Mount Kilimanjaro may be the ultimate quest. But the undisputed champ of African hiking is that big country at the bottom end of the continent – South Africa.
One of the country’s greatest strengths is sheer volume. The global hiking app AllTrails lists more than 3,700 trekking trails and routes in South Africa compared to other top African trekking destinations: Kenya (20 trails), Tanzania (21), Namibia (33) and Morocco (18).
South Africa also offers incredible variety when it comes to terrain and climate: trails that range from coastal, mountain and desert to the country’s unique fynbos landscapes, which offer Mediterranean-like vegetation with extremely high biodiversity.
Trails in South Africa tend to be well-maintained and well-marked. Many of them boast overnight hiker huts. While it’s certainly possible to hire a guide, most of them are DIY – easy to hike on your own with equipment that can be rented or purchased at outdoor outfitters in Cape Town, Johannesburg and other big cities.
Last but not least is the fauna factor. While animals exist on every South Africa trail, those that pose the biggest threat to humans on foot (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard) are largely confined to places where you should never hike without a guide — namely game reserves and wildlife-oriented national parks.
Here are nine of South Africa’s best multiday backpacking trails:
South Africa’s oldest (established in 1968) and most celebrated hiking route, the Otter Trail runs along the Eastern Cape coast between Storms River Mouth and Nature’s Valley in Garden Route National Park.
The terrain varies from sandy strands and rocky shoreline to dense maritime forest and flower-filled fynbos vegetation with its iconic proteas. Birdlife is profuse and there’s a chance of spotting sea lions, dolphins, blue duiker antelope, hyrax and the cape clawless otters that give the trail its name.
Four overnight camps with huts, toilets, showers and braai (barbecue) areas are spaced along the trail. To preserve the integrity (and serenity) of the trail, only 12 hiking permits are available each day.
Distance: About 45 kilometers (27 miles)
Time: 5 days
Summit the legendary Drakensberg escarpment on a vertiginous route that rises high above Thendele Royal Natal National Park in KwaZulu-Natal province.
The hike isn’t long in terms of miles, but at times it’s literally straight up via chain ladders. The relatively flat summit – which lies at around 3,200 meters (10,700 feet) – is shared by South Africa and Lesotho.
Hikers who spend at least two nights at the summit have time to hike along the escarpment to jaw-dropping views of the Amphitheatre and Tugela Falls, which plunges a world-record 983 meters (3,225 feet).
Even on warm, sunny days at the bottom, hikes should be prepared for rain and thick mist at the summit, and even snow during the southern hemisphere winter. No more than 50 hikers per day are allowed to camp overnight.
Distance: 45 kilometers (27 miles)
Time: 2-3 days
Augrabies Falls National Park in the Northern Cape provides a dramatic desert setting for an under-the-radar route that starts near the biggest waterfall along the Orange River and meanders along the crest of its deep gorge.
Only opening between April and October when temperatures are at their mildest, the trail is hot and dry throughout the year. Hikers should carry plenty of water, sunscreen and head protection.
Hikers sleep in huts with bunk beds, toilets, cooking areas and potable water. The trail is limited to 12 hikers per day. Reptiles and birds are the most commonly spotted wildlife, but the national park also safeguards giraffes, zebras, leopards and a variety of antelopes including its namesake klipspringer.
Distance: 39.5 kilometers (25 miles)
Time: 3 days
Cape of Good Hope Trail
The fabled Cape of Good Hope provides a historical and highly scenic setting for a rugged loop trail with awesome ocean views and rich fynbos vegetation.
Starting from the Cape of Good Hope National Park entrance gate, the trail hops across mountains overlooking False Bay to Cape Point and features three overnight huts with bunk beds, showers, toilets, solar power and cooking areas. Day two takes the hike up the Atlantic shore and across the Cape Peninsula with a grand finale atop Rooihoogte peak.
The area’s biodiversity is unparalleled among temperate regions, with more than 1,080 plant species and 250 bird varieties, as well as ostriches, zebras, caracal cats and eight kinds of antelopes.
Distance: 33.8 kilometers (21 miles)
Time: 2 days
Kgaswane Summit Trail
The best overnight hike within a short drive of Johannesburg, the Summit Trail roves the rugged highlands of Kgaswane Mountain Reserve in the Magaliesberg Range.
The trail is accessed from several points including the park entrance near Rustenburg and the park visitor center. Hikers can crash at a primitive campground near the summit or in one of several mountain huts.
Humans and their evolutionary kinfolk have been hunting, gathering and hiking in the Magaliesberg for more than two million years, reflected in the fact that Kgaswane is part of a biosphere reserve that includes the Cradle of Mankind World Heritage Site.
Distance: About 25 kilometers (16 miles)
Time: 2 days
The lush inland mountains of Garden Route National Park provide a primal setting for a route that features prehistoric fern trees and cool rock pools, river crossings where the water is often waist-high and bright green highlands reminiscent of Scotland.
And it starts with the paradise beach at Nature’s Valley, near the first of five overnight huts tucked into the pristine indigenous forest or on lofty ridges with cooling breezes and panoramic views.
Hikers can top or tail the trek with other nearby adventure activities like bungee jumping, treetop canopy course, whitewater rafting or tubing and sea kayaking.
Rim of Africa
A hiking experience rather than a fixed trail, the Rim of Africa is a guided trek stretching through the mountains and valleys of the Western Cape from the remote Cederberg range north of Cape Town to the Outeniqua range near George.
Led by veteran hikers, the route is divided into nine traverses which hikers tackle one at a time over a period of years rather than an epic nonstop through-hike. Each traverse takes seven to 10 days during the South African spring (September-November).
Much of the route runs through classic fynbos vegetation and nearly all of the trek is considered strenuous, with many steep grades. Primitive wilderness camping is the norm, with buckets or natural pools to “shower.” But there’s nothing else like it anywhere on the continent.
Distance: 760 kilometers (472 miles)
Time: 9 weeks
The Free State’s most renowned hike, the Ribbok climbs through the colorful sandstone cliffs and rock formations of Golden Gate Highlands National Park, around a three-hour drive east of Bloemfontein.
Kicking off from Glen Reenen Rest Camp in the heart of the park, the first day is a relatively easy climb to an overnight mountain hut with bunks, a bathroom, braai (barbecue) area, and the possibility of a refreshing dip at the bottom of Ribbokspruit waterfall.
Day two entails a 1,000-meter (3,280-foot) climb to the summit of Generaalskop peak (2,757 meters/9,045 feet) before a descent back to Glen Reenen. Along the way look for wildebeest, zebra, blesbok, springbok and other grazers that inhabit the park.
Distance: 28 kilometers (18 miles)
Time: 2 days
Located roughly 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of Cape Town, Namaqua National Park protects a pristine stretch of Atlantic coastline famed for its wild beaches and incredible spring wildflower super bloom.
The park’s longest footpath is the six-kilometer (3.1-mile) Heaviside Trail, named for the Heaviside dolphins you can spot offshore. Running over coastal dunes and along remote beaches, the route runs between Kwass and Koringkorrel Baai campsites.
By following both the footpath and sandy 4×4 trails, intrepid hikers can extend their Namaqualand trek into a multiday hike that covers the entire coast of the national park between Groenriviermond Lighthouse and the Spoeg River with its spooky caves, with nine campgrounds along the way.
Distance: About 51 kilometers (31 miles)
Time: 4-7 days