By Staff Writer
For months you couldn’t do it and, when you read this, you may still not be able to do it until the last of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are lifted. But we have nonetheless in the meantime selected 8 of the Best South African Road Trips for you in our regular 8 of the Best feature.
While this list is by no means the definitive one as there are numerous other equally enjoyable road trips around South Africa, the eight we have selected do speak to the very heart of our wonderful country – a sampling of who we are and the exquisite variety we have to offer. So, once the restrictions are lifted and you can hit the road again, do so without further delay! There is a whole lot of South Africa out there just waiting to be discovered or rediscovered! Enjoy the trip.
1. Route 62
This is South Africa’s king of road trips and matches America’s Route 66 kilometre for kilometre. Actually, it’s a whole lot better! Officially, Route 62 covers most of the road between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, traversing two provinces between the east and west of the country. This is the absolute must-do scenic journey of discovery and a worthy alternative to the N2 highway if you are travelling between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
Follow the N1 out of Cape Town to Worcester and then the R60 to Ashton, where the R62, or Route 62, officially starts. You can end your road trip some 250km further east in the world’s ostrich capital, Oudtshoorn, or you can continue all the way through the beautiful Langkloof (Long Valley) to the surfers’ paradise at Jefferey’s Bay which will add about another 290km to your journey.
Along the way you will pass through beautiful winelands with spectacular mountain backdrops, stopping in a number of quaint little towns whose charming characters and histories hark back a century or three. The towns and hamlets of Ashton, Montagu, Barrydale, Ladismith, Zoar, Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn each have something unique to offer.
Ashton and Montagu are in wine country. Barrydale has a collection of very intriguing B&Bs, pubs, restaurants and quaint little shops. Ladismith makes some fine cheese. In Calitzdorp you will find the home of South Africa’s Cape port-style wine on beautiful wine estates in the heart of this creative village. In Oudtshoorn, ostrich capital and capital of the Klein Karoo, you can visit ostrich and crocodile farms, the Cango Caves or the nearby Swartberg Pass and ‘the Hell’ (Gamkaskloof), and once a year you can attend the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival.
If you continue on through the Langkloof, the green valleys, vineyards and ostrich farms are gradually replaced by apple orchards, and a somewhat dryer Karoo landscape. More wonderful little towns like Uniondale, Haarlem, Misgund, Joubertina and Kareedouw await you, all rich in history and with many scenic and other attractions.
In a country with so many fantastic scenic attractions and such great variety, it’s hard to single out any one area. But another world-famous route that will never stop delighting any traveller, is the Garden Route. It follows the coast hugging N2 highway from Mossel Bay in the west to Port Elizabeth in the east. A good idea for a super road trip to top them all, would be to do Route 62 from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn, then cross the mountain via the Robinson Pass to Mossel Bay and the sea, and follow the Garden Route from there.
Mossel Bay is the sight of the first contact between European maritime explorers and the indigenous people of Southern Africa, the Khoisan, more than 500 years ago. There’s a fascinating museum complex that tells the whole story, plus the original “post office tree” dating back to those years.
Today it is a beautiful harbour town with some of the best swimming beaches, excavation sites of ancient communities, breathtaking golf courses, the world’s most spectacular zipline across cliffs and the sea, and stunning views across the bay to the Outeniqua Mountains. To explore and enjoy all that this beautiful harbour town has to offer, will take you the better part of several weeks.
From here you will travel through the pretty riverside hamlets of Little Brak River and Great Brak River, on to the city of George nestling at the foot of the mountains with its fascinating history, museums, old architecture and much more. After a stop at Victoria Bay it’s on through South Africa’s lakes district, around Wilderness and Sedgefield, to Knysna. In Knysna you can eat fresh oysters in the Waterfront on the edge of the great lagoon, take in the wild ocean scenery at The Heads, or visit a ghost mining village deep in the Knysna Forest.
