South Africa driving

By Ben Groundwater

It comes as a shock the first time it happens. You’re stuck behind a truck, a big lumbering beast that it will surely take forever to pass, when suddenly it shifts over to the edge of the road, and the driver indicates — you’re safe to overtake. So you hit the accelerator and cruise past, putting on your hazard lights as a sign of thanks, watching in the rear-view mirror as the truck driver flashes his lights in acknowledgement.

What was that? That’s driving in South Africa. People here are considerate. They let you pass if they’re going too slow. They put on their hazard lights to say thanks if you let them through. South Africa, this country that could seem so intimidating to first-timers on its roads, is about the most relaxed place you could hope to drive in.

Even this morning in Johannesburg, where I begin my big lap of this amazing country, it’s pretty relaxed. Jo’burg is no one’s idea of paradise, but it is a good place to pick up a hire car and spend a night resting up before hitting the road heading south. Get started early enough and it’s only half an hour or so before you’re out of the city and onto smooth, open highway.

My destination on day one is Port Elizabeth, a town all the way down on the South African coastline. It’s a long drive, but a beautiful one. I begin up in the bare savannah of the South African high veldt before winding down into ever-greener territory past Bloemfontein, spotting baboons by the side of the road as I approach Cradock, seeing a jackal skulk into the bushes as I near my destination.

South Africa is ideal for a road trip. If you’ve driven a car in Australia, then you can handle yourself here. The terrain and the distances are similar. The roads are in excellent condition. The drivers are friendly. And the scenery, of course, is stunningly beautiful, a never-ending highlight reel of vistas that you’ll want to pull over to the side of the road to properly enjoy time and again.

There are several world-famous drives that you can’t miss in this country. One is the Garden Route, a 300-kilometre stretch of road from the town of Storms River in the Eastern Cape to Mossel Bay in the west. Another is the journey from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean. And the third is a gentle cruise through the wine country just north of Cape Town, around the towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

My adventure is taking in all three of these iconic drives, beginning in Johannesburg and ending in the Western Cape. That first long stretch takes me from South Africa’s biggest city through to its coastline at Port Elizabeth, before, a few nights later, I work my way west to Plettenburg Bay, calling in at Kurland House, a polo club and boutique hotel. This is a throwback to South Africa’s colonial past, a place of Cape Dutch buildings and posh polo lawns. It’s also a beautiful spot to relax and prepare for one of the world’s great drives: the Garden Route.

It begins in coastal Storms River, a place of rugged beaches and salty air, before moving inland, into the wildflower-covered hills of the Eastern Cape, winding through green-tinged farmland and small towns. There are more coastal sections, passing by windswept surf towns and high sand dunes, before the road moves back into the hills, sprayed yellow with canola flowers, and eventually pops out at Mossel Bay.

From there it’s only a few more hours to Cape Town, one of the world’s great cities, set in the shadow of Table Mountain. Driving here is different — it’s busy, hectic, with plenty of traffic; you need a GPS to navigate the highways that wrap around the mountain and shoot you down towards the south, past the beautiful beaches of Clifton and Camps Bay.

It’s worth spending a few days in this area, parking the car and relaxing on the sand, taking in Cape Town’s sights before continuing south as far as south goes. The road down there passes through the gorgeous little towns and fishing villages that make up this final section of the cape, places such as Kalk Bay, with its fish and chip shops, and Boulders Beach, with its colony of penguins, before eventually ending where Africa does, at the Cape of Good Hope.

The only way from here is north, back past Cape Town and into the famed Stellenbosch wine region, where a car is your ticket to the full gourmet experience, cruising the vine-studded valleys, sampling local wine, eating world-class cuisine, spending the night in boutique hotels or lodges in the hills.

The driving here is still easy. Your fellow drivers are still overly polite. It can take some getting used to.

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