South Africa offers some of the world’s most diverse landscapes, from sparkling oceans and stark deserts to snow-capped peaks and wildlife-dense savanna.
But it’s not just the land that makes South Africa so enthralling – the wealth of the country’s diverse cultural groups, each contributing its own architecture, traditional cuisine and customs, adds to the alluring mix. Traveling by car, with the ability to stop, explore and wander on your own schedule, might be the ideal way to take in all this variety.
Here’s our pick of the six best road trips in South Africa.
1. Panorama Route
Best road trip for high-altitude adventure
Long Tom Pass to Echo Caves; 193km (120 miles)
Dipping in and out of Mpumalanga’s Blyde River Canyon, the world’s third largest, this cloud-high drive takes you through and along magnificent natural features – cliffs, waterfalls and forests, with eagles soaring above – while offering plenty of places to get out and stretch your legs.
It’s a short hike, for example, to God’s Window, an overlook peeking down through jungly, bird-filled foliage some 2745m (9005ft) below. The Three Rondavels are a trio of soaring, grass-topped peaks resembling indigenous cone-shaped huts. Trails wander around Bourke’s Luck Potholes, cylindrical holes formed over thousands of years by the swirling waters of the Treur and Blyde rivers.
But it’s not just about the natural landscape. Several towns worth a stop include historic Pilgrim’s Rest, a living historical monument to the gold rush days of the late 1800s. Beautifully renovated structures line its streets, including the Victorian-era Royal Hotel, whose Church Bar was originally a school chapel. Graskop is famed for its pancake restaurants, along with the Big Swing, an exhilarating rush over the canyon on one of the world’s highest cable gorge swings. Sabie is a tranquil country town in the middle of a forest, with watery natural attractions, including Bridal Veil Falls, Lone Creek Waterfall and Horseshoe Falls.
2. Garden Route
Best road trip for a Garden of Eden experience
Mossel Bay to Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth); 300km (186 miles)
Meandering through South Africa’s lush Indian Ocean littoral, the Garden Route (N2) is one of the nation’s most incredible itineraries. Burgeoning with luxuriant flora and fauna as well as coastal towns, pristine beaches and misty mountain forests, this drive is chock-full of things to see and do in one of the world’s most staggeringly beautiful settings.
For lovers of the outdoors, this road trip offers access to plenty of hiking trails, including the fabled five-day Otter Trail in Tsitsikamma National Park; surfing at numerous beaches, including the famous Jeffreys Bay; and the world’s largest commercial bridge bungee jump at Bloukrans Bridge. Camping is sublime, whether you prefer pitching your tent next to a rippling river, a primeval forest or the boundless ocean.
Wildlife aficionados adore Oudtshoorn and its ostrich farms; Addo Elephant National Park, which is also home to rhinos, lions, hyenas and zebras; and Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, which has more than 700 primates in a free-range multi-species reserve. You can also walk with wild cheetahs at Tenikwa Wildlife Center. Nature is everywhere you look – expect to spot otters, Southern right whales and the odd great white splashing offshore, with birds galore flitting through the treetops and scurrying across the sands.
Oak-lined Goringhaikona (formerly known as George) provides a good base for setting out. Other popular towns include Knysna, with its nearby oyster farms; the seaside resort of Witsand, which offers water sports, fishing and whale watching; and Mossel Bay, boasting a temperate climate and cultural history dating back 350,000 years.
Local tip: Witsand Nature Reserve comes with a soundtrack – when conditions are hot and dry, the sand sings. The “roaring sands” effect is created by air escaping from the tightly packed grains.
3. Midlands Meander
Best road trip for craftsmanship
Lions River to Nottingham Road; 27km (16.7 miles)
Delving into the heart of KwaZulu-Natal northwest of Durban, the Midlands Meander is a collection of five color-coded routes that showcase the best of this untrammeled, rolling-green realm. You’ll discover breweries and wineries, unique lodging and locally sourced restaurants, nature reserves, traditional villages and plenty of outdoor activities along the way – though the region is perhaps most beloved for its arts and crafts.
Some 160 studios, workshops and outlets, including potters, leatherworkers, batik artists and chime makers, hide tucked away on tree-shaded lanes. Perhaps the best known is Ardmore Ceramics in the Champagne Valley, which has a gallery and studio where locals create whimsical, fantastical, colorful pieces that decorate such venues as Buckingham Palace and the White House.
You can follow one of the specific routes, with Route 4 highly recommended. On this drive, you’ll find the Capture Site Museum, marking the spot where Nelson Mandela was apprehended in 1962. A stunning, shape-shifting sculpture made of 50 steel columns that form Mandela’s face when viewed from the right direction stands outside. Rawdons Hotel is a fabulous, English-style country estate complete with a duck-dotted lake, a brewery, a distillery and a thatched roof. Enjoy goat’s milk cheese at Swissland Cheese and handcrafted Belgian chocolates at Chocolate Heaven.
