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.)
On your GPS, the rest camp can be found at: S 34 01’ 18.8” E 23 53’ 47.9”
Phone: +27 (0) 44 302 5600
Park gate opening and closing times: 7:00-19:00
Advance booking required? Accommodation can be reserved online at the SAN Parks website, listed above, and the earlier the better – it can get booked up far in advance.
Price: There is an entry charge, called a “conservation fee,” of R88 (US $11.50) per adult, per day, for foreign visitors.
How much time to allow: Stay a few hours for an easy walk to the suspension bridge and lookout, or a few days for a longer hike along the park’s excellent trail network, with rest huts to stay in along the way.
The Owl House
The Owl House, located in the tiny, isolated village of Nieu-Bethesda, deep in the arid Karoo region, is out of the way but worth the trip. It was the home of Helen Martins, who decorated the grounds with hundreds of sculptures of owls and other creatures, mainly fabricated from cement and broken bottles, before killing herself in 1976 by drinking caustic soda when her eyesight began to fail. She is now a respected outsider artist, and as per her wishes, the house is a museum. It’s creepy but fascinating.
While in Nieu-Bethesda, go for a stroll around the village, which has a bohemian feel and is home to many artists. At the Sneeuberg Brewery and Two Goats Deli, you can buy locally brewed Karoo ale, as well as goats’ cheese and kudu salami.
Address: River Street, Nieu-Bethesda. The village is located 34 miles from the town of Graaff-Reinet, which is good place to stay overnight and also worth exploring.
On your GPS, Nieu-Bethesda is at: S 31 52′ 0″ E 24 33′ 0″
Phone: +27 (0) 49 841 1733
Open: daily from 9am to 5pm
Advance booking required? No
Price: Entry fee of R25 ($3.25) per person
How much time to allow: At least an hour for the Owl House, and another hour or two for the village. Stay for lunch, or stay overnight for a truly relaxing break from urban life.
One of the highlights of a trip in South Africa is the superb, inexpensive South African wine (condolences to the designated driver). The winelands, which are mainly centered on the pretty towns of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, are not to be missed.
Franschhoek is my favorite, starting with the dramatic drive down the Franschhoek pass into the picturesque valley town lined with some of the country’s best restaurants (pricey for South Africa, but a bargain if you’re used to New York or London). Wineries throughout the valley offer tastings at little to no cost, but another way to enjoy the scenery, food and drink is to book a picnic.
Not all wineries offer picnics, so try Mont Rochelle Hotel & Mountain Vineyards, which offers a picnic basket service from its rustic Country Kitchen restaurant. You can eat while enjoying Mont Rochelle’s fabulous views of the valley.
Address: Dassenberg Road, Franschhoek.
On your GPS, Mont Rochelle is at: S 33 54’52.1” E 019 6’21.9”
Phone: +27 (0) 21 876 2770
Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Advance booking required? Advisable, especially on the weekends when Capetonians book up all the best places well in advance.
Price: Ranging from R290 ($38) for a picnic basket for two to R450 ($59) for two, depending on whether you want rustic but refined country fare or gourmet items such as oysters and tiger prawns.
How much time to allow: A few hours for a leisurely lunch. You can also arrange a wine tasting at any time, or take a cellar tour at 11, 12:30 and 3pm (ask in advance).
Casual but classy dress is advised.
Kalk Bay fish and chips
The drive from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope is stunning. After the surfing hotspot of Muizenberg, the road hugs the coastline all the way to Africa’s most southwesterly point, taking you through tiny towns along the water. You will want to stop and visit the penguins at Boulders Beach in Simons Town, but the best place for lunch is the nearby fishing town of Kalk Bay.
Now full of cafes and antique shops, a remnant of its fishing past is Kalky’s, an extremely local fish and chips joint right on the water at Kalk Bay Harbour. It's fresh and informal. Next to the restaurant you’ll walk past fishermen cleaning and selling their daily catch, and harbor seals popping up in the water hoping for a scrap.
Address: Kalk Bay Harbour
On your GPS, Kalky’s is at: -34.1319515 | 18.4436904
Phone: + 27 (0) 21 788 1726
Hours/days of opening: Daily from 10am to 8pm
Advance booking required? No
Price: R30 ($3.95) for basic fish and chips. Beer and wine available.
How much time to allow: Less than an hour – service is speedy
Special equipment, experience or dress: Extremely casual dress. Line up at the inside counter to order your meal and pay, and then pick a table.