One of the most rewarding journeys in the Western Cape is an inland counterpart to the Garden Route – the mountain route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, largely along the R62, and thus often referred to as Route 62. Nowhere near as well known as the coastal journey, this trip takes you through some of the most dramatic mountain passes in the country and crosses a frontier of dorps and drylands. This “back garden” of the Little Karoo is in many respects more rewarding than the actual Garden Route, being far less developed, with spectacular landscapes, quieter roads and some great small towns to visit.
The most likeable of these towns are the historic spa town of Montagu, rural and arty Barrydale, and the port capital Calitzdorp. Oudtshoorn and the Cango Caves mark the convergence of the mountain and coastal roads; over the most dramatic of all passes in the Cape – the unpaved Swartberg Pass, 27km of spectacular switchbacks and zigzags through the Swartberg Mountains – is Prince Albert, a Karoo village whose spare beauty and remarkable light make it popular with artists.
From Prince Albert, the hinterland of the Great Karoo opens up, the semi-desert that covers one-third of South Africa’s surface. The fruit farms of the Little Karoo spread out into treeless plains, vegetated with low, wiry scrub, and dotted with flat-topped hills. The best of the Karoo can be found in the Karoo National Park, while, in Sutherland, the clear, clean air provides some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world.