An expert lists 6 of South Africa’s best, most wonderfully wild, walking safaris

From the Cape to Kruger, this walking safari expert selects her favourite multi-day wilderness adventures.
Written by Hlengiwe Magagula
17 March 2021

After the best summer rains for years, the bushveld is lush, sodic pans are full and wildlife is well fed. In April, as temperatures ease, there’s no better time to leave the vehicle in favour of trail shoes and venture on a walking safari. Following fresh leopard tracks through dew-covered grass at dawn. Spying on a browsing rhinoceros from the cover of a thorn thicket. Sitting by a small fire on night watch, listening to sounds of owls, hyena and lions. When it comes to experiences, nothing is more natural than on-foot exploration of the African bushveld. After all, we humans have wandered this way for over 200,000 years, and belong as much as the elephant and the elephant shrew.

South Africa Map

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.

Hlengiwe Magagula is co-author of new book Walking Safaris of South Africa – a complete guide to walks in South Africa’s big game wilderness areas. It covers the nation’s 18 parks and reserves – plus a couple in eSwatini, and one in Botswana – where walking safaris are available | Source: Hlengiwe Magagula

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

Hluhluwe iMfolozi Game Reserve
In Kwa-Zulu Natal province, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is second only to Kruger National Park in its range of walking safari options | Source: Melanie van Zyl

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.

Hluhluwe Primitive Trail
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi’s Explorer Trail features two nights sleeping under the stars bookended by nights in more comfort in huts at the base camp | Source: Denis Costello

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).

Also read: Hike up (then sleep beside) an active volcano

 

2. Kick up dust in the Greater Kruger wilds

Lowveld Trails Company
By carrying all your equipment on your back, you’ll enter a world accessible to a privileged few. There are no demarcated campsites or routes for these Trails. You set your own pace and explore according to your interests and capabilities, sleeping at a pristine site under the stars each night | Source: Lowveld Trails Company

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

Olifants River Wilderness Trail Kruger
Situated on the banks of the Olifants river, the Olifants Trail wilderness area is very popular as it offers remote valleys and gorges where the river flows through the Lebombo mountains, plus flat open plains with good game viewing potential | Source: Melanie van Zyl

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.

Gondwana Game Reserve walks
Each exclusive camp is comprised of four exquisitely appointed bedroom tents with en-suite bathrooms sleeping a maximum of 8 guests as well as beautifully furnished lounge and dining tents | Source: Gondwana Game Reserve

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

Walking Safaris South Africa
Phinda is home to rare sand forest and important endemic plant species, as well as some of South Africa’s rarest animals. Of the remaining 2000 hectares of sand forest that is being protected in the world, Phinda is home to 520 hectares | Source: &Beyond

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

Marataba Walking Safaris
Track game on the 23,000-hectare property in the Waterberg region of South Africa | Source: More Collection

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.

Also read: Africa’s top 9 conservation-led safaris (including a walk across the Masai Mara conservancies) 

 

Get the book

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.

 

Take a trip

Safari gets slightly more serious on your feet. Get in touch and we’ll suss out the best walking safaris for your needs. Our team of travel writers, safari guides and travel experts have the first-hand knowledge that is so valuable when planning a trip to Africa. 

Book your next trip with us

South Africa Namibia Morocco Kenya Ethiopia Madagascar Rwanda Mozambique

Share this African wonder with your friends

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp

If you liked this story, then you will love...

A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants
A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants
Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets
Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets
Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake
Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake
What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?
What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?
Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future
Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future

A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants

Across the African continent the populations of both species of African elephants – forest and savanna – have been declining due to habitat loss, poaching and human-wildlife conflict. Maybe a key to their salvation lies in their dung?

4 weeks ago

Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets

Lamu soared to fame after Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, and his then-wife Jerry Hall, visited in the 1970s. Yet this Kenyan island has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century and offers more than just an idyllic getaway.

1 month ago

Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake

Adventure awaits those willing to trek the Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile Mount Nyiragongo.

2 months ago

What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?

Emboo River Camp is seriously sustainable and we're obsessed.

3 months ago
A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants
A first for large African mammals: DNA used to count Gabon’s endangered forest elephants
Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets
Why Lamu is one of the Indian Ocean’s best-kept secrets
Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake
Hike up (then sleep beside) the world’s largest lava lake
What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?
What the heck is a carbon-neutral safari anyway?
Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future
Senegal is decolonising its heritage, and in the process reclaiming its future

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.