The Ultimate Road Trip: Garden Route

A serendipitous combination of world-class beaches, iridescent lagoons and indigenous forests interspersed with welcoming towns, and a simple, scenic, ocean-hugging highway guarantees the Garden Route inclusion in every roundup of ultimate four-wheeled adventures

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Stretching for miles through the Western Cape between Mossel Bay and Storms River, the route is set up for seasoned road-trippers as much as first-timers. With countless detours and pit stops showcasing the region’s beauty, culture and hospitality, the challenge is deciding whether to devote four days or a fortnight.

Mossel Bay
Mossel Bay, the western gateway to the Garden Route, is less than 249 miles from Cape Town along the N2 highway. Driving conditions are excellent and the scenery peerless: before the fabled Garden Route even commences, drivers are treated to coastal idylls like Betty’s Bay, and pit stop cafes serving farm-fresh, road trip snacks known locally as padkos. Mossel Bay offers a chance to stretch your legs on the St Blaize Trail, a rugged, nine-mile (one-way) coastal romp from a cave below Cape St Blaize Lighthouse to Dana Bay.

George
The historic timber town of George lies 30 minutes down the coast. Pause at the Garden Route Botanical Garden for an introduction to the fynbos that characterizes the Cape Floral Region, recognized by UNESCO for its staggering biodiversity. While the region only spans 0.5% of Africa, it contains 20% of the continent’s plant species. From George, exit the main highway to reach nearby Wilderness or head further inland on the Seven Passes, a route that explores the Outeniqua Mountains, snaking through canyons and over high bridges towards Knysna, 44 miles away.

Knysna
One of the highlights of the Garden Route is the town of Knysna, a culinary hotspot famous for its 10-day Oyster Festival in late June, which overlooks a tranquil lagoon dotted with sailing boats. The ocean lies beyond twin sandstone promontories; the eastern head viewpoint affords beautiful views across the lagoon’s islets at sunset. Linger in Knysna for a day or two, savoring its upmarket restaurants, renting mountain bikes from the friendly folk at Knysna Cycles to explore the surrounding wilderness, and supporting the local Xhosa community with a township visit with Emzini Tours.

Wilderness National Park
Wilderness National Park calls to campers, hikers and kayakers. Its wetlands are rich in exotic birds and its forests are threaded with hiking routes that meander between waterfalls. To soak up the area’s beauty, strike out from the rustic Ebb and Flow camp with binoculars and a swimming costume on one of the four trails named for local kingfisher species, ranging from two to 6 miles.

Plettenberg Bay
Plettenberg Bay, half an hour further east, is a byword throughout the Western Cape for breathtaking beaches. Here, sandy coves popular with surfers sit beneath sheer cliffs, and waters teem year-round with migrating whales and dolphins. To the south lies Robberg Nature Reserve, a jutting peninsular home to seal colonies and perfect for a picnic, best explored on the 5.6-mile round-trip trail to The Point. Moving on eastwards, stop in at Birds of Eden — the world’s largest free-flight aviary; a verdant sanctuary for over 3,000 exotic birds rescued from cages — and swing by Enrico Restaurant for seafood and Italian fare within meters of the waves.

Storms River
The eastern terminus of the Garden Route is Storms River village, 50 minutes from Plettenberg Bay. Its evocative name speaks to the rugged, indomitable landscape that surrounds it. Inland to the north lies the dense, mountainous Tsitsikamma Forest, home to zip-lining experiences, kayaking expeditions through gorges and the world’s highest bungee jump (709ft) at Bloukrans Bridge. To its south, skimming the coastline, lies the maritime Tsitsikamma National Park. The oldest hiking route in the country, the five-day Otter Trail, kicks off at Storms River Mouth and runs through the park’s gallery forests and along the clifftops to Nature Valley, and offers a suitably epic and energetic conclusion to a Garden Route road trip.

