Outdoor South Africa

National Parks & Reserves in the Northern, Northwest, and Mpumalanga Provinces
Map of northern South Africa
Within a summer rainfall region, northern South Africa features two distinct areas: a relatively dry area with hot summers and cold winters in the west covering much of the highveld; and in the eastern lowveld, the escarpment in the vicinity of the Blyde River Canyon and the Soutpansberg. More generously endowed with rainfall, cool wreaths of mist swirl above the heights of the Eastern Transvaal in summer—even in mid-winter the peaks of the escarpment are free of snow and ice.

The most popular hiking trails and nature walks in the Transvaal are situated on the plateau which dominates the landscape. Each reflects its own charm and distinctive attributes. There are sections, for instance, under the serene green canopy of the pine forests where the constant call of the red-cheated cuckoo accompanies the hiker on his way. Others through dense evergreen forest, verdant with lush ferns and undergrowth, may yield the glimpse of a lourie, its tail and wing coverts dark metallic green. In full flight this jewel of the southern skies is transformed into a bright crimson flash. Samango monkeys stutter their staccato calls in the living silence where rivers tumble over rock faces and the hiker is rewarded with the welcome luxury of a cool dip. Certain sections offer wide panoramic views.

Seasonally the grasslands of these higher peaks are strewn with everlastings, protects, aloes, terrestrial orchids, and species of heath. Rocks are often eroded into strange dragon-like formations by wind, water and weather. Trees stand dwarfed against red and green lichen-covered buttresses where rivers have deepened into gorges in a process involving millions of years. Along the routes birds of prey are abundant—small antelope such as grey rhebok, oribi and haunt the area but tend to shy away from hikers. Besides those of the escarpment there are other routes such as the Gold Nugget and Prospector's Hiking Trails which give the hiker insights into the historic days of alluvial gold recovery before the turn of the century and provide him with the opportunity of spending a night in an early miner's house, a perfect replica of those built during the hectic years of the gold rush era.

Moreover the independent backpacker, who wishes to cut his own path through the wilderness, will find the massive state forests, especially in the vicinity of the rugged Wolkberg, most rewarding. Day walks are available throughout the area and there is much scope for a wide choice of landscape.

Significantly the celebrated Kruger National Park falls within the Lowveld and offers guided walking trails under the supervision of experienced game rangers. These trails or walking safaris do not follow established paths and are not pre-planned along any specific route. They are neither hiking trails nor tests of endurance but rather a wilderness experience on foot in search of the natural, untouched beauty of the bush and its many wild inhabitants, lion, hippo, and elephant among them.

Within the Lowveld, there are others such as the Giraffe Hiking Trail which offer glimpses of wildlife, less daunting, perhaps, for some than the formidable species one is likely to encounter in the Kruger Park.

A number of routes have also been established in the Western Transvaal and Highveld. Near Middelburg various routes on municipal grounds and private farms take the hiker through typical Highveld grass plains to deep river ravines. Here, where the landscape yields to well-wooded bushveld vegetation, age-old Cycads stand motionless against the scenic backdrop of hills.

Provinces in north South Africa
Northern Province
Northwest Province

Northern Province

Kruger National Park & Around

Kruger National Park
A huge, and hugely popular, park—230 miles long and averaging about 40 miles wide. The place is teeming with wildlife, and visitors. Three quarters of a million people came through in 1995, with more and more expected every year. Contiguous to Kruger are some game reserves, where you may have to pay a little more money to hang with the cheetahs, but hey, a little peace and quiet is worth it, especially if you've come all this way to see African wildlife. Kruger's effective borders are expanded by a host of contiguous or nearby game reserves, including Idube, the Londolozi Game Reserve, the Mala Mala Game Reserve, the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve, the Manyeleti Game Reserve, and the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve.

The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is an enlightened experiment in cooperation among private landowners. Almost 200,000 acres are jointly owned by 30 different farmers who have banned hunting and introduced endangered species, including the rhino and sable. The reserve is especially famous for its "white" lions. There are on-site lodges here.

In addition to the above backpacking trails, there are four fascinating wilderness trails, which are conducted in the Kruger National Park under the protection and guidance of experienced game rangers. These are the Wolhuter and the Boesman (both between Pretoriuskop and Malelane), the Olifants (in the vicinity of Letaba), and the Nyalaland (near Punda Maria in the northern area of the park). They consist of two days walking, with the opportunity of seeing the rich variety of bird life, animal life, and vegetation that the great Park offers, sleeping three nights in tents in the bush. All equipment and food is supplied and transported by the National Parks Board. Only persons between the ages of 12 and 60 years are allowed to participate, with a maximum of 8 persons per group.

