Why hike the Amathole trail?
Certainly, one of the best reasons for hiking the Amathole trail is the desire to challenge yourself since it is known as the hardest trail in South African. In return for your effort, you will be rewarded with a hike through a striking scenery filled with plenty waterfalls scattered throughout the hilly area. The climax, of course, represents the climb to the Hogsback peak itself with its magnificent view over the whole valley.
And, most importantly, due to its high physical demand, the trail is not highly frequented. Although we started the hike together with 4 other people, we basically walked every day alone. That gives you the chance to experience nature in a unique way.
The Amathole is definitely also a good choice for adventurous people. Completing the track involves a lot of searching for the right signs and sometimes feels more like being a boy scout than a hiker. You will undoubtedly have a lot of fun!
Amathole Mountains – General Information
TOTAL LENGTH: The Amathole trail is 100 km (varying in altitude from 518 to 1850 m)
START – Finish: Maden Dam (Near King Williamstown) – Tyumie River (near Hogsback)
SLEEPING FACILITIES: Cabins with bunk beds including mattresses, where up to 16 people can stay. Firewood and drinking water available. Cold water showers or donkey to heat the water.
BEST TIME TO GO: December/January – It is also possible to go during the other months. However, it might be more challenging due to either the cold weather or the high water level of some rivers.
WHERE TO REGISTER: The trail is managed by Department of Water Affairs and Forestry and you need to write them a mail for registration (amatolhk [at] dwaf [dot] gov [dot] za)
DIFFICULTY: The Amathole is a very challenging and strenous hike due to the heavy backpack in the beginning (food for 6-7 days), the long distances to cover every day and the not so well marked trail.
IMPORTANT NOTES: It is definitely a physically demanding hike. Each day requires long hours of walking. Carry a lot of food and even some special treats to look forward to after a tough day. Don’t forget your bathing suit since there are several opportunities to enjoy swimming in natural pools. Bring some warm clothes – it might get chilly during the night, even in summer!
One has to register at the Department of Water affairs. The hike is usually not overbooked, so it also represents a good opportunity for spontaneous hikers. Once you have paid the fee, a package including a detailed map and a daily description of the hike will be left at the Department of Water Affairs in King Williamstown for you to pick up.
If you travel by car: We would suggest a stopover at Hogsback before starting the hike and organize a transfer to the starting point (Maden Dam, about 1.5 h by car) early in the morning of the first day. We stayed at a hostel called “Away with the Fairies”- a really relaxing place. One can choose between a dorm, a single room or a campsite outside.
MADEN DAM TO GWILI (15.3 km; 8-9 hours)
We knew that the first day would be a tough one. Mainly uphill with a heavy backpack full of food for 6 days. So we left Hogsback at 5 am to arrive at the starting point (Madem Dam) 1.5 hours later. The fog covered the whole valley in a dense layer of mist during our car ride. A spectacular start.
After adjusting our backpacks, we were ready for the adventure. In theory, one should just follow the yellow footprints to stay on the Amathole trail. However, during the first kms of the day, we got confused by crossed-out footprints and lost the path several times. So we had to re-track to the last sign and consult the map to get an idea how to continue.
After about 4.5 km, we reached a bridge. So far, the hike was quite flat along the Maden Dam (built in 1910). We then hiked through Evelyn valley and soon had to cross a wide river. Luckily, we met the other 4 hikers (2 South African couples) who had started the Amathole the same day. We built a “human row” and carried all backpacks safely across the water.
Soon afterwards, we had to leave the valley and from now on follow the blue footprints (again, not always easy to find). Since it had rained quite a bit the days before, the path was often slippery and we were only able to advance slowly. The bridge at the Evelyn’s River is ideal for a lunch break. A beautiful spot surrounded by large Giant East Cape Cycads.
For the rest of the afternoon, we only climbed uphill until we finally reached the hut after 10 hours on the trail. The climb was very steep in parts and when the sun came out, it became quite strenuous. However, the amazing place of the first hut recompensed greatly for the tough climb. We had an impressive sight over the whole valley and opposed mountain ranges.
A little table and chairs are placed a bit further uphill of the hut where one can enjoy the stunning view while having dinner. It is also a perfect place for taking photos of the sunset or sunrise.
GWILI TO DONTSA HUT (18 or 19.6 km; 8 hours)
During the night, it got quite cold in the hut. However, being awaken by a beautiful sunrise shining through the window next to your bed makes it all worthwhile!
We rose early (5 am) to have enough time for the hike. The second day was the flattest day of the Amathole trail. In my opinion, also the least special one. It is also the only day where you will find a mark each km.
In the first hours, we mainly walked through the dense, indigenous forest. It was again quite slippery and we had to climb and use both hands several times. After around 8 km, we reached a clearing which made for a perfect spot for a second breakfast. We enjoyed the view on the countryside and tried to guess where the hike would lead us in the following days.
