I find that the slower and closer to the ground I travel, the more intimately I experience a place. Road trips gift the freedom of the open road and the independence to go as fast or as slow as one wishes; making as many stop-offs and spontaneous turns as one pleases. Despite my love for overland travel and a lifetime spent globe-trotting, I always found the concept of a solo road trip daunting. The unknown, which is commonly one of the most enticing aspects of travel for me, was also the most terrifying when it came to driving solo through unknown territory.
South African Road Trips
For a number of years, I had repeatedly heard of the famous Garden Route, which stretches from the Western Cape to the Eastern Cape of South Africa. A long meandering route that is sandwiched between the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma Mountains and the Indian Ocean, the Garden Route offers winding mountain passes, narrow backroads bypassing stretches of farmland, and towering cliffs overlooking crashing blue water. Along the way, travelers can find canyons, hiking trails, farms, vineyards, canyons, and surfing towns. A road trip destination conjured from almost any adventurer’s dreams.
The opportunity to drive from place to place freely with no schedule, not limited by public transportation, and the beauty of watching the changing landscapes and towns flash by, was enough to inspire me to hop on the road by myself to end my all-too short three months in South Africa. My road trip route stretched from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape all the way west to Cape Town. With a couple of weeks on hand, I had ample time to make the scenic drive along hundreds of miles of coastal and mountainous roads.
First Stop: Jeffreys Bay
When I picked up my trusty set of wheels at Port Elizabeth Airport, driving on the left side still hadn’t become second nature to me and I was mildly apprehensive as I hit the road. I carefully reminded myself time and again which side to drive on and which side of the road to turn. Only occasionally did I turn on my windshield wipers instead of my blinker to signal to cars that I was changing lanes.
If driving east to west on the Garden Route, many choose to first stop in Addo Elephant Park, a wildlife conservation park not far from Port Elizabeth. Having spent several days in conservancies in other regions of South Africa, I skipped Addo and headed to straight to Jeffreys Bay, a small surf town on the Indian Ocean. The drive was around 50 miles, taking just over an hour to reach.
Jeffreys Bay’s laidback vibe echoes a bygone era that pairs well with its reputation as a top surfing spot. A small, unpretentious, and unspectacular town that boasts expansive beaches, a handful of cafes, and reliable waves, Jeffreys Bay was the perfect short stop off for a night and a day of surf lessons before heading on the road again.
Second Stop: Storms River
The next afternoon I headed to Storms River, a small village in the Eastern Cape. The short but scenic 65-mile (105-kilometer) drive took just under an hour and a half, taking me from the coast through farmland to the edge of the mountains, where Storms River sits. Reminiscent of a small American western town straight out of a movie, Storms River is a small strip surrounded by forest. The town has a small tavern-like microbrewery and a 1950s-inspired diner filled to the brim with Elvis memorabilia and a menu offering burgers, pancakes and other 1950s American diner classics.
As the gateway to Tsitsikamma National Park, Storms River is heaven for outdoor enthusiasts. If you’re looking for adventure, it’s certainly one of the less explored South African towns you should add to your itinerary. I spent my few days in town horseback riding through the national park, climbing along canyons surrounding Tsitsikamma river, and rafting. Evenings were passed indulging in homemade meals around bonfires, chatting with other travelers exploring the Garden Route.
Third Stop: The Crags, Nature’s Valley, and Plettenberg Bay
The 45-minute and 45-mile (72-kilometer) drive from Storms River to The Crags should have been an easy one. As tends to happen with road trips and travel, things occasionally go awry. I enjoyed every minute of the spectacular drive, cutting corners around narrow mountain roads overlooking cliffs dropping off into crashing blue waves.
Mesmerized by the expansive coastline, I pulled off to take a walk along the lagoon in Nature’s Way. Sitting on a dry section of the beach, far from the strong waves crashing into the shore, I opened my book. Within minutes, I found myself sitting in a deep pool of water. My purse, book, clothes, and worst of all, my DSLR camera, were now a wet, soggy mess.
