Beyond the Mountains: Places to visit the vast grandeur of South Africa without undertaking a ‘groot trek’ all of your own.
Let’s face it, for many of us the idea of venturing off into the vast unknown is an attractive daydream. However having been couped up at home, the idea of no people, no hassle, no traffic – just wide open vistas and gaping silence – may be intensely appealing! With the sense of tranquility and peace that naturally goes with it.
But then reality sets in. You are planning a holiday to South Africa and there are several places that you want to see. You may have a few nights unaccounted for, but not enough to head off into the wilds of the Kalahari Desert. Or remote parts of Venda and the northern Kruger. You’d like to visit more off-the-beaten-track places. But they seem simply too far away. It would take just too much time to include them without exhausting yourself.
Most people give up at this point and just head for the tried and trusted routes. Yes, they are beautiful. But you are missing out on the very essence of South Africa: its vast interior heartland. It would be like visiting Paris and thinking you’ve seen Provence. Or visiting New York and thinking you now understand what makes the prairielands of the United States tick.
The Good News
The good news is that that ‘essence of South Africa’ is not as far as you might think. This is down to the unique geography of South Africa. Most of the coastal areas of South Africa from the West Coast all the way through to the Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal are backed by a line of mountains. You can see this very clearly in the map below. ‘Behind’ the mountains lie the vastness of the Karoo. North of that lies the Kalahari Desert.
So to get a true taste of South Africa, you just need to explore a little ‘beyond the mountains’.
The rest of this article gives our suggestions for the best places to do just that!
Our Criteria were simple:
- Easy driving distance, so that you could have a 1 or 2 night stay if that’s all the time you have
- Scenic drive (at least in part)
- Attractive places to stay when you get there and something to do
Remote South Africa Spot Number 1 – the Cederberg Mountains
The Cederberg is one of those weird places that feel like it’s way off the beaten track, whereas the reality is that it’s only 2½ hours on a good quality highway. The N7 is a scenic and easy drive.
So why do people feel that it’s so far? Probably because it is so very different from Cape Town and even the Winelands to its south. For one thing, It’s noticeably hotter. For another, there are very few people. If you go for a hike in the Cederberg Wilderness Reserve, you may not see another group of walkers on the trail. Finally its beauty is not the velvety mountains of the Winelands but the unique red-brown rocky sandstone outcrops of the Cedarberg Mountains.
From here you can continue northwards, but most clients return to the Winelands or head via the lovely mountainous area of Worcester and Villiersdorp down to the Whale Coast of Hermanus or Gansbaai.
Distance from Cape Town – 2½ to 3 hours depending on which lodge chosen
Ideal Length of Stay – 2 to 3 nights, good to combine with the West Coast, Winelands or both
Scenic Drive – Yes, very scenic, almost all the way from Cape Town but especially after Malmesbury (45 mins)
Attractive Places to stay – Plenty of other options such as Mount Ceder or Oudrif Farm
Remote South Africa Spot Number 2 – Nieuwoudtville
It was my trip to Nieuwoudtville that was the inspiration for this article. I already live in a relatively remote part of South Africa: the Cedarberg (see above). Yet when I went for a weekend to Nieuwoudtville, I was instantly reminded of how quickly the landscape changes once over the mountains. Barely an hour from my house, the landscape had changed from the characteristic reddy-brown crags of the Cedarberg to the vast vistas of the Karoo with the lovely and dramatic Botterkloof Pass as its introduction. Another 45 mins and I was in the tiny country village of Nieuwoudtville for a taste of the Northern Cape. Here you can walk, visit the waterfalls and canyons, enjoy a traditional farm lunch and see the spring flowers in season. But to be honest the scenic drive there and back is at least half of the experience.
Distance from Cape Town – 4 to 4½ hours, but only 2 hours from Clanwilliam (Cederberg Ridge), and less from Bushmanskloof
Ideal Length of Stay – 1-2 nights, good to combine with the Cedarberg
Scenic Drive? – Yes, especially if you take the Botterkloof Pass road in one direction and the Van Rhyns Pass on the way back.
Attractive Place to stay – Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm for true old-fashioned hospitality
Remote South Africa Spot Number 3 – Sanbona and Route 62
This is kind of an open secret but still worth telling. Route 62 is the scenic interior road from the Overberg region to the Little Karoo. It has been on the tourist map for years but still many don’t know about it.