4. Wild Coast
Best road trip for dramatic ocean views
East London to Mzamba; 482km (300 miles)
This laid-back drive is all about stunning, off-the-beaten-path scenery – empty beaches lapped by the Indian Ocean’s turquoise surf, jagged coastlines, crashing waterfalls, dark skies full of shooting stars and picturesque turquoise rondavels perched on emerald-green hillsides. You can drive this road trip straight through, but taking the time to explore will reveal the true wonders of this wild place. While the main route is the N2, away from the ocean, be sure to veer off to explore, hike, swim, canoe and fish. A 4×4 is highly recommended.
Wild Coast highlights include Mkambati Nature Reserve south of Port Edward, with swamp forests, grasslands, rocky beaches, and grazing eland and hartebeest. A series of waterfalls spill dramatically into the ocean. Trail-laced Silaka Nature Reserve near Port St Johns is a haven of exotic lilies, zebras and wildebeest, and Bulungula Beach is supreme for surfing, fishing, swimming and canoeing. You could drive to Hole in the Wall, but a three-hour hike across the grassy coastline is the more idyllic approach to this natural rocky archway that swirls with local legends. The local Xhosa name is esiKhaleni, “the place of thunder,” for the sound the rushing ocean makes as it roars through the almost circular cavity.
But it’s not all about the natural beauty here. As you snap photos of cows lazing on beaches, remember that Nelson Mandela was born on these grasslands (he was a cowherd as a young child). Various sites related to him include the Nelson Mandela Museum, which has three parts: a museum at Mthatha; a museum at the small hamlet of Qunu, where Mandela was baptized and is buried; and an open-air museum in Mvezo, where he was born. It’s a profound connection to this remote land of wild beauty.
Planning tip: Most car rental agencies can provide safety seats, but you’ll need to book them in advance and usually pay extra.
5. Sani Pass
Best road trip for thrilling scenery
Underberg to Mokhotlong, Lesotho; 9km (5.6 miles)
For drop-dead gorgeous scenery and the thrill of a lifetime, Sani Pass is hard to beat. An old mule route ending high atop the roof of Lesotho, this sweeping, wildflower-dotted road begins innocently enough. But before long you embark on the 1332m (4370ft) climb up the towering basalt cliffs of the Drakensberg mountains to the pass, looking out over the striking green midlands and, as you get higher, the Khomazana Valley. Plenty of shoulder parking areas allow you to stop and take it all in.
This drive isn’t for the fainthearted. The route has tight switchbacks, hairpins, water crossings, plunging drops and no guardrails (and remains of rusting vehicles that didn’t make it). Plans are in the works to tar the road, but for the moment, it remains gravel, requiring the use of a 4×4 vehicle. Fog sometimes covers the pass, making conditions even hairier (and the views nondescript). Needless to say, above-average driving skills are necessary.
But the stomach-churning journey is worth it as you reach the top, where you officially leave South Africa and enter Lesotho. Toast your achievement with lunch at the Sani Mountain Lodge – Africa’s highest pub, at 2876m (9435ft) above sea level – before heading back down the same precarious way you came.
Planning tip: As you’re entering Lesotho, you’ll need to take your passport.
6. Best of the Cape Loop
Best road trip that lives up to the hype
Start and end at Cape Town; 160km (99 miles)
The Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town showcases the bewitching meeting of two oceans (Atlantic and Indian), fishing villages, sparkling beaches, the historic Cape of Good Hope – and penguins, too. There’s a lot of hype around this loop drive, and it absolutely lives up to it.
The first part hugs the coastline of stunning False Bay. Scan the waters for whales from August through November. You’ll have your choice of sparkling white-sand beaches to stop, swim and picnic at, while a string of villages each have their own charms, including Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town. Just outside Simon’s Town, Boulders Beach is a must-stop for its famed colony of African penguins, accessed via boardwalks down to the beach. You could spend all day watching these adorable little birds waddle and splash but pry yourself away, continuing south to the Cape of Good Hope.
You’re in the middle of an immense nature reserve here, with ostriches, baboons and zebras running wild among the fynbos, an endangered plant type endemic to the Cape Peninsula. You can hike, hit the beach and stop for lunch at a local restaurant, but be sure to follow everyone down to the very tip of the peninsula at Cape Point, Africa’s southwesternmost spot. The old lighthouse here is an easy uphill walk; you can also take the Flying Dutchman Funicular.
The drive north up the Atlantic Seaboard reveals remote villages – Hout Bay (take a seal excursion to Duiker Island) and Chapman’s Peak, with a 5km (3-mile) toll road leading to a stunning view over the bay and the ocean. Some say it’s the world’s most beautiful stretch of road.
Meander your way back to Cape Town, with last chances for beach time at Camps Bay and Clifton.
Local tip: As well as the sweeping vistas from Table Mountain and Cape of Good Hope lighthouse, head to Bloubergstrand for a full view of Table Mountain.