Amatola: The toughest (hutted) hike in South Africa
The Amatola Trail (6 days, 100kms) is marketed as “The Toughest Hike in South Africa” and I think it lives up to the title, writes Arno van der Heever. Obviously there are harder wilderness hikes around, but as far as hutted hiking trails go, the Amatola Trail is as challenging as they come.
The Amatola Trail starts at Maden Dam near King Williams Town and traverses the Hogsback Mountains all the way into the Tolkienesque village of Hogsback itself. Its main features are the abundance of waterfalls and mountain pools, as well as the ancient, indigenous rainforest which makes up more than half the route.
Day 1: Maden Dam – Gwiligwili Hut (11 or 15.3km)
Do not underestimate the first day, even if you choose the 11km variation, as you will ascend 700m. Give yourself enough time to start slow. You will notice what looks like fresh dog poo everywhere, don’t panic, it’s digested soil from giant earthworms – they can grow to 1m in length.
Gwiligwili Hut is perched high up on a hillside with beautiful views of the surrounding area. There is also a separate braai area which makes for a very social first night.
Day 2: Gwiligwili Hut – Dontsa Hut (18 or 19.6km)
Day 2 is the longest section of the hike and most of it is spent traversing ancient, dense forest where the sunlight struggles to pierce the thick canopy. It is a feast for the senses as one wanders through a dream-like sea of green with the hum of the Cicadas being broken by the occasional call of a Knysna Lourie.
Once you’ve settled in at Dontsa Hut, the cares and stresses of city life seem a million miles away as the peace of the mountains starts to sink in.
Day 3: Dontsa Hut – Cata Hut (16.8 or 19km)
It is important to make an early start on day 3, as it is another long day with a serious sting in the tail.
As you leave the forest behind and ascend to the plateau, you get treated to an entirely new landscape of macchia grassland and a myriad of wildflowers.
You have the option of taking the high road and summiting Doornkop, or staying low and traversing through the Hovald forest. If it is a clear day, the views from Doornkop are about as good as they get.
The brutal, final ascent to Cata Hut is made bearable by the magnificent display of waterfalls through the aptly named Waterfall forest. The Amatola Trail is sometimes referred to as the “waterfall trail” and this day leaves no doubt as to why.
Day 4: Cata Hut – Mnyameni Hut (13.5km)
Day 4 is a great day to take things a little slower on the trail as it is shorter and easier than the other days. It also has many viewpoints, that make for great snack spots, as well as lots of pools and waterfalls to enjoy.
After the initial ascent from Cata Hut, you start to descend a rock-filled valley. These stones seemed to contain a large amount of iron as they rang like a steel sheet when we tapped them with the tips of our trekking poles. There was also something that looked like a burn mark, as if struck by lightning. Not the place to hang around in a thunderstorm…
Good thing we made it to the hut in time, as that night we were treated to a magnificent, New Year’s Eve lightning display. We had arranged a food drop through Amatola Trails, so that night we enjoyed steak and red wine, while mother nature made us feel small as we watched the thunderstorm rumbling down the valley.
The next morning we were treated to a magnificent sunrise.
Day 5: Mnyameni Hut – Zingcuka Hut (18,2 km)
You’ll want to get an early start again, not just because of the distance, but because of the number of swimming spots along the way. By now our bodies were really starting to feel the hike and the regular stops and refreshing swims made this day a treat.
Zingcuka Hut is a beautiful wooden hut with comfortable beds, a “Donkey” boiler to heat the water, and tables and chairs to sit around till late, watch the stars and soak it all in on your last night on the trail.
Day 6: Zingcuka Hut – Tyume River (15 km)
It’s quite a steep slog of about 800m up to the main Hogsback Peak before descending into the Tyume River basin toward the end of the trail.
There is a short cut along the jeep track if you can’t face another long day, but it is quite a satisfying feeling walking under the official signage at the end of the trail. From here, it’s a 3km walk into Hogsback along the road.
What makes this trail very special is the diversity. The forests, mountains, waterfalls and flora all add up to make this trail unique among trails in Southern Africa. It is one of the great trails in South Africa and a must-do for any experienced hiker.
That being said, it is physically very demanding, so proper training is advisable. Attempting this hike while weak and unfit will spoil the entire experience – many parties do not finish the hike due to its challenging nature. As with all mountain terrain, so too with the Amatola Trail, the weather can go from hot and humid to freezing cold, rain and even snow during the course of the hike, so be prepared for the worst. If you are a novice, make sure there is an experienced hiker in your group.
We did the hike over New Year’s. The weather was hot and humid, but not unbearable (made for great swimming). We did experience rain and a thunderstorm one night.
Beauty: 4 (of 5)
Difficulty (fitness): 9-10/10 (Extremely difficult due to long days and big ascents and descents i.e. need to be fit/strong)
Technical rating of trail: Standard trail walking and minor river crossings.
Duration: 6 Days, 100kms
How to book:
Bookings are made through the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries
Tel: 043-642 2571
Source: Hiking South Africa