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The Big Daddy of South African Road Trips

Get a red marker pen, and an A2 printout of a map of South Africa. Draw a rough circle. This is as good a starting point as any for the big daddy of SA road trips. We went anti-clockwise, but only to catch the west coast flowers in season.

The Big Daddy of South African Road Trips

The Big Daddy of South African Road Trips

Get a red marker pen, and an A2 printout of a map of South Africa. Draw a rough circle. This is as good a starting point as any for the big daddy of SA road trips. We went anti-clockwise, but only to catch the west coast flowers in season. The only other rule – our red line had to make it through all of the South African UNESCO World Heritage sites. Noble waypoints on a journey around the whole country.

Circumnavigating South Africa in a Subaru Forester

Circumnavigating South Africa

10 000 kilometres circumnavigating the country to learn more about South Africa’s wonderful and diverse World Heritage sites. The route would pass through most of the country. Our accommodation was mostly booked, covid travel permits signed, and the road was waiting for us. Rich with possibility. After the hard lockdown, we were Rip van Winkles entering the new world with starry eyes.

My first time in ‘The Berg’

The word awesome is sadly abused these days. I recently heard someone say they had an awesome boerie roll. This is no place for this word, reserved in polite circles for experiences like the first time you see and grasp the magnificence of the milky way. Driving into Royal Natal and being faced by the Amphitheatre is akin to touching a giant redwood or meeting an ourang outang. Time is put into a perspective beyond our little lives, and wisdom seems to be something not only simple humans can possess. For once, literally AWE-some.

The ever-present and ever-changing backdrop mesmerised this over-worked and over-stressed (and so over-lockdown) traveller to reconnect. I spent months organizing this trip – on the screen and on the phone, and there were times when I doubted myself and my stupid naiveté for even thinking we could attempt to pull this off. But here I was. The three of us had made it through three provincial borders with masked army chaps on duty to get here and the berg helped put it all into a larger perspective – everything is as it is meant to be. The stars in the Berg are bright, and it felt like they were aligned for us as the full moon rose over the Amphitheatre.

We spent the morning hiking the Cascades trail guided by the park’s 2ic, Mbongiseni. “Everyone should be able to experience the berg, it’s not just for serious hikers and mountain climbers – only last week I saw a couple here with a baby in a pram”, he tells us. They are quite serious about accessibility and these lower flat hikes cater for all types.

Now if you managed to get more active than me during lockdown, there is of course the chain ladders hike that ascends the Sentinel massif which forms part of the Amphitheatre and rewards you with a view out over Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world. You have to spend the night up there and I am assured are never the same again.

Let’s just say we didn’t have the time for this one.

Magical Kosi Bay

Kosi Bay is far from everywhere, but if you haven’t made it to this corner of SA , you should tap it into your notetaking app of bucket list things. It can go above reading Ulysses for sure. You’re in for a wild mix of raffia forests, ancient fish kraals, hippo swamps, pristine white beaches, crocodile braais, inhabited dunes, Sangoma rituals, coral reefs, palm vultures and incredible hospitality. And the actual reason we went there: birding on foot with the most knowledgeable bird guide I’ve ever encountered: Themba Mtembu. This guy. He can imitate more than 250 bird calls. Read more about our time in Kosi Bay and the trip with Themba here. 

The Genesis of life

Once we started driving the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains Geo-Trail I could see my husband’s eyes widening and his smile getting bigger at each stop. This is the place where life on earth began. Where the first continents rose out of the toxic slush that was then the ocean. It’s an incredible concept to grasp, and the 450-million-year time slice visible to the naked eye makes you feel so small, because here you can literally see the greater scheme  of things carved into the rocks for millennia. Rocks more than 3 Billion years old.

This ancient history is all lined up on the side of an easy and beautiful drive. The first lifeforms visible with the naked eye. Ancient tidal lines showing the presence of the moon 3 billion years ago. Every stop is a revelation and an education. And so many insta opportunities.

A Place of Ancestors

The road from Barberton to Mapungubwe could theoretically be done in a couple of hours, but then you would have to skip the Blyderiver canyon. A rookie error we certainly weren’t going to make. The panorama route is a great road trip in its own right, and the scenery is complimented by the bright colours of stalls selling oranges and crafts at most intersections.

