So you want to go on holiday without neglecting your exercise habit, and maybe get out into nature for a good cardio workout. An unspoilt location, good food and wine, a decent bed and a shower at night are essentials. Pretty flowers, wildlife and interesting cultural attractions are a bonus. And you’d prefer for someone else to take care of logistics. Is that too much to ask?
No, it’s not. Slackpacking is the answer – backpacking without the schlep. Having your overnight stuff transported means that you can hike multiday trails carrying only a daypack.
Not having to carry your own gear means less planning and more home comforts. Instead of wearing the same clothes for five days and paring your food down to oats and dehydrated pasta, you can hike in style. As a result, longdistance hiking becomes more appealing, and accessible, to a range of people including the not-so-fit, families, and those who don’t want to be burdened by a heavy pack – those who enjoy a good walk by day, but appreciate their creature comforts at night.
In South Africa there are nearly 60 slackpacking trails that vary enormously in terms of difficulty and degree of pampering. Some routes are exclusive to slackpacking groups. Others follow paths less travelled, can be tailored to the fitness and interests of the group, and include other activities such as canoe/boat trips, 4×4 excursions, canopy tours and spoils such as wine tastings.
Flexibility is a common feature, and some slackpacking trails offer a choice of accommodation, route or duration.
The most rudimentary are the self-guided, self-catered trails on which the only support is bag transfer. Three of the best are the spectacular and very accessible, circular, overnight Cape of Good Hope Trail, in Table Mountain National Park’s reserve of the same name; the wonderfully diverse, five-night Whale Trail, which traverses the mountains and rugged coastline of CapeNature’s flagship reserve, De Hoop; and the Tsitsikamma Mountain Trail, which is a very strenuous, five-night trail through the lush forests and fynbos-clad mountains between Nature’s Valley and Storm’s River. These follow long-established, wellmarked backpacking trails and demand a good level of fitness and self-sufficiency. Since you’ll stay in rustic, but comfortable, hikers’ huts and self-cater, you’ll need to pack a sleeping bag, cutlery and crockery, and, generally, a stove, in addition to everything you carry on the
The Goldilocks spot
One up on the comfort scale, but still physically demanding, are trails such as the Wild Coast Amble, which for the most part follows the route of the somewhat less luxurious hutted Strandloper Hiking Trail along the empty beaches of the scenic coastline north of East London, slackpackers stay at beautifully sited Wild Coast hotels and feast on seafood.
Giants Cup Hikeathon, a self-guided, four-night slackpack that follows the route of the Giant’s Cup Trail in the foothills of the ’Berg. But instead of staying in hikers’ huts, slackpackers are shuttled to nearby guesthouses, where there’s a soft bed and hearty meals.
Community guides lead some of the best-value slackpacking trails, with simple accommodation in villages along the way. These combine stiff walks with opportunities to interact with the people of the regions you hike through. On the dramatic, strenuous four-night hike from Port St John’s to Coffee Bay, you’ll traverse beaches, rolling green hills, nature reserves and estuaries rich in endemic flora and birds. Village stays and visits to sangomas and shebeens give insight into the rich culture of the Xhosa people.
Likewise, on the suite of slackpacking trails that comprise the Cederberg Heritage Routes, community guides facilitate safe passage through the challenging, rugged wilderness of the Cederberg Mountains. Overnight stays in mission villages, rides on traditional donkey carts, and optional rock art tours add to the local flavour.
On the self-guided Stamvrug Overnight Trail, in the Waterberg’s Bateleur Nature Reserve (a mere 90-minute drive from Gauteng), slackpackers have a choice of hikers’ huts or self-catering cottages in which to lay their heads. Lush indigenous forests, inviting rock pools, game sightings and rare butterflies are highlights, but a big selling point is that the trailheads and overnight spots are linked by a network of trails ranging from easy to strenuous, so hikers of different fitness levels can choose appropriate route options.
At the top end of the spectrum when it comes to convenience and flexibility are the guided trails where overnight stays are in luxury guesthouses and lodges with warm, comfy beds that would satisfy the most demanding of princesses. Since these are fully catered, they require minimal packing and preparation so are ideal for busy, active sorts that want a hiking holiday without the admin. Different length packages, daily itineraries tailored to the interests, time and budget of a group, and daily ‘escape’ routes and other diversions mean that unfit and non-hiking companions can be accommodated. You’ll obviously need to pack warm and wet-weather gear, a swimsuit and some water and maybe snacks, but you’re never too far from ‘civilisation’. The guides usually carry binoculars, field guides and snacks, while surprise picnics and other spoils mean that your daypack is never overloaded.
Specialist interests are often a focus. Birding experts guide the three-night Roots to Rivers Trail, in Limpopo’s Magoebaskloof – an easy, short trail, which also incorporates game viewing, and forest and mountain walking in the Kudu’s River Valley.
A marine biologist and birding fundi leads the Garden Route Coastal Trail, a leisurely, four-night journey from Wilderness to Brenton-on-Sea, which includes two canoeing trips.
The three-night Blue Mountain Trail, an hour’s drive from Cape Town, combines a good workout through the spectacular and diverse wilderness of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve and the vineyards and orchards of the Elgin Valley with the opportunity to see and learn about the unique flora and fauna of the Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site from passionate, knowledgeable guides.
The three-night, ultra-luxurious and moderately strenuous Dolphin Trail traverses sections of the Garden Route National Park and private land that are not open to the general public.
All the above are guided and fully catered slackpacking trails on which you are thoroughly spoiled, but the ultimate pampering is on the Oystercatcher Trail. This leisurely, four-night, guided trail from Dana Bay to the Gouritz River Mouth highlights both the marine and paleoanthropological treasures of the southern Cape coastline, with sauna and spa facilities, along with optional massages, at some of the overnight stops.
It works both ways
Most of the trail operators focus not just on delivering a great trail, but on creating awareness about conservation issues and giving something back to the area and people visited along the way.
On the Fynbos Trail, a fairly demanding, three-night journey along the unspoilt Walker Bay coastline, through pristine fynbos and remote forests to Grootbos Nature Reserve, you’re guided by passionate flower fundis, with some of the funds generated by the trail ploughed back into the social and environmental projects that you visit along the way.
Highlights of the Karkloof Falls2Falls, a moderately strenuous, three-night hike through the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, include game and rare bird sightings, a canopy tour and, you guessed it, stunning waterfalls, with 10% of profits donated to ongoing conservation projects.
Finally, if you’re looking for a truly epic slackpacking trail, check out the Eden to Addo Great Corridor Hike. All monies raised on this guided and fully catered, off-the-beaten track expedition, which traverses the Garden Route National Park, Baviaanskloof World Heritage Site and private land, go towards the creation of essential conservation corridors between Knysna and Addo Elephant National Park, where the trail ends. Walking 350 kilometres over 20 days in all weathers and staying in tents is no mean undertaking. Slackpacking on steroids!