If you like back roads with their pleasant surprises around each corner, such as dusty little pubs in the middle of nowhere, friendly encounters with elephants, elegant guest houses and funky ‘theatrical’ hotels in the middle of the Karoo Heartland, then take the ‘back-roads route’ between Port Elizabeth and Graaff-Reinet.

Did you know?

After a historic gunfight in the local hotel, Wolwefontein was nicknamed Revolverfontein for a while.

Our two-night road trip from Port Elizabeth to Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape Karoo Heartland begins with a Friday drive to the town of Addo in the Sundays River Valley.

We check in at the Elephant House, an elegant guest house only 8km from the entrance to the Addo Elephant National Park, and embark on a tour of South Africa’s ‘Citrus Central’.

Our guide takes us up to a lookout spot where pioneer-author Percy Fitzpatrick (who wrote the epic, Jock of the Bushveld) lies buried with his wife, Elizabeth.

The gravesite has a wonderful view of the Sundays River Valley, a scheme devised by Fitzpatrick who, according to legend, ‘imagined rain in the Karoo watering the oranges that would be served at an English breakfast table’. Much of South Africa’s annual citrus crop is exported.

After a drive into the ‘elephant thicket’ of Addo Elephant National Park, and a sundowner within sight of a massive herd of jumbo, our dinner awaits: beautifully presented country cuisine accompanied by a selection of wines from the Western Cape.

After breakfast the next morning, we pass through the little town of Kirkwood, which is bustling with Saturday morning shoppers. You should see Kirkwood at the end of June every year, when it stages its annual Wildlife Festival. More than 40 000 people come streaming in for this popular gourmet expo, which also features a string of national music stars.

After that we go a little ‘offbeat’ on the R75. The railway siding of Wolwefontein is our next stop, and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a spaghetti Western movie set.

The Wolwefontein Hotel bar, you can just tell, is full of stories. Dozens upon dozens of caps hang from the ceiling. There’s a dusty python skin tacked to the wall. From the wall, an eland’s head smirks at the TV set, a cigarette drooping from its lips. It’s all delightfully quirky. We stop here for a pub lunch before moving on to Steytlerville.

Steytlerville is a typical Karoo town. It has wide streets and deep, shady porches. The main street (and this is exclusively Steytlerville) sports the family crests of most of its residents.

We spend the afternoon appreciating the peace, the space and the local humour out at Noorspoort Guest Farm, where we also learn about folded mountains and the carbon-credit value of spekboom (pork bush).

Tonight is a special treat. We’re checked in at the Karroo Theatrical Hotel and at dinner we are entertained by the owners, who stage a cabaret show that is both musical and hilarious.

On Sunday morning, we take a slow drive up the R338 past the Mount Stewart community church on the hill, through the Victorian-era village of Aberdeen and the Camdeboo Mountains, and into Graaff-Reinet, jewel of the Karoo.

And here we’re in the capable hands of David McNaughton of Karoo Connections, who reveals the secrets and surprises of this grand old town and its colourful history on a day tour that ends with drinks on the heights overlooking the Valley of Desolation.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

The Elephant House
Tel: +27 (0)42 233 2462
Email: info@elephanthouse.co.za

Karroo Theatrical Hotel
Tel: +27 (0)49 835 0010
Cell: +27 (0)72 424 7185
Email: info@karroohotel.co.za

How to get here

Take the N2 north to Nanaga, turn off onto the N10 to Paterson and turn left on the R342 to Addo. The Elephant House is well signposted in the area. From Addo, take the R336 to Kirkwood and then the R75 to Wolwefontein. From there, take the R329 to Steytlerville, then the R338 to Aberdeen, linking with the N9 to Graaff-Reinet. The whole journey is approx. 450km, but take your time and spread it out over two days.

Best time to visit

Any time of year is good for this trip, except for the height of summer in January and February, when it is very hot.

Get around

You can hire a car from Port Elizabeth – just take it easy on the dirt-road sections of the trip.

What will it cost

The Elephant House rates vary on a seasonal bases between R750 and R1250 pp per night, on a B&B basis; the Karroo Theatrical Hotel rates are set at R330 pp per night, also on a B&B basis.

Length of stay

The recommended time for this trip is three days and two nights if you can spare the time.

What to pack

Pack something semi-smart for dinners, otherwise just pack seasonally (it can be very hot in summer, from about October to March and very cold in winter, from about May to August), and keep a warm jacket for the Karoo evenings.

What to eat

You’re in ‘lamb chop’ country, but the recommended guest house and hotel both offer a wide range of dishes.

What's happening

Check the listed websites for festivals and events along the way during your trip.

Best buys

There are a number of very good mohair products on sale along the route.