Duration: 4-14 days
Arrival airport: Cape Town International Airport
Destination: Storms River
The route: The Garden Route follows the N4 highway between Mossel Bay and Storms River, with scenic stops including George, Wilderness, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay. It’s typically accessed from Cape Town, and the 250-mile drive to the starting point can take in the heritage sights in Swellendam or whale-watching in Hermanus. At Storms River, loop back to Cape Town (taking the R62 for a change of scenery) or press on for 104 miles to the major city of Port Elizabeth, breaking the two-hour drive with a stop at the surf mecca of Jeffrey’s Bay.
When to go: The spring and summer months of September to April are popular for their warm, long days and the flowering fynbos.
Driving tips: The popularity of the Garden Route makes it particularly safe and welcoming for solo travelers, women and families.

The Ultimate Road Trip: Helderberg Wine Route

Set out from Cape Town on an epicurean adventure that takes in township cuisine, the world-class wineries of the Helderberg Wine Route, the orchards of the Elgin Valley and ocean-fresh seafood in coastal Hermanus.
Peerless views across the Atlantic (and a resident colony of African penguins) make the quirky enclave of Simon’s Town a popular day trip from Cape Town

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The route is 76 miles and the highlights can be sampled in a day. But to soak up the many flavours of the region, take the journey at a more leisurely pace, spending a night or two in countryside hotels.

Cape Town
The Helderberg Wine Route draws together some 30 wine estates dotted across the lower slopes of the Helderberg massif, many affording picturesque views down to the sparkling waters of False Bay. The fine terroir, ocean vistas and historic estates of Cape Helderberg are comparable to those of the world-famous Stellenbosch wine region, a short distance north. Like its acclaimed neighbour, Helderberg is within striking distance of Cape Town — a mere 45-minute drive southeast on the N2 highway. But it attracts just a fraction of the visitors, making it the ideal destination for gourmands looking to get off the beaten path.

Khayelitsha
A fascinating — and surprising — culinary detour en route to the winelands lies just off the highway in the township of Khayelitsha. Fresh vegetarian fare can be found at Spinach King, an innovative shipping-container bakery specialising in healthy, on-the-go bites and gluten-free spinach rolls. Alternatively, linger for a long lunch at Abigail Mbalo’s chic 4Roomed eKasi Culture restaurant, open Friday-Sunday. The former MasterChef South Africa contestant elevates the township cuisine of her youth with playful takes on traditional dishes like mleqwa (chicken stew) and umqa (pumpkin and corn).

Somerset West to Avontuur Estate Restaurant
Continuing southeast, the main highway delivers you to Somerset West, the centremost town of the Helderberg basin, which has various accommodation options — although the beach towns of Strand and Gordon’s Bay make equally charming bases from which to tour the wine estates. Dotted along the R44 road to Stellenbosch are several notable wineries. Don’t miss the award-winning Avontuur Estate with its thoroughbred stud farm, and Longridge with its emphasis on organic and biodynamic winemaking. Remember to call ahead to secure tastings and cellar tours.

Nearer to Somerset West, a cluster of historic estates sit on the picturesque lower slopes of the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve. Morgenster [shop.morgenster.co.za] is known for its olive groves and sumptuous Cape Dutch-style manor as much as for its fine reds. Enjoy al fresco oil and wine tastings under a vine-laden pergola or tuck into a pairing menu at the Italian restaurant 95 at Morgenster. Within walking distance is Vergelegen Wine Estate, which dates back to 1700. Its smart picnic lawns, lavender garden, maze, walking trails and trio of restaurants make it one of the most visited properties in the region. Nearby, too, is the trendy Lourensford Market — an assortment of more than 70 permanent vendors and additional pop ups selling local produce and handcrafts on Friday evenings and Sundays during the summer season.

