Best Mountain Hikes

By Stef Terblanche

South Africa is blessed with many beautiful mountains from the iconic Table Mountain in the south to the majestic Drakensberg in the northeast. Most are easily accessible to people who want to enjoy the fresh air and natural beauty, whether along easy walks or hiking trails that cater for everyone from the inexperienced to the highly experienced hiker.

There is arguably no better way to experience South Africa’s great outdoors than by putting on a pair of boots, grab a water bottle and set off for the nearest mountain hiking trail. That is, for the more easy walking trails; for anything more difficult, you need to plan carefully, get the right gear and permits, and where required, book a place with a guided hiking group. Mountain hiking trails include anything from short 2-hour informal walks and hikes, to formally organised, and often guided hikes that can range over several days, with overnight stays in mountain huts.  

For people who want to get out into nature and enjoy our great outdoors and these wonderful mountains in a leisurely way, we look at some of the most awesome mountain hikes around the country – from the relatively easy ones to a few more challenging ones.

Magoebaskloof Hiking Trail - Limpopo

Considered by many experienced hikers as one of the most beautiful hiking areas in South Africa, the Magoebaskloof Hiking Trail traverses mountainous, forested terrain on the escarpment above the town of Tzaneen in the far northern province of Limpopo. Surrounded by the Ebenezer Dam and the Woodbrush and Agatha forest reserves, the trail is just over 60km long, offering spectacular forest hikes of between two and five days. Hikers will be mesmerized by sub-tropical forests, craggy ravines, pristine mountain streams, deep pools and waterfalls, while also being treated to an abundance of monkeys, birds and some other wildlife. River rafting, abseiling and canopy tours are also available close by.

Vegetation in this afromontane region is lush, fed by high annual rainfall, so it is best to bring along appropriate clothing. The trail provides a number of overnight huts ranging from old forestry buildings to purpose-built wooden huts. The trail is rated as moderately difficult, the shortest route being 20,5km and the longest 62,4km. Booking is required. Contact Tel: +27 (0)13 754-2724.

Blyderivierspoort Hiking Trail - Mpumalanga

There can be few more spectacular starts to a hiking trail anywhere in South Africa than this one. Starting at God’s Window with its endless vistas down the Drakensberg escarpment and across the distant Lowveld, the trail winds its way through the world’s third largest canyon after the Grand Canyon in the United States and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia.

The 26km long, 800m deep canyon is the largest ‘green canyon’ due to its lush subtropical foliage, with the deepest precipitous cliffs of any canyon on earth. Hiking the full trail takes five days, with the last two days being optional, and the hike is rated moderate to advanced. However, there are many other day walks and hiking trails available in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, some very easy but nonetheless still spectacular.

The Blyde River runs into the Swadini – or Blydepoort – Dam, which has a number of resorts on its banks. The entire Blyde River Canyon has a number of world-renowned attractions and activities, including white-water rafting, kayaking and abseiling. The area is covered with rich and varied plant life supporting a variety of fauna from smaller antelope to kudu, baboons, monkeys, hippos and crocodiles. Birdlife is abundant. For more information call Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency on Tel +27 (0)13 753 3115 or +27 (0)84 221 8292.

Table Mountain National Park Hikes – Westerns Cape

The Table Mountain National Park encompasses a spectacular collection of parks, mountains, forests and beaches, running from Cape Point – meeting place of two oceans – in the south, to the iconic Table Mountain standing watch over Cape Town in the north.  It also includes Boulders Beach with its world-famous penguin colony. The park is a natural world heritage site, and boasts one of the Natural New 7 Wonders of the World. The overall park offers a large number of hikes ranging from easy one or two-hour walks, to more advanced hikes stretching over several days.

Table Mountain itself, together with the adjoining mountains such as the Twelve Apostles, offer over a hundred hiking routes. A favourite with many visitors who are not experienced hikers or have little time available, is the steep, naturally stepped climb up Platteklip Gorge to the summit on the front face of Table Mountain. While a bit overcrowded at times, it offers breath-taking views of Cape Town and Table Bay and takes anywhere between 2 and 3 hours depending on your level of fitness, and if too exhausted for the descent you can use the cable car. Two other very popular routes are Kasteelspoort (on the 12 Apostles) and Skeleton Gorge. The India Venster route is considered one of the best half-day routes to the summit and involves some scrambling and heights, but nothing too extreme.

