Impressions from the Great N1: Cape Town to Bloemfontein

roadtrip on the N1

The strip of tar snaking along the interior of our country isn’t all that interesting in itself but it does connect us with some very fascinating and incredibly beautiful places in Mzansi. As I travelled along the N1 from Cape Town, it really hit home just how isolated Cape Town is from the other centres of our country. Trucks take the competition seriously as they overtake each other in the race towards Cape Town and then back north; come summertime, Joburgers flood down the N1 as they head towards the sea; but Capetonians seldom make it further along the N1 than Cape Town airport – or perhaps a picnic on a Paarl wine estate – which is a shame because the N1 is in many, many ways, the aortic artery of South Africa that gives us a glimpse of different areas in our country

All great things start in Cape Town (or so Capetonians believe) and the N1 is no different. Passing all along the interior of the country, past Bloemfontein and Johannesburg, to the South African-Zimbabwean border in Limpopo, the highway is a line through five of our provinces: in other words, it’s an itinerary.  You could easily spend a month following the road, going a bit off track to silent Karoo towns or bustling Free State farms but using the route as a compass. If ever there was a road on which to “shoot straight”, it’s the N1. Heading staunchly north, it sometimes really does feel like the forever road to nowhere. Sadly, not many of us have that kind of time. This time, I took the stretch of the N1 from Cape Town to Bloemfontein, on the way to KZN, and then returned home via the same route.

The first milestone out of Cape Town is the Huguenot Tunnel which opens up into a pretty valley of fiery orange dust and pinkish rocks. Then follows Laingsburg. And then comes Beaufort West.

Most of us see Beaufort West as a pit stop on a far greater journey but there is a bit more to the Karoo town than that. As I searched for accommodation, Booking.com kept pointing out “attractions” in the area. See, I hadn’t even considered the town having any charm besides its N1-side location. But not, it has some charming missionary buildings and a museum to famed resident Christian Barnard. South Africa can be unassuming like that.

Fresh from this lesson, we sped on along, growing confident enough to overtake lorries and break their convoys. The iconic tin windmill dots the landscape in the Karoo, although the landscape does change from barren nothingness (what are those sheep even eating??) to lush, pale yellow grassland. The Free State was full of election posters of the DA (SECURE OUR BORDERS) and the FF (FIGHT FOR FREEDOM: NOW OR NEVER) which did nothing to dilute the impression that it saw itself as a sort of frontier country, the last bastion of Afrikaner nationalism. What did change that idea was the lush landscape and relaxed pace at which bakkies appeared from wheat fields at intersections on the off-ramps.

Supreme Court in Bloemfontein

Bloemfontein is sort of like the nail holding our country’s criss-cross road network together. You cannot do an N1 trip without Bloemfontein, a city that seems to exist just as a pit-stop along the way. There is more going on in Bloem, though. I didn’t have time to see all of the sights but two experiences stood out.

The Loch Logan Waterfront redefines slowing down. We arrived for dinner just before nine o’ clock and were met with a darkened, deserted mall. Only three restaurants remained open! Our waiter, who enthusiastically dismissed Bloemfontein as boring (“After two days, you’ve seen it all,” he told us), let us know that on a Sunday shops closed at three o’clock. During the week, they stayed open until five o’clock. But, wait for it, Pick ‘n Pay was open late- till 7 o’clock! I could see why he wanted to move to Cape Town. But would they have him? he asked. Of course, we enthused, a BCom is a BCom anywhere. It wasn’t until later that I realised that perhaps he was referring to our city’s racist reputation.

The small lake that the waterfront is built around is not spectacular. Whether you do so objectively or subjectively, you have to concur that the setting of Cape Town’s Waterfront is just that much more picture-perfect. Loch Logan is a must-see in Bloemfontein, though, and the mall itself is just as good as Canal Walk.

What Bloemfontein lacks in waterfront beauty it makes up in history, The Supreme Courts of Appeals, which makes Bloemfontein our judicial capital, sits in a lovely sandstone building in what can only be described as that rare thing in South Africa: a boulevard. Nearby is the Sand du Plessis Theatre, a modern marvel. A drive along Merriem Makeba street is a short and sweet tour through the city centre.

On the way back home, we drove straight from Bloemfontein. That’s right, it can be done: the journey to the Mother City takes about ten hours, excluding breaks. It’s actually incredible to how much the landscape can change in one day’s journey: from grass swaying in the wind, to horses roaming in herds, to barren mountains where sheep sleepily slouch around, to the tall red mountains and the verdant winelands and finally, to sparkling Cape Town. It is a beautiful route: take breakfast and lunch in farmstalls along the way.

landscape along the n1

If you’ve taken a #ShotLeft along the N1 recently, you’ll know that the highway is an exciting journey in itself. From laughing at trucks trying to overtake each other at 80 km/h to spotting the most bizarre names in the Karoo (“Moordenaars Karoo”?), the N1 will bring you to your destination so much more enriched.  It also provides a sneak peek of how much is out there for us to explore in our own country, as well as what South Africans in other regions think of Cape Town! I won’t go as far as to say that the journey is more important than the destination but if the journey is beautiful, isn’t that just even better?

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