The Outeniqua Trail: 68 Miles in the Heart of the Garden Route, South Africa
South Africa has a wealth of incredibly diverse hiking; from the dry and rugged Cedarberg in the west to the majestic Drakensberg in the east. Tucked away behind the popular tourist towns of Plettenberg Bay and Knysna (pronounced NIZE-na) near the south coast of South Africa lies the Outeniqua Trail. Found in the Garden Route National Park, the Outeniqua Trail weaves through beautiful indigenous forest and montane fynbos (heath-like vegetation that only grows in the southwestern Cape of South Africa) in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains. Over seven relatively laid-back days you will traverse rugged mountains, relax by pristine rivers, and unwind by a fire each night.
The Outeniqua Trail At-a-Glance
Distance | 68 mi (110 km)
Time | 7 days (~8-13 mi/day)
Location | Garden Route National Park, Western Cape, South Africa
Trail type | End-to-end (trail can only be done from west-to-east)
Huts | Each night is spent at a well-maintained hut. The huts have bunkbeds, toilets, firewood, and braai (barbecue) facilities.
Scenery | Foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains and coastal plateau traversing Indigenous Knysna forest and montane and lowland fynbos, as well as occasional eucalyptus/pine plantations.
Terrain | Generally moderate terrain but includes several steep descents/ascents. Some rivers are difficult to cross after rain.
Navigation | The topographical trail map is available from South African National Parks (SAN Parks) Garden Route Regional Office, Knysna. The trail is well-marked (white footprints) and generally well-maintained.
Why Hike the Outeniqua Trail?
The Outeniqua Trail is a fascinating and diverse hike. With relatively short mileages required each day, you can set a pretty relaxed pace. The terrain is difficult enough however, to keep it interesting. Enjoy long, lazy lunches by pristine rivers with beautiful swimming holes. Search for evidence of the last remaining matriarch Knysna elephant still roaming the indigenous forests; I’ve never been so thrilled to find dung in the bush. The Knysna forests are home to a wide range of wildlife and it’s common to see vervet monkeys, baboons, and bushbuck. Indeed, cheeky vervet monkeys will steal your lunch from your hands if you’re not careful. The forests also host leopard, caracal, honey badger, and of course, the lone elephant, all of which are quite elusive.
To hike the Outeniqua Trail, you must book and pay for the huts in advance. You can either do the whole seven days or choose a shorter two- or three-day section. Email SAN Parks at [email protected] to make a booking. Huts cost R115 ($7.60 USD) per person per night. You must also pay conservation fees; for internationals this is an additional R152 ($10 USD) per day. The cost can be a little bit hard to swallow, but it allows SAN Parks to stay on top of maintaining the trail and the huts. Upon booking and payment, you will be emailed a permit which will likely be checked when you start at Beervlei Hut.
The Outeniqua Trail starts at Beervlei Hut (-33.9246711 S, 22.7243136 E) and ends at Harkerville hut (-34.046592 S, 23.228405 E). If you have your own vehicle, it is easiest to leave it at the Harkerville Hut and then get a shuttle to the start of the trail at Beervlei Hut. There is a ranger’s office at Harkerville Hut so it is a relatively safe place to leave your car. Nonetheless, do not leave any valuables in your vehicle; the trail is not immune from social issues that affect some of the poorer communities in South Africa. We booked Bennie’s shuttle a couple of days in advance (+27 44 382 0216) and were charged ~R600 ($40 USD). Hitch hiking is a common way to get around in South Africa but I would not, with a clear conscience, recommend it for foreigners.
Climate and Weather
The Outeniqua Trail can be hiked at any time of the year, but the shoulder seasons probably have the best weather for hiking. During the winter months (June – August), the southern mountains can be wet and cold (average low temp ~40 ˚F), and during summer (December – February) it can be hot (90+ ˚F) and humid. Regardless of the time of year however, you should carry good rain gear. The Outeniqua Mountains get ~1300 mm of rain annually, and any weather coming off the Indian Ocean will hit the Outeniqua Mountains first. In the warmer months, the mosquitoes can be quite bad so repellent is recommended.
There is no need for camping along the Outeniqua Trail, rather each night you stay in rather lovely huts that are spaced between ~8 – 13 miles apart. In order, the huts are – Windmeulnek Hut (10 mi), Platbos Hut (23 mi), Millwood Hut (32 mi), Rondebossie Hut (42 mi), Diepwalle Hut (50 mi), and Fisanthoek Hut (61 mi). Each hut has basic facilities; bunkbeds, mattresses, potable water, toilets, and in some cases, showers. The huts are also well-supplied with fire wood and have braai areas where you can enjoy a fire each night if desired.
There are no reliable places to resupply along the trail so it is best to carry food for the seven days from the start. Near Diepwalle Hut (day 5) there is a small tea house which serves meals and is a good place to grab a burger or sandwich, but their resupply options leave much to be desired. Remember to pack out some boerewors (South African sausage) or mealies (corncob) to cook on the braai on your first night.
Each day there is at least one reliable river from which to collect water. The water, though strongly stained by tannins, is good quality but should generally be treated. All the huts have rainwater tanks which provide potable water. If the tanks are running low, SAN Parks rangers will bring in large water containers for hikers.
The Outeniqua Trail is a great trail to tackle if you are spending an extended period in South Africa. You will explore the beautiful mountains and forests that make the Garden Route one of the most popular tourist areas in South Africa, but with the benefit of avoiding the crowds.
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