Are you planning 3 weeks in South Africa, but could you use a bit of inspiration? Discover this beautiful country with this South Africa 3 week self-drive itinerary. It is a relatively classic road trip that will bring you past all the great landmarks. Ideal if this is your first time in this beautiful country.
Our 3 weeks in South Africa
We start our 3 weeks in Africa in Johannesburg. We arrived early in the afternoon, and as we were not sure how tired we would be, we chose to stay over for 1 night.
We had planned what we wanted to do: the Apartheid Museum and a tour of Soweto were the two things on our itinerary. In the end, we were too tired and we only visited the Apartheid Museum. South Africa has, as you well know, an interesting history and you learn a lot about it in the Apartheid Museum. I found this museum even more interesting than the tour of Robben Island we did in Cape Town, but more about that later.
African Pride Melrose Arch
Johannesburg is known as an unsafe city. That’s why we decided to take no risk and opted for The African Pride Melrose Arch hotel in a really safe neighborhood. Melrose Arch is the safest and also the richest square kilometer in Johannesburg. When we were having lunch at a terrace on the other side of our hotel in the afternoon, we counted 7 Porsches in about the same number of minutes. This district is of course not representative of Johannesburg but in Melrose Arch you can walk around without the risk of being robbed, even after dark. There’re several restaurants within walking distance of the hotel.
The African Pride Melrose Arch hotel was trendy and is in tip-top shape. The hotel has an underground parking. You can pay for the parking at the hotel with a fixed daily rate or in the parking lot according to an hourly rate. The latter is cheaper if you have only been in the parking lot for a few hours.
We continued our self-drive road trip through South Africa by driving from Johannesburg to Graskop, a small town at the start of the Panorama Route. On the way here, you can choose the fast route, or take a small detour to view the first bit of the Panorama Route. Of course, we choose the latter and drove to Lydenburg first, and then from there over the Long Tom Pass towards Sabie. A beautiful drive, but the real highlights of the Panorama Route are further down the road, on the second day.
From Graskop you can visit Pilgrimsrest, an old mining village. We did not visit the village as we had often read that it was very touristic and not really worth it. Graskop is an optimal base for the Panorama Route that we did the next day.
Westlodge Bed & breakfast
The Westlodge bed & breakfast is a very well maintained lodge in an excellent location. Ideal for excursions along the panorama route and overall great value for money. The very warm and helpful host will make sure you feel welcome and both breakfast and dinner are delicious.
We explored the rest of the Panorama Route from Graskop. We drove the R532 up to Mapareng, and circled back down using the de R36, R527, R531 and the R40. The highlights were the waterfalls (Berlin & Lisbon) and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. If you really want to take your time visiting all the sights, including the Echo Caves, you need to spend more than one day.
We love animals, and could start a zoo! That’s why we also visited the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre. They care for animals that, among others, escaped from the Kruger Wildlife Park. We really recommend a visit to the center. You can combine the Panorama Route and a visit to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre on one day, but you need to keep an eye on the time. Their tour starts at 3pm and lasts for 2 hours. If you want to do the tour, we suggest keeping sunset in mind when booking a room for that night. Driving in South Africa after dark is not for the faint of heart. There are no streetlights, and there are a lot of people and animals on or along the road. We drove the last bit to Hazyview in the dark, and it was extremely stressful. After that, we didn’t drive after sunset again.
It is a 30-minute drive from Hazyview to Kruger. If you take more days for the Panorama Route, you can probably drive onwards to Kruger on your last day. As we only had one day for the Panorama Route, we chose to stay in Hazyview.
Protea Hotel Kruger Gate
It’s a wonderful hotel with very comfortable rooms. You can spend the hours in between the game drives on the viewing platform. The buffet in the Lapa restaurant was very extensive and also very tasty. We also enjoyed a wonderful massage. If the weather permits, you can enjoy the massage with a view on the drinking pond. Although you obviously do not see much when you are on the massage table, we still found it a special experience.
The advantage of starting your game drives from here is that you are really close to the entrance of the park and can stay in bed for half an hour longer in the morning. And believe us, that’s a real advantage if you have to get out of bed at 5 o’clock in the morning.
The most enjoyable route to Swaziland goes right through the Kruger National Park. You see the most beautiful part of the park, because it is the southern part where most of the animals are. The route through Kruger is very easy, and even your GPS works here. You might have already driven through this part with a game drive, but believe me, you can’t ever get enough.
Here’s a great tip for a fantastic day. Start your day with a self-drive safari through Kruger National Park, and then chill in the evening while watching the animals drink at a watering hole in Hlane.
You can also do your own self-drive safari in Hlane, but you don’t see that many animals because of the dense bushes. The map was fairly unclear, and after a while we had no idea where we were. But luckily the park isn’t large enough for you to have to worry about getting lost.
