Hiking Holidays in South Africa

A World in One.

As a tourist destination, South Africa is renowned for a variety of attractions. With a diversity of landscapes, it contains a multitude of biodiversity hotspots with it’s floral and avian wealth drawing naturalists, birders and outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe.

Knysna Turaco

South Africa is a popular destination for birding.

For decades the country’s wildlife has been the backbone of tourism with an abundance of national parks and private reserves offering a portfolio of African safaris to choose from.

Complimenting the naturalist’s attraction is a rich fusion of culture, a sophisticated bouquet of wines paired with an eclectic platter of cuisine to please every palette.

A Trail weaves Through it.

Table Mountain hiking
Table Mountain has a vast network in close proximity to Cape Town

Through this abundance of wildlife and spectrum of attractions, runs a thread of trails. Day hikes to multi day trails, all can be found on the outskirts of cities, through fynbos, traversing mountain ranges and escarpments, along pristine coastlines and across savanna bushveld.

See Hiking Around Cape Town : Read here

The multi day hikes in particular offer a unique set of experiences ranging from the remote expanse of mountain ranges and coastal forest to being guided through the dangers of big five habitat to

Compared to hiking and trekking destinations in Nepal, New Zealand, the Rockies and the Andies, most of the multi day hiking trails in South Africa have a daily limit of the number of hikers departing ranging between 8 and 30 hikers.

Trails in the Cederberg and Drakensberg are flexible with the duration that hikers spend on the trail, while hikers on the renowned Otter Trail, Outeniqua Trail or the Amatola Trail need to progress to the next hut on a daily basis.

Watch hiking the Pass to Pass in the Outeniqua Mountains : View Here

Hiking South Africa.

Planning a hiking holiday in South Africa presents numerous choices; from a combination of day hikes in various regions to planning a selection of multi day hikes. Between Cape Town and Knysna an itinerary of 10 days of hiking over two weeks could include hikes in fynbos, Afromontane forest, semi dessert, coastal and mountain hikes interspersed with some wine tasting, fine dining and whale watching.

By contrast, compiling an itinerary of a series of multi day hikes would take you off the beaten track and immerse you into the essence of nature, remote from the airwaves of society.

The sheer diversity of habitat in South Africa makes planning a hiking trip exciting as you decide which habitat you would like to explore and what level of comfort you would like while hiking.

With the available trails too numerous to list here, I will focus on styles of trails and refer to some to give an idea of how to plan a hiking holiday in South Africa.

Styles of hiking

Self sufficient journey experience : carry a full pack with provisions, clothing and sleeping gear, no tent.

Hut to hut :

DCIM106GOPROGOPR1231.JPG
The highest point on the trail with the best view is Jonkersberg making it a perfect coffee break.

The oldest, and once the longest, established trail in South Africa is the Outeniqua Trail. Following a west to east journey route from Beervlei to Harkerville, it is 108km long with 6 overnight huts along the route, making for a 7 day hike. It can be hiked in shorter stages, but when booked is intended to be a daily progression from hut to hut.

The huts are basic with bunk beds, water, food prep area, flush loos and showers, though not all huts have hot showers.

The main attraction of the Outeniqua Trail is remoteness of a mountain landscape with a mix of Afromontane Forest and Fynbos interspersed with pockets of pine plantations. It is a world of green from start to finish with limited chances of encounters with anyone else.

Unlike most mountain hikes, there are limited panoramic views as you hike through the dense forest. In terms of wildlife, there is an abundant population of cryptic and nocturnal species which leave ample spoor and scat along the trail to captivate your imagination, but it will be a rare sighting to see something.

A rare sighting of a family of Honey Badgers on the Outeniqua Trail : View Here

Otter Trail

Staying in the Garden Route, the Otter Trail is probably the most popular trail in South Africa and requires reservation up to 12 months in advance. A five day hike of 45km, the trail hugs the rocky coastline of the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. Restricted to 12 hikers per day, the accommodation at each overnight location is comprised of two huts with bunk capacity for six hikers each.

Though a rugged trail with difficult sections, the short daily stages make it achievable for novice hikers. The unanimous attraction of the hike is the raw pristine coastline with the chance of sighting Cape Clawless Otter, dolphins and whales in the surf and beyond.

Slackpacking.

Garden Route Coastal Trail
On a coastal slackpacking trail you only require a daypack while the rest of your luggage is transported to the evening venue.

For outdoors people that either don’t want the hassle of packing hiking gear or prefer more comfort after each days hike, a network of ‘slackpacking’ trails have developed along the coastline of South Africa and even some inland trails.

Supported and guided, most of the slackpacking trails are catered for, making them an all inclusive option for a hiking vacation. Depending on your time budget, you could structure an itinerary to include two or three slackpacking trails with a variety of other activities between each.

In the Garden Route, you could fly into George Airport and then combine the three slackpacking trails (Garden Route Coastal Trail, Oystercatcher Trail and Dolphin Trail) in the region and include some activities into the Little Karoo between trails.

