Walking and trekking
It seems as if South Africa has been pre-eminent as a tourism hotspot for ever – probably because of the initial surprise that greeted everyone when the county’s 1994 Democratic Elections suddenly made it a much nicer place to be. It’s a big place, and culturally and geographically quirky: the complicatedly bordered north abuts Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. Swaziland extends into South Africa like a lightbulb, and little Lesotho is entirely contained by the country. The south of the country is composed of ‘capes’, with the large central area the ‘free state,’ and the whole is scattered with a mixture of Germanic, Swahili, French, British and Zulu placenames. An East London sits next to a Bisho, a Newcastle next to a Vryheid, a Petit Retief next to a Mkuze – indicators of South Africa’s complex past. Walking-wise, South Africa is excellent: here you can find the highest mountains in Africa south of Kilimanjaro (doesn’t sound much but it’s a big place, Africa) and a variety of reserves and national parks which offer a truly diverse mix of areas. A good place to start – indeed, essential - is the Drakensberg area of KwaZulu-Natal, a breathtaking area deep in Zulu country filled with mountains extending 200 miles along the border with Lesotho. Called by its infinitely more pleasing Zulu name uKhahlamba, it means ‘barrier of spears’, which gives you an idea of the sort of landscape it is. The landscape has an ancient feel which is like much of Africa’s mountains, particularly distinctive - all flat-topped mountains with razor-edged ridgelines tapering down to wooded valleys. It has a history of human occupation stretching back almost a million years, and has famous 35,000 year old cave inscriptions- some 40,000 in total - which attest to this area’s heritage. From the massive basalt cliff cauldrons of its northern reaches to the sandstone buttresses in the south – by way of the world’s second highest waterfalls, the Tugela Falls, Drakensberg offers the ultimate South African location for anyone who needs to escape. Walking high in these mountains will appeal to lovers of long, flat sywalks – as the main ridges are typically one long escarpment, and once you’re up, you’re up, and it’s possible to do multi-day traverses maintaining an altitude of above 3,000m the whole time. Around the Giant’s Castle area is particularly impressive, and you can climb the country’s highest mountain, Mafadi, via a straightforward, non-technical route from the Injasuthi campsite, approached from the town of Ladysmith, and then via a route known as Leslie’s Pass. Elsewhere in South Africa, The Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve offers some magnificent walking and is readily accessible from Cape Town. Here you can walk to Africa’s south-westernmost point – Cape Point - along some fantastically windswept coastline. The views back to table mountain are, naturally, awesome. The walks from Gifkommetjie and Platboom Beach on the west coast (a good place for windsurfing) are recommended. Baboons hang out around here which makes for an arresting sight when walking, but don’t approach or feed them.East of Plettenberg on the extreme south coast is Tsitsikamma National Park, which is also a stunning place to walk, as is Wilderness National Park to the west. This park is at the heart of South Africa's famous Garden Route, and is an intoxicating blend of lakes, rivers, estuaries and beaches against a backdrop of lush forest and mountains. Then, or course, there is Table Mountain itself: famously serviced by a cable car, you can also walk to its 1,086m summit via the Platteklip Gorge ("Flat Stone Gorge") which splits the main cliffs, which was the route taken by Antonio de Saldanha on the first recorded ascent of the mountain in 1503.
If you’re homesick, you also might want to climb Ben Macdhui – a 3,001m mountain in the eastern cape.
South Africa is yet another country which has tagged itself ‘The Great Undiscovered Adventure Capital of the World’, which – despite being ubiquitous – usually is a good sign for lovers of slightly extreme outdoor pursuits. You can raft, mountain bike, kite surf, abseil, gorge jump, land board, dive, climb and ‘kloof’ (sort of a reverse ghyll scramble which involves the descending of a deep, narrow gorge which could be wet or dry, via scrambling, walking, climbing, abseiling or even jumping). Typically, beach-lover magnet Durban or Cape Town will offer many operators to satisfy you on this score. South Africa is also a hotspot for those who want to dive with Great White Sharks, especially around the seal colonies at Mosselbay and Gansbaai. Operators leave from Cape Town. But the best thing to do when you get off the trail is to visit one of South Africa’s world-beating game reserves: Kruger National Park, in the far north-east, is the size of a small country - a truly vast area which extends from northern Swaziland to the border of Zimbabwe, with ideas mooted to double its size into Mozambique. This reserve encompasses a range of habitats that gives a true feel of what much of Africa must have once been like, and is one of the premier reserves in the world for watching lions, white rhino and water buffalo scrapping it outin their natural habitat. The St Lucia Wetland Park, also in the east, is clustered around one of the largest estuaries in Africa, and is home to 800 hippos and 1200 crocodiles. The relative proximity of Durban to both of these and the Drakensberg mountains makes it an ideal base if you only have a fairly short amount of time.
