Ah there's nothing better than the little rituals that lead up to that glorious road-trip you've been waiting to enjoy for months: the waking up early, packing of your "padkos" all bleary-eyed, making that much-needed cup of coffee and then finally heading off before dawn - because nothing says roooooooad-trip quite like an early start! This time though, you're keen to try something a little different by taking the somewhat lesser-known back roads between Jozi and your final destination, the Eastern Cape. With an array of quirky towns dotted along the route, we guarantee there'll be something new and exciting to discover, plus who doesn't just love that charming allure that only small towns seem to have? We've rounded up seven places along the way which we think are worth spending some time in, so be sure to mark these on the map before you hit the road:
Home to some of the most beautiful sandstone rock formations in the country, Fouriesburg is a small town near the Maluti Mountains, just 9km from Lesotho and situated on the edge of the Meiringskloof Nature Reserve. If you visit in autumn, you’ll drink in an array of rust and gold colours that create the most incredible photo opportunities. Fouriesburg is also known for producing some seriously fabulous asparagus.
Eat here: The Rose Hip @ The Rose House. It’s a bit of a secret as far as tourists are concerned, but local farmers refer to this place as a treasure. Expect homemade country delights such as venison pie spiced with chilli and apricots, and decadent chocolate molten pudding.
Smithfield is the third oldest town in the present day Free State, and its history is one of passion and grand romance. Named after Sir Harry Smith, the town even has a romantic story around the naming of its square. The story goes that Smith met his future wife, Juana, as a young man in the peninsula wars in Spain. After the British ransacked the town and the convent where Juana and her sister attended school, she presented herself at Smith's tent and demanded proper treatment for ladies such as themselves. He was swept off his feet, named the town square after his new wife and the rest is literally history. Today Smithfield attracts artistic and eccentric people, and if you linger a while among the locals, you’ll hear more tales of grand romance and ruin about the residents of old.
Don't miss: The popular local delicacy is sheep-milk cheese, made by farmer Elmarie van Aswegen on her farm, Patria.
Eat here: The Laughing Likkewaan Art Cafe. Connected to a book shop and art gallery, this is a local feast for all the senses. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by owner Greg’s music collection as you enjoy a pot luck dinner and sample homemade ice-cream flavours such as roasted guava and marmalade. The restaurant isn’t licensed, but you’re welcome to bring as much wine as you can drink.
Stay here: Nick's Place has a friendly vibe and everyone in town comes to 'kuier' over coffee on the stoep. Small town hospitality combined with the warm aroma of Fabrice's home bakery make this an enticing place to spend a night... or two.
3. Lady Grey
Lady Grey is a busy village, famous for its 140km Sky Run in November and its Passion Play over Easter (not to mention the really good Christmas Concert it hosts over the Festive Season). Tucked away in a valley below the majestic Witteberg mountain range, the scenery is spectacular and there are lots of hikes in the surrounding mountains, as well as interesting historical places, including the picturesque church. Joubert's Pass is a steep, high-altitude gravel road pass located between the towns of Lady Grey and Barkley East. In fact, it's the third highest mountain pass in the country.
Must do: Some of the best fly-fishing waters in the country are found in the area. Think crystal clear streams abound in yellow fish and wild trout... a fisherman's paradise!
Eat here: Local artists congregate at Lady Eliza's Restaurant set in a charming historical building against a backdrop of mountains.
Stay here: Comfrey Cottage is set beneath imposing mountains that tower above the lush gardens and babbling stream. George and Gerda’s welcome is warm and friendly, while the country cooking is simply delicious. There are even a few alpacas grazing in the garden - a real treat.
Cradock was the starting point of The Great Trek and today is a thriving rural town. A low year-round rainfall provides magnificent views of the starry skies and glorious desert sunrises and sunsets. The craggy heights of the Mountain Zebra National Park along with it's crystal clear air, beautiful scenery, tranquil ambiance and abundant wildlife are located near Cradock, making for the ideal malaria-free Eastern Cape safari experience. Created to save the rare Cape mountain zebra population, the park boasts a conservation success story, protecting over 700 zebra as well as other animals such as the endangered black rhino and cheetah.
Did you know? The farms in the area produce some of the best wool and mohair in the world, while the Karoo flora imparts a typical flavour to the mutton.
Eat here: Die Tuishuisie & Victoria Manor is a grand old colonial hotel that welcomes you with hearty country fare - meals here are certainly an indulgence of superb traditional Karoo and South African cuisine.
Stay here: Obviously Die Tuishuisie & Victoria Manor is also the perfect place to stay. It's made up of a whole street of historic little houses bought up by Sandra Antrobus. Each one is named after the person who lived there or after the history relevant to it. It is truly the most charming stay with its touches of precious olde worlde artefacts being a super special aspect of the décor.
This is a vibrant country district famous for its annual garden festival held during the last weekend in October, as well as its gorgeous historical colonial-style settler homes. Tucked up against the Kaggaberg mountain, with tree-lined streets, huge skies and wide open fields, Bedford offers a slow pace to visitors and is a great spot for a selection of outdoor activities, such as bird-watching, hiking, cycling and fishing. Bedford is a little treasure trove, especially if your passion is history, botany or geology.
Eat here: The Village Farmstall serves great coffee, a selection of teas and cold drinks (including home-made gingerbeer), traditional roosterbrood, kudu burgers and some of the best pies in the whole of the Eastern Cape.
Currently, Portfolio does not offer any properties in Bedford, but there's always nearby Somerset East, which is #6 on our list.
6. Somerset East
On the fringes of South Africa's Karoo lies the interesting, attractive and historic little town of Somerset East. This pretty town, with its many gardens and tree-lined streets, forms a green oasis under the iconic Boschberg Mountain. For those who are interested in history, the town owes much of its early years to the British military and settlers as well as the Afrikaners who were farming the area prior to the arrival of the British. Many of Somerset East's houses and buildings reflect this heritage, with many of the houses still standing dating as far back as the 1800s.
Stay here: The Angler and Antelope Guest House is housed in what was originally a church building and has now been lovingly restored by owner and keen fisherman, Alan. Apart from offering the most comfortable rooms with enormous bathrooms, the amazing bar offers over 50 malt whiskys to sample - is there ever a more fitting night cap?
7. Nieu Bethesda
is a tiny town set in a valley of the Sneeuberg Mountains in the heart of the
Great Karoo. The town was once the vibrant centre for local farming, but in the
1940s it was eclipsed by larger towns and went into decline. Local recluse
Helen Martins created the town’s most famous attraction, The Owl House. Helen
returned to her hometown in her late forties after her divorce and the death or
her parents and began to build the Owl House. It was her attempt to bring life,
light and colour into her lonely grey world, and soon it became a major
obsession. This fascinating
inception of concrete sculpture, magical figures and mythical beasts is set
around a house decorated with luminous paint and multi-coloured panes of glass.
Need to know: There are no petrol, bank or credit card facilities so remember to fill up your tank and your wallet before you arrive!
Eat here: The Karoo Lamb is diagonally opposite the Owl House and from the stoep of the restaurant you can watch the ‘traffic’ go by. Enjoy home-made bread, jams and farm butter as well as local lamb and venison.
Stay here: Ganora Guest Farm is a sheep farm located within walking distance of Nieu Bethesda. The surrounding rock formations and rich fossil beds on the farm bear testimony to the events that contributed to the formation of this vast and beautiful land with the original farmstead and outbuildings dating back to the mid 1700s. It's a real Karoo gem!
You may also be interested in reading our blog Take the back roads between Johannesburg and Cape Town if you're interested in a slightly more off-the-beaten-track route for this stretch.