From luxurious slackpacking to entirely roughing it – hiking adventures wait for all hiker types in SA. Blessed with an abundance of mountain and coastal hiking hot spots, SA is a hiker’s heaven – attracting local and global tourists to its paths. It won’t take more than a few Sunday hikes up Lion’s Head for the hiking bug to bite and when it does, SA boasts a glorious selection of long hikes.
Forested mountain adventures along my home turf have always been my perfect version of a holiday.
A feast of fresh air, crystal clear seaside snorkeling pools, incomparable company, fireside stories and constantly looking out for pranks from the boys is how I remember my first long hike. Hosted by mountainside, seaside and forest huts, mother nature becomes your neighbour and the wilderness your backyard.
To make the most of your week-long hiking adventure, there are a few things to know and plan beforehand.
WATCH: 8 Incredible hikes in SA that will clear the mind
Long hike 101
Some hikes will be tougher than others, cover harsher terrain than others and some even require some swimming. With a few of SA’s most legendary hikes done and dusted (quite literally), here are a few handy lessons.
1. Planning meals as a group and sharing pots, pans and stoves makes the load lighter and ensures a feast after each day’s hike.
2. For the first night or two, depending on the weather - eat like royalty. Frozen steaks can be carried wrapped in a newspaper. A ‘just-add-water’ sauce is always your friend and you will soon miss the luxury of a fresh garden salad. The heavy load will be well worth the feast, and thereafter your bags will become feather light.
3. Dried mince is ingenious and can be prepared before hand. This (almost) weightless protein makes for many delicious pasta dish variations.
4. Other handy meals: Cous-cous, sundried tomato and biltong 'potjie', anything powdered – custard, pudding, sauce and cooldrink. Tuna bags and crackers, cheese spread wedges, snack bars, jelly sweets, nuts and instant oats. Strategically share your heavy snacks when you realise you've overpacked.
5. The lifesaver: Cappuccino-in-a-bag or Hug-in-mug. You will be left with serious fomo if you forget these weightless luxuries. And if your fellow hikers' coffee runs out, you are left with some serious bargaining pow(d)er -trade a cuppa for a relaxing shoulder massage or that piece of biltong your friend has been carrying...
SEE: Explore the Amalfi Coast's 'Path of the Gods'
Packing the backpack
1. Some hikes will require you to carry your own equipment. This includes pots, pans, utensils, cutlery, kettles, braai tongs, gas canisters and stoves. Distribute these equally among your team.
2. When packing your bag, remember, you will eat your way through the heavy snacks. Aim for a 12kg load.
3. For a five-day hike, ladies can get away with 50-60l bags and the gents with 60-70l.
4. Pack the heaviest items at the bottom – including clothes. Keep your day snacks, camera and sunblock close by. Carry the most of the weight around your hips, not your shoulders – your body will thank you.
5. Remember flip flops, warm clothes, a headlamp, a rain jacket, swimsuit, toiletries, sunblock, easy-dry towels and a dry-bag if your route requires river crossings. Water purification tablets or drops are required for most routes –the dodgy river water will become your best friend. And yes, hiking boots work better then sneakers for those loose rocks - unless you want a ranger to fetch you with his bakkie half way through the hike.
Five adventurous hikes to try in SA:
1.The Whale Trail
Where: De Hoop Nature Reserve, Western Cape.
Distance: 55km over 5 days.
Best visited: September - November, for optimal whale watching.
Difficulty: Easy - only a day bag required.
Perfect for: Involving the entire family – including the almost-fit newbies to hiking.
What you can expect:
If you’ve been dreaming of an adventurous hike, but you’re not sure if you can handle roughing it – the whale trail is the perfect alternative. Why? You don’t have to carry a backpack and your equipped hut awaits like a well-deserved oasis at the end of a long day’s hike. What’s more, your belongings are delivered to your hut, so you need not carry more than a day bag.
The whale trail lies in the De Hoop Nature Reserve and provides blissful beachside strips as well as rocky mountain meanders. Crystal clear snorkeling spots are front row seats to unparalleled whale watching. Plan your hike for whale spotting season – Southern rights can be spotted from June to November, Humpbacks from May to December and Blyde whales are year-round guests to the Western Cape waters.
SEE: Whale Trail closes for maintenance in 2019 + trails to do now
Photo by: Scott Ramsay
Photo by: Scott Ramsay
2. The Otter Trail
Where: Storms River Mouth Rest Camp to Nature's Valley, Eastern Cape and Western Cape.
Distance: 45km over 5 days
Best visited: November to February. Swimming in rock pools and beaches are a highlight.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult - your days will start with steep climbs, but hikes vary from 5km to 14km.
