Our 42 day road trip started in Johannesburg and ended in Cape Town. In between we went through the Okavango Delta and Chobe Park in Botswana, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Kruger National Park, the Garden Route and most of the East coast of South Africa. We drove our rented Chevy Spark (which we named Timon) 4,821 miles (7,758 km), spent 12 nights in a tent, listened to the first four Harry Potter books on tape, and saw amazing things at every turn. Here is how we made it happen…
Route: Driving from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls
Johannesburg, South Africa to Maun, Botswana
Because the internet has limited info about the Pont Drift border crossing, we used the Martin’s Drift border post to get from South Africa to BoswanPont Drift might have saved us some time, but it’s literally a drive across a dry river bed. Timon the Chevy Spark is small and that made us nervous. More on this later – suffice to say, if you need good info about Pont Drift’s status, just call one of the safari lodges in Tuli Block and ask them the latest status of the crossing.
Driving to Maun from Joburg is too far for one day (unless you leave at the crack of dawn) so we overnighted at Masama Lodge, Serowe, then continued on to Maun early the next morning. We intended to camp at Masama, but arrived after dark and were lazy. We got a rondavel (cabin type thing) and almost immediately regretted it. Our choice was either Bake or Bugs. We couldn’t open the windows because of the swarms of insects, and there was no A/C. Live and learn: there’s a nice advantage to a tent, you know it is bug free and has excellent ventilation. Live and learn: there’s a nice advantage to a tent, you know it is bug free and has excellent ventilation.
Once we made it to Maun, we stayed at the Okavango River Lodge, camping for 3 nights. The bar there is really active with locals and travelers. We met some wonderful people who helped us plan our next steps.
The lodge organized a Mokoro Trip in the Delta for us. The Mokoro trip was awesome. It was really really hot the day we went, and we did not see many animals, but it was really cool to be out on the delta. Also, to beat the heat we jumped in the delta in our underwear; our Mokoro pilot led by example. We did not go to the Moremi Game Reserve because little Timon couldn’t handle it. This was the only time we wished we’d had a 4×4. Joining a game drive to Moremi is really expensive ($100 or more), so we skipped it.
Maun to Kasane, Botswana
About 5 hours of driving from Maun is Senyati Safari Camp, just south of Kasane, where we spent 2 nights. This is a unique place, but isn’t cheap ($20pp camping). They created a watering hole that the local elephants like. But they don’t just visit, they visit in droves. At one moment we counted 80 elephants! Senyati is totally self-catering, no communal kitchen or refrigerators, but braiis are available. Thankfully, we met some generous Peace Corps volunteers from California, and they invited us to join them and their extended family for spaghetti and meatballs dinner! (Thanks a lot Luke and Anna, you guys may have saved our lives.)
Senyati had an organized day trip to Victoria Falls, which we joined. Pick up, drop off, and a driver all day cost about $50 per person. It was worth it for the convenience. You could do the border crossing on your own. However, unless you’re planning on more than a couple days in Zimbabwe, the vehicle tariff is expensive and the crossing can be a hassle.
We moved from Senyati to Thebe River Lodge in Kasane, which was recommended by the aforementioned lovely people at Okavango, and had a restaurant, which was crucial. This is great place with good prices on game drives and cruises. The safari truck and river boat are both huge so you will share the ride with a lot of other people. They have satellite TV to show sports and a small pool. The restaurant was good. Side note: Matt accidentally left his Kindle here.
Chobe River sunset cruise – can’t miss this! Hippos, elephants, buffalo and birds galore, and a killer sunset.
Chobe morning game drive – if you’ve already done other game drives, this one is skippable.
Route: Driving through Botswana from Kasane to Kruger National Park
Kasane to Tuli Block, Botswana (overnight in Nata)
Botswana is a large country and we were heading to Tuli Block on the Southern border, so en route to Tuli Block we stopped at a place called Pelican Lodge in Nata. We just saw it on the side of the road and decided to inquire. We were in desperate need of a break from our tent and inflatable mattress, so we got a double room with air conditioning here for ~$50.
