An African Elegy – An Itinerary For A Road Trip In South Africa

Admittedly, we’re not ‘road trip geeks’ as such. But, if all road trips are like the one we went on in South Africa, then sign us up for many more. After much deliberation, we chose to spend our long summer break in South Africa owing to its reputation for fascinating wildlife encounters, adrenaline pumping adventures, long coastline, beautiful roads, and ever-changing landscapes. Boy, a smart decision it was! South Africa was well and truly ALL of it. Sitting on our plane back to India, we had just one feeling: WOW.

Literally, you will be surprised!

We tracked Cheetahs in the dark, played with Impalas, saw the sun setting sky on fire, watched in disbelief as the ocean smashed against tall cliffs, witnessed the Milky Way from our lil’ mountain home, drove along spotless roads, sipped on sinful wine, strolled along vineyards, hiked up staggering mountains, sunbathed on white sandy beaches….the list is quite endless. Irrespective of the kind of traveller you are, a road trip in South Africa has tons to offery.

We spent 23 days driving 2800 km along the length and breadth of the country in a tiny Chevy Spark. Fixating on an itinerary for your South Africa can be a daunting task. Here, we share a few ideas on where to go, what to do, and where to stay during your road trip in South Africa.

Also Read: Budgeting For Your Trip To South Africa – Tips & Detailed Financials


DAY 1- JOHANNESBURG

We’d heard a lot of horrible stories about Jo’burg that we chose to spend just one day here. To be fair, while its reputation as an ‘unsafe’ destination is a tad bit overdone, a day is good enough to get a hang of Jo’burg. It serves as an excellent introduction to the history of South Africa as the black-white divide isn’t any more evident than it is here.

We chose to go on a classic ‘Hop On Hop Off’ bus tour of the city which allowed us to understand a lot about the city’s past and present without having to find our feet. Our favourite stop on the tour was the well-curated ‘Apartheid Museum’. We did not go on a tour of ‘Soweto’ township as we were uncomfortable at the idea of intruding other’s privacy in the name of tourism.

A bird’s eye view of the ‘city of gold’

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • Use Uber to commute internally as it is the safest mode of transport. At all other times, stick to the bus.
  • Do not walk around with a camera around your neck or flashing your smartphones. Also, ensure you leave your passport and at least one credit/debit card in your hotel itself.

Where To Stay

We couchsurfed during our time in Jo’burg (Yes, a free stay!). But, AirBnB has several budget options for you to choose from. Try to ensure that the apartment is as close to Rosebank as possible.


DAY 2 & 3 – PILANESBERG

After a whirlwind day in Jo’burg, we rented a car with Hertz and drove down for our first ever safari to Pilanesberg National Park. We chose not to go to Kruger in spite of its reputation to avoid the massive crowds that come to Kruger and most importantly, to keep our budgets in check. Pilanesberg turned out to be a good choice as we not only spotted all the Big 5 animals but also a host of giraffes/ kudus/ impalas/ zebras.

Beyond the scheduled game drives wherein we were taken in a safari jeep by an experienced ranger, we also explored the park by driving on our own. It was a stirring experience to spot animals all by ourselves and play ranger for a while. We felt safe at all points!

Hidden away in those bushes are some of Africa’s most majestic creatures
Road trip in South Africa
Rhinos in Africa remain endangered due to poaching; Good reason to go see them soon

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • If you’re going on a self-drive, just follow the ranger vehicles for as much as you can since rangers usually know where to find the predators
  • Alternate options to Pilanesberg are Kruger National Park or Madikwe Game Reserve

Where To Stay

We stayed at the Pilanesberg Tented Camp, located at the Manyane Gate. Breakfast was served at the resort itself and we had access to all facilities of the resort. The tent itself was maintained incredibly well. We paid 26000 INR (400 USD) for 2 nights of stay inclusive of breakfast, dinner, and 4 game drives – an absolute steal!


DAY 4 & 5 – CHINTSA

After tracking the Big 5, we drove back to Jo’burg to catch our flight to East London nestled away in the ‘Wild Coast’ of South Africa. We picked up our car with Avis rental at the airport, a brand new Chevy Spark, and drove out to the coastal town of Chintsa. Wild Coast of SA may not be as popular as the Garden Route but it is a lot more rugged, and completely off the beaten path.

