By: Lara Sage
The terrain in this region of South Africa changes dramatically, keeping the journey stimulating. There are charming places to explore along the longest wine route in the world, over mountain passes, and via small towns and fruit orchards. The road cuts through marvellous rock formations and geological wonders. With so much to see, make sure you keep your camera handy.
Spanning over 800km between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, Route 62 is dotted with charming villages. The architecture tells of their rich heritage: low-key towns boast tall church steeples, and humble farmhouses punctuate the landscape. We passed plenty of typical low-cost housing too, “cheap and cheerful” places with colourful paint jobs and billowing washing lines.
Click through the gallery above for all the stunning photos from Lara’s roadtrip
The sight of aloes (indigenous succulent plants) told us that the terrain was becoming more arid as we entered the Klein Karoo region and reached our first stop, the town of Oudtshoorn – a historic destination that’s becoming very trendy.
The nearby Cango Caves are fantastic. What a sight! These well-lit underground atriums, with fascinating chambers boasting calcium stalactites and stalagmites, are pleasantly humid but not claustrophobic like I’d dreaded. There’s a more adventurous option than the standard tour, namely one that involves tunnel- slithering and squeezing through gaps, including the appropriately named “letter box”.
We stayed at La Plume guesthouse, 6km out of Oudtshoorn on a family-run farm, with welcoming hospitality and expansive views from the lush lawn across flat, dry landscapes to distant mountains. The family cottage here has been cleverly converted and expanded, while maintaining its turn-of-the-twentieth-century feel with antique furniture. The charming bathrooms are wonderful for soaking road-weary muscles.
There were yummy farm meals at La Plume, too; including ostrich steak! The Highgate Ostrich Show Farm, just five minutes away, was for us an unexpected highlight, with a tour that’s informative and engaging for all ages. Flightless, the ostrich is great value in terms of the trade of healthy meat, feathers, leather and accessories. Our children loved petting three-day-old chicks that were already shoebox-sized, and making feather dusters. And, for the record, ostrich racing is exhilarating and hilarious.
The next day we passed meerkats, mongooses and monkeys as we drove along the long straight road through extremely flat, dry landscape; the natural contours of the land and the exposed rock textures hinted at how the earth’s surface was created.
Historic Graaff-Reinet deserves plenty of time to explore and admire. Outside the town is a peaceful game reserve called Samara, with rhinos, buffalos and many varieties of antelope. Leopard tortoises are the most common visitors to the camp, but as it’s unfenced, all sorts of creatures meander through. The Karoo scenery is lovely and, as there’s no competition from big cats here, cheetahs thrive in the reserve.
This area experiences extremely hot and cold weather. The vegetation is interesting and includes a special plant called spekboom that has a great capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions, so you needn’t feel as bad about the airfare and fuel used to get there!
The reserve offers a unique walking experience – I even had the chance to wander among giraffes. We also walked within a few metres of a cheetah and her adolescent cubs while our children remained safely at camp with a babysitter, enjoying the playroom and jungle gym. The kids joined us on the other drives, and we all had a great time together at the pool in the heat of the day.
Sitting on the wrap-around verandah of a 250-year-old house, on what was once a cattle farm, I could only imagine what had transpired over the long history of the place. Inside, the house retains its original low doors, wooden ceilings and floors. The simple inter-connecting rooms of the Sibella Suite (named after a rehabilitated captive cheetah) in Karoo Lodge are by far the best value on the reserve; priced slightly lower than most of the other offerings, but with all the trimmings of inclusive meals and game drives, and situated privately near a watering hole.
Samara is a restful place, and was a welcome three-day stop in our journey.
After a long drive, I look for minimal additional travel, with maximum reward. Just ten minutes off the main road outside Grahamstown is Shamwari Game Reserve. Shamwari means “friend” in the Shona language. It’s a Big Five game reserve, well suited to foreigners who visit the Cape and who wish to go on safari in the region; located in a malaria-free area, it’s also great for introducing children to a wilderness experience.
The Eastern Cape vegetation differs greatly from that of other African reserves. The game viewing is superb – we regularly saw lions, rhinos and elephants close to the open vehicle. Riverdene Lodge is a sleek option, a restored frontier homestead with hotel finishes. Connecting bedrooms with modern fittings give onto a communal lawn and enclosed pool. This is not the rustic safari option that some travellers seek, but will appeal to those who like all the mod cons to be available. It’s recommended as a family option thanks to its Kids on Safari programme and the secure game fence surrounding the lodge. Children over four may go on game drives; our ranger’s bush tales kept our kids engaged.
Surili Lodge, named after a Xhosa chief, offers a five-bedroom house overlooking the Bushman’s River and grassy plains. The décor and setting are both appealing; this is a worthy recommendation for travellers in a group with children. Elsewhere, there are other wonderful accommodation options at Shamwari, including a tented camp. In all, this was a great wildlife stop along our route with excellent game viewing.
Next we travelled the Garden Route towards Cape Town. You can stop endlessly along this scenic route. We passed the famed thousand-year-old Big Tree in the enormous Tsitsikamma forest. We crossed bridges with deep ravines where thrill-seekers enjoy bungee-jumping. We looked for whales and dolphins when we passed the coast and arrived at Plettenburg Bay.
Tsala Treetop Lodge is an extensive property designed with great vision and taste. The glass-fronted foyer set the tone from the moment we arrived – it’s flanked by blackwood columns. Tsala means “elevated resting place” – a fitting name for these treehouses set in the tree canopy.
Our treetop villa had two equally grand rooms with glass façades . We loved the freestanding baths plus the indoor and outdoor showers. It was chilly during our visit, but the snug under-floor heating, a cosy fireplace, hot-water bottles tucked into bed and marshmallow hot chocolate at turn-down kept us warm. In summer, the private deck, rim-flow plunge pool and balconies must be a treat.
The layout of the lodge beckons you to walk along the elevated walkways through the forest, or on the wide lawns. There are also the beautifully flourishing gardens of its colonial sister property, The Country House at Hunters. For me, executive chef Hilda’s Kalahari eggs stole the show at breakfast: poached eggs on toasted English muffin with smoked salmon carpaccio, wilted spinach, grated biltong (beef jerky), dukkah and béarnaise sauce.
This was a decadent stay with all the trimmings. It was telling that many of our fellow guests were there on honeymoons or celebrations. But there’s also much to do in the area; with the guidance of Tsala staff, who gave us a raffia-wrapped collection of recommendations and brochures, we set off on an excursion. We enjoyed walking through Monkeyland, a multi-species primate sanctuary. There, we saw free-roaming spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and capuchin monkeys, along with gibbons, lemurs and a howler monkey who reminded us that he’s one of the loudest mammals, second only to the blue whale. Our delightful guide told us fascinating facts about these primates and the intricate workings of the forest.
On we went to the enormous Birds of Eden aviary. We followed this with a stop at Jukani and found out lots about various wild cats, from Africa and elsewhere. And saw them up close.
The drive back to Cape Town offers many more places to stop in (or stay) and constantly good scenery. For us it was time to get back, so we drove the last five-hour stretch straight through. But on a journey like this one, through some spectacular South African sights, you’ll always enjoy the ride.
For help with booking such a trip, contact the lodges directly; or if in need of an itinerary contact either of these reputable travel companies, based in South Africa: email firstname.lastname@example.org or www.africatravelresource.com.