Road Trip through Southern Africa

One month ago, Nate and I embarked on a road trip through South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia.  

We started in Cape Town, a beautiful and modern city situated on the southwest tip of the country where we rented a small, four-door VW.

I’ll say this about renting a car in South Africa- if you can afford it, it’s ideal to rent a 4WD SUV for this type of trip.  Once we got our car completely stuck in sand, and a good samaritan and his friends helped push us out.  There have been other instances where we couldn’t drive down rougher roads in game parks.  A 4WD vehicle will give you more freedom and allow you to see more.  But alas, our budget was just $135/day, so we couldn’t swing the bigger car.

When renting a car in South Africa, you want to be sure you get unlimited mileage (necessary if you’re doing a long road trip like ours), and you need to be specific about border crossings you intend to do.  Our rental agency, Avis, prohibited us from entering Mozambique, so we were only authorized to cross the borders we'd originally laid out.  This ended up being fine as we didn't have time or the energy to add Mozambique to our itinerary. You’ll pay a set amount to the rental agency to each border crossing you do, although Swaziland was free.  

Our total rental car costs (minus petrol) broke down to $33/day, and we spent another $5-$15/day on gas.

Once we had our car ready to go, we made sure to buy some essentials.  We were nervous about the availability of gas stations in the Kalahari Desert (Botswana), so we bought and packed:

  • Big bottles of filtered water

  • Large gas can

  • Nonperishable snacks

  • Camping gear

From Cape Town we headed down the Garden Route to Oudtshoorn, the ostrich capital of the World.  

There we went on a meerkat tour and visited the Cango Caves.

Meerkats popping out of their burrow early in the morning!

Meerkats popping out of their burrow early in the morning!

We continued on to Nature’s Valley Rest Camp in a national park where we stayed in a lovely little cabin in the woods and went kayaking.

Our cabin at Nature's Valley Rest Camp

Our cabin at Nature's Valley Rest Camp

On our way from this stop to the next, we stopped at the Bloukrans River Valley, home to the tallest commercial bungee bridge in the world.  I was WAY too scared to go, but Nate had a blast.

We continued onward to Addo National Park where we camped and woke up early to have some incredible encounters with elephants.

Elephants crossing at Addo Elephant Park

Elephants crossing at Addo Elephant Park

The next day, another 4 hour drive brought us to Cintsa Bay where we camped for two nights at a backpackers.  Many of the backpackers (“hostels” or “lodges” to us Americans) in South Africa offer campsites with shared bathrooms (called “ablution blocks”), small kitchens and even some access to electricity.

Our campsite among the trees

Our campsite among the trees

There Nate tried his hand at surfing, and I enjoyed reading on the beach.

Surfing at Cintsa Bay

Surfing at Cintsa Bay

I also met the happiest beach dog in the world.

We cooked pasta with veggies at the campsite, which we shared with monkeys and a small herd of 6-8 cows who scared the crap out of me on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Cows at our campsite

Cows at our campsite

From Cintsa we continued up the Wild Coast to Coffee Bay, a remote coastal area with only a couple of backpackers and a bar.  The surrounding area is one of South Africa’s poorest provinces, and the drive in was stressful as we had to avoid potholes everywhere, children in the road, cattle crossing and monkeys.

We stayed three nights at the Coffee Shack, another backpacker that offered space where we camped.  While really close to the ocean, this place was also full of people partying hard, so it was a little annoying to fall asleep to the sound of thumping bass from the bar.

This was also the spot on our trip when Nate had a surfing accident.  During a surf lesson, Nate fell off his board, which then smacked him hard on the cheek.  He figured he’d have a bruise and kept on paddling, but the surf instructor told him he needed to go in.  I woke up in our tent to him calling for my help, and we quickly determined we’d need to find a local hospital to get stitches.  I put some steri-strips on him, we got a map and headed out.  

Nate waiting for the doctor when his surf board broke his face

Nate waiting for the doctor when his surf board broke his face

After a 45 minute drive down some very dusty rural roads, we arrived at a tiny hospital.  We paid 20 rand ($1.25) and waited for a doctor.  The staff was very nice and gave him 4 stitches, patched him up and even gave him a tetanus shot and ibuprofen to take home.  At the end we timidly asked where we needed to settle the bill, already thinking of how we’d need to start a claim with our travel insurer, World Nomads, and how much this would set our budget back.  Miraculously, the doctor told us there would be no charge aside from the $1.25 we’d already paid.  It was a mission hospital funded by a rural medicine foundation.  We were amazed and got information on how we could make a donation to the hospital.

Nate waiting on the hospital bed to get his stitches

Nate waiting on the hospital bed to get his stitches

Having handled the surfing crisis, we woke up early the next morning to drive 7 hours to Durban, Cape Town’s smaller sister city on the east coast.  Durban was huge and chaotic, but Nate managed to use our hotel points to get us a stay at the Hilton, a beautiful and very ritzy downtown hotel.  

After a week of sleeping on the ground and showering in communal backpackers’ bathrooms (often without hot water), the hotel was AMAZING.  We worked out in their nice gym and took long showers.  Then we went out to a nice seafood place and returned for a glass of wine and dessert in the hotel bar.  All in all, a really nice departure from living out of our car and tent.

