My partner Kalysha’s academic work in the field of HIV research has brought her to South Africa every summer for the last few years. She had been asking me to join her ever since we moved in together, but there had always been some reason for me to stay closer to home while she went, including my 2021 thruhike of the Appalachian Trail. This year, as she began her annual campaign to convince me to make the trip with her, the familiar instinct of feeling like I was too overwhelmed at work to get away was my immediate response.
But over the next couple weeks, I had enough time to reflect and realize that, while I would have more than enough opportunity to catch up on work over the course of my life, the chances to visit a new continent and experience new cultures and natural landscapes don’t necessarily come that often, and I should take this one while I could. So I negotiated the time off with my manager (successfully, thankfully), and we booked our flights to Cape Town.
Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, two icons of the South African landscape
Kalysha and I had a total of about six weeks to spend in South Africa. It was enough time to really settle in and experience the people, land, and wildlife of the area with some depth, but given the massive size of the country, we still had a lot of ground to cover. We flew in and out of Cape Town, the second largest city in the country that sits at the southern tip of Africa. From there, we flew to Durban, another large city on the Indian Ocean where Kalysha needed to get some work done and my only priorities were to explore the beautiful coastline and forests of KwaZulu-Natal province. From Durban, we visited as much of the country as we could by driving back to Cape Town, making stops along the way for hiking trips in the dramatic Drakensberg mountains, through the deserts of the Free State province, and along the picturesque beaches of the Garden State.
Our travel route to see as much of South Africa as possible. Image: Google Maps
I didn’t go anywhere on this trip without my Six Moon Designs Wy’East. I’ve loved this pack ever since I carried the original model in robic nylon for over 2,100 miles on the Appalachian Trail. I like the minimalist aesthetic, handy shoulder pockets, and bomb-proof construction. My newest model is made out of EPX200, which is even more waterproof than the original and includes a few thoughtful upgrades from the previous iteration like a loop for stashing an ice axe or umbrella, and an inner zip pocket that’s more than big enough to fit a passport and other valuables.
Throughout our time in South Africa, Kalysha used the Six Moon Designs Flight 30, which she loves because the vest-style straps prevent shoulder and neck pain that plague her chronically when she uses packs with traditional shoulder straps.
Although my original plans changed and I didn’t actually end up doing any camping on this trip, I carried my Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape (and the rest of my usual sleep system) the whole way. It’s probably some kind of ultralight sin of the highest order to carry so much unused gear, but it’s a testament to how light and packable all this stuff is that I was able to bring a whole extra extra shelter and sleep system in my carry-on luggage without issue.
The Six Moon Designs Wy’East in the Drakensberg Mountains
We spent a total of 37 days in South Africa and everyday I shot photos and wrote some words about our travels so that I could share the experience with folks back home. I hope you’ll enjoy a few of these highlights.
South Africa Day 1 - Cape Town
After sleeping off the long trip from Canada, we woke up on our first day in Cape Town and popped into town for coffee and breakfast and got to know our new surroundings. The city was socked in a dense fog, but I could feel it start to burn off as the sun started to heat up. Our breakfast of vegan French toast and eggs Benedict at a spot called We Cafe was perfect.
We were staying on the edge of town within walking distance of the trail network in Table Mountain National Park, so we were in a great position to head out around midday on our first objective of the trip and hike to the summit of Lion’s Head, a very prominent peak overlooking the city. It was a steep trail, at times exposed and making its way up the mountain assisted by chains and ladders. The whole day, as the weather cleared up, we were mesmerized by the clouds that blew in from the ocean, drifted over the mountain peaks, and evaporated as they drifted down into Cape Town.
The Lion’s Head summit was beautiful, and the view of Table Mountain dominating the landscape above the city was the highlight. After Lion’s Head, we walked over to the summit of Signal Hill where families drove up the road to enjoy the views we had hiked for, and paragliders launched out over the ocean. We descended from the hill during golden hour, the skies now completely clear, and admired the way the fading sunlight lit up Lion’s Head – where we had been up that morning – and the town below.
Descending Lion’s Head, with Table Mountain and Cape Town in the background
South Africa Day 19 - Drakensberg
We woke up on our first morning at the Cathedral Peak Hotel to cloudy weather, the nearby peaks of the Drakensberg hidden in the mist. So we weren’t in too much of a hurry to get out of bed, and enjoyed coffee in our room while some curious bushbucks (like mini deer) showed up on our porch to hang out.
