I’ve driven from Johannesburg to Durban four times in the past year, and on some occasions I’ve decided to take some scenic detours. The standard route keeps you on the tolled N3 road the entire journey. This route is 568km, takes approximately 6 hours to drive, passes through Gauteng, Free State and KwaZulu Natal provinces; and costs a class 1 vehicle R231 (in 2018) toll fees.
The route is well policed, with many sections now using average speed cameras. The speed limit in some places drops to 100kph (e.g. between Villiers and Harrismith) and some sections are as low as 80kph (e.g. Van Reenen’s Pass). If you are travelling this route, it is beneficial to follow the N3 Toll Consortium account on Twitter. They offer the latest info on traffic disruptions, weather hazards, road works and the status of petrol stations en-route (many are currently closed for refurbishments).
There are alternate routes that attract lower toll fees and are more scenic. If driving during the day, I prefer skipping Tugela and Mooi Toll Plaza. For half the toll fees (saving R119 in a class 1 vehicle), +-30km more distance and about 30 minutes more journey time I get a far more scenic route, via the Drakensberg and Natal Midlands (with Detour Options 1 and 2A below).
Detour 1: Go through Harrismith town (Engen Bergview 1-Stop off-ramp), get onto the N5 and then the R74. This detour avoids Van Reenens Pass (a high accident zone) and Tugela Plaza. This detour is approximately 15km and 16 minutes longer than the N3.
You will pass Sterkfontein Dam (the 3rd largest dam in South Africa) and the neighboring Driekloof Dam. This is the weir separating both dams.
If you have time to swim/fish/canoe/sleepover, you can visit the Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve.
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P.S. Don’t drive too close to the water. My car got stuck here, but luckily someone camping nearby towed me out of the mud.
Just after Driekloof Dam, before you descend from the Free State Province into KwaZulu/Natal, it’s nice to stopover at the Border Post lookout point. I like to have a snack here, where you can see Woodstock Dam below. Water from Woodstock Dam is pumped up into Sterkfontein Dam (a national strategic water reserve serving both KZN and Gauteng).
You will also have a good view of the Drakensberg Amphitheater on this route.
Drive through Bergville and Winterton on the R74; then rejoin the N3.
Detour 2a: Skip Mooi River Toll Plaza which has had incidents of protesters blocking the N3 and setting fires to trucks during recent long-weekend holidays.
Take Exit 168 toward Estcourt on the N6. Turn right onto the R103 and drive through Mooi River; crossing over the N3. This detour is a 17km addition to the journey.
You can rejoin the N3 via Nottingham Road.
Or, Detour 2B: Continue on the R103 through the Midlands Meander. This route is approximately 6 minutes slower than the N3 (according to Google Maps) but it’s 2km shorter and very scenic.
You can rejoin the N3 just after Midmar Dam.
When I drive at night I stay on N3. But if travelling while the sun is still shining, why not take a more scenic route to Durban? If you’re travelling to Durban for a holiday, why make the trip feel like a regular inter-city commute?
Make it an adventure, stop to breathe in fresh Berg air, don’t speed and get to Durban safely.