The thing that I most like to do in South Africa is to take a road trip. “Road trips are the equivalent of human wings,” says the poet Victoria Erickson, and that is how it feels to me when embarking on any journey through the country. Roads lead on and on through an incredible variety of landscapes - light and rocks, trees, sand, sea, animals and plants combine into symphonies of beauty.
South Africa’s setting is unlike any other – a multitude of different types of climatic and geographical regions, some entirely unique. Semi-arid desert, mountains, subtropical jungle, fynbos, succulent veld, desert, grassland and savanna, all combine to create a unique and changing backdrop. Driving in any direction from any point takes you somewhere beautiful. And along the way, you will find incredible people. South Africa’s diversity mirrored in our people and cultures.
Where I live in Cape Town, just popping to the shop can be a beautiful drive. The city is built around a 3500 foot-high mountain and surrounded by a rugged coastline. Winds from different directions pour cloud over the mountain creating incredible effects. One experiences beautiful sunrises and sunsets over mountains and sea, and dreamy sea mists flow in unexpectedly.
Cape Town encompasses a number of wildlife reserves, including one for the quirky African Penguins, which breed along the Cape Peninsula coast. Cape Town is particularly famous for its Fynbos plants - a botanical wonder. These plants are totally unique, adapted over centuries by dry summers, rainy winters and strong winds. The most famous are the Proteas and pincushions, but it is also known for cone bushes, silver trees, Ericas, Watsonias, flowering bulbs, and the reed-like Restios. The Cape Floral region was declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its incredible diversity. Around 9000 species of plants grow on just 0.02 percent of the world’s surface, making it more diverse than all of the world’s rainforests.
A road trip in spring in a northern direction up the West Coast brings you to a second wonder of the plant world. In this area after the first rains of spring arrive, billions of daisies and wild flowers erupt from the desert into a riot of colour. First swathes of oranges, yellows, whites, and later purples, pinks, and blues. The transformation lasts for only a few short weeks. Since the daisies follow the sun, if you travel the wrong way up the road, or hit some cloudy weather, there won’t be a flower in sight. Luckily the West Coast has other charms – the dramatic Cederberg Mountains with hidden rock paintings by our ancient San people. Also gannet colonies, flamingos, white sand beaches, drama festivals, quirky towns, rooibos tea, and orange orchards. In Spring the West Coast is buzzing with life.
Or you could choose to head east from Cape Town instead. This takes you through the lovely Cape Winelands - beautiful mountain ranges with sharp jagged peaks and vineyards nestled in the valleys. The road then follows the Langeberg (Long Mountains), a long straight mountain range that goes 160 miles separating the coast from the interior. Locals tend to choose to drive on the left of the mountains up the quirky Route 62, with its semi-desert beauty of Karoo towns, ostriches, biker stops and creative shops. Tourists take the right side, along the coast, the greener scenic route.
The first stop would be the Whale Coast. During winter, the Southern Right whales congregate along the shores to breed. It is incredible to see them so close. In the town of Hermanus whales come right into the coves, relaxing just a few metres from shore, and on a good day when you look out from the cliffs you can see twenty or more - some breaching in the distance, some swimming past with spouts of water marking their progress, and plenty of mothers with babies. There are boats that will take you out to see them. The whales often swim under and around the boats to say hello, rolling on their sides so they can see you with their low set eyes. It is a joy to see the populations of these whales growing so much each year, a great credit to all those who have fought so hard for their conservation.
Travelling on further, the barren landscape becomes greener and greener, and you reach the beautiful ‘Garden Route’ of Wilderness and Knysna, with its indigenous forests, mountains and tea-coloured rivers. Here you will find wonderful forest walks, kayaking, and some of the best wild swimming beaches in the country. Dolphins are frequent visitors and surprise many a swimmer by arriving in schools of hundreds, surfing in the waves. The ‘Garden Route’ is also a great place for bird watching, with unusual forest birds like the inquisitive Knysna Lourie, colourful kingfishers, and beautiful fish eagles.
Intrepid travellers could travel north from the Garden Route up to the independent kingdom of Lesotho and the Drakensberg Mountains, where spectacular peaks reach two miles into the sky. Here you will find stunning mountain gorges where trickling streams carve pools and feed giant yellowwood trees and vines. The mountain sides are full of wildflowers in spring. The ancient San people used to inhabit the caves in this area, and there are incredible rock art sites that still hold whispers of the wisdom of these wonderful custodians.
Travelling on, you would reach the tropical beaches of KwaZulu Natal, with its jungles, banana plantations, and sugar cane fields. Travelling here in summer you had better have packed your shorts, it’s very hot and humid! And at last you’ve reached the Indian Ocean with its warm seas, great surfing culture, and incredible sea life. David Attenborough brought the annual Sardine Run to the world’s attention in ‘The Blue Planet’ series - hundreds of thousands of sardines are pressed against the coast which draw dolphins, seals, gannets, sharks, and whales in great numbers.