The Hilton Durbin lobby

The Hilton Durbin lobby

The next day we drove another 4 hours up to Sodwana Bay, which boasts some of the nicest diving in the World.  Located on the coast of the Indian Ocean, this national park is rustic but beautiful.  We stayed at Coral Divers, a huge lodge comprised of campsites, bungalows and communal spaces all centered around scuba diving.  

The beach at Sodwana Bay on the Indian Ocean

The beach at Sodwana Bay on the Indian Ocean

Every bungalow had a drying line outside for wet suits, and there were fish identification posters everywhere.  The lodge owned 10 boats that took up to 10 divers out three times each day, so needless to say diving was the central activity here.  

We’d just gotten our car stuck and then unstuck, so we arrived frazzled.  Originally signed up for a campsite, we paid the extra $30 for a bungalow with our own bathroom.  Then I headed off to my dive briefing for the dive I was signed up for the following morning.  Unfortunately, Nate’s stitches were just on his cheek where a mask would sit, so he had to cancel his dives.

The reefs were amazing- colorful and healthy- and I saw sea turtles, eels and huge schools of fish.  Nate relaxed at the lodge’s pool and did some laundry.

The following morning, we headed off early to Swaziland, a very small country surrounded almost entirely by South Africa.  The border crossing was free and simple.  After 3-4 hours of driving, we arrived at Hlane National Park, a small but beautiful game park with no electricity and an awesome viewing set up.  We set up camp and had a beer while watching rhinos and hippos at the watering hole.

Sunset at Hlane National Park in Swaziland

Sunset at Hlane National Park in Swaziland

We spent just one night at this little game park and enjoyed driving through.  It was nice, but we knew we needed to head out to arrive at Kruger National Park.

Kruger is the largest of South Africa’s parks and definitely one of the biggest tourist draws.  We entered a southern gate and drove through to one of the main rest camps where we stayed in another little bungalow.

Our bungalow at Satara Rest Camp in Kruger National Park.

Our bungalow at Satara Rest Camp in Kruger National Park.

There’s so much to see at Kruger from elephants to rhinos, lions, leopards, hippos, impala, kudu and more.  

We stayed three nights at different camps spending time during the days to drive from one to another.  The speed limit is just 50 km/hr, so it’s slow going but you get to see a lot!

Nate watching a herd of elephants from the car

Nate watching a herd of elephants from the car

On the fourth day, we departed and drove 3 hours to Hoedspruit where we stayed 2 nights to visit the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.  There we got to pet a cheetah and see some big cats up close.

Petting a cheetah at a rehabilitation center in South Africa

Petting a cheetah at a rehabilitation center in South Africa

We also met Stoffle, the honey badger famous for his Houdini-like escapes from his enclosure.

From here we drove on to Johannesburg, where we stayed with a lovely couple we connected with through friends in Cape Town.  They put us up in their beautiful home, and we loved seeing the city and getting some necessary errands done, like new haircuts!  

With our big water bottles and gas can packed, we set off onto the Kalahari Desert to cross Botswana prepared to encounter a totally desolate region of Africa.  

Instead what we found was a rural but well-maintained highway with lots of gas and food options along the way.  We were glad to have the back up supplies, but didn't end up needing them.

Nate driving in Botswana

Nate driving in Botswana

We stayed just two nights in Botswana with long drive days in between before arriving in Windhoek, Namibia's beautiful and clean capital city.

Again, Nate's travel hacking skills paid off, and we enjoyed three nights in a luxurious Hilton complete with rooftop pool and room service.

We use these down days to do laundry, reconnect with friends and family with the wifi and recharge.

On the third day, we picked up our friends, Courtney and Scott, who flew into Windhoek to join us for the next leg of our journey.  It was so amazing to finally have company in the car!

From Windhoek we headed south to the Namib Desert, which you may recognize as one of the shooting locations for the film Max Mad.

It's also home to Sossusvlei, an expansive salt and clay pan surrounded by massive red dunes.  

After a bumpy ride across gravel roads (again, that 4WD vehicle would have come in so handy here), we reached the dunes and enjoyed a day climbing the largest, Big Daddy, and running down.

At the top of the dune Big Daddy after an hourlong hike up the sand.

At the top of the dune Big Daddy after an hourlong hike up the sand.

After climbing up, we had a blast running down and then exploring Deadvlei, a big salt pan at the bottom.

From Sossusvlei we continued driving to Ai-Ais, a natural hot springs at the base of Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa.

At Fish River Canyon

At Fish River Canyon

After a few nights relaxing in the hot springs and learning to play Euchre with our friends, we hit the road again heading all the way south to Stellenbosch, the wine capital of South Africa.

Wine tasting in South Africa

Wine tasting in South Africa

We spent the day touring four local wineries and tasting olive oil, chocolate and doing food pairings.

Food and wine pairing in Stellenbosch

Food and wine pairing in Stellenbosch

From Stellenbosch, it was an easy one-hour drive back to Cape Town, where we'll finish the week relaxing at a beautiful condo, sightseeing and enjoying this city's amazing food scene.

All told, the road trip was challenging and rewarding.  At times we second-thought our choice to camp and drive ourselves, especially when we worried about how the car was fairing climbing dirt hills and avoiding washed out roads.  In the end, I felt like we got to see an enormous amount of each country in a way that even some locals we encountered haven't done.