Slackpacking South Africa - The 40 best trails. Click here for your digital booklet.
Multi-day hiking trails are a fabulous way of distressing, of getting out and enjoying the wonderful scenery and wildlife for which South Africa is justly famous. But many backpacking trails run through wilderness or sparsely populated areas where the only accommodation is in basic huts and refuelling is not an option. Everything you need for the trail goes with you on your back. That requires not only a strong back, but careful planning if you are to shoulder all your overnight gear, food and other necessities for several days.
But the good news is that you don’t need to rough it or be super fit and organised to enjoy long-distance hikes in South Africa. By paying a little bit more you can ‘slackpack’ and let someone else take care of your overnight gear and other logistics. Slackpacking trails in South Africa vary enormously in the amount of support on offer, but central to this style of hiking is that your bags are transferred between accommodation units every day leaving you free to walk with only a daypack containing your water, lunch, camera and jacket. What a win. If you carry a light pack you cover the ground faster, so you have more time to go off and explore, to swim in rockpools, laze in the sun and smell the flowers.
But avoiding carrying a heavy pack is just one of the charms of slackpacking in South Africa. With some 70 slackpacking trails on offer in the country – to suit all budget and levels of fitness - you can decide how much you’d like to be indulged. If you like a strenuous hike by day but all the creature comforts at night, no problem. If you prefer gentle walks interspersed with wine tastings, canoeing, boat trips or other diversions there are plenty of options. If you want to focus on the birds, the country’s floral bounty or on rock art there’s a trail (or several) to suit you. Many slackpacking trails are guided, enabling you to learn about the natural and cultural environment you are travelling through from fundis, explore remote areas or stride out on trails that are not well marked. And, at the same time you are creating job opportunities and give something back to local communities that you pass along the way.
Slackpacking thus makes long-distance hiking accessible – particularly to visitors the country or region, wise, and perhaps older, hikers who see no reason to take on unnecessary burdens, groups of (enlightened) women, family groups and those whose busy lives mean that they’d rather have someone else organise the logistics. People who would never have undertaken a long-distance trail had they had to carry a pack can now join the adventure. Those who are looking for a meaningful experience and greater understanding of an area and its people are enthralled by the knowledge imparted by the guides. And, of course, walking with a guide and in a group means that personal safety is no longer a concern.
When it comes to slackpacking trails South Africa is unequalled. Outside the winter months (which have their own attractions) the climate is generally warm and settled, ideal for multi-day hikes. You stroll under blue skies, enjoy spectacular sunsets then sit out under the stars. The trails, which cater to hikers of varying levels of fitness and agility, traverse some of South Africa’s wildest and most exciting landscapes – high mountains and vegetated kloofs, rugged cliffs and gold sand beaches, lush indigenous forests and fynbos-covered plains, arid wildernesses and verdant river valleys. On many you’ll be hiking through UNESCO World Heritage Sites and biosphere reserves, through picturesque winelands and quaint villages, among bizarre rock formations carved by the elements and to caves adorned with rock paintings. Fantastic birdlife is a given, there’s always small game to admire and often primates, large antelope and other game too.
The most rudimentary slackpacking trails - the self-guided, self-catered trails - are mainly along established, hutted backpacking trails where the only support is the transfer of your bags – and, importantly your cooler box – from hut to hut so that you can have the luxury of fresh clothes, a warm sleeping bag, pillow, good food, cold beer and fine wines at night.
One up on the comfort scale are trails where you overnight in cottages or guesthouses, where a comfy bed and hearty meals are provided. Some trails in this category are self-guided, others are guided. Some of the best value slackpacking trails in South Africa are led by community guides, with simple accommodation in villages along the way. These combine stiff walks with cultural immersions - opportunities to interact spontaneously with the people of the regions you hike through.
At the top end are the luxury trails where hikers are accommodated in top-notch hotels or guesthouses, treated to gourmet meals, wine tastings, spa treatments and other spoils. Since these are fully catered they require minimal packing and preparation so are ideal for busy, active sorts that want a hiking holiday. Different length packages, daily itineraries tailored to the interests, time and budget of a group and daily ‘escape’ routes and other diversions mean that unfit and non-hiking companions can be accommodated.
Gone are the days when you had to brave yesterday’s smelly socks, cram everything back into your bulging rucksack, struggle slowly up the hills and arrive tired and sore at your rustic camp. Slackpacking in South Africa means that you can hike hard by day, venturing into places that can only be explored on foot – then enjoy a shower, soft bed, a change of clothes, chilled G&T and a ‘real’ meal come evening. So go on, treat yourself. There is simply nowhere else in the world that offers such diverse, scenic and great value slackpacking trails.
By, Fiona McIntosh