Sustainable travel is the way of the future, where we strive to leave the destinations we visit in the same or better condition than when we arrived. A self-drive is an excellent way to a see a country with a negligible carbon footprint. Self-drives are great if you’re an independent traveller who prefers minimal assistance and enjoys exploring on your own terms and at your own pace. They’re also great for families with kids, as you can decide how long to spend in the car each day before patience starts wearing thin.

South Africa is a truly fantastic self-drive destination, with excellent road networks and infrastructure that make your journey easy. While Cape Town, Garden Route & Safari is easily our most popular road trip, there are plenty of lesser-known destinations that are worth exploring. Here are some eco-friendly unsung gems to add to your next self-drive holiday.

1. uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

The Drakensberg Mountain range is the oldest and highest mountain range in South Africa, tickling the sky at roughly 3400m. The escarpment is made up of steep river valleys, sandstone cliffs and protruding peaks that give the range its name, which in Afrikaans means “Mountains of Dragons”, while the Zulu people call it uKhahlamba, or “Barrier of Spears.” The park over which the mountains preside is a World Heritage Site and one of the country’s largest conservation areas.

A visit to this spectacular region is all about the outdoors; from walking and hiking to rock climbing up the soaring cliffs, to exploring the numerous  caves that hold a treasure trove of San rock art. Visitors to the park pay a community levy which funds schools in local communities and services such as clinics. Community conservation programmes engage locals in the protection of their natural surroundings and wildlife, creating employment opportunities as well as ensuring the longevity of the region for future generations.

Hop in your car: our KwaZulu-Natal Safari & Beach tour takes in the Drakensberg and nearby Battlefields as well as a Big 5 safari and a few days at the beach.

2. Addo Elephant National Park

Home of the elephants, Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape is a 45 minute drive from Port Elizabeth and a popular safari destination if you’re driving from Cape Town up the Garden Route. It’s the only national park in South Africa with the Big 7 (Big 5 plus Southern Right whale and Great White shark) and a favoured choice for families on safari as it’s malaria-free.

The park runs the Mayibuye Ndlovu Development Trust, the name of which means “let the elephant return” in Xhosa. The trust represents 8 local communities who get a percentage of the turnover of Matyholweni rest camp, allowing them to prosper from tourism and creating jobs for their young people, such as safari guides who will join you in your car on your self drive.  All lodges in Addo have sustainable systems in place for waste, water and energy.

Check it out: our Cape Town, Garden Route & Safari itinerary includes a safari in Addo, but we can upgrade this to a classic Kruger safari if you’d prefer.

3. Panorama Route

The Panorama Route in Mpumalanga province is known for some of the most dramatic scenery in South Africa. The route is centred around the Blyde River Canyon, the third largest canyon in the world, and features cascading waterfalls, whimsical small towns, towering mountains, deep riverine pot holes and viewpoints that seem to look out across all the world. These landmarks are all contained in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, one of the few areas of montane grassland that still exists in Mpumalanga. The grasslands consist of more than 1 000 flora species, many of which are endemic, rare or endangered.

Conservation efforts that give back to the community include employment for locals in alien plant clearing, fire management, infrastructure management and visitor management. The Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency has also implemented programmes that support education and job creation for students.

Let’s go: our Kruger & Panorama Route itinerary takes in a classic Big 5 safari in Kruger before you self-drive through this beautiful region.

4. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park straddles the border of South Africa and Botswana with over 70% lying in the northern country. The name means “place of thirst”, referring to the arid environment of the Southern Kalahari desert. Spectacular red and white sand dunes are separated by dune valleys, creating one of the largest ecosystems in Africa that is essentially devoid of human interference. It is a haunting place of mystery and desolation and a visit here is a unique experience unlike anything else in Africa.

The park itself is a conservation project, protecting the hardy wildlife who rely on its two rivers, the Nossob and the Auob, for survival. All income generated in the park is split between the local Khomani San and Mier communities, who retain full commercial benefits and rights.

Go one step further: see all the colours of Botswana on our Botswana Highlights tour.

5. /Ai-/Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

Richtersveld is a World Heritage Site, a Peace Park and a conservation area in South Africa’s north west region, blurring the border with Namibia. Expect jaw-dropping desert mountain landscapes and on the Namibian side, the Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world after the USA’s Grand Canyon. It’s a mystical place, remote and isolating, that nevertheless inspires adventurous travellers seeking a true off-the-beaten-track experience.

Like the communities who run the Kgalagadi, the people of Richtersveld lead a traditional nomadic lifestyle, herding their live stock over great distances. The Richtersveld Community Conservancy includes accommodation that is controlled by a local community, funneling profits into their schools and support systems.

Good to know: the parks spans the Orange River which separates South Africa and Namibia. You can combine a visit to the park with a guided multi-day trip down the river, wild camping on the banks and crossing several low grade rapids.

You may also be interested in our Highlights Of Nambia self-drive.

6. iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso in KwaZulu-Natal is a protected biodiversity region that supports more  biological species than Kruger or the Okavango Delta. Once simply a beach and fishing destination, this World Heritage Site is now a hotbed of outdoor activities including boating, bird watching, turtle safaris, game drives, guided walks and whale watching. The landscape is bejewelled with coastal forests, lakes, wetlands and mountains bordered by 220km of pristine coastline.

It is one of the forerunners of eco tourism in South Africa with 9 community-owned companies running tours and activities. Large tracts of land have been rehabilitated and all but one animal that once lived here has been reintroduced. Over 90% of the jobs in the park are fulfilled by local communities and all privately owned lodges have mandatory local community equity.

Photo cred: Scot Ramsay

If this makes you want to hop in your car and drive off into the sunset, come and chat with us about planning your perfect road trip. Use one of our itineraries as a base or let us plan something completely unique for you. If you’ve got the playlist, we’ve got the maps!