As a South African couple living on the road and traveling our home country full time we have been exposed to the raw beauty and hidden gems this country has to offer. Growing up on the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape we have spent our fair share of time enjoying the sunny days on sandy beaches swimming and surfing in the warm ocean. In July 2021 we decided we wanted to experience more of the Eastern Cape, including the mountain regions. We planned a 1 month road trip taking us around the entire border of the Eastern Cape searching for remote, off the beaten track and quirky airbnbs.
Driving down the coast from East London towards Gqeberha we made sure to make a pitstop at Nanaga farm stall for their delicious pies and other fresh goodies.
The Eastern Cape has 3 National Parks and we figured we should visit them all, with our first stop at Addo Elephant National Park. This National Park is known for the immense number of elephants which did not disappoint us. This reserve is the only one in the whole world to provide shelter to the African big 7. We were lucky enough to spot elephants, buffalo, lions, zebras, springboks and so much more.
Approaching Gqeberha we found ourselves heading inland for the mountains, where the roads quickly turned from tar to gravel as we traversed farmlands and finally arrived at Kleinrivier Dassie Cabin. As the name suggests these eco cabins are tucked in the river valley between breathtaking mountains.The cabin is off grid with a 12V camping fridge, solar lights and gas appliances. The cabins are very private and boast incredible mountain views.
The next stop on our trip was along the first stretch of Route 62, just outside the little town of Joubertina, where the journey along the gravel farm roads began making its way to Kritplaas. Perched on the top of the mountain this remote cabin has mesmerizing views overlooking the Baviaanskloof mountain range. The cabin is off grid with gas appliances and many candles to light it up at night. With a wood fired hot tub perched amongst nature, this is the ultimate romantic getaway.
Our backroad route was complemented by the scenic landscapes as they changed to dry semi Karoo desert by the time we arrived at the Fisherman's Cabin located on a working farm with a large dam out front. This self-catering private airbnb sleeps 4 guests and it is pet friendly providing ample space to run and explore freely. This quirky little farm house has a colorful interior incorporating art pieces and funky ornaments. This property is on the Northern border of Addo Elephant National Park, which means you might well spot some wildlife.
Visiting Camdeboo National Park is a must. The gates open and close depending on the season and allowing you to enjoy sunrise or sunset in the park no matter the time of year. A scenic drive takes you up the mountain to a viewpoint overlooking Graaff-Reinet Town. Slightly further up there is a parking lot with a short walking path to another viewpoint overlooking what’s known as the Valley Desolation. Here large rocky columns rise from the ground with peculiarly balanced boulders and a panoramic view of the surrounding Karoo landscapes. Since we were there in winter we even got spoiled with some snow right at the top. Make sure to pack a picnic to enjoy in the reserve.
50km from Camdeboo National Park we ventured towards Nieu-Bethesda, set in the karoo heartland. All roads into this little village are gravel but it is manageable in 2x4. We drove in via the Owl Route which entered the village from the back providing views as you drive down the mountain into the valley. This village is filled with tasty restaurants, quirky buildings and friendly people. If you are a pizza lover, visit Bruno's Pizzeria for tasty wood fired pizza. The Ibis Lounge offers a 5 course natural healing dinner made from locally foraged produce. Visit the Owl House to learn the history of this village and immerse yourself into the art work produced by Helen Martins. The Nieu-Bethesda Brewery has lovely outdoor seating with mountain views where you can, taste their locally brewed beer along with their local cheese platter. Visiting the fossil museum will give you an deep historical understanding of these landscapes and what was here before humans, a guide will take you through the riverbed to witness ancient fossils up close. Simply walking around this village will take you back in time as the donkey carts trot by along gravel roads alongside old stone houses. With a range of accommodation options we went for a Barn Experience Airbnb, self catering with an indoor fireplace, heaters and a loft bedroom. Staying here we felt just like a resident of the town.
Departing Nieu-Bethesda, we headed to the 3rd National Park in the Eastern Cape - Mountain Zebra National Park. Here you can either self-drive or take guided game drives around the reserve along with 4x4 routes which we enjoyed in our Suzuki Jimny. To ensure we had enough time in the reserve we stayed in an airbnb just outside. The Karoo Hideaway Cabin was built incorporating two large boulders, one at the front deck and the other outside the bedroom on which there is an outdoor bath and shower.
All roads to Rhodes are gravel and this was our last mountain village to visit. The drive in set the standard for the beautiful scenes this town has to offer. Being winter we even found all the waterfalls frozen. There are scenic mountain hikes and fly fishing in the valleys. On our way out we decided to tackle Naude's Nek Pass. This is South Africa's fourth highest pass reaching 2.587 meters above sea level and is a 100km 4x4 route that scales the mountains, only passing a few farmers herding livestock. We faced some of the strongest wind of our entire journey at the summit.
After a good time in the mountains we were finally back at the coast for our last luxury stop in the former Transkei. Arriving at Umngazi Hotel and Spa we felt transported to a tropical resort. Perched on the dune overlooking the Umngazi River and large sandy beach out front with the luxuries of a pool bar, delicious 3 course meals/ buffet and scenic untouched Wild Coast views. There are hiking trails through the hills, along the beaches, kayaks or SUPs available as well as afternoon cruises up the river. This is one of South Africa's best hidden gems and it's in the best possible location.
Our month-long road trip around the Eastern Cape showcased the rich diversity this country has to offer. Whether you are looking for mountains, flat desert Karoo, or lush coastal regions, the Eastern Cape has it all!