Hlane national park
In Swaziland we spent the night in the Hlane National Park in a Rondavel. Before dinner, you can enjoy the sunset over the water pond and you can witness how every animal awaits its turn to come and drink. A fantastic experience. There were also 3 rhinos.
You can also socialize with your other hotel guests at the braai. Because there is no electricity in the camp, the path to your rondavel and your rondavel itself is romantically lit with oil lamps. Do not forget your flashlight.
Hluhluwe is another game reserve. Just like Kruger, you can spot the Big 5 here. The park is especially famous for having a good chance of spotting rhinos here. So, if you didn’t see one in Hlane, then here’s your chance. And even if you checked off some animals in Kruger or Hlane, the park is still worth a visit because of the beautiful landscape. Completely different to Kruger. And, sorry to repeat myself, we never get tired of seeing those fantastic animals.
What to expect from a safari in Hluhluwe? The park is less crowded compared to Kruger, which perhaps makes it harder to spot animals. However, we had no problem finding zebras, giraffes, elephants and of course rhinos.
Zululand Tree Lodge
This small-scale lodge is located in a private game reserve. Sitting on your terrace you can see the impalas and zebras freely wandering around on the hotel’s property. Sometimes they are just a few meters away. A great experience when you want to experience the real safari feeling. The lodge is also very close to the entrance of the Hluhluwe Game Reserve.
We drove from Hluhluwe to Santa Lucia, a village where almost every house is a guesthouse. A tourist town, in case you were wondering. Santa Lucia is our base for a visit to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
A visit to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Another game park, but again with a totally different landscape. You can rest at the beautiful beach after your visit to the park.
Read also: The best beaches in Africa.
We also did a hippo cruise. We had seen a number of hippos, but the cruise was absolutely worth it to hear some more interesting facts about the animals. And do an evening drive through the streets of Santa Lucia, there is a good chance to meet hippos coming to graze in the streets. A fantastic and exciting experience which we’ll remember vividly.
At Heritage house
Very pleasant B & B at walking distance from the main street in Santa Lucia. In the morning you can enjoy an extensive breakfast with a view on the swimming pool.
Unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances caused us to miss this reserve, so I can’t tell you anything about it. We had put this on the list because of Lawrence Anthony’s book “The Elephant Whisperer”. The book outlines how he accepts a herd of elephants onto the reserve as they would be shot otherwise, and how he tries to communicate with these imposing animals. If you’re not interested in that, you could consider going straight to Umhlanga.
Today is the last day of part 1 of our three-week self-drive tour of South Africa. As Umhlanga borders Durban, we chose to stay here overnight as it was closer to the airport than Durban itself.
We flew from Durban to Port Elizabeth on an award ticket with Comair, an airline affiliated with British Airways. If you have avios miles, it might be interesting to use them on this route.
Ushaka Marine World is a rather small, but nice park you can visit. There is a dolphins and seals show, and the aquarium is quite a masterpiece. We heard that you could dive with sharks here for a small fee. In an aquarium, granted, but it seemed safer to us than at sea. In the end we didn’t like the look of it enough to go ahead. If you want the true experience of diving with white sharks, you have to go to Gansbaai. This is the best place for shark spotting in South Africa. We are not too courageous in that area, and skipped it. We would suggest you visit Ushaka if you are near, or if you have time to spare in Durban. We wouldn’t drive here again specifically. There’s also a waterpark attached to the main park. It was a bit cold in September for us to go in, but you can combine both parks perfectly in the summer, with a combi-ticket.
Protea Hotel Umhlanga
Protea Hotel Umhlanga is a nice hotel, 2 minutes from the beach. There are also many restaurants within walking distance. The hotel is also perfectly located when you have to go to the airport early in the morning.
From Port Elizabeth we drove our new rental car straight towards the Garden Route. A beautiful region of South Africa, where you can spend a number of days.
The Garden Route lies mostly in the Tsitsikamma National Park. You can explore the park on foot, or you can go a bit more original and use a Segway. There are a lot of other activities available, like ziplining, bungee jumping (from the Bloukrans Bridge – one of the highest in the world) or go around on quad bikes. But there are some really beautiful spots outside the Tsitsikamma National Park too. If you like a good hike, you should absolutely go hiking in the Robberg Nature Reserve near Plettenberg Bay. You can also do a dolphin tour or go kayaking from Plettenberg. And during whale season there is a good chance of spotting whales.
Another option would be to do a side trip to Oudtshoorn where you can go visit the Cango caves or visit one of the many ostrich farms.
There’re several smaller towns along the garden route. The most popular places to stay are Knysna and Plettenberg Bay as these are centrally located. We stayed 2 days in Knysna and added an additional day in the very charming and picturesque town of Wilderness.
