Be surprised by the great escapes in nature reserves, conservancies, dams and coastline in and around the city… Here are 10 hikes we love.
Words and Pictures: Shaen Adey
1. Burman Bush Nature Reserve
A thick pocket of coastal bush plum in the suburb of Morningside, the reserve offers three trails, the most rewarding the easy Hadeda Trail named for the number of Hadeda Ibises that roost in the 40m-high Albizia adianthifolia trees. Known as flat crowns, these trees create a magnificent canopy that provides glorious shade for a hike.
Although the Hadeda Trail is only a kilometre long it can easily take an hour as the indigenous forest is fascinating. The reserve is home to the largest number of blue duiker in Durban and surrounds, as well as various butterfly species. It is one of the best places in and around the city for bird watching, with birds that include the Lanner Falcon, Purple-crested Turaco, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Paradise Flycatcher and an uncommon resident, the Buff-spotted Flufftail. You might well be entertained by vervet monkeys, but keep an eye on them, particularly if you’re using the picnic or braai facilities at the gate, as they’re cunning and quick when it comes to stealing your food.
The three trails intersect often so you can extend the walk by leaving the Hadeda Trail at roughly the halfway point and following the red markers that lead you out of the tree canopy onto a wooden deck with stunning views over the Umgeni River. – www.durban.gov.za
2. Ballito North to Salt Rock
If you want a superb coastal walk start at Ballito North and head to Salt Rock (or vice versa). The 5km route takes a little more than an hour at a comfortable pace but the fascinating rock platforms, beautiful beaches and great tidal pools can easily detain you for a day.
Park near the Galley Beach Bar & Grill, head down the steps and turn left. In holiday season you might find sand artists at work here who, for a minimal charge, will happily let you pose for a photograph with their masterpieces. Charlie’s Pool, an Olympic-size tidal pool in Thompsons Bay about halfway along, is a great place to stop. After that you cross the beach and come to a rocky section called Shaka’s Rock, where enemies of the Zulu king met a nasty end. There are more cliffs ahead, with an optional path over the top so you can bypass the rocky platforms at high tide, before you find another tempting tidal pool just before the final stretch along Umhali Beach to Salt Rock Salt Caravan Park.
3. Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve
Consisting of an estuary, dune forest and coastal forest, this pretty and diverse reserve near the busy holiday town of Umhlanga Rocks is an important refuge for a range of wetland, coastal and forest animals, plants and birds, and is a popular family escape.
A scenic trail starts at the car park at the end of the O’ Connor Promenade and, once you’re through the gates (open 06h00-18h00) there’s a wooden boardwalk across the Ohlange River before the trail heads into thick coastal forest. Finally, after much meandering through dune forest it pops out at the beach. With the lagoon on one side and the sea on the other, this huge stretch of golden sand is a bit of a nudists escape, so if skinny-dipping is your thing you can leave your costume at home. The shell midden near the lagoon is worth a visit but remember that middens are of archaeological significance so look but don’t touch. – www.kznwildlife.com
4. Beachwood Mangroves Nature Reserve
The Beachwood Mangroves is an important estuarine habitat at the Umgeni River mouth, known for having the largest number of black and white mangrove trees in the Durban area. The fragile ecosystem falls under Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and is only open to the public on the third Saturday of the month (08h00 until 13h00), when honorary officers are present, or by prior arrangement.
The easy 1km circular trail meanders along sections of boardwalk through the 76-hectare swamp but allow an hour for the hike as there’s plenty to distract you. And try to go at low tide as that’s the best time to spot the molluscs and thousands of fiddler crabs that thrive in the mud. If you look closely you might also spot bizarre, amphibious mudskippers, which look a bit like fish out of water. If you want to head to the beach you can detour off the boardwalk about halfway along the trail. – www.kznwildlife.com
5. Krantzkloof Nature Reserve
The well-known Krantzkloof Nature Reserve in the Kloof area west of Durban has a variety of trails of differing levels of difficulty, including the challenging Molweni and Nqutu trails. The 6km Molweni Trail (also known as the Yellow Trail) is strenuous and the only trail that leads to the base of the gorge.
