If you’ve stepped foot in South Africa and allowed yourself enough time to explore, you can attest to the fact that its beauty is unrivaled. I’m yet to visit another country that holds such diversity in its land and people.
From the large expanse of semi-desert north of the lush, green pockets near the coast and the mountains which soar thousands of meters into the sky. You can journey from golden fields in the Drakensberg through unspoiled bays and rural villages in the Wild Coast until you reach the ripe vineyards of the Western Cape.
While this list is by no means exhaustive and there are so many nooks and dorps (small towns) I’m yet to discover in our land, these are some places I fell in love with during our recent South African road trip. A month was way too short, but I take comfort in the fact that this is the country I call home. And that hopefully I have a lifetime to explore it’s every corner.
1. Bulungula, The Wild Coast
Tucked far away from any main roads, cities and bustle, Bulungula backpackers lodge is well off any beaten track. It was a beautiful reminder that we do in fact live in Africa. A place where the river meets the unspoilt ocean, where young boys fish for their supper and cows graze on every hill. Emerald, thatched huts decorate each hillside village and clouds explode over patches of farmland and children play with their chickens. Where piglets, goats and cows have the right of way and where Xhosa families live off the land taking only what they need and no more. A rural land where living is still simple and you have the chance to switch off and slow down.
2. Cape Town, The Western Cape
This cosmopolitan city by the sea needs no introduction, but even as a Capetonian by birth, I find new and vibrant elements to enjoy here. Markets popping up around the city, open-air cinema in our world famous botanical gardens or townships finding new ways to innovate. Compared to most cities, Cape Town is diminutive in size but makes up for it with mountains, white-sand beaches and winelands all within 30 minutes of each other. Whether you want to run up Table Mountain, paraglide off Signal Hill, see little penguins on the beach or sip wine amidst the vineyards, you’ll find your groove and won’t ever want to leave.
3. Chintsa and Coffee Bay, The Wild Coast
Some of you probably think I’m cheating by placing these two together. But it had to be done. They are 5/6 hours apart from each other but both fall along the Wild Coast. If you are coming from Durban, Coffee Bay is first up. After driving for nine hours, we arrived at Coffee Shack tucked right beside a hill in a rocky bay. By night we enjoyed drum beats; fireside chatted and pool tournaments with fellow backpackers. By day we surfed in the relatively warm water, napped on a hill overlooking the ocean and had to cross a river to get to our hut amongst the cows and aloes.
Buccaneers in Chintsa gave us the best vantage point between the palms and above a river snaking its way to the ocean. Due to bad weather we didn’t canoe, surf or go horse riding along the beach this time. Instead we got to meet South Africa’s oldest tour guide, 94 year old Mama Tofu in Ngxingxolo village, learnt to grind maize and witness the art of creating craft beers at Emeraldvale.
4. Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal
I didn’t have much expectation for this region, but arriving at Amphitheatre Backpacking Lodge as the last rays of sun illuminated golden fields and storm clouds in the distance, I was completely flabbergasted. The boisterous mooing of cows as they were herded, the big acacia tree found beyond the yellow grass and the Amphitheatre mountain range in the distance left me feeling like I was in the middle of blissful nowhere.
We spent a grueling day hike to Sentinel Peak where I thought I would die whilst crawling my way up the gulley or clinging to a chain ladder on the way down. I can honestly say I didn’t know mountains until this day. It’s volatile nature, its thick mist, scorching sunshine and icy winds and best of all the feeling that you have transcended it all and get to look down over the earth and admire its tough beauty.
5. The Garden Route
Having grown up holidaying along the Garden Route in George, Knysna and Tsitsikamma, this region is like a second home to me. Even still, there is never a time when I don’t gasp at the relentless waves of the Wilderness, the sheer drop into the Kaaiman’s River or secret world within the forests of Knysna. Despite my frequency of body boarding at Victoria Bay, camping and peaking over the hills into the valley from Carmel in George and crossing the bridge over a tumultuous ocean at Tsitsikamma, I never tire of this coastal strip.
