Swapping the N1 for back roads

Although the N1 is the fastest way to travel from the north of South Africa down to the Cape, it’s not the most scenic or relaxing. That’s why Johan Heyneke decided to turn off onto back roads and travel on gravel as much as possible on his summer trip.

Driving fit is what you could call Johan Heyneke. As a health and safety expert for the construction industry, he spends a lot of time on the road doing site visits. As a result, he averages around 10,000km a month. All that driving meant Johan found himself sick and tired of tar roads and inconsiderate drivers. What he wanted for his end-of-year holiday was a change of pace. So in December 2022 he set out to do the typical north-to-south trip along back roads. Tracks4Africa caught up with Johan to find out what it was like driving from Limpopo to the Western Cape mostly on gravel roads.

Quiet roads, views and no potholes – that’s what you can expect when you swap the N1 for gravel travel. Pictures by Johan Heyneke

Why did you call your trip the ‘forgotten highway’?

Usually when people drive down to the Cape it is on the main highway, the N1. I wanted to travel along an alternative route. My idea was to escape the rush and claustrophobic cities by driving along open dirt roads, surrounded by nature. When I described the trip to friends, I said I wanted to search out the little used tracks, the roads that have fallen out of memory. That’s how it became my ‘forgotten highway’.

How did you plan your route?

First of all, I did some research to see if there were others who had done something similar. Then I pored over the Tracks4Africa Traveller’s Atlas to map my route. It was absolutely brilliant because I could see all the small dirt roads not shown on Google Maps. I had decided to cover about 400km a day. Because the Atlas shows distance and travel time, it was easy to work out where to stop. I also found all my overnight spots using either the Tracks4Africa Atlas or the Tracks4Africa Guide App. And if it wasn’t for the Atlas, I wouldn’t have known where I was going. I also used Tracks4Africa GPS Maps on SD Card. It shows you when you’re approaching a 4×4 section or a viewpoint, for example, which I found really useful.

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Was this a solo trip?

I had originally planned to do it on my own, but it happened that my mom joined me. We travel well together. While she was handling the admin for my business, she would often join me on site visits. We’re used to being in the vehicle together, there are no awkward silences. And, of course, because she raised me, she knows all my nukke en grille (moods and whims)!

What was it like travelling mainly on dirt?

All my friends and family know that if there is a dirt road, I will take it. If there is a mud puddle – even the size of a R5 coin – I will drive through it. I love driving on gravel roads. For one, there are no potholes! The roads we took were in good condition and I found driving a pleasure. Another advantage of driving on gravel roads is that they are quiet. It’s easy to pull over if you see a beautiful spot and we often did so.

The joy of gravel travel is pulling over for a coffee when you see a scenic spot.

For this trip I rented a 270° awning and rooftop tent combo from Go Camp. Because I already have a roof rack on my vehicle, they could fit it within 15 minutes. On all those impromptu pit stops we made the awning really came into its own. It meant we could pull over anywhere and sit in the shade to enjoy the view over a cup of coffee. A couple of times passing farmers would stop to check if we were okay. Then we’d end up having a chat and a coffee for over an hour. That doesn’t happen next to the N1.

I found it great that farmers allow overlanders to travel across their property. Sometimes gates would be open, other times there would just be a sign to close the gate once you’d passed through. People were so warm and friendly, especially in the Karoo.

What was your route?

Day 1: Polokwane to Villiers

A must-stop is the Moeggeploeg pub in the small town of Val. We stayed at Lekoa Lodge, a beautiful farm with great ablutions.

Day 2: Villiers to Ladybrand

Despite a few washed-away roads and some small river crossings, the overall going was very smooth. At our overnight stop, Oldenburg Game Park, giraffe walked between the house and the camping ground. There is a big boma with a view over the mountains and at night you hear the jackals calling.

Johan had to navigate a few water crossings and washed away roads on his trip.

Day 3: Ladybrand to Lady Grey

We again encountered some washed-away sections and river crossings, but no problems. Lady Grey’s restaurants and friendly community are just fantastic. The mountain views can be enjoyed from anywhere in town.

Day 4: Lady Grey to Nxuba (Cradock)

We travelled over Joubert’s Pass and Carn Nek – very beautiful. We were glad for the swimming pool at Peperboom Campsite after a hot day’s travelling.

Lady Grey’s mountains look down as the travellers set off on day 4.

