Seven SA walking safaris that are rebooting how we experience the bush
From the fynbos-full Cape to the lush Lowveld, these new guided, on-foot safaris will immerse you in nature
We love walking in our wild areas. Wildlife watching on safari is wonderful too. What happens when we merge the two? Magic happens.
All of our senses sit up and pay attention. We see the true richness of wilderness ecosystems, from the smallest insects to the mightiest trees. We smell the scent of wild basil and sage as we wander in a fever tree forest at dawn. Our ears warn us of possible dangers ahead, the crunch of a browsing elephant, the alarm call of a vervet monkey, the low grunts of a lioness with her cubs. Even our sense of touch is awakened, as we discover the incisors of a long-gone hippo, caress the cracked bark of a leadwood tree, try our hand with an ancient grinding stone.
It's no surprise that new walking safari opportunities are opening in SA's parks and reserves. From the Cape to the Lowveld, from sleep-outs to ultra-luxury camps, lovers of wild walks are spoilt with novel options that meet the growing demand for healthy outdoor experiential travel.
Some new trails launched just before the pandemic, only to see park gates shut. Now, with reserves open - and staying open - they are rebounding and welcoming guests. There are tempting special deals to be had and, following widespread summer rains, rivers are flowing and the bushveld is green.
Yes, 2021 will be the year of the walking safari.
SEVEN AWESOME WALKING SAFARIS AROUND SA
1. KRUGER SLEEP-OUT: PRIMITIVE PAFURI
Have you ever dreamed of drifting to sleep under the stars in one of the world's great wilderness areas? Primitive Pafuri may be the answer. For the first time in the Kruger National Park, hikers can go totally wild and sleep tent-free, taking turns for the night watch.
After a few test runs last year, African-Born Safaris is ready to lead adventures in the Pafuri Triangle in the park's far north, with the first trails planned for April 2021.
Known to be the Kruger's most biodiverse area, the landscapes vary from the spectacular Lanner Gorge in the west to the pans and fever tree forests of the Limpopo River flood plain to the east.
Hikers supply their own food and kit - but as long as the forecast is clear, can leave that heavy tent at home.
2. LUXURY SEASONAL CAMP: SIMBAVATI TRAILS
Timbavati Private Nature Reserve shares long unfenced boundaries with the Kruger and other reserves, so it gets plenty of four-legged browsers and grazers - and their predators.
Here, Simbavati Trails Camp is a luxury off-grid, four-tent camp that is established by an ephemeral river for the duration of the March-to-November walking season.
3. OFF-ROAD CAMPER HEAVEN: MORUKURU RUSTIC CAMP
At the heart of the Waterberg Unesco Biosphere Reserve, Marakele National Park may not have the scale of the Kruger but it compensates with spectacular escarpments rich in wildlife. A big advantage is that it's only half the distance for Gauteng residents - allow three hours or so for the drive.
SANParks Honorary Rangers has launched a new rustic camp in Marakele, modelled on its popular Nyarhi Rustic Camp in northern Kruger. Offered as a two-night weekend adventure, Morukuru Rustic Camp is for self-sufficient campers - there's nothing at the tamboti-shaded camp other than a braai pit, Enviro Loo and screened shower area.
Each day, experienced rangers lead walks that explore the bushveld and sandstone gorges. Wild swims are possible, so bring that cozzie.
4. GARDEN ROUTE FLORA & FAUNA: GONDWANA PIONEER TRAIL
A four-hour drive from Cape Town in the heart of the Cape's Garden Route, Gondwana Game Reserve offers perfect walking terrain. The year-long wealth of flora is the star attraction of this private reserve, but it also has the lure of exciting encounters with big game including lion, hippo, elephant, rhino, and buffalo.
All guests are encouraged to explore a little on foot to get intimate with the flora as part of the safari experience, and the Pioneer Trail was launched in 2020 to give guests the opportunity to traverse the 11,000ha reserve following animal trails. This three-night slackpacking adventure sees guests and their trail guides journey through the fynbos landscape via a series of luxury tented camps, carrying just their lunch and water.
5. CAVE CAMPING: AMAKHALA WALKING TRAILS
Amakhala Game Reserve is just a short drive for residents of Nelson Mandela Bay, and it has just launched an exciting new overnight trail for backpackers.
Guests hike about four hours on gentle animal trails and then overnight on camp beds in a cave overlooking the Bushman's River.
If backpacking is not your style, there are also dawn walks for lodge and safari camp guests, and recently these have been opened up to day visitors. Slow explorations on foot begin at 8am with expert guides interpreting the whole ecosystem, from dung beetles to elephants.
6. WILD ZULULAND: SOMKHANDA BUSH WALKS
In the remote north of KwaZulu-Natal, halfway between Ithala and Umkhuze parks, lies the community-owned Somkhanda Game Reserve. Wild Connection has taken on the tourism concession and now walks are on the menu.
Whether staying at the lodge or one of the fenced or unfenced camps, guests can book a four-hour bush walk or tracking experience. Somkhanda has all the big game you'd expect and low visitor numbers guarantee a genuinely wild adventure.
7. FACELIFT FOR AN OLD FRIEND: BUSHMANS WILDERNESS TRAIL
This one is a Kruger Park favourite thanks to its interesting hilly terrain and the chance to find a wealth of 25,000-year-old San rock art.
During lockdown, SANParks started a complete camp rebuild in a radical new style. Gone is the electric fence in favour of raised decks and walkways. Instead of A-frame huts and shared ablutions, you'll find roomy tents with en-suite facilities.
WHEN TO GO
Good summer rains have made this an excellent year to venture out on a trail in the Lowveld and the reserves of KwaZulu-Natal.
By now the rivers should again be fordable and the bushveld at its greenest. Peak walking season runs from April to October.
Marakele National Park is best for walks in spring and autumn, which are also the nicest times to enjoy lingering evenings by the camp fire
. In the reserves of the Western and Eastern Cape, short walks are enjoyable year-round, with September to May the best time for overnight walks.
• Hlengiwe Magagula is co-author of 'Walking Safaris of South Africa', published by Struik Travel & Heritage (R270). Both a practical guide and a lyrical evocation of the pleasures of walking in wild places, the book covers 21 parks and reserves with big game and guided walks.