In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s appointment as South Africa’s president, Fiona McIntosh has drawn up a shortlist of the country’s 20 best nature trails. Chosen from its well-established and wonderfully scenic network of routes that suit every level of ability, from hard-core backpacking to relaxed guided hikes, there’s bound to be at least one that will give your next safari a healthy, refreshing edge.
01 Drakensberg Grand Traverse
Traversing South Africa’s central mountain range, the mighty Drakensberg, is not for the faint-hearted. There are no paths, signposts, huts, shops or facilities of any kind on this rugged 3000metre-high mountain plateau. The weather is unpredictable and every day you’re subjected to seriously punishing climbs and descents. You’ll need to be fit, strong and totally self-sufficient. But don’t be put off – if you’re up to it, this mountain wilderness trail will refresh your soul.
From the start of the trail at the Sentinel car park in the Free State there’s a short, steep section of trail to the foot of the renowned double chain ladders. These give access to the top of the mighty natural fortress of the Drakensberg. Here the marked path ends and you’re on your own with only your wits, soaring lammergeyers (bearded vultures), skittish antelope and the occasional local herdsman for company. The scenery is breathtaking. Inscribing the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park to the list of World Heritage Sites in 2000, UNESCO recognised both the exceptional natural beauty and the diversity of habitats that protect a high level of endemic bird and plant species. This is a place where you can look down on soaring birds – a mountain refuge where the air is thin. It is a wonderland that is often sprinkled with snow, even in summer.
For the first few days you stay close to the edge of the Great Escarpment, known to the Zulu people as uKhahlamba, ‘Barrier of Spears’. This is the most dramatic section, so take time to enjoy the magnificent Thukela River as it cascades off the top of the famous Amphitheatre – a 5km-long, 1200metre-high sheer cliff face, bounded by the dramatic bookmarks of the Sentinel and Eastern Buttress, the jagged rock spires of the Mweni Needles and the deeply incised green valleys at the foot of the escarpment.
The classic north-south grand traverse to Bushman’s Nek, near Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal, includes bagging the range’s six highest peaks: Mont aux Sources (3283m), Cleft Peak (3281m), Champagne Castle (3377m) Mafadi (South Africa’s highest peak at 3450m), Giant’s Castle (3314m) and Lesotho’s Thabana Ntleyana (at 3482m the highest peak in southern Africa). Depending on your navigational skills and experience, you’ll cover between 210km and 250km over 10-12 days. Permits are issued on arrival at Sentinel car park. The final 10km of the approach road are very rough (a 4WD is a good idea) but Witsieshoek Mountain Resort, the nearest accommodation, will organise transfers if required.
The Drakensberg Grand Traverse is extremely strenuous but there are easier alternatives. Peak High Mountaineering (www.peakhigh.co.za) and Spanafrican Adventures (www.spanafrican-adventures.co.za) offer guided and supported traverses as well as shorter sections such as the four-to five-day stretch between Sentinel and Cathedral Peak in the Northern ‘Berg – peaks that are also spectacular, but much more manageable. The three-day, 28km guided and fully-catered Ampitheatre Heritage Hike gives you a taste of what the mighty Drakensberg has to offer without having to lug a heavy pack. Moderately strenuous, largely because of the high altitude, it starts with a beautiful ridge walk to the superbly sited Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, where you spend two nights, and ends with a beautiful walk down to one of the ‘Bergs’ nicest rest camps at Mahai. Day two will take your breath away. The walk past the daunting bulk of the Sentinel to the foot of the chain ladders, the vertiginous climb and the awe-inspiring views from the Mont-aux-Sources plateau south over almost the entire Drakensberg range will remain with you for years to come.
The five-day, 60km Giant’s Cup Hiking trail, through the foothills of the Drakensberg from Sani Pass to Bushman’s Nek, is a great lower-level alternative. Daily distances are fairly short, the terrain is undulating yet varied. Eland and other antelope are often sighted and you overnight in comfortable huts, some of which have refreshing swimming holes.
02 Port St Johns to Coffee Bay Wild Coast hike
A marked hiking trail once ran for 280km along the Transkei Coast, the homeland of former president Nelson Mandela. Sadly, the huts have fallen into disrepair, but sections of this iconic route are still accessible to adventurous hikers willing to use local accommodation or carry tents. Wilderness it is not.
