Amatola Hike – Eastern Cape – One of the most picturesque mountainous areas in southern Africa
The Eastern Cape is the second largest of South Africa’s nine provinces, the diverse landscape of the Eastern Cape ranges from the dry and desolate Great Karoo to the humid forests of the Wild Coast and the Keiskamma Valley. The area also encompasses fertile Langkloof, famous for its rich apple crops, and is cradled by the mountainous Drakensberg to the south.
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Here, sweeping hills are juxtaposed with sandy beaches; here, the small town of South Africa comes to greet you, graciously offering hospitality and friendship and asking for nothing in return. This is where the “big seven” roam, and where tropical forests share their space with abundant birds and nature at its most generous.
The coastline of this province stretches from the Umtamvuna River in KwaZulu-Natal to the mouth of the Storms River on the scenic Garden Route in the west, and stretches inland to the north to the border with Lesotho. Today, the Eastern Cape incorporates the previously independent “homelands” of Ciskei and Transkei. Despite its colonial past, the Eastern Cape is still home to the Xhosa-speaking people of South Africa. With its almost seven million inhabitants, the Eastern Cape has the third largest provincial population, living on approximately 169,600 km2 of land.
The climate of the Eastern Cape varies considerably, but it has a holiday climate throughout the year. The eastern coastal regions enjoy hot summers and mild winters and Port Elizabeth experiences a daily average of 7 hours of sunshine. The northern regions are much cooler. Certain areas receive rainfall throughout the year, albeit erratic.
This trek is situated in the Amatola range in the Eastern Cape, one of the most picturesque mountainous areas in southern Africa. If outdoor trekking and its different culture, wildlife is your passion, then this is one of the best trekking trails in South Africa, you cannot miss it.
The Amatola consists of several exciting loop trails and the main six-day trail, which is linear. Amatola’s hiking trails offer a wide variety of adventures for people of all ages.
Although the Amatola mountain range does not reach great heights, it is a treasure chest for nature lovers. Indigenous forests steeped in history, cover the mountains without suffocating them.
There are isolated peaks and dark, secret gorges, grassy glades and distant views of mountains. Endless waterfalls, cascades and pools in broken mountainous terrain, leave the hiker wishing there were more hours in the day.
Starting at Maden Dam near King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, the Amatola Trail ends near Hogsback. It’s not an easy hike though, with days up to 20km and an average of 16.5km over 100km.
What makes the trail interesting is that it runs through what was one of the natural strongholds of the Ama Xhosa, during the long and protracted border wars of the 19th century, between British and Xhosa forces.
Some of the best hiking in South Africa can be done in the Eastern Cape. It is ranked as one of the best hiking trails in southern Africa. Below we have a description of the trail.
Maden Dam to Gwiligwili 15.3 km 8 to 9 hours
To get the most out of this trail, you need to get in shape and start as early as possible each day. Beginning in the picturesque setting of Maden Dam, you’ll walk along the edge of this trout angler’s paradise. Entering the Pirie Forest is entering another world, in a forest immersed in the history of the border war (for more information about the historical tours we do, call us). This is also one of only two places where a forest railway operated in South Africa and the remains of an old wooden slide can still be seen. This is where the Giant Golden Mole, which is endemic to the Eastern Cape, was first recorded. There is an optional shortcut, but you will miss out on the best of the day’s hike and a great place to swim. The Gwili Gwili Lodge (Hut) with its magnificent views is situated in the watershed of the Buffalo and Keiskamma rivers. Much of the climbing at altitude is in the last 3 km.
Gwili Gwili to Dontsa 19.6 km – 8 hours
Day one and two sections can be very slippery in wet conditions. The longer distance can make this day just as demanding, and some may find it takes 8+ hours. The lower route at Dontsa Forest Station cuts some distance and passes some beautiful pools and waterfalls, but leaves some climbing to do near the end. The upper path while slightly longer follows the contour more closely. The day’s hike passes through forests as it winds along the side of a long ridge, which links the towns of Buffalo to the main Amatola Range. There is not a lot of water along this section of the trail and hikers need to carry a bit more here than in other places. Hikers, who have limited time at their disposal to enjoy the Amatola Trail, can start from the Dontsa Forest Station. The accommodation in the Dontsa cabin has views of what is called the Anta Hole. Anta was the brother of Chief Sandile, the Forest Tiger, who was buried at the foot of Mount Kempt.
Dontsa to Cata 18.9 km – 8 to 9 hours
The route over the Doorn Kop has beautiful scenic views, but less water on the way. The lower route is not shorter, but goes through indigenous forest, which makes it cooler on hot days and has more streams along the way. Other options emerge once you get to Eseka Stream, which is a good place to drop in for lunch. The section through the waterfall forest, either the middle route or the lower route through the forest station, is a lovely walk, but those who find the trail difficult should take the upper route on the final section towards the cabin. The last section through Waterfall Forest takes a sting in the tail, as there is a steep climb next to the last waterfall. If your group decides to split up and take different routes, make sure each group has a trail map with them and each knows what the other is doing. Accommodation at Cata Hut is notorious for its thunderstorms, but a donkey boiler ensures you can enjoy a hot shower at the end of the day. Bring lighters and use wood sparingly.
Tasting to Mnyameni 13.5 km 7 to 8 hours
One of the best hiking days you are likely to experience is day 4 of the Amatola trail. One has the option of taking a shortcut directly over the neck, which is the route to take in inclement weather. Otherwise, the longer route takes you to the top of Geju Peak with its spectacular mountain views. Watch out for the black eagles, which nest on the cliffs! The trail was not designed to simply take you from A to B, but to take you through the most spectacular and picturesque places you could ever want to see. On the way down, you pass twice over periglacial scree. The Mnyameni Gorge has a series of spectacular waterfalls and several stream crossings, which can present a challenge after heavy rain.
Mnyameni to Zingcuka 18.2 km 8 to 9 hours
The day starts with a tough climb through another lovely forest, but otherwise the day is pretty calm. To enjoy the many lovely dips you can have in the various rock pools, you need to start early. There are no optional routes on this day, but there is an exit to the Zingcuka Forest station towards the end. The first pool near the 7km mark is a good place for a mid-morning break and the last pool at the 11km mark a nice place for a late lunch stop. The water is not as cold here as in the other pools!
Zingcuka to Tyumie River 15 km 7 hours
The last day has an optional route near the start, where you can stick to an old access road through the woods, rather than following the path that goes down below the Baines Waterfall. Although not a marked optional route, some hikers chose to follow the logging road to the end point in bad weather or if they don’t have the energy left to climb Hogsback Peak. Following the full route there are as many waterfalls as on day 4, including the highest Amatola waterfall and equally spectacular views. Fill your water bottle for the long section, along which you will not find any water. It is 2 miles from the end of the trails, at Hogsback.
Hikers traveling from afar will need to arrange their own accommodation before day 1. You should start day one as early as possible as it is 15.1km and not the easiest day of the 6 day trek. The nearest town is King Williams Town, where Amatola’s office is located.