Hiking the Highlands
Hiking might not be the first thing that pops into many people’s minds when thinking about the Highlands Meander Region of Mpumalanga, trout fishing “yes”, hiking” no”! Yet this small section of South Africa’s “Big Five” province is home to some of the best hikes in the Country.
Why are the Highlands a ‘Hiking Haven’?
The mix of dramatic scenery is certainly a big plus. Craggy cliff faces and the dominating escarpment wall, give way to lush green riverine valleys overflowing with indigenous forests and impressive waterfalls. Tantalizing rock pools feed streams of crystal clear water into the grasslands, for which the area is famed, producing oasis like wetlands brimming with wildlife in a sea of grass. Grass that during the spring and summer months are brought to life with a riot colours thanks to the hundreds of wildflowers that make the Highlands their home.
Then there is the climate. Yes in winter it can get a bit nippy, but whilst the rest of the country swelters in the hot spring, summer and autumn months the Highlands Meander remains refreshingly cool. So while you won’t be needing jumpers and thermals to hike here, you are also unlikely to be struck down by heat stroke at 7.30am! – But always take on board enough fluids!
With fantastic names like the Num-Num Trail, Five Assegais, Wathaba and Ama Poot Poot you can’t help but be intrigued by the hikes. I certainly was and I have to say, although I am not famed for being particularly “outdoorsy” this was one adventure where I fell in love with the journey!
The only question was, “where to start?” With countless day trails, over-night trails and a 5-day hike for the really adventurous. The options were almost too many to choose from, so I resorted to destiny, placing all the names in a hat and pulling out a hike that as soon as I saw it I wanted to place straight back into the hat!
The interestingly named Num-Num trail - a five day hike in the Skurweberg Mountains between eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) and Badplaas, that will take me through three different estates where I will be subjected to countless ascents and descents as I make my way from the Komati Gorge to where I will be able to see Swaziland!
Could I even do it? Certainly not with a backpack, so I breathed a heavy sigh of relief to see a ‘slackpacking’ option. For those of you who are unfamiliar to the term ‘slackpacking’, it is in my eyes the best way to hike! Swap your backpack filled with sleeping bags, clothing and food (I think you can already guess the idea of 5-days of easy to carry dehydrated mince meals is not my idea of fun), for an easy to carry day sack with just water, a waterproof, some snacks and a camera. Then for a little extra cash, let someone else drive and deliver your back pack to each of your overnight stops!
The bonus of doing the Num-Num trail was that I would get a taste of a number of the other day and over-night hikes offered in the area, as the Num-Num trail uses some of the same paths. So armed with my trusted SLR, a note book and 8 pens and more food than anyone needed, my party of intrepid explorers set off to begin our adventure.
First stop the Pongola Carriages and if all Hikes start like this then I am a convert! The beautifully preserved 1934 historic SAR train carriage that will be our home for the night took us back to a time where life seemed much more sedate. The rich wooden panels and awesome kitchen area makes you wish all five nights would be spent there! After receiving our information packs where we found out each of the marvellously named sections were all inspired by trees found along the route, we settled into our ‘Sleeping Carriage’ for an early night.
Day One… the Bergbas Roete! How hard could 5.98km be? I thought as I woke up exhilarated from a good night’s sleep in a bed steeped in history, but this was no walk in the park! The hike took us up craggy red cliffs and past aloes appearing to cling on to the rocks for dear life and yet thriving. The short walk up to the top of the escarpment feels a lot longer, but the views that greet you there make you forget about your sore calves as you look out from their version of ‘God’s Window’ and believe me this is a view that can compete with the original!
The walk along the cliff edge takes a head of heights and nerves of steel but it is worth it as the scenery is divine, especially once you begin the sometimes challenging descent into the enchanting yellow wood forest and through the sandstone rock formations that look like they are from Mars! 40 minutes was spent exploring the rock formations and enjoying the photographic opportunities they presented, before moving on to our overnight stop at Aloe Kaya Camp. While the Train Carriage was luxurious, this was simply mind-blowing. The double story glass front slotted into the sandstone maze was like nothing I had experienced before, the honest bar filled with cool refreshing beer and perhaps the best toilet I have ever sat on. I am not going to spoil the surprise but this loo should be added to your bucket list, pardon the pun!