You could learn to surf, ride a horse on the beach, visit the local Rastafarian community who worship Bob Marley (hell yeah!), or take a peek into the life of the Xhosa people who live here to this day.

Waking up to this view in Chintsa – a top moment from our time in South Africa
Just a casual roadside scene in the Wild Coast – grazing horses

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • If you’ve the time and patience, drive from Jo’burg to Durban and then along the entire Wild Coast ranging from Coffee Bay to Chintsa. The roads are supposedly not in good shape but these areas are so off the tourist map that it is probably the best region in the country for a digital detox.

Where To Stay

In Chintsa, there’s really only one choice: the famous Buccaneers Backpackers. An institution in SA, the hostel-cum-guesthouse is located along the coast with stunning views of the sea as well as lagoon. It maybe worth splurging here and opting for a ‘private villa’ just for its gorgeous balcony. We’d originally booked for a private room in a shared villa but it was damp, overrun with geckos, and full of partying early 20s gap-year college kids. A private room will cost you 3000 INR (45 USD).


DAY 6 & 7 – HOGSBACK

If you’ve ever dreamt of seeing ‘The Shire’, you’ll love the mountain village of Hogsback. Tolkien, who was born in SA, spent a lot of time in Hogsback while penning LOTR and it isn’t hard to see why this could be the inspiration for fictional Mirkwood Forest. Red-flower trees reminiscent of Japanese cherry blossoms, lush green hillocks, hidden waterfalls, and a magical forest – Hogsback is a village straight out of a fairytale. With multiple hiking trails and cycling routes to pick from, it is also a top destination for outdoor lovers.

The flowers were in full bloom in the village of Hogsback, lifted right out of our dreams!
Any hike in Hogsback comes with such incredible vistas

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • If you’re travelling during the spring or winter (February – June), carry enough woollen clothes as the temperature can drop to 3-4 degree Celsius during the period

Where To Stay

We stayed at ‘Away With The Fairies’, a simple backpackers hostel situated at the edge of the village looking out into the stunning valley below. The dorms are well-maintained though it might be a smarter choice to opt for a private villa w/ attached bathroom. Every night, people sit around the fire staring at the starry sky, downing a few beers, and making a braai (South African version of barbeque): a true South African experience. Interestingly, most hiking trails start from the property itself.


DAY 8 & 9 – PORT ELIZABETH/ ADDO

The next stop on our gigantic road trip in South Africa was Port Elizabeth (PE) which served as a base to explore two key places: Addo Elephant National Park & Sardinia Bay. We had Addo fixed firmly onto our itinerary from the get-go since we wanted to see elephants in the wild. We went on a self-drive safari for a day using Port Elizabeth as a base. We completely lucked out as we came across many herds of Elephants, packs of Zebras, Kudus, Wild Buffalos, and so much more.

The beach at Sardinia Bay is by far one of the most stunning places we’ve ever come across. It isn’t ideal for sunbathing or swimming owing to the humongous sand dunes lining the ocean. But, watching the sun sink into the ocean while standing on top of a mini-desert is a moment that will linger in our minds for eons.

Addo is home to many African Elephants; This cutie refused to leave his mom’s shadow
roadtrip in south africa
A mini desert by the ocean side – such a bummer, right? 🙂

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • Stay in Port Elizabeth instead of the camps at Addo as it will save you on the accommodation cost. It is quite easy to do a self-drive safari starting from the North Gate towards South in less than a day. Aim to leave PE around 7:30 AM.
  • When visiting Sardinia Bay, stop off at the nearby ‘Grassroof Cafe’ to sample their famous ‘coffee in a waffle cone’ and to buy some fresh farm produce to take back home

Where To Stay

Port Elizabeth has plenty of AirBnB options, which might be the best bet for an affordable and comfortable stay. We stayed with Kevin here and thoroughly enjoyed our time with him.


DAY 10 & 11 – KNYSNA

Our first (and only) stop on the famed Garden route was the lagoon town of Knysna. The waterfront at Knysna with its artsy shops, docked yachts, and incredible restaurants became our second home as we spent most of our time here while in Knysna. Sample the famous Knysna Oysters, go for a run around the lagoon, or climb up to the Knysna Heads viewpoint to get a bird’s eye view of the ‘Heads’ which separates the lagoon and the sea.