Then continue along this beautiful coastal road, turning off to visit the stone castles of Knoetzie, and on to the holiday playground of Plettenburg Bay and Keurboomstrand. Next you will pass beautiful Nature’s Valley and then cross the spectacular Bloukrans Bridge with one of the highest bungee jumps in the world. Now you will be entering the Tsitsikamma Forest – part of the Tsitsikamma National Park which in turn forms part of the larger Garden Route National Park.
In the forest you will find the hidden little Storms River Village with its famous diner that doubles as a shrine to Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and 1950s America. At the mouth of the Storms River you can walk across a suspension bridge surrounded by dramatic coastal scenery. From here the road takes you to the world-famous surfing towns of Cape St Francis and Jeffreys Bay and their super tubes, and then through Humansdorp to the historic port city of Port Elizabeth, first home of the 1820 British Settlers. Be sure to also stop at the Addo Elephant Park along the way.
3. Kwazulu-Natal North Coast
KwaZulu-Natal offers travellers two very fascinating, but distinctly different coastal road trips – one covers the South Coast and the other the North Coast, situated on either side of the city of Durban. Whereas the South Coast is much more built up and has a bustling holiday atmosphere, the north coast is more rural with fantastic natural scenery and an awesome, very large wetland park.
For this article we decided on taking the N2 north along the North Coast up to the town of Hluhluwe where you can either continue along the N2 to Swaziland or Gauteng, or you can turn off onto the R22, pass Kosi Lake and then follow the road to Ponto de Ouro or Maputo in Mozambique.
As you leave the hustle and bustle of Durban behind, you’ll soon pass through the upmarket coastal settlements of Umhlanga, La Mercy, Tongaat Beach, and Shaka’s Rock among others. You will also come to Shaka’s Kraal, a one-street-village which was once the site of King Shaka’s royal military homestead called KwaHlomendlini. Everywhere along the way you will see the colourful fusion of Zulu, Indian and European cultures that is the trademark of KwaZulu-Natal.
As you travel this route the landscape changes frequently from lush coastal vegetation and sand dunes, to dramatic seascapes, river mouths and lagoons, to urban centres and rural traditional villages, interspersed with rolling hills covered in sugar cane. After passing through the sub-tropical harbour town of Richards Bay, you’ll soon come to Hluhluwe (where the road splits) and a bit further on, Lake St Lucia and the spectacular iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
The wetlands was named Miracle Waters by King Shaka, of which Nelson Mandela almost 200 years later said, “iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale)”. This beautiful park offers the Big 5 land animals as well as all the big ocean creatures including whales and dolphins, canoe safaris, lakes, ancient fish traps still used daily by local villagers, giant sand dunes, coastal forests, the Indian Ocean with endless beaches and sand dunes, bush safari country and much more.
4. Panorama Route
This is another awesome route which starts in the Lowveld (low country) town of Nelspruit on the edge of the Kruger National Park in Mpumalanga. From there you can follow a choice of roads either to White River, Hazyview or Lone Creek Falls. But by the time you reach the pinnacle of the route around Graskop, you will feel like you have reached the top of the world. From lookout points like God’s Window on the edge of the Drakensberg Escarpment, you can see across the whole wide world, or so it feels as you take in the endless vistas stretching away across the Blyde River Canyon, the Kruger National Park and neighbouring Mozambique.
From Nelspruit the Panorama Route takes you to White River with its popular golf course and Motor Museum. After that you will reach the forestry town of Sabie, a true centre of adventure activities ranging from off-road vehicle adventures to abseiling. At Pilgrims Rest you can enjoy a mining village with pubs and restaurants, all of which have been kept exactly the way it looked during the area’s gold rush in the late 1800s.
There are plenty of other wonderful attractions along the way to visit, such as the Lisbon Falls, Berlin Falls, the Pinnacle, Bourke`s Luck Potholes, and Blyde River Canyon. In Graskop you can visit art galleries, eat traditional pancakes, choose from superb accommodation establishments, restaurants and pubs, or visit the nearby Graskop Gorge Lift for more spectacular views.
