Exploring South Africa in a 4X4
It’s just after dawn on what promises to be a sunny South African summer day and I’m fueling up our 4x4 rental at a petrol station near the east-coast city of Durban. The attendant hands me a frosty bottle of Stoney ginger beer—so spicy that it makes my nose tingle—and asks where we’re heading.
“It’s a long, long way,” he says when I tell him we’re going to Cape Town, the country’s second-biggest metropolis and the continent’s southernmost city. “But you’ll see many wonderful things.”
By mid-morning I’m already convinced he’s right. We’re driving through a chain of Zulu communities with their quirky little rondavels (round houses) painted in pretty pastel hues. The Nguni cattle that have always been the sign of wealth for the Zulu people graze out on the plains, with their lyre-shaped horns glinting in the sunlight. My South African girlfriend, Narina, points out that the Zulus have scores of names for the distinctive markings on their cattle.
“There’s pure poetry in many of the names,” she says. “My favorites are ‘the maiden who lifts her skirts and walks in a hurry’ and ‘flight of the egrets at sunset.’”
The first stop on our 2,000-kilometer journey is two hours inland from Durban at the place known simply as “The Capture Site.” A pathway called the “Long Walk to Freedom” and an intriguing modern-art sculpture mark the spot where Nelson Mandela was captured—starting his 27-year incarceration but also setting in motion the sequence of events that would lead to unification of this great country.
Throughout the afternoon we drive past countryside that feels strangely familiar to me and my British parents, who are traveling with us. It’s been almost 20 years since I lived in England but the long, sweeping valleys and rolling grassland of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands still bring back memories of the UK. This pretty area has become a favorite weekend escape for South Africans, and an attractive art, craft, and gastronomy route called the Midlands Meander has developed here.
About sunset I steer the car onto a tree-shaded dirt track that leads to a wonderfully secluded lakeside bungalow at Hartford House. This is the only world-class hotel anywhere on a world-class racehorse stud, and its most celebrated long-term guests include the stallions of the ruling family of Dubai.
It can be surprisingly cool in the Midlands at night, and we wake, cozily swaddled in blankets, to the harsh squawking of hadida ibis—almost your guaranteed alarm call in this part of the country. The morning meal is delicious, but Narina reminds us that it’s not advisable to breakfast too heartily during a South African road trip because culinary temptation lies at virtually every bend in the road and the Midlands Meander, in particular, offers what must be some of the quirkiest roadside dining in the world.
The Farmer’s Daughter is a charming shabby-chic little cottage eatery in Lion’s River that offers irresistible Dutch-origin Afrikaans specialties like regmaaker (literally “right maker”) pick-me-up breakfasts. Chocolate Heaven, at Nottingham Road, is a hit with kids who are thrilled by the chance to eat a mind-boggling assortment of items (fruit, licorice, pickled onions, jellies, even chili peppers) all dipped in melted chocolate.
Originally padstalle were simply stalls that were set up along the roadside to sell traditional farm produce, but they have become a celebrated South African institution, and many locals plan their weekend drive around the great padkos (road-food) venues.
Our discovery of the padstalle tradition was to add a new spice (and countless calories) to our trip, and as we watched the kilometers click past we nibbled on delicious kudu and ostrich biltong, apple strudel, cookies, and homemade fudge. We were still on a detour into the Zulu homelands, heading toward the scene of one of the most dramatic battles in the country’s history. The legendary battlegrounds of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana are the African and British equivalent of Little Big Horn.
“Isandlwana went down in history as the biggest-ever defeat by a tribal army over a modern European force,” says major Charles Aikenhead, who owns Rorke’s Drift Hotel. Entire regiments of military experts have analyzed the decisions that led to the fateful (for the British) massacres of January 22, 1879. You don’t need to be a military buff, however, to be enthralled, thrilled, and frequently horrified by what happened when a mighty force of 4,000 Zulu warriors smashed into the 150 British soldiers who took their last stand in the tiny barricaded area (not much larger than a tennis court) at Rorke’s Drift. The tales of heroism that were spawned on the fist-shaped mountain at Isandlwana during the long, desperate night at Rorke’s Drift sound as if they should have come from a Boys Own Adventure book. But this is history in all its blood and glory.
Our own retreat from Zululand was immeasurably more relaxing, and we drove slowly through villages, stopping from time to time to sample local produce. A scrawled blackboard outside a farm stall advertising homemade biltong (deliciously spiced air-dried meat) or fresh cheese would tempt us to stock up again with sustenance for the road. We had no set itinerary and few plans beyond making a leisurely drive south so we looped back towards the Midlands and stopped at beautiful King’s Grant, which was once a Trappist seminary and working farm established on land that had been gifted to Boer war hero Dick King.
he next morning, we were woken shortly after dawn by the delightfully rhythmic singing of Zulu farmworkers starting a new day in the fields.
We still had a long way to go and, turning south, we headed for the narrow hinterland between the mountains of Lesotho and the Wild Coast. There was one detour we considered crucial and, two days later, we found ourselves at the edge of Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa’s third-biggest park.
Many legends surround African elephants and their mysterious social lives. Bushmen and hunters used to bring back tales of mass reunions that take place as if organized through some telepathic force. At Addo we sat at a waterhole for several hours watching one of these legendary elephant meetings: all afternoon these huge animals trudged out of the bushveld in small family groups until a congregation of what appeared to be more than 300 elephants had gathered around the waterhole.
There are two types of travelers: those who prefer the picture-perfect pretty landscapes of the Garden Route and those who gravitate more towards the rugged, hauntingly desolate expanses of the Little Karoo desert. We took an in-car vote and decided unanimously that we would take the route less traveled. My father took a turn at the wheel as we tuned the music system to haunting ballads by Rodriguez—an American musician who is more popular here than in his own country—and rolled along the shimmering desert highways and dirt tracks towards Nieu Bethesda.
