South Africa, with its diverse landscapes (think snow-capped mountains, sandy shores and quirky Karoo towns) offers up a wealth of scenic drives and local adventures. From the Garden Route to the Little Karoo, into the bush of the Eastern Cape, and all the way up the West Coast, if you're tempted to hit the open road and explore Mzanzi, we round up the best routes for an impulsive road trip.
1. The crowd pleaser - SA's famous Garden Route
The Garden Route, which stretches between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, is perhaps the best known road trip in South Africa, and serves up some of the country's most dramatic coastal scenery. Wedged between the warm Indian Ocean and a rugged coastline of cliffs, estuaries, ancient forests and secluded seaside towns, the best way to experience this incredible area is to drive it.
From the Garden Route to the Little Karoo all the way to the West Coast! We round up the best South African routes for the impulsive road trip.
Explore the protected beaches of Mossel Bay before heading along the glittering coastline into the laid-back village of Wilderness. 50km east along the N2, Knysna lazes on the shore of a shallow lagoon. You can slow things down in Sedgefield, Africa's first Cittaslow town (a worldwide organization that advocates a cultural shift towards slowing down life’s pace), before arriving in vibrant Plettenberg Bay. Continue from Plett to sleepy Keurboomstrand, through the indigenous coastal forests of Tsitsikamma, and into the friendly city of Port Elizabeth.
With a breathtaking view around every bend of the meandering highway, the Garden Route is a road tripper's dream. It also offers a host of experiences and activities to lure you out of your car, from forest canopy tours, marine safaris and bird watching to 'vintiquing.' If your impulsive road trip happens to fall over late June or early July, be sure to catch the Knysna Oyster Festival.
Distance: Cape Town to Port Elizabeth - 750km
Travellers: The safe swimming beaches along the Garden Route make this road trip a perfect choice for families, while its secluded hideaways and breathtaking vistas are ideal for a romantic getaway. With its many hiking trails and adventure activities, it's also perfect for outdoor enthusiasts.
2. The seafood route - road trip along the West Coast
A road trip along South Africa’s West Coast, between Cape Town and Namibia, will take you through quaint towns, character-filled fishing villages, and fields of flowers. The Mediterranean-inspired landscapes here are wide, dry and grey (except for a few weeks during spring, when you'll be surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colourful wild flowers). While this distinctive and unusual region of the country has grown in popularity in recent years, it still remains something of a secret weekend escape for Capetonians.
Laid-back Langebaan is valued for its peaceful and beautiful lagoon surroundings, while picture-perfect fishing village Paternoster is famous for its crayfish. And besides hosting an annual flower festival, the village of Darling is the quirky home of comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys’s cabaret theatre, Evita se Perron, and provides for a colourful and jaunty stopover on a West Coast road trip. There are great campsites along the route, such as Tietiesbaai in the Cape Columbine Nature Reserve and the tented Beach Camp just outside Paternoster.
This is a road trip for seafood lovers. The West Coast is famous for its crayfish and mussels, and the myriad restaurants and eateries along the route serve up traditional West Coast cuisine against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Easily the most famous seafood feast in this part of the world, The Strandloper near Langebaan is a must-do experience.
Distance: Cape Town to Paternoster- 150km
Travellers: With all the angling, diving, swimming and sailing activities available in Langebaan, this is a road trip that'll suit travellers keen on water sports. Darling is a great destination for family fun, while a wintery weekend spent in Paternoster is perfect for a romantic getaway.
3. The sunshine route - explore the Eastern Cape
The Sunshine Coast, between Jeffrey's Bay and East London, is a wholly underrated road trip through South Africa's forgotten frontier, but absolutely worth it. Well known for it’s laid-back lifestyle and sandy beaches, the Eastern Cape also boasts one of the most diverse regions in the country.
The route follows the N2 from Jeffrey's Bay through Port Elizabeth, before branching off onto the R72 at Nanaga (be sure to stop here for a famous Nanaga Farm Stall pie and to peruse the crafty goods). As you head along the R72, expect to discover historic towns, unspoiled beaches, and world-class game reserves.
Some good stop-offs include Kenton-On-Sea, Port Alfred, and the many small coastal villages along the route. If you’re keen to travel inland, the Addo Elephant Park will bring you within whisper distance of the region's abundant elephant herds. Grahamstown is also worth a visit, particularly as it plays host to the continent’s biggest arts and culture festival each winter.
Distance: Jeffrey's Bay to East London - 370km
Travellers: Sandy beaches and warm seas, coupled with fun activities make this road trip a great option for families, while the wealth of history available for exploration along the route will delight and enrich culturally-minded travellers.
4. The wine route - get lost in the Little Karoo
Meandering through the Little Karoo between Cape Town and Oudtshoorn, Cape Route 62 will take you along the world's longest wine route through an area of haunting landscapes. Expect towering cliffs, crystal clear streams and an abundance of trees and indigenous flora. Hop from town to town along the way to experience typical Karoo hospitality and an unforgettable adventure.
Get handmade cheese in Ladismith before driving the magnificently beautiful Seweweekspoort Pass to Calitzdorp, where you can relax in the natural hot springs. Other highlights include driving the Swartberg Pass between Prince Albert - the Karoo's unofficial culinary capital - and Oudtshoorn, a destination famous for its ostriches. Visit the historic village of Matjiesfontein, a town preserved in the heyday of its past. Be sure to explore the Karoo National Park, which lies on the edge of the Nuweveldberge, just outside Beaufort West. This park is home to specially adapted fauna and flora that thrive in the harsh conditions of the landscape. If you're lucky, you may even spot one of South Africa's most endangered species: the riverine rabbit.
Then there's the wine. From Wellington to Tulbagh, and south to Robertson, each town along the way boasts outstanding wines. Cape Route 62's unique terrain and mild climate, combined with innovation and pride, makes for delicious (and affordable) wines. Whether you're a connoisseur or mildly curious, stop at one of the many wineries for a tasting and cellar tour.
Distance: Cape Town to Oudsthoorn - 420km
Travellers: This is a road trip that'll suit anyone with even the mildest adventurous spirit, especially foodies and wine fundis.
Pack the ultimate Padkos
The essential ingredients for any good road trip include delicious padkos and a great playlist. Curb your cravings on the road with a selection of both sweet and savory foods, and be sure to pack in items that won't spoil quickly. Here's a list of South African padkos favourites (that doesn't include the infamous hard-boiled egg):
- Vetkoek, stuffed with anything you can imagine, from jam and cheese to curried mince
- Biltong, of course
- Chicken drumsticks, eaten cold. Embrace your inner-foodie and make an accompanying dipping sauce
- Caramel popcorn
- Homemade lemonade
- And fruit. Always have fruit in the car
- Same goes for water
- Flask of coffee