Just half an hour’s drive away from Knysna, Wilderness is a must-stop destination for those who love outdoor activities. The beach at Wilderness is so special that our host in Knysna was convinced it had a soul to it. From quad biking to Segway tours, there’s no dearth of activities to do here. We chose to explore the slow Wilderness life on a kayak and had a whale of a time, especially when we rammed into the bushes and almost fell off into the river!

Drove up to the ‘view point’ to find this – Oh, Knysna!
If we ever go missing, maybe you want to look for us here. Just saying.

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • If you’re a daredevil, stop off at Bloukrans Bridge on your way from Port Elizabeth to Knysna to do the world’s highest bungy jump

Where To Stay:

AirBnB has a host of options in Knysna even though they’re on the costlier side. If you feel like spending a tad bit more, check out wheretostay.co.za for incredible cottage options in Knysna. Prices start from around 3500 INR (55 USD).


DAY 12 – OUDTSHOORN

Our road trip in South Africa took a different turn here as we got off the Garden Route skipping its popular seaside towns in favour of the less-treaded Route 62 that passes through the semi-arid region of Karoo. Oudtshoorn was on our itinerary only for one reason – Ostriches. The ‘Ostrich Capital Of The World’ is the perfect place to visit an Ostrich farm and learn everything about the magnificent creatures. If you’re into exotic food, some of the best Ostrich dishes can be devoured here. We found it a bit hard to consume them after spending a day learning about their lives.

Such a small town that you could have a picnic by the road
Hey you, what you lookin’ at mate?

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • Cango Caves is a popular tourist spot near Oudtshoorn. While it is an interesting site with a strong history, you could skip it if you’re not into history/ science deeply. 
  • Cango Wildlife Ranch, on the other hand, is worth a visit even though it is crowded on most days. Creatures that you might not find in the open in Africa, including Madagascar Lemurs, can be found at this conservation centre.

Where To Stay

Since we were here only for a night, we stayed at the Karoo Soul Backpackers in a dorm room. A cute house converted into a traveller’s lodge, it is a barebones-style lodge but does the job for a night. Bathrooms are shared but you can opt for a private room. Prices are under 2000 INR (25 USD) per night for a private room and about 650 INR (10 USD) per person per night for the dorm.


DAY 13 & 14 – BARRYDALE

After a tête-à-tête with Ostriches, we took the Route 62 to Barrydale traversing beautiful lil’ towns on the way. Calitzdorp is a fantastic choice for a quick break as the port wine here is world popular. The wine tasting at De Kraans Estate was an amazing affair, especially given the fact that it is absolutely free. After drowning ourselves in the region’s exquisite port wine, we drove to Barrydale, a Victorian-era town with a rocky backdrop.

It didn’t take us long to fall in love with this lil’ farming town. This tourist-free town with its whitewashed houses, rolling grasslands, charming cafes, and free wandering horses transported us to a bygone era. We completely slowed down here for a couple of days living the farm life, a much-needed break from all the driving.

To think this was once a ‘barn’; Such is life in Barrydale
One could walk around the entire town of Barrydale in half an hour, yet we stayed on for a couple of days!

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • The town goes into hibernation for 3 months, between May and August, as most hotels/ cafes/ homestays are shut down for the long winter.
  • Stop off at Ronnie’s Sex Shop on the way to Barrydale. Grab a beer, strike up a conversation with locals, and admire the sex-themed highway pub.

Where To Stay

We absolutely loved our stay at the Blue Cow Barn Boutique Farm stay. The ‘Cookes’, our hosts at the barn, went out of their way to make us feel comfortable. Their dog, Trinity, became our best friend and their cafe, ‘The Blue Cow’, became our favourite breakfast spot in the whole world. Order a french press coffee, cake of the day, and a full plate of farmer’s breakfast – you’ll be in absolute heaven. The cottage cost us 2600 INR per night (~40 USD).


DAY 15 to 21 – CAPE TOWN

All the roads in South Africa eventually lead to the ‘Mother City’, Cape Town. A multi-faceted city set in the backdrop of the 200 million year old natural wonder, Table Mountain, Cape Town is easily one of the planet’s most absorbing city. Beaches? Yea. Hikes? Yea. A World Wonder? Yea. Gardens? Yea. Penguins? Yea. Cafes? Yea. Vineyards? Yea. Mouth-watering food? Hell yea! Cape Town is a complete package and an absolute must during a road trip in South Africa.

