The richly varied landscapes, massive national parks, rugged and wild coastline, lush wine valleys and charming small towns make South Africa ripe for a road trip. Here are some of the best routes, as well as some of the destinations you won’t want to miss.
The Garden Route
If you’re looking or a tried-and-true way to experience South Africa, the Garden Route road trip, along the country’s southwestern coast, is for you. For 124 mesmerizing miles, you’ll wind your way along the N2 highway from Mossel Bay in the Western Cape to Storms River Mouth on the western part of the Eastern Cape, taking in the remarkable flora and fauna and a variety of ecosystems along the way. Along the way, you’ll pass pristine beaches, lagoons and lakes that call out for a refreshing dip, hiking in dense mountains forests and more. Take a break in the Knysna Forest for camping and mountain biking – you may see the elusive forest elephant! Try bungee jumping at Bloukrans Bridge in Tsitsikamma, the highest bungee bridge in the world. While you’re there, take time to explore Tsitsikamma National Park. Surf at Plettenberg Bay and kayak the Storms River.
The best time of year for the Garden Route is, well, year-round! There is a mild climate summer or winter and from July to December, you might glimpse a southern right whale out at sea.
The Waterberg Route
The Waterberg road trip route takes you into the Limpopo Province and Waterberg Region, just a few hours away from Johannesburg. Along this 217-mile route, you’ll drive through the Waterberg Biosphere, Welgevonden Game Reserve and Marakele National Park. Locals call the Limpopo area Africa’s “Eden” for its sandstone rock formations, vast savannahs, dense forests, lush river valleys and soaring mountains. Don’t miss the natural springs at Bela-Bela or the Bushman camp near Marken. You’re likely to see quite a bit of game along the way, as well as a number of cultural and historical sites worth a stop.
The best time for the Waterberg Route, if you’re planning on bush camping, is during the summer (November to February). This region is temperate any time of year, including winter.
The Wild Coast Route
For approximately 220 miles, you’ll drive along the rugged Wild Coast from East London on the Eastern Cape to the border of KwaZulu Natal to the northeast. Wind your way along the coastline, take quiet gravel roads inland and swoop up and down rolling hills, admiring the landscape that remains untouched. Spot the little round turquoise huts on the hillsides – called rondavels. History buffs will want to stop at local heritage sites that speak to this former apartheid Transkei region (this is the birthplace of Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko). If it’s beaches you seek, you’ll find plenty – and most of them unspoiled and empty. We especially love Coffee Bay and Port St. Johns.
The best times to drive the Wild Coast is April to May and August to October.
Route 62, Western Cape
If you’re here for the wine, take Route 62 from vineyard to vineyard in the Cape Winelands into all the way to Port Elizabeth. Frequented by those-in-the-know, Route 62 is less popular than the Garden Route, but has a wonderful eccentricity in its rural towns and farms, cultural sites, wildlife opportunities and spectacular scenery. Soak in the hot springs in the historic spa town of Montagu, wander through artsy Barrydale and take in the dramatic night sky at Karoo National Park. Be sure to spend ample time at the vineyards in South Africa’s best wine producing region, around the town of Calitzdorp. For camping and kayaking, try the Breede River Valley. Add in some game viewing with a drive from Oudtshoorn toward the Swartberg mountains.
The best time for Route 62 is the spring (September-October) or late summer (February-March).
The Panorama Route
This route is centered around the Blyde River Canyon and the mining town of Graskop. It’s a short way from Kruger National Park, the centerpiece of the Mpumalanga region, and well worth the diversion. You’ll drive along some of the highest paved roads in the country, with fantastic mountain, canyon and valley views. Pass by the Three Rondavels, see impressive Mac-Mac Falls and Bridal Veil Falls by the town of Sabie. The fishing is first-rate in Ohrigstad Dam Nature Reserve and the hiking is superb in the misty forest above the Blyde River Canyon (the third-largest canyon in the world). Consider adding on a guided cruise past the Kadisha Tufa waterfall on the Blyde River. Check out Pilgrim’s Rest, a former gold-mining town and now a national museum.
The best time for the Panorama Route is June to November. The conditions of the mountain passes are good and navigable during this time.
Kruger Safari Road Trip
Hire a guide to make the most of your road trip through Kruger National Park – this way you’ll have access to typically off-limits parts of the park. Pick one of the nine main gates and start and end your drive from there.
The best time for a Kruger safari is April to September, during the drier season.
If you like to live on the wild side, drive Sani Pass from Underberg, KwaZulu, Natal, to Mokhotlong, Lesotho, the small, landlocked neighbor of South Africa. You’ll need at least 4×4 capabilities. Your reward? The best mountain scenery in the country.
The best time to tackle Sani Pass is during the summer, from November to February.
Top Destinations on South Africa Road Trips
Here are some of the best destinations (and why they’re great) you’ll cover on a South Africa road trip.
You’ll likely stop in Mossel Bay if you take a Garden Route road trip. It’s situated on the south coast of the Western Cape between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Look for the famous Post Office Tree, where ancient mariners left their letters for home. There are a variety of museums in town, including the Maritime Museum, the Granary, the Shell Museum and the Cultural History Museum. Take a cruise to Seal Island to see a breeding colony of seals and their cubs – keep your eyes on the horizon for leaping dolphins. If you’re a water sports enthusiast, you’ll love the options in Mossel Bay, from shark cage and wreck diving to surfing and snorkeling.
