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