In the summer school holidays we had decided to do something different and instead of heading to the beach we had opted to head to the bush… and it turned out to be quite a fortunate choice once all beaches were barred!
On our previous visits to this incredible part of South Africa we had opted to fly to Joburg and catch a shuttle between OR Tambo and Hoedspruit (or the Bush Pub) with Ashtons. This time, with the COVID cloud looming large over life, things felt quite different. Flying didn’t feel quite as safe as before and so, to limit our risk of catching COVID, we opted to self-drive…. from CAPE TOWN! Visiting the bush from Cape Town has always felt very unachieveable and WAY too far…. but we discovered that, in fact, it’s doable. Yes, it’s far. But if you take the journey as part of your trip and plan to stop frequently and spend a night or 2 en route it’s actually very pleasant. And cheaper than 4 x return plane tickets and a car rental for a week.
We decided to self-drive from Cape Town to Kruger over 2 days. The total trip (one way) was over 1 900km and over 21 hours with no stops… but we didn’t do no stops. That would be next level crazy!
Our self-drive to Kruger found us leaving just before 6am (although we would have left earlier were it not for curfew) and heading up the N1 freeway. We hadn’t booked our overnight accommodation yet as we wanted to see how far we might get before the evening curfew of 9pm. Our kids are good road-trippers and are used to use bundling them in to the car in the dark and “hitting the road again”. We had pre-planned plenty of in-car entertainment for them including screens, books, sudoku, games. We also had LOTS of snacks and drinks on board which we ordered online to arrive the day before thus eliminating the need to visit the shops before our visit or to stop en-route at too many places. In fact to ensure we were clear of COVID we actually self-isolated as a family for a week before our trip. It wasn’t great, but it was nice knowing we weren’t taking anything up to the Kruger with us unwittingly infecting those working to help us have a happy holiday.
The roads were actually quite quiet due to the current climate and we found the drive went fairly smoothly. We stopped to stretch our legs and get some fresh air at deserted stopping bays along the edge of the road and occasionally quickly ducked into a public toilet at a petrol station to empty our “tanks” while filling up our other tank! We took our own sanitiser with us and felt no qualms walking into the toilets carrying it in order to spray every surface.
If I’m honest I had felt some anxiety about travelling during the time of Corona but ultimately we just carried on with our usual safety protocols and it started to feel ok once we were on the road. I also had some fears about the actual safety of the roads (having lost a lovely friend to a car accident 5 years ago this niggle sits in the back of my head before every long drive!) It too subsided once we were on our way and just taking the immediate stretch of road ahead of us instead of looking at the loooong distance to come.
My husband usually drives the longer distances with ease but this was an incredibly long stretch so we switched a few times (although it’s meant to be a time for him to relax, I think he finds it more stressful when I’m in the driver’s seat!) I make a pretty good navigator though and I’m great at keeping us on target.
We hit Bloemfontein around 5pm and although we could have stopped (and had initially booked an AirBNB here) I suggested we keep going and find something closer to Kroonstad. We used Rooms for Africa and found The Barn Guesthouse which had a family room with a separate entrance and secure parking right off the N1 a few km’s before Kroonstad and emailed through our booking which was confirmed quickly. The room was basic, but clean and a flat bed to lie out on after 15 hours in the car was welcomed by us all. We ate our Woolies meals bought in Bloem as we drove through and then showered and crashed into bed.
We were aiming to leave as early as we could the following morning so it was really great to be able to let ourselves our when we were ready to hit the highway again without disturbing the owners.
The next stretch was when things started to get exciting. We knew we would be in the bush by the afternoon and I could start to feel that anticipation for the first time.
The entire drive, despite most of it being on the very straight N1, was actually incredibly beautiful. It’s a unique privilege to drive the stretch of road that runs from Cape Town to Joburg. The scenery changes dramatically from the towering mountains of the Du Toits Kloof to the flat arid semi-desert Karoo to the lush farmlands of the Free State. As we headed further north we started to enter the summer rainfall region and there was a constant threat of thunder showers on the horizon with billowing clouds creating beautiful dramatic skies.
We managed to approach Joburg before the morning rush hour and skirted around the city on the ring highway before heading towards the N4. The roads in this region became worse despite the fact that there were more toll roads, but fortunately we knew it wouldn’t be long before we would be turning off towards Dullstroom and enjoying a slightly slower pace with fewer coal trucks!
