Beauty of the backroads: three little-known routes

Posted by Adriaan Odendaal on 26 January 2015

You are David Livingstone trailblazing in a Toyota Tazz, Harry the Beachcomber migrating in a Nissan Micra, or John Wayne crossing the bad-lands in a Bantam bakkie. Or you are just you, jostling down one of those solitary South African dirt roads, dust satisfactorily kicking up in the rear-view mirror.

A patiently waiting buzzard beckons adventurous motorists to take the turn off and leave the safety of the tarmac behind. Photo by Adriaan Odendaal

A patiently waiting buzzard beckons adventurous motorists to take the turn off and leave the safety of the tarmac behind.


Unlike in days of Livingstones and beachcombers, highways and their tarmac auxiliaries now lead almost anywhere you could want to go. And despite the occasional potholed subsection, South Africa actually boasts a pretty decent set of roads. But being stuck behind a convoy of cargo trucks, working your way through a 60km strip of successive Stop/Gos, or traveling the long monotonous stretch from Joburg to Cape Town, will invariably make driving the worst part of any journey. Fortunately, however, there is an easy way to reinstate that old homily of it not being the destination, but the getting there that really makes a trip worthwhile. And it’s not just for those with 4×4 Land Rovers, but for you and your compact car too.

Look at a roadmap of our provinces and you’ll see those innumerable thin red lines coursing off in all directions. It’s easy to mistake these secondary roads for an intricate network of pulsating veins running through our provinces. While these secondary roads are overlooked by most motorists in their frustrated efforts to get where they’re going as quickly as possible, they have much more to offer in terms of natural beauty than the highways. Many of South Africa’s backroads and byways are majestically scenic and solitary alternatives to a dreary journey on our national highway system.


You won’t get a view like this from any of our National highways.


Anyone who has trekked north via the Cederberg mountains, rather than straight up that bold blue N7 line, can vouch for the splendour found on our back roads. Though a route like this might seem a swerving detour, coming across that neck before Algeria and looking down into the Cederberg valley will make you completely forget about those extra kilometres.

But it needn’t even be that much of an excursion to enjoy the hidden beauty beyond the highway: climbing off the N7 at Citrusdal and driving through to Clanwiliam on the dirt road can be equally satisfying. Running exactly 3km parallel to the N7, this curvaceous little trail is wonderful. Along the lush banks of the expansive Clanwilliam dam, you pass through forest green citrus orchards and underneath overhanging fynbos. You swerve up and down the gravely terrain and then right back against the shores of that dark shimmering dam.


Backroads in the Klein Karoo

On your way to Oudshoorn? Why not opt for the farm road that turns out from Montagu towards Ladismith? Hear your tyres hum as you flow over yet another lowly crest in the Klein Karoo, small change jingling in your cup-holder. Out alone on this dusty road you stop, maybe to get a better look at the red-crested jackal buzzard perched on the telephone-pole up ahead. You switch off your engine and step out onto the wide empty road. The world around you is calm and quiet. No traffic. No trucks. No bleating PAs of Engine One-Stops. Just the crunch of your shoes on the gravel, and the wind whistling over the pale land. The Jackal Buzzard turns his head towards the horizon and with a single flap sets off into the endless blue sky.


Swartberg Pass

More than the solitude and picturesqueness these back roads all too often promise, the pure pleasure of driving along winding, climbing and contorting pathways is something to look forward to. Out from Oudshoorn towards the N1, you can climb the spectacular Swartberg pass after cruising through Schoemanspoort (or try the stunning Seweweekspoort just outside Ladismith). Swartberg pass is a bit of a challenge for smaller motors, but the beauty and sense of adventure you’ll find here is unparalleled. For lunch, you can even slink down to the infamous Die Hel and have a picnic next to the Gamka river.


Prince Albert Pass

If you are heading towards the coast from the Klein Karoo, go on down to Knysna via Avontuur (just outside Uniondale). Here you will most likely have to ask directions, for there is a hard to find turn-off that will lead you to one of the most astonishing mountain passes the Western Cape has to offer. Prince Alfred’s pass was designed in 1863 by that historic titan of South African road works, Thomas Charles John Baine. This is not only the longest mountain pass in the country (at 80,5 kilometres), but also the second oldest unaltered pass we have. At the time, it was constructed by chain-gangs to grant inland farming districts access to the small shipping port of Knysna. But driving Prince Alfred’s pass today, it feels as though it could just as well have been designed purely for the pleasure of adventurous motorists.

The winding Prince Alfred’s pass flows along the contours of the Outeniqua mountains, all the while looking out over a vast green valley below. After a long invigorating drive, even crossing brooks and small bridges, you eventually come out into the dense backwoods of the Knysna forests. The road is at once swallowed up by a canopy of cascading leaves and thick branches as you plunge straight into the heart of a Dalene Matthee novel. You pass through the deep shadows of those old intertwined trees until, suddenly, the sky opens up and you see the blue Indian Ocean lying before you, Knysna a little down the way. And this is only one of the many undiscovered roads waiting for you.

Now, it is not just the Northern and Western Cape that boasts these roads, even though that is the focus of this blog. There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of hidden back roads all around the country. And the best part is, the ‘treasure’ map is readily available. So how about it: why not take a chance next time you plan to drive cross-country? Even if you drive a small 2 wheel drive motor, there is nothing stopping you from experiencing the magic and splendour of South Africa’s back roads and byways. Turn off and leave the safety of the tarmac behind.

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