After so much camping, we figured we’d saved enough money to splurge on the 4 star Tuli Safari Lodge. Located in the heart of a dry, rocky area with scrub brush and kopjes, we drove in with growing skepticism. We’d been on a bumpy dirt road (nothing Timon couldn’t handle!) for a half hour. Then, turning a corner, we dipped into a small glen with huge trees, green grass, and saw Bushbuck grazing while Vervet Monkeys skitted around.
This is one of the fanciest places we’ve ever stayed. It is basically all-inclusive, except you pay for your own drinks. Every day you get two delicious meals, afternoon tea, a morning game drive, and an evening game drive. The game drives were the best we experienced in our whole seven week trip to Southern Africa. The driver was incredible, and because Tuli Block is private land, there aren’t any rules about staying on the road. The vehicle is “small” – just a Land Rover Defender, which was a nice change from the massive trucks we rode just about everywhere else.
Tuli Block to Kruger National Park, South Africa
After a huge breakfast at Tuli Safari Lodge, we set off for Kruger National Park. The staff at the lodge keeps tabs on the Pont Drift border crossing, the one that is a dry riverbed and used by cars in the dry season. The staff thought Timon could make it, and they were right. It was totally cake. We wished we’d used this crossing on the way into Botswana.
Our plan for Kruger was to enter in the North side and camp each night until we reached the Southern end. It was a great plan but we didn’t realize how long it takes to drive through Kruger. The speed limit is 50 k/h, and the park is twice as big as Yellowstone. In five days, we made it through half the park. We did take some side trips, and stayed two nights at one of the rest camps.
All of the big Kruger rest camps have incredible facilities, including pools, restaurants, mini-markets, and braii areas. You can buy almost anything you could possibly need, including food, first aid, and toys. Many of the camps have features like a bar overlooking a river valley (Olifants) or a hide with a watering hole (Punda Maria). You can arrive at Kruger with nothing but a sedan, a tent, and a smile, and you’ll have a lot of fun at a very reasonable cost. Keep in mind there is a daily conservation fee for the park; we purchased the Wild Card for ~$200, it was worth it, as it grants unlimited access to South Africa National Parks for one year.
Driving time from the Lodge in Botswana to the Pont Drift border crossing is about 20 minutes. From Pont Drift to the Pafuri gate of Kruger took us about three or four hours. Once inside Kruger, we drove another hour to the Punda Maria Rest Camp, where we busted out the tent, ate dinner, watched the animals from hide, and spent night number one.
Day two we drove to Shingwedzi. We had intended to go to Mopani, but a secondary inspection of our national park booklet informed us that there weren’t, in fact, campsites there. Shingwezdi was fine, but nothing special.
On day three, we drove to Letaba, a huge camp with a Mugg & Bean restaurant, a fine view of a mostly dry river, and a nice pool. The South African rugby team played New Zealand in the semi final of the world cup, so we went over to Mugg & Bean to watch. Some kind Pretorians let us share their table since we didn’t get there early enough, and though the Springboks lost, we made some new friends. They invited us to stay at their place in Pretoria, which we took them up on later.
We woke up the next morning at Letaba, and in celebration of Katy’s 30th birthday, drove around in search of big cats. Apparently lions, leopards, and cheetahs are frequent sightings in the South of Kruger Park, but so far we hadn’t seen any. At the suggestion of our new friends, we spent the next two nights at Satara, which is in the cat country. We were unable to find any cats around Letaba, so we signed up for a morning game drive from Satara.
Day five’s morning game drive was a joke. A lady greeted us at 4:30am and showed us and two other people to the monstrous truck we’d be sharing. She then took us around the park in the dark for a while, waiting for us to spot animals, and not contributing anything of value. When she did speak, it was helpful info about how to tell the males and females apart in whatever species we were looking at. The worst moment came when we found a lion. She drove right past it even though it was about 10 feet from the road. She reversed at our request, and we said “stop!” once we could see it. But she couldn’t see it, so she climbed up out of the cab of the truck and into the bed. The lion promptly spotted her and ran off. No apology from the driver! She didn’t get a tip.
Day five’s evening game drive was much better. This time, our driver took us way off the beaten path, in a place where he hadn’t been for ages. We got lucky. So did the lions we found! Right next to the dirt road we found a male and female mating pair. Let’s just say they could “feel the love tonight.” The human couples around us were oohing and ahhing, and some old guy even said “it’s so beautiful” as we watched the lions try to start a family. Matt was much too immature for this. (editor’s note: Matt authored this paragraph.)