We visited Doreen Falls, hiking on some pleasant but rough trails, seemingly made just from years of people and animals tramping over the grassy hills. The clouds never opened up enough for the landscape around us to completely reveal itself, but what we could see sure was nice. I did a lap of the “jogging trail” (what makes it different from all the walking trails is unclear), we grabbed a quick lunch, and then left for our afternoon hike up to the geological formation called Mushroom Rock.
The trail took us steeply up the hills away from the hotel, high enough to get our first proper panorama of the surrounding area. We soaked in the scenery while listening to the slightly disturbing sound of baboons yelling in the distance. But the views didn’t last long as rain clouds moved in and it started to pour on us, so we headed back to the shelter and comfort of the hotel in time for afternoon tea, rest, and dinner.
It was a great first full day in the Drakensberg, and I’m stoked for the next few, especially since the forecast is calling for clear skies and sun.
The Drakensberg Escarpment hiding behind the clouds
South Africa Day 22 - Drakensberg
We woke up on our first morning at the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort to a beautiful sunrise, although it was bitterly cold. We’re nearing winter here in the southern hemisphere, and that combined with the altitude and exposure to the wind here in the Drakensberg make for some chilly weather.
So we had a relaxed breakfast and waited for the sun to get a little higher in the sky before we properly got our day started. By the time we started our hike into the Mahai Valley in Royal Natal National Park, it was hot and only got hotter as the trail lost elevation. We meandered in and out along the contours of the valley, seeing how abruptly the vegetation changed and became more lush every time we crossed a creek, often next to a little waterfall, mostly dried out this late in the season.
We ascended out of the valley up a steep gulley called the Crack, with the help of a couple of wobbly chain ladders that stretched my comfort zone (but not too much). When we emerged from the Crack, we were on a wide open grassy plateau with wind that blew so hard we had to hold onto our hats. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the strength of the wind was a reminder that we were in a mountain environment where the weather demanded respect.
On the way back to the lodge, we came across a crew of people doing a controlled burn of a strip of grass, and we could smell the smoke long before we saw them. There was a funny moment when I wanted to take a picture of them but wasn’t sure if that would be impolite, then I realized they were taking pictures of us, so I waved and returned the favour. I guess we were as curious a sight for them as they were for us.
The howling wind we had felt earlier was a sign of things to come, as rain clouds gathered in the distance and the sound of thunder carried over the mountain peaks. Luckily, we made it back to the lodge before the skies opened up and it started pouring all around us. So we sat inside and warmed up a stool while the bartender told us stories about the lodge.
Horses grazing on the endless grasslands at the foothills of the Drakensberg
South Africa Day 25 - Golden Gate Highlands
Because we were staying in a valley, it was late before the sun finally rose above the mountains around us and started shining on us and melting away the frost that had formed on the ground overnight. Our mission for the day was a big loop called the Wodehouse Trail, which took us up to a ridgeline about 400m higher than where we were staying. The walking was pleasant at first, but as we made our way up, the wind started whipping faster and faster until we could hardly stand up straight in it. I’ve never hiked in anything like it, and all we could do was be thankful it was a sunny day and keep trudging through it.
Other than the wind, it really was an incredible trail. Because we were walking along the ridge, the slope fell away from us on the left and the right and opened up to panaoramic views on both sides. When we could find spots sheltered from the wind, we sat and enjoyed the scenery of Golden Gate Highlands Nationak Park, and were entertained by looking at herds of wildlife we couldn’t identify running around in the distance.
After our hike, we hopped into the car and went on a couple of the scenic loop drives that the park has built up into the highlands. The highlight was seeing a group of zebras walking above the road. We also visited a bird hide where the park apparently sometimes leaves animal carcasses to attract some rare bearded vultures to study and watch, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any,
I finished up the big day by going on a short run up an informal trail I had seen through the grass up a hill next to our chalet. It was fun to experience the landscape at a different pace, and I was excited to see a wildebeest running away from me. I made it back to our accommodations just as the sun was dipping over the horizon, satisfied with a great day in the national park.
The towering sandstone cliffs of the Golden Gate Highlands
South Africa Day 29 - Addo Elephant National Park
We woke to a peaceful, cold morning at Nyathi Rest Camp where we made breakfast and coffee before getting in the car and driving to the main part of the park for a guided game drive. Sitting in the back of an open-air vehicle, a professional guide from the park drove us all around the various paved and dirt roads of the northern part of the park in search of some wildlife.
Within minutes, we found a huge cape buffalo munching on some bushes right next to the road, and the guide switched off the engine to let us take pictures while he explained that it was most common to see them during cold mornings like this, while other animals are more likely to come out in the midday heat. He also told us that the buffalo were the most dangerous to humans of all the animals in the park!
