For many of us, when targeting great driving road hot spots to explore across the globe, South Africa doesn’t come immediately to mind. Nor is it much of a holiday list topper, at least for those who aren’t in ‘the know’ and haven’t sampled the colour and diversity the rainbow nation has to offer.
So I was intrigued when Porsche chose to launch both its new-gen 911 GTS and reinvented Panamera hybrid recently at Western Cape, one of nine provinces located at the southern tip of the African continent and a place that couldn’t be further than, well, everywhere else in the world. Given the German marque shipped an army of cars from Stuttgart and long-hauled journalists from anywhere else on earth, south-South Africa must surely have a lot going for it.
It does. From so-called ‘slack-packing’ and any type of outdoor adventure play you can name to its famed safari reserves – lions, leopards, elephants – and from the richness in culture to the darkness of its history, there is much South Africa offers the holiday-maker that Europe, the Americas and even our own scorched Aussie backyard can’t.
I’d also discover in my all-too-brief trip to one of its most hospitable areas, Cape Town and its surrounds, that the landscape – be it geological, be it socio-economic – is as interesting as it is, at times, quite confronting.
There are a great many reasons outside of motoring to see South Africa. For one thing, it’s really affordable, even for the Aussie peso. For another, the south-western region of the South African coastline, according the ‘inter web’, is the second mildest climate on Earth (behind Hawaii), where temperatures rarely drop below 10deg C or rise above 28deg C all year round. Two good reasons, then, for Porsche to chose this bloody attractive area to demonstrate some bloody fast cars in January, when many Europeans up in the northern hemisphere are shovelling snow.
Porsche did its homework, cherry picking the finest road routes and most picturesque locales it could unearth in Western Cape, bringing along an army of photographers to capture the event. Apologies for the content of this stories imagery if you’re not a fan of Stuttgart’s metallic curves; it’s just that the hired sharpshooters take better eye candy than I can on a humble smartphone…
With the Western Cape province’s capital of Cape Town as home base, CarAdvice got to sample six different road courses ranging from cliffhanging ocean view routes along the Cape Peninsula in the south through to slithering blacktop rising up into rugged Boland Mountains, around 100 kilometres away in the north-east.
A cursory online search reveals that, by nature of the dramatic landscape, this corner of the planet offers a multitude of touring and punting road options, though our brief visit anchored off just two renowned routes, two of the region’s best: Chapmans Peak Drive and the Franschhoek Pass. They’re two distinctly different routes with which to anchor this Great Roads narrative if, as we’d discover, equally top-shelf in corner-carving quality.
Before picking either apart, confession time: as a first time visitor, I’d imagined South Africa’s south-western tip would be as foreign as is exotic. But as rich and interesting as this Aussie would discover, it’s also vaguely familiar, though curiously so. By accident or intent, Western Cape seems to rob and bundle in slices of the rest of the world across its diverse vista that constantly changes throughout the journey.
The diversity comes thick and fast exiting Cape Town, rounding the backside of the iconic Table Mountain that towers over the city, our initial jaunt effectively kicking off staring out into the Atlantic Ocean.
From the seaside adobe of Clifton, one of South Africa’s most famous and expensive pieces of beachside real estate, the route heads south, initially along Victoria Road (M6), and snakes more or less along the coastline for about 40 kilometres towards the tip of Cape of Good Hope.
The entire route is renowned for being one of the finest and most picturesque in all of South Africa, but it’s just south of Hout Bay where the road officially becomes the famed Chapmans Peak Drive, where its curves are thrilling, its narrow walls are most daunting and its scenery is at its most breathtaking.
Initially, Chapmans Peak Drive brings on gentle sweepers that flow along dishevelled, shrubby hills, a smooth if sand-blasted strip of hot mix with ample turnouts for gazing out into the blue water abyss or for happy snapping the looming Chapmans Peak, the dramatic end point to the peninsula out across the bay.
You do have to cool your heels, though, as, much like Australia’s own Great Ocean Road, traffic is moderate and often slow-moving along this main coastal thoroughfare. Between the trucks, delivery vans and lolly-gagging tourists in gutless hire cars it demands patience behind the wheel of one of Stuttgart’s newest and finest.
Its most breathtaking section lies just beyond a set of toll gates, where the land almost falls vertically into the blue waters below, offering little margin for error between the cliff on left and the stone wall separating a shiny Porsche from a sheer drop into the drink.
Around here, some sections of Chapmans Peak Drive look to have been lifted from the Croatian coastline, while in other spots the craggy landscape sprouting from the ocean could well be areas of Italy’s wonderful if slightly treacherous Amalfi Coast.
Its narrow nature and succession of blind corners demands pinpoint car placement if you want to get a decent hustle on and not lose a wing mirror or cheese-grate a 911’s blazing orange paintwork up against sandstone.
While it’s easy enough to shave vertical rock from the wrong side of the car, it’s the meandering cyclists, hikers on the non-existent verges and incomers a little hazy on the topic of lane discipline on the ‘blinder side’ of the car that present the high risk of incident. That’s not even considering rock fall that, I’m told, is all too frequent along a road allowing no avoidance tactic other than suddenly attempting to force the Porsche’s brake pedal through the floor.
