One bakkie packed with a lover and an adolescent canine: with 18 days on the slow road from Cape Town through the Eastern Cape, we found pet-friendly accommodation, earned three flat tyres, and discovered that the journey – as it becomes so often when traveling in South Africa – is an intrinsic part of the destination.
We set off on our road trip with two strict requirements: to find comfortable and affordable accommodation with soul and (more practically speaking) places that would welcome four-legged guests. Sometimes, and with luck, our destinations appeared without obstacle in front of us. Other times we needed to brave the elements, animals and crumbling roads, but, without compromising on our needs, we mapped out the quintessential South African road trip with seven stops that promised something a little different from the places we already knew. I packed away all my digital tools and viewfinders, preferring to use a film camera on this search for South Africa’s raw and classic landscape.
From the Garden Route’s indigenous forests and wild coastlines and the Transkei’s gentle green hills dotted with pink and blue mud huts, to the lonely and lunar terrain of the Great Karoo, our national land has a wealth of cultural and biological awe that exists in any direction you choose to drive. It’s small wonder that our country has often been thought of as a microcosm of the entire world. It is perhaps this landscape, together with the vastness and solitude of the open road, that inspires introspection, and makes road tripping such a recurring pleasure of local travel.
1. Rheenendal and Goukamma Nature Reserve
A boisterous neighbor like Knysna means that Goukamma National Park is often overlooked. During the mid-December madness there is something to be said for the solitude that is found along these stretches of pristine coastline and the fynbos-topped dune enclosures that offer plenty of room to be alone. The Goukamma coast wraps all the way around to Buffalo Bay and is an expansive paradise for surfers.
Less than 30km from Goukamma, at the Rheenendal Road turnoff, is Peace of Eden. The eco-sanctuary offers a range of lodging options from camping to wooden cabins. The highlight is the open shower that skirts the edge of the forest. What makes Peace of Eden particularly special is the wonderful little recording studio welcoming any musicians who feel inspired by the varying voices of nature.
Rates: Forest tents from R799, cottages from R599
Contact: 0443884671, www.peaceofeden.co.za
Road tip: During peak season avoid having to experience the ailing charm of Knysna by having enough food supplies with you or enquire at Peace of Eden about their yummy vegetarian meals. A little further up the Rheenendal Road Ouma Totties Farm Kitchen is a delicious gem, and provided us with our Christmas day feast. The Knysna Heads are a vista worth capturing on your way out.
2. Tsitsikamma National Park
The nature of being on the road means that one is never in one place for very long. Yet it’s enough time for some beauty to nudge into your heart, like the starting of a story that demands you return to it for the finishing. For me Tsitsikamma, done in the right way, is one such place.
We spent one night at Dolphin View Chalets, four homely cottages sitting at the edge of the earth and away from the crowds that come stampeding through the gates of the National Park each year. It is also about the only place so close to the reserve where you’re allowed to bring your dog. We stepped through the tiny gate at the bottom of the property and found ourselves on a beautiful path, winding through the park’s 88km expanse between coastal forest and horizontal, finger-like rock formations.
We spotted the green and crimson plumage of a Knysna loerie (now Knysna turaco) in the evergreen forest. The ground is rich with treasure too. Spiral shells that have been abandoned by their former tenants, porcupine quills, crystals and rock pools invite you in for a swim uninhibited.
Rates: From R485 per person in low and mid-season
Contact: 0422803818, www.dolphinview.co.za
Road tip: When you stop to fill up with petrol, avoid also filling up on garage food. The N2 roadsides between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay are bursting with quirky farm stalls where you can buy home home-baked padkos including fresh and beloved chicken pie, biltong and koeksisters.
3. Great Kei River
We continued our adventure into the Eastern Cape across a landscape that is constantly reinventing itself, stopping to take a moment to reflect at the border between the former Transkei and Ciskei homelands near the end of the 320km body of water where the Great Kei River opens itself into the ocean. A 50c ferry ride marked our arrival to the Transkei, and I caught myself trying to remember the last time I could buy anything at the price.
In the heart of the Wild Coast the wind has carved desert ripples into the sand, forming its own network of dunes. The beaches are desolate, a resting stop for the remnants of earth carried over by the wind. Half-buried driftwood stuck out of the sand like Earth’s discarded toothpicks.
We took the Komga road just 30km from the river mouth for an original farmhouse stay (think stable-turned-bedroom), at Peas on Earth. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the art of growing food. Grab a bucket and select your own fresh vegetables from the permaculture garden while a friendly foal follows you around.