Letaba River Area

A rugged, misty region of tea and fruit plantations, subtropical forests, and trout streams.

Hans Merensky Nature Reserve
An exceptional reserve—13,000 acres bordering the Letaba River. Lots of game viewing, either from hiking trails or from your car. Interesting flora as well. And great hiking. . .

Route: In the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve. From the visitors' centre to the overnight huts with a circular route the second day and back to the visitors' centre.
Length & Duration: 3 days 35 km circular route
Accommodation & equipment: 3 huts equipped with bunks, mattresses, firewood, barbecue facilities and cooking utensils, lamps, eating shelter, and shower. (Both nights spent at same huts).
Max. Trail Capacity: 10

Letaba and Waterbuck Nature Trails

Route: Circular routes from visitors' centre in the Hans Merensky Nature Reserve.
Length & Duration: 5 km 2 hours and 15 km 4 hours, respectively
Accommodation & equipment: Consult the Information Officer of the Reserve.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction.

Magoebaskloof Trails

Trails through the indigenous forest along the northern slopes of the enchanted Magoebaskloof.

Magoebaskloof: Section Dokolewa:
Route: Circular route near Tzaneen. Rest hut and starting point at De-Hoek Forest Station. Through indigenous forest, mountain valleys, and past waterfalls.
Length & Duration: 36 km 3 days or 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Section Grootbosch:
Route: For the first 10 km the Grootbosch and Dokolewa sections follow the same route, after which it branches off to go through the largest indigenous forest in Transvaal. End point: Christinarus, 7 km from Duiwelskloof.
Length & Duration: 28 km 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: 1 'Lapa': Hikers to provide their own tents, food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 8

Wolkberg Wilderness Area and the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve

42,000 acres of dense virgin forest, waterfalls, high mountains, and lotsa birds. No fishing or hunting, but a wonderful place to camp and soak up that old growth vibe. As long as you're in the neighborhood, stop by the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve. Lekgalameetse covers some 50,000 acres, much of it original forest. Visit for the flora: over 1200 species, including the rare Aloe monotropa.

Route: Circular route in the New Agatha State Forest 18 km from Tzaneen.
Length & Duration: 11km
Accommodation & equipment: No reservation, but a permit is required.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction

Woodbush State Forest

This is the largest indigenous forest in Transvaal. Great wildlife. Watch out for leopards.

The Waterberg

This mountain range that gets its names for the many springs and streams that flow through it. If you're at all literary, you'll want to read the work of Eugene Marais, a poet and naturalist, who wrote movingly about the area. This is a good area for horseback riding.

Ben Alberts Nature Reserve
2150 hectares. Mucho wildlife.

Big (8000 hectares), private, and luxurious. See the Big 5, and sleep with all the pillows you want that night.

Masebe Nature Reserve
This 5000 hectare is a good place to see San rock paintings and other traces of their culture.

Lapalala Wilderness
A very important 63,250 acre wilderness. Let us count the ways. . . lots of wildlife, especially birds—270 species have been recorded. There's a true wilderness area along with an education center and a third area containing the Kolobe Lodge and Rhino Camp. Good canoeing in the bilharzia-free Lapalala and Blocklands Rivers. A protected environment for the exquisite and endangered roan antelope. A place to be treasured.

Soutpansberg Mountains & Around

Right near the Tropic of Capricorn, the Soutpansberg rise abruptly from an arid plain. Suddenly flat grassland becomes rugged forest. Great scenery, great wildlife, great hiking. Great.

Lesheba Wilderness
Varied terrain—grasslands, forests, plains & cliffs—and varied wildlife—leopards, baboons, white rhinos, leopards, warthogs, zebras. Explore.

Soutpansberg Hiking Trails
You have several ways to explore the terrain around the Soutpansberg range. You especially might want to consider hanging around the western end in the Sand River Gorge and hitting some trails up to the San rock paintings.

Route: From Hangklip Forest Station about 3 km from Louis Trichardt to Entabeni Forest Station.
Length & Duration: 91 km 5 days or circular route 21 km 2 days or 36, 1 km 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Route: Circular route near Sibasa.
Length & Duration: 54 km 4 days
Accommodation & equipment: No huts, but firewood, water and toilets are available.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Ben Lavin Nature Reserve

This 6,175-acre reserve is run by the Wildlife Society of South Africa. Four trails. The Tabajwane Trail is especially good for wildlife. Be alert for giraffe, zebra, leopard, and the rare brown hyena or antbear.