The rest of our two-hour drive continued much like that, with us cruising along until we spotted something, and then stopping a bit to admire each different animal and get some info from our knowledgeable and friendly guide. We saw many kudu, red hartebeast, zebra, jackals, plenty of birds, warthogs (apparently also pretty dangerous to humans) and - the star of the show - elephants.
The highlight of the drive was seeing a small family of elephants, including a young one, eating some shrubs so close to us it felt like we could reach out and touch them. We were amazed to see how they had no problem chomping down on the thorniest and roughest bushes.
After the drive, we did a short loop walk called the Discovery Trail where we got to really realize how dense the bush was in the area, and how it would be impossible to get around without trails or roads. And then we finished the afternoon by doing our own self-guided game drive to some of the more far-flung corners of the park looking for some of the animals we hadn’t spotted yet. We didn’t end up seeing nearly as much as we did with the guide, but it was still fun to explore the park on our own.
To end the day, we fired up the braai at our cottage and cooked up a nice dinner while watching the sun go down over the bush around us.
The namesake of Addo Elephant National Park
South Africa Day 32 - Garden Route National Park
It was a relatively warm morning at the Nature’s Valley Rest Camp compared to where we had been staying in previous weeks, now that we’re at sea level and close to the Indian Ocean. We made some breakfast and coffee using the basic facilities in our forest hut, and then went for a dayhike that looped along the Salt River, Rugpad, and Klanderkloof trails.
We started the day walking through the quaint seaside community of Nature’s Valley, which looked like an ideal place to stay in a cottage. It was one of the few towns we’ve seen in South Africa that didn’t have giant walls with electric fencing or barbed wire surrounding every property, meaning it was probably a pretty safe place.
Our first view of the ocean in Nature’s Valley was breathtaking. The morning sun illuminated the morning mist coming off of the big waves crashing into the fine, soft sandy beach that went on for a few kilometres. The beach was lined with vegetated sand dunes, and other than a couple fisherman and people swimming, it was totally empty despite how scenic it was.
After walking along the beach for a while, we managed some rock sections that were tricky (although manageable) because we happened to be passing through at high tide. We skirted the coastline until reaching the Salt River, which we forded before heading inland up the hill. At lower elevations, we walked through lush, humid forest that transitioned to dry bush along the upper ridges of the mountains where we could feel a cool breeze coming off the ocean.
When we made it back to Nature’s Valley in the afternoon we went to Blue Rocks, the only restaurant in town for a couple of delicious veggie burgers. And since it was the only restaurant in town, we happened to see all six of the other hikers we met throughout the day all there with the same idea as us.
To end the day, I took a relaxing walk around our campground before firing up the braai to make dinner under the stars.
Walking along the beach in Garden Route National Park
South Africa Day 37 (The End) - Cape of Good Hope
On our last day of our trip, we explored the coastal areas of the Cape Point section of Table Mountain National Park, a rocky peninsula south of Cape Town that juts out into the ocean and is the meeting point of the warm currents of the Indian Ocean and the cold currents of the Atlantic Ocean.
We visited the historic lighthouse along with the hundreds of other tourists who showed up in tour buses to ride the funicular and take pictures with the Cape of Good Hope sign. We walked on rocky cliffs above the ocean where we were buffeted by strong wind coming off the Atlantic and we spotted a right whale jumping in the distance. Finally, we visited the colony of African penguins at Boulders Beach before driving to the airport and dropping off the rental car.
It was an exciting and full day to end a very special trip around the country. When we finally made it to the airport, I reflected on what a treat and a privilege it’s been to explore and stay in the beautiful landscapes around South Africa, mostly within the great national parks system. My feelings of privilege and gratitude for being able to visit these places is especially strong when I recognize that a lot of these experiences are not accessible for most of the residents of this country.
I expect that my memories of hiking in the Drakensberg mountains, walking on sandy beaches on the Indian Ocean, and seeing elephants, rhinos, and so much more will be ones that I’ll cherish all my life. And the fact that I was able to share the experience of these places with my partner made the whole thing doubly special.
When the idea of going on this trip first came up, I initially turned it down, feeling like it would be unmanageable, mostly because of how busy I was with work. But the thing I eventually realized, and which I understand intimately after my time here, is that we rarely get the opportunity to do stuff as cool as this, and they ultimately become the things we remember when we look back on our lives years down the road.
Clifftop boardwalks at the Cape of Good Hope on our last day in South Africa