Mountains, beaches, cities, wine, lions or penguins? There’s no decision to be made — Duncan Craig’s epic two-week road trip takes them all in.
It’s the scale that gets you first. Towering escarpments. Acacia-studded plains you feel could swallow the UK whole. More than 1,600 miles of coastline — mostly the powdery, creamy kind. Add to that the culinary flair, the rainbow multiculturalism, the wine, the battlefields, the cities and the wildlife, and you’re left with the most agreeable of quandaries — where on earth do I start?
Well, how about right here, with a two-week itinerary that’s breathless (sorry), but never less than breathtaking? Six years ago, the exchange rate stood at 10 rand to the pound. Today, it’s nearly 20. So don’t hold back.
Two caveats: South Africa is not without its social problems, and crime levels are high. While most tourists encounter no problems, take the usual precautions: lock your car and keep an eye on valuables.
You’ll also need a change of mindset regarding driving. South Africans think nothing of jumping in the car and travelling several hours for a braai. A neighbour’s braai. So you’ll need to buckle up and knuckle down.
On the plus side, the roads are good, they drive on the left and you’ll have ample time to acquaint yourself with some local tunes. My tips? Miriam Makeba (aka Mama Africa), Karen Zoid and, for windows-down rocking out, Springbok Nude Girls.
Day 1: Johannesburg
Jet-lagged? Stop fibbing. SA is just two hours ahead of GMT, and flights arrive about the time your morning alarm would be going off. So, assuming you slept on the plane, you’re good to go. Take the Gautrain to the affluent district of Sandton (£8; gautrain.co.za) and dump your bags at the Radisson Blu (doubles from £71;radissonblu.com).
That 8th-floor sun deck and outdoor pool will have to wait. Your driver is in reception, as arranged, ready to whisk you off on a Gauteng double-header: the Cradle of Humankind, a network of walkway-served limestone caves where fossils of some of man’s earliest known ancestors have been found; and, to the southwest of the city (hence the portmanteau name), the township of Soweto. Once synonymous with the evils of apartheid, the sprawling suburb has flourished in recent years, with a lively restaurant and bar scene. You’re booked on a bike tour, on which you’ll grab a drink in a traditional shebeen and visit Vilakazi Street, the only road in the world boasting two Nobel laureates — Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela — as former residents (full-day tour from £74; bigsixtoursafaris.com).
Day 2: Clarens
You’ll be up early to pick up your hire car from the adjacent Avis. (Aim for something sturdy, with freezer-strength air-con.) You’re driving due south for just over three hours (pah!) to Clarens, the Jewel of the Free State, a pretty, willow-shaded town of cutesy cottages, galleries and craft shops ringed by imposing sandstone cliffs. Get out among them with a hike on one of the themed, marked trails, taking in plantations, rock outcrops (one named after the Titanic) and Bushman paintings.
Bed down, as Brad Pitt did when he visited, at the Lake Clarens Guest House, for lake views and owner Bruce’s lavish breakfast (from £48;lakeclarensgh.co.za). Like the smell of that mountain air? You’ll be enjoying rather a lot of it…
Days 3-4: Drakensberg
The scenery, like the gradient, ramps up and up today. First, the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, named after its imposing, sun-burnished cliffs. Look out for eland antelopes, black-backed jackals and bearded vultures as you pootle through (£8; sanparks.org), then bear south to the Royal Natal National Park, just across the provincial border in KwaZulu-Natal. This is the northern tip of the Drakensberg, the escarpment known to the Zulus — with characteristic descriptive flair — as the Barrier of Spears. Three miles wide, with sheer 4,000ft cliffs and the world’s second highest waterfall, the Amphitheatre is your obvious target.
Montusi Mountain Lodge is one of the nearest bases for this, and offers two options: a free, leisurely hike to the bottom and a six-hour guided expedition to the summit, including a dip in the natural plunge pool 30ft from the edge of the abyss (£116 for two, including transfers and lunch; montusi.co.za).
If you go for it, you’ll need most of the next day to recover by the pool and Instagram your scarcely believable shots. Two-person Garden Suites start at £180, full-board (montusi.co.za).