The area is dotted with rural settlements, but with its rolling green hills, deserted sandy beaches and smiling, colourful people, the rugged Wild Coast offers some of the finest hiking in the world. It’s also a wonderful cultural experience. You’ll be put up in clean rondavels (traditional thatched, one-roomed circular huts) and treated to local food and festivities. Hiring a guide enhances the experience and makes life easier, as the trail, which largely follows animal paths, is poorly marked and often cuts inland to avoid ravines.
The stretch from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay is the most spectacular, and combines a stout physical challenge with a fascinating window onto rural life. Assuming you don’t get too lost (and asking locals the way is part of the fun), the 40-mile trail will take five days.
Directions: Setting off from the laid-back town of Port St Johns, you climb up through the coastal forest of the Silaka Nature Reserve to views over the promontories and sandy bays that typify this weather-beaten coastline. Leaving the reserve, the trail cuts inland then descends steeply to the Umngazi River and the first of many river crossings. Catch the ferry from Umngazi River Bungalows and Spa (a great refreshment stop) and continue to the first overnight stop at Madakeni, around 13km from the trailhead. Here you will be hosted by the villagers and fed on local fare such as samp (mealie porridge) and beans or pap (ground corn) and sauce.
Day two takes you from Madakeni to Tsweleni. It is also 13km, but the undulating terrain makes it a tough haul. The rewards, however, are many. Not only is the scenery breathtaking, but the flora of the Transkei coast is extraordinary. Colourful ground orchids, daisies and everlastings nestle among the tough grasses. In winter, bright, red-spiked aloes cling to the rocky cliffs.
Wading the Mpande River is an intensestart to the 15km third day. Plan to cross the river at low tide, before continuing over rugged, rolling grasslands to Huleka Nature Reserve, a wonderful stretch of coastal forest fringing a picturesque bay where you may be treated to the classic Wild Coast scene of cattle strolling down the beach.
As you pass isolated huts on the hillsides, keep your eyes open for Abakthweta – young men with their faces painted in sacred white clay who are in the final stages of traditional coming-of-age initiation ceremonies. Check out the shebeen (local bar) at Huleka village before turning in.
The penultimate day, from Huleka to Mdumbi, is long, with numerous hills and rivers to cross. Thankfully, the final day’s hike is much easier, traversing dramatic cliffs, ambling down a long, empty beach, and crossing the Mthatha river mouth in a rather shaky local boat. It is a short walk, so you’ll be on the beach at the vibrant holiday village of Coffee Bay beach by lunchtime.
Before you start the final descent, sit for a while on the dramatic clifftop to enjoy one of the best views in the whole of South Africa and to reflect. Even on this short outing, you’ll have no doubt recognised that the grace, humility and sense of fun that we associated with Nelson Mandela lives on throughout his homeland.
There are a number of more luxurious hikes in the southern part of the Wild Coast on which you overnight in upmarket hotels or B&Bs. The five-day Wild Coast Meander is South Africa’s first slackpacking trail – ‘slackpacking’ being hiking without a backpack, because someone else is taking care of it. The trail starts at Kob Inn and finishes at Morgan Bay, just south of the Kei River. It’s a magnificent walk on which gaggles of local women act as porters, carrying your bags. You can do it self-guided, but it’s worth hiring a local guide to learn something of Xhosa culture and to keep you on track! Take a bathing costume, diving mask and snorkel so that you can explore the wonderful rock pools.
The best of the rest
03 Otter Trail
South Africa’s most popular multi-day hike, the 42km, five-day Otter Trail follows the incredibly scenic coastline of the Garden Route National Park. It’s tough, but the beautifully-located huts, rugged scenery, lush coastal forest and sense of isolation are ample reward.
04 Hoerikwaggo Tented Classic
This spectacular five-day, 75km trail along the spine of the Cape Peninsula links two African icons – Cape Point and the City of Cape Town. From the top of Table Mountain it offers dramatic views of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Highlights include the ever-changing scenery and plains game sightings.
Difficulty 3 (with easier sections)
05 Fynbos Trail
Slow down and smell the flowers on this three-day, 36km amble along the beaches and fynbos-covered hills of the Walker Bay Conservancy in the Southern Cape. Guided hikes with a botanist are available.
