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Route 62: The Best Road Trip in South Africa

To reach the Garden Route from Cape Town, it's worth considering an alternative route, highly recommended for its empty roads, spectacular mountain scenery, vineyard valleys, small-town architecture, and wide-open plains. With no detours or stops, this scenic route will take approximately 90 minutes longer than traveling directly to the Garden Route along the N2, but, ideally, you should plan to overnight 1 to 3 nights along the way. Suggested route is as follows:

Travel north from Cape Town on the N1, on the toll road that takes you through the Du Toitskloof Tunnel. Time allowing, bypass the tunnel and traverse the Du Toitskloof Pass -- the soaring mountain and valley views from the 1:9 gradient road are well worth the extra 15 minutes.

At Worcester, capital of the Breede River region, the Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens (tel. 023/347-0785; daily 7am-7pm; free except Aug-Oct, when it costs R16), off Roux Road, are definitely worth viewing, particularly in spring. The gardens showcase the weird and wonderful plants from the country's semiarid regions. From here, head southeast on the R60 to Robertson, keeping an eye out for Graham Beck's cellar (tel. 023/626-1214; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 10am-3pm), worth a stop if you like sparkling wine -- the award-winning nonvintage brut has been used at presidential inaugurations and for Barack Obama's acceptance speech, and many consider the vintage brut (made from 100% chardonnay grapes) the best méthode champenoise in the country.

Once in Robertson, take the R317, a scenic route that passes most of the Robertson wineries, including Springfield (tel. 023/626-3661) -- a wine-tasting stop here is an absolute must for the sauvignon blanc lover (particularly if you like it bone dry and grassy). If you don't want to drive farther, consider swanking it up at an old ostrich feather palace: These days, Excelsior (tel. 023/615-2050; R800-R1,500 double) makes wine, but only the cabernet sauvignon reserve has been highly rated. If you have the energy, it's worth pushing on: Follow the signposts to Swellendam, but double-back at the final T-junction, turning left (toward Ashton) to rejoin the R60 and overnight at the atmospheric Cape Dutch Jan Harmsgat Country House (tel. 023/616-3407; www.jhghouse.com; high season R1,080-R2,060 double, low season R880-R1,320 double, including breakfast; closed June). Don't miss the four-course dinner (R275, reservations essential). Right next door is the swish Mardouw Country House (tel. 023/616-2999; www.mardouw.com; R2,236-R3,622 double DBB -- dinner, bed, and breakfast), a very luxurious guesthouse on a 1,000-hectare (2,471-acre) working olive-and-wine farm. Or instead of heading toward Swellendam from Ashton, take the R62 through the 10km (6 1/4-mile) Cogmanskloof Pass, leading you into the pretty town of Montagu, where there are a number of B&Bs. Book one of the three garden units at Aasvöelkrans (tel. 023/614-1228; www.aasvoelkrans.co.za; R800 double), a delightful guesthouse on a stud farm at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains; then take an evening stroll down to town and admire the Victorian architecture and soaring brick-red mountains, or enjoy a therapeutic dip in the nearby hot springs. (Note that, from an aesthetic point of view, however, these have been ruined by the resort that's sprung up around them; they were being renovated in early 2009.) The springs (tel. 023/614-1150) are a constant 109°F (43°C) and are open daily from 8am to 11pm, for R60 per person. If you'd like the chance to mingle with locals and listen to golden hits played on a baby grand piano, chose a room in the Carrington Villa at the Art Deco Montagu Country Hotel (tel. 023/614-3125; R1,280 double, including breakfast). But the nicest Montagu option is the stunning Les Hauts de Montagu (tel. 023/614-2514; www.leshautsdemontagu.co.za; high season R1,600 double, low season R1,000 double, including breakfast), 3km (1 3/4 miles) outside of town (off R62) toward Barrydale. The guesthouse offers six Provençal-styled bedrooms (by 2010, there will be 10 units) in cottages on the grounds of a 19th-century Cape Dutch homestead, with commanding vineyard and mountain views and a tiny chapel.

