With thousands of kilometres of relatively well-maintained roads, beautiful landscapes, diverse scenery and picturesque small towns, road tripping in South Africa is a must-do for visitors and locals. It’s hard to decide which part of South Africa is best for road tripping, and that depends on what experiences and activities you’re after and what kind of vistas you want to take in.
I love mixing my days on holiday with lots of time on the beach, a bit of adventure and of course, lots of good food. For that, the Wild Coast is perfect. I also find the vast openness and blue skies of the Karoo awe-inspiring. We spent three weeks in December driving over 3500km from Cape Town, up to Coffee Bay and back through the arid Karoo, on a route that took us through tropical forests, to white sand beaches and into postcard-perfect desert landscapes – which is not untypical for the varied South African landscape.
Cape Town to Coffee Bay: Road Tripping in South Africa
It was so incredible to see more of our vastly diverse country, from the ancient Cape Mountains to the humid green forests of Nature’s Valley, the wild coast and rolling hills of Coffee Bay and then the endless Karoo desert. We camped for most of the trip but stayed in hotels, guest houses when we felt like we needed a break. Our trip was pretty long and we spent many hours on the road, but we tried to make the journey as much fun as the destinations. We had podcasts to listen to and we stopped at random little farm stalls for hot coffee and toasted sandwiches. A lot of the trip didn’t go as planned, but that was part of the adventure. The best part was that it wasn’t over-planned. We had a basic idea of what we wanted to see, and we had a few bookings, but we also had the freedom to spend extra time in places we love, and leave early if we’d had enough.
Tips for Planning a South African Road Trip
- Decide what you would like to see – in South Africa, it’s easy enough to see a huge variety of landscapes in a single road trip
- Identify any cool hotels or towns you’d like to stay in and do a little planning on Google Maps to see if your route makes sense
- Make sure your car has recently been serviced and that your tyres are in good condition
- If you’re camping in a rooftop tent like we were, make sure you book camping spots that have space for vehicles with high roofs
- Book ahead as much you can, especially over the festive period or the holidays
- Road tripping is an adventure, so give yourself the freedom to detour from the route and check out little towns and big highlights along the way – you’re in no rush
- Make sure you pack hiking/walking gear, as there’s always somewhere beautiful to see on foot
- Be safe and take along pepper spray and a torch for emergencies
- Fill up often – there are some long stretches without petrol stations and you don’t want to get stuck
- Keep a bit of cash on you for entrance to national parks and snacks at small roadside stalls that don’t take cards
- Take loads of mosquito repellents in various forms in summer – body spray and candles and citronella bodywash
- Don’t be afraid to detour a little – some of the cutest towns are a little out of the way
- Stay safe and trust your intuition in all situations
- Stop at some of the farm stalls along the way for local jams, preserves and coffee
- In summer, expect rain in most of the coastal regions. Bring along board games, cards and books for stay-at-home days
- Check the geotag for your location on Instagram – it’s how I find some of the most amazing spots wherever I go
The Route: Cape Town to Coffee Bay and back through the Karoo
Part 1: Cape Town to Nature’s Valley
554km | 6,5 hours
Nature’s Valley is a beautifully lush part of South Africa, where trees grow to record heights and waterfalls tumble within the dense forest. Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge is world-famous and visited by international travellers and locals all year round. They have a few different accommodation options, ranging from campsites to dorm rooms and even safari tents, which have proper beds and electric lights. They do delicious meat and veggie meals (booking in advance is essential) but there’s also a wonderful farm stall that stocks local cheese and fresh bread, fruit and veggies just cross the road. The view across the forest from the deck at Wild Spirit is awesome and although the crowd is very hippy (I was on the receiving end of a dirty look and an eyeroll for wearing a Levi’s t-shirt) it’s somewhere we have always loved going. Think drum circles around the fire and free concerts performed by travelling amateur musicians. There are some stunning hikes and beaches in the area, so days can be spent relaxing or getting active.
The best part: The expansive views of the forest from the deck and the specific smell of being in the Tsitsikamma forest. There’s also a waterfall and stunnig rock pools on the property for icy dips.
Accommodation: Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge | Dorms from R170 per night, campsites from R100 per night, private rooms from R500 per night, safari tents from R360 per night.
Part 2: Nature’s Valley to Port Alfred
355 km | 3,5 hours
Port Alfred is a small coastal town with a stunning river where you can spend your days swimming, skiing and wakeboarding in Coca-Cola coloured water. We rented a little houseboat for Christmas from Port Alfred Houseboats. The houseboats are rented on a self-drive basis, and even if you don’t have a skippers licence, you can get one when you get there. Keenan had never steered a boat before and he got the hang of it very quickly. The Kowie River is about 13km’s long and you can’t get to the ocean from the houseboat-safe route, so you don’t have to worry about being dragged out into the deep blue sea. It’s perfect for cruising or dropping anchor and relaxing. We spent the day tanning, swimming, losing my hat in the river and generally just hanging out. Although it’s not super luxurious, the boat is clean and well-kept and has everything you need for a little break for 2.
The best part: Sitting on top of the boat with a cold G&T, watching the sun go down over the river.
Accommodation: Port Alfred Houseboats | From R1600 per night (up to R2800 per night over Christmas).
