Great Walking Experiences in Africa
By Philip Briggs | Updated May 18, 2021
Africa is arguably best experienced on foot. Partly, this is because some of the continent’s most iconic destinations and activities – from tracking gorillas to hiking Kilimanjaro – are accessible only to travelers willing to limber up their limbs, pull on a pair of sensible shoes, and get walking.
Even on a wildlife safari, however, the African bush takes on a more immediate and exhilarating feel when you experience it on foot, without the protection of a vehicle. The opportunities for walking and hiking in Africa are practically limitless, but here are some of our favorite destinations and activities.
Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya
One of the few places in Africa where it is permitted to walk unguided through big game country, Hell’s Gate protects a dramatic landscape of isolated lava plugs, basaltic cliffs, sulphuric springs and glassy black obsidian caves, all set below the volcanic outline of Mount Longonot. Buffalo, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala, gazelle and eland are almost certain to be seen, the cliffs support a magnificent selection of raptors, and the experience is given a certain edge by the knowledge that elephants and lions pass through from time to time. Hell’s Gate is easily visited as a day trip from the many lodges and hotels that line the shore of lovely Lake Naivasha.
You could also try: Malawi’s mountainous Nyika National Park is home to 200+ orchid species, large mammals such as leopard, elephant, eland, and zebra, and localized birds like wattled crane and mountain marsh widow. There are no set hiking trails, but you’ll find enough roads and footpaths to occupy you for a week.
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Gorilla-tracking is the star attraction of Volcanoes National Park, which protects the Rwandan slopes of the Virunga Mountains. But this exceptionally scenic park – comprising a string of perfect volcanic cones that towers above the Albertine Rift floor – offers much else to hikers. Activities include tracking endemic golden monkeys, a relatively relaxed uphill stroll to Dian Fossey’s tomb at the abandoned Karisoke Research Camp, a more demanding day hike to the crater lake atop 12,175-ft Mount Bisoke, and a tough overnight hike to the summit of Karisimbi, which is Africa’s sixth-highest mountain at 14,787 ft.
You could also try: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park rivals Volcanoes National Park as Africa’s best and most popular destination for tracking mountain gorillas. Permits here are a lot cheaper than in Rwanda, and the park offers plenty of other forest hikes.
Luangwa Valley (Zambia)
Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is the site of two national parks, South and North Luangwa, whose speciality is expertly guided foot safaris. The most rewarding way to explore these parks is on a multi-day hike between different bush camps, absorbing the sights and sounds of the African bush undistracted by the chirring of a car engine, and punctuated by occasional thrilling foot encounters with the likes of elephant and buffalo. Walks can be capped with night drives, which offer exceptional viewing of leopards and other nocturnal creatures.
You could also try: Tanzania’s largest conservation area, Nyerere National Park (formerly Selous Game Reserve) is not quite so geared towards walking safaris as Luangwa Valley, but most of its lodge and camps offer guided half-day game walks in a wilderness teeming with elephants, lions and so on.
Garden Route, South Africa
A mosaic of sandy beaches, towering cliffs, indigenous forests, pristine lakes and protea-studded montane meadows, the Garden Route also offers some fine but low-key wildlife-watching, whether it be scanning the breakers for dolphins or whales, or seeking out avian endemics such as the gorgeous Knysna turaco and olive woodpecker. The 5-day Otter Trail along the coast protected within Garden Route National Park is Africa’s finest seaside hike. Less demanding day walks explore the seal colonies and cliffs of Robberg Nature Reserve, the lakes and forested riverine gorges around Wilderness and Sedgefield, and a spectacular suspension bridge across the Storm’s River Mouth.
You could also try: Towering over Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park is traversed by sufficient footpaths to keep hikers busy for months.
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, South Africa
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the vast uKhahlamba-Drakensberg is a true wilderness area whose upper slopes are best tackled by experienced and properly equipped hikers. But the foothills of this extensive range are crisscrossed with dozens of well-marked day trials catering to most energy levels. The scenery is delightful throughout, wildlife is locally plentiful, the mountain air is fresh and crisp, and the caves and overhangs are adorned with one of the world’s most extensive collections of prehistoric rock art.
You could also try: The 5-day, 50-mile trail through Namibia’s Fish River Canyon – the world’s second largest gorge – is one of the most scenic and challenging in southern Africa
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, is an irresistible lure for peak-baggers. It also supports a fascinating succession of habitats, from lush montane forest via lobelia-studded moorland to the sparsely vegetated Afro-alpine zone. No climbing expertise is required for the 5- to 7-day round trek to the 19,341ft peak, but the steep terrain, sub-zero temperatures and giddying altitudinal ascent test most hiker’s physical and mental resources.
You could also try: Africa’s second-highest massif, Mount Kenya offers similar hiking conditions to Kilimanjaro but many regard it to be more beautiful – and it’s certainly far less crowded and a lot cheaper.
Kibale National Park, Uganda
Uganda’s top chimp-tracking destination, Kibale National Park – home to 13 primate and 335 bird species – is also an excellent base for forest walks. Chimp tracking runs from the park’s Kanyanchu Visitors Centre, but the community-run Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, just outside the national park, is usually more rewarding for monkeys and forest-fringe birds. Another major attraction is the field of several dozen crater lakes, many encircled by walking trails, that lies a short distance west of the park boundary.
You could also try: Set on the scenic Eastern Shore of Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream National Parks both offer the opportunity to track chimpanzees first habituated by researchers in the 1960s.
Erta Ale, Ethiopia
Set in the parched Afar region of northwest Ethiopia, Erta Ale (‘Smoking Mountain’) is an active shield volcano whose basaltic caldera holds the oldest of the world’s six permanent lava lakes. This bubbling cauldron of black-crusted red magma is at once spectacular and terrifying, ejecting tall plumes of molten rock plume that splatter on the crumbly rim, accompanied by nostril-peeling waves of ammoniac gas. The lava lake is most photogenic at dawn or dusk, and in a region where temperatures routinely soar above 40˚C, these are also the optimum times to tackle the 6-mile hike up and down the shadeless outer slopes, staying overnight at a basic shelter on the caldera rim.
You could also try: The Congolese Virunga National Park is the only place to offer both gorilla and chimp tracking, but its pièce de résistance is the overnight hike up Nyiragongo, an active volcano with Africa’s only other permanent lava lake nestled at the base of its caldera.