It’s not a complete pulse-racer, as it seems that as soon as you find a nice, high-concentration driving rhythm, the road reverts to a more calming grand touring course. After the brief inland detour via Noordhoek, the route turns right (Main street, M56) and continues to cling to the coastline past the aptly named Misty Cliffs, before veering onto Plateau Road which leads to the southern-most point of Cape Peninsula.
That kinship with Victoria’s Great Ocean Road returns, and like so much of the more rugged coastlines around the world, this southern tip of the African continent is as much a drawcard for animal watching and activity sport as it is for sun- and salt-kissed grand touring on two or four wheels.
Soon we arrive at the colourfully named Fish Hoek. It’s a well populated little area where it’s possible to witness everything from Mediterranean-style seaside cafes, restaurants and bars to startlingly downtrodden slums, where accommodation seems crafted mostly from old signs and rusty corrugated iron, in one eyeshot. The sheer disparity between the haves and have-nots is laid thick and bare for locals and tourists alike and, as I’d come discover, seems ever-present right throughout the Western Cape.
The sandy beaches along the Atlantic seaboard linking the Cape Of Good Hope peninsula with the coastal expanse of False Bay look, at times, to be carved from Mexico, or even Australian coastline.
Given it’s a roughly 80-kilometre loop between here and the guts of Cape Town, it’s a trip that’s less must-do as it is unavoidable if you plan visiting Western Cape to get sun on your skin and sand in your car’s footwell. That the Chapmans Peak Drive happens to create a key link is more than small bonus.
That’s exactly the loop we chose to follow, mainly because the other great piece of South African road we hoped to tackle, Franschhoek Pass, is nowhere near the delights of Chapmans Peak. Instead, it’s about 100 kilometres north-west from Cape Of Good Hope, way up inland in the thick of wine country. And an exploration for another day.
That said, you can link these two great roads via the coast given time up your sleeve. A long, curved beach arcs across the top of False Bay, which is some 30 kilometres end-to-end, and it’s easy enough to follow Baden Powell Drive (R310) which skirts the beachfront before joining the N2 motorway for a quick run south-east towards Kogelburg, where the coastline again morphs into a dramatic meeting of mountain range and sea.
From here it’s easy enough to the take the excellent, dual-lane Sir Lowry Pass, which curves up into the mountains like some gigantic piece of racetrack and baits you tackle it at speed… save for the average speed camera system that flanks either end to shut down the party. After another 25 kilometres or so, you’re knocking on the back door of the Franschhoek Pass.
There is, however, a slightly longer, less direct, if arguably more interesting route, linking the False Bay to the wine country.
There’s a scenic oceanside punt called Clarence Drive, listed on maps as Faure Marine Drive (R44), that skirts around the mountains of the Kogelburg Nature Reserve, a run that Sir Lowry Pass essentially bypasses.
The claim to fame of this little coastal road is that it hangs precariously to the highest and steepest mountain drop into the ocean of any piece of coastline in southern Africa.
According to reports, it’s here that you can play a game of baboon or eagle spotting while slipping by some 80 courses and 21 kilometres to the small township of Rooi-Els, then on to Pringle Bay and Betty’s Bay before rounding the backside of Kogelburg.
From here it’s a short back country blast over the mountains to the winelands. And it’s well worth a look by most accounts though, unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to sample this touring road during our all-too-brief trip to Western Cape.
Instead, the following day, we exit our Cape Town home base and head east for an 80-kilometre trip towards the mountain via the slightly less glamorous Cape Flats, low lying land between the coast and where the landform rises up into the African plains.
The trip highlights the strange and the new: the roundabouts; the give way to entering traffic; the number of pedestrians meandering along the breakdown lanes of high-speed motorways; the high fences topped with razor wire charged with electricity; a startling amount of locals commuting around in the back of ute trays; and there are panhandlers on many street corners peddling homemade trinkets.
Seldom mentioned on tourism websites are the countless slums, most conspicuously in the Cape Flats: a way of life to a great many locals if and sobering experience for a first-time tourist flying by in a $300k 911 Targa 4 GTS.
Other elements are also strangely familiar along ‘the flats’. The story goes the sprawling expanse was apparently once overrun by Australian vegetation that was originally imported from Oz way back in the late 19th century to help stabilise the surrounding land. Look hard enough and you’ll spot, say, a wattle. Beyond flora, you can also play Spot The Aussie on the road, spying the occasional older Falcon or Commodore. At one point I eyeball a late-model HSV Maloo towing a speedboat…
After about 20 kays on the motorway we turn south on the R304 towards Stellenbosch, South Africa’s second-oldest European settlement that today is something of an upmarket wine mecca, with the conspicuous well-to-do trappings to match.
From its pristine historic buildings to ritzy restaurant and cafe strip, this City of Oaks, as it’s nicknamed, has a manicured beauty unlike anything in the 50 kilometres of ‘flat’ between it and Cape Town, 50 kilometres away.
