When researching the route I wanted to take whilst driving the Garden Route in South Africa, my itinerary started to be joined by smaller, quirkier towns alongside the obvious bigger tourist destinations. The great thing about a road trip is you can plan to go from A to B via XYZ and find all sorts of gems along the way.
Starting in Cape Town, over a week I drove my friend and I over 1000km to East London, and along the way we found some absolutely beautiful and adorable towns that totally shook my assumptions of what South Africa would be.
Here’s four of my favourites:
This tiny, sleepy village could easily have been plucked from rural Buckinghamshire with it’s thatched cottages and white picket fences. It’s nestled in the Langeberg Mountains, which we had to drive through to get there – no easy task in a battered old hire car that struggled in second gear! We experienced a taste of the simple life in our beautiful hostel, Swellendam Backpackers, which had a gorgeous firepit outside for evening chats, and a couple of very friendly greyhounds (plus some insane chickens!).
We spent a very chilled out, blustery summer day in the town, peeking at beautiful homes and buying knick-knacks in the vintage and second-hand stores. There is history to Swellendam too, with the tourist centre previously being a school for freed slaves. We even had brunch in The Old Gaol which was overlooked by the whitewashed and imposing Dutch Reformed Church.
Port Elizabeth is the fifth largest city in South Africa and most people stop over for a few days to take it all in. We were on a strict time limit so we had to make the most of it all in one day, so we focused on the port itself on our first evening, with a stroll down the pier and a hankering for seafood.
Our day in Port Elizabeth we were going to wander a little further than we ended up doing, but being female travellers we didn’t feel entirely safe with a camera and GoPro on show, and sadly in South Africa you do have to have your wits about you. So we stayed around Donkin Reserve which overlooks the whole city and harbour and is full of beautiful mosaics, a lighthouse and a tribute to Sir Donkin’s wife, Elizabeth, whom the city is named after.
We arrived in Grahamstown dying to find a toilet and something to eat – the cereal bars and crisps we had for snacks no longer cutting it. So here’s something to prepare you for Grahamstown: it is not built for tourists. Despite it being in my trusty guide book, the locals looked totally baffled when we asked if there was a cafe anywhere that we could pick up some food. It was Wimpy or Mugg & Bean – a South African coffee shop that had given me diarrhoea a week before, sooooooooo we didn’t plan on staying long!
But there is a healthy smattering of colourful buildings and over 50 churches dotted around the town so I was quite happy snapping away for a while until my hunger kicked in again. But we did see two cafes that were due to open shortly after we left, so if you’re driving the route, definitely swing past.
This tiny little place crept up on us completely by accident and is proof why you shouldn’t always stick to maps. After spending less time in Grahamstown than we expected, we decided to go off course and visit Port Alfred but on the way we found Bathurst. Adorned with two proper pubs, complete with patrons drinking pints in the sunshine, which were flanked by an array of gorgeous independent stores.
I found a gorgeous brown leather camera case in a vintage store that felt like it was built from the second hand curios it held inside and honestly, I spent far too long in there rifling through old kitchenware and ancient books.
But the best thing about Bathurst? When driving out and on to Port Alfred we found THE WORLD’S BIGGEST PINEAPPLE. Home to a pineapple farm, you can go inside, up to an observation deck and buy a whole heap of spiky fruit paraphernalia.
It is the weirdest and most crazily hilarious thing I have ever stumbled up on a road trip, and went just that little bit further in making my South African road trip so special.
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