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I cannot stop raving about my South Africa road trip. This road trip along the Garden Route and Eastern Cape was, hands down, one of the best trips of my life.
A lot of you have written me asking how you can do the same trip. You absolutely can. The great thing about this trip is that it’s easily replicable — and incredibly affordable! I have included every detail here to help you plan your trip.
WARNING: This is a monster post. Normally I don’t write posts this long, but I thought it was important to have all the information in one place because I believe you would enjoy this itinerary as much as I did! Save it, bookmark it, send it to your friends. It’s long but filled with a LOT of good stuff.
Day One: Cape Town to Swellendam
Originally we were supposed to go shark cage diving, but high waves prevented us from doing so. Instead, Simon gave us two options: we could do a tour of the Cape Peninsula (which I did in November), or we could drive down the coast and stop anywhere we felt like. We chose the latter.
Our first stop was Gordon’s Bay, a dinky little beach town where we stopped for an early morning ice cream. Then the coast went from pretty to stunning. In my opinion, South Africa has the world’s best coastline. We talked to a professional “shark spotter” and took pictures everywhere we could.
The view of all views was found in Koolbaai.
Next, we stopped in Hermanus, a lovely little town and the easiest place in the world to spot whales from land (from July to January, that is!).
We got back on the road and headed to Birkenhead Brewery for our lunch: wine and beer tasting. If ice cream for breakfast appealed to the kid in us, wine for lunch definitely appealed to our inner adult!
After sipping delicious wines and enjoying that fabulous view, we piled back into the car and stopped for springbok pies. I love Africa.
In the afternoon, we arrived in Swellendam, a pretty and sleepy inland town at the base of the mountains.
After checking in at Swellendam Backpackers Lodge, Stephanie, the friendly owner, took me, Nadine, and Jeremy horseback riding in the mountains as the sun dipped below the horizon. Meanwhile, Diego and Simon hiked to a nearby waterfall.
After a steak braai (barbecue) in the lodge, a few of us went out to explore the nightlife. Swellendam isn’t exactly a hoppin’ place — but that was all right.
Where We Stayed: Swellendam Backpackers Lodge. This is a very cozy and comfortable hostel — it felt far more like a small hotel, only for a fraction of the price. The free unlimited wifi (rare in South Africa) was deeply appreciated, and it was so nice curling up near the fireplace. I had a private room with twin beds and my own bathroom, complete with a sink and tub made from steel barrels! The one caveat? Rooms aren’t heated (or perhaps they aren’t in May), and it got a bit cold at night.
October 2023 update – It appears Swellendam Backpackers Lodge is no longer open.
Day One Essential Info: At Birkenhead Brewery, you can taste four wines for an absurdly low 20 rand ($2). You can taste six beers for 60 rand ($6). I’m not a chardonnay fan at all, but I LOVED their chardonnay — make sure you try it.
Horseback riding is available at Swellendam Backpackers Lodge for an equally absurd 200 rand ($21) for one hour. You can also do a four-hour, half-day trip with a picnic lunch included for 850 rand ($88). If you do the hike, know that the waterfall is more like a trickle during May.
In low season at Swellendam Backpackers Lodge, dorms start at 120 rand ($12), private rooms start at 300 rand ($30) for singles and 410 ($43) for doubles, and camping starts at 80 rand ($8). Wifi is free and unlimited.
More hotels in Swellendam can be found here.
Day Two: Swellendam to Sedgefield
Day two was one of our busiest days, and looking back, I’d easily say that it was my favorite!
After a delicious breakfast, we said goodbye to Stephanie and piled into the car to cross the mountains. By the time we came out the other side, the environment had changed to desert. We were in the heart of the Karoo and on famous Route 62.
After stopping to photograph the church in the town of Barrydale, we made our first major stop: Ronnie’s Sex Shop!
This weird little desert shop had the word SEX painted between Ronnie’s and Shop as a joke — and it brought it a lot of customers, so it stayed. The shop is something to behold — it’s covered in graffiti and filled with people’s underwear!
We got to meet Ronnie himself, who looked like a cross between Santa and Willie Nelson. He warned us not to be good.
Stephanie had told us that there were great hot springs nearby, so we stopped at Warmwaterberg Spa for a dip in the 40C (104F) waters. Nadine, Diego, and I had a nice soak and chatted up the South Africans on holiday.
Our main stop was Oudtshoorn, the wacky town of ostriches. We visited Cango Wildlife Ranch, a zoo filled with everything from giant bats to lemurs.
Then we suited up for two of their animal encounters: first, leopards!
(These leopards were not sedated — they were just sleeping. They’re unable to survive in the wild, so they live here.)
Second, crocodile cage diving!
