Here's our ultimate road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town. Caveat - it takes 28 hours of driving instead of the 16 hours it would take along the N1 National Road. And you'll want to overnight at some of the interesting stops along the way. You'll pass Clarens, Ficksburg, Maseru (Lesotho), Aliwal North, Graaff-Reinet, Oudtshoorn, George, Mossel Bay, Witsand, Bredasdorp, L'Aghulhas, Gansbaai and Hermanus.
Along the way remind yourself of the rich history of our country, and see the sights:
Your trip starts at O.R. Tambo International Airport. After you arrive on your flight to Johannesburg hire a car. If you're going to drop the vehicle off in Cape Town then ensure you get a 1-way car rental. As you'll be covering a lot of ground check whether there are unlimited mileage deals. If it's summer then air conditioning is recommended.
Take the N3 driving south out of Johannesburg.
Heidelberg. From 1880 to 1883, during the First War of Independence, Heidelberg was capital of the Boer republic (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek). During the 2nd Boer War the British built a concentration camp in Heidelberg. A monument erected in the 90's commemorates black children & women who died during the war. The AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging) was founded by Eugene TerreBlanche in Heidelberg.
On your way from Heidelberg to Grootvlei you'll cross over from Gauteng to Mpumalanga.
Grootvlei Power Station went into service in 1969, was mothballed by 1990, and 2 units were returned to service in 2008. See whether you can see their smoke & water vapour billowing into the air on your left.
As you pass Villiers you also drive over the Vaal River, and also cross over from Mpumalanga into the Free State, and move from the N3 onto the R26. The bridge used to be an international border seperating the Transvaal Republic from the Free State Republic - have a look out for the toll houses which were erected on the opposite edges of the Vaal River by each Republic.
In Frankfort (named after Frankfurt) visit the Dutch Reformed Church, the cornerstone of which was laid by Sir Johannes Brand (4th President of the Orange Free State) in 1883. During the Anglo-Boer War British troops burnt the church down, but it was rebuilt in 1918.
Reitz was originally known as Singer's Post, but was renamed Amsterdam and then finally Reitz after Francis William Reitz, the 5th President of the Orange Free State.
As you pass Bethlehem and Bohlokong (means "place of pain" in Sesotho), you shift from the R26 onto the R712.
You may want to spend a night in Clarens, the cultural capital of the Free State. Clarens is nicknamed the "Jewel of the Eastern Free State". Clarens is named after Switzerland's Clarens, where Paul Kruger spent his last days. In the town square you'll find a monument to 5 Transvaal Burghers who were killed in the Eastern Free State, which sparked off a war between the Basotho and the Transvaal. Close to Clarens is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which transports water from Lesotho into rivers which head towards the Vaal Dam. The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is 17km from Clarens, and is known for its cliffs & sandstone formations.
As you pass by Clarens you shift from the R712 onto the R711. The drive to Ficksburg is one of the most picturesque in South Africa.
At Fouriesburg you change from the R711 onto the R26 (again). Fouriesburg is on land given by Rooi Stoffel Fourie to the Orange Free State government during the Boer War, to be used as a temporary seat of their government. Fouriesburg witnessed heavy fighting during the war.
At Ficksburg have your travel documents read to drive into Lesotho. The best time to visit is during the annual Cherry Festival in November. Ficksburg has a variety of guest houses, and is a good spot to overnight.
Around Teyateyaneng there are some rock caves with paintings by the San tribe of deer and hunters.
Maseru is Lesotho's largest town and means "place of the red sandstone" in Sesotho. The Basotho Hat shop is a popular spot for souvenirs.
In Mafeteng go see the obelisk in memory of the members of the Cape Force who died in action during the Gun War of 1880/81. For something a bit more chilled, there's the Diphiring Mill, a working roller mill established in 1912.
Cross over the border back into South Africa and turn back onto the R26.
As you pass Zastron have a look at Aasvoëlberg (Vulture Mountain), where there are Cape Vultures taking part in a feeding scheme.
At Rouxville you switch onto the N6. This is a wool and cattle farming area. During the 2nd Boer War all the town's citizens served in the military, and for 2 years the town was deserted.
At Aliwal North you cross from the Free State into tthe Eastern Cape Province, and move onto the R58 as you cross over the Orange River. Aliwal North was named Aliwal after Sir Harry Smith's (Governor of the Cape Colony) victory in the Battle of Aliwal (and "North" as Mossel Bay was then "Aliwal South").
At Burgersdorp move onto the R391. The "Sentinel", a 2nd Boer War blockhouse overlooking Burgersdorp, was declared a National Monument in 1939. In the town you'll see a monument to the "Hollandse taal" from 1893. There's a replica of the original next to the original monument which was damaged in the Anglo-Boer War.
Turn right onto the R56.
Next you pass Steynsburg, a quiet dorp named after the grandfather of President Paul Kruger, Douwe Gerbrandt Steyn.