Day 5-6: Rorke’s Drift
South Africa has been the site of some epic martial encounters, which continue to resonate to this day (with assistance from Michael Caine et al). You’re on your way to the site of perhaps the most famous: the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, in 1879. Break the journey in Ladysmith, where the Siege Museum commemorates the 118-day encirclement of British troops in the town during the Second Boer War — a siege ended by the arrival of an army accompanied by an eager young war correspondent named Winston Churchill.
You’re staying a couple of hours further on, at Fugitives Drift Lodge, which is set on a 5,000-acre heritage site overlooking the battlefields of Isandlwana (crushing defeat for the Brits) and Rorke’s Drift (victory against overwhelming odds). Some of the Zulu guides are descended from veterans of the battles, and the tours are emotionally charged affairs. Fishing in the Buffalo River the following afternoon is the perfect way to recover and reflect (from £79 a night; tours from £42, fishing £7; fugitivesdrift.com).
Day 6-7: Durban
Nearly a week in, and not yet felt the sand between your toes? Don’t panic — there’s plenty to go round in the trendy Durban suburb of Umhlanga (“oom-shlanga”), a four-hour drive south. The most exclusive hang-out is the ocean-front Oyster Box (doubles from £195; oysterboxhotel.com). You’ve splurged on two nights here. Swan around a pool deck colour-coordinated with the red and white of the adjacent lighthouse, and try to work out if that really is a humpback you can see from your sunlounger. It is.
Venture into Durban itself for two exhilarating (in their very different ways) experiences. Built for the 2010 football World Cup, the conspicuously grand Moses Mabhida Stadium is silencing white-elephant naysayers with its Big Rush Big Swing. Leap from a platform beneath the arch and swing in a 720ft arc over the pitch (£37; bigrush.co.za).
Follow this with bunny chow — a curry served in a hollowed-out loaf — during a walking tour of spice-infused Victoria Market, the culinary epicentre of Afro-Asian Durban (£24; streetscene. co.za). Don’t, whatever you do, be tempted to tackle these in reverse order.
Day 8-9: Amakhala Game Reserve
Drop your (first) hire car at King Shaka airport and board your flight to Port Elizabeth with the splendidly irreverent Kulula airlines — its safety announcements are YouTube sensations (from £85, one-way; kulula.com). Hire car No 2 will be waiting for you. Got your big- five checklist ready? You’re off on safari.
There are nearly a dozen camps dotted around the 18,000 acres of the Eastern Cape’s top game reserve. We’d suggest Woodbury Tented Camp, set on a hillside overlooking the flood plain of the Bushman’s River (from £124 a night; amakhala.co.za). It’s supremely comfortable — cocktails by the pool, freestanding baths, heated blankets — and you can take morning and evening game drives and river cruises in search of everything from fish eagles and the regal gemsbok to rhinos, elephants and lions. Can you feel the love tonight? Of course you can.
Day 10-11: The garden route
It’s one of the loveliest long-distance drives in the world, and it begins (or ends) at Storms River, west of Port Elizabeth. En route, you’ll pass through the surf capital, Jeffreys Bay, which is said to have the best right-hand break in the world. It’s where the pro surfer Mick Fanning escaped a great-white attack last year. By punching it. Coffee or dip? Make up your own mind.
Once on the Garden Route, your first stop is Nature’s Valley, a dozy village of wooden chalets enveloped by indigenous forest, with a glinting sickle of white beach. The silence is striking, and there are interpretation boards to help you make sense of the dizzying list of flora and fauna. The tree with dozens of hiking boots hanging from it, note, is not indigenous — it’s a ritual for walkers completing the five-day Otter Trail, which finishes here (tsitsikamma.info).
You’re staying for two nights at the nearby Hog Hollow Country Lodge, in the foothills of the Tsitsikamma Mountains (doubles from £88; hog-hollow.com). The peace and isolation belie the fact that you’re only 10 miles from Plettenberg Bay, or “Plet”, the Garden Route’s main resort. It’s colonised by wealthy Gautengers (residents of Jo’burg and Pretoria) at Christmas, but at all other times, you’ll have its lagoons and long, sheltered beaches pretty much to yourself.
Day 12: Franschhoek
Time for your final push west, on the N2. Break the five-hour drive with a long lunch in Swellendam, the republic’s third oldest town. The Old Gaol, on Church Square, serves traditional dishes such as bobotie — a spicy meat concoction with an egg-based topping — and milktart, a custard tart baked in a copper pan, in its tree-shaded garden (mains from £5; oldgaolrestaurant.co.za).