Croc cage diving was incredibly fun and one of the craziest things I have ever done. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this experience elsewhere. The crocs get right up into the cage and Nadine and I screamed the entire time — I can’t wait to see the video of that
After toweling off, we visited Cango Ostrich Show Farm.
I couldn’t hide any longer — it was time for me to face my fear of birds. I put my arm around an ostrich and it didn’t eat me — but that wasn’t enough to get me riding one later, as Nadine and Simon did.
So then, just before we left, I held a bucket and had them peck all around me. It was terrifying.
We then had ostrich for lunch. Sweet revenge.
After gunning through the mountains for the second time that day, we arrived in Sedgefield just in the nick of time to catch the sunset and a beer with the Afrovibe crew.
Dinner was a chicken and vegetable stew at the hostel. And then it may have been time for a beer pong tournament…
Where We Stayed: Afrovibe Adventure Lodge and Backpackers. This is a party hostel in an incredible location, right on Myoli Beach. Sedgefield has historically been a town for retirees, but this hostel has made Sedgefield cool. It’s also home to Chuck, probably the best hostel dog ever!
I gasped when I saw my room, beautifully decorated with a double bed and a private bathroom — and at a PARTY HOSTEL. I can’t believe a room this nice was at a hostel — literally on top of the bar! And once I woke up, I saw that it actually had a view of the beach. Again, the free unlimited wifi, though it wasn’t the strongest, was appreciated.
Had I had more time, I could see myself putting down roots here and hanging out for weeks.
This room starts at 450 rand ($47) per night.
Visiting Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn costs 120 rand ($13) for adults and 80 rand ($9) for children. The cheetah encounter costs 190 rand ($20) and crocodile cage diving costs 320 rand ($34), but there are discounts if you book more than one encounter.
Cango Ostrich Show Farm offers 45-minute tours for 75 rand ($8) for adults and 40 rand ($4) for children. The tours include ostrich rides.
In low season at Afrovibe Adventure Lodge and Backpackers, dorms start at 120 rand ($12), private rooms start at 450 rand ($47), and four-bed family rooms start at 660 rand ($69). Dinner costs vary from 45-85 rand ($5-9). Wifi is free and unlimited, though not the strongest.
More hotels in Sedgefield can be found here.
Day Three: Sedgefield to Plettenberg Bay
That morning, I discovered the beauty of Myoli Beach — and it was absolutely deserted. What a spot for a hostel!
READ MORE: How to Protect Your Belongings on the Beach
After breakfast, Nadine and I went paddleboarding and kayaking on the lagoon, which was an incredibly peaceful and fun experience that I hope to continue as much as possible.
Jeremy was going to go paragliding from where we saw the sunset the night before, but it was too windy, so he went mountain biking instead.
We then stopped at the Riverdeck Restaurant in Buffalo Bay for a snack of boerewors roosterkoek with sous (sausages sandwiches with a great spicy tomato sauce), some relaxing in the sun, and a ride on the bike boats.
They also had little Shetland ponies that nuzzled each other and rolled on the ground like dogs!
And then we went to Knysna, where I spent a few days last fall. We wandered the town and tried out some beautiful fresh oysters at 34 Tapas and Oysters.
That day, we heard from Lyle and the Afrovibe crew that there was a cool Rastafarian village in Knysna. As soon as we heard about it, we had to go! We called up a great guide, Mawande from Wandu Tours, and we visited the township that happens to have a million-dollar view.
Next was the Rastafarian village, Judah Square, and it was fascinating. A man named Brother Paul gave us a tour and taught us so much about Rastafarianism and its tenets of peace, helping the local community, and respecting women.
I never dreamed a place like this existed in South Africa.
Mawande also has a beautifully designed B&B in the middle of the township which he rents out to visitors. How cool is this place?
That afternoon while we were at the village, Diego and Jeremy went bungee jumping off the highest bridge in the world in Storms River. They came back ecstatic, having enjoyed their adrenaline rush!
And then we arrived in Plettenberg Bay, the town that I had wanted to visit the most. We arrived just in time for a beautiful pink sunset.
Where We Stayed: Nothando Backpackers Lodge. This is a quiet, comfy place — it feels like you’re staying in someone’s home more than a hostel. The common room is a great place to curl up with a glass of Pinotage by the fireplace — which is exactly what we did. The next morning, we were greeted with a fabulous breakfast with delicious cinnamon crepes. It was definitely the best breakfast of all the places where we stayed.
Wifi here is paid, not free, and while the hostel comped us free wifi, I’d really like to see it become free and available to all guests.
I had a double room with my own bathroom, which starts at 430 rand ($45).
Day Three Essential Info: Paddleboarding costs 300 rand ($31) for a half day at Afrovibe Lodge.