Those driving the Wild Coast of South Africa can’t help but be drawn in at Coffee Bay. This small community boasts the freshest seafood you’ll eat in the country, a variety of accommodations, breathtaking views and gorgeous beaches. The cattle roam free here – you may even see them lounging on the sand! Hike out to Hole in The Wall, a huge opening in a cliff that juts out to sea. The hole was naturally created with the Mapako River passes through. Explore the Mapuzi Cliff walk and visit the Bat Cave. Need an adrenaline rush? Attempt the cliff jumps into the Mapuzi River.
If you’re road tripping on the Cape Peninsula, there is much to fill your time. At Cape Point, you’ll find the highest sea cliffs around. Chapman’s Peak Drive is a spectacular coastal route with 114 curves in just 5.5 miles. Swim with penguins at Boulders Beach Penguin Colony. Enjoy the charming, foodie destination of Noordhoek Farm Village. Go tide pooling and check out the fishing boats at Kalk Bay Harbour. In Muizenberg, indulge in fantastic local coffee and soak up the surf culture.
If you’re an oenophile in South Africa, you must visit the Cape Winelands – plan for several days to truly experience it. The heart of the Winelands are the valleys that are home to the towns of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl. In addition to fabulous wine, you’ll be drawn in by Cape Dutch-style architecture, boutiques, art galleries and museums.
Take the famous open-air Wine Tram between wine estates to explore the world-class vineyards of the Franschhoek Valley. Be on the lookout for one of the area’s many annual festivals, celebrating wine, art, literature and music. And if you’re foodie, you’re in heaven here, too – this if the food and wine capital of South Africa.
Perhaps you’re taking a road trip through Table Mountain National Park. Here are the highlights of this 54,363-acre park, which stretch from north of Cape Town to the southwest tip of Africa. Iconic Table Mountain is a must – hike one of the varied routes, ranging from easy to challenging (the most popular is the route via Platteklip Gorge). There’s also a revolving cable car that will swoop you right up to the top.
Continue on to Cape Town’s famous beaches, including the favorite Camps Bay, Clifton and Llandudno, as well as Noordhoek, Scarborough and Kommetjie farther south. For more rugged, secluded beaches, head to the Cape Point Nature Reserve.
At Cape Point, you’ll find flora and fauna, sheer cliffs, wild coves and caves and amazing ocean views. Access actual Cape Point – the reserve’s highest point – via the Flying Dutchman funicular or on foot.
Green thumbs love the Cape Floral Kingdom, covered mainly in fynbos, a shrub landscape endemic to the southern tip of Africa. The area was named a Natural World Heritage Site and boasts 9,600 plate species – 70 percent are not found anywhere else in the world. The best place to see the fynbos is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Finally, don’t miss the adorable residents of Boulders Penguin Colony in Simon’s Town. You can swim with the penguins or view them from elevated boardwalks at Foxy Beach.
Blyde River Canyon
On the Panorama Route, you’ll have the pleasure of viewing the massive Blyde River Canyon. See the Three Rondavels, huge cylinders of rock jutting out of the wall of the canyon, and the Bourkes Luck Potholes, carved into the rock by eons of whirlpools in the river. Take a walk and admire the views at God’s Window.
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The Drakensberg Mountains boast the highest peaks in Africa south of Kilimanjaro and is the second-longest mountain range in the world after the Andes. The most stunning of all is the High Berg, where the mountains average a height of approximately 10,000 feet. Marvel at the Amphitheatre, which is ten times the size of the El Capitan face in Yosemite. Walk from TEndele along the Tugela River Gorge to access the base of the Amphitheatre. See some of the 40,000 items of rock art that have been discovered in the Drakensberg Mountains – the most famous being the Battle Cave. Visit the iconic Cathedral Peak Valley and Cathedral Peak Hotel, which has been in operation for 75 years. Don’t miss the Giant’s Castle area, the highest in the South African Drakensberg as well as a game reserve that is home to the largest single population of Eland antelope in the world.
This picture-perfect resort town offers one of South Africa’s best national parks, incredible wining and dining (fresh seafood from the Indian Ocean) and astounding views. Plus, you’re close to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where you’ll find the country’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Don’t miss the Fernkloof Nature Reserve in the Kleinrivier Mountains for a beautiful display of endemic fynbos landscape.
Addo Elephant Park
Consider adding this huge national park to your South Africa road trip itinerary. There are more than 600 elephants here, as well as lion, leopard, black rhino, buffalo and spotted hyena. The park stretches from the Karoo area to the Zuurberg Mountains. A variety of accommodations styles include luxury lodges, small bungalows and tented camp. You can head out on safari in your own vehicle or let someone else do the driving for a bit on a guided game drive.
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If the surf is calling, program your GPS for Jeffreys Bay, a small but impressive beach town with, reputedly, the best right hand surf break in the world. If it’s winter, attempt the famous Supertubes, with waves up to 12 feet high. Less experienced surfers can head farther down the beach to the Point. Beyond surfing, the lifestyle here is laidback and quiet. Shop in cute little boutiques in the village center or sit awhile and talk surfing with the locals in a café.