At Middelburg you've come halfway. Although Middelburg is so named because it's halfway between Colesberg & Graaff-Reinet, it's also approximately. halfway between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
After Middelburg, turn south onto the N9. You'll drive over the Lootsberg Pass (Pilot's Pass), which is 1781m above sea level.
Graaff Reinet is a good choice to overnight at. Founded in 1786, in 1795 the burghers proclaimed a republic. Graaff Reinet was the centre of British military effort in the Eastern Cape in the Second Boer War - several Boers were executed by firing squad, and the Burgher Monument commemorates them. Do go have a look at the Camdeboo National Park and its Valley of Desolation.
Aberdeen is known for its Victorian architecture, and the district for its wool & mohair.
Keeping on the N9 you'll pass over the Perdepoort Pass, before descending to Willowmore, a dorp originally founded to meet the religious needs of the farming community.
After Willowmore you go over the Buyspoort Pass and then the Ghwarriepoort Pass, after which you turn onto the R341, and as you drive you see the Swartberg on your right, and cross over the Olifants River and see the Stompsdrift Dam into which it flows.
Just after the Stompsdrift Dam you pass De Rust, and you are now in an area known for its Ostrich farming. If you have time on yoru hands head to Meiringspoort, have a look at the waterfall and if you're feeling brave jump from the rocks into the pools below.
Move onto the N12, and pass Dysseldorp, truly a dorp, originally founded as a mission station in 1838.
The N12 takes you into Oudtshoorn, a town where it's well worth spending a night. Visit an Ostrich farm and don't miss the Cango Caves.
As you go over the Outeniqua Pass do not be surprised to see a complete change in weather conditions, from being in the dry hot Karoo to an increase in humidity and possibly rain on the mountain tops. Another option is to take the historic Montagu Pass.
You then drive through George until you get to the N2, onto which you turn right, onto the "Garden Route". George is a good option for overnighting. You can do a daytrip to the Wilderness or Victoria Bay, play golf at Fancourt or visit the Outeniqua Transport Museum. The Pacaltsdorp Church dates back to 1825 & is the oldest in the area.
Just after George you pass George Airport, which is an exact replica of the Keetmanshoop Airport. George Airport was built in 1977 and originally known as PW Botha Airport.
Groot Brak Rivier was settled by the Searle family in 1859 who operated a private toll & built accommodation, shopping, timber & show-making businesses.
As you approach Mossel Bay you pass Klein Brakrivier and then Hartenbos, which was originally a farm but turned into a holiday resort in 1933, by the South African Railways for their employees. It has a lovely indoor swimming pool.
Of course in Mossel Bay we recommend that you spend a night at The Point Hotel, which is right next to what is, in our opinion, the best tidal pool in the country, and below the St Blaise Lighthouse, its historic cave and a wonderful cliff-walk.
As you exit Mossel Bay you pass Danabay, originally part of a farm called Oude Duinigt (Old Dune), which had its first houses completed in October 1980. And then Mossgass, which was the world's first gas to liquid refinery.
The N2 takes you over the Gouritz River, where people used to bungee-jump, before the bridge was deemed to be unsafe.
You then pass Riversdale, which is at the foot of Sleeping Beauty Mountain, part of the Langeberg Mountain Range. Stop there and fuel up, smell the fragrance of the fynbos (yes, you're in fynbos territory now) and get a feel for this quiet town.
Some people think Heidelberg is the start of the Garden Route (or the end in this case, since you're travelling from East to West). Louis Fourie is recognised as the founder of this town, having obtained grazing rights from Governor Van der Stel in 1716, and built Doornboom Farm (Thorntree Farm). The Tourism Office in Fourie Street is the oldest house in Heidelberg.
After Heidelberg turn south off the N2 onto the R322 and keep driving until you get to Witsand, a lovely coastal resort at the mouth of the Breede River. If you're travelling from August to October, there's a good chance you'll see some southern right whales - a large number of southern right whales are born off Witsand. Make use of the tidal pool. In 1488 the Portuguese recognised the Breede River mouth as the finest natural anchorage on the southern coast. You may want to spend a night at the Breede River Lodge.
At the Breede River Lodge switch from the R322 to the R324. At Malagas you'll cross over the Breede River. Malagas is home to South Africa's only hand drawn pontoon, which started operating in 1860 vehicles & pedestrians are manually pulled across the Breede river (the service operates from sunrise to sunset, so don't arrive here when it's dark). Malagas was the name of a chief, whose ‘kraal’ was situated nearby, and was an inland port for steamboats transporting goods on the Breede River to the Swellendam area. Spend an evening at the Malagas Hotel.
