When you say the word ‘Gauteng’, people invariably think of Johannesburg or Pretoria Accommodation, of a bustling metropolis, of bumper-to-bumper highway traffic, even of coalmines, dust and crowded, inner-city informal settlements. It’s not pretty maybe, but it’s part of the deal.
What we all tend to forget, is that Gauteng is not just another shakily outlined shape on the South African map, but a vast province – and one with far more to offer in terms of aesthetics than one thinks. Visitors to the country often head to scenic Cape Town, the picturesque Garden Route or panoramic Mpumalanga, but a meander around Gauteng is well worth the detour …
It may not have the ocean, but what Gauteng does have is several mountains and botanical gardens that are great spots for hikers. Gauteng Hiking trails range from a Sunday walk to an overnight slog to multiple-day treks for the seriously hardcore.
Though even a beginner’s trail might not seem like a walk in the park at first, hiking is a great way to get fit, and the satisfaction of a summit lends itself to quite a sense of achievement, not to mention the de-stressing benefits of wandering about in nature. So get some sturdy walking shoes, join a group and put that first foot on the path …
Northwest of Johannesburg, and a mere hour and a half drive away, are the Magaliesberg, a 120 km sprawl of mountains that predate Everest (geological research has traced their origins right back to their nascence, about 2 300 million years ago). The range, which divides the highveld grasslands to the south from bushland savannah to the north, is a favourite with hiking enthusiasts.
And no wonder – it’s a place of extraordinary beauty, with sheer quartzite cliff faces, streams fed by underground reservoirs, an abundance of indigenous vegetation, and perennial sparkling waterfalls. Spectacular, 100m-deep gullies also make it a great spot for kloofing.
Hiking a Magaliesberg path or exploring any of the private reserves, you’ll be treated to a visual feast of the incredible diversity of plant-life here, an array of flowers, fungi and ferns, not to mention more than 130 species of tree.
And not just your average landscape of fynbos stretching as far as the eye can see either: get ready for giant mountain aloes with their acid orange flowers, winged-pod bush willows, tall red pokers, trumpet-flowered wild gardenias, the pineapple lily, wild fig … oh and let’s not forget the sweet fruit of the Marula trees nestled into the lower slopes.
The mountains are home to the usual mountain critters (baboons, dassies, bushbabies, klipspringers and vervet monkeys) as well as some bigger game (zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and the re-introduced Sable). A few shy leopard also enjoy the vegetation of the deeper kloofs. Birders are also well catered for, with a chance of spotting anything from a common finch to the majestic black eagle to the exquisite paradise flycatcher.
Near Heidelberg, and about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, is the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, a nearly 12 000 hectare reserve dominated by the Suikerbosrand Mountain Range, which peaks at nearly two kilometres above sea level. The reserve is a hiker’s paradise, criss-crossed by an extensive, 66-km network of backpacking trails.
Multiple-day hikers shelter in the overnight huts interspersed throughout the area, each of which is equipped with beds, hot showers, chemical toilets and undercover braai facilities. A more generously equipped meditation hut on an outpost not part of the other trails can be booked for a few days isolation.
The great thing about this system is that you can tailor your route to whatever timeframe you have in mind, whether you want a quick overnighter or you plan to cover the entire reserve, which can take about six days’ worth of hardcore hiking. There are also a couple of day-visitor trails that take hardly a few hours to complete, as well as a wheelchair friendly trail and a 60 km, tarred ‘tourist’ trail for vehicles.
The mountain itself is composed of igneous basalt rock and sedimentary sandstone, and the ecosystem supports a wide variety of grasses, trees and wild flowers, including the Highveld Protea, or Suikerbos, from which the reserve takes its name.
A third very popular spot for Gauteng hikers is at Hennops, near the well-known Hartbeespoort Dam, which has the added attraction of a 4×4 trail and obstacle course. The two-day Hennops hike is composed of two trails, the 11 km Krokodilberg and the 6 km Zebra trail, which alternately lead you along the Hennops River and into the surrounding mountain.
Two base camps on the riverbank, Loerie and Hadeda, offer tired hikers a chance to refresh themselves with a good night’s sleep and a dip in the rock pools or swimming pool (at Loerie). While a-walking, hikers are surrounded by gorgeous scenery including indigenous flora, the sparkling river, and spectacular gorges and plateaus. And of course, keep an eye out for mountain creatures and birds.
For social climbers – or those who aren’t familiar with the area and need a bit of guidance – there’s the Johannesburg section of the Mountain Club of South Africa (mcsa.org.za/). With a programme that’s geared toward environmental responsibility, the Club organises midweek and weekend hikes, as well as numerous other bells and whistles – from backpacks to base camp weekends, slideshows to social events. If you’re new to the hiking scene, they’ll introduce you to a whole collection of different trails, as well as giving you an opportunity to get out there and do some good in the environment.
For those who can think of nothing worse than steep ascents or bundu-bashing, there are ways of having a walkabout in nature that don’t require overnight packs or gasping for breath on the side of a mountain. One of these is the Smuts Trail, in Irene. A three-kilometre walk through the grasslands surrounding the Smuts House Museum, this trail is a must-do for bird enthusiasts. More than 300 species have been identified in the surrounding area, including four varieties of owl, a host of small birds, beautiful riverbank dwellers such as the Kingfisher, and a collection of stately raptors. And if you don’t know your barbet from your bokmakierie, guided walks with professional bird watchers and ornithologists are available.
With this teeming wilderness so close by, and with so many opportunities of exploring it, there’s no excuse not to get out of the city and take a hike.
MCSA: Johannesburg Office: Tel: +27 (0)11 807-1310 (8-10am)