South Africa is a big country and offers visitors diverse landscapes, beautiful oceans, impressive deserts, amazing savannas and snow-capped mountains. And that is just its physical offerings. Exploring South Africa will expose you to its diverse cultures, each with its own language, cuisines, customs and architecture. If it is your first time in South Africa, one of the best ways to explore the country is by doing a road trip. In this article, we consider the best routes for South African road trips, best places to visit on each road trip and provide suggestions for where to stay during your South African road trip.
If you fly to South Africa, consider getting a rental car to allow you to undertake one of these beautiful road trips.
The Best South African Road Trips
These are some of the best South African routes to explore when you feel like a road trip.
The Midlands Meander
The Midlands Meander is in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, north-west of Durban. It runs from Lions River to Nottingham Road and covers a distance of 27 kilometres (16,7 miles).
The Meander is a collection of five colour-coded routes, each focusing on the best craftsmanship of the area. You can find wineries, breweries, restaurants, traditional villages, unique accommodations and plenty of arts and crafts along the route. There are over 160 outlets, workshops and studios along the route. This includes batik artists, chime makers, potters and leatherworkers.
The five routes are:
- Route 1: The blue route runs from Hilton through Howick and ends at Karkloof.
- Route 2: The red route starts from Curry’s Post, goes through Balgowan and ends in Mount West.
- Route 3: The orange route starts in Dargle and goes to Boston and Fort Nottingham before ending in Nottingham Road.
- Route 4: The green route starts in Lion’s River and goes through Lidgetton and Balgowan before ending in Nottingham Road.
- Route 5: The yellow route starts in Mooi River, runs through Rosetta and ends in Kamberg.
Highlights of the Midlands Meander:
- The Nelson Mandela Capture Site.
- Howick Falls with its 95-meter (311-foot) waterfall).
- Nottingham Road with its 1890s haunted hotel.
Where to stay on the Midlands Meander:
Guided Tours of The Area
The Garden Route is one of the most scenic road trips in South Africa. Although you can complete the distance in one day, it is worth spreading the trip over a few days to explore the coastal towns along the route. You can see the best places in the Garden Route in between 4 and 7 days.
You can explore the following towns along the Garden Route:
- Mossel Bay
- Plettenberg Bay
- Nature’s Valley
- Port Elizabeth
The highlights of the Garden Route are:
- The five-day Otter Trail in the Tsitsikamma National Park, the oldest multi-day hike in South Africa
- Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary near Plettenberg Bay, with over 700 primates
- Taking a boat trip to the Knysna Heads
- Storms River Mouth and the Storms River Suspension Bridge near Stormsriver Village
- Robberg Nature Reserve for coastal hiking routes with shark sightings
- Tenikwa Wildlife Center for seeing wild cheetahs
- Surfing at Jeffrey’s Bay
- Bungee jumping at the Bloukrans Bridge
- Visiting the Addo Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth
Staying in George is an excellent base to explore the Garden Route. Here are some of the best places to stay:
Guided Tours of The Garden Route
The Panorama Route
The Panorama Route is in the Mpumalanga Province of South Africa. It starts in the town of Lydenberg and finishes at the Echo Caves. The route covers a distance of 200 kilometres (124 miles).
You can complete the route in one day. To fully explore its offerings, it is best to do the route in 3-5 days, as this gives you time to stop at the many towns and natural attractions along the way.
Towns along the route:
- Pilgrim’s Rest
The highlights of the Panorama Route are:
- The world’s third-largest canyon, the Blyde River Canyon
- Three Rondavels
- God’s Window
- The Big Swing in Graskop, one of the highest cable gorge swings in the world
- The historic town of Pilgrim’s Rest, dating back to the 1800s
- The many waterfalls along the way, including the Mac-Mac Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls, Lone Creek Waterfall, Horseshoe Falls, Graskop Falls and Lisbon Falls
- Bourke’s Luck Potholes
- The mountain passes you’ll drive on, such as the Long Tom Pass.
- Kruger National Park
Best places to stay when exploring the Panorama Route:
- Budget: Thaba Tsweni Lodge & Safaris
- Mid-range: Blyde Canyon Forever Resort
- Luxury: The Royal Hotel Pilgrims Rest
Guided Tours to Mpumalanga
Route 62 is one of the longest road trips in South Africa at 850 kilometres (528 miles). It runs between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. To fully explore everything the route offers, you’ll need weeks. Within a week, you should be able to see the route’s highlights. This route is not as busy as the Garden Route.
