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Put a spring in your step with these top wilderness walks

Sunshine. Fresh air. Jaw-dropping views. These are a few of the reasons why editor Francé Beyers takes to the trail. RICHARD HOLMES discovers a few top wilderness walks.  

Whether you’re packing for a week on the trail or just planning a few hours in the great outdoors, we’ve rounded up some of the best wilderness walks South Africa has to offer.

wilderness walks
While international travel is largely off the cards for the year, there’s no reason to miss out on an adventure that’ll take you out of your comfort zone. Slack-packing and expert guided trails – like the Donkey Trail pictured here – are a perfect opportunity to spend quality time with friends and family. Socially-distanced, and with plenty of fresh air, they’re the perfect balm for weary souls tired of Covid.

If you have a week to spare

Dedicating a week to walking is the perfect way to decompress  and if you have time for only one multi-day trail in your calendar, make it the Whale Trail. This 55km self-catering hike, which meanders through De Hoop Nature Reserve, is easily the most spectacular multi-day hike the Western Cape has to offer. Over five days you’ll enjoy the idyllic route through the Overberg’s pristine fynbos, with memorable hours spent exploring deserted beaches and rocky cliffs as a highlight. In whale season (July to November) expect to see southern right whales just offshore. Best of all, the slack-packing service means the heavy kit goes ahead by vehicle, leaving you free to wander with just a day-pack. 

Coastal capers aren’t limited to the Western Cape though. In the rolling hills of Pondoland in the Eastern Cape you’ll find an array of multi-day hikes that ramble over lush hillsides and along empty beaches. 

Like the Pondo-Hopper slack-packing trail, which sees guests overnighting in East African-style safari tents on a journey from Msikaba to Port St Johns (five-night trail) or Mbotyi (three nights). Along the way you’ll trek past the idyllic Mkweni estuary, enjoy swimming in the Mlambomkulu River and admire the impressive Cathedral Rock. A particular highlight comes on day three with the walk to Waterfall Bluff, where an 80m waterfall plunges directly into the ocean. 

wilderness walks
The Whale Trail is a five-day immersion into the coastal scenery of the Overberg.

If that sounds too leisurely, the Otter Trail is for you. An icon of multi-day hikes in South Africa, it takes five days of hard slog to cover the 42.5km coastal path linking Storms River Rest Camp and Nature’s Valley through the Garden Route National Park. The trail is spectacular, but it also gets booked up months in advance. 

Less popular but no less spectacular is the Tsitsikamma Trail, which shadows the Otter further inland. Along 62km of trail, the route winds through dramatic mountain scenery and afromontane forest, with crystal-clear rock pools to cool off in en route. Overnight accommodation is in simple yet comfortable huts, many of which boast dramatic views. 

Outstanding views are also a highlight of the Donkey Trail, which clambers from outside the Klein Karoo dorpie of Calitzdorp to the remote settlement of Die Hel in the Gamkaskloof Valley. When the valley was settled in the early 1800s, pack donkeys and a rugged mountain path were its only link with the outside world. Today a hiking trail follows the same route, enabling fit walkers to follow in the footsteps of history. The 26km, three day trail is strenuous and it’s essential to have a good level of fitness, but happily you’ll have beasts of burden to share the load. A guide Krugeraccompanies each group, along with pack donkeys that carry the food, tents and some personal belongings for the first night spent camping high in the mountains. The next day sees hikers dropping down into the spectacular Gamkaskloof, with a night in the valley to rest, swim and explore before returning to the starting point on Living Waters farm near Calitzdorp. 

wilderness walks
Camping in the mountains on the Donkey Trail.

On the Fynbos Trail near Gansbaai, however, the scenery offers delight in the detail. This corner of the Overberg is a biodiversity hotspot for endemic fynbos, with more than 800 species identified along the path that runs through coastal strandveld and shady milkwood forests on a 26km, three-day ramble. Though the trail can be self-guided, it’s well worth opting for the guided alternative, which is led by a botanical expert who introduces you to the region’s remarkable plant diversity. The trail is fully catered, with wonderful country accommodation surrounded by fynbos. 

Or take the day

To build up some fitness for your week-long walks, it pays to lace up your boots for some weekend and one-day escapes into the mountains. And on the doorstep of Stellenbosch, in the Jonkershoek Valley, lies one of the Cape’s most remarkable walks. 

After a devastating fire in February 2021, the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve is expected to reopen in time for spring, offering access again to the ‘Pieke’, or Jonkershoek Twins. It’s a challenging hike and best done with an experienced leader who knows the route, but the off-path walking and views of the Winelands are worth every step of the lung-busting ascent. If that’s a step too far, the valley offers a handful of delightful shorter routes, including the scenic trail through the indigenous forests of Swartboskloof.

In Cape Town, the slopes of the Table Mountain National Park are also home to many memorable trails. While tourists tend to stick to the well-worn stones of Platteklip Gorge, the more beautiful tracks up to the ‘Back Table’ of Table Mountain lie on the eastern slopes above Kirstenbosch Gardens. Here the well-marked path up Skeleton Gorge delivers cascading waterfalls and lush indigenous forests en route to the top. At the summit, take a detour north to the stone aqueducts where, in summer, you’ll find streams brimming with iridescent red disas.

Further south in the national park, Silvermine remains a favourite with locals for its tracks north and south of Ou Kaapse Weg. While Silvermine North offers access to the reservoir and popular picnic areas, it’s Silvermine South that brings the best views, with a number of achievable peaks delivering wonderful views out over the False Bay coastline. 

Further afield, there are fine sea views to be had on the Robberg peninsula outside Plettenberg Bay too. This CapeNature reserve offers three circular routes ranging in length and difficulty. The 30-minute Gap Circuit is best for families with young kids but it’s the 9.2km Point Circuit – with sheer cliffs and superb birdwatching – that delivers the most impressive views. The remote and rustic Fountain Shack offers overnight accommodation if you want to stay longer. 

Of course, spring means flower season in the Cape and, if you can get a booking, the one-day Steenbok Trail in the West Coast National Park is idyllic, tracing a flower-laden circular route from Tsaarsbank to Konstabelkop.

If these day walks whet your appetite for life on the trail, you’ll be pleased to discover that southern Africa offers a wealth of other hiking opportunities. For a wild experience, both the Kruger National Park and KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park offer thrilling wilderness trails where you’ll spend your days tracking the Big Five and your nights sleeping out beneath the stars or in remote camps. 

Across the border in Namibia, the FishRiver Canyon challenges hikers to an 85km odyssey from the trailhead to Ai-Ais campsite, where cold beers and hot springs await weary walkers.

wilderness walks
Walkers tackle the challenging yet rewarding coastal pathways on the Dolphin Trail, where you’ll enjoy upmarket lodges at the end of each day’s walking.

Prefer a little luxe?

Opt for a little pampering on the trail with one of the luxurious, lodge-based slack-packing walks South Africa has to offer. In the Tsitsikamma Forest, the breathtaking Dolphin Trail offers a coastal route broken up by overnight escapes in upscale lodges. 

You can expect the same on the Green Mountain Trail in the Elgin valley. Established in 2007, this trail traverses conservation-minded private farms on four days of meandering across wild mountains, fynbos hills and fruit orchards. You’ll spend each night in the comfort of a country lodge before a hearty farm breakfast sends you on your way. 

And that, after all, is what passionate hikers are always looking for: the trail that leads away from the front door. Whether into the hills or along beaches, this spring make sure your boots take you somewhere beautiful.

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