“Each town has its own charm and it’s difficult to figure out what keeps their economies buoyant. For the most part, there are coffee shops and antique stores in each town that gives tourists a reason to stop and stretch legs.“
My daughter had just arrived back in Johannesburg from Paris where she had been studying for two years. She wouldn’t stay long, though, as she had accepted a job offer in Cape Town. So we decided to make the best of it in the form of a road trip together, all the way to her new home.
Our trip would take us from the Johannesburg all the way down to the Mother City, and we would get to know many beautiful South African small towns along the way.
Jozi to Winburg
The first leg of the trip was overcast and rainy, however we were in high spirits, as we would spend our first night in the thriving metropolis of Winburg! It was freezing but our guest house was pleasant and our host welcoming (one of the reasons why I enjoy visiting small towns).
Like many small towns, this one seems to survive thanks to the support of the local farming community. There is a peanut plantation and the nearest big supermarket is in Welkom (55km away) or in Bloemfontein (114km away).
According to the local hotel manager, the elephant statue in Winburg is the geographical centre of either the Free State or South Africa – you can decide as there is no plaque to confirm or deny either claim. It’s just a pity that most travellers rarely take the 8km trip from the main road to discover this little gem.
Vegetarians, I’d recommend you drive right on by – Winburg proved to us that chicken could very well be a vegetable…
Winburg to Graaff-Reinet
After a leisurely Sunday breakfast, it was time to brave the rain and mist and head to our next overnight stop in Graaff-Reinet. A 500+km journey awaited us but thankfully, like all great road trips, there had to be stops along the way. Stops on a Sunday in this part of South Africa, we quickly realised, have to be planned in advance as most of the places we wanted to visit were closed!
A lunch stop in Nieu-Bethesda is always worth it as the coffee shop near the Owl House offers great food at reasonable prices (they are also vegetarian friendly).
For those who remember the general dealer in the centre of town, you will be sad to know that the 21st century eventually arrived here, too. The dealer was sold and the building turned into a bookstore and art gallery. Clearly, neither of these were successful either, because the building is currently empty and for sale.
On our departure, we discovered that the back road out of Nieu-Bethesda offers spectacular scenery and the road is in a far better condition. This meant that the rest of our drive towards Graaff-Reinet was pleasant.
Did you know that Graaff-Reinet, the fourth-oldest town in South Africa, after Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Swellendam, also used to be the centre of tequila production in South Africa? Roughly 20 years ago, the town became the only place outside of Mexico where tequila – marketed under a different name – was made by Agave Distillers.
Our accommodation exceeded all expectations: we had an entire house to ourselves. Without sounding like an estate agent, it was everything I would want in a property to retire to. With great furnishings (including a Victorian bath) and two welcoming bedrooms, this is the perfect self-catering venue for a family and well worth a visit. It was a pity that we only had one night there.
Graaff-Reinet to Oudtshoorn
With a plethora of small shops and museums to visit, as well as the extravagant Dutch Reformed church that dominates a part of the main road, we spent the morning exploring Graaff-Reinet before leaving on the next leg of our journey towards Oudtshoorn.
We decided to take the N9, via Aberdeen, Willowmore, and De Rust. This is a well-maintained alternative to the N1 and we stopped in each town along the way, rather than whizzing past (as most holiday-makers seem to do).
Each town has its own charm and it’s difficult to figure out what keeps their economies buoyant. For the most part, there are coffee shops and antique stores in each town that gives tourists a reason to stop and visit.
We had chosen Oudtshoorn for our next overnight stop as this is where my father grew up. The town and its surrounding areas offer plenty things to do such as visiting crocodile and ostrich farms as well as the spectacular Kango Caves.
The Kango Caves is reportedly the oldest tourist attraction in South Africa. The standard route in the caves is astounding with its fantastic formations varying in age from 1.2m years to baby formations of around 400 years old. If you are feeling daring and have the time, try the adventure tour!
Lucky for us, the snow had not closed the Swartberg Pass and we were able to take this route to Prince Albert. The views were breathtaking and this route is an absolute must if you are in the area.
It seems as though this tiny hamlet consists of coffee shops, craft dealers, antique shops, and B&B establishments, but it must be doing something right as there are three estate agents in the main road! If you have the time, a visit to “Die Hel” is also worth the 37km (2hr!) drive.
We returned to Oudtshoorn via Klaarwater and De Rust as the road is tarred all the way. The attraction of this route is that it crosses the Meiringspoort River 27 times (my daughter counted). Although it is an easier drive, it is as spectacular as the Swartberg Pass, but for different reasons.
Oudtshoorn to Paarl
We took the road to Paarl via Mossel Bay and Swellendam. The road from Swellendam to Paarl was less busy than the N2, there were no tolls roads, and it was less than 10km longer than the toll road! By skipping the Huguenot Tunnel, we were also able to enjoy the stunning scenery that the Du Toits Kloof Pass offers.
Our guesthouse in Paarl was built in 1812 and the building that currently houses guest rooms used to contain an indoor swimming pool.
Paarl, like most of the other towns we visited, offered one coffee shop and art gallery after the other, as well as various antique shops.
Paarl to Cape Town
To get to Cape Town, we took the coastal road via Pringle Bay and Gordon’s Bay, hoping to see some Southern Right Whales in Walker Bay. Although there were a lot of whale watching boats visible, the whales were elusive.
My daughter had never been to Cape Town before, so we spent our last day together exploring the Waterfront and Sea Point.
We had come to the end of our road trip and all that was left for me to do was deliver my daughter to her new home and to make my way back to Johannesburg.
Was it worth the cost in petrol and mileage? You bet it was. Not only did we get to spend eight days together after not seeing each other for two years, but at the same time, we got to see and appreciate so many special parts of South Africa!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Don’t forget your GPS! I have to say that my GPS behaved impeccably for the most part. At one point, his voice (whom I call Simon) disappeared for a day. However, I’m convinced he went for Afrikaans lessons because as the journey continued, he got better and better at pronouncing Afrikaans names…
- Winburg Accommodation: The Winburg Guesthouse. Cell: 072 474 0344 Tip: Vegans and vegetarians, take your own food. Chicken is a vegetable in this tiny ‘dorp’. There were no restaurants when we visited other than a shop at the garage that provided toasted sandwiches and slap chips
- Graaf Reinet Accommodation: De Kothuize. 083 233 1227 / www.dekothuize.co.za This was self-catering, but there are many restaurants in town that serve a variety of different foods.
- Oudtshoorn Accommodation: Cul de Sac Country House. 044-279-2322 / www.culdesac.co.za Self catering, but there are plenty of food options in town.
- Paarl Accommodation: Klein Vredenburg Guest house. 021-872-9898 We had breakfast at the guest house and we had the rest of our meals in town.
- Hermanus Accommodation: Arabella Hotel & Spa. 0282840000 / www.arabellacountryestate.co.za All meals were enjoyed at the hotel.