Craggy mountain peaks, dusty deserts and winding coasts of blonde beaches stretching across the Atlantic and Indian oceans are just a sample of what’s on offer along the vast and diverse landscape of the Western Cape.
With such exceptional roads to cruise on, there really is no better way to pioneer South Africa’s drop-dead gorgeous Garden Route than behind the wheel. The beauty of a self-drive is the freedom. You decide when and where to stop and how long you feel like sticking around.
We’ve sketched out the perfect route, all you have to do is rent a car, stock up on snacks and pick out the ultimate road trip soundtrack to hit the tarmac on your South African driving adventure.
Starting point: Cape Town
You’ve landed in Cape Town. Before you get that car running and scoot off down the coast, maybe you feel like exploring this capital for a bit.
Whether you’re checking out City Hall where Mandela delivered his famous speech or roaming around former District Six, guided walking tours are an excellent way to get to know the city and its gripping history. Plus, they’re free and you can stretch your legs before starting the engine. Now it’s time to get going.
1st stop: Cape Winelands
The drive from Cape Town is under an hour but here’s a bonus stop too good to miss. On your way to the wine country, go by Simon’s Town and be prepared for a cuteness overload at the penguin colony on Boulder’s beach – but be careful, they can bite!
After snapping some photos of our cuddly friends, head to the rugged hilltops of the Winelands for some breath-taking panoramas – that oddly enough will make you feel more like you’re in the Alps than in Africa.
Enjoy highly-acclaimed haute cuisine and – naturally – a generous slosh of the finest claret at the grand old wine estates. Sitting peacefully among sun-soaked vineyards, expect the highest standards of sophistication before heading off on your journey with a case of Shiraz in-tow.
2nd stop: Hermanus
The lovely cliff-top town of Hermanus sits on what is known as the Whale Coast and is famous for – yes, you guessed it – whale watching! Prime giant-mammal-spotting-season is from June to December and, if you happen to be around in October, don’t miss the town’s annual Whale Festival.
While these majestic beasts can easily be admired from land, ocean lovers can get a closer look with a range of aquatic activities from boat tours to kayaking and more. For the not-so-eager-for-splashing, quad biking through the dunes is just as thrilling an option, only drier.
3rd stop: Oudtshoorn
Time to hit the road again and make your way through the hills and valleys of the sun-baked Karoo desert in old-Western style along the infamous Route 62.
This stretch of the trip is a little longer so a midpoint stop might be in order, and this is a good one: Ronnie’s Sex Shop. Not to worry, the name is just a clever ploy to pique your interest, but it is a rather curious joint and bartender and owner Ronnie is delightful.
Keep on driving to reach Oudtshoorn, home to the late 19th century ostrich booms. Visit the Ostrich farms for an afternoon in the company of these funny-looking fowl or, on more of a cultural note, learn a bit about the town’s heritage by touring the flamboyant Victorian “feather palaces”.
Also in the region are the otherworldly Cango Caves, whose theatrically lit tunnels and chambers are definitely worth a peek.
4th stop: Wilderness
Now it’s time to travel into the heart of South Africa’s legendary Garden Route, land of wildlife reserves, ancient indigenous forests and quaint little seaside towns scattered throughout. George, the gateway into the Garden, is the region’s major city and the ideal mid-route stock-up point.
For the wave aficionados, close-by Victoria Bay is top surf territory.
Once in the town of Wilderness, you’ll find miles of sandy beaches and the much sought after Dolphins Point where those charming bottlenoses may be sighted.
The area also attracts many a bird-watching buff thanks to the beautiful Wilderness National Park’s fertile landscape of reed-lined rivers and native fynbos plants. This and the Tsitsikamma National Park are linked together to form the greater Garden Route National Park, a colorful Eden of diverse ecosystems and tons of activities to match.
From canoeing to hiking and horse riding, mountain biking to ziplining canopy tour, all amid exquisite vistas, this vast natural oasis is the perfect stop-off for roaming adventurers and sun loungers alike.
On the way from one park to the other lie the two picture-perfect towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay and that’s where we’re headed now…
5th stop: Knysna and Plettenberg Bay
Knysna is perhaps best known for its oyster cultivation and the very popular annual Oyster Festival in July. Unsurprisingly, the seafood here is seriously drool-inducing and as fresh as it gets. Not only that, it’s insanely cheap!
Apart from its stunning turquoise lagoons, Knysna’s limestone “heads” are a striking natural landmark out at sea and, in town, bustling markets, art galleries and coffee shops make for a warm and laid-back atmosphere that’ll make it hard to leave.
If you can pull yourself away, Plett – as the locals call it – is equally appealing, boasting prime fishing spots and gorgeous pink sunsets, as well as South Africa’s most expensive real estate.
Final stop: Storms River
The next and final stop is Storms River, via the horticultural haven of Tsitsikamma.
After you’ve sufficiently explored the National Reserve’s many eco-friendly adventures, and because it’s the big finale, you might want to finish with a bang. If so, we have just the thing for you: bungee jumping off Bloukrans Bridge! The first of its kind in Africa, and the world’s highest commercial bridge bungee at 216 metres, this dive is guaranteed to make the memories of your South African road trip stick for life.
If tempting fate isn’t really your thing, the suspension bridge over Storms River makes for a slightly less intimidating stroll. And that’s the official end of the line for your Garden Route expedition! From there you can head over to Port Elizabeth to catch your flight home.