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Taking to the highway may be a deeply American tradition, but South Africa elevates it to a new high.
The road trip might be classically American, but South Africa is arguably the best country to explore by road.
I recently drove along the dramatic Eastern Cape coastline and then up into the eerie semi-desert expanse called the Karoo, before winding through lush vineyards and finally to stunningly beautiful Cape Town.
South Africa has an extraordinary diversity of places to visit. Yet the distances are not too daunting (at least compared to the United States or Canada), so it’s quite possible to see a lot in a short time.
South Africans are big on driving trips, and most roads are well-designed for touring drivers, with plenty of service centers and shady picnic spots, and a multitude of spectacular vistas. The roads and towns are dotted with small lodges and B&Bs. These tend to be inexpensive but of high standard, with typically friendly South African hosts who go out of their way to help foreign tourists. The highways are generally in good condition, and easy to navigate.
If you have the option of driving through any of South Africa’s many mountain passes while on your road trip, then by all means, take that route. The most famous is the Swartberg Pass, which runs between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert in the Swartberg mountain range, and divides the Karoo from the greener Little Karoo. Built by convicts between 1891 and 1888, it is 15 miles long, unpaved, and famous for its twisted quartzite cliffs and jaw-dropping views. Not advisable in rainy weather; ask the locals if in doubt. Drive carefully – there are long, steep drops and difficult corners – but you need not fear if you take it easy.
The best times to visit are late January to February, or September-November. The worst time is December, with school holidays starting early in the month and continuing until early January – prices are sky-high and accommodation books up early. While the weather is lovely in South Africa for most of the year, don’t forget that the winter here is from June to August. As World Cup visitors discovered, it can get uncomfortably chilly in many parts of the country, especially because homes are built for summer climes and usually have insufficient heating. Durban and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal province, along the Indian Ocean, are balmy year-round. And if you’re considering a South African roadtrip, a GPS is strongly recommended.
There is a huge variety of motoring destinations in South Africa, from drive-yourself wilderness safaris to dodging baboons in the Cape of Good Hope. An easy introduction to South Africa is a self-drive safari at Kruger National Park, just four hours from Johannesburg on good roads. Cheap but comfortable national park huts can easily be booked online.
Recently, along with some friends visiting from abroad, I flew from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth and began a leisurely drive along the coast. We loved coastal villages such as St. Francis Bay and Hermanus. We also diverted into the Karoo, for the stark isolated beauty of perfectly preserved towns such as Graaff-Reinet, Prince Albert and Matjiesfontein, before winding our way through the winelands and into Cape Town.
Here are a few of my favorite stops on the ultimate South African road trip.
Storms River Mouth Rest Camp, in the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park, has lush indigenous forests, breathtaking views of the rugged Indian Ocean coastline and excellent hiking. Dolphins and whales can be spotted in the winter months.
Address: The park gate is 3.7 miles off the N2 highway –121 miles down the coast from Port Elizabeth, and 382 miles from Cape Town. (Don’t confuse the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp with the village of Storms River, which is a few miles away from the national park.)