The Panorama Route
Traversing South Africa’s great Drakensberg escarpment in northern Mpumalanga, the Panorama Route encompasses subtropical forests, Stone Age rock sites, and gold-mining towns that boomed in the late 1800s. It’s an enchanting journey full of dazzling vistas, and – at its heart – the 33 km Blyde River Canyon, the country’s biggest and deepest ravine, with jaw-dropping views that emerge where big skies meet vertiginous cliffs, waterfalls plunge from precipitous rock ledges, and the river snakes through lush green vegetation.
If you’re driving from Joburg, you’ll probably come over the Long Tom Pass, which is among South Africa’s highest tarred roads, and often gets snow in winter. Down below, north of the little town of Sabie, lies a series of breathtaking waterfalls, including 65 m-high Mac Mac Falls, so named because during the 1870s gold rush, every second prospector here was Scottish. Nearby is Pilgrim’s Rest, one of the world’s first gold-rush towns, which sprang up virtually overnight as fortune seekers arrived – the town actually had electricity two days before London. The village, with its tin-roof buildings, time-warp bars, throwback hotels and old-world charm, still conjures up a bygone era – plus there are tours of haunted homes, and opportunities to pan for gold.
Half an hour away, Graskop is a tiny village marking the southern end of the Blyde River Canyon – pop into Harrie’s Pancakes for a legendary treat. The Graskop Gorge Lift is an experience you won’t want to miss. The lift takes you 51 m down the face of the gorge into the lush, indigenous forest below, where wooden walkways and suspension bridges meander along a 600 m trail with interactive exhibits. From Graskop, take the R534, which is signposted with a series of scenic stops, such as the Pinnacle Rock, a miniature skyscraper-like freestanding buttress, and God’s Window, a viewpoint where you could find yourself standing above the clouds. The R534 rejoins the R532, with side roads leading to the Berlin and Lisbon waterfalls.
Heading further north along the R532, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes are large scooped rock formations created by swirling waters at the confluence of the Blyde and Treur rivers. Some 20 km beyond the potholes are the Three Rondavels, a trio of massive hut-shaped rock outcrops situated directly opposite a viewpoint at the edge of a high, sheer precipice. The road descends from the escarpment via the Abel Erasmus Pass; down below, you can take a 90-minute barge trip on the dam, getting close-up views of the Canyon’s mouth, with the vast escarpment now looming above. Or, better still, you can settle in somewhere for the night and then sail off at dawn with Sun Catchers Hot Air Ballooning.
The Flower Route
The more time you spend on this route, the more you want to carry on driving. Heading north out of Cape Town, go for a morning outing to Darling or spend a day in the West Coast National Park. I would, however, recommend taking a few days to go all the way into the Richtersveld, a mystical expanse of arid mountain desert that seems barren, but is, in fact, sprinkled by alien-
looking plant varieties that only flower for brief periods once a year – and that time is now.
The happy hamlet of Darling is a mere hour out of the city, and its springtime wildflower show is the oldest in the country – this year (14–16 September) is the 101st edition. Grab a burger and beer at Darling Brew Tasteroom, or pop into Evita se Perron for boerekos and a peek at Evita Bezuidenhout’s curious little museum.
For more flowers, visit the Renosterveld Reserve, or head north towards Hopefield, which hosts its own wildflower show. Die Plaasmol Padstal is a wonderfully offbeat farm stall just outside the town, and a great pit stop before wending back east via various side roads through blink-and-you-miss-them places, such as Moorreesburg and Koringberg, to rejoin the N7 at Piketberg. Further north, you’ll soon be staring up at the Cederberg, a scenic wilderness stretching 100 km between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam – do check out the Clanwilliam Flower Show in the Flower Church from 24 August to 2 September. The Ramskop Nature Reserve has a wildflower garden that stays in bloom until September. Beyond Clanwilliam, it’s worth detouring from Vanrhynsdorp up Van Rhyns Pass – 52 km away, on top of the Bokkeveld escarpment, is gorgeous Nieuwoudtville, with its whitewashed houses and millions of geophytes that for most of the year lie dormant, and then in spring transform into a multicoloured floral carpet. The 6 200 ha Hantam National Botanical Garden puts on an epic display, and in nearby Gannabos, you can explore the Quiver Tree Forest before heading back to the R27.
