South Africa can seem like a far-off destination for many travellers. Yet, those who visit usually find a reason to return. Countless visitors have fallen in love with South Africa in particular those who have done the route laid out in this article. Economic hardships and fear of crime often hold people back, but once you have experienced South Africa you’ll see these are far from its defining traits. The real Africa lies in its sublime landscapes, diverse wildlife, ancient cultures, as well as the majority of kind people who inhabit the country.
This article lays out a simple but long route starting in Cape Town and following the coast all the way to Durban. It’s a simple West to East, much of which done on the N2. However, the distance is considerable making it perfect for a car hire.
You could dedicate an entire article to this city alone. Located on the very tip of the Western cape the laid back city rests under the iconic Table Mountain. With a number of Universities and ongoing development into its shopping quarters, nightlife and suburbs, Cape Town has become a bohemian heaven for surfers, artists, students and families.
The scenery itself is breath-taking with a huge amount of hiking trails up Table Mountain, the neighbouring mountain known as ‘Lion’s Head’, the Silver Mine national park, as well as one of the world’s top ranked botanical gardens, ‘Kirstenbosch’. There are also some of the world’s best beaches such as Clifton.
If you want to surf than Muizenberg is where to start, it’s a great place to learn and often has a decent set of waves for the more experienced. There are a large number of rental shops to choose from too. Along the local high street are some great places for seafood including the more high-end Harbour House, and further down in Kalk Bay is the laid back Fish n’Chips spot, Brass Bell.
Cape Town from above – Lion’s Head is the first mountain with Table Mountain behind it
For nightlife it’s recommended getting some beers along Kloof Street, a steep hill lined with cocktail bars and restaurants with Table Mountain looming grandly above. Bombay Bicycle Club is at the very top and a personal favourite, and if you follow the road down from Kloof Street after happy hour you’ll find yourself on Long Street – the very centre of the city.
Along this street are a host of rooftop and balcony bars in colonial architect playing everything from live Rock and Indy to Electronic and down tempo, all performed by local and visiting artists. There are private security forces looking out for the crowds at weekends so although you should feel free to walk around it is recommended to stay in your groups and not wonder down empty side streets.
On a brief note, less than an hour outside of Cape Town following the N2 and taking exit 33 onto the R310 you can reach Stellenbosch. This is a stunning University town surrounded by wine farms, making it the perfect day trip. Treat yourself to a tour around the wineries and have a gourmet lunch of local produce within the quiet town centre.
A view from a wine farm in Stellenbosch
The Garden Route – Knysna, Plettenberg and Bloukrans Bridge
After you’ve had your fill of Cape Town it’s time to take the Garden Route, named for its lush valleys and forests. Although you’re not hugging the coast at this point you’re certainly heading there. It’s about 490 km along the N2, taking five and half hours. As a driving tip, the highway can dissipate into only two lanes. Occasionally, in order to pass slower vehicles or lorries, you will have to go into the oncoming traffic lane. It’s like this for much of the trip.
It may sound scary but resident drivers will often pull into the hard shoulder giving you space to pass when there’s no oncoming traffic. Take your time and pass when you’re sure, it’s usually straight road with hills meaning you can see far enough ahead to pass stress-free. Make sure to give a short flash of the warning lights once you’ve passed to say thanks to anyone who moved aside for you!
Coming into Knysna you’ll immediately notice the bay filled with people water skiing and fishing. At the end are two cliff sides facing each other acting as the entrance to the ocean. These are known as the Knysna ‘Heads’, the East Head is residences but has cafes and beaches below it. The West Head contains hiking trails.
Knysna is a quiet town surrounded by forest with a beautiful harbour filled with local craft shops and seafood restaurants. There’s mountain biking, chartered yachts, and small beaches for snorkelling. Rest up, enjoy the sunsets and speak to the locals to see what’s happening.
Knysna Lagoon as seen from the Heads
Just thirty minutes out of Knysna down the N2 is Plettenberg Bay. Another small town on the coast but with a more vibrant beach bar culture. Depending on what you want you could stay either here or Knysna, both have a number of hostels and B&B’s. Robberg Nature Reserve, a world heritage site, is a must see, with beaches and caves once used in the Stone Age.
However, for the adrenalin junkies out there as you continue your journey East down the N2 for another 40 km you’ll pass over Bloukrans River. It’ll be 200 m below as you go over Africa’s largest bridge. Nestled under said bridge is Face Adrenalin, a world famous bungee jump and the world’s commercial highest. Take the leap, if you dare.
The bridge over Bloukrans River – in the centre under the road is the Bungee spot
Jeffrey’s Bay and Coffee Bay
Depending on whether you stayed in Knysna or Plettenberg it’s about 200 km on the N2 to Jeffrey’s Bay. Although just couple of hours away it’s recommended to rest here as the next stretch is an eight hour drive.
But there’s good reason to stay, it’s home to a popular hostel called Island Vibe, and has the best waves in South Africa. ‘J bay’ hosts the annual Billabong surfing contest drawing in the world’s greatest. There are discount surf shops with all the top brands, and the whole town feels like something out of 1970’s California.
The world famous ‘Tube City’ in Jeffrey’s Bay where the Billabong Contest takes place
Now comes the real test of your driving stamina, but the reward is exceptional. However, if you want to split the drive you can stay at the small town East London, just four hours away along the N2; a great hostel there is Sugarshack. If you don’t than keep on the N2 and have a map or Google directions handy as you will occasionally have to take roads off the N2 to merge back on. After 600 km you will go off the highway into the hills beyond via rocky roads, so drive slow.
Driving the N2 in the Eastern Cape
Coffee Bay is a paradise. It’s a small river valley nestled between rolling green hills right by the warm Indian Ocean. The region is known for the round huts locals having been building for generations. There are two main hostels, Coffee Shack and Sugarloaf. Coffee Shack was built by two newlyweds who found the area the day of their wedding and decided to stay, building the hostel from the ground up. Now it is a laid back place that rents surf boards for just 20 Rand a day (£1.20). The incredible beaches are at your doorstep.
There are hikes led by locals, in particular to the ‘hole in the wall’ – a natural landmark worth seeing. The hostel has hippy residents all year round who cook everything homemade, host pool competitions in the bar at night and are happy to give tours to those who ask. Make sure to have actual cash on you as the local ATM is not always reliable.
The Hole in the Wall at Coffee Bay
After you’re done with Coffee Bay, say a sad goodbye and make the final leg to Durban. It’s again along the N2 but it’s a good day’s drive of 521 km (7 hours). Of course like the rest of this trip the scenery will be outstanding so be sure to take breaks by rest stops on the roadside and take it all in.
Durban is one of South Africa’s most popular cities with a tonne of things to do. Head out to the golden Mile, a famous beach front for surfing, jogging and relaxing. Also check out the Botanical Gardens with living plants from the prehistoric era.
Durban’s main beach
Alas, here is where the coastal trip ends… if you want it to. All in all this route covers a few weeks, depending on how long you want to stay in each of the places. However, there’s so much more to see in South Africa. From Durban you can also head for the spectacular Drakensburg Mountain range or head towards Johannesburg or even into Kruger Park for safari. South Africa is so big and full of wonder, but don’t worry because as mentioned it’s likely you’ll be back.
Written by Ed Sherrington