Sir Lowry’s Pass to Elgin Valley
Leaving the Helderberg basin via Sir Lowry’s Pass you descend into the Cape Overberg, home to its own clutch of cooler-climate vineyards, including the family-run Beaumont and Oak Valley Wines. Both properties have cottages for overnight visitors wishing to stay on and explore the region’s apple and pear orchards, tackle mountain bike trails or pass a lazy day fishing. Houw Hoek Farm Stall is great place to rent rods and tackle, and to pick up a picnic hamper full of local produce.

Hermanus
At Bot River, take the R43 to the coast to arrive at Hermanus. This welcoming port town offers some the world’s finest ocean safaris: southern right whales pass close to the shore between June and December to mate and calve. Standing out from Hermanus’s burgeoning gastronomic scene are the homely Fisherman’s Cottage and the oceanfront Bientang’s Cave, both serving up sensationally fresh oysters, grilled linefish, and traditional seafood potjies (pot stews) to hungry mariners and travellers alike.

Duration: 1-4 days
Arrival airport: Cape Town International Airport
Destination: Hermanus
The route: Leave Cape Town on the N2 highway heading southeast, turning south on the M44/ Mew Way and then east at the Lookout Hill turning to access the Village 1 North area of Khayelitsha. Both Spinach King and 4Roomed eKasi Culture are located here. Connecting back onto on the N2, continue onwards through the Helderberg Basin, past Sir Lowry’s Pass, and down into the Overberg, turning south at Bot River on the R43 to reach Hermanus. From the heart of Cape Town, the entire route is 80 miles.
When to go: The Western Cape is at its best during the temperate, dry months of October to April.
Driving tips: When parking in urban areas, it’s common practise to tip a watchman.

The Ultimate Road Trip: Johannesburg to Kruger

En route between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park lies Blyde River Canyon National Park, a sublime wilderness characterized by sweeping vistas and geological curiosities, and surrounded by waterfalls and creaky prospecting towns

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The proximity of the headline attractions — Pilgrim’s Rest, God’s Window, Bourke’s Luck Potholes and the Three Rondavels — mean they can all be seen on a whistle-stop trip. But lingering a day or two to hike, wild-swim and leisurely absorb the landscape is what driving the Panorama Route is all about.

Johannesburg to Mpumalanga
It’s not widely known that an overland journey to Kruger National Park (340km/ 211 miles) from Johannesburg as the crow flies) holds as much beauty and excitement as the world-famous safari destination itself. Heading eastwards into Mpumalanga, the ‘land of the rising sun’, the jacaranda trees and gleaming highrises of Johannesburg are replaced by glorious, undulating expanses that rise to the lip of the Great Escarpment. It’s here, upon the cusp of this dramatic, geological marvel, that the Panorama Route begins.

Long Tom Pass to Graskop Gorge
Approach the region via Long Tom Pass, a snaking road affording unspoilt views of grasslands. Head for Graskop, a small town situated within striking distance of the Panorama Route’s most important features. Stop off at the dramatic Graskop Gorge for a dose of adrenaline in the form of the world’s highest cable gorge swing. If freefalling 70 meters at 140 kmph (230 feet at 87 mph) isn’t your bag, a wander through the gorge’s nature trails and a climb of 400 steps back to the top should still get the heart racing. Your reward lies nearby in town: fuel up at the famous Harrie’s Pancakes, savoring local fillings like bobotie(curried meat with a creamy topping) or lamb bredie (a slow-cooked Cape Malay stew).

Pilgrim’s Rest
A half-hour’s drive along the R533 brings you to Pilgrim’s Rest, a characterful 19th-century Gold Rush town, recognized by South Africa as a national monument. Many Victorian buildings survive, including the memorabilia-filled Royal Hotel with its rustic saloon bar. The town wears its heritage proudly, offering short tours, small museums and gold panning experiences.

Switch your camera to panorama mode as you drive north out of Graskop. Exit onto the R534 to reach a series of awe-inspiring, lofty viewpoints, the finest of which is God’s Window. On a clear day, it’s said you can look down upon the lowveld and across Kruger to Mozambique beyond. As with most attractions, a nominal fee must be paid on entrance. The so-called Wonder View nearby, however, is unticketed and accessible beyond the opening hours of 7am-5pm (standard for most of the route’s attractions).