If you haven’t figured yet, sunsets in South Africa will drop your jaws, we guarantee you!
Mother City’ in all its glory, as seen from the top of Lion’s Head

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • We do not recommend that you take the famous cable car to the top of the Table Mountain. It is pricey and the views are much clearer/ better from the top of Lion’s Head.
  • Aim to spend a bare minimum of 5 days here as there is no dearth of activities to do or things to see.

Where To Stay

If you’re a solo traveller, we suggest you stay at the Atlantic Point Backpackers, a much-revered hostel in Greenpoint. As a couple/ group, the best value for money is apartment rentals via Airbnb. We suggest you find a location closer to the waterfront, preferably around Woodstock, as it has the best access to most parts of the city. Avoid rentals towards Kalk Bay/ Hout Bay as they’re quite away from the main centre.


DAY 22  – STELLENBOSCH

Probably the most dramatic way to draw curtains to your incredible trip to South Africa is by gulping down on wine in the dramatic setting of Stellenbosch. From Michelin-starred restaurants to world popular wineries, Stellenbosch packs a punch if you’re a foodie or a wine aficionado. Even if you’re neither, the incredible setting of Stellenbosch is the perfect place to sink into the chair and admire the wonder that South Africa is.

Incessant quantities of wine with such views to gawk at – Stellenbosch for you, people!
Just keep a track of how much wine you down cuz you could easily just get lost…

Beyond The Wall Tip:

  • For as little as 150-200 INR (2-3 USD), you could taste wines at most wineries, including at high-end options like Tokara. Choose to eat outside of the winery to save some $$
  • Stellenbosch is only about an hour’s drive away from Cape Town. You could choose to do this as a day trip from Cape Town.

Where To Stay

There are endless options for stay in Stellenbosch even though most of them are mid-luxury to luxury. If budgets are no constraint for you (or if you’d like to splurge for a change), here are some of the best options in Stellenbosch. For the budget-conscious travellers like us, booking.com has fairly affordable options. A decent option for a budget of 3000 INR (45 USD) is the Marianne Wine Estate.


SUGGESTED ITINERARIES

There, a 3-week itinerary for a magical road trip in South Africa. If you’re on a tighter schedule, here are some suggested itineraries:

1-week in SA

  • Day 1-3: Fly into Jo’burg; Transfer directly to Pilanesberg/ Madikwe for a 2-day safari
  • Day 3-6: Cape Town (Fly via domestic airlines like Mango/ Safair/ Kulula)
  • Day 7: Stellenbosch

2-weeks in SA

  • Day 1-3: Jo’burg + Pilanesberg/ Madikwe for a safari
  • Day 4: Fly to Port Elizabeth; Visit Sardinia Bay
  • Day 5-6: Knysna & Wilderness (Could include Bloukrans Bungy)
  • Day 7-8: Barrydale via Oudtshoorn*
  • Day 9-13: Cape Town
  • Day 14: Stellenbosch

*If you prefer the coastal route over the desert route, continue to Hermanus from Knysna. Stop off at Cape L’Agulhas, southern-most point of the African continent, and go shark-cage diving in Gansbaai.


VISA FOR INDIANS

South Africa visa from India should be applied via the official agents, VFS, just like European visa. VFS has centres in multiple Indian cities wherein you can put in your application by walking in with the form along with necessary documentation. Here is the ink to VFS page for all details of visitor visa. The visa fee is 2100 INR (32 USD), as of May 2017.

Important: Once you receive the visa, cross-check the entry/exit conditions. The first visa we received had wrong details and we had to send it back for error correction. We strongly recommend that you apply at least 6 weeks in advance to avoid any last minute rush!


Nobody can beat Mama Africa, you follow the beat that she’s gonna give ya ~ Makeba by Jain

Without an inch of doubt, we’ve not seen the variety of landscapes we saw in South Africa anywhere else in the world. A fantastic destination for a road trip, a perfect choice for a honeymoon, or even to track some of the most majestic wild animals – a trip to South Africa is one you’ll remember.

If you’re not convinced by our words, here are 20 images from South Africa that will blow your mind!

Read Part 2 – How To Enjoy A Trip To South Africa On A Budget – to unlock secret tips on saving money while in SA! 

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