The Cape Point section of the park offers a number of easy walks along well-maintained footpaths and boardwalks, as well as more extensive hikes, including a Shipwreck Trail. At Boulders you can watch the fascinating penguins before following a footpath and boardwalk trail along the coast with awesome views of the giant boulder-strewn ocean with its turquoise waters. To fully experience the beauty of the Cape Peninsula, you can do the 88km, 5-day Hoerikwaggo Trail that takes you from Table Mountain to Cape Point, passing through Hout Bay, Silvermine, Kommetjie and Simonstown.

These are but just a few of the many, many beautiful walks and hikes available, while there are numerous other activities also to be enjoyed. Contact Hike Table Mountain on +27 (0)60 539 9340 or Table Mountain National Park on +27 (0)21 712 0527.

The Otter Trail – Eastern & Western Cape

Strictly speaking this is a coastal hike and not a mountain trail, although it winds its way along the base of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountain ranges. Possibly the most famous hiking trail in South Africa, the Otter Trail winds its way across cliffs and beaches, through rivers, up craggy ravines and through beautiful forested areas – all the way with magnificent views of the Indian Ocean.

It covers one of the most pristine coastal areas of the Garden Route in the Western Cape and forms part of the Garden Route National Park. The trail begins at Storms River Mouth in the Eastern Cape with its awesome suspension bridge across the sea and river mouth, making its way to Natures Valley in the Western Cape. There are comfortable overnight huts along the way with water, firewood, braai and other facilities.

The hike takes five days to complete a distance of 45km. Due to the physical demands of the trail it is restricted to people between the ages of 12 and 65. It is essential to make a booking with SANParks by calling Tel +27 (0) 12 426 5111.

The Otter Trail – Eastern & Western Cape

Strictly speaking this is a coastal hike and not a mountain trail, although it winds its way along the base of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma mountain ranges. Possibly the most famous hiking trail in South Africa, the Otter Trail winds its way across cliffs and beaches, through rivers, up craggy ravines and through beautiful forested areas – all the way with magnificent views of the Indian Ocean.

It covers one of the most pristine coastal areas of the Garden Route in the Western Cape and forms part of the Garden Route National Park. The trail begins at Storms River Mouth in the Eastern Cape with its awesome suspension bridge across the sea and river mouth, making its way to Natures Valley in the Western Cape. There are comfortable overnight huts along the way with water, firewood, braai and other facilities.

The hike takes five days to complete a distance of 45km. Due to the physical demands of the trail it is restricted to people between the ages of 12 and 65. It is essential to make a booking with SANParks by calling Tel +27 (0) 12 426 5111.

Drakensberg Hikes – KwaZulu-Natal

The magnificent Drakensberg ranges more than 1,000km across the north-eastern parts of South Africa, running from the Eastern Cape, around the eastern edge of Lesotho where it borders KwaZulu-Natal, around to the Free State, through Mpumalanga and up to Limpopo. It forms the eastern and highest portion of the Great Escarpment, which encloses the central Southern African plateau. Those who have hiked or climbed in the Berg, as it is affectionately known, keep on going back year after year, and many will tell you it is Southern Africa’s best hiking region.

Like the Table Mountain National Park in the south, it is home to hundreds of hiking trails, with the difference being that they are found in four provinces and two countries. In this section we only look at some of the hiking trails in the KwaZulu-Natal section of the mountain range. Some other Drakensberg hiking trails are covered elsewhere in this article

A mere two hours’ drive from Durban is the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park that offers a number of hikes ranging from easy day walks to more challenging three- or four-day trips into the mountains. Many regard this area as one of South Africa’s top wilderness experiences. The best-known feature of this park, part of a World Heritage Site, is the Amphitheatre with cliffs that rise 3,000 meters above sea level and forms a backdrop for the Tugela Falls, Africa’s highest waterfall at 948m. The area is also home to an abundance of San (bushman) rock art paintings.

The Giant’s Cup Trail runs along the foothills of the Drakensberg from Sani Pass on the Lesotho border to Bushman’s Nek near Underberg in the picturesque foothills of the Southern Drakensberg. Some sections are steep but any reasonably fit person, including children, will be able to easily complete each section. Most of the trail lies within the Cobham and Garden Castle Reserves.  There are also several trails in the Cobham Reserve. Small patches of indigenous forest are encountered along the way, but most of the trail passes through mountain grassland with lovely views of the mountains. The trail consists of five sections and overnight accommodation is available at the end of each section.

The 6km day hike up the Sentinel Peak hiking trail takes one to the top of the tallest free standing mountain in the Drakensberg on the western side of the Amphitheatre. A famous feature of this trail are the twin steel ladders hikers have to use up an almost sheer cliff face, but once the climb has been completed, hikers are rewarded with unsurpassed views of the mountain range and the foothills and plains far below.

