Few activities are as relaxing as a leisurely drive through pristine natural surroundings. In South Africa, there are many regions with well-kept roads meandering through landscapes that dreams are made of.
The stretch of the R44 that starts just after Gordon Bay, about an hour from Cape Town, is a spectacular route with views of the coastal slopes of the Kogelberg mountains and False Bay. Huge proteas, pincushions of the genus Leucospermum, powderpuffs of the genus Sorocephalus and many more flowering fynbos species fill the daunting slopes, most of which are endemic. Baboons are often seen on this route, and several picnic spots are ideal to stop and take in the natural beauty around you. 'Dappat se Gat' is a particularly scenic beach on the R44, and whales can often be seen as they move into False Bay during the whale watching season. This route is visited on most tours of South Africa that visit Cape Town.
A large portion of the Swartberg is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Swartberg Pass is an ideal route to explore this breathtaking area. The winding gravel road and stone roadside walls are the last works of Thomas Bain, the master pass builder responsible for many of the country's most scenic passes. The windward slopes, as you approach the Swartberg from the Little Karoo town of Oudtshoorn, are filled with age-old flowering plants such as the White Water Sugarbush, Linear-leaf Silver Conebush, Wagon Tree and Swartberg Louse-Pincushion. Once you reach the top of the pass, an awe-inspiring view of the valley below awaits. On the leeside, the vegetation suddenly changes, and aloes essentially replace proteas. One turn, and suddenly, there are massive rock faces protruding out of the earth, painted orange by lichen.
The 7 Passes were the original route between the towns of George and Knysna in the Garden Route. It is a majestic road taking you over the quiet slopes of the Outeniqua mountains, behind the bustle of the coastal towns of the southern Cape, to lush Afromontane forests and rivers stained with tannins like rooibos tea, where birdsong fills the forest understory and beautiful views of the coastal valleys can be seen. The Knysna Loerie is a stunning bird native to the area, as well as many species of Yellowwood and Milkwood trees. The adjacent Outeniqua nature reserve has many lovely hiking trails to explore the area better, and the SANParks Woodville Big Tree near the town of Hoekwil has an easy walking path through the forest for all to enjoy.
The Abel Erasmus Pass, between the Limpopo towns of Ohrigstad and Tzaneen, near the historic lands of the Rain Queen of the BaLobedu is an 11km route through a very scenic northernmost stretch of the Drakensberg mountains. Solid rock faces line the top of the mountains here, and one of Africa's rarest falcons, the Taita falcon, nests in the area. The road is smooth, and the curves are gentle, fit for any vehicle type.
Barkly Pass is a high-altitude pass between Elliot and Barkly East in the beautiful Eastern Cape Drakensberg. This asphalt road is about 10km long. It features scenic views of the surrounding highland grassy plains, wildflower meadows, cliffs, and giant boulders sculpted by the elements over millennia as though they were made for the landscape. Snow often falls here during the winter, one of the few places in South Africa.
Gamkaskloof Pass is nicknamed the 'Road to Hell' because of the temperature of the Gamka Valley during the hot Cape summers when it acts like a natural oven. It is, however, a picturesque and intriguing place all the same. A small group of settlers inhabited Gamkaskloof without contact with the outside world for nearly a century. For this reason and the unique cultural aspects of the place, it is now a national monument and a favorite of 4x4 enthusiasts. Acacia trees, local Aloes, and 'spekbome', meaning 'bacon trees, ' fill this unique Karoo valley.
The Nuwekloof Pass runs through the majestic Baviaanskloof, a valley at the eastern end of the Cape Fold Belt and home to astonishing views and floral biodiversity. Follow the 'R332' to the scenic road between the Baviaanskloof Mountains to the north and the Kouga Mountains to the south. Proteas, Ericas, and Restios dot the bulk of the magical landscape here, with various sandstone and shale rock formations scattered throughout. Deep erosion gorges are found in the area, where pebble-laden floors lead to ancient caverns once home to many San rock painters whose works still survive. The road through this rugged terrain is better suited to a 4x4, but certainly worth the adventure.
Sani Pass is arguably the most famous pass in Southern Africa. It crosses the great escarpment between Lesotho and South Africa - the Drakensberg mountains with all their beauty and deep-rooted history. The road is a long and winding road that climbs 1400m to an altitude of nearly 3000m from its start in Himeville in KwaZulu-Natal to the Basotho town of Mokhotlong. South Africa only allows 4x4 vehicles on this treacherous road since it is mostly gravel and is often covered by snow and ice in the winter, but it is well worth it. Beautiful mountaintop views of the Drakensberg foothills and stunning rock faces undisturbed by the modern world await those who reach the top. The Sani Pass is the ultimate 4x4 route that no one should forget to put on their bucket list.