We visited the township in Knysna through Wandu Tours with Mawande, and he then took us on to Judah Square, the Rastafarian community. His tours cost 300-480 rand ($31-50) per person with discounts for group rates. There are also tours of Judah Square available from 60 rand ($6) with Knysna Local Living.
Diego and Jeremy went bungee jumping in Storms River through Face Adrenalin. Rates start at 750 rand ($78).
In low season at Nothando Backpackers Lodge, dorms start at 120 rand ($12), doubles start at 350 rand ($36), triples start at 550 rand ($57), and quads start at 670 rand ($670). Wifi is available but not free.
Other hotels in Plettenberg Bay can be found here.
Image: Simon Lewis
Day Four: Plettenberg Bay to Jeffreys Bay
The day began with us suiting up in bright orange life jackets (first time since my shipwreck, so that was interesting) and we jumped on board an ocean safari in Plettenberg Bay. First on the agenda? Dolphins!
They were so beautiful and graceful — I could have watched them all day.
After the dolphins, we went to a cove where there were hundreds of seals.
After a wild landing, gunning the boat straight onto the shore, we left Plette and drove to Storms River — passing the bridge where the boys jumped off the day before. Could you imagine jumping off this?!
And then we went on a Segway ride through the Tsitsikamma Forest!
I found it a bit scary at first and was terrified of falling, then I relaxed and really began to enjoy it — especially the fresh smell of the forest.
Storms River is a wacky place. In addition to the forest, it’s home to a lot of Elvis stuff — and Elvis impersonators, both male and female.. We grabbed burgers in a fifties diner.
By the afternoon, we made it to our final destination: Island Vibe Backpackers in Jeffreys Bay. There’s not a lot to do in this town, but if you like to surf, you’ll be in heaven.
Our plans got messed up by the hostel — while people were supposed to be waiting to take us sandboarding and surfing, nobody was there. However, a surf instructor named Tom offered to give Nadine and me an abbreviated 45-minute surf lesson. We did — as the pink sunset swirled around us — and though we were far from the best surfers in the world, it was an incredibly beautiful experience.
Where We Stayed: Island Vibe Backpackers. This is a chill surfer lodge through and through — expect nothing but surfers and beach lovers. And while most people stay chilled out, there is a bit of a party atmosphere in the bar. We were housed in a very cool beach house with private rooms and insane views of the beach.
The staff here was so friendly and we had a great time getting to know them. We also had a dance performance by some very talented kids.
Wifi was not included — but they’re not super-strict about it, giving out vouchers at the front like crazy. The beach house has no wifi access whatsoever, and I’d like to see that change.
The room I had, with a double bed, private bathroom, and balcony with a view of the ocean, starts at 450 rand ($47).
Day Four Essential Info: Our aquatic safari was the dolphin encounter from Ocean Blue. It lasts 1.5-2 hours and costs 400 rand ($42) for adults and 200 rand ($21) for children.
Segway tours through the Tsitsikamma Forest with Eco-Discovery start at 285 rand ($30) for a one-hour tour through the forest.
Surfing lessons are available at a variety of levels and durations at Island Vibe Backpackers. Contact them for more details.
In low season at Island Vibe Backpackers, dorms start at 120 rand ($12), private rooms start at 300 rand ($31), and beach house rooms start at 450 rand ($47). Wifi is available but not free — if you’re crafty, grab some vouchers at the front reception.
More hotels in Jeffrey’s Bay can be found here.
Day Five: Jeffreys Bay to Cintsa
Our final full day was our longest day and began with a 6:00 AM departure to Addo Elephant Park. Addo is famous because of the sheer number of elephants — I’ve never seen so many in my life! Little babies, families with mothers, and solitary males. There were also zebras, Cape Buffalo and warthogs.
Honestly, as much as I loved seeing all those elephants, I was not impressed with the safari itself. Our guide didn’t appear very knowledgeable and we weren’t able to get off-road at all. It didn’t remotely hold a candle to my Kruger safari in October. Granted, that was a very high-end safari, but I think the Addo experience could have been a lot better.
After our safari, we gunned it straight through to Cintsa on the Wild Coast, stopping for a monkey gland pie en route (hehehe!). Once arriving at Buccaneers Lodge and Backpackers, we were welcomed by the ultimate view.
We joined the hostel attendees at Emerald Vale, a local organic brewery (with no running water!) and finished by watching the sky grow dark (as opposed to a sunset — this was our one overcast day) on the sand dunes. The six of us toasted our beers. From Cape Town to the mountains to the desert and back to the ocean again, finishing on the Wild Coast — we had made it.
And then Nadine and I joined a few of the hostel guys for what should have been a thirty-minute walk back along the beach and turned into an hourlong walk back and a wade through a river while holding our electronics over our head to keep them dry…
That night, an Afrikaans band, Glaskas, performed a concert in the bar. They were traveling through and the hostel offered them free accommodation in exchange for music, which I thought was great and something more hostels should do. They were a fun band and their songs were really sweet with shy introductions like, “This is a song about a guy in love with a superhero.”