Perfect for: Hikers with some experience, bird watchers and snorkelers.
What you can expect:
Many hiking trails have tried to surpass this one as my all time favourite. Perhaps, the Otter has an unfair advantage over the rest being located where I learned to swim, ride a bike and enjoyed countless priceless family holidays since the age of, well, 1. Starting from the Stormsriver Mouth Rest Camp in the Eastern Cape and ending in the idyllic Natures Valley, this hike guides you through the lush Tsitsikamma forest as well as spoiling you to pools and beaches daily.
Exciting river crossings make for an adventure, but also requires some planning. Crossing the Bloukrans river has left some less fortunate hikers drying out their books, maps and money on the other side. You will need to time your crossings according to the tides, and, yes, a dry-bag (without holes), cable ties and a rope are compulsory to drag your bag across the river.
SEE: A beginner's guide to hiking the Otter: SA's oldest hike turns 50 in 2018
Photo: Typical views on the Otter Trail. Each day starts with a steep climb from your hut.
3. Wild Coast Hike
Where: Port St Johns to Coffee Bay, Eastern Cape.
Distance: Roughly 61km over 5 days.
Best visited: Year round mild weather. but rainy in November and December.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate.
Perfect for: Hikers who want to combine a cultural experience with their hike.
What you can expect:
Optimistically penciled down in my mental almanac for December 2017 - this hike is next on my list. If the unfamiliarity of the wild coast and its culture appeals to you and a hotel holiday or a wacky new years expedition in a Coffee Bay backpackers is not exactly what you had in mind, give Jimmy a call. This spirited tour guide will give you an authentic look at the Wild Coast on this five-day journey.
The hike explores the unhindered Transkei, where village huts and cattle are the only signs of civilisation. You will fully embrace the culture by learning Xhosa phrases, staying in village huts and eating traditional Xhosa dishes. The Wild Coast is known for its rolling grass hills and pristine beaches and you can also spot whales and dolphins as they enjoy the warm Indian Ocean.
Breakfast and dinner is served at the village accommodation and small shops can be visited at these stopovers, therefore only light snacks are necessary.
SEE: No time for tame: Your guide to the top attractions on the Wild Coast
4. Giant's Cup Hiking Trail
Where: Sani Pass Road to Bushman's Neck, Drakensberg Mountains
Distance: 60km+ over 5 days.
Best visited: Summer. Winter nights can be icy.
Perfect for: Avid hikers, appreciative of SA fauna and flora - the Drakensberg mountain is a must-see for SA nature lovers.
The Drakensberg Mountains has too much to see for a quick pass through. Steep slopes, stable plateaus, streams, swimming pools, magnificent yellowwood trees, oak trees and pine trees, fields of fynbos, rock art and a variety of animal life, makes for an ever-changing and exciting journey.
Hikes are not too strenuous and can easily be completed by hikers of moderate fitness. The route is well marked and huts provide comfortable rest for up to 30 hikers. This hike is a great way to experience the beauty of KZN, neighbouring the unhindered Lesotho.
ALSO SEE: Gateway to Lesotho: 8 Winter must-dos in the Drakensberg
5. Amathole Hiking Trail
Where: Amathole Mountains, Eastern Cape.
Distance: 100km over 6 days.
Best visited: Year round, but short winter days offer less hiking time.
Difficulty: As difficult as they come - also known as South Africa's toughest hiking trail.
Perfect for: Experienced hikers, large groups of 20 hikers, lovers of roughing it.
The Amathole Hiking Trail is surely the toughest of them all. Hiking about 18 steep kilometers a day can take its toll and makes the arrival at each hut a celebration. Summer rain can make the trail slippery and some bum-sliding isn't uncommon. You should also be up for waterfall showers as the water supply to some huts might be insufficient. An ice cold natural shower at the end of a 20km hike is, however, unparalleled to any shower I've taken.
Scenery can not be caught on a photograph and one is constantly surprised by the ever-changing surroundings. From rocky boulders strewn as far as the eye can see to lush alpine strips, endless rolling hills, valleys and cliffs, views over distant villages and surprise visits by herds of Nguni cattle - the hike is as rewarding to the eye as it is straining to the body.
Visit over new years and you may be lucky enough to witness the mightiest natural firework show as thunderstorms light up the sky.
Hogsback itself deserves a return visit. Believed to be the inspiration behind Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, this enchanted forest town is beyond picturesque. Make Away with the Fairies Backpackers in Hogsback your home base and return after your 100km trek for a welcoming hot shower and pizzas, glorious pizzas.
READ: Just a little hocus pocus: A guide to the fairy realm of Hogsback
Typical views throughout the Amathole.
Photos by: Anja Gerber
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