Last month, driving along Route 62 through Montagu, in South Africa’s Western Cape province, my friend Sabiha and I spied a sign announcing a “car boot sale” — a sort of roadside flea market. We didn’t pause to confer: They had us at “sale.”
In an open lot lined with bakkies — South African for “pickup trucks” — locals hawked bric-a-brac from the backs of their cars. Old Trivial Pursuit editions, vintage candelabra, hardly worn shoes — it was all for the taking. We carted home picture frames for 10 to 50 rands apiece (85 cents to $4.25 at 11.75 rands to the dollar) and candleholders for 10 rands.
“When you drive through the tunnel, you drive into the 1970s,” said Kenny Keet, an anesthesiologist I chatted with by the coffee stand. Mr. Keet, from Somerset West near Cape Town, was referring to the Cogmanskloof Pass, carved through a mountain as you approach Montagu from the west. “Small country towns like this are ready to burst into the future,” he added.
Route 62 is lined with plenty of these towns, ones with laid-back, eccentric states of mind — and very reasonable prices. The route is popular with locals but virtually unknown to foreign visitors, who prefer to explore the Winelands or drive the better-known coastal Garden Route.
Even in those pricier areas, these days, South Africa is a steal for American travelers: the rapidly depreciating currency is approaching 12 rands to the dollar (it was around 8 when I first visited in 2012). Fine dining, fancy hotels and those expensive places you usually scroll past when scanning TripAdvisor reviews — they’re not necessarily out of your budget here.
Affordability aside, this country boasts some of the most postcard-worthy road trips I’ve ever embarked on, and savvy local tourism boards have made navigating easy with helpful maps and rosters of otherwise obscure local businesses. I consulted a glossy Route 62 brochure, acquired from a tourism information booth, and plotted out a route to test how far a rand could really go.
Two hours east of Cape Town, Robertson is the gateway to Route 62, and our starting point. The enchanting Mo & Rose guesthouse has cactus-studded gardens and six stylishly appointed suites with animal-hide rugs and cushions with African motifs. Owned by a German-Italian couple, Mo & Rose is a roughly seven-acre idyll set on a former cactus nursery, which explains its forest of succulents. The damage for a night in this chic retreat: 800 rands per night per person (prices start at 650 rands), including a sumptuous breakfast.
Robertson is celebrated for its food and wine, and both are showcased at Reuben’s restaurant (named after its celebrity chef, Reuben Riffel), at theRobertson Small Hotel, one of the best fine-dining finds around: a hearty dinner of beef fillet, tomato-basil pasta, and mozzarella fior de latte with poached tomatoes came to 475 rands.
To call the nearby village McGregor sleepy would be something of a euphemism — almost comatose might be more accurate. But artsy types would appreciate the Edna Fourie gallery and the ceramics specialist Millstone Pottery. A few blocks away, at the Frangipani cafe, a cascade of flowers floated down from the trees as we tucked in to hot scones with jam and cheese, a toasted chicken-mayo sandwich, and iced coffee in the garden. Everything was delicious and the total came to 94 rands
In Montagu, aside from pillaging car-boot sales I dropped 220 rands on three carved wooden owls at Hicks Art Gallery, a 106-year-old private residence where the owner lets visitors roam freely through rooms full of canvases. Next came Barrydale, home to Ronnies Sex Shop, which, despite the name, is a somewhat grimy roadside diner with a cult following (though it does feature unmentionables suspended above the bar, donated by enthusiastic patrons).
It’s not the only expression of creativity in Barrydale. Inkaroo carries jewelry hewed from driftwood, freshwater pearls and acacia thorns, generally ranging from 125 to 800 rands. At Barrydale Hand Weavers, you can watch workers at their looms spinning bathmats (250 rands), scarves (150 rands) and table runners (95 rands). But it’s Magpie, an art collective specializing in recycled-chic chandeliers and furniture, that’s caught the attention of the world’s most powerful couple: Their colorful, cheeky crafts were a hit with the Obamas’ decorator, who hung two chandeliers in the White House. While most of the fixtures are on the pricey side, Magpie’s “ampoule couture,” tiny beaded sheaths to dress up naked light bulbs, makes for unique souvenirs at 220 rands apiece.
