Walking is the best way to appreciate Golden Gate Highlands National Park because you really get to feel the scale of this mountainous paradise.
The Ribbok Hiking Trail (so called because it has you skipping up hillsides like the better-equipped mountain rhebok would) is a two-day overnight hike easily done in a weekend, and is excellent value for money as a budget escape.
Summer is also the best time to do it.
The Ribbok Hiking Trail
Cost: R744 per person (or R1226,50 per person if you stay for three nights)
Duration: 28km overnight hike
Special sights: Mountain rhebok and secret swimming pools
Also read: Get a free trails mail to Golden Gate
What surprised me about this trail was the abundance of beautiful swimming spots; for most of the hike, the trail follows a crystal-clear mountain stream. You need some fitness to really enjoy this adventure, but rewards like panoramic views over Lesotho and secret waterfalls require a little chutzpah and perseverance.
The saving grace of this semi-demanding hike is that you don’t have to lug your overnight gear. It’s not advertised on the website, but Golden Gate will transport one bag per hiker (for free) so you don’t have to carry your sleeping bag, food supplies and change of clothes up to the tallest mountain in the park (Generaalskop stands some 2732 metres above sea level) to see the epic view.
Plan your trip to Golden Gate
Try leave Johannesburg in the afternoon to get to the park on Friday evening (it’s a three hour drive) – even if you check in late, you can arrange to get your keys from security.
Stay here: The self-catering rondavels at Glen Reenen Rest Camp are comfy and affordable. From R915 for two people. You can wake up, register for the trail (reception opens at 07:00), leave your bags for transporting and get going early. Conservation fees R48 per person a day, overnight hike R190 per person. Tel 0582550962
Day two (14,2km)The first section of the Ribbok hike follows the popular Brandwag day trail, and gets up close to this impressive sandstone formation. There’s a bit of a climb and the day starts with excellent views of Golden Gate Hotel and Glen Reenen Rest Camp. From here, you cross grassy plains to reach a flowing stream and follow a gorgeous canyon. Rest here and soak up the scenery.
Then there’s some clambering up towards Wodehouse Peak before heading down to the Wilgenhof Environmental Education Centre and crossing the main road to the other side of the park (we got a little lost here, but just make your way to the park entrance gate and you’ll spot the yellow markers again). From the tar road it’s an easy stroll over grasslands – we spotted zebra and hartebeest along the way – before reaching the hut; it took us six-and-a-half hours in total.
If it’s hot and you still have some energy, the Ribbokspruit waterfall is about 2,4 kilometres and 45 minutes from the hut (the trail will pass it tomorrow). It’s well worth whiling away an afternoon here.
Stay here: The Ribbok Hut is basic, with three rooms (each sleeping six on triple-bunk beds), drinking water, a shower with donkey boiler, two loos, a kitchen with a wood stove (cosy in winter) and an outdoor braai. Firewood is supplied but it can be wet so don’t rely on it to cook (bring a small hiking stove just in case).
Day three (13,9km)Although shorter than the first day, this stretch has a lot of climbing and can take eight hours. First, the trail follows the spruit to the waterfall, then climbs up Heartbreak Hill to Generaalskop. Hikers can look down on the Caledon River, which marks the border between South Africa and Lesotho. You stay at altitude for a while, walking along the rocky spine of the mountains before descending to Langtoon Dam – a good lunch spot. Then it’s an easy stroll back to Glen Reenen and the end of the trail at the rock pool, perfect for cooling off.
Stay here: If you don’t want to rush off home, stay at the Basotho Cultural Village on the Harrismith (eastern) side of Golden Gate. It’s quieter than other camps, being off the main transit road, and has excellent views over the plains, which are usually inundated with springbok and blesbok herds. The self-catering rondavels here are more spacious than at Glen Reenen, and the most affordable accommodation in the park. From R870 for two people. Tel 0582550962
This beautiful backpacking trail first appeared in the October issue of Getaway magazine.
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