Towns along Route 62:
- Port Elizabeth
- Jeffrey’s Bay
The highlights of Route 62 include:
- The Route 62 wine route is the longest in the world.
- The vineyards in the Cape Winelands
- The Thermal Baths at Montagu
- Wine tasting in Calitzdorp
- The beautiful mountain passes along the way
- Karoo National Park and the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden
- Ostrich farms and the Cango Caves in Oudtshoorn
- Surfing in Jeffrey’s Bay
- Seeing the Big 7 in the Addo Elephant National Park
- Snow-capped mountains in Ceres
Best places to stay while doing Route 62:
- Budget: Old Mill Lodge (Oudtshoorn) / The Vic 1906 (Montagu)
- Mid-range: Berluda Farmhouse and Cottages (Oudtshoorn) / Montagu Country Hotel (Montagu)
- Luxury: Nova Boutique Hotel, spa and conference (Port Elizabeth) / Monte Vista Boutique Hotel (Montagu)
There is an excellent website for Route 62.
Drakensberg’s Sani Pass: Another Scenic Route
The Drakensberg Sani Pass route runs between the Drakensberg in South Africa and Lesotho. The route starts in Underberg, a small town in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, and it ends in Mokhotlong in Lesotho.
The Drakensberg is not the only beautiful mountain in South Africa.
It is a short drive at only 9 kilometres (5,6 miles) but can take a full day as you drive many mountain passes with required stops and starts. Shortly after starting the route, you climb more than 1.3 kilometres (4370 feet) up the basalt cliffs of the Drakensberg Mountains.
The route is meant for more experienced drivers, and you need a 4×4 capable vehicle to complete the road. The road has hairpins, switchbacks, plunging drops and water crossings. There are no guardrails along the way. There is often fog along the route.
This is one of the most scenic road trips you can do in South Africa. It is best to do this route in summer (November to February in South Africa) as the road is often closed in winter due to adverse weather.
This route focuses on natural beauty, and driving the high mountain passes can fuel your adrenaline. Its summit’s altitude is 2,876 kilometres above sea level.
Highlights of the Sani Pass route:
- The challenge of completing the route safely
- Beautiful views of the Natal Midlands and Khomazana Valley
- Having a drink at the Sani Mountain Lodge, the highest pub on the African continent at 2,8 kilometres (9435 feet) above sea level
- Afriski is one of the few places you can ski in Africa.
Best places to stay near the Drakensberg Sani Pass route:
- Budget: Sani Lodge Backpackers Sani Pass South Africa
- Mid-range: Sani Lodge Self-Catering Cottages Sani Pass South Africa
While visiting the Drakensberg, why not see some of its other attractions, including:
- Hiking to the Tugela Falls, the highest waterfall in Africa
- The Drakensberg Wine Route
Guided Tours of The Drakensberg and Sani Pass
A Must-Do South Africa Road Trip: The Waterberg Meander
The Waterberg Meander is in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. It focuses on an area known as the Waterberg Region.
The Waterberg Region is about 2 hours from Johannesburg. You can explore the Waterberg region in two days. It is 350 kilometres long (217 miles).
Towns on the Waterberg Meander:
- Bela Bela
Highlights of the Waterberg Meander:
- The natural springs at Bela-Bela
- The Bushman camp near Marken
- Exploring the Marakele National Park
- Atherstone Nature Reserve
- Mokopane Biodiversity Centre
- Ben Alberts Nature Reserve
- Buying Beadle crafts
- Visit Pedi potters
- Buying embroidered goods at Kamotsogo Craft Art in Vaalwater
- Learning about Pedi culture during a Lehlabile Cultural Tour
Read about the attractions of the Limpopo Province.
Best places to stay while exploring the Waterberg Region:
You should read the post about South Africa’s national parks.
Driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town
One of the best road trips in South Africa is driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This is a popular road trip with locals during school holidays. Unfortunately, many South Africans drive this route, focus only on the end destination, and drive past the various towns and attractions.
You can do the drive in one day, but spending a night halfway makes it a more relaxing trip.