Day 5: Cradock to Three Sisters

Because of vehicle trouble, we couldn’t take our intended route. But we enjoyed the mountain views and beautiful sunset from Joalani Guest Farm. This small campground also has a swimming pool.

Day 6: Three Sisters to Leeu-Gamka

We stayed at Rooiheuwel Guest Farm, which has a beautiful boma in the middle of the bush.

Day 7: Leeu-Gamka to Tankwa Karoo National Park

Due to roads being washed away, we couldn’t reach our destination. We ended up getting stuck and spent the night in the car.

Day 8: Tankwa Karoo to Paarl

After an eventful day, we got to our final destination well after dark (see more below).

What was the highlight of the trip for you?

When planning the route, it was my mission to drive as many passes as possible. Ultimately, I drove 25 mountain passes, all but three on gravel roads. The two passes that really stood out for me were Ouberg Pass and Joubert’s Pass. But my favourite was definitely Joubert’s Pass near Lady Grey. When I was a kid, we went on a family trip to Lesotho. It blew my mind that we could stop the car and fill our water bottles from a mountain stream. Joubert’s Pass is exactly like that. There are so many places with little waterfalls and sunlight reflecting on the water. It’s really beautiful and the water is ice cold and pure. You don’t really know what clean water tastes like until you have drunk from a mountain stream.

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Did you have any setbacks on your trip?

Twice we had things go wrong, but I expected it wouldn’t all go smoothly. When you travel on remote roads, you sort of expect that you might lose time to a mishap. The first was when the Fortuner wouldn’t start on day 5. I managed to get a lowbed truck to take us into Beaufort West. The Toyota garage there worked out that it was the starter motor and by 15:00 we were back on the road. But because of the lost time, we had to follow tar to our next stop.

For the final night of the trip, I had booked a 4×4 campsite in Tankwa Karoo National Park. Due to the floods that had torn through the area a couple of weeks before, the track to the campsite was in a bad state. It took us 4.5 hours to cover 4km. But before we could reach our destination, the road became impassable. There were deep ruts of over 1m in the road. It wasn’t worth risking it, so I decided to get out of the park. Unfortunately, the farm road we took gave way under us. The entire left side of the vehicle ended up at an angle. We were in the middle of nowhere, so had to spend the night in the vehicle. After trying without success to dig a way out the next morning, I set off on foot. I walked for 30km before reaching a farmhouse. In the end, it took a kind farmer just five minutes to pull us out.

Driving off into the sunset… Despite a couple of misadventures, Johan absolutely loved the gravel travel adventure of his ‘forgotten highway’.

Would you recommend this trip?

Absolutely, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are so many roads that have the most beautiful views and landscapes. And there are still several villages connected only by gravel road. We miss out on many hidden gems by driving on boring tar roads. You don’t even need a 4×4 to do this trip. Except for a couple of the gravel mountain passes, you can do most of it in a normal vehicle with high clearance.

One thing I’d do differently is to cover a shorter distance every day. It’s good to have the time to stop at all the little villages and check out farm stalls. And for my next trip, I plan on having a better selection of recovery gear, like a winch and high-lift jack. But other than that, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It was an incredible experience.

7 thoughts on “Swapping the N1 for back roads”

  1. i would also love a detailed route of this so i can also drive it, been searching for this route for a long time. thank you

  2. I would also like to travel this route but there are so many roads in my atlas that it would be great to have the exact route on a map Are there campsites at allthe stopover points?.

    1. We are looking into making this route available and will keep you updated. There are camping options available at all the overnight stops.

  3. I would love to drive this in March this year is on file we can download and put in our gps

      1. I’m retiring in January 2024 and want to travel South Africa and surrounds for the next 2 years. Is there any way that I can get routes across SA from you? This Polokwane to Paarl is exactly what I mean. I have your SA Atlas as well as your other maps. I have also installed your Tracks4Africa Guide and Navigation Apps. In the process of buying a GPS as well. Any recommendations would be appreciated. I’ll be purchasing your software to install on the GPS shortly.
        Can you assist?

        1. The Tracks4Africa guide books to Botswana, Namibia and Zambia contain route suggestions for these countries. For South Africa (and beyond), keep an eye on our blog for trip reports on routes planned by Tracks4Africa users. Our Tracks4Africa videos on YouTube describe routes in South Africa and Namibia, with more to come: https://www.youtube.com/@tracks4africa725

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