It’s delightful because you start with the lush green vineyards of the Breede River valley with charming country towns such as Robertson and Montagu and then gradually it becomes more and more rugged and stark as you travel towards the Little Karoo where you encounter green countryside once again. Most people don’t stop over which is a shame as that makes it a long drive and you are less likely to stop and enjoy the quirky little towns en route such as Montagu and Barrydale.
Distance from Cape Town – 5 hours drive from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn, Montagu is almost in the middle, 2½ hours from both Cape Town and Oudtshoorn
Ideal Length of Stay – 1-2 nights, 2 nights if staying at Sanbona
Scenic Drive? – Yes and its beauty changes
Attractive Place to stay – Les Hauts de Montagu
Or if you have 2 nights (and reasonably deep pockets), Sanbona Dwyka Tented Camp in Sanbona Game Reserve
Remote South Africa Spot Number 4 – Graaff Reinet and Samara
Recently I headed to Graaf-Reinet after a few years. I was reminded of two things
- The austere beauty and other-worldliness of the Graaff Reinet area
- But that it is also so easy to combine with the Garden Route and the Eastern Cape Game Reserves.
It is a comfortable scenic drive from the Little Karoo to one of the oldest towns in South Africa, Graaff-Reinet with its truly amazing array of museums and art galleries, many sponsored by Anton Rupert, one of its famous sons. There’s now a serious nice place to stay as well (see below). Then to head to one of the Eastern Cape Game Reserves only 3 hours drive again. From there you can head to the Garden Route (or perhaps visit the Garden Route before the Little Karoo.)
But the attraction of Graaff-Reinet is only partly the town. From here, you can visit the stunning Valley of Desolation, the Camdeboo Nature Reserve, the Owlhouse at Nieu Bethesda, the Mountain Zebra National Park and Cradock
To make it really worth your while, I strongly recommend 2-3 nights at Samara Game Reserve which is nearby (only 45 minutes away)
Distance from Little Karoo – 3 hours, 3 hours to the Game Reserves
Ideal Length of Stay – 2-3 nights if staying only at Graaff-Reinet, or 1-2 nights in Graaf-Reinet and 1-2 nights at nearby Samara.
Scenic Drive? – Yes, both getting to Graaf-Reinet and in the area
Attractive Place to stay – The Drostdy Hotel is the best to stay, newly renovated to offer understated five star luxury at an excellent rate. Plus we also rate Samara Game Reserve for superb game-viewing and stunning landscapes.
Remote South Africa Spot Number 5 – Eastern Highlands
When we started our travel business some 27 years ago, we had many intrepid clients driving through the Eastern Highlands on their way from the Drakensberg Mountains to the Eastern Cape. However nowadays most people choose to fly between Port Elizabeth and Durban. This is because everyone is trying to cram this vast country into a small 2 week suitcase and some things simply don’t fit.
But that’s a real shame as three weeks is sometimes achievable and with more time, you can explore the interior more without missing out on the famous bits.
The Eastern Highlands is where South Africa meets the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho. It combines the drama of the high mountains, typified by the Golden Gate National Park, with attractive country towns.
Though it is one of the more remote areas, it does a thriving trade for long weekenders from Johannesburg so the towns have some restaurants, shops and activity.
Ideal Length of Stay (instead of driving) – I recommend setting aside at least 2-3 nights to drive instead of fly, assuming that then you stay in the Drakensberg mountains. Spend 1-2 nights in Graaf-Reinet and then 1-2 nights in the Highlands. If you don’t like long drives, then I would even break this up into three separate stays.
If you have enough time, I also recommend 2 nights IN Lesotho for a real adventure.
Distance from Graaff-Reinet – 5½ to 6 hours to Ladybrand, Ficksberg and Clarens, then 2½ to 3½ hours to the Drakensberg Mountains, depending on where you are staying.
Attractive Place to stay – Franshoek Mountain Lodge, Ficksburg
‘The Road Less Travelled’ was written by Cedarberg Africa
Cedarberg Africa is a specialist tour operator for Southern and East Africa. We focus on upmarket tailormade safaris for discerning and inquiring people.We have travelled extensively throughout South Africa. And so we can chat to you about a possible trip from personal experience, weighing up the different options, to plan a trip that is just right for you.