Outdoor South Africa

Map of South Africa

Through all the murkiness of South Africa's tumultuous history, one thing is clear: South Africa is a land that its peoples—all of its peoples—care passionately about. And like its peoples, South Africa is a land of dramatic diversity. Seacoasts, mountain ranges, forests, arid plains, deserts: all have a special quality that set them apart as uniquely South African. This quality is a combination of climate, wildlife, and terrain that must be directly experienced to be understood.

GORP has taken a long hard look at the provinces, ferreting out the best places to visit, particularly the national parks and nature reserves. Take your pick, South Africa is a big country and the choices are overwhelming. No one province is just one thing; all are multi-faceted. To explore South Africa's amazing seacoast, head for culturally distinctive KwaZulu/Natal, or the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces—but all of these provinces have vast and varied interiors that can be rugged or bucolic and anything in between. Arid landscapes characterize northern South Africa, Northern Cape Province, and the Free States. But again, the terrain of these provinces can be ruggedly dramatic or gentle and windblown. And there can even be areas that are moist and misty. There can be no pat description of any of the provinces.

The South African government and citizenry have set aside important areas in an enlightened system of protected places. For those who like to do their exploring on foot, a wonderful system of trails has been set up that allow you to get up close to the terrain and the wildlife. True to GORP tradition, hiking has been emphasized in our current round of South Africa coverage, thanks largely to materials provided by the South African Tourist Board (SATOUR). But bicyclists and paddlers will also find many opportunities to use their transportation system of choice to see some wonderful country. And, South Africa is a 1-A country to drive, with a good system of roads and, usually, English-speaking mechanics.

Protected Places

South Africa has an enlightened system of protected public land.

  • A national park will have more developed recreational infrastructure. Generally, they were declared and are maintained as public education and recreation centers and the focus is on human use.
  • A reserve is set up primarily to protect and research specific habitats. Human use and recreation is a corollary, not front and center as at national parks. In South Africa, many reserves are owned by non-governmental bodies.
  • A wilderness is a roadless area left in its pristine natural condition.
  • A protected landscape preserves a scenic area. Seashore and also farming country are frequently protected because, well, they're great to look at. Such areas frequently have the double benefit of protecting a human way of life. In the case of protected seashores, this might mean encouraging traditional fishing as opposed to resort-style tourist development. In the case of protected farmland, small-scale family farming is encouraged over industrial agribusiness. Plus you get great farmstands.

Many regions have created complexes of parks, reserves, and protected landscapes. This extends the benefit. For instance, you're at a national park and taking a tour led by charming and committed rangers. At an adjacent nature reserve, a solitary scientist monitors the population of a threatened species of bird. And next to the reserve, a farmer cheerfully sells homemade organic Natal plum jam to tourists enroute to the national park, having eschewed the pesticides that were killing off the bird species. Everybody wins, human and non-human.

Hiking is a great way to explore these lands. Many of these walks need to be booked—sometimes months in advance. Now is the time to do the research.

What is the best way to explore South Africa?

Flying is fast, traveling by train relaxing, and motoring has its undoubted merits—but how much does one learn of the country while speeding over or above it? A certain amount, admittedly, if the interest is there... yet the delight of packing a few days' provisions in a rucksack, donning comfortable clothes and sturdy shoes to walk the wild places, provides a much more comprehensive way of exploration than any of these modes of travel. And the most satisfying and instructive part of hiking in this country is guaranteed if one follows the route indicators (painted footprints on tree trunks, fence posts, or stones) found along the many trails of South Africa's National Hiking Way System. Hiking means different things to different people. For some its chief appeal lies in the healthy out-of-doors exertion it provides, the peaceful sleep after a day's toil through valleys and up mountain slopes. Nature lovers value it highly as a means of enriching their knowledge of fauna and flora—a chance to hear the call of elusive forest birds, to see the brilliant array of flowers, the wealth of insect and small animal life along a trail, to experience the delight of relaxing within sight of sparkling waterfalls or meandering streams.

Still others are attracted by another matchless opportunity a well mapped out trail presents: it gives insights into the history and geology of a region. Organized hiking in South Africa—along trails defined and administered by the National Hiking Way Board—is becoming more and more popular. Annually, thousands of people go hiking along the sections of the National Hiking Way System which have been gradually extended and developed. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, the entire system will extend in an almost unbroken line from the Soutpansberg range in the Northern Transvaal to the Cedarberg Wilderness area in the Cape Province, spanning thousands of kilometres of mountainous, bushveld and coastal terrain.

For more information on hiking opportunities in South Africa, contact the:

National Hiking Way Board
Department of Environment Affairs
Private Bag X447
Pretoria 0001
South Africa
Tel. 27 (012) 299-2632

Special thanks to the South African Tourist Board (SATOUR), (212) 730-2929, for helping GORP develop South Africa park & hiking trails information.


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