The hike continued through the forest for the next hours until we arrived at a tree plantation. Here, one could either choose a shortcut through the valley passing a waterfall or follow the “real” Amathole trail. On a sunny day, we would definitely suggest to do the shortcut since there is enough time for a good swim if you started early.
Nevertheless, we took the latter one and crossed several other plantations before seeing two signs: To the right, the Dontsa Hut in 300m. To the left, a waterfall in 400 m. We followed the waterfall sign down. It let us first down for about 200m and then cross a small river. But, even after more than ½ hour walking, we couldn’t find any sight of a waterfall. Due to the past inaccuracies of sign posts on this track, we decided to go back to the hut first and explore the surroundings after a short rest.
However, the next surprise came when we tried to locate the Dontsa hut. Although a sign post clearly stated “ Dontsa Hut”, it was nowhere to be found. We checked every possible path until we realized that we already had to follow the signs for the third day. After approximately 500 m of walking, finally reached it. A very large and new hut, situated in the middle of a pine forest.
There is a lot of firewood below the hut, protected from the rain. A little stream provides fresh water. The showers were cold but very welcome in the heat. Nevertheless, we were quite surprised when our South African fellows arrived later during the day and started the donkey to have warm showers.
The second day is one of the shorter hiking days. One should definitely take advantage of the cozy hut and recover during the afternoon.
DONTSA HUT TO CATA HUT (16.8 or 18.9 km; 8-9 hours)
Again, we rose early (5 am) to have enough time to do the big tour on top of the Doorn Kop. If tired or in case of bad weather, one could also go around – the path separates at around 5 km.
The path first winds up through the forest. Exhausting, but extremely beautiful. After approx. 4 km, we crossed a waterfall. It represents a good spot for snapping photos and refilling water supplies. We then had to climb to the first plateau, where he had an excellent view across the mountain range.
If you decide to climb the Doorn Kop, you need some scouting abilities. The path is really hard to find. Even the 4 South Africans got lost and searched for more than 1 hour. At some point we just followed the direction of the summit and walked across the grass plains. On top, the view was magnificent. It made for a nice lunch spot.
Afterwards, the path went down through a beautiful meadow full of spring flowers. Be aware, hey fever allergies might start. Basti could hardly breathe.
Once down the mountain, we could choose between three options. We took the upper trail and after 5 minutes arrived at a small waterfall. It was nicely covered by the surrounding tress and very pleasant to sit and put ones feet into the cool water. Another short climb followed through the forest.
Tired people could now follow the so-called “jeep track”- a gravel road which directly leads to the Cata Hut. For the adventurous and fit people, we suggest to follow the “waterfall track”. I found it was an amazing track. Basti, in contrast, was swearing a lot. One had to literally rob on ones knees several times, use hanging trees to steady oneself and continuously climb up and down.
Once out of the forest, we had a scary encounter – a big, green snake rested on the path and wouldn’t move. We eventually managed to persuade the snake to leave :). Then, the tricky part of the day came. According to the map, the Cata Hut should be located right after the next hill. At this point we weren’t really surprised when we found out that you still have to climb a good bit along a waterfall before reaching a plateau.
From there, it is about one more kilometer to reach the Cata Hut. If the weather is good, you should definitely leave all your stuff there and walk further 500 m. You will find a nice natural pool to swim.
Unfortunately, we arrived there in the rain and where just happy to warm up in the hut covered in warm blankets. This is the time where you are extremely happy about a hot chocolate and marshmallows as a treat for the day. You can also find a stone oven that can be fired with the wood lying around. Our South African friends used it for making bread and BBQ. They shared their fresh bread with melted butter inside – delicious!
CATA HUT TO MNYAMEN HUT (13.5 km; 7-8 hours) – First, the Amathole trail leads again through an intensively lush forest. Despite being strenuous to walk since one had to continuously hop over large stones, it was also very funny. We took our time for this part of the hike since a lot of motives for photographing represented themselves – snout beetles, fallen trees, our path covered in dense fog. Shortly after the path became a little more flat, we reached the junction to decide whether to climb the Ganja (not entirely sure, that’s its real name 😉 ) Peak or to walk around it. DO NOT take the Ganja route in bad weather! We tried to hike it, but due to the very bad marking of the trail, we got lost in the fog within 15 minutes. Of course, finding our way back to the junction took more than double the time.