At God’s Window you can meditate in a mist forest 800m above the world below, or you can stare in awe at the Three Rondavels and the Blyde River Canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world and the largest ‘green canyon’ due to its lush subtropical foliage, while it also has some of the deepest precipitous cliffs of any canyon on earth. The Panorama Route ends at the Swadini Forever Resort, which has plenty of activities from boat trips to microlight fights. Oh, and don’t forget to pop into the Kruger National Park for some spectacular self-drive game viewing while you are there.
5. Waterberg Meander
Under 100km and one hour’s drive north of Pretoria, lies the astonishingly unspoilt and soul refreshing Waterberg region, still undiscovered by most. The reason for the latter is that the N1 North briefly cuts across the south-eastern corner of the region, between Bela Bela and Polokwane. Most people travelling this way don’t bother to turn off and explore. It’s their loss, sadly.
This bushveld region covers the mountainous, water-rich Waterberg Plateau, which is home to the Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, one of the world’s last unspoilt wilderness areas and the world’s only savanna biosphere reserve. The area lies roughly between Polokwane (previously Pietersburg) in the east which is the capital of South Africa’s northernmost province, Limpopo, and the Botswana border to the west, and between Bela Bela (previously Warmbad) in the south and Swartwater near the Limpopo River in the north. Towns in the region are generally small and include Bela Bela, Modimolle (Nylstroom), Mookgopong (Naboomspruit), Vaalwater, Mokopane (Potgietersrus), Thabazimbi and Lephalale (Ellisras).
This former agricultural area is big on conservation, with thousands upon thousands of hectares of land being returned to their natural state over the last few decades. Instead of cultivated farmlands the area is covered in natural trees and bush and populated by wild animals with small human settlements sparsely scattered in-between. Since the 1990s this stunningly beautiful region has become one of South Africa’s most significant conservation areas.
The small towns all have a surprising look of being newly built and freshly painted, the result of new malls, chain stores and fast-food outlets having recently being added to the 1950s look of pre-1994 platteland South Africa. On weekdays these towns are a hive of activity but drive just a kilometre out of any of them, and the bush and absolute tranquillity take over for miles and miles around. Drive along any road through the region and you will have close-up sightings of over 100 species of animals, including the Big 5, without even having to turn off and enter a game reserve. Lodges, B&Bs, restaurants and pubs are plentiful along the way.
Activities in the area include visits to some of the many parks, reserves and dams, self-drive or guided game viewing, some superb hikes, camping, mountain biking, ziplining, a choice of good eateries, visiting a craft beer brewery, visiting historical cultural sites, and much more. And don’t forget to buy some of the best biltong on the planet.
6. Karoo Highlands
Another of the much less travelled roads in South Africa that is home to a breathtaking array of discoveries and treats, is a route that will include small Karoo towns of the southern part of the Northern Cape province like Calvinia, Nieuwoudtville, Sutherland, Fraserburg, Williston, Carnarvon, Loxton and Victoria West. This region is commonly referred to as the Karoo Highlands.
From Cape Town you can take the N7 that hugs the West Coast to Namibia, turning off eastwards at Vanrhynsdorp and following the R63 through a number of these towns to Carnarvon; then turn south on the R63 to Loxton, and then follow the R356 to Fraserburg and Sutherland, before heading back to Cape Town. Along the way you will pass through some of the most unspoilt rugged Karoo landscape with its familiar rocky kopjes, large sheep farms and small towns situated far apart.
It’s isolated, desolate and dry country, but it’s beautiful in ways that cannot be described but have to be experienced. You’ll never be bored or disappointed, from the moment you wake up with the red sun rising in the crisp morning air to the moment the last rays of daylight are replaced by a vast velvet night sky filled with billions of sparkling stars.
