Top 5 roadtrips in South Africa

South Africa is full of driving routes that inspire travellers to slow down and just enjoy the journey. Here’s five of the country’s best road trips…

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Best of the Cape

Drive time: 6 hours (with no stops) or 2 days (with regular stops)

The best of the Cape is a combination of roads that every South African should drive at some point in their lives. This route is best experienced over at least four or five days, but can be changed or shortened if needed.

The route starts in the heart of Cape Town, in the central business district (CBD) and Waterfront area and beneath the watchful gaze of Table Mountain. Adventurers should make their way along the False Bay coastline, passing through the towns of Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and Simons Town. The road hugs the coastline all the way, and a rest break at the famous Brass Bell pub and restaurant in Kalk Bay is recommended. After rounding Cape Point the journey continues along the Atlantic Seaboard, passing through Noordhoek and Houtbay as well as the trendy Clifton and Camps Bay beaches. This road includes the tolled road of Chapman’s Peak Drive, described by many as the most beautiful stretch of road in the world.

View of Table Mountain in Cape Town from Signal Hill (Shutterstock)
View of Table Mountain in Cape Town from Signal Hill (Shutterstock)

Leaving the city behind, the route heads into the picturesque winelands of Stellenbosch, where there are plenty of great spots for wine tasting. The road then leads merrily over the Helshoogte Pass and on to Franschhoek, where some chocolate tasting and viewing of the historic sites of the French Huguenots may be in order. Some visitors to the Cape only travel as far as Franschhoek, which is a pity as the Franschhoek Pass leading over to Villiersdorp offers magnificent views out over the valley. Pass through the beautiful apple farming regions of Villiersdorp, Vyeboom and Grabouw and arrive in Gansbaai and Hermanus – famous for cage diving with sharks and whale watching respectively.

From here, start heading back to Cape Town, taking in the magnificent coastal road past Betty’s Bay, Rooiels and Gordon’s Bay. This road follows the False Bay coastline, with many seal spotting sites as well as places to stop for a swim or picnic. Once completed, you can look back on a route that has offered glimpses of many of the different landscapes of the Cape, from ocean to city to vineyard to orchard.

The Garden Route

Drive time: 1 week (with regular stops)

Aerial Shot of Knysna in the Garden Route, South Africa (Shutterstock)
Aerial Shot of Knysna in the Garden Route, South Africa (Shutterstock)

Famed for its diversity of flora and fauna, it’s said to resemble the Garden of Eden and needs little introduction. Many people have travelled to South Africa specifically to enjoy the sights and stay in some of the charming coastal towns that make up the Garden Route.

Many argue the Garden Route starts all the way in Cape Town, but stick to the stricter definition of the route and begin your journey in Mossel Bay, a charming town best known for some of its spectacular golf courses. Nearby is the town of George, atown about 4 hours’ drive from Cape Town, sheltered by the towering Outeniqua Mountains; a large reason the area boasts the second most temperate climate in the world, with temperatures rarely registering below 10 degrees or over 28 degrees. Moving further up the east coast of the country, the next stop is Victoria Bay, a beautiful bay tucked away with only a few holiday homes and a campsite that is well used over the holiday season. Vic Bay (as it’s known to the locals) used to be a favourite with the children due to the Outeniqua Choo-choo steam train which used to run past the bay, but even though that is no longer in operation the bay is still very popular with surfers and families.

A hop and a skip further along the coast lie the laidback and friendly towns of Wilderness and Sedgefield. Both have magnificent beaches that are near-deserted for most of the year, as well as the lakes, lagoons, rivers and forests that make it a nature-lover’s playground. Bird lovers will be pleased to know that the Wilderness National Park boasts 262 species of bird. Due to favourable wind conditions, the area is also a favourite for paragliders. Next up is the trendy town of Knysna, with the iconic Knysna Heads sandstone cliffs providing a great lookout point over the town. The lagoon and forest only add to the natural beauty of the town and during events such as the oyster festival and the annual marathon, the town is full to bursting.

Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa (Shutterstock)
Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa (Shutterstock)

Another trendy town with plenty of restaurants and nightlife options is Plettenberg Bay. It’s best avoided during November, when hordes of school learners celebrating the end of their exams descend on the town, but for the rest of the year it is a beautiful retreat with plenty of beaches to enjoy. Animal lovers will also want to visit the elephant sanctuary, Monkeyland and the Birds of Eden. The famously unpronounceable Tsitsikamma National Park lies to the north of Plettenberg Bay. Boasting 80km of rocky coastline and tropical forest, Tsitsikamma is an unspoilt paradise. The villages of Nature’s Valley and Storms River are both along this stretch and are worth a visit, while the attractions within the park include biking, visiting the famous old tree and doing a zip-line tour through the treetops. Hikes include various day routes through the forest, as well as the famous five-day Otter Trail hike along the coast. The Bloukrans Bridge, just past the Tsitsikamma Forest, boasts the world’s largest commercial bridge bungee jump at 216m.

The last town on the route is Jeffrey’s Bay, previously a sleepy coastal town that has been transformed into a surfer’s paradise. Supertubes is the reason for this metamorphosis, a long and perfect wave which attracts surfers from all over the planet, and it also hosts the annual Billabong Pro surfing competition for the worlds top 40 surfers. The perfect way to soak up the atmosphere is by spending a few nights at Island Vibe Backpackers, and making sure to find time to try the surfing lessons, the sand boarding, the beach horse-rides and sampling some of the cake and coffee shops in town. A further hour’s drive up the coast lies the city of Port Elizabeth, which marks the end of the Garden Route. Known as the Friendly City and the Windy City, both for good reason, Port Elizabeth also some very good beaches on offer. Those wanting to extend their road trip a little further can visit some of the malaria free game reserves close to Port Elizabeth, such as Addo Elephant Park and Shamwari Game Reserve.

Panorama Route, Mpumalanga

Drive time: 2 days (with regular stops)

The Panorama Route in Mpumalanga is a road trip with a little bit of everything. Following this route, guests are guaranteed to experience history, beautiful landscapes, wildlife, adventure activities and even some romance as an added bonus. The route runs from the Kruger Park area in the north to Nelspruit in the south and a visit to Kruger National Park means you’re guaranteed to kick off the trip well. 

First up are the scenic spots of Blyde River Canyon, God’s Window and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. The Blyde River Canyon is the world’s third largest canyon behind Grand Canyon in the USA and the Fish River Canyon, and offers great views of the Three Rondavels (three distinctive peaks towering above the surrounding countryside). God’s Window is a spectacular viewpoint looking out over the lowveld, a drop in elevation of 700m that provides spectacular views to the forests below. A short drive away, Bourke’s Luck Potholes (also called Giant’s kettles) provides a fascinating look at large riverbed excavations.

Blyde River Canyon, South Africa (Shutterstock)
Blyde River Canyon, South Africa (Shutterstock)

The next stop on the route is an historic one. The small and scenic town of Pilgrim’s Rest appears to have been caught in a time warp from the 18th century. Originally a mining town during the days of the gold rush, visitors can take a step back in time. The Royal Hotel has been magnificently preserved and is one of the main attractions, while the Digging’s Site a short distance away recreates the gold rush and allows visitors to look for some of their own.

For those with an adventurous side, the towns of Graskop and Sabie are both worth a stopover. Graskop not only boasts some delicious pancake restaurants, but also the adrenaline inducing Big Swing, a 110 mile per hour swing out over the gorge below, with 68m of freefall. The town of Sabie, famous for its pine plantations, also has a host of adventure activities, including abseiling, caving and gecko-ing (a form of tubing down a river).

It’s not only the sites on the route that are beautiful, but also the actual drive itself. The route has many vistas that will have you reaching for your camera, and its combination of scenic, historic and adventurous attractions should earn a place on your must-do road trip list.  

Route 62 in the Western Cape

Drive time: 3 days (with stops)

Route 62, South Africa (Shutterstock)
Route 62, South Africa (Shutterstock)

In order to experience the true essence of South Africa you needs to leave behind the bustling cities and visit some of the small ‘dorpies’ and long country roads that scatter the interior of the country. Route 62 manages to offer these, while still retaining a selection of memorable towns, quirky farm stalls and interesting activities.