Day Two… The Bladdernut Track: At 8.69km this is the longest walk but in this terrain it felt like a million miles, but it was also one of the best. It’s hard to put a finger on why, perhaps it was the open air shower at Aloe Kaya that started the day or the welcome dip in the crystal clear pools near Howards Fall that allowed us to reinvigorate both our bodies and or minds. Or the incredible scenery we passed on the way down into ‘Hell’s Kloof’, but it certainly wasn’t the calf breaking climb back out! Although the sandstone formations at the top and sea of wildflowers as we came back down meant our sore legs were quickly forgotten about. That night was spent in the beautiful thatched cottage of Bermanzi Camp, which granted us equally spectacular views of the Komati River from its cliff edge perch.
Day Three… The Milkplum Path: If we were going on visuals alone, this day is the one which would simply blow you away. Straight from the pages of ‘Lords of the Rings’, mossy embankments and crystal clear pools will ensure your constantly waiting for Sam and Frodo to make their appearance. While the steep-sided rock passage you need to climb through is taken straight from another scene in the film and really does appear to have been sliced open by some gigantic ancient blade. The suspension bridge crossing is pure fun and taking a leisurely lunch while enjoying an invigorating dip in one of the many pools is a must! This is all before the brave members of our group make the slippery journey off the beaten path to the base of Mpumalanga’s second largest waterfall, Uitkomste Fall, its well worth it. The day does end with a steep walk to Candlewood Camp, but again the views are incredible and the waterfall backdrop just sets it apart.
Day Four… The Pompom Way: Takes you on a magnificent adventure through enchantingly named natural attractions like ‘Cathedral Cave’ and the ‘Secret Valleys’. This 6.82km journey felt like one of the easier days, although our already weary bodies might just have got use to walking! It was the small things like the ever present butterflies or the bubbling cascades that provide entertainment along the whole trail.
The Final Day… Die Kokoboom Pad:
Waking up in the beautiful Pongola overnight camp was an absolute pleasure, the weariness of the day before shrugged off as the last day of our adventure was upon us. Enchanting forest paths, with branches that need ducking under and mosses covering the rocks, gave way to tumbling waterfalls and towering aloes, as we made our way through this final 6.82km stretch of our journey. The views were magnificent and the smattering of wildlife we saw along the way would briefly bring us back to reality, as we wandered in a seemly enchanted stupor totally captivated by the landscape, the trail and life in general. The Pongola Express appeared too quickly for most, as I think we could have happily spent another week wandering this fascinating landscape. A landscape rejuvenated and rediscovered by trail founders and owners Francois Darvall and Attie van Niekerk, who have spent over 20 years rehabilitating the natural vegetation, restoring the waterways and building the trail.
The question is what next, after this fantastic hike? Will anything else live up to the adventure?
Reading articles by people who have done the three day version of the Num-Num trail I would say certainly! Their journey seems so different to ours that we have already booked, but it won’t end there! Below is a list of Highland Hikes we plan taking and think you too should be setting foot on.
The Highland Hike Bucket List
Two Trails at Wathaba – Voted best trails in 2007 and 2012, could 2017 be their lucky year again? We think so as these trails ticks all the boxes. Set just 20.8km outside of the Highlands town of eNtokozweni (Machadodorp), the Wathaba Reserve is often described as a ‘piece of heaven’. The perfect mixture of waterfalls, flora and fauna, indigenous trees and rare bird sightings, so if you are passionate about tree’s (they have over 100 indigenous ones marked) or want to tick bald ibis, Knysna lourie and the long-tailed wagtail off your birding list this is the place for you.
With two trails catering for different hiking and fitness abilities, this is a place where the whole family can have fun. With the fairly easy 4km Bosbokcircular route being the perfect choice for novice hikers or those wanting to kick start their fitness regime with a nature hike. It is also very well marked, which is always comforting to those not as familiar with the ins and outs of map reading. The highlight of this route is passing the Wathaba Rainbow Falls three times during the adventure and ultimately ending up at the base where you can enjoy a leisurely dip to cool off. The natural pool is surrounded by wild flowers, making it the perfect setting for a late afternoon picnic.