In contrast, the shortcut around Ganja peak was very easy to follow. It involved a bit of a climbing but then only went downhill for the most part of the day. The highlight for Basti – a baby praying mantis on the path. There were several “stone fields” to cross which was sometimes, when slippery, not an easy task to undertake. We got the impression that the path was arranged in a zigzag with the only purpose to cross as many of those “stone fields” to make the hike as difficult as possible :). Following a little stream let us to the beginning of the Mnyameni Gorge, where we encountered a nice viewpoint to look down on a huge waterfall. This part was quite easy to walk. Yet, due to the high grass, one got pretty wet. A lot of red Proteas (the national flower of South Africa) grow in this area, decorating the meadow. For a few kms, we strolled along on top of the gorge and enjoyed the stunning views.
After a short and quite deep descent, we entered a forest which seemed fairy-like in the misty atmosphere. In total, we passed 4 waterfalls – in sunny weather, ideal places to stop and rest. However, this was the only rainy and real cold day so we were quite eager to reach the hut as soon as possible. Before the end, we still had to cross several small, but deep, rivers (shoes off, shoes on ;)). We had heard that during summer, some of the crossings could be quite difficult due to the high water.
Once we had reached the end of the gorge, it was only another short walk to reach the Myanemi Hut. The hut is situated in a beautiful green valley with an amazing views of the gorge and the mountain “HOGS 2”.
MNYAMEN HUT TO ZINGCUKA HUT (18.2 km; 8-9 hours) – Day 5 was definitely one of the most striking days of the Amathole trail. The weather was great and there were plenty opportunities to swim in large pools beneath great waterfalls. However, the start of the day was rather tough: a strenuous 2 km uphill hike through the forest followed by further ascending into open field. The path was surrounded by high bushes which made it very difficult to find and. On top of that, you will get soaked in mist Luckily, the sun came out once we were close to the top offering another stunning view of the surrounding mountains. We found a pretty crab (100km away from the ocean) on the trail and stopped for a “photo-shooting”. After about 5 km we passed the saddle and from there on just followed the river down along a little gorge. There were at least 5 natural swimming pools!!! In our opinion, the second one (at approx. 8 km) was the best one to stop, swim and eat. But, if time allows, you should stop at all of them :). Highlight: We spotted a Monitor lizard gliding through the river and jumping 5m down a waterfall.
At 11.5 km, we reached a junction and had to turn right to Walls river. Shortly afterwards we encountered the last pool on the right. We had a long break and swim before tackling the remaining part of the hike (still~ 3 hours to the hut). Unfortunately, we met some angry cows blocking our way and had to detour a bit – they looked really scary with their big horns (I’ll happily dive cage free with Tiger sharks, but I get scared of cows ;).
The path then winded along a mountain ridge (best not to look to your left, it goes down abruptly and is not secured at all) before steeply climbing down into the Schwarzwald forest (believe it or not, that is its actual name). The Zingcuka hut was the only hut on the Amathole which is frequently used by other day hikers. Is it thus not as pretty as the others and we would not recommend using the toilet facilities there ;).
ZINGCUKA HUT TO TYUMIE RIVER (18.2 km, 8-9 hours) – The climb of the Hogsback on the last day represented both the most strenuous but also the most rewarding hike of the Amathole trail. Make sure to carry enough water since you will not encounter any water for several hours.
Before you start, you can decide whether to take the small loop passing another giant water fall or to follow the shortcut. We decided for the latter one since we had already seen plenty of gorgeous waterfalls. Plus, the detour would add another 100 m in altitude. For the first 5 kms, we climbed through the Schwarzwald forest until reaching a plateau with a small river, ancient Xhosa huts and cows grazing in the adjacent fields. At that point we got completely lost since the path was, again, not well marked. For more than 40 minutes, we strayed around until luckily the other hikers arrived and we saw them walking on the correct path.
We then had to climb for more than 2 hours along the hill side on a quite difficult path to reach the viewpoint just below the Hogsback. The sight from there was thrilling. We were rewarded with a look over the whole valley and the mountains in front of us. We were even able to spot our hostel in Hogsback. After a long break, we shortly followed the path below the Hogsback and then descended down a meadow full of flowers.
Half way down, the “funny part” of the day began -we couldn’t find the path! Again 😉 Neither could the 4 South African fellows which we met shortly after running forward and back several times to find any other signs. For more than two hours – and in full on midday heat – we crossed different plantations and tried to find the path leading towards Hogsback. At some point we stopped at a white caravan and from there scouted different roads to see where they lead. However, we were not lucky and too exhausted to continue further. Luckily, we still had a phone with batteries and our friends had the number of the mountain rescue. After describing our position (indeed, we were lucky to have stayed at the white caravan – apparently there are only two abandoned ones in the area and the only landmarks far and wide), we were picked up after another hour of waiting by a friendly old fellow from Hogsback and his “volunteers”. The poor young volunteers of the mountain rescue had to walk back the 6.5 km to Hogsback while we were comfortably transported in a big van. What an adventure! Although we have never reached the Tyumie river, this was a great last day of stunning views, tough climbs and adventurous way finding. Totally worth the experience!