South Africa is renowned for its outdoor lifestyle, its vast expanses, spectacular scenery and heady wilderness areas. The country’s terrain, stretched across 1.2 million square kilometres, is as diverse as its culture and people – from rugged shorelines and towering peaks, to bushveld, shrubland, magnificent indigenous forest and endless, barren desert.
To fully engage with the country head to its wilderness and protected areas and get to know it with your own two feet. Explore these 10 extraordinary spaces for hiking…
The Tsitsikamma (place of much water) coastline, along with Wilderness and Knysna, is most characteristic of the Garden Route on South Africa’s east coast, a part of the country well known to visitors for its sumptuous forests, rock-scattered coastline and pounding surf.
Three famous hikes traverse the coastline – the Otter Trail, the Dolphin Trail and the Tsitsikamma Trail – whilst more day hikes than there are hours in your day wind their way through mountain fynbos, afro-montane forest, beaches that stretch for miles and marine herb-land.
THE WILD COAST
This beautiful, remote and unspoilt Wild Coast coastline (the former Transkei homeland) needs little by way of introduction. One of the country’s most famous trails, The Strandloper trail, wends its way from the lower Wild Coast’s Qora Mouth to the little town of Cintsa in the south.
The four to six day trail follows sandy beaches, cliff sides, lagoons, estuaries and coastal forests that encapsulate the wilderness of the Wild Coast. But there are other favourites too like the Wild Coast Meander, the Wild Coast Hiking Trail, Diaz Cross Trail, and Drifters Wild Coast Trail.
Cape Town’s iconic table top is not just beautiful to look at. There are also no shortage of hiking routes; some say as many as 900, if you throw in the climbing routes. Hikes fall into several grades, from a simple stroll on the mountain to hand-over-foot scrambling that also demands rope work to reach the summit.
You soon become au fait with names like Platteklip Gorge, Maclear’s Beacon, India Venster, Lion’s Headand Skeleton Gorge. Rule number one: don’t hike alone. If you’re new to the mountain, pay for a guided hike.
The Cederberg Wilderness Area, just under three hours’ drive from Cape Town, has over 300 kilometres worth of hiking trails. The incredible mountainous landscape is also a treasure trove of San rock art with over 2000 sites in caves and overhangs. The red sandstone cliffs and weathered rock formations pepper the extensive network of well maintained paths.
Choose from the Cederberg 100 Hiking Trail, the Heritage Route and various day hikes like Wolfberg Cracks, the Maltese Cross and Disa Pool, or simply head off into the unknown with your tent on your back.
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is a World Heritage Site, its basaltic buttresses, huge cliffs and steep forested river valleys the playground of those who simply want to disappear into the wilderness. South Africa’s highest mountain range offers extensive hiking trails – anything from multi-day traverses through slackpacker trails to a myriad day hikes.
Over 40 000 individual San rock paintings grace overhangs and walls, some of them in overnight caves. For first-time visitors, summiting the escarpment via the Tugela waterfall is a must.
Historically known as the Cashan Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth extends some 50 km east of Pretoria, and west and north from the city to just south of the Pilanesberg.
Its rugged beauty, just an hour from Johannesburg and Pretoria, makes it an obvious natural retreat for outdoor enthusiasts, its sculpted mushroom rocks, waterfalls and koppies riddled with trails, its kloofs and valleys rich with bird and animal life.
The heavily forested Eastern Cape mountain range with its swathes of yellowwoods, white stinkwoods, and Cape chestnuts is famous for its Tolkienesque ravines, waterfalls and montane grasslands.
The six-day Amatola hiking trail is one of the country’s prime trails, wending its way through pockets of original afro-montane rainforest in the Katberg and Amatola Mountains, the tourist centre of which is the quaint village of Hogsback. Characterised by mist, moss, densely intertwined undergrowth and wooded ravines, this part of the country attracts nature lovers from around the world for its many hiking trails.
WOLKBERG WILDERNESS AREA / HAENERTSBURG / MAGOESBASKLOOF
Untouched by development the Wolkberg Wilderness Area allows only limited numbers of hikers into its 19 000 hectare protected area, where the Drakensberg Mountains and the Strydpoort Mountains meet in a kaleidoscope of krantzes, kloofs, densely forested ravines, massive bolsters and indigenous forest.
The combination of the scenic beauty around Haenertsburg, the forests of the Magoebaskloof, and the wilderness area provide countless trails that include the well-known Magoesbakloof Hiking Trail.
BLYDE RIVER CANYON
The beauty of the 25 km long Blyde River Canyon is regarded as one of the great wonders of the African continent, its beauty nothing short of gobsmacking. It is one of the largest, and certainly one of the greenest, canyons on earth, with a portion of one of the last remaining true afromontane forests in the country.
You’ll find some of the country’s best hiking in the canyon and nature reserve, including the three day Blyde River Canyon trail ending at Bourke’s Luck Potholes.
This arid region extends into Namibia from the northern parts of South Africa covering over 1 000 kilometres. Its vastness is divided in two, the Little Namaqualand to the south and the Great Namaqualand to the north, by the course of the Orange River. Known simply as Big Sky Country, Namaqualand is sparsely populated and famous for it annual spring wild flower explosion.
The beauty of the dry, empty mountainous desert landscape with its granite hills and hardy succulents is best explored on foot on hikes such as the Oorlogskloof Trail, the Rooiberg Hiking Trail (the Northern Cape’s highest peak) and Goegap Hiking Trail.