The inside track on walking in Africa

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Many discerning travellers reckon Africa is best experienced on foot. And they have a point. Certainly some of the continent’s most iconic adventures — be it tracking chimps or gorillas, hiking up its mountains, or exploring remote cultural sites — are available only to those willing to put on their walking shoes. Even a safari gains a more immediate and exhilarating dimension without the constant turning-over of an engine. Here’s our pick of some of Africa’s most exciting on-foot adventures:

Luangwa Valley, Zambia
This includes two national parks, South and North Luangwa, whose speciality is guided walking safaris (pictured above). The most rewarding way to explore is on a multi-day hike between bush camps, absorbing the sights and sounds of the bush undistracted by the chirring of a car engine, and punctuated by thrilling encounters with the likes of elephant and buffalo.

Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya
One of the few places where it is permitted to walk unguided through big game country, Hell’s Gate protects a dramatic landscape of isolated lava plugs, basaltic cliffs, sulphuric springs and glassy black obsidian caves, all set below the volcanic Mount Longonot. Buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and antelope are almost certain to be seen, the cliffs support a magnificent selection of raptors, and elephant and lion pass through from time to time.

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Gorilla-tracking is the main attraction of Volcanoes National Park, which guards the Rwandan slopes of the Virunga Mountains. But this exceptionally scenic reserve offers much else to hikers. Activities include following endemic golden monkeys through the bamboo, a relatively relaxed uphill stroll to Dian Fossey’s tomb at the abandoned Karisoke Research Center, a more demanding day hike to the crater lake atop 3711m Mount Bisoke, and a tough overnight hike to the 4507m summit of Karisimbi, Africa’s sixth-highest mountain.

Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali
The burnished sandstone cliffs of this 150km escarpment is home to the Dogon, staunch animists whose fantastic hobbit-warren villages of flat-roofed adobe dwellings and curvaceous conical granaries seem to have grown organically between baobabs and boulders. This country is most enjoyably explored on foot; the most rewarding to neophytes is a loop out of clifftop Sanga to the picturesque villages of Ireli, Amani and Tireli at the escarpment base.

Erta Ale, Ethiopia
Set in the Afar region of north-east Ethiopia, Erta Ale (‘Smoking Mountain’) is an active shield volcano whose basaltic caldera holds the oldest of the world’s six permanent lava lakes (left). This bubbling cauldron of black-crusted red magma is spectacular, ejecting molten rock plumes, accompanied by nostril-peeling waves of ammoniac gas. The area is most photogenic at dawn or dusk, and in a region where temperatures soar above 40˚C, these are also the optimum times to tackle the 10km hike up and down the shadeless outer slopes, staying overnight at a basic shelter on the caldera rim.

Kibale National Park, Uganda
The country’s top chimpanzee-tracking destination, home to 13 primate and about 335 bird species, is also a great base for forest walks. The best starting point for chimps and forest-interior birds is the park’s Kanyanchu Visitor Centre, but the nearby, community-run Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary is usually more rewarding for monkeys and forest-fringe birds. Another major attraction are the region’s crater lakes, many of which are encircled by hiking trails.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, is an irresistible lure for peak-baggers. It also supports a fascinating succession of habitats, from lush montane forest via lobelia-studded moorland to the sparsely vegetated Afro-alpine zone. No climbing expertise is required for the five- to seven-day round trek to the 5895m peak, but the steep terrain, sub-zero temperatures and giddying altitudinal ascent test most hikers’ physical and mental resources.

Nyika National Park, Malawi
The montane grassland, indigenous forest and heather of Nyika Plateau lie at an altitude of above 2000m. Here, breathtaking scenery encompassing expansive views over Brachystegia-swathed footslopes are complemented by a flora and fauna that includes 200-plus orchid species, leopard, zebra and elephant, and localised birds such as wattled crane and mountain marsh widow. There are no set hiking trails, but enough roads and footpaths emerge from the main camp at Chelinda to occupy you for a week.

Garden Route, South Africa
A mosaic of sandy beaches, towering cliffs, indigenous forests, pristine lakes and protea-studded fields, the Garden Route also offers some low-key wildlife-watching, whether it be scanning the breakers for whales, or seeking out avian endemics such as the Knysna lourie. The five-day Otter Trail through the Garden Route National Park (GRNP) is Africa’s finest seaside hike; less demanding day walks explore the seal colonies and cliffs of Robberg Nature Reserve, the lakes and forested riverine gorges of GRNP’s Wilderness sector, and a spectacular suspension bridge across Storms River Mouth.

uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, South Africa
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is a true wilderness area whose upper slopes are best tackled by experienced and properly equipped hikers. But the foothills of this extensive range are criss-crossed with dozens of well-marked day trails catering to most energy levels. The scenery is delightful throughout, wildlife is locally plentiful, the mountain air is fresh and crisp, and the caves and overhangs are adorned with one of the world’s most extensive collections of prehistoric rock art.

“An activity on a page”, by Philip Briggs. Photographs by Ariadne van Zandbergen

 

The extended list

Looking for more of Africa’s best walking destinations? Below are another 10 places that didn’t quite make the cut:
• Uganda’s Bwindi National Park is a top-notch gorilla-tracking destination, offering plenty of opportunities for forest hikes.
• Endemic wildlife, such as Ethiopian wolves, gelada monkeys and walia ibex, occupies the jagged peaks and gaping valleys of the Simien Mountains.
• A network of footpaths winds through the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval stone city that thrived on the export of gold.
• Towering over South Africa’s Cape Town, majestic Table Mountain has enough paths to keep you busy for months.
• Tanzania’s largest conservation area, Selous Game Reserve, offers thrilling guided walking safaris in a wilderness teeming with elephant, lion and the like.
• The five-day, 85km trail through Namibia’s Fish River Canyon — the world’s second largest gorge — is one of the most scenic and challenging in southern Africa.
• The Congo’s Virunga National Park is the only place to have both gorilla and chimp tracking, but the highlight is an overnight hike up the active volcano Nyiragongo.
• Africa’s oldest canopy walk, offering a unique monkey’s eye view into the rainforest canopy, can be found in Ghana’s Kakum National Park.
• Africa’s second-highest massif, Mount Kenya, boasts similar hiking conditions to Kilimanjaro but many regard it to be more beautiful — and it’s certainly far cheaper.
• Spectacular timeworn footpaths lead up sheer sandstone cliffs to the myriad rock-hewn churches of Tigray, which rank among Ethiopia’s most compelling cultural attractions.

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