With a good network of roads, and so many interesting places to see along the way, a road trip through South Africa is a great and easy way to explore the country. Here’s our guide to some of the highlights.
North, south, east and west, South Africa has many sights best seen by car. It’s the best means of seeing as much of its glorious and varied scenery as possible. So buckle up and hit the road for one (or more) of these journeys of a lifetime.
Cape Town to Cape Point
Depending on where you stay in Cape Town, there are a number of routes to Cape Point but, whichever route you choose, you must drive the scenic Chapman’s Peak. Notable for its views of Table Mountain and the ocean below, “Chappies” has some 114 bends in nine kilometres carved out of cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. Happily, there are plenty of lay-bys for the driver to admire the views as well.
Even with frequent photo stops, the drive on to Simon’s Town on False Bay will take less than an hour. The town itself has some real points of interest, but most people come for the delightful colony of African penguins at Boulders Beach and Foxy Bay.
The Cape of Good Hope is then another short drive. Take the cable car or the 20-min climb to reach Cape Point and its great ocean views. As a much-photographed sign says, this is the most southwestern point of the African continent. Cape Agulhas on the Garden Route (see below) is the most southerly point.
The drive back to Cape Town can take in Table Mountain, reached via the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway. Leave plenty of time to explore one of the many paths on top.
Perhaps South Africa’s best-known road trip delivers never-ending beauty in the 200km drive along the N2 from Mossel Bay to the Storms River Mouth. Between the greens of farmland, vineyards or mountain forest and the golden sand or blue waters of the ocean, there is a never-ending richness to the landscape.
The small town of Knysna is popular for activities such as hiking or mountain biking, while surfing at Plettenberg Bay or bungee jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge are also major attractions.
Bloukrans Bridge is near Tsitsikama National Park, where the dramatic contrast between indigenous forest, waterfalls, cliffs and Atlantic surf in the park is best seen from Storms River Suspension Bridge.
A detour inland takes in Oudtshoorn, with its ostrich farms and Karoo landscapes, and the world’s longest underground cave system at Cango. Addo Elephant Park, north of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, is another popular extension. It’s South Africa’s third largest national park and has a population of around 600 elephants.
Swartberg Mountain Pass
From Oudtshoorn, the road due north over the Swartberg “(Black Mountain”) Pass to Prince Albert is another of South Africa’s great drives. It’s a major piece of 1880s road construction built by engineer Thomas Bain, using convict labour, and is now a National Monument.
The road is gravel and, with its many bends and steep gradients, can be treacherous in rainy weather so is best driven by 4×4.
In 24km you pass such landmarks as Fonteintjie (Small Fountain) or (Devious Corner), until the sign for Die Top (The Top) at 1,585m comes into view.
The weather here ranges from snow in winter to 40°C temperatures in summer which, coupled with the Swartberg’s interesting geology and heavy rainfall, makes for unusual plants such as the rare Protea venusta. Hike in the Swartberg Nature Reserve, cut in half by the Swartberg Pass, to learn more.
Johannesburg – Isimangaliso – Drakensbergs
From Johannesburg it’s less than 600km east to Durban, South Africa’s third-largest city. Along the way are the beautiful hills of Zululand and historic battlefield sites such as Isandlwana, Rorke’s Drift and Blood River.
Durban is a popular resort and also a great base for exploring up and down the beautiful Indian Ocean coastline. An inland alternative – especially if you want to see more of Zululand or do the “Midlands Meander” around arts and crafts studios and cosy country hotels – is the “Garden City” of Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal’s capital.
North along the coast are the Unesco Listed wetlands and endless beaches of iSimangaliso, where you can see whales and elephants. As Nelson Mandela 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).”
Driving south takes you through a series of “Golf Coast” resorts all the way to the Eastern Cape border, including Margate, Scottburgh, Port Shepstone and Port Edward.
Inland are the many peaks of the Drakensberg, marking the border of the picturesque mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Climbing to the Lesotho border post at 2,875m, the Sani Pass is a gravel road where tyres struggle to grip on hairpin bends. It’s not for the fainthearted, especially after rain or snow, but the reward is some spectacular views, amazing memories and a drink at the highest pub in Africa.
(An eye-wateringly expensive upgrade to the road is in progress – which includes plans to tar the road, although this faces opposition for the potential negative impact on tourism if all the thrills are engineered out.)
Bring your passport to get through the South African customs post at the bottom of the pass – and the Lesotho one at the top unless you are turning back to come down the same way. Many tour operators do the drive up and down if you don’t fancy it yourself.
The Panorama Route
The highlight of this route exploring the scenic area to the west of Kruger National Park is the remarkable Blyde River Canyon, one of the largest on earth. You can expect to see waterfalls, forests and mountains as well as epic views from the edge of the Great Escarpment of the Drakensberg.
Along the way you drive up the 2,150m-high Long Tom Pass, named for an artillery piece pulled up it during the Boer War.
The historic mining town of Graskop is a pivot, with attractions from bird watching to zip-lining on offer – although its pancake bars may draw the most crowds. Just outside is “God’s Window” looking out over the Lowveld 700m below, where you will see one of the best views on the route.
Top image © Shutterstock
Western Cape © Shutterstock
African penguin © Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock
Simon’s Town © Kiev Victor/Shutterstock
Bloukrans Bridge © Fabian Plock/Shutterstock
Vintage steam train between George and Knysna, Garden Route © Dominique de La Croix/Shutterstock
Kwazulu-Natal © Shutterstock
Rhino at Isimangaliso Wetlands Park © Nicholas Billingon/Shutterstock
Sani Pass through the Drakensburg Mountains © Darren Rhett Calvert/Shutterstock
Mpumalanga © Shutterstock
Berlin Watterfall, Graskop in Mpumalanga © Shams F Amir/Shutterstock
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