Sabiha and I checked into the Karoo Moon Motel, a new three-room bed-and-breakfast run by the owners of Diesel & Crème, the popular retro-Americana diner next door. (The row of vintage gas pumps out front will clue you in to your arrival.) The aesthetic is kitschy fun: old cigarette ads, biblical paintings, pressed-tin headboards and fraying chintz armchairs. We spent the night in a double for 600 rands. At the biker-magnet Diesel & Crème I binged on a burger and fries (65 rands) and a decadent red velvet shake (35 rands) amid a vast collection of vintage Pepsi and Coke signs (“The typical American girl finds a drink of Coca-Cola delicious and refreshing as you will,” reads the one in the women’s room).
Farther along Route 62 lies Calitzdorp, known for its port wine and not much else — but a scenic loop off the town’s main road, known as Arts Route 62, is a must. The gravel road is a spine-rattling change from a two-lane country highway, but the meander itself is sublime in its beauty and variety. Amid vineyards, valleys blanketed in flowers, and aloes standing guard along the foothills, we saw artists’ studios, cattle-crossing signs and people water-skiing near a dam.
“This could be the Sierra Nevada,” Sabiha remarked at one point; I channeled glimpses of the Bariloche lake district in Argentina. At one point the Red Stone Hills fleetingly resembled the unearthly terrain of Cappadocia in Turkey. And all in one sliver of South Africa, just 33 miles long. We paused at the solar-powered Oude Postkantoor Gallery & Coffeeshop for an amazing iced coffee (15 rands) and a chat with local artists having lunch.
Back on the main road, it was a race to get to Oudtshoorn before sunset. The “ostrich capital of the world,” Oudtshoorn owes much of its existence to an early-20th-century ostrich boom, when the town was teeming with feather palaces dedicated to keeping British society mavens decked out in the latest fashion. These days, it’s home to a few ostrich farms that let visitors feed or even ride the birds, and shops like Queen Zebra, where you can buy an ostrich-leather bag (890 rands), springbok cushions (450 rands) or rosewood-and-bone salad tongs (89 rands). But Oudtshoorn’s main attraction is the Cango Caves, a millenniums-old complex of caverns. The adventure tour (100 rands) has you climbing, crawling, sliding and shimmying your way through a spectrum of narrow spaces — not for the faint of heart or wide of girth, but plenty fun.
We drove up a steep hill to Le Petit Karoo Ranch, a collection of four rooms and four tents owned by Pascal Chanel, a French-Swiss former horse jockey. The tents are simple but comfortable affairs, with impossibly soft bedding, outdoor bathtubs and decks with the best sunset-viewing vantage point around. And they’re far more luxurious than they need to be, at 700 rands a night for a double.
Oudtshoorn is part of a semi-arid region called the Klein (Little) Karoo, and from there we veered off Route 62 toward the Groot (Great) Karoo. To do that, you first cross the Swartberg Pass, a breathtaking — and heart-stopping — mountain road that squiggles its way up toward a 5,000-foot summit in a series of dizzying switchbacks. It eventually deposited us in Prince Albert, a beguiling village popular with gallerists setting up shop in quaint whitewashed cottages.
And then, at last, I found the terrain I’d been waiting for ever since I began conjuring images of the Karoo: wide open roads unfurling toward the horizon without another car in sight. Dried-up riverbeds and ocher earth flecked with green shrubs. It’s stark, and it’s stunning. The Great Karoo lives up to its name.
The landscape gradually becomes both mountainous and more verdant as you approach the town of Graaff-Reinet, the gem of the Karoo. It looks majestic hemmed in by mountains, and as the fourth-oldest European settlement in South Africa, it’s crowded with historic buildings like the striking Dutch Reformed Church, erected in 1887. The Drostdy Hotel was originally built around 1806 and reopened in December as a luxurious new boutique hotel with 48 rooms made over in a contemporary palette of soft blues, greens, taupes and grays. The public areas are more of an Old World throwback: dark colors, overstuffed leather couches, framed newspaper clippings on the walls and animal skulls and horns galore. And through February, the opening rate is 1,125 rands for a double (it goes up to 2,000 in March).
Just outside town, in the fun-to-say-out-loud Camdeboo National Park, the Valley of Desolation forms yet another dramatic panorama: a series of staggeringly sheer volcanic-rock obelisks presiding over the Karoo. The view is hauntingly surreal, the kind that one might be tempted to call priceless — but lucky for you, it’s not. For the admission fee of just 80 rands it’s all yours.