Welcome to South Africa’s best kept road-trip secret, often overlooked in favour of the more famous Garden Route. Fly British Airways direct into the urban hub of Johannesburg, then pick up your hire car from Avis for a drive to the cinematic Eastern Cape, taking in staggering mountain scenery, wildlife-rich game reserves and rugged coastlines speckled with majestic marine beasts and secluded beaches.
Explore the world’s most famous township
Soweto forms the beating heart of South Africa. A 50-minute drive from central Johannesburg, it’s home to more than 1.6 million people, with famous ex-residents including former president Nelson Mandela. You can explore the buzzing township by car or bike, but the best way to soak up the heady vibrancy is by getting out on two feet: down a beer with the locals, take in a show at the Soweto Theatre, or brave the Soweto Towers bungee jump. The thriving township also has sites of incredible cultural significance, including the Hector Pieterson Museum and Mandela House, Mandela’s former home, which was set on fire twice by the apartheid-era police. The walls outside are still riddled with bullet holes.
The ultimate safari
It’s a decent drive – just under five hours – from Johannesburg to Kruger national park, but the schlep is more than worth it. As well as being one of the greatest places to see Africa’s big five – lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants and rhinos – the national park heralds some spectacular safari sightings, such as hundreds-strong herds of elephants trumpeting and wallowing in vast waterholes. But you’ll find fewer cars and some truly exquisite scenery at Sabi Sands – a private game reserve bordering the park. Earth Lodge – one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world – is a jaw-to-the-floor kind of place, with brand new suites that seem to have been hewn from the earth itself. The lodge is built into the hillside and is entirely unfenced, meaning all manner of creatures could trot by your room. Watch out for packs of rare wild dogs on the roof and passing elephants.
Strap in for another long, absurdly picturesque drive. It’s six and a half hours to iSimangaliso wetland park, South Africa’s first world heritage site and a place of unparalleled natural beauty. Here, you’ll find a collection of rare swamp forests, Africa’s largest estuary and some of the world’s highest coastal vegetated dunes, which date back 25,000 years. This is a haven for marine mammals, and you’ll find humpbacks, southern right whales and frisky pods of bottlenose dolphins in these inky waters. The place to stay is the breathtaking Kosi Forest eco-lodge, lit almost entirely by candles. With rooms crafted from wood, tarpaulin and thatch, the lodge blends in effortlessly with the pristine forest scenery. Bathrooms are open to the star-studded skies, so listen out for the sound of hippos grunting in the distance as you wallow in your own sunken bathtub.
Escape to the mountains
Two and a half hours due south – after winding through acacia groves, mining communities and busy streets flanked by fruit sellers – you’ll reach the busy city of Durban, where you can take a rest stop or stay overnight if you want to refresh. Then, it’s a two-hour drive to the indomitable Drakensberg mountains. This epic 600-mile chain of crumpled crags, yawning valleys, vast wildflower-strewn plains and the world’s second-highest waterfall is a heart-juddering sight. A drive here involves high elevation and hairpin passes – including the Sani Pass, a steep road rising an awe-inspiring 2,876m (9,400ft) above sea level – but you’ll be rewarded with spectacularly beautiful wilderness areas, such as Champagne Valley, replete with rolling mountain scenery, where you can hike, mountain bike or even rock-climb if you’re feeling adventurous.
Wind your way down the wild coast
Head back to the east coast – through rural Xhosa heartland – and then follow the road south; you’ll soon find yourself on the route of South Africa’s ruggedly beautiful Wild Coast, a 155-mile stretch of unspoiled coastline taking in rocky headlands, lagoons and powder-soft sand beaches. There’s plenty of quality accommodation dotted along the coastal route and pretty little communities – such as Coffee Bay, where you can see the magnificent Hole in the Wall rock formation. The clifftops provide the perfect spot for hiking, horse-riding and ogling the dramatic shipwrecks that litter the beaches. The Wild Coast is also an angler’s dream, and during winter months the sardine run attracts gaggles of frenzied visitors, from gannets and seals, to dolphins and predatory fish as the run moves its way slowly north along the coast.
How to book
With direct flights from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, British Airways Holidays can help make your South Africa fly-drive unforgettable. Book with British Airways Holidays and Avis to benefit from a 24-hour holiday helpline, full Atol protection and deposits starting from just £75 per person.