The night concluded with some “Soweto toilet” shots.
Where We Stayed: Buccaneers Lodge and Backpackers. This place is absolutely enormous, sprawling over 18 acres, with the best view in town. Everyone was kind and welcoming, and all of the food that we ate was delicious.
It’s definitely a bit of a party place, but parts feel like a hotel. This was the best room out of all the places where we stayed. It had a double bed, day bed, and private bathroom. The decor was fabulous. But best of all, it had huge glass doors where you could see the view!
I left the curtains open overnight and woke up to a beautiful sunrise without even having to leave my bed.
And this room costs 480 rand ($50) per night. Can you believe this is a hostel? Can you imagine what a hotel would try to charge for the same room?
Wifi was only available for pay here as well. If only they had free wifi — and especially free in-room wifi — this place would be perfect. I want to go back!
Day Five Essential Info: Safaris at Addo Elephant Park take 1.5-2 hours and cost 240 rand ($25) per person. You can also self-drive.
Buccaneers Lodge and Backpackers offers tours to Emerald Vale brewery followed by sundowners on the sand dunes for 250-295 rand ($26-31) per person.
Dorms at Buccaneers Lodge and Backpackers start at 120 rand ($12), safari tents start at 275 rand ($29), doubles and twins start at 280 rand ($29), river- and bay-view en suites start at 480 rand ($50), suites start at 520 rand ($54), and cottages start at 695 rand ($72). Wifi is available but not free.
More hotels in Cintsa can be found here.
Day Six: More Cintsa
On our final morning, we met the most memorable South African of all — Mama Tofu! At 93 years old, she’s the oldest tour guide in South Africa, and she taught us about Xhosa life, letting off zingers like, “If you stand there ten minutes, you’ll get pregnant.” Then Diego kissed her on the cheek (he’s Spanish, it’s what he does) and she let out a bloodcurdling scream.
She was a riot, and I hope to be as feisty as her when I’m 93.
We then made our way to Cintsa East, a school, and saw some of their educational initiatives, like the Big Green E-Machine, a solar-powered mobile computer lab. The kids were all working on Powerpoint presentations about their favorite sports.
And then we had a bit of extra time, so we visited the local creche. The adorable kids loved posing for photos. How much do these two look like a little old couple?
And with that, our road trip was concluded. Early in the afternoon, we made our way to nearby East London Airport and caught our hourlong flight to Durban.
Image: Jeremy Kunz
You can find information about volunteering at Cintsa East both short-term and long-term through Volunteer Africa 32 South.
Buccaneers offers an opportunity to volunteer at the local creche for half a day for 200 rand ($21). They are constantly in need of extra hands, and 50% of the proceeds is donated to the creche.
What I Would Have Done Differently
I have to admit that when I first saw this itinerary, I blanched. I thought it was too hectic, too fast, too ambitious. But it turns out that I LOVED IT, crazy pace and all! I was on such an adrenaline high the entire time that I craved new adventures at every minute. And for the first time in my life, I’d set my alarm super-early every morning so I could see the sunrise!
In total honesty, there isn’t much that I’d do differently. But here are a few things to keep in mind:
I would have spent a night in Oudtshoorn. Our day from Swellendam to Sedgefield was a LONG one, and Oudtshoorn is a weird town with a lot of things to do. We were a bit rushed on that day. There are also some cool towns nearby close to Route 62 that we could have visited had we had more time.
I would have skipped Addo. Yikes! It’s hard to admit that, but that’s how I feel. Go to Addo if you’ve never been on safari before, if it’s your only chance, or if you REALLY love elephants. Otherwise, I’d skip it.
I would have bought a SIM card for my iPhone. Internet access in South Africa is far from ideal, and most places charge you by the amount of internet you use. This would have saved me a lot of grief.
I might have added more time in Plettenberg Bay or Knysna. These towns are next door to each other and both have tons of stuff to do — we barely scraped the surface. If you’d rather be based in one place on the Garden Route than road tripping, I’d recommend Plettenberg Bay if you love the ocean or Knysna if you love the forest. Alternatively, Afrovibe in Sedgefield is great if you want a fun hostel experience in the region.
I would have ridden an ostrich. I chickened out, and I regret it. Next time, for sure.
Regrets aside, I absolutely loved this trip, and I hope this itinerary helps you plan your dream trip to South Africa.
And while I think this is one of the best road trips you can possibly take, there are plenty more on my list. Iconic road trips like the down California coast, through the outback of Australia, and from Chicago to New Orleans are some trips I hope to take in the near future.
Tell me — would you go on this South African road trip?
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