I was more of a tourist than a hiker when I went to South Africa in May 2008. However, I still made notes about the hiking opportunities. In general, South Africa has a few excellent backcountry areas in which to hike, but they are disjointed, usually small, and underdeveloped in terms of trail networks; it would be difficult to do a long-distance wilderness-oriented walk here. Keep in mind that personal safety is a fairly constant concern in South Africa—the crime rates (particularly in the cities) are high by American and European standards, and then there’s that Big 5 wildlife thing too…
I know of at least four great places in South Africa to go backpacking, and there is an additional location that is just over the South African border in Namibia.
Drakensberg National Park
The Drakensberg Mountains are located in the western part of KwaZulu-Natal Province, and the crest forms the border between South Africa and the inland kingdom of Lesotho. It was a 3-hour drive from Durban to Cathedral Park Hotel, which lies in the Umlambonja Valley towards the northern end the range. In 2000 the ‘Berg was named a World Heritage Site due to its unique flora and fauna, which is a function of its high elevations and relative abundance of water.
The Drakensberg is not so much of a mountain range but rather the edge of an ancient plateau that has eroded dramatically on its eastern edge and less so on its west side. The plateau’s base consists of horizontal stratified sandstone, and the plateau is capped with a thick basaltic layer. The highest point in South Africa (11,420 feet) is located in the Drakensberg. That point, however, is really just a big bump along the top of the escarpment, which is a gently rolling plain for a good portion of its 620-mile length. Some Drakensberg peaks, like Cathedral Peak, have been separated from the escarpment by erosion.
This is the best wilderness area for backpacking in South Africa, IMO. The scenery is superb; the trails network is lightly used but adequate; human traffic is low, especially away from the popular resorts and trailheads; and there is no wildlife of grave significance—there are puff adder snakes, baboons, and wild dogs, but there are no Big 5 animals.
During my time in the Drakensberg I was based out of the Cathedral Peak Hotel. On my first day there I went for a long trail run, and my legs got thrashed by the brushy vegetation that grows over the trails. On the second day I climbed the prominent and beautiful Cathedral Peak—it was a 16-mile round-trip with about 4,000 feet of vertical gain. (Twice a week the hotel operates guided climbs, which might make some people more comfortable on the Class III scrambles near the summit). On my third and fourth days, I went for an overnight: from Cathedral Peak I climbed a steep-and-deep canyon to the top of the escarpment, hiked along the edge of the escarpment for a few hours, and then camped in Twins Cave. The manager of the hotel, Craig, was extremely knowledgeable about the area and had great recommendations and advice.
If, or when, I return to the South Africa, it will probably be with the intention of hiking the entire length of the Drakensberg. This is probably the country’s most elegant backpacking route.
There are six maps for the Drakensberg, 1:50,000 scale. I would recommend purchasing the ones you will need.
Hiking Trails in the Drakensberg
The Otter Trail—Tsitsikamma National Park
The Otter Trail is the most famous hiking trail in South Africa. It follows the East Cape shoreline for 26 miles (42.5 km) between the mouth of Storms River and the village of Nature’s Valley. The Park recommends a 5-day, 4-night effort, though it is entirely possible to hike faster—I did it in a leisurely 1.25 days in May, about one month before the shortest day of the year.
The Park allows only 12 people on the trail each day, and reservations are recommended, especially in the peak season. The 12-person limit minimizes overuse and ensures that the hut system can accommodate everyone; there are eight 6-person huts total, located at four different places along the trail. The problem in hiking faster than the recommended 5-day pace is that there may not be space in the huts for you, which is not a big issue since each hut location also has a cooking shelter that would offer ample protection in a rainstorm.
The Otter Trail is not a strenuous trail, though it is very technical (with many roots, rocks, and tight corners) and is therefore slow. There are no major climbs or descents of special note; I don’t think the trail ever gets more than 500 feet above the ocean. The vegetation along the route is usually thick, especially on steeper slopes; however, excellent vistas are common, since the trail often skirts the rocky shoreline or contours along the plateau above, which is covered in scrubby fynbos.
The river crossings can be problematic at high tide—the crossings become deeper, the waves roll higher up into the river corridor, and the currents go downstream and upstream. The crossing of the Bloukrans River is especially noteworthy—it is the biggest river on the route, and hikers must swim across a too-deep-to-stand hole on the west side. I have a few tips when you do these crossings: pack your stuff inside of a waterproof bag (e.g. a heavy-duty garbage bag or a large waterproof stuff sack) that you line the inside of your backpack with; keep especially water-sensitive items like cameras inside of a small waterproof Alokosak-type bag; fill your water bottles with air for extra buoyancy; and PACK LIGHT so that your pack doesn’t drown you when you swim across.
More Info: Tsitsikamma National Park—Otter Trail
The Table Mountain complex dominates the skyline throughout the Cape Town peninsula, rising dramatically from sea level to as high as 3,563 feet. There is an extensive, well maintained trail system that runs through the mountains, creating ample opportunities for day-hiking and trail running, and a few options for backpacking.
The classic hike is up Table Mountain itself, which takes 1-3 hours; there is also a tram to the top. Unfortunately I never made it to the top of Table Mountain, but I did manage to run up nearby Lions Head, which was shrouded in clouds by the time I reached the top. The best trail map I found is from National Geographic Trails Illustrated (Cape Town & Peninsula #3200).
More info: Table Mountain National Park—Hiking Trails
Kruger National Park
Unless you can outrun a lioness, I would not recommend backpacking in Kruger National Park unless you are on a guided walking safari. Kruger is South Africa’s premier wildlife park, and the overwhelming majority of visitors see the park from their car and/or the back of a Land Cruiser. Walking safaris are not American-style backpacking adventures: you basically walk from car camp to car camp (which are broken down after you leave each morning and are set up before you arrive each afternoon by support crews), and you only have to carry a daypack. The walking is easy and slow, and the days are pretty short. I don’t think this is an ideal experience—I would much prefer a self-supported week-long tour with a few rangers, going fast and light—but it does allow you to connect more with the land than if you stay in a private lodge or just drive through the park in your car.
South African National Parks—Wilderness Trails (official site)
Walking Safaris (unofficial site)
Fish River Canyon, Namibia
The Fish River Canyon is in adjacent Namibia, just over the northwestern border of South Africa. This location was recommended by a number of people I met; they described it as Africa’s Grand Canyon. There is a 53-mile long hiking trail down by the river, which flows intermittently. (Apparently the river is a trickle compared to what it used to be in ancient times.) Next time I would definitely check out Fish River.
More information: Wiki