Back on the N7, head 174 km north of Vanrhynsdorp and you’re in Kamieskroon, a delightful dorpie near Skilpad Wildflower Reserve. Although it’s effectively a semi-desert, well-timed winter rains ensure that by August, the brittle land is bursting with Namaqualand daisies, gladioli, freesias and strelitzias. Springbok is 67 km north of Kamieskroon, and although the town itself is no beauty prizewinner, its nearby Goegap Nature Reserve is magical in spring. The town is also a springboard into the dun-coloured Richtersveld, arguably the most otherworldly part of the country, full of gnarly rock formations, odd-looking trees and succulents that resemble stones. Until – when in spring – each one produces a gorgeous flower.
The Sunshine Coast
Stretching between PE and East London, this sun-drenched strip of Eastern Cape coastline is full of natural beauty and surprises, especially if you like your beaches golden and slightly wild. This drive is concentrated on the best bits, between Addo Elephant National Park and the mouth of the Great Fish River. It’s a mostly coastal-hugging drive with lots of stops to walk along pristine stretches of sand and pauses in charming little towns. Heading east out of PE, and having followed the R72 for 100 km, when you hit the tiny farming hamlet of Alexandria, swing right and head towards the sea to the Woody Cape Nature Reserve, which stretches between the Sundays and Bushman’s river mouths. Now part of Addo, this unspoilt stretch of indigenous forest borders one of the world’s biggest dune fields. The forest, meanwhile, teems with birdlife – trumpeter and crowned hornbills, crowned eagles, Stanley’s bustards, and Damara terns. And the antelope are plentiful, too.
At the easternmost end of Woody Cape, today Cannon Rocks is a renowned kite-boarding spot, but in 1622, the survivors of a Portuguese shipwreck tried to walk from here to what is now Maputo – of the 279 who started, 28 made it. Salvaged wreckage, including the ship’s cannons and anchor, are displayed in the village. A little further northeast is Kenton-on-Sea, a lively coastal village bordered by the Kariega and Bushman’s rivers – it’s almost like an island between the two, and you can paddle or cruise upstream on both, passing through lush pockets of game reserve as you go. Also glorious here is the beach between the two river mouths, studded with caves, rock chimneys and handsome sheltered bays. Kenton is a great spot for lunch – the Sandbar Floating Restaurant is popular for the sake of novelty, but for incredible views, go to Stanley’s Restaurant and grab a seat on the terrace. Back on the R72, it’s about 25 minutes to Port Alfred, considered the heart of the Sunshine Coast, and set on the Kowie River, which is popular for leisurely pursuits on water. To sample the town’s distinctive home-grown beers, pop into The Little Brewery on the River, which operates out of a 19th-century building on the old wharf. Afterwards, a lovely place for a feast is Graze by the River, a bistro with outdoor seating.
Moving east on the R72 once more, detour on to the R67 for a glimpse of Bathurst and its giant pineapple – inside the big fruit there’s an actual pineapple museum. The Historic Pig and Whistle Inn, meanwhile, is believed to be the longest-running pub in the country. The R72 is 10 minutes away and will take you next to the historic Fish River Lighthouse near the mouth of the river – the beach above which it looms is a stunner, backed by pristine dunes. And at low tide, you’ll witness thousands of wading birds gathered to feed in the estuary’s exposed mudflat.
Every good road trip deserves a great soundtrack…
Miriam Makeba – ‘The Click Song’
Ras Sheehama – ‘Travelling’
Amampondo – ‘9 15’
Hugh Masekela – ‘Khauleza’
Nakhane – ‘Interloper’
Two Minute Puzzle (featuring Jeremy Loops) – ‘Turning Away’
Bongeziwe Mabandla – ‘Ndokulandela’
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – ‘Homeless’
Johnny Clegg – ‘Great Heart’
Blk Sonshine – ‘Born in a Taxi’
Mandoza – ‘Nkalakatha’
Native Young – ‘Crystal Lion’
Jeremy Loops – ‘Sinner’
Brenda Fassie – ‘Vul’indlela’
Joy – ‘Paradise Road’