The Amphitheatre trail offers a guided hike in the Northern Drakensberg that leads to the top of the highest waterfall in Africa and second highest waterfall in the world, the Tugela Falls, with spectacular views. This hike can be covered in a full day, although the more extensive hike is recommended only for experienced hikers and takes about 3 days to complete. Another favourite with many hikers is the Rainbow Gorge Trail, an easy 6km meander that the whole family can do, starting at the Cathedral Peak Hotel and then following the Ndumeni River upstream, passing through a forest and into a gorge filled with waterfalls and rock pools.

Other popular hikes include the 4-hour Sugar Loaf trail; the 5-hour walk to the Injisuthi Battle Cave; the 3-day Bell Traverse starting at the base of Cathedral Peak and rising to the top of Mlambonja Ravine; the 2-day Gxalingenwa Cave Hike; the Ganabu Ridge and Baboon Rock Hike; the easy 3km Shermans Cave Hike; the 100km, 6-day Blinkwater Hiking Trail; and many more. For more information call Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife on Tel +27 (0)33 845 1999 or the Drakensberg Tourism Association on Tel +27 (0)36 448 1557
or Cell +27 (0)83 485 7808. There are also numerous companies offering guided hiking packages in the area.

Amatola Hiking Trail – Eastern Cape

No hiking experience in South Africa will be complete without a visit to author JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, that fictional, strange place in Lord of the Rings. It is to be found near Hogsback in the Amatola Mountains of the Eastern Cape, the area that is said to have inspired Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth in the book. The area is often shrouded in mist and very cold in winter.

The 6-day 5-night trail starts at Maden Dam near King Williams Town, then cuts through the incredibly beautiful Amatola Mountains before ending in the quaint little village of Hogsback. The trail is often marketed as the toughest in South Africa and one needs to be fit and prepared. But your hard work will be amply rewarded by the serene remoteness, beautiful indigenous forest, rolling grasslands, mountain plateaus, plenty of fynbos and many waterfalls, as well as views that stretch far into the distance. Overnight accommodation is offered along the way in rustic huts with basic facilities. For more information call Tel +27 (0)43 642 2571.

Cederberg & Groot Winterhoek Hiking Trails – Western Cape

A favourite with Capetonians about a two-hour drive from Cape Town is the Cederberg Mountains. Hikers can camp at the lovely Algeria Campsite high up in the mountains along the banks of the Uitkyk River, a tributary of the Olifants River. The wilderness area encompasses about 71,000 hectares of rugged, mountainous terrain and offers many white, sandy river beaches and deep natural swimming pools, as well as some truly awesome hiking trails and rock-climbing challenges. The area is also known for its fantastical rock formations and San rock art. The Cederberg, which forms part of the Cape floral region, is a World Heritage Site, and among its many inhabitants are the rare and endemic snow protea and the rare Clanwilliam cedar.

Further south, near Porterville, is the Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area with hiking trails of varying lengths and distances. These are found in two zones – Kliphuis and Perdevlei in the east, and De Tronk and Die Hel in the south. The hikes take you across lush veld and seeping waters that become the Vier-en-Twintig River (24 rivers), and down a steep cliff into a ravine with a huge mountain pool ideal for swimming.  The beauty of the area is breathtaking with a great diversity of mountain fynbos and prolific birdlife, as well as stunning rock formations and San art. A variety of overnight accommodation from basic to well-equipped is available.

For more information call CapeNature on Tel +27 (0)22 931 2900 (Porterville) or +27 (0)21 483 0190 (Head Office).

Fanie Botha Hiking Trail - Mpumalanga

The Fanie Botha Trail, located in the beautiful Sabie area of Mpumalanga, was originally conceived as part of what would become a whole network of trails called the National Hiking Way System, stretching from the Soutpansberg in the north and along the escarpment to the Cederberg in the Western Cape. The trail is still regarded as being synonymous with the establishment of organised hiking trails in South Africa and is still regarded as one of the best.

Much of the original trail follows old forestry roads, but this has been changed over the years to incorporate more areas of indigenous forest. The trail takes five days to complete, but there are shorter 2 and 3-day options as well. The trail starts at the Ceylon Forest Station, passes near the Mac Mac Falls, and ends at the Mac Mac Forest Station. Waterfalls, forests, panoramic views, natural pools for swimming and wonderful isolation are the hallmark of this hike. For bookings call SAFCOL EcoTourism on Tel +27 (0)13 754 2724.