South Africa is rightly famous for its Big Five safaris, diverse cultures and vibrant cities, but for many visitors it’s the allure of the open road that draws them to the southern tip of Africa. Though the cosmopolitan charms of Cape Town and buzzing urban energy of Johannesburg are reason enough to visit, to really get under the skin of Mzansi, as the locals call it, you’ll want to start the engine and head out on a road-trip; away from the crowds, off the beaten track and into the hinterland.
It’s a vast country – more than twice the size of France – but for the best combination of culture, cuisine and jaw-dropping scenery you can’t beat a road trip through the Western Cape. Whether it’s your first visit or a long-awaited return, these three journeys showcase the best that the Cape has to offer.
WILD WEST COAST CAPE
Cape Town, dubbed South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ will spoil you with her seaside charms, but the R27 road stretching north is reason enough to pack your bags. Just an hour from the city the West Coast National Park is an unsung corner of the country, where azure waters and white sand beaches will remind you of the Med’. What’s more, the lagoon here is a designated Ramsar site; a wetland of global importance home to thousands of migratory birds each year, making it a haven for twitchers. The holiday villas of Churchhaven offer idyllic seaside hideaways, or keep heading north to the low-key villages of Jacobsbaai and Paternoster.
Long famous for its humble whitewashed cottages and wide beaches, Paternoster has also become a global culinary hotspot thanks to the forager-chef Kobus van der Merwe. At his intimate restaurant Wolfgat you’ll find unique ‘Strandveld’ cuisine that taps into, and celebrates, the wild produce of the region. It’s a culinary experience deeply rooted in the landscape, and it’s little wonder he bagged 50th position on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021, staking his claim as the best restaurant in Africa.
You’ll discover more of the region’s culinary heritage if you turn off at the fishing town of Velddrif and take the dusty track alongside the languid Berg River. Here ‘Bokkom Lane’ celebrates this traditional West Coast delicacy of salted fish air-dried in the steady sea breezes. They are, to be polite, an acquired taste.
What’s more certain is that you’ll love the wide-open spaces of Rocherpan Nature Reserve a little further north. Wander the empty beaches, gaze out to sea for migrating whales, or check-in for the night at the sleek new eco-cabins. As you journey the wild charms of the West Coast keep unfurling. For surfers there’s the world-class left-hand point-break at Elands Bay.
For hikers and climbers the otherworldly mountain landscapes of the Cederberg For gourmands, the winelands of the Swartland where maverick young winemakers are seeking out unique pockets of terroir. At the end of your trip you’ll need a quiet space to sit back and reflect, and the mountainside seclusion of Bliss & Stars is just the spot for it.
Here a handful of Afro-Nordic chalets cling to the rugged slopes above the Doring River, with a range of focused multi-day retreats encouraging travellers to switch off and reboot. It’s off-grid, off the beaten track and the ultimate place to soak up the silence of the wilderness.
“This is not a lodge, and it’s not a retreat. It’s our home that we want to share with people,” explains Daria Rasmussen, who opened Bliss & Stars with her husband Heine in 2020. “We wanted to create a place where people really slow down, so we guide people in how to do nothing. A rest is a real act of rebellion in this world!”
Opinion is divided on how Cape Agulhas, three hours’ drive from Cape Town, earned its name. In Portuguese agulhas means ‘needles’, and local lore claims it is named for either – perhaps both – the tendency of a ship’s compass to act erratically in the treacherous waters offshore, or the needle-sharp rocks that have wrecked dozens of ships over the centuries. Whichever is true, it’s a dramatic wave-beaten coastline that stretches around the very southern tip of Africa. It’s a worthwhile diversion for road-trippers, who come to climb the iconic lighthouse and stand at the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
But there’s much more to the region than the tip of a continent. At nearby Struisbaai you’ll find a quaint fishing harbour and one of the longest white-sand beaches in the southern hemisphere. Local wine cellars channel the dramatic coastal terroir into wines emblematic of this landscape, while at the nearby Nuwejaars Wetlands you’ll find a glimpse of how wild these plains once were, with buffalo grazing and hippo grunting in the shallow lakes. Game drives in the company of experienced guides are the ideal way to discover the remarkable biodiversity of this unique corner of the Cape.
Or, keep driving an hour further east, past seaside villages and laid-back farming towns – do stop at the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp – to the De Hoop Nature Reserve which offers a host of luxury getaways amid a vast conservation area. My favourite is Lekkerwater Beach Lodge, set on a private concession in the east of the reserve. Just seven oceanfront suites deliver unforgettable sea views, while your days will be filled with interpretive walks through pristine indigenous fynbos, indulgent beach picnics and lazy afternoons scanning the waves for dolphins.
THE GARDEN ROUTE, REROUTED
With its golden beaches backed by lush forested hills, the scenic Garden Route always lives up to its name. But while most travellers stick to the busy coastal roads, the routes wending their way inland unfurl an entirely different side to this glorious corner of South Africa.
Start your journey in the idyllic seaside town of Wilderness. While most travellers speed straight past en route to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, this laid-back village offers empty beaches, quiet lakes and serene riverside boardwalks. Kayak the dark waters of the Kaaimans River, or paraglide above the Indian Ocean for incredible views stretching east. When you’re ready, take the scenic Seven Passes Road that runs parallel to the coast. Along the way you’ll find enigmatic forests, where indigenous Yellowwood trees took root more than 800 years ago, and charming country guesthouses.
Heading deeper into the Knysna Forest you can discover the mysterious elephants that once lived here, and the region’s short-lived gold rush. Back on the coast, even the bustling town of Knysna has its quiet corners if you know where to look. Noetzie beach is something of a local secret, while the canopy tours and mountain bike trails of the Harkerville Forest will appeal to adventurous types. Where next? The road is yours to explore. Over gravel passes to the scenic Langkloof, or along the coast to the dramatic valleys of the Tsitsikamma forest.
WHAT: Bliss & Stars
TEL: +27 21 813 9734
WHAT: Lekkerwater Beach Lodge
TEL: +27 21 001 1574