Strong legs can carry you to new worlds. We introduce six routes - from a relaxed ramble to tough treks - you can do with friends or family. Here's how to prepare for the adventure of a lifetime. By FIONA MCINTOSH and PEA BLAAUW, YOU Pulse magazine.
Everyone knows it's good for your heart and practically every other organ in your body to be fit. That's easy. What's difficult is the getting-fit part.
Jogging in place on a treadmill is not everyone's idea of an inspiring experience. It's time for a new approach: eco fitness. You don't have to exercise yourself to death and you'll get the chance to enjoy your fitness.
Go walking beneath the starry skies of the Fish River Canyon in Namibia, along the forest paths of the Otter Trail, through Big Five country on the Olifants Trail in Kruger Park, in the fynbos of the Cape Point Trail or even on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in northern Spain.
According to sport scientists it's much easier to exercise and get fit if you have a specific goal in mind. So while you're on the treadmill you can already imagine the crunch of earth under your feet, the grass brushing against your legs and a cool breeze caressing your arms.
Here's your guide to these six hikes - varying from an hour or two, to several weeks. We indicate the necessary fitness levels for each as well as route information.
We give you advice on the best shoes and backpack for each trail, including exercise tips.
Cape Point Route
Difficulty: A walk in the park. An easy, hour-long walk for the inexperienced, the young and even the young at heart, walking sticks and all.
How fit should I be? If you can walk around the block three times without snorting like a rhino you'll have enough breath left to appreciate the nature around you.
Route: From the topmost Cape Point lighthouse to the Cape of Good Hope lookout point.
What to expect: The hike is spectacular with plenty of historical interest, flora and fauna. Park at Cape Point (and watch out for the baboons as you unpack- they're remorseless thieves) then head out on the stiff climb towards the upper lighthouse. On a good day the views over False Bay and to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve are excellent.
Then hike down to the lower, functioning, lighthouse - it's a moderate walk that should take no more than an hour return. Finish off the hike by heading along the fynbos-covered cliffs above Dias Beach to the Cape of Good Hope lookout point where you'll see dassies (rock hyrax) sunning themselves on the rocks. If you're able to arrange a pick-up from this point so much the better - if not, the return hike affords totally different views as you retrace your steps.
Cost: *Entrance is R55 pp.
Bookings are not required. For info call 021-780-9204 or visit www.tmnp.co.za.
Which pack and boots? A small 20- or 22-litre daypack and any hiking boots or trainers will do unless it's wet (which it often is). In that case go for the Hi-Tec V-lite Quik Sierra (men's R750, women's R699) or the Salomon XA Pro 3D XCR (R999).
The Olifants River Trail- Kruger Park
Difficulty: Tough going. This route takes four days and three nights and covers 42 km. It may seem short but 42 km becomes a long way when you're carrying a backpack, sleeping bag, tent, mat, food, water and cooking utensils across rocky territory.
How fit should I be? If you can cover 10 km in two hours while carrying a backpack of 12 to 15 kg and live to tell the tale you should have enough energy to scramble up a tree if a lion roars behind you. If unfit start exercising at least three months before the hike.
Route: Along the Olifants River in the eastern part of the park close to the Mozambican border.
What to expect: According to SANParks the trail is designed to be "a physically demanding wilderness experience" - you have been warned! There are no big hills but the terrain is rocky and your pack will be heavy. On a typical day you'll cover 15 km between 6.30 am and 4.30 pm, which is made up of six hours of walking and four hours of rest.
The trail is generally dry and dusty with significant temperature variations - it can be 40°C in the day and nearly freezing at night so go prepared. Oh, and did we mention it's through Big Five country? But don't worry, two armed rangers accompany every group.
Cost:* R9 600 for a group (maximum of eight hikers).
Bookings: SANParks, call 012-426-5117 or visit www.sanparks.org.
Which pack and boots? You're in big game country so tents aren't optional. A 70-litre backpack with plenty of packing space, compartments and side pockets for the strong guys and a 60-litre backpack for women and smaller guys. Go for superlight boots, trail running shoes or lighter trail shoes.
The Otter Trail- Garden Route
Difficulty: Tough going. The five-day, four-night Otter Trail in the Tsitsikamma National Park may be SA's most famous hike but it's no walk in the park.
How fit should I be? If you can hike 10 km in two hours with a 12 kg pack on your back, your legs should be strong enough to carry you through the forest and the rivers and across the beaches.
Route: It starts at the Storms River section of the Tsitsikamma National Park and traverses some magnificent coastline - along cliff s covered in sweet-smelling fynbos, through indigenous forest and past sandy coves with wind- and wave-sculpted rocks before finishing some 42,5 km later on the glorious beach at Nature's Valley.
What to expect: There are some stiff climbs and a few interesting river crossings where you need to catch the low tide to avoid a swim so it's a trail for fit, strong hikers and nature-lovers. The bird life is fantastic, there are great rock pools to explore and you'll often see dolphins and whales out at sea. Compared with the Fish River or Olifants River hike it's quite luxurious with four beautifully situated huts along the way equipped with comfortable beds and mattresses, a braai place, firewood and even a shower.
