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Wednesday, 10th April 2019

Your ultimate guide to hiking, slackpacking & walking in the Karoo Heartland, Eastern Cape

The landscape of the Karoo – with its endless plains, rivers, big skies, impressive sunsets and striking rock formations and “koppies” – is poetry for the soul. As vast as the plains is the area’s opportunity to explore on foot, when you go down the paths of ancient stories and up the mountains of tomorrow, your feet begin to rhyme with nature, one step and one verse at a time.

These trails are the free verse of the Karoo Heartland, rooted in the rhythm of the sun, an ode to the alliterations of aloes and the onomatopoetic squeak of windmills with a liquid force.


Grab a hat and sunscreen for the unforgiving heat and pack a beanie and gloves for the unapologetic cold before you set out to explore the poems of the Karoo and write your own lines of footprints on the arid soil.


Glen Avon is a working farm offering accommodation with a rich history that can be traced back to the 1800s and, in addition to mountain biking, bird watching and fly fishing, Glen Avon also entices hikers with three self-guided trails on the farm, and also the coveted hike to Glen Avon Falls. The trails range from a leisurely 90-minute stroll called the “Heritage Walk” which takes you along some historical points of interest on the farm to a longer trail that takes about 4 hours, as you walk through indigenous forests and on the grassy mountain ridge which offers beautiful views of the valley below.  The “Intake Walk”, another 90-minute walk, takes you through a scenic meander up the Naude River Valley to the intake where the water is piped for pasture irrigation. It is a worthwhile 5km walk to reach the 80-metre Glen Avon Falls (on another farm). A gate fee and deposit for the key are applicable and this hike is best arranged in advance. All trails are well-marked, and maps and detailed descriptions can be obtained from Glen Avon’s website or, in the information file that is available at the cottages. A fabulous farmstay for hikers, history buffs and nature-lovers alike!  Find out more



If you want to do a multi-day hike in the Karoo Heartland, make your way to Middelburg and pick up a map of the 3-day Transkaroo Hiking Trail. Starting at your ‘base camp’, Wilgefontein – a fully equipped farm house with safe parking – the first day will take you on a 12km journey of Visserskloof’s interesting rock formations and swimming holes to Uitsig. Day two is a longer one of 19km to reach Weltevrede while the last day, 9km, will take you from dam to dam and a plateau offering spectacular views before you make your way back to Wilgefontein. It is also possible to make this trail a slackpacking trail and arranging to have your bags being transported from hut to hut. Imagine those sparkling Karoo night skies…ready to pack your backpack? Find out more



There are two opportunities to go cheetah tracking in the Karoo; one is on Samara Private Game Reserve just outside Graaff-Reinet, while the other one is just outside Cradock in Mountain Zebra National Park. The main focus of both is to conserve the species, which, sadly, are endangered. Finding the cheetahs on foot, with the help of trained rangers and tracking equipment, allows you to observe these big cats in their natural environment and, it goes without saying, that the experience is simply ethical: putting the cheetahs first and keeping a distance between human and animal. While the cheetah tracking experience at Samara Private Game Reserve is reserved for their guests, unless capacity allows, the experience in Mountain Zebra National Park is affordable, possible for day visitors and also includes a game drive.  Regardless of where you are tracking cheetah - time, distance and sightings can’t be guaranteed, you might end up walking for 2 km, or you might end up walking a bit further but the beautiful natural sounds and sights will keep you walking with a smile on your face and, if you spot cheetahs, pure magic awaits! Find out more



When Ganora Guest Farm just outside of Nieu Bethesda says, “Give us one day and we will give you 250 million years,” they mean it. Here the history of those who came before us is palpable and, with an extensive fossil collection in their farm museum, fossils out in the veld and well-preserved rock paintings, your feet are in for a historical treat! Go on a medicinal walk with local guide, Henry, who was taught by the very best (his grandfather) or join JP for a visit to Ganora’s private fossil museum and a spellbinding walk where he will share his interesting prehistoric findings with you. For self-guided hiking trails, you have a choice between four trails: there is a 4km trail taking you from a ridge overlooking the farm down into meadow where you will pass a few streams, the 13.3km or 16.9km Mountaintop trail gives you incomparable views of Compassberg, the Farm trail of scenic Karoo landscape is 11.6km and can be done either on foot or on mountain bike (if you are an experienced rider) and the Canyon trail has three options of different lengths (between 8km and 21km) and will reward you with rock pools and possible sightings of black eagles. For mountain bikers, there is also a trail of 19.7km or 21.3km that will take you past a dam where you may even spot flamingos (yes, flamingos in the Karoo!). Whichever you choose (or stay awhile and walk all the trails), you are assured of an unforgettable walk down an ancient memory lane. Find out more