At Calvinia you can treat yourself to some of the most mouth-watering lamb chops in South Africa and view the Namaqualand wildflower spectacle in Spring. All of these towns have excellent B&Bs and restaurants and plenty of things to keep you busy, from exploring the natural scenery and reserves, to walking around these quaint little towns to view the unique Karoo architecture.
There are still many examples of the Northern Cape’s original corbelled houses that were mostly built by Trekboers (nomadic frontier farmers) who migrated from the south into the Karoo in the 1700s and 1800s. You can stay in some of these corbelled homes on farms in the Fraserburg, Williston and Carnarvon areas that have been revamped as guest houses.
There are many interesting museums and plenty of battlefield sites from the Anglo-Boer War throughout the region. In Sutherland a visit to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the largest in the world, is a must. But this is really just a small sample of things to do and attractions; there’s so much more.
7. Sunshine Coast
This coastal strip stretches from Oyster Bay near Cape St Francis in the west, to Gonubie just outside East London in the east. It is a truly magnificent stretch of coastline with a unique character all of its own. If you have done the combination road trip of Route 62 and the Garden Route, as suggested above, and you still have not had enough, you can always add on the stretch of road that follows the Sunshine Coast.
Starting at the other end though, from South Africa’s only big river port at East London, going west it traverses a number of seaside towns of German and Xhosa heritage, then an unspoilt coastline divided only by a number of large river mouths that are home mostly to holiday homes and traditional villages, passing nature reserves on the way, then on to the marina at Port Alfred, Kenton-on-Sea and Bushmans River Mouth, before hitting the urban industrial surroundings of Port Elizabeth. A relatively short distance on you reach the surfer’s paradise of Jeffreys Bay and Cape St Francis.
It’s a coast with an overwhelming feeling of summer and a slower pace where elements of the Garden Route, the Wild Coast and urban South Africa all are rolled into one, plus something that is unique and not found anywhere else. That something is inherent in the laid-back way of life along these parts, as well as the way the scenery naturally shifts and changes in beauty and intensity as you travel from east to west. And of course, it is the region with the most sunshine in South Africa. In-between all of this the roads and rough tracks, the traditional settlements and modern towns give access to an awesome spread of beaches, rivers, lagoons, nature reserves, huge dunes and hiking trails.
8. West Coast
With Cape Town as your starting point, you can plan one of several different West Coast road trips to suit your taste and available time. If you only have limited time, you can drive along the West Coast Road (R27) to Yzerforntein, passing Milnerton, Table View, Melkbosstrand, Koeberg Nuclear Power Station and nature reserve, Silwerstroom beach resort, Ganzekraal and Grotto Bay along the way. The coastal scenery, lush with fynbos, is absolutely stunning, while Melkbosstrand and Yzerfontein both have a choice of lovely little restaurants and pubs. The distance from Cape Town to Yzerfontein is about 80km.
Or you could plan longer trips onwards from Yzerfontein. Add the mesmerizing beauty of the Langebaan Lagoon and surrounding West Coast National Park less than an additional half hour’s drive. Here you will find house boats, hidden little beaches, warm lagoon water for swimming, wild ostriches and tortoises, the villages of Langebaan and Saldanha, a bustling harbour, a kite and wind surfer’s paradise, a bit of the Greek Isles in the form of Club Mykonos and its casino, and much more.
Or continue on along the R27 turning left onto the R399 to the town of Vredenburg and then to the sleepy traditional fishing village of Paternoster with its whitewashed houses and colourful boats lining the beach. From there you can drive around the peninsula to St Helena Bay where the fishing industry and upscale holiday homes exist side by side. Get back onto the R27 and drive to the picturesque fishing harbour villages of Velddrif and Laaiplek at the mouth of the Berg River. Further up the coast are many more gems like Elands Bay, Lambert Bay, Doringbaai, Strandfontein and finally beautiful Papendorp at the mouth of the Olifants River.
The West Coast offers travellers so much wonderful variety that you will need more than one trip to take it all in. But either way, it will be a road trip you will never forget.