The Kruger Lowveld region of Mpumalanga must be one of the most scenic areas in South Africa. Now, anyone even slightly familiar with this cover-girl country will realise that that is a bold statement, but after having spent time visiting the area around Sabie and Graskop, it is one that I firmly stand by.
This area of Mpumalanga is known as the Panorama Route for good reason. The mountainous terrain is carpeted in a dark green of one of the world’s largest man-made forests. Patches of breathtaking indigenous forest with their towering yellowwood trees and prolific birdlife nestle into steep valleys, and voluptuous waterfalls tumble down every open cliff face.
The Kruger Lowveld, named because of its proximity to one of the area’s greatest attractions, the Kruger National Park, is an absolute paradise for nature lovers and outdoors enthusiasts. A well-known multiday hiking trail traverses the forested slopes between Sabie and Graskop, and this was one of the highlights of our visit to this region.
The Fanie Botha Hiking Trail
The Fanie Botha Hiking Trail was one of the first hiking trails to be established in South Africa, and is still regarded as one of the best. Its full length covers five days of hiking with overnight accommodation in stone huts. There are a variety of ways to tackle this trail if the full five days isn’t quite your cup of tea (or packet of trail mix), with various start- and end-points. After learning that the last day’s leg is a slightly horrifying 23km, the decision to only complete part of the trail was a very easy one!
As usual, after weeks of sunshine and indeed partial drought conditions in the area, the day that we were to begin our hike dawned cold and wet! It is a bit of a joke of ours that everywhere we go we seem to bring the rain, but conditions like these on a hiking trail are less than ideal. Particularly considering that the terrain we were to cover was very steep and slippery at the best of times!
We set out about two hours behind schedule, another trait of ours, and then proceeded to cover the first few kilometres at an exceptionally slow pace. The simple reason for this was that the area we were hiking through was just too breathtaking not to stop for photographs. The trail very quickly left the starting point on a dusty forestry road and entered magnificent indigenous forest. All of a sudden, we were the only people in a world of towering centuries-old trees, quiet underbrush and bird calls echoing through the swirling mist.
A few hours later but not many kilometres on, we heard the sound of running water. In these hills that isn’t uncommon. There just seems to be water everywhere – dripping off of the tips of leaves, gathered in the moss on the forest floor or pooled in the hollow of a rock. As we pressed on, the sound only grew louder until we found ourselves making the slightly treacherous descent on a very slippery path, the gradient of which seemed to mirror that of the waterfall on the opposite cliff face. It was our very own secret waterfall, in the middle of an enchanted, mist bathed forest!
The frigid air did little to encourage us to go for a swim, but it did make an excellent lunch spot. Tomatoes taste even better on a cheese and tomato sandwich after they have been washed in crisp mountain water… although that might have also been the hunger generated by a few hours’ worth of exercise!
Are we nearly there yet?
I am ashamed to admit that even such breathtaking environs didn’t stop the inevitable “Are we nearly there yet?” sentiment which neither of us dared to be the first to admit. It was with a great sense of relief though that we made the final ascent and found ourselves out of the forest and in a grassland bordered by pine tree plantations. The hut was surely close!
Imagine our dismay at passing a distance marker cruelly declaring we still had a further six of the 13 kilometres to go! What could we do except eat the last of our poorly-rationed hiking snacks and press on?
Do anything for long enough and consistently enough and you will reach your goal. For us, it was placing one foot in front of the other enough times that we’d reach our little cabin in the woods. Eventually, at the bottom of a hill and through the trees we made out its welcome shape! The final curve of the path was just too much for us and we cut off through the pine trees towards the hut and finally, we were there!
If we made it up past eight o’clock that evening I’d be surprised. With no electricity, all there was to do was have a shower, cook a delicious camping meal of smoked chicken and couscous, warm our hands on a cup of steaming hot chocolate and then hit the sack. That, and reflect on our location – a stone hut in a grassy clearing in the forest with mountains all around us and such fresh air to fill our lungs with. This was the reason we had come!
I’m sure I am not the only one who finds that hiking packs are never quite as comfortable on day two. With the only way out being on foot however we had little choice the next morning but to set out for home after the most solid night’s rest we’d had for a long while. Luckily this time it was all downhill.
I am a little embarrassed to admit that we somehow missed the path a little way into our return journey and ended up completing the rest of the hike on winding forestry roads through the pine plantation. Embarrassed, and a bit disappointed too considering the amazing natural forest scenery that we no doubt missed out on. I have to add that that was completely our own fault, as the trail was clearly marked over its entire length. Is it poor trail etiquette to blame my hiking partner for this navigational error when he isn’t present to defend himself?…
An adventure to remember
Despite losing the path on our return leg and the miserable weather, we thoroughly enjoyed our time on the Fanie Botha Hiking Trail. Although it is maybe overlooked as an activity to complete during a tour of the area because of the time it takes to complete, it is definitely one that should be added to your itinerary if getting out and exploring some incredible natural scenery is what you’re about.
For more information on the hike and its various route options, or to make a booking contact:
Komatiland Eco-Tourism (ph): +27 13 754 2724 (e): firstname.lastname@example.org.