Free State

This is an all too rarely explored region of sparsely-populated golden plains, sandstone mountains and unspoilt villages. The 19th-century Voortekkers retreated here from British governance in the Cape and chose its fertile plains (still the breadbasket of South Africa), to create an independent republic, the Orange Free State. Soon they struck gold and diamonds in Kimberley, then the British followed to regain the territory, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most visitors today are passers-by who only take in what can be seen from the N1 as they belt their way between Cape Town and Johannesburg. This is a 1,402km drive, but our Cape Town neighbour regularly used to do it in a day.

Fortunately, natural GG travellers usually have a chink in their armour when it comes to efficient travel: we don't like main roads. So, if you choose to cross the Free State, you'll most likely be itching to find a dirt track or even just a minor road. Have no fear. There are plenty. It is definitely worth taking your time (what's the rush?) to select some things to do and places to stay en route that will not only break up the drive, but also make travelling through this part of South Africa really enjoyable.

Here is a very rough guide of some main off-the-track areas to aim for and what you'll find when you get there:

A few Anglo-Boer war battlefields are dotted around the southern part of the state and there are some museums and villages that give fascinating glimpses of those times.

Further north, closer to Springfontein, is the Gariep Dam Nature Reserve which, fed by the Orange River, makes a great place for biking (around it as opposed to in it), hiking (ditto), fishing, sailing and much else besides.

Head east from here and you'll reach the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, just a stone's throw away - ish - and obligatory that you visit! Continue north on the R26 to Wepener, where you can enter Lesotho on the A20 to Mafeteng. Lesotho's harsh terrain helped protect it from the colonial desires of the Europeans and it has always remained a kingdom unto itself, totally separate from - though completely encircled by - South Africa. Lesotho is a long way off the N1 Jo'burg - Cape Town drive, but it is well worth going the extra distance and will make a huge difference to your holiday. From the western border post at Maseru, the N8 whisks you back to the N1.

Back on the N1 stretch and a (relatively) short hop up from Springfontein, is Bloemfontein. The city is South Africa's judiciary centre and is cosmopolitan, lively and definitely worth a look. Make sure you have time to soak up the culture, and don't miss its excellent Boer War Museum.

The stretch from Bloemfontein on to Johannesburg is best seen, frankly, at speed. So fill up the petrol tank, put on some good music and the A.C. and let the 398km zip past to land you in the big smoke for tea-time.