Turn south onto the R319 to Bredasdorp, an agricultural town in the middle of wheat, Protea and sheepland; founded by Michiel van Breda (the first mayor of Cape Town) in 1838. Visit the Shipwreck Museum in Bredasdorp. Nature lovers will enjoy the Heuningberg Nature Reserve at the top end of Van Riebeeck Street. At the entrance to the Bredasdorp/Napier Co-operative you'll see the Merino Statue, built in honour of the merino sheep which brought fame to the area because of the careful breeding by Michiel van Breda on Zoetendals Vallei, his farm. A rift between PV van der Byl & Michiel van Breda led to 2 separate churches being built on their neighbouring farms and eventually the establishment of 2 separate towns - Napier & Bredasdorp. As you travel south past Bredasdorp, feel all your worries being left behind on the other side.
Keep going on the R319 towards Struisbaai. This town gets really full between Christmas & New Years. In the 1980's Siebies, next to the Struisbaai Hotel, was the place to hang out, and for some old-timers like this article's author, it feels like the soul was ripped out of the town when it was demolished. It's easy to get nostalgic about Struisbaai.
Keep going to L'Agulhas, the southern-most town in Africa and visit Cape Aghulas, the southern most point in Africa (many visitors to Cape Point mistakenly think they're at the southern point). Book a hotel or guest house for the night and spend a day lazing on the beach. Get in as much swimming as you can, because the water is much colder in Cape Town.
Retrace your steps onto the R317, and then onto the R43. The road here isn't the greatest, but it's more interesting than going all the way back up to the N2.
Pass Pearly Beach, Uilkraalsmond, and at Franskraal visit the Strandveld Museum, which contains parts from the HMS Birkenhead, wrecked in 1852 off Danger Point (more than 140 ships have been wrecked between Cape Infanta and Danger Point). In 1895 the lighthouse was built at Danger Point. If you've got a caravan or camper spend a night at the Uilenkraalsmond Resort.
We recommend making a stop at Gansbaai or De Kelders for a night, if you want to go shark cage diving (a huge tourist attraction). The channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock is known as "Shark Alley". The earliest evidence of sheep-herding Khoi was found in Klipgat Cave.
Pass Stanford, founded in 1857 and named after Sir Robert Stanford, the owner of the farm, and then you arrive in Hermanus, one of the favourite weekend getaways for Capetonians. Originally called Hermanuspietersfontein, Hermanus is known for its whale watching. Visit the Whale Museum to learn more about these beautiful creatures. The Windsor Hotel is perched over Walker Bay. If you'd like a sandy beach, try Voelklip.
As you leave Hermanus you pass Onrus (where the debate rages on as to whether it's actually called Onrust), Hawston (a fishing village), Fisherhaven (the name says it all), drive over the Bot River, and then instead of continuing north to the N2 like most people driving from Hermanus to Cape Town, turn left onto the R44, which provides a more scenic drive. You'll immediately pass the Arabella Country Estate, which has a wonderful golf course and spa.
The first town you'll encounter on the R44 is Kleinmond (small mouth), a popular holiday town near the mouth of the Bot River. The Bot River lagoon area is home to South Africa's only herd of wild horses.
Enjoy the views as you continue past Betty's Bay, which became a whaling station in 1912 (the remains of the whaling house can be seen at Stony Point). At Betty's Bay there is one of South Africa's 2 land based penguin colonies (the other's at Simonstown) - the first nest was spotted in 1982 (before humans came around penguins were restricted to nesting on islands where they didn't have predators).
You then pass Cape Hangklip (Cape Hanging Rock) and Pringle Bay at its foot, which is named after Rear-Admiral Thomas Pringle, who was commander of the Cape naval station in the 1790s. The beach at Pringle Bay is exposed to the prevailing winds in summer, and a lot of the time there is nobody there.
After Pringle Bay there's Rooi Els, which is dominated by the Klein-Hangklip outcrop, and is home to a pair of Verreaux's Eagles. Baboons are fairly commonly seen on the road.
You are now in line of sight of your final destination, Cape Town, which you can see over False Bay, so called because sailors returning from the East mistook Hangklip for Cape Point and thought they were in Table Bay.
You now pass Gordon's Bay, named after Robert Gordon, a Dutch Explorer who died in 1795. Originally Gordon's Bay was called Fish Hoek. Absorb some sun rays at Bikini Beach, one of SA's few blue flag beaches.
Bordering almost seamlessly on Gordon's Bay is the Strand, with its long white sandy beach. The Strand is part of the Greater City of Cape Town. Great beach for windsurfing and surfing. Birders may enjoy the Dick Dent Bird Sanctuary.
At last you rejoin the N2 for the last leg of the trip through the Cape Flats. As you pass Cape Town International Airport think of all those who flew and missed out on the sights you saw on this marvelolus drive. You are now in a very built up area, and for a lot of tourists the sights you see now are their first experiences of Cape Town. All that is now left is for you to find your hotel in Cape Town, and enjoy some R&R.
We'd love to hear from you regarding changes you'd make to improve this road trip. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, are there any interesting facts about the places on the route which you'd like to share?