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Gravel travel! Top 5 off-road routes in Southern Africa

2016-04-26 08:13

HIDDEN GEMS: Third on the list is Wupperthal. A quiet village in the heart of the Ceder Mountains. Image: Charlen Raymond

Cyril Klopper

Cape Town - Love them of hate them, there’s no denying that gravel roads pass through more scenic landscapes than highways do. Here are our favourites.

A well engineered paved road gets you to your destination quickly and safely – well, in theory anyway.

READ: Top 5 amazing mountain passes for sports cars in SA

The arteries of commerce that criss-cross our land are forced by necessity to avoid interesting landscapes. Interesting diversions and tall mountain passes aren’t on your to-do list when you are trying to get from Joburg to Cape Town in as little time as possible.

READ: Top 5 awesome gravel mountain passes

Winding through Kloofs

Gravel roads on the other hand have the luxury of winding through kloofs and swerving around trees and large boulders.
They make for far more interesting drives and although they do slow one’s progress, they are less risky and less stressful to use than hectic highways.

Here are five extraordinary gravel road alternatives to tarred main routes:

1. The R355, Western Cape
An alternative to: The N7 highway between Malmesbury and Vanrhysdorp.

The R355 between Ceres and Calvinia holds the record for being the longest, uninterrupted dirt road in South Africa.
Some may think it's boring and, admittedly, the landscape doesn’t change that much over the course of the journey, but if you allow the gigantic sky and ancient ocher plains to impress you, it’ll be a mesmerising drive.

Attractions along the way: Stop at the Tankwa Padstal near the start of the route and enjoy a cold drink before you continue.

GPS start: S29.90981 E30.07748
GPS end: S31.49132 E19.74413
Distance: 208km
Time required: 5 hours
Pro tip: Ensure that your vehicle’s tyres are in good condition and that you take along at least one spare and/or a puncture repair kit. We’re not kidding, it’s important!

2. Lotheni Road, KwaZulu-Natal
An alternative to: The R617 between Underberg and Howick.

This twisty gravel road runs through the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and connects the towns of Himeville and Nottingham Road.

To the left is the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and to the right are thousands upon thousands of rolling hills all the way down to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

Attractions along the way: If you feel cooped up in your car, you should stop to explore the 10km McKenzie’s Caves hike in the Mkhomazi State Forest.

GPS start: S29.74246 E29.51494
GPS end: S29.35184 E29.99096 
Distance: 92km
Time required: 2 hours
Pro tip: It’s an incredibly scenic road and a cell phone camera can never do it justice. Take an SLR camera along if you have one.

3. The Wupperthal Road, Western Cape
An alternative to: The N7 highway between Piketberg and Clanwilliam.

If you’d like to travel back in time and see landscapes and communities seemingly locked in the 19th century, then you should visit the secluded village of Wupperthal, a small town in the heart of the Cederberg mountains. A 4x4 isn’t necessary, but a rugged vehicle with good ground clearance is strongly recommended.

The road winds through narrow valleys and over rocky passes. It's slow-going, but discovering these small communities seemingly spared the vices of the modern world is rewarding.

Attractions along the way: Stop at Cederberg Oasis for lunch and a cold drink before hitting the road.
GPS start: S32.93560 E19.45147
GPS end: S32.06587 E19.12769
Distance: 120km
Time required: 4 hours
Pro tip: Be careful when rounding bends. The road is narrow and hitting an approaching vehicle head on is a very real possibility if you aren’t careful.

4. The D707, Southern Namibia
An alternative to: The B1 highway between Keetmanshoop and Gibeon.

A photo posted by Anet Steyn (@namchild) on

Namibia has many superb dirt roads but the D707 rates among the best.

Imagine towering, bright orange sand dunes on your right and the vast prairie of the Namib-Naukluft National Park on your left.
Add a herd of proud gemsbok racing over the dunes and a scaly pangolin darting across the road before disappearing into the grasslands and you get the idea.

Attractions along the way: It may sound perplexing to some but there is absolutely nothing to do on this road except to appreciate the scenery!

GPS start: S26.25114 E16.58594
GPS end: S25.53703 E16.32139
Distance: 123 km
Time required: 2 hours
Pro tip: It’s a sandy road so your tyres should be fine. Take lots of water – twice as much as you think you’ll need – because if you suffer a breakdown it may be several hours (perhaps even a day or two) before someone finds you.

5. West Coast Trail, Northern Cape

An alternative to: The N7 highway between Vanrhysdorp and Kamieskroon.

This route is strictly for four-wheeled drive vehicles with high ground clearance. Try it in a sedan and you will get stuck, even if it has all-wheel drive.

Prepare to see endless fields of wildflowers, season permitting. At the very least you’ll get to drive along the least populated coast in South Africa – and it’s a stunning one!

No houses, no caravans, no tourists. Just you and the rumble of your 4x4 as you plod along a sandy track.

Attractions along the way: There are many hidden coves where you can skinny dip if you are so inclined. Warning: shrinkage!

GPS start: S31.52102 E18.28880
GPS end: S30.35306 E17.42620
Distance: 180km
Time required: 6 hours
Pro tip: Part of the trail runs through the Namaqua Coast National Park and will require that you stop at the park office and purchase a permit.

Do you have a great route that is not included on this list? Let us know!


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