Picking up my belongings, I started to make my way back to the car to salvage the situation. I continued the drive to Wild Spirit, a sustainable stay set among expansive forest. I stopped off at a local grocer en route for a bag of rice to attempt to dry out my sandy, seawater-soaked camera in. By the time I arrived at Wild Spirit, a stay I had been long anticipating for hiking and outdoor adventures, the skies had opened and were pouring heavily. My sunny day had taken a damp and dreary turn. And yet it was this damp and dreary turn that completely changed my stay at Wild Spirit and the course of my road trip as well.
The heavy rains brought all the guests to the living room that evening. Everyone gathered around a fireplace to listen to Jenny, the owner of Wild Spirit, whose calm and all-encompassing presence had spellbound the room. From coming across the property for Wild Spirit by happenstance, to standing strong against restrictions in the face of apartheid, to becoming a lead advocate for conservation of the endangered species and land within Tsitsikamma National Forest, Jenny has lived an incredible life that is deeply tied to the delicate ecosystems within Tsitsikamma.
So compelled by Jenny’s story, I extended my time at Wild Spirit to become better acquainted with Jenny, the history of her property, and the protection of the land around it. With Wild Spirit as my base for the next week, I split my time between going on day excursions in the surrounding area and sitting on the veranda and listening to Jenny’s story.
Mornings were well spent swimming in the shallow lagoons of Salt River Mouth beach in Nature’s Way. Walks through the tangled forest in search of waterfalls and meditation spots on the property of Wild Spirit and lunches at small nearby farms, such as Nature’s Way Farm Stall, were my preferred way to pass many afternoons.
Other afternoons were passed wine tasting in the emerging ranging of Plettenberg Bay wineries, particularly known for their collection of sparkling wines. Sunsets were best enjoyed from one of the many viewpoints overlooking the forest from Wild Spirit.
A full-day adventure awaits avid hikers at Otter Trail or Robberg Nature Reserve, with trails in varying lengths extending through forests and steep cliffs overlooking crashing waves and seal colonies. For a unique dinner experience, head to Emily Moon, which is set back among expansive property overlooking the Bitou river.
Fifth Stop: Wine Country
After extending my stay at Wild Spirit, I also changed my end route, meaning I had to forgo two of the stops on my original Garden Route itinerary: Wilderness and Knysna. Instead, I headed to Stellenbosch for a couple of days of wine tasting before landing at a music festival in a valley outside of Cape Town.
The long drive to Stellenbosch cut through Swellendam and Boosmansbos Nature Reserve. Narrow roads wound their way through staggering cliffs and mesas. To break up the drive, I stopped by Joubert Tradauw Winery, a small, family-run private cellar in the Little Karoo region along the R62 route, before approaching the city lights of Stellenbosch, one of South Africa’s premiere wine regions and a popular college town.
A much too brief day of wine tasting brought me first to Demorgenzen, a historic estate with classical music being played to the grape vines. The second stop was Uva Mira, a family-run vineyard set atop a hill with sweeping views from the property.
Final Call: Cape Town
Leaving Stellenbosch with a long list of vineyards still to be explored, I headed to Elgin Valley, an expansive piece of land encircled by mountains in Overberg. After a few dazed, sunny, and muddy days at one of Cape Town’s most-loved arts and music festivals, I made the final 50 mile stretch of the drive back to Cape Town.
The serenity and excitement of the small mountain roads with ocean and forest views quickly gave way to highways and city views, a world away from the unpretentious farms, small towns, and forests that I just spent the past couple of weeks winding my way through. Sunburnt, covered in mud, and completely exhausted from the perfect adventure, I already began to daydream of my inevitable return to the Garden Route as I pulled into Cape Town.
Planning to stay in Cape Town a while? Be sure to check out Best Eats: Cape Town, South Africa.