“All journeys have hidden destinations of which the traveler is unaware” – Martine Buber
South Africa is no exception when it comes to the countless hidden gems spread across the Eastern and Western Cape. If you really want to indulge in the best of this rainbow nation in the most intimate way possible then a road trip in South Africa should be one of the must do item on your itinerary.
We did our South African road trip in two phase. The Garden Route drive followed by the Cape Peninsula drive. In this post, I will describe our Garden route drive in details.
The Garden Route is one of the best-kept secrets of South Africa. It’s a part of the highway N2 stretching from Heidelberg in the Western Cape to Storms River in the Eastern Cape that offers panoramic vistas of the coast and mainland as you drive by.
So kick your feet up and enjoy one of the most beautiful drives in this world through our eyes as we take you through the finer details of this amazing experience.
Warning: This is a +2000 words post with a lot of pictures. So get yourself a comfy chair and some popcorns. Who knows you might just end up driving the Garden Route after reading this post 🙂 . Also, don’t forget to read our useful “Road Trip in South Africa Tips” at the end of this post.
Planning our road trip in South Africa
Our first stop in South Africa was Kruger National Park (Check our Kruger itinerary here). Initially, we planned to fly from Kruger to Cape Town and start our road trip in South Africa from there. Thanks to some great advice from the Trip Advisor community we quickly saw the inherent flaw in this plan. This meant driving twice the same distance as our return flight was scheduled from Cape Town.
We had 7 days in total to explore the Garden Route and Cape Peninsula and driving twice was not a wise choice. Also, I had plans to bungy from the world’s tallest bridge bungy at Bloukrans which falls almost at the end of the Garden Route.
Thanks to the Trip Advisor folks, we refined our plan one step at a time and after about a week of research, we finally crafted our itinerary perfectly customized to our needs and timeline.
Based on the feedbacks from TA forums we skipped Cape Town altogether at the start. We decided to fly to George instead, located almost at the middle of this route and start our Garden Route drive from Knysna, a very beautiful and colorful town about 60 km from George. We chose to start our drive from Knysna for two main reasons. First, because Knysna is one of the hidden gems along the garden route. And second, because Bloukrans is about 60kms from Knysna. So it was our optimum halt for sightseeing and bungy.
Road Trip in South Africa Day 1: Jo’berg to George
After our 2 days in Kruger, we took an early morning flight from Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport to Jo’berg connecting to George. The flight to George was a hell of an experience. After 3 failed attempts at landing because of visibility issues, the pilots decided to fly to Port Elizabeth. We were really stressed out at this point as we saw all our plans go down the drain. We had 2 nights stay planned in Knysna and getting stuck in Port Elizabeth meant replanning everything. Thankfully after two stress full hours at Port Elizabeth, the captain announced about the weather clearing a little bit in George and off we hit the tarmac in the next few minutes.
Back in George, we landed at the second attempt to a roaring sound of cheers and claps from the passengers. What a relief it was. The pilots and cabin crew were hilarious on the PA this whole time. We were really surprised because this was our first time with such a fantastic cabin crew that tried to diffuse tension with humor. And it was fun, even at the most turbulent moments 🙂 .
So we landed about 3 hours behind schedule at around 3 pm but enough daylight left to reach Knysna on time. George is a small airport. We collected our luggage and dashed to the Hertz office right in front of the terminal for our pre-booked rental car. Half an hour of formalities and finally we hit the road.
You drive on the left-hand side in South Africa and this was to my advantage.
The weather in George was pathetic. It was pouring in and the sky was dark and gloomy and so was our mood. In a single day, we shifted from sunny Kruger to a rainy George. And we weren’t expecting anything better in Knynsa.
This is kind of a jinx now for us. Bad weather follows us everywhere we go and mostly screws 3-4 days of our trip. We reached Knysna at around 5:30 pm. We booked our stay in a cliffside guest house (Headlands Guest House) with panoramic views of the Indian Ocean. We usually prefer small boutique hotels to big commercial ones and with the awesome view Headlands offered, this one was just perfect for us.
The gloom in the weather was well compensated by the warm hospitality of our guest house owner and two cups of hot coffee. Our coveted view though was only partially visible because of the dense mist.
Road Trip in South Africa Day 2: Knysna and Bloukrans
We woke up to a rainy morning again. The weather was damp. We started early morning to Tsitsikamma where Bloukrans Bridge is located. Bloukrans for my bungy Yeay! I was so pumped up to jump from the highest bridge bungy. The Bloukrans bridge is about 70km from Knysna towards Port Elizabeth. The drive took us about an hour and a half.
Bloukrans Bridge Bungy is the world’s highest commercial bridge bungy at 216 meters (709 feet) above the Bloukrans River operated by Face Adrenalin commercially since 1997. It is located on the N2 Highway at the border between the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape in the Tsitsikamma area.
As we entered the area, all my excitement fizzled in a moment. The Bridge was nearly invisible because of the dense fog and it was raining heavily. I was so badly disappointed. This was my only chance and the weather ruined it. Although jumps were still possible it would have been like jumping in a vacuum with nothing to see around but just white. After waiting for about 2 hours hoping for the weather to clear a bit we finally called it a day. The drive back was agonizingly painful.