Previously the shuttle took us via Dullstroom and Lydenburg on to Hoedspruit via Ohrigstad but I had decided that if we were in our own car we could at least take advantage and take a slight detour to make the drive more scenic. For years my dad had spoken about his favourite drive in the world being the Long Tom Pass. With his passing in 2020 I felt it would be fitting to drive the route as a tribute to him and it happened to be on our route. At Lydenburg we swung a right and headed over this majestic drive to soak in the views and celebrate my dad’s life. It really was such a special memory driving along with the windows down and the storm clouds building while listening loudly to one of my favourite worship songs. One of those moments you can’t plan, but ultimately sticks in your memory forever!
My plan had also been to visit God’s Window – the best viewpoint of the Blyde River Canyon – and somewhere none of us had been before. It was located just 10mins off our route and it felt totally doable – until nature had other ideas! As we entered Graskop the heavens opened and the thunder, lightening and rain descended from on high. There was going to be no way we would be seeing any view and so we pressed on. This part of the drive was beautiful, but treacherous as the rain was the heaviest I’ve ever seen. Roads turned to rivers almost instantly and at some points we had to slow right down to 10 or 20km/hour as our windscreen wipers wouldn’t go fast enough!!! It was entirely mental, and entirely memorable!
The last stretch saw us coming through Bushbuckridge and Acornhoek, both areas were the roads were a bit more hair-raising than before due to potholes, people, animals and the other drivers. I think this might be why people avoid this route to the Kruger from Joburg, but for us it was still worth it for the experience of driving Long Tom Pass.
We finally arrived at our destination. The rains had cleared for the last hour of our drive but we had been delayed by about an hour and so we arrived at 3pm instead of our planned 2pm, but we were in the bush – and all the stresses of the journey were long forgotten as we drove through the gates at Thornybush, slowed right down and took on the pace of bush life.
After 4 blissful bush nights and 2 soaking in the country air of Dullstroom, it was time to head home. We had already gained some time on our trip by heading 3 hours towards Cape Town and staying at Walkersons in Dullstroom so we decided to see how we would go on the road before booking any overnight accommodation. Again we were restricted to the current COVID curfew laws but fortunately the night before our departure these were lifted by one hour and so we were able to leave in the dark. We had arranged with Walkersons staff to settle our bill the night before and the showed us how to exit the hotel and confirmed there was 24 hour security at the gate and so we found ourselves on the road just before 5am.
Despite the roads being quiet, they were also pothole-ridden and misty so we weren’t able to go at the speed limit which delayed our journey upfront and meant we spent the rest of the day playing catch up. On the way back we limited our stops to essentials (aka “desperate”) only. We made good time to Joburg and we were back on the N1 heading for Cape Town just after 7am.
The road stretched endlessly before us, but again, the scenery was ever changing. Swooping swathes of swallows and blue skies gave way to enormous thunder clouds that engulfed the sun and put on a natural firework display.
I tried to swop out the driving again for a session, but the N1 trucks meant I found it rather stressful trying to over-take. We opted to drive mid-week which I think was a good call from the point of view that there were few passenger vehicles and taxi’s on the roads, but we did have to content with more trucks. For the most part this was ok, but towards the home stretch from Laingsburg to Touws River, things got VERY stressful. In part due to the drivers trying to beat the 9pm curfew but also because South Africans are risky on the roads. Whew. Just writing about the endless over-taking on blind rises, trucks over-taking other trucks, cars over-taking three trucks at a time is making me break out into a sweat! It wasn’t fun and this experience was by far the worst of the whole journey. So much so that I would definitely rather recommend stopping overnight on your way home. Pick a pretty Karoo town, like Richmond, and rather rest and relax before hitting the road early the next morning. We did the trip from Dullstroom to Cape Town in one day and it was probably too far – but we were only too relieved to be home and back in our own beds. All in all, a most memorable road trip that was worth it for just a few days of bliss in the bush!
The trip from Cape Town to Kruger in numbers
Approx 25 HOURS
7 STOPS (toilet trips, fuel stops and coffee runs!)
3 TANKS OF FUEL
The trip from Kruger to Cape Town in numbers
Approx 25 HOURS
6 STOPS (toilet trips, fuel stops and coffee runs!)
2 TANKS OF FUEL