South Africa can seem like a far-off destination for many travelers. Yet, those who visit usually find a reason to return. Countless visitors have fallen in love with South Africa and it happened to me when I drove this route in the south of the country. 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, and ancient cultures, as well as the super friendly people who inhabit South Africa.
Here I’m going to lay out a simple but long driving route starting in Cape Town and following the coast all the way to Durban. It’s a simple west to east drive, much of which done on the N2. However, the distance is considerable, making it perfect for a road trip from Cape Town.
South Africa Road Trip: Cape Town to Durban
|Driving Time||21 hours and 50 minutes|
Stop 1: Cape Town
You could dedicate an entire trip to this city alone. Located on the very tip of the Western Cape, the laid-back city rests in the shadow of the iconic Table Mountain. With several universities and ongoing development into its shopping areas, nightlife and suburbs, Cape Town has become a bohemian heaven for surfers, artists, students and families.
The scenery itself is breathtaking. One of the biggest draws are the number of hiking trails up Table Mountain, the neighboring 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, which offer instagram .
If you want to surf, then 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 many rental shops to choose from too. Along the local main 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 and chips spot, Brass Bell.
For nightlife, I’d recommended to get 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 favorite, and if you follow the road down from Kloof Street after happy hour you’ll find yourself on Long Street – the very center of the city.
Along this street are a host of rooftop and balcony bars in colonial architecture playing music of all kinds, including live Rock and Indy or Electronic and Down Tempo, all performed by local and visiting artists. There are private security forces looking out for the crowds on weekends, so although you should feel free to walk around, it is recommended to stay in groups and not wander down empty side streets.
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 vineyards, 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 center.
Stop 2: The Garden Route
Knysna, Plettenberg, and Storm’s River
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 (305 miles) along the N2, taking five and half hours.
Driving tip: the highway can dissipate into only two lanes. Occasionally, in order to pass slower vehicles or trucks, 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”, with the East Head containing residences with cafes and beaches below it. The West Head contains hiking trails.
Knysna is a quiet town surrounded by forest and a beautiful harbor filled with local craft shops and seafood restaurants. There’s mountain biking, chartered yachts, and small beaches for snorkeling. Rest up, enjoy the sunsets and speak to the locals to see what’s happening.
Just 30 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 in Knysna; both have several 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.
For the adrenaline junkies out there, as you continue your journey eastward along the N2 for another 40 km (25 miles) you’ll pass Storm’s River. It will be 200 m below as you go over Africa’s largest bridge. Nestled under said bridge is Face Adrenalin, a world-famous bungee jumping spot. Take the leap, if you dare.
Stop 3: Jeffrey’s Bay
Depending on whether you stayed in Knysna or Plettenberg, it’s about 200 km (124 miles) on the N2 to Jeffrey’s Bay. Although only a couple of hours into your journey, it’s recommended to rest here as there is an eight-hour drive ahead.
But there’s good reason to stay at Jeffrey’s Bay. 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 surfers. There are discount surf shops with all the top brands, and the whole town feels like something out of 1970s California.
Now comes the real test of your driving stamina, but one that comes with a reward. However, if you want to split up the long drive to Durban you can stay in the small town of East London, just four hours away along the N2. You’ll find a great hostel there called Sugarshack. If you decide not to stop, then keep going 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 (373 miles) the route will take you off the highway into the hills beyond via rocky roads where you will need to drive slowly.
Stop 4: Coffee Bay
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 surfboards for just 20 Rand a day ($1.38). The incredible beaches are at your doorstep.
There are hikes led by locals to spots like the “hole in the wall” – a natural landmark worth seeing. Coffee Shack has hippie residents year-round who cook homemade food, host pool competitions in the bar at night and are happy to give tours to those who ask.
Pro Tip: Make sure to have cash on you ahead of time, as the local ATM is not always reliable.
Stop 5: Durban
After you’re done with Coffee Bay, it’s time to say a sad goodbye and drive the final leg to Durban. It’s again along the N2 but it’s a good day’s drive of 521 km (324 miles) that will take about seven 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 ton of things to do. Head out to the Golden Mile, a famous beach for surfing, jogging and relaxing. Also check out the Botanical Gardens with living plants from the prehistoric era.
Alas, here is where the coastal trip ends … if you want it to. All in all this route takes a few weeks, depending on how long you want to stay in each of the stops. However, there’s so much more to see in South Africa. From Durban you can also go to the spectacular Drakensburg Mountain range or head towards Johannesburg or even into Kruger Park for a safari. South Africa is so big and full of wonder, but don’t worry if you can’t see everything because, as already mentioned, it’s likely you’ll be back.
Written by Ed Sherrington