The flat tops of South Africa’s mountains used to be ground level. TRUE The flat tops of the sandstone/basalt Drakensberg in particular were once part of the African plateau. The sandstone was deposited by a gigantic lake that occupied much of what is now Southern Africa, whereas the Basaltic layer was deposited 220 Million years ago in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption (linked with the splitting of the tectonic plates of Africa and South America). Subsequently, water and wind erosion (principally from the east, facing the Indian Ocean) has cut into the enormous plateau, producing the unique landcape.
The Cape of Good Hope is the southernmost point in Africa. FALSE: this is an oft-quoted myth, perhaps confused with Cape Horn in South America. Cape Agulhas, 200 miles west, holds the accolade.
Must see and do
- Kruger National Park – the kind of all nature reserves. Offers Africa at its most wildly primal.
- Climb Table Mountain – a South African icon, excellent viewpoint for the Cape of Good Hope, and a fine mountain in its own right. You can get a cable car down as well, if you like. www.tablemountain.net
- Visit the Drakensberg Mountains – majestic and unique amongst mountains (only the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia look even slightly like them) this area offers the perfect blend of grandeur and culture in the heart of Zululand. www.drakensberg.kzn.org.za
Walking and trekking
Kilimanjaro is the first thing most people thing of when the subject of Tanzania as an outdoor destination arises, and rightly so: Africa’s highest mountain is an obscenely glorious lure to anyone who has mountaineering hankerings or wants to get one of the Seven Summits scratched intotheir boots. But glance at a map of Tanzania and it suddenly becomes clear that Kili – secreted in extreme north east – is merely the fairy on this huge country’s Christmas tree, as Tanzania is rammed with other attractions just as illustrious. Indeed, some of Africa’s most famous natural wonders lie within Tanzania’s borders, making it indisputably the number one African country to visit in your lifetime.
Walking wise, you are spoilt. Kili is a stunning and utterly unique mountain, rising out of the grizzled, giraffe-strewn savannah with the subtlety of a mushroom cloud. Kili is unique for a dozen reasons; it’s a volcano, sitting on the African Rift, which is slowly pulling east Africa apart. It’s also one of the highest freestanding mountains on earth, and is magnetic to trekkers as it is, most definitely, a walk – besides a stern constitution, excellent fitness and the psychological ability to push yourself when altitude is making your world hurt, the ability to hill-walk is about the only extra skill you’ll need to get up it. Its setting – amidst an otherwise flat world of desert, in the heart of Africa – makes any ascent to its summit a transcendent physical and spiritual experience which frequently leaves summiteers weeping uncontrollably at the top. But don’t let that put you off: the trek usually takes 6-8 days, and travels through savannah, jungly slopes, creepy volcanic formations and onto the fabled glacier ice cap, and is highly recommended. Packages are run by most UK trekking companies. Inevitably, some (usually delusional) people sniff at Kilimanjaro as an over-commercialised tourist tramp; this be your view, there is another large hill 50 miles across from it which is often used as an acclimatisation trek for those on extended trips to the area. Mount Meru (4,566m) is a blast-scarred, horseshoe-shaped volcano which takes an arguably more scenic and less straightforward route than Kili, and has the advantage of being much less walked and far cheaper. It’s a very primal mountain to climb - exacerbated by its setting - and is a good option if Kili isn’t your thing.