Technically, Route 62 is the road between Montagu and Humansdorp in the Western Cape, but the tourist route has now been extended to include many other inland highways to link Cape Town to Port Elizabeth. It provides an alternative route to the coast-hugging Garden Route, offering hot springs, wine and ostriches.

Everyone except the driver would be forgiven for passing through the first bit of the route in a wine-induced blur. Leaving Cape Town, Route 62 is one of the longest wine routes in the world, passing through the famous wine regions of Paarl, Wellington, Tulbagh, Worcester and Robertson. Expect to see endless vineyards and fruit orchards, with plenty of great restaurants and guesthouses to visit. Montagu is worth an overnight stop for the natural hot springs, which are great to lounge around and relax in. The area also has some amazing rock formations, and is a popular town for mountain climbers and hikers. Visitors will also see the historic former mission stations of Zoar and Amalienstein on the way to Calitzdorp, famous for its port wines.   

Vineyard in Montague, Route 62, South Africa (Shutterstock)
Vineyard in Montague, Route 62, South Africa (Shutterstock)

Heading further up the coast the landscape will become drier and more barren. Oudtshoorn is the next town on the route, famous both for its difficult pronunciation and its ostriches. Visitors to the town can visit the ostrich farms, where they can see some of the goods made from ostrich leather, tuck into an ostrich egg (large enough to feed 8 people), enjoy an ostrich steak and even ride them! Half an hours’ drive outside Oudtshoorn lies the Cango Caves, which offers a tour to see the stalactites and stalagmites.

While it is a detour, the road leading north out of Oudtshoorn towards Prince Albert is the Swartberg Pass, which doubles up as both a road and a history lesson. The road was built in 1888 using convict labour, and the 120-year-old dry stone retaining walls on some parts of the pass are well worth seeing. Other highlights include the unique geological formations such as the quartzite cliffs as well as the views of the Klein-Karoo to the south and the Groot-Karoo to the north. While Prince Alfred can get a little on the warm side (40 degrees in the summer), it’s the meat (famously tender karoo lamb and springbok) that make this town famous. Road trippers that have made it this far are now officially in the ‘real South Africa’, with windmills on the horizon and farm stalls with delicious home cooked treats such as koeksisters and vetkoek.
From Oudtshoorn most guests take the Outeniqua Pass to George, the coastal town linking onto the Garden Route, although there is also a smaller inland route that continues all the way to Port Elizabeth.

Sani Pass

Drive time: 1-2 days

The Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa (Shutterstock)
The Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa (Shutterstock)

We’ve saved the most spectacular for last: the magnificent Sani Pass Route, which actually ends in Lesotho.

Originally an old mule trail, the Sani Pass Route starts just past the small towns of Underberg and Himeville deep in the Kwazulu-Natal midlands. Pass through the South African Border Control Point at the bottom of the pass, where officials will stamp your passport. Both the South African and Lesotho border posts are open from 6am to 6pm. From here wind your way along the six-mile gravel route into the Drakensberg Mountains, climbing 1,332m. Visitors are treated to stunning scenery out over the green midlands, and as the road gets higher and higher so the views out over the Khomozana Valley get more and more spectacular.

Drivers will need to exercise caution on this route, as the road has many sharp switchbacks with no safety rails protecting vehicles from the steep drops below. There are plans for the road to be tarred by 2019, but the road is currently still gravel so only 4X4 vehicles are currently allowed by South African law (although mules carrying loads and minibus taxis still use the pass). Heavy fog can quickly sweep over the mountain and reduce visibility by blanketing the pass in fog, and in winter there may also be ice and snow to contend with.

Despite the challenges (some may say because of the challenges), Sani Pass is arguably the most popular pass in South Africa. The whole route is incredibly beautiful, and there are also plenty of stop-over points where photos can be taken. The thrill of getting to the top, where you’ll officially leave South Africa and enter Lesotho, only adds to the feeling of achievement (note that there is a road tax payable at the Lesotho office). Mighty conquerors of the pass can then enjoy a drink or a meal at the Sani Mountain Lodge, which boasts the highest pub in Africa at 2.876m above sea level. The stunning scenery, adrenaline and feeling of achievement all combine to make this one of the most popular road trips in South Africa.

Main Image: On the road in South Africa (Shutterstock

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