Connecting back onto the R352, the main thoroughfare of the Panorama Route, brings you to Lisbon Falls, the highest and most famous cascade in a region blessed by dozens of waterfalls and bathing pools. Leave the crowds behind at the viewing platform and take the lesser-known, 40-minute hiking trail down to the pool below to witness the force of the 92-meter (302-foot) cascade up close. Wild swimming is permitted, although arguably the best spot for this is Mac Mac Falls, a short drive south of Graskop, which has braai facilities, a birding trail and a series of pretty bathing pools. To enjoy the popular spot in solitude, arrive early or clamber further upstream to a shallower part of the cascade.

Nineteenth-century prospector Tom Bourke never struck gold; his luck was to stake a claim to a geologically fascinating patch of land, which still bears his name. Bourke’s Luck Potholes, part of the Blyde River Canyon National Park, lies at the confluence of two rivers: the Blyde and the Treur. Millennia of churning eddies have eroded surreal, cylindrical ‘giant’s kettles’ into a gorge, which can be viewed from above via walkways and bridges. The visitor’s center offers refreshments, but a scenic, hidden-gem of a restaurant lies at the end of a long dirt track, the turning for which is 4km (2.5 miles) south on the main road. At Potluck Boskombuis, a rustic bush kitchen beside a boulder-strewn riverbank, try traditional potjiekos (literally ‘small pot food’), cooked on an open fire.

Three Rondavels
The awesome landscape of Blyde River Canyon is best explained through superlatives: at 25 km long (16 miles), it is the largest green canyon in the world; and with sheer walls averaging 750 meters (2,460 feet) it also has the most precipitous cliffs, putting the USA’s Grand Canyon and Namibia’s Fish River Canyon to shame. The view of the Three Rondavels — a trio of curious pinnacles shaped like traditional African huts — and down to the dam below is as iconic as that of Table Mountain in Cape Town. It’s particularly beautiful just before closing, when the light softens and the russet hues of the rocks deepen.

Kruger National Park
Your final destination, Kruger National Park, lies around an hour’s drive eastwards from Graskop along roads that descend dramatically from the escarpment into plains teeming with charismatic megafauna and birdlife.

Duration: 1-3 days
Arrival airport: OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg
Destination: Kruger National Park
The route: A five-hour drive (380km /236 miles) separates Johannesburg and the town of Graskop, where many travelers choose to base themselves overnight while exploring the Panorama Route. From here, the major sights are all a short drive away. The Three Rondavels viewpoint is the most distant attraction listed, due north along the R352 (61km/ 38 miles). Circling back to Graskop before heading onwards, the Phabeni Gate entrance to Kruger National Park is an hour’s drive east via the town of Hazyview (51km/ 32 miles).
When to go: The drier winter season (May-August) brings cooler temperatures and clearer vistas, while the rains of summer usher in wildflowers and increase the flow of waterfalls.
Driving tips: While the roads are largely wide and well-maintained, there are occasional potholes along the Panorama Route which can be hard to spot at night and during fog and rain. During adverse conditions, drive well below the speed limit. It’s local practice to employ flashing hazard lights to increase your vehicle’s visibility.

The Ultimate Road Trip: Durban to Drakensberg

The diversity of a road trip through KwaZulu-Natal can be summarised by the four Bs: beaches, bush, battlefields and Berg

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To the north, the beaches of iSimangaliso Wetland Park are among the wildest and most beautiful in the country, teeming with marine life. In the bushveld, conservation hotspots like Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park offer thrilling Big Five game-viewing, while history buffs will appreciate the Battlefields region, where countless British, Boer and Zulu soldiers lost their lives in bloody campaigns. Heading west, the Berg, shorthand for the mighty Drakensberg Mountains, is the state’s crowning glory — a soul-stirring spectacle, described in isiZulu as a ‘barrier of spears’. The riches and vastness of the landscape lends itself to a 10-day, round-trip excursion from Durban.