Route: From the camp a circular route to Tabajwane Kopje.
Length & Duration: 8 km 4 hours
Accommodation & equipment: Hikers must provide their own water. Map of resort is obtainable.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction. Camp can accommodate 60 persons

Tahumanini Springs
Route: From Zebra Dam a circular route to Tshumanini Waterhole.
Length & Duration: 5 km 2 and a half hours
Accommodation & equipment: Motorcars may be parked at Zebra Dam.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction. Camp can accommodate 60 persons

Nwanedi National Park
There are three major things to do in this park: admire the scenic background of Soutpansberg, walk to the Tshihovohohovho Falls, fish the Nwanedi and Nwanedi dams. Isn't that enough?

More in the Northern Province

Nylsvley Nature Reserve
A birdwatcher's mecca—more than 400 species of birds have been spotted in the reserve's boundaries! Used by South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research to study the savannah ecosystem of South Africa.

Potgietersrus Nature Reserve
Breeding center for the National Zoological Gardens—a nature center you can drive through.

Northwest Province

Pilanesberg National Park
A roomy 500 sq. km. An amazing example of a successful rehabilitation program, this area was farmed until the 1970s. The land was purchased by the government, the game restocked, and the area has really come back. A dry volcanic landscape takes in two vegetation zones: the Kalahari thornveld and the sour bushveld. This is the Africa of popular imagination: giraffes, elephants, rhinos, zebras, and the predators: cheetahs, leopards, jackals, and hyenas.


Route: Pilanesberg Game Reserve at Sun City
Length & Duration: 3 and a half days
Accommodation & equipment: Guided Trails. Return to tent camp each night. Eating and cooking facilities are available.
Max. Trail Capacity: 6

Rustenburg Nature Reserve

If you must go to Sun City, stop here before or after. A pretty region in the Magaliesburg Mountains, vibrant with seasonal wildflowers and abundant birdlife. The martial eagle and the black eagle are both common here, and the reserve has a breeding colony of the endangered Cape vulture.


Route: The circular route is situated on the Rustenburg Nature Reserve and stretches from the Koedoe hut up to the Hartbees hut on the plateau of the Magaliesberg range.
Length & Duration: 22 km 2 days
Accommodation & equipment: 2 huts equipped with mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, and cooking equipment. Firewood is available.
Max. Trail Capacity: 10

Peglerae Interpretative Trail
Route: Rustenburg Nature Reserve.
Length & Duration: 4 km 2 and a half hours
Accommodation & equipment: Guided by Officer or guidebook.
Max. Trail Capacity: No restriction.


Transvaal Drakensberg

Blyde River Gorge Nature Reserve
More than 64,000 acres where the highveld ends on the Transvaal side of the Drakensberg. This is a spectacular gorge with many dramatic rock features and hiking trails for getting around.

Fanie Botha
Route: From Ceylon State Forest to God's Window.
Length & Duration: 79 km 5 days or 2 circular routes, 3 days each.
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Route: From God's Window to Swadini in the Sybrand van Niekerk Public Resort.
Length & Duration: 65 km 5 days 32 km 2 days.
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and 5 days or mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Route: From Mac-Mac via Pilgrim's Rest to Bourke's Luck. Shorter circular routes also available.
Length & Duration: 69 km and 55,3 km 5 days each.
Accommodation & equipment: Huts equipped with bunks and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, lighting, stoves, cooking utensils, and first-aid equipment.
Max. Trail Capacity: 30

Eerste Liefde
Route: From Bourke's Luck Potholes via Eerste Liefde back to the Potholes.
Length & Duration: 24 km 2 days.
Accommodation & equipment: Bourke's Luck Potholes—4 stone huts equipped with bunks, mattresses, braai—places, firewood, toilet, and open-air shower. 'Eerste Liefde' one hut with bunks, mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, cooking utensils.
Max. Trail Capacity: 20

Route: From Bourke's Luck Potholes via Muilhu is and Op-de-Berg near Devil's Window and back to Bourke's Luck.
Length & Duration: 40 km 4 days.
Accommodation & equipment: Bourke's Luck Potholes: see Eerste Liefde. Muilhuis: primitive cottage with beds and mattresses. Op-de-Berg: log cabin with beds and mattresses. Hikers must provide their own food, sleeping bags, gas stoves, cooking utensils, etc.
Max. Trail Capacity: 10

Mt. Sheba Nature Reserve
Also in the Transvaal Drakensberg. This is an example of the indigenous forest otherwise destroyed in the nineteenth century by mining. A misty, rainy, slightly melancholy place, but beautiful and to be treasured.

Songimvelo Game Reserve
140,000 acres near Swaziland, with no lions, no rhinos. So you can walk, or ride horseback, and you won't get mauled or charged. The climate is mercilessly hot, but if you can bear it, this is a good place to explore the lowveld, and believe that you'll live to show the slides.

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

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »