I had a few surprises when researching my new book Walking Safaris of South Africa, and one was the range of walking options. My favourite style is backpacking, but it turns out that most experiences are a lot more comfortable: from free-roaming slackpacking to comfortable trails camps and fine luxury lodges, there’s something for every taste and pocket. While Kruger Park is the epicentre of African walking safaris, it was also a revelation to find so many walking opportunities in other parts of the country, which means there are good options for every season.
Regardless of how much you spend, the actual walking experiences are similar, and you will always be in the safe hands of incredibly knowledgeable professional guides. When it comes to deciding what to book, a good starting point is your acceptable level of sleeping comfort – so let me tell you my favourite experiences, from foam pad to king-size indulgence.
Snooze on a sleeping mat under the starry sky
For me, backpacking trails are the ultimate in wilderness authenticity – hiking into pristine areas for a few days, carrying all your survival needs in your pack, finding a safe spot to camp, and leaving no trace. It’s also the cheapest form of walking safari, especially if you supply your own food.
But what about that heavy pack? Yes, you have to be fit to carry 12-15kg for four to six hours every day, but there is a way to reduce the load, and that’s to leave the tent behind and sleep under the stars. After overcoming some apprehension about the solo night watch, this has become my favourite way to explore the wilds.
1. Hike through Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
The sleep-out style is usually called a Primitive Trail and in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu Natal, they’ve been running these for over sixty years. My recommended variation is the four-day Explorer Trail, as the first and fourth nights are spent in a camp with proper beds and showers, which is to be appreciated after a long journey to the park.
The second and third night are spent in the expansive wilderness area in the iMfolozi section of the park, climbing to splendid river look-outs and bedding down in places that are near water sources and safe from big game traffic. (Packs and sleeping bags supplied on request at no additional fee).
2. Kick up dust in the Greater Kruger wilds
The other rich zone for backpacking safaris is the Kruger region, with a multitude of options in both the national park and adjacent Greater Kruger reserves. The SANParks-operated backpacking trails always use a tent, so if you’d prefer the sleep-out experience, a good option is to book a trail with Lowveld Trails Company. This outfit is run by experienced trail-guiding instructors, and will bring you into either Timbavati Private Nature Reserve or Makuya Nature Reserve, which both share unfenced boundaries with the Kruger Park itself. The Lowveld Trails Company operates a three-night primitive trail for groups of up to eight.
Tuck into a real bed in a dedicated trails camp
3. Enjoy exclusivity inside the Kruger National Park
My go-to recommendation for a first-time walking safari is a three-night SANParks Wilderness Trail in the Kruger National Park. Ok, the accommodation is not fancy, but it is just a place to sleep, and you’ll spend the days either out in the bush, or relaxing in the communal boma, spotting wildlife from the comfort of a camp chair. The food is more than acceptable, and there’s also time for close wildlife encounters from the game viewing vehicle on the way to and from walks.
There are seven wilderness trail camps spread through the park and as they have private access roads the game viewing experience is akin to exclusive private reserves at a fraction of the cost. Bushmans Wilderness Trail camp is the latest to get a full renovation, so is a good choice.
4. Find your feet in the Cape Floral Kingdom
While the lowveld has the lion’s share of walking options, there are several private reserves in the Western and Eastern Cape that have enticing multi-day experiences. The habitat in these areas supports less density of big animals, but compensates with fascinating flora and the little wonders of nature – and splendid scenery.
A relatively new option is the Pioneer Trail in Gondwana Game Reserve on the Garden Route in Western Cape province. From September to May this slackpacking adventure leads guests through the undulating flower-rich landscape via a series of comfortable tented camps.
Live it up at luxury lodges
5. Splash out on a specialist walking safari
There really are walking safaris for every budget, and for a special life event it’s tempting to splurge on the best. In KwaZulu-Natal, Phinda Private Game Reserve is rightly renowned for its conservation work and its range of immersive wilderness experiences. There are a number of luxury lodges that can be picked as a base for a specialist walking safari, and skilled trackers are used to track rhino, big cats and perhaps even the elusive suni, which is found in the rare dry sand forest area in the east of the reserve. Along the way, walkers will discover fossils, interesting plant life and other surprises of nature.
6. March across Marataba
In the west of Limpopo province, Marakele National Park forms part of the Waterberg UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and known for dramatic sandstone peaks home to colonies of Cape vultures. It’s just a 3-hour drive from Gauteng, so great for a long weekend escape. A SANParks property, it is also home to the highly luxurious Marataba lodges operated by the MORE Family Collection. Maximise time on foot and book the Marataba Trails option to let guides show off the incredible range of biodiversity from dung beetles to rhinos. Even a wild swim is a possibility along the way.
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Hlengiwe Magagula is co-author of Walking Safaris of South Africa, newly published by Struik Travel & Heritage. Both a practical guide and lyrical evocation of the pleasures of walking in wild places, the book covers 21 parks and reserves with big game and guided walks.
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