft in two by an angry old witch who could not find a way through the mountains. She would have found a sweet little town superbly set against the mountains with life meandering along at a slow pace. As you walk up the path to the neo-gothic Dutch Reformed Church (every town has one and it is usually the most impressive building in town) the crackle underfoot is due to a path laid not with gravel, but with peach pips. This small detail tells you a great deal about the produce of the area.

Afrikaner Voortrekkers found the river water here strangely flavoured, yet wonderfully refreshing, so they decided to follow the river course. They found healing hot springs bubbling to the surface at 45ºC, and decided to stay. These hot springs can now be enjoyed by everyone and a large swimming pool complex has been built which gets very busy at weekends. The Long Street of Montagu has 14 of the town's 23 national monuments, the gardens bloom with roses and the surrounding fields are full of fruit and vines. The fresh clean air and beautiful scenery make this a delightful place to visit. Looking down on the town from beside the rusty old cannon on the hill, the road can be seen sneaking off between yellow rocky mountains. Within a few kilometres out to the west, the iron-tinged rocks look like waves on the point of breaking. The English thought this a strategic place to build a fort, and above the amazingly engineered tunnel through sheer rock, sits the remains of an 1899 Boer War bastion.

This warm, low rainfall region has excellent lime-rich soils ideal for producing delectable white wines including a superb sweet Muscatel as well as sherry and brandy. Most of the wine estates are clustered along the Breede River and form a very friendly farming community. So fertile is this river valley that fruit, vegetables, almonds, coriander and lucerne are also grown. Upon the green fields and white fenced pastures of wine estates graze many hopefuls for the Cape Town racetrack.

After Cape Town and Stellenbosch, Swellendam is the third oldest settlement in South Africa. Laying at the foot of the beautiful Langeberg mountains this place is not only famous for its youngberries, but as well as for its architecture and its history. The town is situated halfway between Cape Town and George on the N2. Swellendam was founded by the Dutch East India Company in the year 1745. The town and its district was named after the governor of the Cape and his wife, Hendrik Swellengrebel and Helena Ten Damme. In time, a village was established opposite the Drostdy, across the Koornlands River, where artisans, including numerous wainwrights, and traders settled. To travellers and explorers, the services of these village folk were indispensable, as Swellendam was the last outpost of civilisation on the eastern frontier.

By the middle of the 19th century, the eastern districts has been colonized by British settlers and Swellendam was a thriving metropolis. The town served as a useful refreshment station on the long slow journey up the coast. Nowdays, in addition to serving its local and surrounding community, Swellendam glories in its past by continuing to offer travellers the services they require for rest and relaxation on their travels. Swellendam offers a variety of accommodation to suit every taste. This range includes one hotel, luxury guest houses, Bed and Breakfast establishments, chalets, caravan and camping facilities as well as self-catering cottages on farms in the area. Swellendam still lives up to its reputation as a foremost ‘refreshment station’ and there are many restaurants and coffee shops in the town catering to travellers.

Somerset West
Named after Lord Charles Somerset in 1819, Somerset West has thrived and is now the commercial and residential capital of the Helderberg Basin whilst maintaining its village atmosphere. Lying on the slopes of the Helderberg, the town is 6km inland from the False Bay coast and the resort towns of Strand and Gordons Bay, is 20km from Stellenbosch and its wine route, a mere 35 minutes' drive to Paarl, Wellington and Franschoek and forms an integral part of the Winelands Region.

Gordon's Bay
Gordons Bay is a small idyllic seaside town on the Eastern edge of False Bay in the Western Cape, in the popular, picturesque region of Helderberg, and the winelands. It is well located, just 25 minutes from Cape Town Airport and 40 minutes from the famous "mother City of Cape Town". The climate is Mediterranean and they have some of the best beaches in the Cape, beautiful white sand, rock pools, shallow paddling areas and calm seas. The famous Bikini Beach has also been awarded Blue Flag status. The sea is much warmer here than you will find at the Atlantic beaches such as Clifton The area abounds with excellent restaurants, shopping malls and amenities.

Two hours’ drive from Cape Town, this old fishing village exudes an authentically quaint atmosphere. It has two names; Arniston in memory of the 372 people drowned on the HMS Arniston transport ship wrecked in 1815. The original name is Waenhuiskrans, meaning wagon house cliff, deriving from the enormous tidal cavern big enough to fit six ox and wagon teams inside. The area is notable for its bizarre marine erosion, and fishermen clamber over the rocks for the perfect angling spot. The beaches are pearly white and the dunes vast and unspoiled. Writers and painters are known to come here for peace and inspiration. Not to be missed is a visit to Kassiesbaai, the neighbouring 200 year old fishing village where a unique collection of original whitewashed thatched vernacular cottages are shown to you by a local guide. The entire village of Kassiesbaai is now a National Monument and you have to be born there to be able to live there.