Further west, another fine place to walk is the Crater Highlands, a verdant chain of mountains and volcanoes which include the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a sprawl of Masai tribal through the most extraordinary scenery in Tanzania. Hiking safaris take visitors from the tempestuously volcanic Ngorongoro Crater to the foot of the unique Ol Donyo Lengai 2878m – the astonishing sacred mountain of the Masai. As much as a mountain can, this looks like an ancient skeleton, and is an active volcano, though it can be climbed. What is remarkable about this mountain is that is spits out a lava which, instead of fiery, molten basaltic lava, is a peculiar blend of potassium and sodium which is black, comparatively low temperature and quick to weather – in essence, this volcano erupts carbon. Elsewhere in Tanzania, further highlights for the walker include the area around Tukuyu, near Livingstone’s fabled Lake Malawi, in the area of the country known as the Southern Highlands. The Mahale Mountains National Park is on another famously beautiful lake, Lake Tanganyika, and has some beautiful walking, as does the Eastern Arc range, which rises above the Masai steppe throughout the east of the country. But the real prize in Tanzania for adventurers is the Udzungwa National Park: a lost world of ancient 2,500m mountains, peculiar mammals such as the Colobus (a type ofprimate), jungle, steppe, hundred-foot trees, waterfalls, plateaux and grassland. This area is Africa at its most verdant and colourful, and despite an excellent network of trails, this area has still not been fully explored for the many species unique to it. The park itself – and this is the kicker – is only accessible on foot, and most approach from Mikumi. Outdoor-wise, if you want a place to witness where humankind came from, watch the earth being made, see wander through landscapes unlike anywhere else and bag a seven summit to boot, Tanzania is tough to beat.
As mentioned, there is a lot to see in Tanzania. If you have an interest in the (occasionally unsavoury) Victorian exploration of Africa, you will be a gibbering wreck after looking at a map of the country. In the north lies Lake Victoria, hewn into legend as the focus – along with Tanzania’s other great lakes, Tanganyika and Malawi - of much of the confusing, mishap-strewn efforts of explorers Livingstone, Stanley, Burton and Speke. Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, and is a magnet for birdwatchers and fishing enthusiasts. Rubondo Island National Park is a magnificent area to chill out. Down south, the sinuously gigantic Lake Malawi follows the line of the Great African Rift – demonstrated by the Livingstone Mountains running alonsgside and plunging straight into the lake at some points – and is very deep: the lake’s surface lies just under 500m above sea level, but in the north reaches a depth of 700m, demonstrating the enormity of this rift fault. Malawi is stunning as a lakeshore destination, with beautiful golden beaches, rich culture and opportunities for watersports. The world’s most famous wildlife preserve is also in Tanzania, the legendary Serengeti National Park, which is bigger than Wales (by a third) and plays host to one of nature’s greatest spectacles – the migration of two million wildebeest – and their relentless tracking by what seems to be everything that was born with teeth and a predatory instinct. Happily, this migration coincides with the prime trekking season of December – March, and can be observed from campsites in the Ndutu or Kusini safari areas within the park. And if you’re in the mood for something more sedate and quintessentially exotic, go to Zanzibar which – in a scene with which its name has become synonymous – is a palm-dotted, sandy Tropicana of white sand, turquoise water, rickety piers, little boats with triangular sails and very friendly people.
Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile. TRUE. Well, in part: it is the source of the longest branch of the Nile, the White Nile, which also has other lesser sources in Rwanda. The Blue Nile starts at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.
David Livingstone received his famous greeting from Henry Morton Stanley near the Livingstone Mountains, which now bear his name in reference to the event. FALSE: Stanley greeted the ailing Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, on the Tanzanian shores of Lake Tanganyika. Many historians doubt whether Stanley – who was a well-known self-promoter – ever uttered the line “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”
Kilimanjaro is an inactive volcano. TRUE: although gas is still emitted from the volcano and it is estimated that molten magma lies a mere 400m below the surface in some places, there is no history of recent eruption. There is a possibility the mountain could re-activate though – the presence of gas and magma confirm that it is merely inactive, not extinct.
Must see and do
- Visit Zanzibar – you’re in the country, so why the hell not? Even if it’s just to have a drink and say you’ve been there. www.zanzibar.net
- Go safari the Serengeti takes up a huge chunk of the north, lies in the same arc as Kilimanjaro and Meru, so don’t miss out. www.serengeti.org
- Walk into the Udzungawa Mountains primeval park teeming with life and excellent walking opportunities for the adventurer. www.tanzaniaparks.com
Walking and trekking
Morocco is a revelation for walkers. There are few places so nearby which offer quite such as ‘elsewhere’ experience, and with the explosion in accessibility to Marrakesh, the exoticism offered by this North African country has never been more achievable. Chief amongst the attractions for walkers are the High Atlas, which run along the southern border of Morocco and make for outstanding trekking and a full-on cultural experience. In these mountains you can trek on ancient mule tracks between Berber mountain villages (some of which have only just been electrified), stay at family homes converted for use by trekkers (gites), drink many cups of mint tea and sit in thrall of a mountain range which in winter is comparable to the Alps in every way except in price and tourist throngs. It’s a humbling experience, and comes with a number of satisfying bonuses: least of all the ability to climb some 4,000m peaks. Most popular of these is Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco and in North Africa. It is typically climbed from the Neltner refuge (Refuge du Toubkal), which lies at 3,000m at the mountain’s base. To get here involves a two day trek from the roadhead at Imlil, usually via the atmospheric village of Aroumd, where several gites serve the needs of trekkers. It’s a spellbinding walk from verdant upland into glacier-scoured mountain, and can be done at any time of year. Winter is an especially magical time, provided you have winter skills and are happy trudging through snow, as the temperatures are very pleasant and crowds fewer. While you are here, you can also climb the neighbouring peak of Ouanoukrim (4,083m) which, with a scrambly east ridge, is a more technically satisfying peak and offers fine perspectives on Toubkal. Those who are more ambitious can take an extended trek around some of the Atlas Mountains’ less frequented high passes, such as Tizi n’ Ourai, Tizi n’Likemt and Tizi n’Eddi, which can turn an ascent of Toubkal into an extended circuit of the range’s highest peaks.
