Let SA's historic staircases inspire you to step up your fitness game

Step training is far more fun outdoors than at the gym. Claire Keeton suggests some scenic flights of stairs that'll motivate you to get climbing

15 April 2018 - 00:01 By Claire Keeton
Step training outdoors is more far more fun than than hitting the step machine at the gym.
Step training outdoors is more far more fun than than hitting the step machine at the gym.
Image: 123RF\mimagephotography

Two hundred and forty. That's the number of steps I walk from the ground floor of the building where I work in Cape Town, up a dingy stairwell, to the 12th floor every day. Not exactly Stairway to Heaven, but at least our newsroom has a great harbour view. Two hundred and forty isn't 10,000 steps, the daily target set by many wellness programmes, but going up is better for fitness than flat walking.

Outdoor step training is more fun than indoor, and several South African cities have historic flights of stairs where people meet regularly to walk or run, from the Westcliff steps in Joburg to the Biskop steps in Clifton, Cape Town.

When I moved to Cape Town I was puzzled why anyone would walk up steps rather than on Lion's Head or Table Mountain - always my first choice if I have enough time and the sky is clear - until I tried the Biskop stairs.

What gives Biskop an edge is efficiency, when time is scarce. Like many flights of stairs along the Cape Peninsula, these steps are steep and tiring to do at speed. Half an hour of laps on the 301 steps is a solid workout.

The waves provide a rhythmic soundtrack for every step up, and the view over the ocean on the way down is mesmerising.

The Westcliff stairs in Joburg.
The Westcliff stairs in Joburg.
Image: 123RF/suds344

If the stairs are crowded with fashionistas and athletes, however, you may have to dodge them while admiring sixpacks or gear instead of gazing at far horizons.

Westcliff's stone steps also attract stylish walkers and athletes amid the academics, dog walkers and harrowed parents who do laps up and down them, mostly at sunrise and sunset.

Blossoms adorn the narrow stairs in spring, and occasional dog turds, and from the top you have an unparalleled view north over the city.

Another memorable place to climb steps is at the Moses Mabhida stadium on Durban's Golden Mile. Unlike most stairs, these are not free, but they are worth the trip. The 360° view from the top of the 106m soaring arch is spectacular.

The Adventure Walk to get there has 500 steps and safety equipment is required. I stopped at a platform 70m high to do the Big Swing across the stadium, which was even more fun than the Bloukrans bungee jump. Make your steps count, try it.

There are famous steps to explore across the world, like the Spanish Steps in Rome's Piazza di Spagna, with a fountain at the foot, or the sheer stairs to ancient Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The Spanish Steps in Rome.
The Spanish Steps in Rome.
Image: 123RF\Sboriso

Steep mountain ascents are what I like most (if it's impossible to rock climb) and I'm lucky to live near Table Mountain, so I've started walking up it. This can be risky alone - not advised - but the routes I go up require some skill and are too dangerous for potential muggers, I hope.

When I've joined Cape Town climbers on technical scrambling routes, from a pregnant climber to a couple over 60 with Olympic bodies, I've struggled to keep up. They are supremely fit, which has inspired me to make uphill hiking a regular activity.

Going up Table Mountain, my low heart rate rockets to about 130 bpm on my own. But going at a leisurely pace with a friend over three hours, it was 87bpm, earning me zero fitness points from Discovery Vitality - despite ascending 800m up on a rocky 3.5km hike!

Doing a harder route with a non-climbing friend, my pulse spiked to 160bpm as I tensely watched her haul herself hand over hand up a chain with no real footholds. But we made it in time for her to catch her flight and to see a flaming sunset.

Friends, views and uphills. These are enough to jolt me out of my relaxed pace when I'm active outdoors, into a high-intensity zone that has its own high.