Read about the best half-way stops when driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
There are two routes available, namely:
- Via Kimberley
- Via Bloemfontein
Highlights of driving between Johannesburg and Cape Town:
- Visiting Sutherland, the best place in South Africa to gaze at the stars
- See cheetahs at the Samara Game Reserve
- Visiting the historic town of Matjiesfontein
Best places to stay when driving between Johannesburg and Cape Town:
- Budget: The Fancy Cactus (Colesberg) / Vyfster – Old Jail (Britstown)
- Mid-range: Tzamenkomst River Lodge (Colesberg) / Lemoenfontein (Beaufort West)
- Luxury: Chargo Boutique Lodge (Colesberg) / Grootfontein Farm House (Beaufort West)
When driving from Johannesburg to Cape Town, you can visit South Africa’s biggest dam, the Gariep Dam. Read more here!
Drive the Wild Coast
This is the best road trip in South Africa for dramatic views of the ocean. The route starts in East London and finishes at Mzamba in the Eastern Cape Province. The route covers a distance of 482 kilometres (300 miles).
This route is off-the-beaten path. You drive along the Indian Ocean and jagged coastlines. You can visit waterfalls and participate in outdoor activities like swimming, hiking, and canoeing.
Although not required, a 4×4 vehicle will make the route easier. Always have a spare tyre, as there are terrible potholes along the way, especially near Coffee Bay.
Towns you can visit when driving the Wild Coast include:
- East London
- Port Edward
- Port St Johns
The highlights of driving the Wild Coast:
- The Mkambati Nature Reserve near Port Edward
- The Silaka Nature Reserve and Magwa Falls near Port St Johns
- Surfing, swimming or fishing at Bulungula Beach
- Surfing at the Mdumbi and Mapuzi point breaks
- Hike to the Hole in Wall, also called esiKhaleni, in Xhosa or “the place of thunder.”
- Visiting the Nelson Mandela Museums in Mthatha, Qunu and Mvezo
- Morgan Bay Cliffs, an excellent astrophotography spot
- The beaches of Chintsa
- Taking the ferry over the Kei Mouth (one of the last pontoon river ferry services that transport cars in South Africa)
- Waterfall Bluff
- Jacaranda shipwreck
- Visiting Coffee Bay
There are several lighthouses near the Wild Coast. Read more here!
Best places to stay along the Wild Coast:
Elephant Coast Road Trip
The Elephant Coast road trip is in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. It starts in St Lucia and ends in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. It covers a distance of 77 kilometres (47 miles).
This route is another one that can be done in a day, but taking about 3-4 days will give you enough time to explore the Elephant Coast’s offerings better.
The places you will see along the route include:
- St Lucia
- Cape Vidal
The highlights of the Elephant Coast road trip are:
- The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, one of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites
- Sodwana Bay for scuba diving and swimming with endangered sea turtles, dolphins, whale sharks and ragged-tooth sharks
- Watching loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach
- Whale watching in St Lucia
- Lake Sibaya, South Africa’s largest freshwater lake
- Doing the 4×4 route in Kosi Bay
The best places to stay when exploring South Africa’s Elephant Coast:
Guided Tours to The Elephant Coast
Namaqualand Road Trip (N7 Flower Route)
The Namaqualand Road Trip is one you can only undertake from June to August annually because that is when the flowers in Namaqualand bloom. Some flowers you can see during this time of year include daisies and vygies.
Starting from Cape Town, take the N7 to get to Namaqualand. From there, you can decide how many flower hot spots you want to visit.
You can go explore the West Coast for its flowers, visit Darling, the Cederberg and then go to the Northern region to visit the Namaqua National Park. You can also spot flowers in other towns, including Biedouw Valley, Clanwilliam and Nieuwoudtville.
The highlights of a Namaqualand road trip:
- Visit the Namaqua National Park
- Go to the Hantam National Botanical Gardens in Nieuwoudtville
- Explore the West Coast National Park, especially the Postberg section
- Visit the Goegap Nature Reserve in Springbok
Best places to stay during a Namaqualand road trip:
- Budget: De Pakhuys (Clanwilliam) / Dunn’s Castle Guesthouse (Piketberg)
- Mid-range: Mountain View Guesthouse (Springbok)
- Luxury: Simbavati Cederberg Ridge (Clanwilliam) / Highlands Eco Estate (Piketberg)
The Beer Route: A Perfect Weekend Trip for Beer Lovers
The Beer Route is a road trip with a difference. It focuses on beers from local breweries and starts in Johannesburg in the Gauteng Province. It then heads to Magaliesburg before entering the North West Province on the way to Hartbeespoort Dam. From there, you drive back to Gauteng, but this time to Pretoria, one of the capital cities of South Africa.