If you are planning to visit the Valley of Desolation – which forms part of Camdeboo National Park – you might as well just make a full day adventure of it. There is so much to enjoying within the park. For a small conservation fee, you can enjoy a game drive, visit the valley viewpoints and choose from one of three hiking trails. The Crag Lizard Trail is a 1.5km walk along the edge of the Valley of Desolation with impressive views, starting at the parking area, the Eerstefontein Day Walk offers hikers a choice between hiking a 5km, 11km or 14km scenic circular trail from the Spandaukop Gate and sightings of zebras, kudus, ostriches and other small game is not uncommon. There is also the circular Gideon Scheepers Trail which takes about an hour (it starts and ends at the Gideon Scheepers Monument). If there’s too much to see in one day, book your stay in nearby Graaff Reinet to continue your adventures. Find out more



Take a step back in time, see Graaff-Reinet on foot and enjoy a walk through the streets of one of South Africa’s oldest towns. You can either opt to experience it on your own and let your feet take you where they will, or choose a guided tour of points of interest, fun facts and stories about the town’s rich historical and cultural past as you navigate your way from Cape Dutch house to Victorian building to quaint Karoo cottage. Some of the important, and rather iconic, landmarks that should not be missed on this walking tour include the Reinet House, the remarkable Dutch Reformed Church and also the Graaff-Reinet Club where the bar counter, and its bullet holes, is a great conversation starter. A township tour of Umasizakhe is another walk to add to your itinerary: a local guide will introduce you to Xhosa culture, introduce you to some members of the community and you will pass the house of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan African Congress (PAC). 


Image: Janet Middleton


Compassberg, towering through the clouds at 2504 metres above sea level, is the highest peak in the Sneeuberg range and also the second highest in the Eastern Cape, and standing atop its head offers hikers a 360° jaw-drop-view of the Karoo. The day hike (6-8 hours) requires a full day of hiking after a drive to the starting point (4x4 only) about an hour from Nieu-Bethesda. Permission is needed from the landowners, so best to plan ahead. Fair warning, the trail is not a walk in the park, you will have to do some rock clambering but the panoramic views of the Karoo Heartland, and Nieu-Bethesda in the distance, from the summit makes it all worth it.  It is important to take note of the fact that there is no water along the route and that the road is poorly marked, in winter temperatures can reach double digits below zero. For a more relaxing experience, the newly launched Compassberg Camino will lead you slackpacking around this gorgeous part of the Eastern Cape. Meander a circular route around the mountainside for a five-day dose of immersion in nature and rustic overnight accommodation. Find out more



They say water is the source of life, so why not find the source on a short walk (4 hours in total) when visiting Nieu Bethesda? The Water Furrow Walk takes you along the water furrows that feed the village into the Diepkloof Valley. If luck is on your side you might even spot some otters. The route is not marked, and it is best to get adequate information form the Karoo Lamb Restaurant before you head out. If you happen to time your visit with some of that rare Karoo Heartland rain, you’re in for a real treat as the sights and sounds of the aqueducts rushing water through the town is quite unforgettable. 


Image: My Karoo Life


In the Karoo Heartland, the heat can be gruelling, so always ensure that you have enough water with you and don’t forget the sunscreen and hat.

In the same vein, winter morning and nights can be bitingly cold, so pack layers to shed as the day warms up. If you’re unsure, check with your accommodation establishment for more information on seasonal temperatures during your visit.

Wear the appropriate shoes; the terrain is often rocky, and snakes are not an uncommon find in the summer months.

Always let someone know – be it family or the guest house or guest farm owner – where you are going if you are planning to do a long hike; unless you are doing a very short and easy trail with human traffic on the way, it is best to take a hiking buddy with you.

Never attempt walks in exceptionally bad weather, especially when summiting a peak.

Ask around to find out whether a route is clearly marked and maintained.

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