Durban to Santa Lucía to iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Tear yourself away from Durban’s fusion restaurants and surf beaches and follow the N2 highway north for 149 miles to the small town of St Lucia, the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. An untamed wilderness of savanna, swamp forests, golden dunes, rugged beaches and coral reefs, this is truly the road less travelled: solitude and sensational wildlife-viewing are the reward of those who venture to this remote corner of South Africa.

Hang your hat in St Lucia for a few days and take in a spectacular African sunset during a cruise on Lake St Lucia, home to the largest concentration of hippos and Nile crocodiles in Southern Africa. Head out birding on foot along a series of estuary and bush trails; and saddle up for a horseback safari to get up close to zebras and antelopes in the park’s southern reaches. Two of the most accessible beaches are Cape Vidal and Sodwana Bay, both of which offer scuba and snorkelling tours of the thriving reef. Look out for breaching humpbacks between June and November, and nesting turtles between November and February.

Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park
An hour’s drive along the R618 brings you to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa’s oldest protected reserve, and home to Big Five self-drive and guided safaris. It’s rolling hills were once the hunting grounds of Zulu kings. Today, it’s famous for its conservation; it was here that the white rhino was coaxed back from the brink of extinction, and the park has the second largest population of this rare mammal, after Kruger National Park.

Dundee
Part of the bloody struggle between the British, Boers and Zulus that played out across KwaZulu-Natal in the 1800s and early 1900s, several notable battles took place in the region surrounding the town of Dundee (143 miles west). Enlist the services of a guide for a day of sensational storytelling among gnarled rock formations and grassy plains where war cries once rung out. Hear how Zulu warriors armed with only assegai spears overpowered British invaders at Isandlwana; about the 130 British troops that held Rorke’s Drift — a battle that earned more Victoria Crosses that any other in history; and the roles of Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill in the historic Spioenkop campaign.

Royal Natal National Park to Giants Castle Game Reserve
To the south west lies Southern Africa’s highest mountain range, the mighty Drakensberg. The sublime landscape of the region invites road-weary travellers to reconnect with nature. While some hiking routes meander through the valleys, others require a head for heights. In Royal Natal National Park (143 miles from Dundee), the Chain Ladders day-hike ascends the Sentinel massif — part of an iconic formation known as the Amphitheatre — to look out over Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world. Another popular scramble is Cathedral Peak in Giants Castle Reserve (93 miles from Dundee) in the Central Berg, which should only be attempted with the services of a guide. Spend a few days recalibrating in a comfortable mountain lodge, taking in the scenery on horseback, via zip-line, from a hot air balloon or helicopter.

Sani Pass
Adventurous road-trippers may wish to upgrade to a 4×4 and tackle the gravel switchbacks of the Sani Pass, leading from the Southern Berg into Lesotho. Otherwise, exit the Drakensberg region and rejoin the N3 highway to return to Durban (155 miles). The last leg of the road trip takes in lush pastures and traditional villages of rondavel huts, and can be dipped into or explored over several days using the resources of the Midlands Meander, an initiative that directs travellers to local artisans, restaurants and welcoming farmhouse-hotels between Mooi River and Hilton.

Duration: 10 days
Arrival airport: King Shaka International Airport, Durban
Destination: Durban
The route: This round-trip route from Durban covers around 560 miles, taking in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, the Battlefields, the Drakensberg Mountains and the Midlands. The majority of roads are well-maintained and a 4×4 vehicle isn’t necessary, even for a self-drive safari in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (although heed local advice following heavy rains).
When to go: KwaZulu-Natal is a year-round destination. The winter months of April to July see clear days, cool nights and highs of 25°C, while the summer period of November to February is characterized by humidity and some rain.
Driving tips: Avoid driving after dark as regional roads can be bumpy and poorly lit, and you run the risk of encountering stray livestock.

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