The ideal would be to have a designated driver for this road trip. This is the perfect route to explore from a Friday to Sunday, with many stops at breweries or other attractions in the area you pass by.
Along the way, you pass the local breweries where you can either taste some samples or buy beer for later.
Breweries you can visit while driving the Beer route:
- Copperlake Brewing Company
- Gilroy Brewery
- Brauhaus Afrika
- White Dog Taproom
- Black Horse Estate
- Chameleon Brewhouse
- Lazy Lizard Brewhouse
- Ale House
- Capital Craft Beer Academy
The highlights you’ll experience while doing the Beer Route:
- Sampling a wide variety of beers
- Taking a dip at the Thirsty Falls’ eco pool
- Enjoying German food at Brauhaus Afrika
The best places to stay while doing the Beer Route:
- Friday night: Thabametsi Farm (budget) / Thirsty Falls Guest Farm (mid-range) / Mzila Forest Creek (luxury)
- Saturday night: The Art Guesthouse (mid-range) / Westlake Waterfront Villa (luxury)
Short Road Trips in South Africa
If you are looking for a short road trip to complete in a few hours or a day, here are your best options:
Clarence Drive (R44)
The Clarens Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in South Africa. It runs between Gordon’s Bay and Hermanus and covers a distance of 84 kilometres (52 miles).
You will see towering cliffs and indigenous fynbos as you drive the route. Much of the route is along the ocean, and you may spot a whale if you’re lucky.
The highlights of Clarens Drive are:
- Seeing the baboons along the way. Be careful; they are dangerous!
- Visiting the Stony Point Penguin Colony.
- Souvenir shopping in Kleinmond
The West Coast Way Routes
The West Coast Way is South Africa’s road trip with the most twists.
There are 6 different self-guided routes to choose from. These are:
- The Cape Way Route
- The culture route
- The tractor route
- The foodie route
- The berg route
- The wild route
These routes start from Cape Town and have a specific theme as a focus. Most routes and stops are within 1 to 2 hours from each other, making these routes perfect for a day trip.
Depending on your route, you will enjoy South African wines, craft beers, and Rooibos Tea. Each route includes various activities, including visiting nature reserves and national parks, doing game drives, trying archery or angling.
For more information, visit the West Coast Way website.
Western Cape Loop Road Trip
The Western Cape Loop Road trip comprises a loop around the Cape Peninsula to see the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean. You pass by some of Cape Town’s best beaches and fishing villages during the drive.
You can do the loop in one day.
The highlights of the Western Cape Loop include:
- Watching the whales from August to November
- Exploring Muizenberg, Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay
- Visiting the penguins at Boulders Beach as well as Simon’s Town‘s other attractions
- Visiting the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve
- Doing an excursion to Seal Island from Hout Bay
- Driving Chapman’s Peak is a beautiful drive.
- Spend some time on the beaches at Clifton or Camps Bay.
You can easily visit some of South Africa’s oldest townships while doing the Western Cape Loop.
Tips for a Road Trip in South Africa
- Choose a vehicle to suit your route: A standard vehicle works for most South African road trips. For some, such as the Drakensberg- Sani Pass Route or the Wild Coast, a 4×4 vehicle is best. Book a rental car with one of the many reputable car rental companies in South Africa. Our preferred choice is RentalCars.com. Check your tyres, including the spare tyre, before you start your road trip!
- Take some padkos. Padkos is a South African term for food you take on a road trip. Good options include plenty of water with finger foods, such as biltong, droe wors and small packets of nuts.
- Stay connected: You will have a cellphone signal in the larger cities and main roads of South Africa. You may find a weak or no cellphone signal in the smaller towns in the rural areas. Always communicate your travel plans and routes to family members and friends who are not travelling with you.
- Consider your safety ! Make sure to plan your road trip properly. Have a physical map in case you don’t have a cellphone signal. Make sure your spare tyres are in the best condition. Take a first aid kit and check your vehicle before you leave.
- Timing is important. The best time for a road trip in South Africa is autumn/fall (March-May), winter (June-August) and spring (September-November) when it is not as hot. This applies to most road trips, excluding the Drakensberg-Sani Route, which is best to avoid in winter as it snows on the Drakensberg.