From Montagu, take the road east to Barrydale (if you need a pit stop, you'll pass the unassuming but reputable Clarke of the Karoo on your left [tel. 028/572-1017]). From here, follow the signs to Calitzdorp; along the way, you'll pass a turnoff for Sanbona Wildlife Reserve (tel. 028/572-1365 or 041/407-1000 for reservations; www.sanbona.com; high season from R9,000 double, low season from R7,000 double, all-inclusive). By far, the best Big 5 reserve in the Western Cape (a few others may claim Big 5 status, but the lions are in separate enclosures), this is a very beautiful (if you like arid landscapes) and large (54,000-hectare/133,380-acre) reserve, with luxurious accommodations (it's part of the Mantis Collection, the same people who manage Shamwari in the Eastern Cape). There are now three camps to choose from: the secluded Dwyka Tented Lodge, which has 9 units, each with a deck and private plunge pool; Tilney Manor, with 6 units (closed for renovations at the time of writing); and Gondwana Lodge, which welcomes children and has 12 suites. Time allowing, make this your next overnight stop -- the Klein Karoo scenery makes for a very different safari experience from the Eastern Cape reserves, and is more conveniently situated if you're not traveling that far east.

Next up is the small village of Calitzdorp; leave enough time for a short stop to taste some of the Cape's best fortified wines at Boplaas (tel. 044/213-3326) and Die Krans (tel. 044/213-3314), or have a meal at Rose of the Karoo, 21 Voortrekker Rd. (tel. 044/213-3133), the best local restaurant in the village, with a lovely vine-covered terrace. If you haven't spent the night at Sanbona, proceed to do so at The Retreat at Groenfontein (tel. 044/213-3880; www.groenfontein.com). This aptly named Victorian farmhouse is 20km (12 miles) northeast of Calitzdorp, reached via dirt roads that meander through beautiful countryside, in a small, remote valley with breathtaking views of the Swartberg mountains. By overnighting here, you also ensure that you arrive in Oudtshoorn before dark to tackle the Swartberg Pass -- one of the most spectacular drives in the country. Spend your last night at Prince Albert, another highly recommended village, before continuing south to Wilderness via George, and the pleasures of the Garden Route.

A Driving Tour of Namaqualanda

Most of the year, the sandveld region north of the Olifants River, a vast semiarid area known as Namaqualand, sees very few visitors. But come the rains in August or September, the seeds that lie dormant under these dusky plains explode into vivid bloom, and 4,000 species deck the ground in a magnificent, multicolored carpet. Because of the huge distances to cover to get to Namaqualand (Springbok is some 544km/337 miles from Cape Town), you might want to make sure that the season has begun before you set off on a driving tour (though you'll struggle to find accommodations if you haven't booked well in advance). Note that the season starts on the coast and moves inland. Getting there is pretty straightforward: The area is reached via the N7 highway, which connects Cape Town with Namibia. If you find the distances daunting, note that Signature Flight Support (tel. 021/934-0350) will fly you by private charter to Springbok Airport or other Northern Cape destinations.

The seasonal flower displays start quite close to Cape Town, but you enter the more remote and more spectacular flower region soon after the N7 bypasses Vanrhynsdorp, 283km (175 miles) north of Cape Town. This marks the halfway point between Cape Town and Namaqualand's "capital," Springbok, and while it's strictly still part of the Western Cape, it's well worth planning an overnight stop in the region. To do this, ascend the African plateau by taking the R27 via Van Rhyn's Pass to charming Nieuwoudtville, touted as the bulb capital of the world and famed for its white sandstone architecture, or travel farther east to Calvinia. If you're traveling in late August, note that the biggest braai (barbecue) in the country -- the annual Hantam Meat Festival -- is held in Calvinia at this time, offering rare tastings of such native delicacies as kaiings (salted crackling) and skilpadjies (liver in caul fat). To overnight in Nieuwoudtville during flower season, you'll have to reserve long in advance: Try booking the stone-and-thatch cottages De Hoop and Gert Boom at Papkuilsfontien (tel. 027/218-1246; www.papkuilsfontein.com; dinner on request), or contact the Nieuwoudtville Publicity Association (tel. 027/218-1336) for more accommodations options. A wonderful place to see the vast variety of flowering bulbs and annuals is the new 6,200-hectare (15,320-acre) Hantam National Botanical Garden (tel. 027/218-1200; Mon-Fri 7:30am-4:30pm; also Sat-Sun during 3-month flower season; R10 per adult). Over 1,350 species (80 endemic) have been recorded here; a staggering 40% of which are bulbs. To find out about possible tours of the area, write to hantam@sanbi.org.

