Every year, at the height of summer, a great migration takes place in South Africa. It has nothing to do with wild animals or beautiful birds. Rather with an entire horde of northerners packing their cars, fastening their seat belts and hitting to the N1 highway to Cape Town, the mother city.
In common South African understanding ‘northerners’ generally refers to people from the small, landlocked province of Gauteng and up. As soon as school vacation hits, northerners embark on the great exodus to the sea. Cape Town has always been the most popular destination. There’s something about Cape Town that’s too glamorous and cosmopolitan for us to resist. It has the most important ingredient for a northerner’s ideal vacation: the sea.
Usually, the idea is to get the journey there over with as quickly as possible. It takes about 14 hours to get from Pretoria. Pretoria is one of the three capitals of South Africa and Gauteng’s second biggest city, to Cape Town. Some eager souls make the journey in a single day, but the more popular option is to stop over for a night along the road. Whichever option you choose, the idea is to get up really early (I’m talking 3 or 4 a.m.). Drive the whole day, sleep and repeat the process. Most people don’t see the journey itself as part of the vacation, but those people are definitely missing out.
I recently made this trip with my family once again, and this time we took a different approach. We stopped along the way, looked around in the small towns that are literally in the middle of nowhere, and discovered a little something of South Africa that we’ve been missing for years and years.
So, if you find yourself visiting South Africa and feeling like discovering something special, a road trip between the country’s capitals could be just the thing. It doesn’t really matter what capital you start from, but international visitors usually arrive in Johannesburg at O.R. Thambo Airport, which is only about 50 km away from Pretoria. This article will give you a glimpse of what’s on offer, if you travel from capital to capital.
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Start in Pretoria:
Because it’s quite close to Johannesburg, and because Johannesburg is a megacity, Pretoria often languishes in the shadow of its big brother. There are surprises and delights to be had there though. Hospitality is warm, there are some stunning parks and shopping centres, and the city bowl sports a couple of architectural gems. The city boasts sprawling green suburbs and is completely transformed in October when the Jacaranda trees’ blooms fall and carpet the streets in soft lavender petals. It’s not known as the “Jacaranda City” for nothing!
Then Move on to Bloemfontein:
Four hours on the road will carry you to the Free State and the country’s third capital, Bloemfontein. This age-old city is the judicial capital of the country, and its history is writ large – you can see tanks from the national road as you pass by the South African Armour Museum. This is usually where Pretorians make a breakfast pit-stop, but if you’re in the mood to stretch the journey, there are some amazing historical spots to visit, including the National Women’s Memorial and the First Raadsaal Museum. This also makes a great over-night stay, if you’re coming from the Cape Town side up to Pretoria.
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Two hours of driving will see you on the banks of the Gariep Dam, the largest water storage reservoir in South Africa. You can drive through the Oviston tunnel or stop in the town of Gariep itself. The dam is a sight to see, although the drought in South Africa has severely affected its water levels. Despite this, it’s still a beautiful place to stop for you mid-drive picnic, or you can stay overnight to witness the fresh and clear South African skies.
Most people drive completely past Colesberg and only stop outside the little town to fill up on gas and have a stretch. What they’re missing, though, is one of the most impressive Churches the main road can boast. The Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1830 in a grand style that will not fail to impress. Its columns and position at the end of the road really make the head stretch back to take in its full majesty. The town is also dotted with great examples of Cape Dutch and Georgian architecture.
Sleep Over in Beaufort West:
There’s an often-covered Afrikaans (one of South Africa’s eleven official languages) song with the title “Beautiful in Beaufort-Wes”. Although the lyrics are about a young woman, the title gives some indication of this lonesome Karoo town. A favorite stop-over on the way between capitals, Beaufort West has a whole legion of B&Bs and self-catering units. The best accommodation is to be found just outside of town though, where you can see the beautiful mountains rising in the sunset and experience that cool South African night under one of the starriest skies you’ll ever see.
If you’re still awake and up for a thrill, take the Swartberg Pass through some of the most gorgeous scenery you’ll encounter as you’re trying to negotiate hairpin turns and rather disconcerting inclines. The Swartberg Pass cuts through the Swartberg, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the Great Karoo. The scrubby mountains and steep drops might leave you breathless, but there are a couple of spots where you can stop and just drink in the scenery.
Have a Beer at Ronnie’s “Sex Shop”:
The road between Oudtshoorn, the “ostrich capital of the world” and Cape Town is just a short way away from Beaufort West. Dubbed ‘Route 62’ and reminiscent of the iconic American Route 66, this road will take you past the rather scandalously named “Ronnie’s Sex Shop”. It is, in fact, one of South Africa’s most famous pubs.
The owner, Ronnie, wanted to fix up an old, highway-adjacent building to turn it into a padstal, or pit stop. His friends decided to play a prank on him, and have the business officially named “Ronnie’s Sex Shop”. Once he calmed down, Ronnie decided to keep the name and open a pub, and the rest is history. Stop here and, if you’re not the one driving the next leg, have a cold one.
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Catch some Culture in Laingsburg:
This little town is affectionately known as the gateway to the Great Karoo, a semi-arid region much loved by South Africans. Laingsburg dates back to the 18th Century, but the town was largely destroyed by a flash flood in 1981 – something no one was expecting in this dry, desolate place. A bit of an eccentric stop, Laingsburg offers a Flood Museum that details the monumental event of the 1981 Flood.
Here you can not only catch a glimpse of the devastation that nature can cause but also of the indomitable South African spirit of Ubuntu. The town was rebuilt through the generosity and willingness to help and work of its people, as well as the kind donations of people from all over South Africa.
After Laingsburg, Cape Town can be reached in about three to four hours. There’s no end to the interesting and attractive places to stop along the way. The Western Cape, one of South Africa’s most popular provinces, offers an array of amazing little towns that contribute their own gems to the national treasury. This is also the start of wine routes, flower routes, coffee routes – you name it!
These are just some of the interesting little South African towns that are within reach of the first national road. Most of them are considered pit stops on the route to the glory of the mother city and her coastline. There’s always something to find in each and every one of them. Be it a great cup of coffee, a little-known monument or an interesting conversation. These small towns will give you something to remember. They’ll give you a taste of what it means to be South African.