Top 5 South Africa Hiking Trails to experience on your Overland Tour

January 28, 2020
Jodi Lucas
Jodi is an adventure enthusiast and Douglas Adams groupie who supports these addictions through travel writing. When she’s not hitting Cape Town’s surf, you’ll find her trawling pre-loved bookstores for a leather-bound volume of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

South Africa is an expansive playground capable of satisfying even the most die-hard traveler’s wanderlust. Whether you’re luxuriating on a premium safari tour in South Africa or getting back to basics on a budget Kruger Park safari tour, a South African overland tour takes you across the region’s diverse landscapes and breathtaking vistas.

Life on the road on an overland tour lets you tick off bucket list highlights while also allowing you to experience everyday life as a local. It puts you in the heart of all those places that are hard to reach on your own, exposing wide-eyed travelers to some of South Africa’s most raw, unadulterated terrain. But, while the scenery from the back-seat of an all-terrain truck is pretty impressive, it doesn’t quite compare to the feeling of getting your boots dirty on South Africa’s dramatic hiking trails.

From coastal wanders along barely touched beaches to mountainous hikes with spectacular views and nature walks in remote reserves, Southern Africa has an abundance of epic hiking trails to pick and choose from. So, lace up your hiking boots and get stepping, here’s our pick of the best single and multi-day hiking trails in and around South Africa.

Note: The number of hiking trails is almost too extensive to count. So we’ve left off a few South African hiking trail classics such as the Table Mountain 3 Peaks, the Cederberg Cracks, and the Giant’s Cup Trail to put a spotlight on the rest of South Africa’s beautiful terrain.

1. The Otter Trail, Garden Route

While most travelers dream of going on a scenic overland Garden Route tour, there is another option for intrepid hikers. The Otter trail is officially the oldest and the most iconic hiking trail in South Africa. Popular with both locals and tourists, this beloved trek leads adventurous wayfarers on a breathtaking pilgrimage along South Africa’s Garden Route spectacular coastline.

But, the incredible scenery along the route, from the Storm’s River mouth to Nature’s Valley in the Tsitsikamma Nature Reserve, is not the only thing that will take your breath away on this hike. While the trail’s name may evoke images of adorable otters holding hands, there’s nothing cute or cuddly about it.

The five-day hike is 45km long, follows a rugged and rocky shoreline ranging in elevation from sea level to a height of more than 150 meters. It might not be as demanding as some other longer trails but it’s steep climbs, descents, and technical river crossings should not be underestimated. The trail accommodation is extremely rustic, consisting of four overnight stops with basic amenities – tables, toilets, and showers – but everything else such as sleeping bags, food, pots and gas burners for cooking – you’ll have to carry with you.

Heavy packs, steep inclines, long all-day slogs, drenching river crossings and more than a little rock scrambling make this hiking trail a formidable quest reserved for adept trekkers. But, the rewards are those of dazzling scenery, epic adventure, and of course the post-hike bragging rights.

 

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Location: Garden Route, South Africa
Hiking trail type: Guided, Multi-day
Starting point: Storms River Mouth
Endpoint: Nature’s Valley
Duration and distance: The Otter Trail trail is 5 days and 4 nights long with a total distance of 45km

  • Day 1 = 4.8km (± 2 hours)
  • Day 2 = 7.9km (± 4 hours)
  • Day 3 = 7.7km (± 4 hours)
  • Day 4 = 13.8km (± 6 hours)
  • Day 5 = 10.8km (± 5 hours)

Fitness level: Hikers should be fit and strong enough to take on steep up and downhills as well as several river crossings. Previous multi-day hiking experience is advised.

Need to know: Due to the Otter Trail’s popularity, you have to book a year to sixteen months in advance. Bookings can be made through the South African National Parks.

Child-friendly? No
Dog-friendly? No
Contact: South African National Parks

2. The Waterfall Trail, Garden Route

If you’re short on time or not yet ready for the rigors of a 5-day hike, Tsitsikamma’s WaterFall hiking trail is a great alternative for those who are keen to see a glimpse of the Otter trail. Yellow painted “footprints” mark the way forward on this enchanting hike, which comprises of the first 3km of the world-renowned Otter Trail.

The Waterfall hike leads day-trippers on a scenic circuit trek through the region’s lush forests and rugged coastline before coming to an end at a spectacular waterfall plunging into a deep natural pool.

Although the trail starts out with an easy stroll through mixed terrain, it’s not all shady forests and easy-going footpaths along the dramatic coastline of the Indian Ocean. After the first kilometer, the terrain becomes more exposed and hikers should be prepared for some rock hopping and maneuvering while navigating around boulders and across rock faces.

This part of the hiking trail is fairly strenuous and caution must be taken at high tides, but those who push on are rewarded with a cooling plunge into the clear pool under the waterfall and a sneak look into Day one of the Otter Trail.

 

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Location: Garden Route, South Africa
Hiking trail type: Self-guided, half-day
Starting point: Storms River Mouth
Endpoint: Storms River Waterfall
Duration and distance: The Waterfall hike is 6km long (there and back) and should take you approximately 1½ hours to walk to the waterfall and 1½ hours back.
Fitness level: This trail requires a moderate level of fitness.
Need to know: The Waterfall hike is best undertaken during low tides and caution should be taken during high tide. The latest possible start time in summer is 14:30 and in winter it is 13:30. A conservation fee is required and payable at Storms River Mouth Entrance Gate

Child-friendly? No
Dog-friendly? No
Contact: South African National Parks

3. Wilderness Hiking Trails, Kruger National Park

The Kruger National Park has reigned over South African overland tour itineraries for decades. However, only six percent of this world-famous safari destination is accessible to visitors via the main public roads. For most people, a safari in the Kruger National Park involves hours and hours of driving, but these well-driven paths leave a whopping 94 percent of the region unexplored.