Having traversed the Knersvlakte (literally, "Plains of Grinding Teeth"), the first important stop north of Vanrhynsdorp is Kamieskroon (174km/109 miles farther on the N7), the last town before Springbok, which lies some 67km (42 miles) farther north on the N7. Kamieskroon is literally a one-horse town, but its claim to fame is the nearby Skilpad (Tortoise) Wildflower Reserve (tel. 027/672-1948; daily 8am-5pm in season only, entrance fee R35). Created by the World Wildlife Fund, and part of the Namaqua National Park, the reserve (18km/11 miles west of town on Wolwepoort Rd.) catches what little rain blows in off the sea and is always magnificent during the flower season. The other reason to stop here is the Kamieskroon Hotel (tel. 027/672-1614; kamieshotel@kingsley.co.za). The hotel charges R335 per person during the flower season (including breakfast) and also cohosts the annual Namaqualand Photographic Workshops (www.kamieskroonhotel.com). Cofounded by local photographer Colla Swart and the internationally renowned Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson (the latter was involved in the 2006 workshop; for 2009, Frank Krummacher and Hansie Oosthuizen will be leading the groups), the spring workshop usually runs for 7 days and costs around R8,400 per person; look at the website for exact dates and prices (and do it soon; there is usually a waiting list). Note: Try to get your hands on a copy of Freeman Patterson's Garden of the Gods (Human & Rousseau), which features the beauty of Namaqualand in full bloom, to whet your appetite for a trip north.

The best place to stay (and eat) in Springbok is the Springbok Lodge & Restaurant, on the corner of Voortrekker and Keerom roads (tel. 027/712-1321; www.springboklodge.com; R300 double without air-conditioning and fridge, or R325 double with air-conditioning and fridge; family units are also available). The lodge is clean, but it's far from luxurious. Owner Jopie Kotze, who calls his lodge "a living museum," is a mine of information, and his restaurant walls are lined with photographs and artifacts relating to the area. The lodge also sponsors the Nababeep Mining Museum (found in the small town of the same name 22km/14 miles from Springbok); neighboring O'Kiep also has fascinating, if rusty, reminders of when it was a copper-mining town. You can also overnight in self-catering chalets at Springbok's top attraction, the Goegap Nature Reserve (tel. 027/718-9906), 15km (9 1/4 miles) southeast of Springbok. It's open daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission is R15.

The Richtersveld & Kalahari Desert

Adventurers who appreciate spectacular, rocky mountain landscapes, almost lunar in their desolation and emptiness (except, once again, for the few weeks when spring rains turn the dusty expanses into never-ending gardens), may like to venture farther north still (about 4 1/2-hr. drive from Springbok) to the Richtersveld National Park, created in 1991. Home to the Nama people (descendents of the Khoi-Khoi), this vast swathe of land, with its fascinating plant life, was recently returned to the community in one of the country's largest land restitution agreements. Now declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area is largely dedicated to conservation, but you will need a tough 4WD to explore it; what lodgings there are to be had are very basic and far-flung. The easiest way to access the area is probably with a guide such as Jaco , although if you have a 4x4 (and a spare tire or two), you could self-drive. The National Park has 10 air-conditioned chalets at Sendelingsdrift (www.sanparks.org), but make no mistake: This is no-frills territory and you need to come properly equipped.