We could feel the world growing wilder as we drove further North. Once you’ve passed Musina you lose 3G. It’s actually a good thing because everyone in the car needs to watch out for potholes and animals in the road. Especially after sunset. A local warned us that you can’t see elephants on the road after dark and their eyes don’t reflect in a car’s lights. It would be like driving into a big, grey mountain. I wonder if Subaru engineers take these things into consideration.

During the trip we kept asking each other what our highlights were. Every day was extraordinary, but for me, Mapungubwe touched a special place. It is so wild. So much game. And every little cameo view is framed by ancient baobabs. The driving trails are different and diverse, and then there’s the great grey green greasy Limpopo river – a place more people have read about that seen with then own eyes. The fact that it borders on Botswana and Zimbabwe gives the whole place a slightly exotic feel. For me, this was number one.

We went on Johannes Masalesa’s cultural tour where he relays the stories told to him by his parents and grandparents about the history and the mystery surrounding Mapungubwe Hill. You catch a glimpse of an advanced ancient African civilization and their incredible accomplishments and sophistication at a time when Europeans were practically still hitting each other with sticks in the dark ages. It puts a lot of things into perspective, and makes me so proud to be South African. Click here for more about our time at Mapungubwe.

Dr Bones and having the guts to discover the world

I didn’t feel like heading back down to Gauteng at this stage. After my wild experience in the most Northern part of SA, I didn’t think I would be easily impressed with a museum. Enter Keneiloe Molopyane, the curator of the Maropeng Visitors Center at the Cradle of Humankind: a true adventurer. Keneiloe is somewhere between Lara Croft, Indiana Jones and Ariel from the Little Mermaid. This lady should seriously have her own TV show. She’s dived through shipwrecks, escaped from a leopard on the job and was one of the Rising Star underground astronauts looking for bone remnants of Homo Naledi.

The Maropeng Visitors Center is an outstanding exhibition space that focuses on the development of humans and how we evolved from our ancestors over the past few million years. It is colorful, informative and fun; and a must visit for anyone looking for a lekker day out from JHB or Pretoria. From Maropeng we trotted over to the Sterkfontein Caves, about 10 minutes away. These caves were  home to some of the most formidable discoveries regarding human evolution in the world, and hid plenty of (now) famous skeletons that help explain the mysteries of our origin as a species.  The cave forms part of the South African Hominid and Fossil sites which are all part of the paleoanthropological wonder that make up this UNESCO Heritage site. It has an underground lake, complex formations and they are still finding fossils today. It is a common misconception that people used to live in these caves – NOTHING lives in these caves. They are massive and underground, so the fossils found are from when someone or something fell in from the surface – and this is also why the bone remnants remained undisturbed for all those years. Creepy, but cool.

Dancing with some peeps next to the road

The deep impact and oudtydse boerekos

 Next we head down to Parys. Also a nice day out from Johannesburg.

Oom Jan’s tour of the Vredefort Dome has an old school feel to it. He welcomes you into his home for a quick presentation to put all that you are about to see in the dome into perspective. The presentation comes with freshly brewed coffee and if you’re lucky, homemade rusks from his wife, Coral. For such a formidable couple, they are incredibly sweet.

Here’s a fun fact Oom Jan taught us: A rock floating in outer space is called an asteroid. If an asteroid comes into the earth’s atmosphere it becomes a meteor – these are what we often see as shooting stars. If that same piece of rock hits the earth it’s called a meteorite. One rock, three names. Boom.

Thousands of meteorites have been found around the world, but the one that created the Vredefort Dome is quite significant. First of all, it’s the biggest impact site on earth. The thing was as big as Table Mountain. It is also one of the oldest. The impact was so massive and the speed of the meteorite so high that the heat of the explosion melted rock and pushed gold out of the earth’s crust to the edge of the impact site creating the Witwatersrand and many gold mines in the 300km radius around Parys and Vredefort. Pretty impressive, no? There was no-one around to witness it, as the impact also resulted in the extinction of all existing life on earth. Nice try chaps, start again.

The Vredefort dome is so huge that  it took us a whole day to explore the evidence of the meteor strike with Oom Jan explaining its stories. You really need a day to take it all in. We also had a lovely stop at Venterskroon – the only town in South Africa that was proclaimed a town and then de-proclaimed before it could be developed. So it’s a town that’s not a town – but there is a restaurant, the Old Imperial Inn, that Tripadvisor gives 5 stars. I also give it 5 stars because the owner, Leon, was just lovely.  After the day out, Oom Jan and Tannie Coral invited us for dinner. Bobotie, geelrys with raisins, potato and green beans, and carrot and banana salad. It couldn’t have been a more perfect ending to this day. Thank you for the hospitality, Oom Jan!

Sunset in the Free State

Where there is no water

The road through the Northern Cape to the Kgalagadi is a good place to practice for your next idols audition. It’s long and honestly, there isn’t much to see.  The scenery changes to desert landscape and you fill up your car where you can because the stops are few and far between. Adele sets fire to the rain on the Forester’s speakers.

Kgalagadi means ‘where there is no water’. This is no understatement, but there is beauty in this barren landscape. As I became accustomed to the starkness of the desert, my eyes somehow adjust and I am amazed at the amount of life that springs from this seemingly desolate place. A stay at any of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier park camps or lodges is an exceptional experience and gives you Africa at its best: from surprise lion encounters in your camp at night to chilling next to herds of oryx, springboks and red hartebeest happily grazing together; meerkats, ground squirrels and honey-badgers popping out of burrows as you pass. There is no shortage of wildlife here.

We stayed at a camp not far from the Transfrontier park called Camspannen. This is as far as you can go next to the Namibian border and where you will meet Dantes Liebenberg. Dantes and his son, Dennis, run a tourism business together. They’ve been out of tourism work since lockdown started, but this has not crumpled their spirit one bit. I think they welcome the holiday actually.  Dantes is one of those special people that crossed my path and I will go out of my way to cross paths with him again. He so genuinely loves the places he visits, the people he hosts and his team that works with him. The next morning we woke up to fresh coffee made on a fire. Everything here is made on a fire. Read more about our stay with Dantes here. 


The rugged Richtersveld

This is a place that forces you to take that deep breath and slow down. Literally. You can’t drive fast because the roads are really bad and if something goes wrong there is no internet. This is a good thing because at first, there’s not much that meets the eye. But once you slow down to the Richtersveld pace of life, you’ll start to realise it is an area of amazing diversity. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site both for natural and cultural reasons after all.

The people are what makes the Richtersveld. They all know each other and rely on each other – and they all know we are coming! We soon realise that asking the locals for directions is not very helpful in terms of times or distance. There are only two definitions of distance in the Richtersveld: Very far or not very far.

Not very far is anything between one and four hours’ drive, and very far could be anything above that.

Find out about the incredible natural and cultural diversity we experienced in the Richtersveld here. It is a place where nomads live. A place where people still tell stories, speak a strange language, dance a traditional dance to say thank you for the rain, and rely on the incredible amount of plants that grow in the area for everything from candles to medicine to staying alive.

Cederberg and beyond

Crossing the  provincial border back into the Western Cape we all feel a bit anxious about our trip coming to a close. Our last accommodation is the Cape Nature Cabins in the Pakhuis Pas just outside Clanwilliam. There is only solar power and no reception: what a relief! I’m not ready for 3G just yet.

We braai marshmallows under a red cliff backdrop as, for the second time on our trip, a full moon rises over the mountains and the stars shine bright.

We’ve been on the road for a month and for one last time, our little troupe sits around a fire and we talk about the incredible journey we’ve had. Before leaving we fill up our water bottles in a mountain stream and see the Proteas and Erica in bloom. Spring has sprung in this part of the world and the big drought is over. This is going to be a magical year for flowers on the West Coast and here in the Cederberg.

We take one last backroad between Clanwilliam and Ceres. The Subaru Forester can literally take you around South Africa, but it can’t take us all the way to the last remaining UNESCO World Heritage site on our list: Robben Island. I guess we’ll have to wait for the boat on this one.

It’s good to be home.

Konrad, Kim and Danielle