6. Grootbos, Gansbaai
On route between Gansbaai and Stanford, there couldn’t be a greater treasure hidden within this private nature reserve. With villas nestled amongst milkwood forests and overlooking vast expanses of fragrant fynbos. From our bed, we could see the perfect swell meeting the land in Walker Bay. We went horse riding through the fynbos, strolling through the ancient caves just off the beach and enjoyed breakfast on the warm patio beside King Proteas and fireside dinners in the evening.
7. Hogsback, The Eastern Cape
As the names around town suggest, Hogsback strongly resembles the shire and set of JR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of Rings’. I don’t think there is a greener place in South Africa. On a five hour mountain biking mission we saw nine waterfalls, pedaled up countless gravel hills and ate lunch beside a mountain lake. We stayed in ‘The Hobbit’, a cottage at Away with the Fairies Backpackers with a hobbit-size bath, doors and our own fireplace. We had a bath on a cliff overlooking canopies of forest and mountains. And whilst hiking, we strolled across rocks in gentle streams, stepped over fallen trees hidden in the damp, dark and saw light trickle in through the towering pines.
8. The Karoo
We were able to enjoy two days of the Karoo passing us by whilst travelling on the world’s most luxurious train- the Rovos Rail. Meaning ‘semi-desert’ it is the most beautifully barren region in South Africa. Dorps (towns) like Matjiesfontein and Kimberly hold some of the greatest secrets and treasures of our country’s past. Sheep, windmills and lonely homesteads decorate the bare landscape occasionally. And when the sun descends over the farmlands, it’s red and golden rays leave only the silhouettes of trees, cattle and children behind.
9. The Kruger National Park
The Big Daddy of game parks, this magical bushveld hugs the border of Mozambique. I went self-driving around the park with my family when I was young, but nothing quite compares to gallivanting through the bushes on a game drive with a knowledgeable ranger. We witnessed lions cleverly stalking and ambushing warthog, wild dogs attacking hyenas and herds of elephants crossing the dusty road.
The wild went about its business and we were able to take it all in from sunrise and until the sun had set. Giraffe, zebra, nyala, impala, buffalos and cheetahs ate, moved, ran and waded in different areas of the park and we enjoyed every moment of watching them and learning about how each animal was uniquely created to survive in the wild. For two glorious nights we swam in our splash pool, went on bush walks and immersed ourselves in the bush at Jock Safari Lodge.
10. Paternoster, The West Coast
We can’t discuss beauty and South Africa without including the West Coast. Unlike its more built up neighbouring coastline, the west coast has thankfully taken longer to develop leaving so much of its rustic charm and raw beauty behind. There are many worthy spots along this coast, but I enjoy Paternoster in particular.
Not too far from Cape Town, there are blue and red fishing boats resting on the sand, fleshy crayfish for sale which go perfectly on the coals and a long beach to walk in or swim in. One of my favourite spots to sleep is the Beach Camp in Cape Columbine Nature Reserve. With nothing but A-framed tents, gas-heated showers with lanterns and a fireside by night, you are privy to the best stargazing beside the lapping ocean. We woke up in summer to a scorcher of a day and slipped straight into the cool sea in front of our tent before breakfast. True seaside camping bliss.
Which places do you love in South Africa? Would you add or remove any from this list?
Travel Tips for road tripping the wild coast in South Africa
1. Driving around South Africa is easy thanks to the excellent roads but in certain areas, especially the Eastern Cape & along the Wild Coast, prepare to go very slowly. Whatever time estimate Google Maps give you, add on another few hours. These areas are notorious for their EXTREMELY poor roads. Leave early in the morning and take frequent breaks. ( e.g. The stretch between Durban and Coffee Bay took us 9 hours due to road works and poor road condition.)
2. If you are renting take out tyre and glass insurance on top of your car insurance. Especially if you don’t have a 4×4. The roads in the Eastern Cape are filled with potholes which can do serious damage to your wheels (not covered by regular insurance.)
3. Visit the website of (or telephone) your accommodation before driving out. If they are well off the beaten track, they will give you driving directions. These are not just suggested routes, but necessary. For example, you will simply not find Bulungula without their driving directions.