Equally breathtaking and more accessible (in the sense that you don't always need a 4WD), is the Kalahari Desert. The sandveld environment alone is stunning -- rust-red Kalahari sand dunes and wispy blonde grasses contrast starkly with huge cobalt-blue skies -- yet this harsh and arid landscape supports a surprisingly varied and rich amount of game. Besides the big-maned "Kalahari" lion, you will find cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, jackals, and the gemsbok (oryx). Travelers on a budget should book at the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Kgalagadi (literally, "Place Without Water") is one of Africa's biggest reserves, covering an area of more than 38,000 sq. km (14,672 sq. miles). Twee Rivieren is the most developed rest camp, and Nossob, on the dry riverbed that creates a natural unfenced boundary between South Africa and Botswana, is the most isolated; but the tented camps should be your final destination .

A vastly more luxurious destination in the interior semideserts of the Northern Cape -- one you would be best off flying to -- is the Oppenheimer family's Tswalu Kalahari Reserve. At more than 1,000 sq. km, it's the largest privately owned reserve in the country (tel. 011/274-2299 reservations; 053/781-9211 lodge; R11,800 double; ask about specials). Located near the blips on the map that are Sishen and Kuruman (and not that far from the aptly named Hotazhel), Tswalu offers a luxurious safari-style experience in a very different setting. Initially developed by the late Steve Boler, an ardent hunter who imported 9,000 head of game, including lions, black rhinos, cheetahs, leopards, and buffalo, the Oppenheimers have received expert help in ensuring the suitability of animals to this arid terrain. Although the vegetation type does not support elephant, you could see such rarities as sable antelope, cheetah, and wild dogs; sightings are excellent, as there's no thick vegetation to conceal animals. It is also one of the most luxurious safari lodges on the continent (interiors are by the same decorators who created the much lauded Singita camps). Motse, the main camp found below the Korannaberg mountains, offers eight individual stone, clay, and thatch lodges with private decks overlooking a waterhole, two of which are large enough for families (Tarkuni Lodge, where friends or family groups of up to 10 can enjoy complete privacy in a remote valley inside the reserve, is also available when the Oppenheimers are not in residence). As a Relais & Châteaux member, expect quality food; activities include hot-air ballooning, horseback-riding, and archery, as well as game-drives. Tswalu offer direct transfer flights from Cape Town; these cost R3,050 one-way.

Essentials

Getting There & Around -- Unless you really like road trips and have plenty of time, it's probably best to fly into the region. SA Airlink (tel. 054/332-2161) flies from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Upington Airport (tel. 054/337-7900), the closest transport hub. From here, you can contact Newton Walker of Walker Flying Service (tel. 082/820-5394) and charter a flight, if you wish. If he takes you into the park's Twee Rivieren camp, you can pick up a prearranged car here ; alternatively, pick up a car at the airport. Avis has a desk (tel. 054/332-4746) at the Upington Airport and will also drop a car off at the park. Unless you intend to enter Botswana or venture to the remote Bitterpan Wilderness Camp, you won't need a four-wheel-drive, but to get the most out of your trip here, it's worth considering. For the best game-viewing opportunities, make sure you rise early, take plenty of extra water, and be prepared to travel long distances -- the shortest circular drive is 100km (62 miles) long. Ask at Twee Rivieren about evening game drives with experienced rangers -- these are recommended.

Guided Tours -- Jaco Powell (tel. 082/572-0065; www.jacelstours.com), an honorary ranger for South African National Parks (SANParks) and a rich source of information on the Kalahari fauna and flora, offers fully catered specialist tours in Kgalagadi and Richtersveld, as well as guided trips to Tswalu. Contact Jaco at info@jacelstours.com. Pieter Hanekom's Kalahari Safaris (tel. 054/332-5653 or 082/435-0007; www.kalaharisafaris.co.za) organizes a variety of options in Kgalagadi, designed to satisfy different budgets.