Check out hotels in the Garden Route with Booking.com: BOOKING
Cloverleigh Guest House
Cloverleigh Guest House is run by Gert and Nadia, 2 Belgians. The B&B is located along the edge of the Wilderness lagoon. After our stay we perfectly understand what has brought them here. This small village has several nice restaurants and during a walk on the beach you can marvel at the beautiful villas that were built here at the edge of the beach with a majestic view over the ocean.
You can either stay in a Rondavel, an apartment or a studio. Each cottage has its own bathroom and kitchen (or kitchenette). If you have the taste of the South African braai culture then you are probably happy to hear that every house has its own braai. If you do not feel like eating yourself, the restaurants are just a short walk away along the beautiful boardwalk.
Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are the two most popular places to stay in the wine region. They lie about half an hour’s drive apart. Franschhoek is a charming village, not more than one main street. Stellenbosch feels more like a city. We took the route via Robertson from Wilderness to Franschhoek. This is slightly longer, but more beautiful. It takes you through several vineyards as you start getting closer to Franschhoek.
Wine tasting is no doubt one of the most important activities of the day. Most hotels can supply you with a little map with an overview of the wineries. If you really want to taste a lot of wine, you can do one of the organized tours, or hire a private driver. We liked the wines from the Stellenbosch vineyards, but of course this is different for everyone. And even though we really like wine, we did not manage to spend a full day on wine tastings alone, and so we did a Segway tour through the vineyards as well. You can do this at Spier. Also taste their wine, the white 21 Gables comes highly recommended.
Protea Hotel Franschhoek
The recently renovated Protea Hotel Franschhoek is a charming hotel with colorful rooms. The hotel is at the end of the main street of Franschhoek. All restaurants and galleries on the main street are easily accessible on foot. Absolutely recommended when you would like to discover the town on foot.
We end our three-week self-drive through South Africa in Cape Town, also known as “The Mother City”. There are plenty of things to do here to keep you occupied for a few days. We chose to do a detour, and drove from Stellenbosch all the way to the Cape of Good Hope, and then along the coast via Kommetje and Clifton to Cape Town. Of course, you can also just reserve a day to drive to the Cape.
Table Mountain is of course a must-see when you’re visiting. You can choose to take the cableway or hike to make the journey to the top and back down. The Kirstenbosch Gardens are also certainly worth a visit, although it poured from the heavens when we were there and we didn’t really get to enjoy it. You can also catch a concert here in the summer (January and February). We walked to the top of Lion’s Head. This was quite a trek, but the view is fantastic. I had hoped to go paragliding from Signal Hill, but the weather unfortunately put a stop to that.
These days we also like to do a cycling tour of a city. We think this is a great way to explore a city, and it is less exhausting than walking everywhere. We used AWOL tours in Cape Town, and were quite happy with them.
We also took the boat to Robben Island. The tour was a bit disappointing. Sylvia did this tour a few years ago, when the guide was someone who had been imprisoned on the island. And although they still claim this at the time of booking, at least when we did, this was not the case. Our guide still told the emotional story, but the group was too big, and it all had to go too quickly – there wasn’t enough time to take everything in.
Protea Hotel breakwater lodge
We stayed at Protea Hotel Waterfront Breakwater Lodge because of its location near the V & A waterfront. V & A Waterfront is obviously something that mainly attracts tourists, but it is a nice place to have a drink or enjoy breakfast or dinner along the water’s edge. There’re many restaurants in several different price ranges. Even for breakfast we managed to pick a different restaurant each of the 4 days we were here. It’s a short, easy and safe walk away from the hotel to the V&A waterfront and back.
The rooms in the hotel are clean and tidy. We were upgraded to a suite because of our Platinum status with Marriott Rewards, Marriott’s loyalty program. The suite was quite spacious. From others we hear that some of the regular rooms are a bit on the small side. The location is however super good and therefore we would absolutely recommend this hotel.
We thought this was a fairly complete 3-week itinerary for a self-drive around South Africa. It was the ideal route for us: discover South Africa for the first time over three weeks and getting a good overview of what the country has to offer. There are of course many things you can add. There are the ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn, swimming with sharks in Gansbaai, the Drakensberg, spotting whales in Hermanus, etc. If you are a bit adventurous, take a look at this 8 activities you must do in South Africa. But as always, you have to make a choice, and that’s what we did for this itinerary.
Tips for your South Africa road trip
We would like to give you the following tips:
Limit the amount of time in the car when you are planning. The roads in South Africa are generally good, but often there is only one lane, and travel takes longer than you’re expecting. And as we said before, we really discourage driving after dark.
If you want to cross the border and drive your rental car into Swaziland, you need a form for your car (cross-border letter). They didn’t ask us for it, but you never know. Ask for one when you get your rental car. Going into Swaziland was quite quick, but when we left Swaziland we stood in line for about an hour to get our passports stamped.
We booked all our hotels beforehand. This is recommended, especially during the high season because the good hotels often fill up quickly.
Here are some travel guides to get you started.
|Lonely planet South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland||The Rough Guide South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland|
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