Attractions / Free State

5 days Cape Town to Johannesburg, via the Free State

Updated Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Ah, the heart of the country where the sun almost always shines, or at least for 340 days of the year. Swathes of wheat fields, cosmos and sunflowers with a backdrop of rolling hills, incredible sandstone mountains, and roads that lack congestion, give or take the odd pothole. This is the Free State.

Right through the middle of this province runs the main route between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Called the N1, this road runs straight, very straight, through terrain utterly land-locked that is also the country’s third-largest province – known as the bread basket of the country because it produces soya, sorghum, wheat, potatoes and sunflowers. But how many of us have followed our heart’s desire and spent time off the N1 in amongst the cosmos and fields of wheat?

Cosmos, Free State

Here is a five-day alternative to simply driving to Johannesburg from Cape Town (or if you’re coming from Jo’burg, simply reverse the order). The latter is a seventeen hour haul that leaves you gasping and takes two days from which to recover. The former, which we recently took, takes you through the lesser known, little explored, but incredibly beautiful parts of the (predominantly) eastern parts of the Free State.

Day one: Matjiesfontein

Whilst you might not have time to overnight at the little historical village of Matjiesfontein – it is only a couple of hours outside of Cape Town – this is definitely worth a stop. And once stopped, you will find that you want to stay awhile.

Matjiesfontein began its life as a train station. It is still a station, but around it is a remarkably pretty little town filled with white washed, stone buildings that line the only road through town on which stands the Lord Milner Hotel, which began its life as a highly fashionable spa for the wealthy in Cape Town to enjoy. It was built by James Logan, who also opened a mineral water production plant here, realising that there was no reliable source of water between Touws River and De Aar.

Tip: Make sure you take the double-decker bus tour and visit the local pub in the hotel.

Matjiesfontein Station

Day two: Victoria West

This little dorp, Victoria West, just off the N1 filled with gorgeous examples of Victorian architecture, dotted with restored Cape cottages and Karoo-huisies, as well as the odd windmill, is well worth a visit. Two things draw people here – the annual independent film festival, and Mannetjies Roux.

The film festival takes place every year in the art deco Apollo Theatre and features a line up of short films, features and documentaries, whilst Mannetjies Roux, for those of you who don’t know, is a renowned ex-rugby player who lives here, runs a B&B and at least one of the local antique shops, with his wife. The Victoria Trading Post also serves as a museum to the history of his time as a Springbok.

Tip: explore the main road through town from the Loxton side, for beautiful houses; take in the little gothic-revival style Anglican church (it’s not the huge one that dominates town), visit the coffee shops and pick up an antique.

Victoria West

Day three: Lady Grey

Lady Grey is not strictly in the Free State at all. But then neither are Matjiesfontein or Victoria West. Lady Grey lies just inside the northern border of the Eastern Cape. Make sure that you get there via Smithfield and Rouxville. Smithfield in particular is a gorgeous little town (provided you’re not after a head of fresh lettuce) and easily an alternative to Lady Grey if you want to remain within the Free State.

Lady Grey, though, is worth the detour. It is a quaint, rural village set right up against the Witteberg Mountains, close to the Karringmelkspruit River gorge, where snow is a regular occurrence in winter. Streets are lined with restored Victorian-style homes, many of them guest houses or little coffee shops, and the Dutch Reformed Church right on the edge of town is gorgeous.

Tip: Stay here over Easter for the annual local Passion Play; pop into Anny’s Café for a taste of local food and gossip.

Anglican Church in Lady Grey

Route 26

This is where I quickly interject with a description of a route less travelled. Mostly due to the potholes. But you can safely drive it with an ordinary sedan, and it is well worth it. Also known as the Maloti Route, it winds through and past the towns of Zastron, Vanstadensrus, Wepener, Hobhouse, Ladybrand, Clocolan and Ficksburg with some of the best views imagineable. We did it in a day, but if you have longer…

Day four: Fouriesburg

Most people will tell you to stay in Clarens. I’m going to recommend other. Purely because, well, whilst Clarens is beautiful there is no doubt, there are other little towns along the R26 and Fouriesburg in particular, just down the drag from Clarens, is a no less beautiful and quieter alternative.

This is a less-commercialised escape with a ‘laid back’ atmosphere. There are not as many accommodation and coffee shop options, but the local artists have given the town a vibe all its own, and the walks and views are stunning.

Cosmos Country, Free State

Day five: Rosendal

My cousin, who lives in Jo’burg, has a house here. Quite a few Jo’burgers have weekend houses in Rosendal. Whilst it is a little bit of a detour from the city of gold, it appears that it is well worth it – visit, and you’ll find out why.

Admittedly it is a bit of a detour if you stay in Fouriesburg the night before (a stay in Ficksburg would probably be more sensible), but then we’re not outlining the ‘easy’ route, simply the one we think is the most beautiful.

Free State Links:

Essentials for the road:

  • salad and greens (these can become something of a commodity in the smaller villages, and not everyone has veggie gardens)
  • Afrikaans woordeboek – this is where you haul out your rusty Afrikaans ’cause you’re going to want to talk to the locals, and they ‘aint big on English
  • endurance – the pot holes will likely drive you mad, breathe deeply and drink in the views (just watch out for the holes!)
  • lots of time – this is not a route to do quickly – the idea is to savour the experience!