Bushmen and Hottentot tribes discovered bubbling hot springs at Caledon long before Europeans came. These thermal springs are not related to volcanic activity and the principle feature of the water besides its wonderfully constant 50ºc heat, is that it is free of any organic material but is high in iron and minerals, comparing very favourably with the Spas of Europe and America.

De Hoop Nature Reserve
This reserve incorporates 50km of coastline and stretches 5km out to sea into the rich feeding grounds of the Agulhas bank. With its pristine dunes, indigenous Cape Fynbos flora and lake wetlands, the reserve teams with wildlife. The seven distinct eco-systems support about 1,400 plants, 40 mammal species, 11 types of reptiles and 6 amphibian species. More than 200 different birds have been recorded and the rare Cape Vulture may be spotted on the crags.

This fishing village is said to have originally been populated by the survivors of one of the worst disasters in British maritime history. The steam troopship HMS Birkenhead struck a submerged rock off Danger Point in 1852, tearing the bottom open and drowning sailors still in their hammocks. The saying ‘Women and children first’ originated from this calamity, and while they were being put into lifeboats, the remaining troops were mustered on deck. They saluted as the ship rapidly sank, drowning 455 men and many horses.

Gansbaai is now the centre for a new adrenaline pumping sport: Great White Shark cage diving. The diving cage floats just below the surface and in it you come face to face with the most fearsome creature in the ocean, attracted to the boat by food. This is not for the faint-hearted and some say it could encourage shark attacks on bathers, but a number of independent marine experts have refuted this idea.

Grootbos Nature Reserve
Grootbos Nature Reserve stretches across 1200 hectares of milkwood forests and fynbos wilderness near Gansbaai You can enjoy panoramic views across coastal dunes and out to sea over beautiful Walker Bay. Here you have a good chance of seeing enormous Southern Right Whales, who migrate to these waters every year from July to October Activities available at Grootbos are 4x4 drives, horse riding and guided walks along the pristine sandy beaches or through the fynbos. Accommodation is offered in traditional cottages built from local stone and timber.

This lovely little, rapidly growing town, forms the centre of the Whale Route. A bustling cheerful Whale Festival, celebrating these trusting gentle giants is held at the end of September each year. Once hunted almost to extinction from this harbour, they now loll around within a stone’s throw of the rocks where you can sit and commune with them for hours. The most common species arriving here to calve and mate, are the Southern Right Whales. They are amongst the biggest in the world, measuring 11-18 metres and weighing 30-80 tonnes. Don’t pass the quaint little museum on the harbour’s edge - the whale song playing in the background comes live from underwater microphones in the bay. Accommodation is plentiful but gets quite booked up over public holidays and during festival time.

The town of Hermanus got its name from Hermanus Pieters, an itinerant teacher and sheep farmer. He first came to the Cape in the early 1800's, and settled in the Caledon district. He brought his sheep to the coast for grazing. After that came fishermen and holiday makers from the Cape. In 1902 the name of the little village was Hermanus Pietersfontein, and latter abbreviated to Hermanus.

Hermanus is one of the best whale watching spots in the country, and it even has its own Whale Crier, who announces the sighting of whales with a blow of his kelp horn, calling everyone in the town to come watch these majestic animals of the ocean frolick in the water.

The Old Harbour Museum is another landmark of the town, which has an outside display of an old sea wall, old fishing boats and reconstructed stone fishing huts. The inside display is of anything used for fishing in the early days and aquarium displays of locally caught specimens. In the surrounding Hemel & Aarde Valley (Heaven & Earth Valley) just 2 km outside Hermanus you can embark on the Hermanus Wine Route. This area is fast making a name for itself for its magnificent Burgundy varietals of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Another attraction of a different kind, is Great White Shark Diving - from a close distance, in a safe environment, if that makes you feel any better. This is one of the few places in the country where you can experience these predators in their natural environment without being the hunted! But if this is not for you, then viewing from the surface is also an experience as sharks are surface feeders and are very happy to perform for your amusement.

A happy informal African holiday village divided by a large river mouth. Ideal as a holiday centre with a fine swimming beach, excellent boating on the river and fishing in the estuary or on the coast. These attractions together with an equable climate have lured people here for centuries. Prehistoric man found it a convenient place to live having worked out an ingenious and easy way of catching fish. He manoeuvred boulders to form low barricades between high and low water marks. At high tide fish swam in to feed among the rocks and as the tide receded were trapped in great numbers. These fish traps are still evident today, as are shell middens where waste was discarded forming a mountain of shells.

Information courtesy of South African Tourism (www.southafrica.net)

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