On day six, having finally seen wild lions, we decided to move on from Kruger. It was raining and we were ready fro a change of scene. We exited to the West of Satara, through the Orpen Gate.
In conclusion: Kruger is amazing. The size of the park is unbelievable: as big as the country of Wales. The facilities are top notch, and made the whole trip easy. But the animal life is the reason to go. Even in the North, which is famous for its scenery rather than fauna, there were animals to be found everywhere.
Route: Driving From Kruger Park to Cape Town
This route shouldn’t be undertaken in less than two weeks. It is a long way.
Kruger to Panorama Route, Graskop
Our next stop was Graskop. This is a pretty good place to stay while visiting the Blyde River Canyon, which was our next target. We spent two nights at Valley View Backpackers, which is a good value, located about a mile outside the main area of town, easy to get to if you have a car, but walkable if you don’t. There are a couple of good restaurants in town, and lots of curio shops.
The main attraction here is the canyon. It is gorgeous any time of year, and incredibly green compared to the surrounding areas. We highly recommend doing the Leopard/Guinea Fowl trail from Forever Resort, Blyde Canyon. The trail drops straight down the cliff, dodging branches and baboons, and then twists around layers of waterfall. The loop takes 2-3 hours. Don’t attempt it if you’re not willing to be tired.
There are a bunch of classic lookouts along the road north from Graskop, which are well documented online. The Three Rondavels are visible from the Forever Resort as well.
Panorama to Pretoria
We took our new friends from Kruger up on their offer, and spent two nights relaxing, eating, drinking, and walking the golf course and game reserve in Silver Lakes Estate. This was huge for us as we’d been doing so much go-go-go travel. Thank you Zietsman Family and Bobby and Mike for your generous hospitality!
Pretoria to Clarens
Clarens is in a beautiful location, and we stayed at a really nice B&B affiliated with the Artists Cafe. We stayed two nights here, and during our stay-put day, we hiked in Golden Gate Highlands National Park – the Wodehouse Peak Trail. This place is amazing, and is one of Matt’s favorite hikes worldwide.
Clarens to Durban
We went to Durban for basically one reason: Indian food. We spent a little extra to stay in Bonjour B&B, a really comfortable place near the beach. There was a huge wind storm, so basically all we did was: check out the beach, eat Indian food for dinner, have breakfast, and then eat Indian food for lunch. Matt googled “best bunny chow in Durban” and found a really good suggestion, so we went about 30 minutes out of our way to get there. Then when ordering the food, instead of getting bunny chow, he just asked the counter lady “what is the best” and bought Chicken ‘n Chips! The whole point was to get bunny chow! Oh well, the french fries and chicken curry wrapped in a tortilla was delicious and enormous, and fed both of us for two meals.
Durban to Cintsa (overnight in Mthata, at Stables B&B)
5 hours from Durban, we stayed at a place called Stables B&B. I swear we’re the first tourists to ever stay there. We found it on Booking.com and immediately after confirmation, got an email from them: “We noticed you’re from America, maybe you made a mistake. We are in South Africa, it might not be up to your standards.” It was a fine place. We were definitely not the typical guest.
By far the best value accommodation we had on the entire trip, was the double room with a kitchenette in brand new construction at Buccaneers Backpackers in Cintsa. The road to get there is bumpy but worth it, and possible even in a 2wd. For $40 we had the most amazing view, with a balcony and no shared walls. The bed was king size and the bathroom was nice. We stayed two nights, played volleyball with other travelers every day at 4pm, and did a little tour organized by the backpackers where we visited a township, a cultural village, and a brewery (the beer was OK).
Cintsa to Nature’s Valley (via Jeffrey’s Bay)
We spent a couple more nights along the east coast. Our next stop was Jeffrey’s Bay. Island Vibe was a recommended place in Lonely Planet, but we didn’t think much of it. If you like partying with 20 year old strangers, maybe it would be for you. They did have a lively bar, with a dedicated beer pong table. One redeeming factor, we ran into friends we’d made at Buccaneers and hung out all night… that was fun. (Howzit, Alistair and Matthias?)