Rates: R130 per person per night, for an outside room
Contact: 0438311666, www.peasonearth.co.za
Road tip: It’s a nice idea to grab a picnic of calamari and chips from Selections Café before going across the river by ferry. The stretch to Kei River is a long one so rather prepare for an easy night’s rest at the tranquil Blue Sky Backpackers en route in Grahamstown.
Also read: Farm stays in South Africa
4. Ngqeleni Village in Transkei
In the 1700s, a 7 year-old British girl named Bessie was the only survivor of a shipwreck on this stretch of the Transkei’s jagged coastline. She was taken in by the ruling chief of the time and raised as one of his own. He ordered all the white cows in the area to be given to Bessie, the ‘Sunburnt Queen.’ Time and again the British tried to ‘rescue’ her but she never saw the point. She went onto marry one of the chief’s sons, starting a new clan and becoming an ancestor to an entire segment of the modern Xhosa tribe!
I always wonder about the other, infinite number of stories from the people and land in the Transkei that are rarely told. We would have to travel close to the source to find them, knowing that the road to Bulungula Lodge in the Nqeleni village was going to be the most challenging one yet. Between unmoving herds of cattle and dirt roads that have formed trenches from the rain, we made our descent into rural and historical South Africa. These thick, heavy coastlines would also be the setting of our final days of 2014 and would bring us with open hearts into a New Year.
Rates: R190 per person for a dorm room, R450 per single / double room
Contact: 0475778900, www.bulungula.com
Road Tip: Bulungula Lodge is 100% community run and you can support the community by signing up for one of the many excursions on offer. Learn about natural plant medicines on a tour with the village herbalist or take a canoe ride down the Xhora River that runs through lush forests and waterfalls. Look out for the impressive populations of hornbills and fish eagles. It is important to make an effort to connect with people even if you don’t speak the same language. Try and learn a few phrases, you are not a tourist here.
We soon left the coastlines behind us and headed inland to the small town of Hogsback. Set in the Amathole Mountains, Hogsback is shrouded in images of fairies and mythical creatures. As we walk through the lush canopies of the Afromontane forests it is easy to understand the inspiration for such tales. Enormous butterflies follow the path to the magnificent waterfalls of Madonna and Child and a giant yellowwood tree, estimated to be over 900 years old. The forests are also fertile ground for the rare Cape parrot.
Terra-Khaya is an eco-farm elevated on a hill above the village. It’s not just this setting and the newly upgraded clay and coloured-glass earth home that makes Terra-Khaya so special. It’s the collection of travelers and dreamers that pass through to form a little community for a few days and the home-cooked meals and freshly baked Xhosa bread that send you to bed smiling. Your charismatic and glowing host Shane also organises horse riding around the Amathole basin, starting from a few hours to 5 day, overnight trails.
Rates: Dorm room from R150, double room from R355 per room
Contact: 0828977503, www.terrakhaya.co.za
Road tip: Ask Shane about the ‘secret’ waterfall…
6. Camdeboo Conservancy
From a glacier to a swampland to a sea, the Great Karoo has lived many lives. Driving the hypnotising, straight road, its landscape is relentless and unchanging. The white fluffy clouds seem to mirror the flocks of sheep below.
Fifty kilometres past Graaff-Reinet we entered the Camdeboo Conservancy. The red road sparkles with an oasis of trees and the grand Dutch architecture of Langfontein Guest Farm, one of Getaway’s 10 best farmstays around South Africa. We rested a few nights in the sublime seclusion of Dot’s Cottage at the foot of the Toorberg Mountain. I spent my days in the recuperative bliss of the Victorian bath in the 18th century stone cottage.
Rates: From R450 per person
Contact: 0827819015, www.langfonteinfarm.co.za
7. Prince Albert and the Swartberg Pass
Also read: Getaway’s guide to Price Albert
It’s hard to put into words the mind-bending, inside-out, upside-down rock formations of the Swartberg Pass that reveal a cross-section of our natural history. We were on route to the charming town of Prince Albert to spend our final night on the road in the comfort of the Karoo View Cottages. Every attention to detail and comfort has been given, from the spacious floor plans and crisp linen, to the dairy fresh milk in the fridge. We watched our final Karoo sunset over the Swartberg Mountains from the cottage porch and breathed out the perfect ending to a trip well travelled.
Rates: From R425 per person, including breakfast
Contact: 0235411929, www.karooview.co.za
Road tip: Until we’re all driving electric cars, petrol is the great and unavoidable cost when you’re on the road. Your next big expense is food, particularly when it comes to eating in restaurants and ordering takeaways. There is nothing more rewarding than a whisky next to the fire as you cook under the glowing southern sky. Support local farmers by sourcing your meat and fresh produce at independent grocers and butchers. Prince Albert also has a lekker farmers’ market every Saturday.