By South Africa specialist Toby
With time to experience Cape Town, the delicate varietals of the Winelands and the vistas of the Garden Route, driving along the country’s southern coast is, for me, the definitive road trip in South Africa. Then for the ultimate finish, the drive culminates with a few days on safari.
For wildlife lovers there are penguins, ostriches, whales and lion. For lovers of wine and gourmet food there are the restaurants and wineries of the Winelands. For those who love driving through open countryside there are stretches of road that pass sweeping sandy beaches and travel over dramatic mountain passes.
Explore cultural Cape Town
Blackfooted penguin colony at Boulders Beach
Starting your journey in Cape Town, it's worth spending a few days enjoying the fine dining, visiting a few museums and drinking in the view of the city, coast and mountains from the top of Table Mountain.
You can either collect your hire car at the airport or have it delivered to your hotel. There's a wonderfully scenic drive that loops south before returning to your Cape Town base. It takes you past the upmarket coastal suburbs of Camps Bay and Clifton and to the sands of the Cape Peninsula National Park where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
Here, baboons and Cape antelope, including bontebok, abound as well as rare marine birds such as black oystercatchers and Cape cormorant. However, most visitors want to see the thousands of charismatic blackfooted or ‘jackass’ penguins at Boulders Beach.
Sample the wines of the Winelands
Akademie Street Guesthouse
Leaving Cape Town, you drive to the Winelands, a short and easy journey of around an hour and a half. The scenery along the route is more mountainous than most people imagine, with the vineyards coating the green and gently sloping valleys.
I’d recommend spending two to three nights here, depending on how much of a wine connoisseur you are. Once at your accommodation, you can park your car and rely on either the historic wine tram or a private driver guide to get about and sample the wines on offer.
The dining options in the Winelands are also incredible, with a huge array of world-class restaurants, many of which are fully booked up to five months in advance.
I recommend staying in Franschhoek at the boutique Akadamie Street Guesthouse, which has just six rooms. The owners are art collectors with a real eye for detail and have hung original paintings in each bedroom. The property is also in an excellent location for walking into town for dinner.
Travel past desert and mountains to the Garden Route
R62 to Oudtshoorn
Leaving the Winelands and driving towards the start of the Garden Route at Mossel Bay, you can follow one of two routes. The fastest is via the motorway to Swellendam. Although the road is on the ocean side of the mountains, there are no sea views so if you have an extra day I'd point you towards taking the northern route around the mountain range on the R62 to Oudtshoorn instead.
The R62 is a beautiful drive, weaving between mountains that rear out of the sun-baked surroundings.
Driving along this road gives you a wonderful insight into rural South Africa – with the added bonus of very little traffic. I love stopping at the little roadside coffee shops in the small historic towns and browsing through the antique shops before hopping back on the road. The total drive takes between four and five hours.
Oudtshoorn works well as a two night stop. During Victorian times, it became the world's hub for ostrich farming to feed the European demand for ostrich feathers. The community became affluent, but as the sales have dwindled so have the number of farms. Today, most have diversified into guesthouses.
La Plume is my pick for a guesthouse here because of its quirky character. At daybreak you can head into the desert with a guide and, coffee in hand as the sun rises, spot the meerkat heads popping up out of their dens – it was well worth the early start.
Self-drive along the Garden Route
Robberg Beach, Plettenberg Bay
Love birds at Birds of Eden
Driving south from Oudtshoorn, the mountain road reaches the coast at the town of George and joins the Garden Route. At this point the R62 meets the motorway that hugs the coast heading east.
The Garden Route is so named because of the indigenous fynbos flora, which are low lying bushes and heathers that thrive in the sandy soil. The coastline from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth is the only place this flora occurs in the world and it's at its best in spring when the proteas, or sugarbushes, and other flowers are in bloom.
I would spend at least three nights in this area, based around Plettenberg Bay. The lengthy pristine beaches here are great for swimming and you might be accompanied by one of the resident pods of dolphins.
Robberg Beach is home to thousands of seals, and the Robberg Peninsula has marked walks allowing you to really drink in the scenery. You may spot whales and dolphins on these walks or, for closer sightings, you can take a boat trip.
At The Crags, to the east of Plettenberg Bay, you can visit animal reserves where you can see elephant and monkeys. There is also Birds of Eden, the largest free-flight aviary in the world.
Emily Moon is where I always try to stay on the Garden Route. The guesthouse is owned by an antique dealer who has decorated it with items collected from throughout Africa and Asia. Set just outside Plettenberg Bay, the location is superb, overlooking a river, which meanders to the ocean.
Culminate your road trip with a safari
Addo Elephant National Park
Lion, Amakhala Game Reserve
Beyond the Garden Route, a number of safari reserves lie within the Eastern Cape. You can choose between the Addo Elephant National Park and one of the many private game reserves, including Kwandwe, Amakhala, Shamwari and Kariega.
The Addo Elephant National Park was set up primarily to protect elephant, but over the last 15 years the government has also been re-introducing several other indigenous species.
Elephant House is a fantastic guesthouse near the national park entrance. The hotel's guides will take you on 4x4 game drives into the park, which I'd recommend if it's your first time on safari, or you can simply use the guesthouse as a base and self-drive in search of the wildlife. The guesthouse also offers an array of other guided tours into the mountains and to visit local communities during your stay.
If you hope to see all of the Big Five animals, or if you want to end your trip with a little indulgence, then I would recommend staying in one of the private game reserves such as Kwandwe. These independently run enterprises protect larger areas and have strong populations of big cats such as lion, leopard and cheetah as well as more luxurious accommodation.
Best time to self-drive in South Africa
Knysna at the heart of the Garden Route
It's possible to travel this route year-round, although the most popular time is January to March when the weather is at its best and rain an unlikely occurrence. The prettiest time to visit is during the spring (September) when the flowers are in bloom but the weather is cooler and unsettled. October and November are the best times to see whales and marine life, and June to August is considered the winter and offers fewer visitors and lower prices.
Extending your trip
This trip can easily be extended to spend more time on safari elsewhere in South Africa or to take in another area entirely, such as KwaZulu Natal, for a longer trip. If you'd like to enjoy some time relaxing on a beach it's easy to combine time in South Africa with the Seychelles, Mauritius or Mozambique.
Practicalities of self-driving in South Africa
- Driving in South Africa is straightforward, due to its well-developed road network.
- The roads along this route are good quality, wide tar roads, and there is little other traffic.
- It isn’t necessary to have a 4x4 vehicle, unless you’d prefer more space.
- We provide maps and comprehensive driving instructions, and we can also arrange a GPS to make life even easier.