The Garden Route Coastal Trail is a diverse trail through forest, fynbos, dune thicket and along pristine beaches and includes two canoe stages. View Here

Karoo Hiking, a combination of mountains, altitude and semi desert : View Here

Hiking the Fish River Canyon : View Here.

Primal Attraction.

wpid-imfolozi-lion-tracks.jpg.jpeg
Wilderness trails immerse you into the elements of nature. While you may not see them, the wildlife is all around you and leave their tracks everywhere. Here a set of lion tracks are in the riverbed on the wilderness trail in HluHluwe-imfilozi.

For first time visitors to South Africa, planning a safari is vital to experience the ‘Big Five’ in their natural environment with most destinations offering a guided game walk. But to truly engage with your primal heritage, spending three to five days walking through the African bushveld will refine your five senses that have been dulled by urban living.

Two of the easily accessible options for a multi day hiking experience are in the Kruger National Park and the HluHluwe-iMfolozi Nature Reserve.

Both of these iconic South African reserves offer wilderness trails, each with their unique experiences.

Kruger Trails.

Kruger National Park offers three trail formats, namely :

  • Fixed base with daily morning and afternoon walks,
  • Fixed route, carry own gear, and
  • Flexible route, carry all gear and food

With over 8 trails available, you are spoilt for choice, and with some planning can have a 12 day visit to the Kruger including 8 days hiking remotely.

Limited to a maximum of eight guests, most of the trails are based at a bush camp. The daily routine of guided hiking includes a 3 to 4 hour sunrise morning walk, before returning to base for a meal and a siesta and then heading out for a shorter late afternoon hike and sundowner. The walks can either depart from the base camp or you are driven to a remote location to set off for a loop.

Contrary to popular belief, walking close to wildlife that hasn’t been conditioned to humans is not that easy and most of your wildlife sightings will be from a few hundred meters, though you can be lucky to see some animals up close. In the event that you do, you will instantly discover the true meaning of ‘fight or flight’ and then, later around the campfire, reflect on the different versions of the same encounter. That is what Africa is about.

Wilderness Trails, HluHluwe-iMfolozi style.

In stark contrast with the camp setup in Kruger, the bush camp on a wilderness trail in HluHluwe-iMfolozi is rustic. In line with their ethos of sustainable existence within nature, your shower is a bucket with a measured amount of fire-warmed water and your toilet is a spade, a roll of loo paper and a box of matches. Camps are temporary and are rotated at the first sign of location degradation.

The daily format of hiking is a relaxed early morning wake up with coffee and breakfast, packing your day pack with lunch and heading out. As with the Kruger trails, your armed guides pause frequently to discuss tracks, scat, and everything else that you see along the way. At the heat of the day you find a comfortable spot beneath a tree, have lunch and snooze in the wild.

On the return walk to camp, the guide splits the group up and positions each person in a quiet solitary location for half an hour to reflect on nature for a half hour.

On the final approach to camp, you assist with the collection of fire wood and then head off to shower with your allotted bucket of water under a tree. On your first night we had an African Rock Python curled up at the base of the tree, unperturbed by our activities.

While walking through the bushveld is engaging, there is a psychological link to our ancestors when they ventured into the African savanna.

But it is at dusk, in the approaching darkness of night that a profound portal into the natural world is breached as the night sounds begin. The hoot of an owl and the song of a nightjar set the tone. Then the yap of a jackal stimulates your senses before the hooping call of Hyenas pierce the dark. There is a constant scuffle of vegetation outside your tent as unseen creatures skirt around the camp. When the lion roars, you can feel the percussion tremble through your chest as you drift off to sleep. If you are lucky, when you wake in the morning and find fresh spoor through the camp, you will know that you have been accepted back into nature.

HluHluwe-iMfolozi Wilderness Hike : View Here

Subtle variation in hiking.

In addition to the different daily formats between the Kruger and HluHluwe-iMfolozi trails, the most marked feature is the approach to wildlife. In Kruger, on the three trails that we have done, the guides attempted to get as close as they could to whatever wildlife we saw. We hiked on game trails into river beds and along water pans, and when we saw game we stalked as close as we could, then often beyond the game’s comfort zone.

By contrast, in HluHluwe-iMfolozi, while we followed game trails we never walked in riverbeds, only crossing them when required and remained at a distance from the wildlife. Though potentially frustrating if you want to photograph animals closeup, the HluHluwe-iMfolozi style permitted you to watch the wildlife, most times with them unaware of your presence, as they behaved naturally. In Kruger, each time we transgressed an animal’s comfort zone, it was alert and responding to us, a very limited display of their normal behavior which usually ended in them running away and us losing the sighting.

How to plan

Planning a vacation in South Africa can be overwhelming when considering the endless locations and activities that are available. Day hikes are popular, but are usually short, between 3 and 10km, which most people rush through in a couple of hours before moving on. If you want to escape the crowds, then it is best to avoid these trails and look at trails away from the key attractions. Either way, in terms of packing, a 40l daypack with a water canteen, all weather gear and a sleeping bag would suit most multi day options if you choose a trail with huts.

Combining a slackpacking trail, a wilderness trail and a three day self-guided trail would give you an achievable hiking holiday and still allow you to take in some of the key locations of South Africa.

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