Luckily, there is an answer for those keen to discover the real African bush; A Wilderness hiking trail. From multi-day wilderness treks to day hikes beginning at the crack of dawn, SANParks has developed a comprehensive range of wilderness hiking trail options for every kind of traveler.

With about 2 000 000 hectares of land to cover, the list of wilderness hiking trails is extensive and picking one comes down to a matter of time and budget. But, no matter which walking trail you choose, you won’t be left disappointed.

Devoid of bustling luxury lodges and convoys of safari jeeps jockeying for prime game viewing spots, these remote, guided bush treks will introduce you to the minute wonders of the African bush. The crunch of your boots on the searing sand, the white noise of thousands of insects, the heady aroma of fresh earth; seeing Kruger at eye level is a must for true hiking and safari enthusiasts. Once you have done a wilderness trail in the Kruger National Park, there is only one way to explore the bush, and that is to walk it.

 

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Location: The Greater Kruger National Park
Hiking trail type: All trails are led by a trained guide and can range from multi-day treks to half-day morning walks. Check out SANPark for a list of backpacking walking trails and guided walks.
Starting point: varied depending on trail
Endpoint: varied depending on trail
Duration and distance: Dawn walks are generally less than 4kms and can last 4 hours. Multi-day hikes are anywhere between 2 – 5 nights long.
Fitness level: Wilderness hike in the Kruger National Park are fairly easy. The terrain is mostly flat and the pace is leisurely, but wilderness walking trails do require a decent level of fitness due to the heat, especially on multi-day treks where you’re carrying equipment.

Need to know: Groups are limited to eight people. On some multi-day hikes, participants will be responsible for setting up their own tents and carrying/cooking their own food and equipment.

Child-friendly? Day trails are suitable for children over 13.
Dog-friendly? No
Contact: South African National Parks

 

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4. Amphitheatre Hike, Drakensberg

The Drakensberg Mountain range is a siren song for mountaineers and should be on every hiker’s must-do list. If the height of the mountain range is not enough to leave you stunned, the sheer number of routes to choose from surely will. And, while they’re all well worth a trek, the famous Amphitheatre Hike is the Drakensberg’s best hiking trail.

Located in the uKhahlamba World Heritage site, this bucket-list worthy hike leads trekkers to the roof of Southern Africa via a series of winding paths and chain ladders. At 3000 meters, it sounds and looks impenetrable, but the rewards are well worth it for those up to the task.

Atop the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, the Tugela River plummets an astounding 948m, creating the second tallest waterfall in the world. In addition to this, the vistas over the jagged peaks and pinnacles of the northern Berg are magnificent.

Hike Drakensberg South Africa

Location: uKhahlamba-Drakensberg
Hiking trail type: Self-guided, half-day
Starting point: Sentinel car park
Endpoint: Sentinel car park
Duration and distance: The route is approximately 13kms long and takes 1 full day to summit and return
Fitness level: This trail is strenuous and a moderate level of fitness is required.

Need to know: R75 per person day-hiking permit is a requirement in addition to an R45 park entrance fee. The weather changes quickly at these altitudes so always be prepared for cold and misty weather, even if there are blue skies when you begin the hike. For those less comfortable with heights, there is an alternative path up a steep gully known as Beacon Buttress, but this route is not advised in wet or slippery conditions.

Child-friendly? No
Dog-friendly? No

Contact: All hikers should save the Mountain Rescue (KwaZulu-Natal) number in case of emergency 0800 005133

5. Addo’s Alexandria Hiking Trail, Addo Elephant National Park

The diversity of South Africa is astounding and one of the best ways to experience it is by trekking Addo’s Alexandria Hiking Trail. This 36km, two-day loop leads hikers on a mesmerizing expedition across three distinctly unique ecosystems.

The adventure begins in the emerald forest of Addo Elephant National Park before opening out onto six kilometers of untouched coastline. When night falls on the first day, the Woody Cape Hut – equipped with beds, mattresses, and toilets – provides a basic but comfortable overnight rest stop.

The second day of the trail is 16,5kms long and traverses the largest duneveld in the Southern Hemisphere before winding back to the beautiful indigenous forest of the third-largest national park in South Africa.

 

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Location: Eastern Cape
Hiking trail type: Self-guided, multi-day
Starting point: Woody Cape offices, near the town of Alexandria
Endpoint: Woody Cape section of Addo Elephant Park
Duration and distance: The total distance is 32km and it takes 2 days to complete.
Day one: 18.5 kilometers
Day two: 13.5 kilometers
Fitness level: You will need to be relatively fit to take part in the trail as you will be carrying all your own supplies and necessary gear with you.

Need to know: This is not a guided hike although well signposted and a minimum of 3 hikers will be required for you to take part. A maximum of 12 hikers can take part at any one time. If you do not book for twelve, the numbers may be made up by the booking office with other hikers. Woody Hut’s water supply is limited to drinking and cooking only, so you may have to forgo a shower.

Child-friendly? No
Dog-friendly? No
Contact: South African National Parks

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