For the more adventurous the 10km Lynx Loop is awash with waterfalls. Whether it is the tranquillity of Lana’s pool, the potential benefits of fertility falls, or the power of the Cascades where you can take a dip to cool down, all five of the waterfalls on the trail bring their own magic to this hike. With the additional fun of numerous river crossing, steps, ladders and bridges to traverse, this is definitely a hike for those who like being active.
Bermanzi Hiking Trail – Named after ‘The Mountain where the Water is’, if you are looking for water this hike will not disappoint. The two-day hike is set on the edge of the highlands between Emgwenya (Waterval Boven) , eNtokozweni (Machadodorp) and Badplass on the Genesis Route. A tribute to the ‘Lord of the Rings’ this is hobbit country, with dense indigenous forests, deep river pools and ancient yellow wood gullies providing the perfect setting for our favourite hobbits. While the imposing rock faces are more Mordor than the Elvin Realm, they hold their own enchantment in the form of a majestic waterfall that provides the thunderous soundtrack to a heart pumping suspension bridge crossing. It is no wonder this two-day 20km trail has featured in films like the ‘Ghost in the Darkness’ with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, it is the perfect mix of cinematic spectacular and natural beauty!
Five Assegais – This is the perfect mix of fabulous hikes and luxury living, a place you will simply never want to leave. With a 50km network of 1 and 2 day trails, you can certainly fill your days exploring this wonderful 1,500 hectare nature conservancy. A number of these trails feature in part on the Num-Num trail, but rather than making you feel you’ve already done these shorter hikes, it makes you want to experience them in their entirety! Certainly the 13.5km 1-day escarpment trail is a must for any keen hiker. Here you will have your breath taken away by spectacular view of the Bankspruit canyon at Aloe Khaya Camp, before enjoying the cooling mist produced by ‘Uikomste’, Mpumalanga’s second largest waterfall. Pools, rapids and a sandstone maze make this more like a natural adventure than a serious hike, as your inner child gets to nature at its best. Hell’s Bells trail is said by many to be the most beautiful and at 8.4km it is far less of a trek! Here you will descend through the magnificent Hell’s Kloof into a pristine and enchanting yellow wood forest. Where the wildlife appears to have come straight out of Disney! With many more one and two day trails to choose from you will be spoilt for choice and almost guaranteed to be coming back for more!
AmaPootPoot – Set on a private farm between Belfast and Dullstroom, this trail above all others allows hikers to experience the truly Scottish feel of the Highland region. With the same mix of natural features, the kloofs, gullies, gorges, grasslands, ravines, mountain streams, rock pools, cascades and waterfalls on the surface it appears no different from the others. Yet it is the morning briskness of the breeze, the occasional morning mists and the freshness of the air here that keeps people coming back for more and going home with the true sense of the Highlands.
The two one-day circular hikes are perfect for the novice hiker or occasional weekend outdoor enthusiast, although more experienced hikers would also enjoy them. The 6km ‘Trout Trail’ is a joy to walk, taking you through a range of exquisite scenery without really testing you. Be warned, you still will feel it a bit the next morning, especially if you are chasing after a 5 year old! While the 13km Reedbuck hike is more of a challenge, but still manageable for a novice. Both are brilliantly signed, a pleasure to walk and will ensure you have plenty of wonderful memories and great photographs to take back home.
Taking It the Next Step? Why not try doing the Num-Num route as a Trail Run? One or two day options are available for R770pp. There are also mountain bike trails too although these are strictly over 14 years only as it is a tough ride.
The 5-day Num-Num trails cost R1600pp, with an extra R470 slackpacking charge (worth every cent!), the 40day trail is R1375pp with a R415 slackpacking charge and the 3-day trail is R1265pp with R385 slackpacking charge. Day walks are R305 and overnights are all around R670 pp.