Initially it follows the ridge line, offering glorious views over the forested gorge from a few hair-raising lookouts before dropping steeply to the Molweni River. Where the path crosses a small weir is a good turn-around point if you don’t plan on going the whole way to the bottom. (It will take about 30 minutes to retrace your steps from here).
From the weir, the trail drops steeply but the reward – a fabulous dip in the Molweni River at the bottom – is worth the slog back to your car. There are several breeding pairs of Crowned Eagles nesting in the area so listen (and look) out for them as you go. – www.kznwildlife.com
6. Giba Gorge Nature Reserve
The picturesque McIntosh Falls, with their lush surroundings and deep plunge pool, are a highlight of this extensive gorge in the Hillcrest region west of Durban.
Starting at the Giba gates on St Helier Road, the route initially follows the Ukhozi (Eagle) Trail through a beautiful section of indigenous forest, where the chances of spotting the trail’s namesake are high. It branches off onto the Ndabushe (Caracal) Trail, which leads to the base of McIntosh Falls. It’s a moderately difficult, 7km-return walk that will take the best part of three hours, but the falls are beautiful and the large, icy-cold pool is a must. If you happen to clamber above the falls you’re in for a surprise when you spot the trunks of various indigenous trees painted pink and blue. Fear not, you are not losing the plot. The artwork is an attempt by conservationists to eliminate the value of the bark for the muti market.
7. Paradise Valley Nature Reserve
It’s hard to believe that there’s a gem of a reserve tucked right near the massive flyovers of the Paradise Valley interchange on the N3 to Pietermaritzburg. But this really is paradise found.
All four trails in the reserve are scenic. The 2km, circular Waterfall Trail crosses wooden bridges and takes you past the historical waterworks (a national monument) as it follows the Umbilo River down to a superb waterfall, a particularly fun and easy walk for kids.
8. Virginia Bush Nature Reserve
On the Durban North side, this is another easy city escape, plus it’s dog friendly. The reserve is only 38-hectares in size but as you enter it’s as if someone has pressed the mute button: the sounds from traffic on Newport Avenue just disappear.
The moderate, 2km circular route, takes you to the highest point where there are stunning views to the ocean in the distance. The trees are beautiful – many are labelled and include wild hibiscus, milkwood and huge Natal figs – and there’s a small dam near the gate that attracts frogs and birds. It’s a great place for relaxing after your hike. – www.durban.gov.za
9. Shongweni Dam
The drive to Shongweni Dam between Durban and Pietermaritzburg takes you through rural communities so hiking here is not just a bush escape, it’s a cultural experience.
The 1700ha game reserve has various game species, including curious zebra that venture close to hikers. Its bird list of more than 250 species features specials like the White-backed Night Heron, Martial Eagle, European Honey Buzzard, African Broadbill and African Finfoot. Walks in the reserve are guided, with the 3km Ntini Trail included in the cost of the minimal entrance fee.
The guides double as game guards and are usually out on patrol so be sure to call ahead to book. I loved the reserve so much that on my second visit I stayed overnight in one of the chalets on stilts at the water’s edge. – www.msinsi.co.za
10. Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve
If you want to stretch your legs and get up close to game, head just south of the city to the Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve, where there are more than 13km of hiking trails (and 10km of mountain-bike routes) to explore.
The circular Red Trail, which passes through sections of wetland, grassland and coastal forest, is a stunner that will take about two hours to complete. Zebra are regularly encountered in the grassland and the reserve also has bushbuck, reedbuck, impala, and blue-, red-, and grey duiker, plus vervet monkey and rock hyrax. There are also nocturnal species including slender mongoose, Egyptian mongoose, genet and bushbaby but, since the gates are only open from 06h00 to 18h00, you’ll be lucky to spot them. – www.kznwildlife.com