Without doubt, one of the hidden gems of the Atlas is the area around Mgoun (4,060m) one of the highest and most sacred peaks in Morocco. Very different in nature to Toubkal, Mgoun is made of softened sandstone deep-cut by millions of years of weathering, and overlooks the high plateau of Tachedidd. Here you can trek through violently-cut gorges over the Tessaout river, barren slopes of scree and forested valleys and visit one of the most unspoilt and perfect Berber villages in the high Atlas: Magdaz. The region gives an extraordinary look at a hard, basic and unceasingly friendly way of life. Contact the bureau of mountain guides in Imlil and organise an expedition if you want to trek in either of these regions. (See links.)
Elsewhere in Morocco, you can trek on sand dunes in the south, where the Sahara creeps into the country. Ouarzazate, Zagora and Erfoud are ideal bases to explore this region, where the ochre dunes are as spectacular as any you’ll find in the sandier countries. The Anti Atlas are a range south of the High Atlas, and are gentler (if wilder) mountains which top out at 2,500m Jebel Aklim. The Ameln Valley is one of the most spectacular and rustic parts of Morocco, known as the valley of 26 villages, which cluster up the sides of the hills like pink lego. A standout hereabouts is Aguerd-Oudad. If you prefer sea air to mountain air, there are some fine places to walk along the Atlantic coast, such as the area around Essaouira. There are few places where you can hit so many bases in one trip: take advantage of it and you’ll be amazed how good a time you’ll have.
Morocco – while hardly an adrenaline junkies’ paradise – is most certainly finding its feet as an outdoor destination, recently waking up to the natural bounty it has to offer. A lot of the country is still largely unspoilt, so provided you respect the local customs, even in the most basic rural communities you will be treated with at best a very warm reception, at worst mere diffidence. Essaouira is gaining a reputation as being a bit of a surf city, and is the resort destination of choice for many younger visitors to Morocco.
Marrakesh is full of sultry souks and markets where you can rummage til content, though you will end up spending most of your time haggling if show more than a passing interest in anything. At night the city comes even more alive, with the main square turning into a fragrant open air restauraunt which is quite a sight. Stake out a seat on the veranda of a café overlooking the square early and wait for dark.
Skiing is very popular in the High Atlas in winter, and there are several companies in Marrakesh which ofer rafting excursions and hot air ballooning. Horse riding and sea fishing are also gaining in popularity to take further advantage of the bountiful Atlantic coastline and the inland trails. Somewhat surprisingly, golf is also a very keen pasttime in Morocco, especially around the capital Rabat, which has an international-level course. Also try if you can to experience a hammam (Moroccan sauna) which will clean you in a manner you never dreamt. Some hotels allow non-residents to use theirs, otherwise check if the hammam is open to tourists first.
Alcohol is illegal in Marrakesh: FALSE. It is available fairly freely outside of the medina (walled old city), though inside the medina it is harder to come by as it is a Muslim city and drinking is far from commonplace. Do some digging before you go for licensed bars within the medina.
Moroccan houses are painted orange as a defensive measure to blend in with the desert: FALSE. They are painted orange because white walls reflect the summer sun too strongly, blinding passers by.
Must see and do
- Take a hammam bath in Marrakesh
- Go for a haggle in the souks of Fez or Marrakesh (recommended purchase: a berber robe).
- Climb 2 4,000m peaks – Toubkal and Ouanoukrim - in two days from the Refuge du Toubkal.
- Stake out a seat to watch the evening feast in the main square at Marrakesh
- Chill out for a weekend at Essaouira.
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