06 Whale Trail
The five-day, 55km trail though the De Hoop reserve in the southern Cape – one of the eight protected areas of the Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site – is an absolute gem. Short daily distances and optional bag transfers allow plenty of time to enjoy the wild flowers, fascinating rock pools, whales, rare birds, plains game and the divine overnight cottages.
07 Oystercatcher Trail
This trail was featured in the BBC’s Unforgettable Walks to Take Before You Die. It is a four-day 48km slackpacking trail along the rugged coastline and beaches of the Garden Route, which gives insight into the plight of the endangered African black oystercatcher. It includes an archaeologist-led tour to the Pinnacle Point caves, which reveal the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour.
08 Cederberg Heritage Route
Explore the rugged, otherwise inaccessible Cederberg Wilderness area, admired for its jagged golden peaks, rock art and botanical diversity, on this four-day, 55km community-run trail, overnighting in mission villages.
09 Silver Sands Hiking Trail
Taking this guided, five-day, 55km hike along the wild coastline of Namaqualand is a wonderful way to appreciate the bizarre geology, marine life and spring flower displays in this inhospitable, remote section of corner of South Africa.
10 Klipspringer Hiking Trail
Named after the cute little antelope that’s often seen along the way, this rugged, three-day, 33km trail through the Northern Cape’s starkly beautiful Augrabies Falls National Park, reveals the dramatic landscapes and bizarre flora of this semi-desert region in all its glory.
11 Rim of Africa
The guided Rim of Africa hike traverses over 600km of rugged mountain terrain from the Cederberg to the Outeniqua mountains of the Cape Garden Route. Usually walked in sections, it takes several forms – guided hikes for the hard-core, Pack-Lite trails for those who prefer the slackpacking approach, and self-guided adventures on certain sections for those who prefer to go it alone.
12 Tsitsikamma Trail
One of the most spectacular trails in the country, this strenuous, 61km, six-day hike through the Eastern Cape’s Tsitsikamma mountains is a magical journey through indigenous forest, misty mountain peaks and deep river gorges that are alive with birds and small game. The bag transfer option eases the load, but it’s still a tough hike that requires a high level of fitness and self-sufficiency.
13 Mehloding Hiking Trail
Community-run, this four-day, 61km slackpacking trail through the remote mountainous foothills of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site takes in rock art sites and visits to local villages. It is as much a taste of local life as it is a spectacular walk.
14 iMfolozi Wilderness Trails
Experience the freedom of the walking in the bush and sleeping out under the stars on these three- to five-day ranger-led wilderness trails through the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, KwaZulu-Natal’s premier Big Five game reserve.
15 Rhebok Hiking Trail
Towering burnt orange sandstone cliffs and towers are the main drawcards of this picturesque 28km overnight trail in the Free State’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Crystal-clear rock pools, diverse wildlife sightings and delicate wildflowers are among the other attractions.
16 Num Num Trail
Meandering up and down dramatic escarpments and through game-filled plains, this five-day, 36.5km trail showcases the lush indigenous forests, tumbling waterfalls, weather-sculpted landforms and wonderful birdlife of Mpumalanga. Superbly located and well-equipped huts are the cherry on the cake.
17 Fanie Botha Trail
Laid out half a century ago as part of the National Hiking Way, this iconic trail in Mpumalanga is still one of the country’s finest. It is known for its beautiful views, spectacular swimming holes and abundant wildlife. The 52km, five-day Graskop route is the most challenging, but there are shorter, easier loops.
18 Magoebaskloof Hiking Trail
Immerse yourself in a Lord of the Rings-style forest full of chirping birds, bushbuck, samango monkeys and tinkling streams, on this 50km, three-day trail in Limpopo.
19 Stamvrug Hiking Trail
Outstanding views, plains game, indigenous forests and inviting rock pools are just a few of the attractions of this stunning two-day, 25km trail on a private nature reserve in Limpopo’s Waterberg Biosphere Reserve.
20 Kruger Backpacking Trails
Hiking with big game is a thrill of note, and sleeping out in a flimsy tent in Big Five country even more so. On each of the four-day, backpacking trails in Kruger National Park – the Olifants, Mphongolo and Lonely Bull trails – you carry everything you need, but are led by a ranger. A quintessential African walk.