Visitor Information -- For both Kgalagadi and Richtersveld inquiries, contact SANParks (tel. 012/428-9111; fax 012/343-0905; www.sanparks.org). The Kgalagadi park is quite popular, particularly the tented camps, so book well in advance. The Visitors Centre (tel. 054/561-2000) is at Twee Rivieren, the park's headquarters. There is a daily conservation fee: R140 adults, R70 children.

When To Go -- Rain falls mainly between January and April. The best time to visit is between March and May (autumn), when it's neither too hot nor too dry. In summer, temperatures may exceed 104°F (40°C). In winter, temperatures at night are often below zero. Note that the park's gate hours vary considerably, depending on the season, and are strictly adhered to -- if you aren't going to arrive between 7:30am and 6pm, call ahead to find out exactly what time the gates close.

Where to Stay in the Kgalagadi

Given the distances, self-drivers will almost certainly have to book their first night at Twee Rivieren, which is run by South African National Parks. Twee Rivieren is just beyond the entrance to the park; this is also the only camp with a restaurant, a pool, and air-conditioned units. Each of the self-catering two-, three-, four-, and six-bed chalets (all en suite) has a fully equipped kitchen and a braai (barbecue) area. Each two-bed cottage costs R450 a night for two people; the six-bed cottages cost R760. Besides the basic restaurant, there is a takeout shop, fuel station, and grocery shop; you can buy supplies such as milk, bread, wood, frozen meat, eggs, and tinned food here, but it's best to stock up on a few extras in Upington. Better still, head northwest to !Xaus Lodge (www.xauslodge.co.za; R5,000 double, all-inclusive; activities include game walks with San, night drives, and more). Opening in July 2007, this small (12 units) thatched lodge is the first fully catered lodge in the Kgalagadi, overlooking an enormous salt pan where you can observe the animals drinking at the waterhole below. It's owned by the Khomani San and Mier communities, who reached a land settlement agreement with the government and South African National Parks in May 2002, taking transfer of 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of land, which the two communities then leased back to SANParks in one of the most successful community initiatives to date.

If, however, you are of an adventurous ilk, the reason you are here is to spend a few nights in one or more of the park's five very remote and semiprivate wilderness camps -- a steal, at R720 to R760 double. Note: You'll need to book early to snag one.

Each wilderness camp features four two-bed units (R760 double) with their own fully equipped (gas-powered) kitchen and bathroom with a shower; linen and towels are provided, but you should stock up on food, bottled water, and firewood, none of which are available on-site. Closest are Urikaruus and Kieliekrankie, 2 hours and 90 minutes, respectively, from Twee Rivieren. Urikaruus's timber units, built on stilts, are situated on the banks of the Auob River and overlook a busy waterhole. Kieliekrankie, built with fixed structures, feels as though it's in the middle of nowhere, and is approached via a tunnel dug into the red Kalahari dunes. From either of the wilderness camps, you can follow the course of the dry Auob River -- which offers excellent game-viewing opportunities -- to Mata Mata, which lies 120km (74 miles; 2 1/2 hr.), and on to the nearby Kalahari Tented Camp. Mata Mata is a great deal more rustic than Twee Rivieren, but not by any means as remote as the wilderness camps; we suggest you simply fill up here (it has a shop stocked with basic supplies and a fuel station) and press on to Kalahari Tented Camp, which lies about 3km (1 3/4 miles) away. Here you overnight at one of 15 en-suite desert "tents" (sandbag and canvas constructions on wooden floors, with such amenities as kitchenettes, bathrooms, and ceiling fans; R790 double), or book early for the pick of them all, the honeymoon unit (R885 double).

Alternatively, head north to the three most remote wilderness camps: Bitterpan, a stilted camp overlooking a waterhole, is accessible only by 4WD via Nossob, which is about 3 hours from Bitterpan. Grootkolk and Gharagab are equally popular, despite the vast distances you have to travel to reach them (some 6 hr. from Twee Rivieren); at Gharagab, you have the added benefit of showering beneath the stars. Gloriously remote and silent, it's accessible only by 4WD vehicle.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.