Nieu Bethesda, the Karoo’s artistic center, has become known as one of South Africa’s offbeat cultural capitals. Here we saw the home of the late reclusive artist Helen Martins. Now a museum called the Owl House, it has become a place of homage for hundreds of visitors who travel the winding country roads into what still feels like a dusty frontier town.
Equally deserving of a lasting place in the town’s history is Auntie Evelyne, who lives in a humble house in the township a mile up the road. She established Antie Evelyne Se Eetplek (Auntie Evelyne’s Eating Place) as a way to help the poor: tourists dine on great local food created in her restaurant, while, in an adjoining building, she offers a soup kitchen that feeds up to 100 hungry children each day.
“I never want to turn anyone away,” Auntie Evelyn told us. “If somebody comes to me and says he needs new trousers for school, I must find them somewhere.”
Historically the Karoo was a place of hardship and suffering for many travelers. The early Voortrekkers (the Afrikaans pioneers who first set out into the bush) feared this area as a land of great heat, frosts, and drought. North of here lies the region they called Bushmanland and then, farther still, the “great thirstland” of the Kalahari. In our air-conditioned 4x4, the Karoo doesn’t present anything like the challenge it used to, and by sunset the next day we’d crossed the area known as the Tankwa Karoo (which receives only about three inches of rain a year) and were already a long way from the desert.
Through the sea-spray-splashed windows of Birkenhead House Hotel we could see dozens of whales breaching and rolling in the breakers. Southern right whales undertake one of the biggest annual migrations of the animal kingdom—traveling from Antarctica to Australia—and, along the way, up to 120 of these giant mammals break the journey to spend months at a time calving here in Hermanus, on Walker Bay.
I could see why anyone might want to stay longer on this dramatic coastline but by early afternoon the next day, we’d reached the end of our own migration.
Sunlight glinted on whitewashed Cape Dutch buildings as we approached the historic trading settlement that many South Africans still know as the Mother City. A brisk wind draped a blanket of cloud over the looming mass of Table Mountain. Our long journey had ended and we had arrived in Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
TRAVELER FAST FACTS
While Cape Town and Durban can accommodate private jets at their international airports (longest runways, 10,502 and 8,005 feet, respectively), Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport (longest runway, 14,495 feet) is the usual hub for southern Africa. Besides accommodating private aircraft, it services many of the world’s major airlines including Air France, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, KLM, Qatar, and SAA. Domestic airlines connecting Johannesburg with Durban include Kalula, Mango, and SAA.
Durban is hot and tropical (think Miami) but Cape Town—where two oceans collide—can be windy and changeable (on a bad day, think Chicago). In the southern hemisphere summer can be wet, and the winter will be dry and sunny but with chillier nights. In the Cape, however, this is reversed.
Major car-rental operations at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport include Avis, Budget, Hertz, and Thrifty. You don’t need to hire a 4x4 to travel between Durban and Cape Town, as the main roads are paved all the way. If, however, you intend to explore a little more adventurously (e.g., by visiting battlefields and national parks or going off-road into the Karoo), four-wheel drive will give you an added sense of security. Roads are well sign-posted and, in general, people are helpful and hospitable throughout South Africa. Even if you get lost there will always be somebody willing to set you on the right path.
WHAT TO BRING:
A GPS can be an advantage in rural areas, and it’s worth investing in a small portable inverter (which plugs into a cigarette lighter) to charge gadgets and camera batteries. A soft, padded cool bag can be a good idea since roadside padstalle (farm stores) are sure to tempt you with delicacies. Dress as you would imagine for Africa but take a warmer, waterproof jacket and long trousers for the highlands.
Visit southafrica.net or contact South Africa Tourism (firstname.lastname@example.org, + 27 (0) 11 895 3000).
TRAVELER REPORT CARD
You’ll find hotels of every sort in Durban. Acorn B&B (acornbandb.co.za) is a wonderful little boutique property that oozes colonial charm. At the battlefields, stay at Rorke’s Drift Hotel (rorkesdrifthotel.com), built right beside the river at the old drift (crossing) where so much drama took place. Birkenhead House (birkenheadhouse.com), at Hermanus Bay, might be the best hotel in the world for whale watching: you can observe them breaching without leaving the comfort of the bar. The One & Only (oneandonlycapetown.com) is Cape Town’s finest urban hotel and from the upper balconies offers classic views of Table Mountain.
The big cities have more than their share of fine dining. Don’t miss Reuben’s Restaurant at the One & Only, one of the best dining establishments in all of Africa, where Capetonian superstar chef Reuben Riffel works his magic. Once you get into the small towns that dot the wilderness you’ll find a culinary tradition that’s hard to beat. Check out the quirky Roadkill Cafe at Ronnie’s Sex Shop (ronniessexshop.co.za) on Route 62, South Africa’s version of Route 66, and Angie’s G Spot (angiesgspot.co.za) on Prince Alfred’s Pass.
South Africans tend to be sporty, outdoorsy people, and many places you stay will have access to mountain bikes and can offer advice on local running trails or walking routes. Most towns in the bush will have a stable close by, and anywhere you go that is close to a national park or reserve will provide game-driving opportunities, either self-driving or with a guide.
In KwaZulu-Natal you’ll hear the singing of Zulu farmhands or the raucous natural alarm call of the hadida ibis. In Durban and Hermanus, you’ll be lulled by the rumble of waves, and at Cape Town you might hear the evocative call of the Mosque from the Bo Kaap (the Malay quarters). You’re unlikely to be plagued by the bleat of traffic-jam taxis or the clatter of a subway, though.