The city of Durban is one of my favourite places to visit. Old British colonial architecture mingles with tropical green, tall palms, giant towering trees, brightly coloured flowers - it feels like life is everywhere wherever you are. Unusual creatures, translucent geckos, noisy birds and troops of banded mongoose all coexist within the city. Monkeys are regular visitors to holiday cottages of unsuspecting tourists who don’t know to close their windows.
Durban is a cultural melting pot. Zulu people originate from this area, there is a large Indian population, and many different cultures from within South Africa and other parts of Africa all call Durban home. I always feel that there is a feeling of happiness and joy to this city. Walking around the inner streets one is dazzled by the smells, sights and sounds, some belonging to eras long gone, some absolutely modern, some of Africa, some of India, some of Europe. There is a great atmosphere on the city beaches, with many visitors seeing the beach for the first time. Behind the swimmers, huge ships travel past entering the busy harbour behind.
Travelling north the road turns inland. Now you are entering the areas of the wild animals. Lions, elephants, giraffe, hippo, rhino, zebra, buffalo, buck, and the hard to spot leopard and cheetah thrill and delight. But many other characters, such as cheeky warthogs, monkeys, clever hornbills, bush pigs, mongeese, baboons, jackals, colourful bee eaters, pangolins – each with unique personalities. The Kruger National Park is roughly the size of Wales in the United Kingdom, and is entirely devoted to animals.
There are over 700 species of animals and around 2000 species of plants in the Park, as well as many cultural heritage and rock art sites. You can stay inside the Park in small camps, driving out during the day. Bordering the Kruger National Park are huge private game reserves, some very luxurious, many open their borders to the Kruger Park. You could happily spend your whole life exploring this amazing place. There is something about the umbrella trees, long savannah grass, and the grace of the energy in this place that speaks to you on the level of your soul.
Travel the road back down south and you’ll pass through South Africa’s spectacular Blyde River Canyon. Through fruit farms, forestry and trout farms to the big cities - Pretoria and Johannesburg, which have expanded so much they are now almost one city. Known as the Cradle of Humankind, 40 percent of human fossil records originate from this archeologically abundant area. Johannesburg’s huge electrical thunderstorms bring spectacular summer rainfall.
Johannesburg was a gold rush town and still has a buzz and excitement about it. A pan-African hub, full of people and life. South Africa’s 11 official languages and the refugees and visitors have combined to form new languages, often only understood by savvy locals. The New South Africa changes have created new wealth for many, but huge divides still exist. Crime and suffering can be found a stone’s throw away from wealth and luxury. These juxtapositions create one of the most unique cities in the world and alongside the challenges, lay opportunities for reformers, entrepreneurs, poets, artists, writers and healers.
A 14-hour drive south west will take you back to Cape Town. First through the big farms of the Free State, and then through the vast semi-arid desert of the Karoo. Places where you can drive for hours just seeing wind pumps, sheep, and the road stretching ahead, ever diminishing into the horizon. The Karoo has wonders of its own. Special places can be found here, and amongst the wise locals much is known about land, animals, herbs, and healing.
Make one last stop in the small town of Sutherland, for Africa’s most perfect view of the stars. From this unique point our view of the Milky Way is complete, we can see right to the centre of the universe. This makes it a primary research centre for astronomy and astrophysics. Visitors can camp in the desert beneath the stars to witness the spectacular beauty of the desert night sky.
Finally drop back over the mountains through wine farms and fruit orchards, and you will spot in the distance the beautiful Table Mountain, with Cape Town nestled beneath it. Phew, what a journey!
The challenges facing our country are many. Poverty and crime are widespread, and education, health care, economics and safety for all are priorities. But change is slow. Healing is still taking place from the legacy of injustice caused by apartheid. The New South Africa has been remarkable, but has had new sets of challenges to contend with. Our precious natural wonders are continually challenged. There is conflict from the needs of people. Expansion of urban areas, farming and pollution and great scarcity of water. So much is being done to preserve, but there are also forces that harm - rhino poaching, illegal fishing, herbicides, pesticides, fences, lack of education and awareness.
When you travel like this and see the beauty of the country, you become very aware that it will take the love of each and every one of us to care for it. The complexity of the ecosystems, the precious animals and plants, the important historical and archeological records, the incredible geological diversity. South Africa is a such a great treasure, and sometimes it seems impossible to take care of, as if there is too much to do, and too many challenges facing us. But perhaps we need to see the journey to learn to care for and heal our land as a road trip of its own? Where it will take us we don’t yet know, but we know that it will be a beautiful journey, and through it we will become wise and grow. As our national hero Nelson Mandela said - ‘it always seems impossible until it’s done.’
Melanie Stevens is an Energy Field Healer and teaches meditation and subtle energy skills. She grew up in South Africa, but lived in the UK for 17 years. She returned to South Africa six years ago, and is loving being back in her home country. She lives in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa, with her husband and 2 dogs.
All pictures are thanks to Melanie Stevens, Peter Stevens, Natalie Hirschman & Steven Kretzman
To enjoy and capture more of the pictures of Melanie's South African Road Trip, please get your copy of Issue 2 HERE