With a myriad of landscapes ranging from pristine coastlines and arid deserts to mountainous snow-capped peaks and wildlife-abundant savannas, South Africa stands out as one of the world’s most diverse destinations. Yet, what adds to its allure is the country’s plethora of cultural groups, each offering their own distinctive architecture, traditional cuisine, and customs.
If you want to fully immerse yourself in this fascinating mix, a road trip might just be the ideal way to travel. It allows you to set your own schedule, stop whenever you want, and explore on your own terms. To help you plan your adventure, we’ve handpicked the top road trips that will take you on an unforgettable journey through the mesmerizing landscapes and rich cultural tapestry of South Africa.
A High-Altitude Adventure Road Trip
Distance: 193km from Long Tom Pass to Echo Caves
For a breathtaking drive that will take you through the magnificent natural features of Mpumalanga’s Blyde River Canyon, considered the world’s third-largest, the Panorama Route is a must-do road trip. Along the way, you’ll encounter awe-inspiring cliffs, cascading waterfalls, lush forests, and majestic eagles soaring above – all while having plenty of opportunities to step out of your car and stretch your legs.
One of the most popular stops is God’s Window, where a short hike will take you to an overlook offering stunning views of the lush jungle some 2745m (9005ft) below, teeming with colorful birdlife. The Three Rondavels, a trio of towering peaks topped with grass, resemble traditional African cone-shaped huts and are another highlight. Trails weave around Bourke’s Luck Potholes, a series of cylindrical cavities formed over thousands of years by the swirling waters of the Treur and Blyde rivers.
But it’s not just the natural wonders that make this road trip so appealing. Along the way, you’ll come across several charming towns that are worth exploring. Historic Pilgrim’s Rest is a living monument to the late 1800s gold rush days. The town’s streets are lined with beautifully renovated structures, including the Victorian-era Royal Hotel, where the Church Bar was once a school chapel. In Graskop, renowned for its pancake restaurants, you can also experience the exhilarating rush of the Big Swing, one of the world’s highest cable gorge swings. And in the tranquil town of Sabie, surrounded by a lush forest, you’ll find stunning natural attractions such as Bridal Veil Falls, Lone Creek Waterfall, and Horseshoe Falls.
Best road trip for a Garden of Eden experience
Distance: 300km from Mossel Bay to Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth)
The Garden Route (N2) is a must-visit itinerary in South Africa, winding along the lush Indian Ocean coastline. This drive is a nature-lover’s paradise, bursting with abundant plant and animal life, coastal towns, pristine beaches, and misty mountain forests, making it one of the most stunning locations in the world.
Outdoor enthusiasts will relish the opportunity to explore the numerous hiking trails, including the famed five-day Otter Trail in Tsitsikamma National Park, surf at various beaches, such as the famous Jeffreys Bay, and experience the world’s largest commercial bridge bungee jump at Bloukrans Bridge. Camping options are endless, with idyllic locations beside rivers, in primeval forests, or overlooking the ocean.
Wildlife lovers will find plenty to marvel at, from Oudtshoorn’s ostrich farms to Addo Elephant National Park, which is home to rhinos, lions, hyenas, and zebras, as well as Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary – where over 700 primates roam free in a multi-species reserve. Visitors can even walk with wild cheetahs at Tenikwa Wildlife Center. Expect to witness otters, Southern right whales, and even the occasional great white shark splashing in the ocean, with a multitude of birds flitting through the treetops and scurrying across the sands.
Oak-lined Goringhaikona, previously known as George, is an excellent starting point. Other popular towns include Knysna, which boasts nearby oyster farms, the seaside resort of Witsand with water sports, fishing, and whale watching, and Mossel Bay, which has a moderate climate and a cultural heritage that dates back 350,000 years.
Best road trip for craftsmanship
Distance: 27km from Lions River to Nottingham Road
Exploring the heartland of KwaZulu-Natal to the northwest of Durban, the Midlands Meander is a collection of five colour-coded routes that lead you through the best of this untouched, rolling-green countryside. This charming region offers breweries and wineries, unique accommodation and locally sourced restaurants, nature reserves, traditional villages, and a plethora of outdoor activities. But, the area is renowned for its arts and crafts. On tree-lined lanes, you’ll find around 160 studios, workshops, and outlets, featuring a variety of artisans, including potters, leatherworkers, batik artists, and chime makers. Ardmore Ceramics in the Champagne Valley is perhaps the most famous, boasting a gallery and studio where locals produce whimsical, fantastical, and colourful pieces that adorn venues like Buckingham Palace and the White House.
You can choose to follow one of the specific routes, and we highly recommend Route 4. This route takes you to the Capture Site Museum, which marks the location where Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962. Outside, there is an incredible, shape-shifting sculpture made up of 50 steel columns that form Mandela’s face when viewed from the right angle. Rawdons Hotel is a fantastic English-style country estate, complete with a lake dotted with ducks, a brewery, a distillery, and a thatched roof. At Swissland Cheese, you can taste delicious goat’s milk cheese, and at Chocolate Heaven, you can indulge in handcrafted Belgian chocolates.
Best road trip for dramatic ocean views
Distance: 482km from East London to Mzamba
This leisurely drive boasts breathtaking scenery that is off the beaten path. You’ll be treated to serene, uncrowded beaches kissed by the turquoise waves of the Indian Ocean, jagged coastlines, cascading waterfalls, starry night skies, and charming turquoise rondavels perched atop emerald-green hills. Although you can take this road trip straight through, exploring the area at a leisurely pace will uncover the true marvels of this untamed land. While the N2 is the main route, make sure to detour to explore, hike, swim, canoe, and fish. It’s highly recommended to have a 4×4 vehicle.
The Wild Coast is brimming with highlights, such as the Mkambati Nature Reserve, located south of Port Edward, with its swamp forests, grasslands, rocky beaches, and herds of eland and hartebeest grazing in the open. A series of waterfalls spill dramatically into the ocean. The Silaka Nature Reserve near Port St Johns boasts a network of trails that wind through exotic lilies, zebras, and wildebeest. Bulungula Beach is the ultimate destination for surfing, fishing, swimming, and canoeing. You can drive to Hole in the Wall, but a three-hour hike along the grassy coastline offers a more picturesque approach to this natural rocky archway that swirls with local legends. The local Xhosa name is esiKhaleni, which means “the place of thunder,” referring to the sound of the roaring ocean as it rushes through the almost-round cavity.
However, the Wild Coast isn’t just about natural beauty. As you capture snapshots of cows basking on the beaches, remember that Nelson Mandela was born on these grasslands, and as a young boy, he tended to cows. Numerous sites related to him can be found here, including the Nelson Mandela Museum, which is comprised of three parts: a museum in Mthatha, a museum in the small hamlet of Qunu, where Mandela was baptised and buried, and an open-air museum in Mvezo, where he was born. It’s a profound connection to this far-flung land of wild splendour.