Part 3: Port Alfred to Morgan Bay
220 km | 2,5 hours
We unexpectedly left Port Alfred early due to the wind on Christmas Day, deciding to spend the night half way to our next destination, Coffee Bay. This turned out to be the best decision of our trip, as the halfway spot happens to be a little coastal town called Morgan Bay. This small village is a favourite holiday destination for generations of South African families, and after visiting myself, it’s easy to see why. The beach is beautiful and expansive, the people are friendly and there’s an awesome small-town vibe. For lunch, we dragged ourselves away from the waves for a few cocktails and snacks at The Deck, which was packed with tanned holidaymakers. To camp, we found a spot at the truly wonderful Yellowwood Forest, underneath the trees, just a kilometre away from the beach. The campsite is incredibly well cared for by the owners (who live on-site). The bathrooms are clean and there’s a lovely restaurant where you can get pizza and beer. We would have stayed forever if we could have.
The best part: There’s a natural pool hidden a couple of hundred meters from the campsite where you can take a post-beach dip between the trees.
Accommodation: Yellowwood Forest | Camping from R150 per night, family cottage from R750 per night, loft from R275 per night, bush camp from R340 per night.
Part 4: Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay
280 km | 4 hours
Although we really didn’t want to leave Morgan Bay, we were really excited to get to our next destination. Coffee Bay is passionately loved by return visitors, and I’ve been hearing about its magic for years. It’s a small community, known for cows roaming the wild beaches, traditional huts atop the surrounding hills and wonderfully warm water. It’s very popular with surfers and nomads, so there are some great backpackers and campsites to choose from. Make sure you book super early, because by the time we tried to book in about May last year, almost everything was full for New Years! We ended up at Coffee Bay Campsite, which is right next to the beach, sandwiched between the backpackers lodges and has that really South African campsite feel that made me so nostalgic for my childhood. I was actually so grateful to be camped there, since the travellers at the surrounding backpackers were slamming tequilas at breakfast and that was not really the vibe we were after. Although if you’re looking for a party, I can highly recommend Coffee Shack Backpackers.
The best part: I loved the beach! It’s not too crowded, even at the busiest time of the year, and the water is perfect stay-in-and-swim temperature.
Accommodation: Coffee Bay Campsite (The number on Google is wrong: +27 (0)71 535 7295 ) | Camping from R150 per night.
Part 5: Coffee Bay to Hogsback
377 km | 5 hours
Hogsback was by far the highlight of the trip. Everything from the energy to the unbelievable scenery, views, hikes and waterfalls made me fall in love with this special little town from the very first minute. We had booked a private room at Away with the Fairies, but ended up in town a day early, so had to spend a night at the Hogsback Inn. The Inn has a great pool and serves some good food, but it’s in serious need of some extensive renovations. Rooms are dreary, with threadbare towels and carpets which are old and stained. I much preferred Away with the Fairies, which is truly magical. The en-suite rooms are spotlessly clean and great value for money, with friendly staff that make you feel welcome from the moment you arrive. Food from the kitchen is delicious, and the portions are super generous! Of course you absolutely have to make use of their famous clifftop bath, which you can book at reception (free if you’re staying there). From the property, you can hike through the ancient Amathola Forest to the Madonna and Child Falls, stopping along the way for a swim in the freezing cold pools at the bottom. The hike took us a good few hours, so make sure to take enough water and a few snacks.
The best part: All of it! I already can’t wait to go back to Hogsback, which is probably my favourite place in South Africa.
Accommodation: Away with the Fairies | En-suite rooms from R575 per night, dorms from R180 per night.
Part 6: Hogsback to Nieu-Bethesda
330 km | 4 hours
Nieu-Bethesda is famous for being the home of the late Helen Martins, an artist who lived a mysterious life as a recluse for most of her later life, creating sculptures for what’s now known as The Owl House. She spent years decorating her home with ground glass and creating a sculpture garden containing more than 300 statues including owls, camels, pyramids, peacocks, and even mermaids. Her house has been preserved exactly as it was when she died, and there’s a very eery vibe to it. I had been once before and couldn’t wait for Keenan to experience it for himself. The town itself is almost like a movie set in its desert authenticity, and has a few nice restaurants to choose from. We had a lunch of cheese and beer at the local brewery, followed by sunset dinner on the big porch at Ibis Lounge. It’s definitely worth detouring through the Karoo to see this funny little town.
The best part: Don’t miss the breathtaking Valley of Desolation near Graff Reinet en route. It’s a bit of a detour, but it’s honestly so beautiful! There is a cost of around R40 per person to get it, so make sure you have cash.
Accommodation: The Water Tower | From R500 per night.
Part 7: Nieu-Bethesda to Matjiesfontein
480 km | 5 hours
Matjiesfontein is one of the places I constantly miss. It’s a quaint old-timey town on the outskirts of the Karoo desert, where life seems to have slowed down to almost a dead stop – in a good way. The Lord Milner Hotel has been beautifully preserved to retain all its original beauty and genuineness, but updated in terms of modern amenities. The food is always good, the gin and tonics are always cold and the pool is always sparkling. It’s the kind of place where you feel like you want to slow down, pour a cold drink sit back while the sun goes down.
The best part: The pool! Its icy cold, which is just what you need in the dry Karoo summer.
Accommodation: The Lord Milner Hotel | Rooms from R1750 per night.
Road Tripping in South Africa is affordable and accessible for anyone with a car. You don’t have to camp the whole way, but some of the campsites you’ll find are so beautiful you might not want to leave. I can’t wait to see more of this country, taking my time to explore and really soak it up.