Route 56 is a surprisingly well-maintained, provincial route that links Middleburg in the Eastern Cape, with Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu Natal. On the map it looks as though someone has taken a crayon and drawn a squiggly line east, north east through the country.
Marketed as the ‘shortest route’ between the Western Cape and Durban, the route’s main leverage is that it is a viable alternative to the N2 through the Transkei. It passes through the mountain country of Lesotho, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal connecting Molteno, Maclear and Kokstad.
Calling it ‘short’ is a little misleading. It may be shorter in terms of kilometres, but the nature of the roads through the mountains mean that you take it slower. You can easily add three hours to your journey, but they’re hours well spent in terms of scenery and escaping the N2.
Which is why it has something of a mini cult following – those who have driven it once, tend to do it again – attracting, in particular, adventure bikers, 4×4 enthusiasts, MTB riders, hikers, birders and those who love flyfishing (farmstays around Matatiele, Maclear and Kokstad are good halfway stops for a day or two to appreciate the beauty of the area).
What you can expect
Incredible mountainous big sky scenery through rural areas where animals and pedestrians also use the road as a means of transport, and the grassy verges for food (drive cautiously, in other words); a string of pretty (others depressingly derelict) historical towns; roads that are relatively devoid of the congestion and aggression on the N2; regular picnic shelters.
What you won’t get
Upmarket refreshment stops in the form of bijou farmstalls and roadside restaurants (although Maclear’s FreshStop is a good bet if you want a fresh, fast food sandwich, salad or fruit salad); easily accessible accommodation; no signs for the numerous speed-bumps you will encounter on entering and leaving little towns.
Where to fill up
There are petrol stations in virtually every town, but better options are: Dordrecht, Molteno, Maclear, Kokstad and Pietermaritzburg.
Where to stay
Not all of the towns are suitable for overnight stops. We recommend Molteno, Dordrecht, Maclear, Kokstad, and Richmond. Most of the accommodation is visibly advertised on signboards as you enter town and you may just have to wing it, as they are not readily advertised elsewhere.
How to drive it
I wouldn’t recommend driving Route 56 in one day, unless you are pressed for time, in which case you are still better off on R56 than in the congestion that is the N2. We drove it without stops on our return. On the way out we diverted to Rhodes.
The route is easy to join at any stage; doing it in its entirety is not necessary to experience its beauty. Heading from the Western Cape towards KZN we joined the route between Molteno and Dordrecht, but on the way back, we joined it from Port Shepstone.
Will I need a 4×4?
No, an ordinary sedan will easily manage Route 56 (unless you divert to Rhodes, in which case you will need a high clearance vehicle).
HIGHLIGHTS OF ROUTE 56
You’re right. MZNP is not on Route 56. But it’s easy enough to achieve with a few detours. The park is well worth an overnight, or two, for the scenery, the Cape mountain zebra and the generous quiet. It is a hard slog from Cape Town (9 hours) but well worth it. We added the leg via Pearston (really worth seeing the historical, if rather derelict, village) and Tarkastad.
The Town of Dordrecht
The historical little town of Dordrecht, perched at the base of the Stormberg Mountains, reminded me a lot of Lady Grey, which, it turned out, is the next town on R392. We drove through here twice (up and down). It dates back to 1856 when it was named after the city of the same name in the Netherlands by a local Dutch Reformed Church minister (the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian churches date back to 1880).
Town is full of historical buildings, plenty of them on the main drag, like the WT Fish Building, and Andersons Museum (featuring Dordrecht’s history, although this, sadly, looks abandoned). In the area: Kranskop hiking trail, San rock art.
The historical town of Rhodes (1893) is a detour from Route 56, but once you’re at Dordrecht the R396, via Barkly East and the Barkly Pass, to Rhodes seems a minor deviation. The whole town is a national monument, and the scenery and the mountain passes are incredible.
Rhodes was a highlight of our trip, particularly if you plan to take the Naudé’s Nek (highest road pass in the country)on the way back down.
In the area: Ben MacDhui mountain peak, fishing, road running, partridge shooting in season, San rock art.
Friends described Maclear as a town with little to recommend it, but having come through a string of virtually deserted towns, Maclear emerged as one of the more vibrant towns on Route 56. Its setting is beautiful, in the Mooi River valley beneath the rocky cliffs of the Drakensberg.
It serves as a major centre for the dairy and sheep farming community, and lies on the end of Naudé’s Nek Pass. Look out for the unusual church at the junction at the top of the hill – all the accommodation options (the suburbs look pretty) are advertised here.
In the area: trout and flyfishing, Prentjiesberg Hiking Trail, skiing during winter, Woodcliff Cave Hiking Trail, San rock art and dinosaur footprints (Oakleigh Farm, north of Maclear).
Kokstad, on the face of things, doesn’t look terribly inviting. But it has got a marvellous history (the East Griqualand Museum is a must-do) and a few very respectable historical buildings in town, like St Patrick’s, Catholic diocese, on the main road.
The beautiful church and the fine building that is a Catholic school alongside are directly across the road from another pretty historical building – the NG church of Kokstad, its cornerstone erected in October 1926. The busy town is a good place to stop and fill up with petrol.
In the area: Mount Currie Nature Reserve, hiking and cycling tracks, fishing, horse riding, Ingeli Forest, the Maria Telgte Mission (Trappist monks in the Swartberg).
Mariathal Mission and the Buddhist Retreat, Ixopo
Just outside Ixopo are two religious places of interest. The first is the Mariathal Mission, which reminded me of the Mariannhill Monastery near Pinetown. These fine buildings have stood here since 1887. Though largely deserted, we managed to drive through the gates into the grounds.
The Buddhist Retreat, not far from the mission, is an active retreat centre and open to all like-minded spiritual people in search of peace and stillness.
Find it just off the D64, off Route 56 between Ixopo and Pietermaritzburg.