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Spitzkoppe, Namibia

The best self-drives in Southern Africa for first-timers

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14 August 2019 by Patrick Griffin

Having worked in the industry for over two decades, Wexas specialist Alison Nicolle has travelled extensively across Africa. At her last count, she’s totted up more than 100 safaris. Below, she picks out a pair of self-drive trips – one to South Africa, the other to Namibia. Both are ideal for first-time visitors, but, from Namibia’s desert wilds and colonial jewels to the vineyards and city great of South Africa, they each offer something delightfully different.

The Highlights of South Africa

For me, South Africa has it all – superb cities, fantastic food and wine, exotic wildlife and gorgeous natural scenery. I’ve been to the country nearly a dozen times and I’m still discovering new things to love. It’s all linked by some of the world’s most scenic drives and, with the weak rand, it’s eminently affordable.

My recommendation would be to focus on the country’s south coast, with the famous Garden Route road trip joining the delights of Cape Town and its surrounding winelands with a Big-Five safari on the Eastern Cape. In a nutshell, it’s South Africa at its best.

Of course, it all begins in the Mother City. Again, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Cape Town on multiple occasions and I always manage to find something fresh, whether that’s kayaking with seals or cycling along the waterfront promenade. That’s alongside all the usual favourites, from Table Mountain and the penguins of Cape Point to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

From Cape Town, be sure to make the Cape Winelands your first stop. Here, you’ll have a choice of historic towns, all surrounded by spectacular mountain views and endless vineyards to taste your way through. Although there’s a full range of world-class offerings, a particular favourite of mine is the pinotage – a hearty red unique to South Africa.

Vineyard in Stellenbosch with an estate and mountain range in the background
Vineyard in Stellenbosch

You’ll then be perfectly poised to set off along the Garden Route, mapping 200km of some of South Africa’s most impressive scenery. Expect everything from cragged coastlines and white-sand beaches to verdant national parks and pretty seaside towns, home to superlative seafood restaurants. Be sure to also hop over the Tsitsikamma Mountains to explore the semi-arid Karoo Desert’s ostrich farms and thousand-year-old San rock art.

Your reward at the end? The great private reserves of the Eastern Cape. Here, game drives offer the chance to spot the fabled Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. And, between safaris, you’ll return to your chosen lodge for private plunge pool indulgence and all-inclusive gourmet dining. Inspired? I’ve put together the itinerary below. Get in touch to find out more.

Highlights of South Africa self-drive itinerary

The Best of Namibia

In wildlife and spectacular scenery, Namibia shares many of the same loves as South Africa, its southern neighbour. However, instead of verdant coastlines, you’ll be treated to a certain barren beauty, with great sand dunes and horizonless deserts punctuated only by lonely gnarled trees. It’s ideal for those who want a true sense of wilderness; on gorgeous drives, you’ll barely see another soul on the road.

Indeed, I always recommend hiring a 4WD. Although the roads you’ll be driving on are of a good quality and are mostly sealed, it helps provide better viewing angles of the wildlife and smooth out any bumps. And, having been lucky enough to enjoy safaris across Southern Africa, Namibia’s Etosha National Park ranks right up there. Although it’s missing the cape buffalo from the Big Five, I have treasured memories of its giant elephants and near-endless herds of zebra. It’s even one of the world’s best places to spot the black rhinoceros. Here are the must-sees:

Be sure to also include a stop at the AfriCat Foundation in Okonjima Nature Reserve. Here, you’ll have a near-guaranteed chance of spotting Namibia’s big cats, including leopard and cheetah.

However, Namibia is so much more than its wildlife. There’s plenty of German-colonial intrigue to discover, with ghost towns perfectly preserved in the desert, Art Nouveau Swakopmund a beach-side delight, and the capital Windhoek impressing with a century-old fortress.

Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia

You’ll also know rural Namibia for Sossusvlei’s giant sand dunes. Among the highest in the world, they tower over the Namib – the world’s oldest desert – in ochre majesty, set against bright-white mineral pans punctuated with twisted dead trees. Then, to the west, the seal colonies and historic shipwrecks of the Skeleton Coast pave the way for trips into Damaraland, whose ancient rock engravings are a nod to Namibia’s tribal past.

In contrast to all this desolation, you’ll stay in rustic-chic lodges throughout, enjoying indulgent included meals and boutique exclusivity in private reserves. If this all sounds enticing, I’ve pulled out the itinerary below. Get in contact for more information.

Best of Namibia self-drive itinerary

Related offers

Aerial view of Knysna, Garden Route, South Africa

Highlights of South Africa

16-day tailor-made self-drive from £3,005 pp incl. flights

This is the perfect introduction to South Africa. A spectacular drive along the Garden Route will see you link Cape Town’s beachside charms with the country’s finest vineyards before ending with an all-inclusive Big-Five safari.

Sossusvlei, Namibia

Best of Namibia Self-Drive

16-day tailor-made self-drive from £4,165 pp incl. flights

Explore Namibia's many and varied highlights, from the plains of the Namib Desert and the apricot dunes of Sossusvlei to wild Damaraland and the world-renowned Etosha National Park.

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