You may have picked up enough Afrikaans by now to know that Franschhoek means “French corner”. The town was founded in 1688 by Huguenots fleeing persecution by Louis XIV, and they brought their wine-making knowledge with them. If you’re on schedule, you’ll be arriving just as the sun starts to dip over the Cape Dutch homes and mountain-framed vineyards.
Check into Le Ballon Rouge, a restored turn-of-the-century homestead (doubles from £50; ballon-rouge.co.za), then take your pick of the many excellent restaurants. Le Bon Vivant, for a modern take on classic French dishes and a lovely little outdoor terrace, is ours (mains from £7;lebonvivant.co.za).
Day 13-14: Cape Town
Cape Town is your final stop, and what a denouement. Africa’s most attractive city is just an hour’s drive away, so enjoy a leisurely morning in Franschhoek, browsing the galleries and boutiques — Art in the Yard (artintheyard.co.za) and Ebony (ebonycurated.com) are particularly good.
The Grand Daddy hotel, on thrumming Long Street, is your Cape Town base. You’re in one of the vintage Airstreams on the roof, naturally (from £122; granddaddy.co.za). Fix your hair in the polished aluminium reflection, then head out. Just the one sightseeing duty to tick off this afternoon: Table Mountain, via the rotating cableway. More than 25m people have ridden this since it opened in 1929, and few will have been disappointed by the views from the 3,563ft summit (£13; tablemountain.net).
Don’t linger — your presence is required for sunset just over the mountain pass, in Camps Bay. The chic, affluent suburb has a decidedly Miami vibe. On Victoria Road — aka “sunset strip” — tables spill onto streets and expensive cocktails spill onto tables. Get yourself a Tuscan Mistress at Cafe Caprice and bed in for the show (cocktails from £3; cafecaprice.co.za).
Cape Town is at the vanguard of South African gastronomy, and a Brit, Luke Dale-Roberts, is setting the pace. You’ve got a reservation at his hot new opening, the Shortmarket Club. Mrs D-R, Sandalene, is behind the private members’ club-style interior, while in the open kitchen, Luke and the team cook up dishes such as crispy octopus, lamb rump with fennel seed-roasted leeks and apple pie with custard made from vintage brandy (mains from £7; theshortmarketclub.co.za).
Finish your night at Tjing Tjing, an attic bar back in the City Bowl. You may even be able to see your trailer from there — a pick-up line if ever we heard one (drinks from £3; tjingtjing.co.za).
Your final day in the country is a magical little loop around the Cape Peninsula, initially following the Twelve Apostles range along the Atlantic seaboard to the fishing town of Hout Bay. You know a stretch of road is going to be pretty special when it has its own website. Hewn out of the rock, following a 600m-year-old Cape Granite contour, Chapman’s Peak Drive is an engineering marvel that weaves its way for 5½ precipitous miles from here, before spitting you out at Noordhoek, a rustic hamlet with an improbably vast beach (£2; chapmanspeakdrive.co.za).
Don’t get your swimmers out quite yet; you’re cutting up and over the peninsula to the warmer Indian Ocean side. There’s a Seychelles flavour to the rock formations at Boulders Beach. Less so to the wildlife: thousands of braying African penguins, which you can mingle with and view from boardwalks (£3 a day; sanparks.org).
An evening flight to London means you can tell your neighbours that only yesterday you were patting penguins at the tip of Africa. Don’t pat them.
Save for next time
Kruger National Park; Pretoria in spring; Oudtshoorn and the Little Karoo; Robben Island; Cape Point.
When to go
Horses for courses. May to September if safari is your focus; it’s the dry season, so bush visibility is better. November to March if it’s a Cape-based beach holiday. Avoid the Drakensberg in winter (June, July and August), when temperatures can be subzero.
South African Airways has direct flights to Johannesburg and home from Cape Town from £964 (£597 if booked before September 27). BA flies the same route from £984 (£695 before Friday).
Audley Travel can organise a similar 14-night itinerary, including flights, car hire and B&B stays at many of the hotels above, from £2,900pp (01993 838000, audleytravel.com). Or try Africa Travel (020 7843 3500, africatravel.com).