By mid-day, we were back in Knysna and spent the rest of the day exploring the town amidst the mist and rain. We drove around Knysna lagoon which has pretty amazing views (which obviously we couldn’t see much) and Knysna Heads. The Knysna Heads are a pair of gigantic sea cliffs that separates the lagoon from the open ocean.
We spent the evening at Knysna waterfront. The area is packed with fantastic restaurants and has a spectacular view but because of the dark clouds, mist, and rain, the view was kind of dull that day. There were no popping colors. So the lesson learnt is that if possible plan for a sunny day in Knysna to experience the views exactly as shown in pictures.
Road Trip in South Africa Day 3 – Knysna to Stellenbosch
We started early on our 3rd morning as we had to drive about 500km to Stellenbosch, our next stop on the way to Cape Town. Half of my heart was wandering back to Bloukrans Bridge and I really wanted to make a detour but the weather forecast predicted rain that day too. So finally we ended up driving the straight route ahead.
The rain subsided as soon as we were out of Knysna and the sky started to clear up. Slowly the moods started to alleviate inside the car especially with the incredible scenery on both sides of the road. Pretty soon all the agony from Bloukrans was replaced by the ecstasy of being on the road.
The scenery is hard to describe in words. Sometimes we were driving straight for kilometers through an endless stretch of diverse and densely populated natural flora and sometimes curving our way along a hilly road with an amazing view of the ocean and beaches beneath. At times we could see the road for kilometers up ahead because of the undulating nature of the terrain. One particular highlight was a herd of wild ostriches running at distance against a backdrop of dark clouds approaching from the horizon.
The local driving culture is amazing and very polite. Cars didn’t honk or flash headlights for a pass but just kept trailing until we gave way.
Don’t be surprised if a passing car flashes its emergency lights after crossing you. It’s just the local way of saying Thanks for the pass! We really got confused at this gesture at first. Each passing car flashing emergency lights at us. Is something wrong with our car? But a little gossip with the locals cleared the air. We began flashing too afterward 🙂 .
We drove around Mossel Bay, one of the three main seaside towns along the Garden Route. Knysna and Plettenberg Bay being the other two.
The view of Mossel Bay from the top of the cliff while driving along N2 is spectacular. We actually parked at a viewpoint on the cliff for this view and clicked a lot of pictures.
Our next stop was Riversdale, a cozy little town with pastel colored homes. We had a quick lunch here before proceeding on N2 towards Heidelberg.
Reaching Heidelberg officially meant the end of our Garden Route drive. But in no way, this meant the end of our adventure on road. Just for your information, the scenery gets better and better as you head towards Stellenbosch. From Heidelberg, we drove to Swellendam before taking the R60 via Paarl to Stellenbosch. From Swellendam, you can continue on N2 also to Stellenbosch. That’s like 10 km less than our route 🙂 .
From Swellendam, the terrain becomes mountainous. The landscape is different compared to Garden Route and has a soul of its own. On one side we had the semi-naked mountains with scarce vegetation glistening in the sun and on the other side vast grasslands stretching to the horizon.
After a marathon 8 hours behind the wheels, our Garden Route drive finally ended in Stellenbosch, South Africa’s wine country. The perfect place to unwind for the next two nights and recharge for our Cape Peninsula drive. For details on our wine adventure, you can refer to our post on wine tour Stellenbosch.
If you are here, first a super huge thanks for your patience and let’s discuss quickly our Pirate Tips for a wonderful road trip in South Africa.
Tips for Road Trip in South Africa
- Driving is on the left-hand side of the road. So you will have to adjust accordingly if you drive on the right-hand side.
- Most of the Garden Route drive is one-way traffic. So it reduces the left hand-right hand confusion.
- Both manual and automatic cars are available to rent. I was more comfortable with the manual transmission and went with it. The manual transmission is cheaper too compared to automatic.
- We picked our car at George airport and dropped at Cape Town airport before our departure. This was very convenient at a little extra price.
- Driving culture is amazing and people are very polite on the road. Check your rear view mirror frequently for any trailing car. People are too polite to honk or flash headlights for a pass.
- Google Maps work perfectly well for navigation and we had connectivity for all the time I remember. We never used our car GPS while on the road. Figured it was way tougher to configure than we imagined. You can actually leave it out which will reduce some of the rental cost. Just make sure to have a car charger to have your cell phone alive all the time.
- The drive is smooth and roads are good. Trip advisor says there’re repair work going on most of the time although we were lucky we didn’t find any.
- If you don’t have any specific need than a simple manual hatchback can do the job. We rented a Ford Figo and it worked pretty well on plains as well as hills. Although I heard comments from some of the travelers about hatchbacks having not enough power especially driving in hills. Personally, I never found any issue with our hatchback. So I guess the rental company might make a difference.
To summarize it, our road trip in South Africa was one epic adventure that will remain etched in our memory forever. We drove for about 1000 kilometers and experienced the rainbow nation up close, explored the hidden gems, braved some bad weather and gathered some amazing memories to cherish for a long time.
We would be really glad if this post could help anyone in planning a garden route drive. Do let us know of your thoughts on the same.
Signing off for now……..