There’s no time to stop and smell the rose as Stellenbosch flies by the Porsche’s side windows, it’s nose aimed 35 kilometres further east towards the equally pretty town of Franschhoek, home to Sir Richard Branson’s famous Mont Rochelle Hotel, one very handy little car collection (Franschhock Motor Museum) and kick-off point for my ‘mountain pass of the moment’.
Once again, familiarity starts creeping into the road trip experience. Where the rolling wine country meets the start of the rise into the Cape Fold Mountains, and where the R45 road begins to climb, the surrounding forest is thick with gumtrees. You don’t have to squint to swear you’re punting along some backroad in south-eastern Queensland, save for a road sign warning that “local baboons will kill or maim tourists in German sportscars”, or perhaps other words to that effect…
Franschhoek Pass (R45) runs along Lambrechts Road (as the sat-nav knows it) from the town of its namesake through to a T-junction near Theewaterskloff Dam.
Point to point, it’s around 30 kilometres in length, its summit at a turnoff for Mont Rochelle ski slopes at 759 metres of elevation. For statistic impressions, then, it hardly measures large against Europe’s big-name Alpine passes. But in both technical and seat-of-the-pants senses, it offers a quality driving (or riding) experience up there with the world’s best.
Once the gumtrees clear near the first left-hand hairpin, this perfectly manicured, single carriageway of hot mix climbs for about 11 kilometres with fast, flowing curves offering excellent line of sight as the view of Franschhoek Valley to the left becomes larger and more dramatic. Thankfully the complete lack of Armco here – outside of the occasional hairpin, at least – is countered by plenty of runoff and margin for error.
There’s also ample opportunity to leapfrog slow-moving trucks and caravans despite the lack of an overtaking lane, though you have to keep a keen eye out for the many oncoming cyclists who use this side of the pass as a high-speed downhill run.
The real highlight is the clip at which you can attack the pass in legal safety: the signposted speed limit of 100km/h allows a decent lash on a road tight enough to have it slapped with 60km/h constriction back home. Shortly after a second, right-hand hairpin, the pass hits its summit near a turnout offering fetching views of the now distant Franschhoek. It’s at this point where a great many nature lovers, hikers, cyclists and lollygaggers seem satisfied in personal progress and seem to venture no further into the mountains which, I soon discover, is an absolute godsend…
Suddenly, the traffic disappears, the pass takes on an almost racetrack-like character in smooth and flowing complexion, and the Porsche begs to be let off its leash.
The path ahead takes a gentle downhill plunge through the adjacent green-quilted mountains – ordinarily not the ideal invitation for chasing redline – but the quality of the road and its grip, the ample runoff and line of slight, and the beautiful radii of each and every curve allow the 911 GTS to flex its muscles hard in a grin-inducing, yet thoroughly safe, manner. This would, and does, make for a superb bikers’ route which, by nature, lends itself supremely well to the whims of a rear-engined sportscar.
In the remaining 20-kilometre run to Theewaterskloof Dam intersection, the pass’s finish point, we haven’t seen another soul on two or four wheels. Such is the joy of a weekday punt, though by all accounts it’s more heavily trafficked on weekends. From here, we turn right on the R321, spearing across a bridge and off along another decent route heading south-west towards the False Bay. This road runs for about 40 kays cross country before rejoining the N2 motorway and, shortly thereafter, dropping down to sea level via the aforementioned Sir Lowry Pass.
Fun? You bet. And it’s incredibly handy that so much of the rich diversity of South Africa’s Western Cape can be experienced using three of its finest and most renowned roads as key touch point destinations.
Realistically, I don’t know if I’d make the long-haul from Sydney to Cape Town – three flights, 24 hours – specifically to drive its roads. But I’d most certainly return to this fascinating slice of the world, investing much more time experiencing so much more. The roads are fine enough to retrace what I’ve already driven – and explore those I haven’t – hopefully in something right-hand drive next time around.
|Length||Chapmans Peak Drive (70km); Franschoek Pass (31km); Clarence Drive (21km)|
|Durationnnn||Chapmans Peak Drive (2 hours); Franschoek Pass (30 minutes); Clarence Drive (45 minutes)|
|Food||Chapmans Peak Drive offers many cafes and restaurants along the coast, especially at Hout Bay, Simons Town and the eastern False Bay beach strips. Stellenbosch and Franschoek offer some of the region’s (and the nation’s) finest cuisine near the mountain pass. Eateries around Gordon’s Bay are the most convenient options for Clarence Drive expeditions.|
|Fuel||Fuel stations are found in most larger towns around Western Cape, though there are few on its main motorways. 95RON unleaded is typically around 14R per litre, (A$1.40 approx).|
|Traffic||Chapmans Peak Drive – moderate to heavy; Franschoek Pass – light to moderate weekdays, moderate to heavy on weekends; Clarence Drive – light to moderate|
|Best time||Summer (October to April) or shoulder seasons|