Exploring South Africa on a self-drive is easier than you think with Kuoni’s help. Our Africa expert, Siobhan O’Halleran, takes to the open road to discover why the Garden Route is the ultimate road trip and shares her top driving tips.
South Africans drive on the same side of the road as us in the UK. That was a huge reassurance to me as we left the comforts of the beautiful Twelve Apostles Hotel & Spa in Cape Town behind and ventured out onto the coastal road. A few nights in Cape Town had been the perfect start to our time in the country but the real adventure was about to begin; getting behind the wheel to discover exactly why the Garden Route is South Africa’s ultimate road trip.
It turns out that it’s with good reason. The Garden Route’s coastline seduces travellers with miles of sandy beaches and glistening waters where whales breach just offshore, while peaceful lagoons, lush forest and dramatic mountains await to lure you inland. Add in the gently rolling hills of the Winelands and the roaming wildlife of the Eastern Cape’s game reserves and you’ll soon see why South Africa raises the bar in self-drives. The best bit? Distances between diverse destinations aren’t as huge as in other countries; here they’re often just an hour or two apart.
It’s less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town to the picturesque Winelands centred around the pretty towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. This region provides a very different view of South Africa, with its French Huguenot influence dominating the food and the architecture. Historic Stellenbosch is a vibrant university town, where cool cafés, wine bars and restaurants spill out into the oak-lined streets.
There’s a real outdoorsy vibe and, aside from the essential wine tasting, attractions include walking tours, open-air art and hiking trails. A 30-minute drive away, Franschhoek (‘French corner’) is South Africa’s gourmet capital. This quiet town is essentially one main street yet there are over 30 restaurants in the valley, including a fine dining Indian eatery and a microbrewery serving Mexican tapas. Driving to Franschhoek doesn’t mean missing out on sampling the region’s classic chenin blancs and full-bodied pinotages. Simply leave the car at your hotel and step aboard the hop-on-hop-off Franschhoek wine tram, which travels between wine estates including the breathtaking Mont Rochelle, or book one of our group or private wine tours. The food and drink is astoundingly good value, even at the very top end.
Car and driving tips
• Ask your car hire company to deliver your vehicle to your Cape Town hotel for an effortless start to your self-drive
• You’ll need to pay for petrol in cash or with a debit card. Petrol stations have forecourt attendants so you don’t need to get out of your vehicle to fill up. The attendants will normally also clean your windscreen while you wait; tips are at your discretion
• Pull over to the left (while continuing to drive) to let faster vehicles pass on the right. If you’re the one doing the overtaking, flash your hazards to say thanks afterwards
• Many of the national roads between major towns are toll roads, so it’s a good idea to have some smaller notes with you.
The Garden Route
The Garden Route stretches between Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay and is dream self-drive territory. The main highway (the N2) runs along the coast, is easy to navigate, and has little traffic compared to the UK. The seaside town of Hermanus is one of the most popular stops along the Garden Route particularly between July and November when migrating southern right whales can be spotted within 30 metres of the shore.
The stand-out place to stay in this region is Grootbos Nature Reserve a sleek and secluded eco-paradise that lies on the opposite side of the bay from Hermanus. This National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World has spectacular views over 6100 acres of pristine wilderness to the sweeping coastline, sparkling waters and hazy mountains beyond. You’ll want to stay a few nights. One day you could be learning about the reserve’s rich flora and fauna on a botanical safari and taking a picnic to a deserted white-sand beach; the next, watching whales breach offshore and following a lantern-lit trail through ancient forest for a traditional boma dinner. It’s easy to drive to Grootbos and once you’ve parked up at reception a super-efficient guide will whisk your car to a spot closer to your room before you’ve even checked in.
Other highlights along the Garden Route include watching the crashing surf and talented paragliders in Wilderness; trekking across sand dunes, rocky headlands and cliff-side trails in the Robberg Nature Reserve; and heading out on an oyster cruise on Knysna’s calm lagoon. Dining out in Knysna is a must. The waterfront here is like a mini version of Cape Town’s famous V&A Waterfront and the fresh seafood is some of the best you’ll taste.
Half an hour from Knysna, the South Africans’ favourite seaside spot of Plettenberg Bay (‘Plett’ to the locals) is another great option for an overnight stay, where The Plettenberg hotel has epic coastal views. Or for something a little different, Hog Hollow Country Lodge is a rustic retreat nestled in a forest canopy with views towards the Tsitsikamma Mountains. It’s stunning and oh-so-peaceful; morning tea on your balcony with just the birds and monkeys for company is the perfect meditative start to the day before continuing on your drive.
We provide travel journals with our self-drives that include a personalised day-by-day itinerary, directions, a road atlas and VIP card offering discounts at local attractions.
Eastern Cape game reserves
The malaria-free Eastern Cape has several top Big Five game reserves, like Shamwari, known for its excellent conservation efforts and Born Free sanctuaries, and Kariega, a coastal wilderness set between the Kariega and Bushman’s rivers. Driving independently through a game reserve might seem like a walk too far on the wild side, but you’ll just be driving from the reserve gate to your lodge, with your game drives in the wider reserve taken care of by a driver/guide. The lodges here are well set up for guests with cars; Kariega Main Lodge even has parking spaces outside each of its chalets. In just a couple of days at Kariega you could head out on game drives in open-topped 4x4 vehicles spotting herds of elephant and magnificent lion; get up close with impala and giraffe on walking safaris; and sip gin and tonics out in the bush at sunset – a thrilling end to a first-time South Africa road trip.
This feature was published on 16 April 2018. The information within this feature is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of print.