The next stop was Nature’s Valley Rest Camp in Tsitsikamma National Park, and back to tent camping. There is a beautiful beach about 20 minutes away by foot. We did a hiking loop called Groot River Trail around the lagoon which was recommended by the camp staff. They neglected to tell us that we’d have to swim across the mouth of the river/lagoon in order to finish the loop. No matter, we popped off our hiking shoes and held them up high out of the water with our camera. Also, it was warm out.
Nature’s Valley to Plettenberg Bay
At this point we just wanted to take some time with a view and WiFi to see what changed on the internet. We booked Whale Rock B&B which has an amazing balcony. We also hiked the Point Circuit at Robberg Peninsula, which is one of the most beautiful places in South Africa. Check out these photos.
Plettenberg Bay to Oudtshoorn
There is an extremely well managed, family run hostel in Oudtshoorn that is worth staying at, called Paradise Backpackers. We visited Cango Caves (totally awesome if you haven’t been in a big cave before), Cango Ostrich Farm (surprisingly fun), and ate lunch and tasted wine at Karusa Vineyard (excellent sandwiches!). We wanted to drive over the mountain pass just outside Oudtshoorn, which is highly recommended but the weather didn’t cooperate and the clouds were too low, so we skipped the long drive.
Tip: The backpackers has discount coupons for the Caves and Ostrich farm, so make sure to stop by as soon as you get in town.
Oudtshoorn to Robertson
We found another good value on a comfortable room at Robertson Backpackers. They have good internet here (but only in the common area).
The main thing in Robertson is also the best thing: wine estates. We rented bikes from Mallowdeen Gardens and biked about 7 miles in a loop, visiting the nearby wineries. Robertson Wineries are almost all free to taste! South African wine is really good, and really cheap.
Robertson to Stellenbosch
About 45 minutes from Robertson is the old colonial town of Stellenbosch, with over a hundred wineries scattered throughout the countryside. We stayed at this Airbnb for $35. It was awesome!
The wineries we visited were:
Rust En Vrede – On the recommendation of our friends from Pretoria, we went here for lunch. For R200 (about $15) you get a glass of Syrah and a delicious steak. There was only one other lunch menu item: salmon. This is the top of my can’t miss list.
Hartenburg – A nice a la carte menu and some good wines in a pretty setting.
Waterford – Do the wine and chocolate pairings and enjoy their massive courtyard with a fountain.
Spier – On the far west side of Stellenbosch, close to the airport and Cape Town, is this massive park/winery/restaurant estate. We went to their deli and bought bread and cheese with a bottle of wine, which we took out to a picnic table near the pond.
(BTW, please use this link if it’s your first time using AirBnB – we’ll both get a $20 credit. )
Stellenbosch to Cape Town
Ah, Cape Town. What is there left to say? This city’s location is unreal. We spent 6 nights here. Our base was an AirBnB in Sea Point, and we still had the car, Timon, for the duration of our stay.
The highlights were definitely the hike up Table Mountain, and the hike up Lion’s Head. If you’re only going to do one, I recommend Lion’s Head because the trail spirals up around the mountain, changing your view constantly. But Table Mountain is absolutely worth the effort (or the cost, if you’re going to take the cable car).
The Cape Peninsula (part of Table Mountain NP) is great as well. We visited the penguin colony at Boulders Beach, a really nicely laid out series of boardwalks around the nesting area. The peninsula is also where the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point are located. Cape Point is much more interesting than Good Hope, as it has lighthouses and higher views. It was worth it to park at Cape Point and walk to the Cape of Good Hope along the walkways. All these things are included in the All Parks Wildcard. Otherwise expect a fee at each site.
One evening, we enjoyed a nice walk along the Sea Point promenade to the V&A waterfront for dinner, it takes about an hour.
The Robben Island Tour was just alright. For me, the boat ride out to the island and back was the highlight. Maybe we had a bad guide. It was interesting, but unless you have time to fill I would skip this, especially at $30 per person.
Our time with Timon, the Chevy Spark, and our Southern Africa road trip ended in the Cape Town International Airport, 41 days after leaving Johannesburg. It was a wonderful adventure.