Cost:* R525 pp.
Bookings: SANParks, call 012-426-5111 or visit www.sanparks.org.
Which pack and boots? A 60-litre backpack for men and a 40- or 50-litre backpack for women will allow you to pack a few luxuries as well as the essentials. If it's not 100 per cent waterproof put everything inside a bin liner as additional protection against the elements and river crossings. It can rain at any time of year on the Otter Trail so go for lightweight, waterproof footwear.
The Fish River Canyon- Namibia
Difficulty: A real slog. Rather leave your mother-in-law at home - chances are you'll end up carrying her as well as her pack.
How fit should I be? You should be able to climb 10 sets of stairs with a pack of 15 kg on your back, then be able to walk another 10 km within two hours - also with the backpack. Panting will be frowned upon and you're allowed only an hour to catch your breath before having to walk another 10 km in two hours.
Route: You're on your own on this four- or five-day 90 km wilderness trail from Hobas to Ai Ais in southern Namibia so it's for experienced, self-sufficient hikers only. There's water in the river (or when it's dry as it is this year, in pools) but no shelter so everything you need goes on your back and you camp out under the stars.
What to expect: The canyon's dramatic geology is fascinating. You can't fail to be impressed by the layers of weathered sandstone that form the sheer upper walls. The first day a steep, sometimes slippery 500 m descent to the bottom of the canyon is the toughest (particularly since you're still carrying all your supplies) with some sections aided by chains. Then it's a rugged trail with plenty of rock-hopping and walking on sand until you reach the oasis of Palm Springs. The last few days are fairly easy going - and the hot springs at Ai Ais will soon revive your weary body.
Cost: *R100 pp for the trail plus R60 pp for every 24 hours spent in the national park.
Bookings: Namibia Wildlife Resorts, call 021-422-3761, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.nwr.com.na. Don't forget to pack their excellent and essential trail map.
Which pack and boots? A 70-litre backpack for the strong guys and a 50- or 60-litre pack for women. You can go lightweight with the boots but boots with solid soles will help with the boulder-hopping.
The Eden to Addo Mega-Hike- South Africa's own 'Camino'
Difficulty: Uphill even on the plains. This tough trail is along jeep tracks and through bush.
How fit should I be? If you can go up hill and down dale for 10 km seven days running you're ready for this 380 km hike. It's the longest trail in the country and lasts 18 days.
Route: You follow a conservation corridor that links Knysna forest, home to the almost mythical Knysna elephants, to Addo National Park. This hike, which also passes through Baviaanskloof, is done only once a year (in September).
What to expect: It's a serious physical challenge but is made a lot easier thanks to the logistics crew that provides all your meals. There are even tented camps, complete with showers, waiting for you at the end of each day. You can hike with only a daypack and keep your eye out for buffalo and giant tortoises.
Cost: *R13 800 for the entire trail. All meals, accommodation, park fees, guiding and transfers are included.
Bookings: Call 044-356-2825 or visit www.edentoaddo.co.za.
Camino de Santiago-Spain
Difficulty: Not for quitters. A distance of 800 km through the Spanish countryside is covered in two months.
How fit should I be? If you can easily handle 10 km with 10 kg on your back every day for a week it will be a long but easy walk to enlightenment.
Route: El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, is more than just a hiking trail. It's a spiritual journey along one of the most important pilgrimage routes of the Middle Ages. The most popular route (there are lots of variants) is from the French border at St Jean Pied de Port (near the bull-running town of Pamplona on Spain's northeastern coast) to Santiago de Compostela - a distance of some 800 km through wonderful countryside and villages.
What to expect: Travelling slowly on foot is a great way to experience Spain. Most hikers sleep in hostels used by the pilgrims (bring your own sleeping bag) where you can also buy meals. They cost about €5 (R49) a night but you can stay in guesthouses or do a luxury guided trip.
Although the route is not strenuous and to some extent you can choose how far you hike every day, a long hike of this nature does demand a good level of fitness - both physical and mental - and if you're walking in summer (the dry months) it's likely to be very hot in the day. If you don't have time to do the whole trail the last 100 km or so can easily be done in a week.
Cost: *Budget on about €15 to €20 (R146 - R195) a day for accommodation, food and essentials.
Bookings are not required although space in the hostels is on a first-come-first-served basis. For more information visit www.santiagocompostela.net.
Which pack and boots? A 40-litre pack is ideal. The trick to enjoying the Camino de Santiago is to travel light. Waterproof boots are a good idea. Much of the trail is on tarmac or good track so comfort can take priority.
Choose the right pack
Choose a lightweight backpack with adjustable straps so you can carry it higher on your back when climbing over rocks. Pack the heaviest stuff right at the bottom. If your centre of gravity is too high your pack will pull you off balance.
The golden rule of packing is never to carry more than 25% of your body weight.
Get walking fit
Here's how to get walking fit, according to Pea Blaauw, biokineticist:
Start an exercise programme at least two to 14 weeks before your hike. Start slowly and get fitter as you progress. Walk four times a week. In your first week walk a quarter of the total distance of your route with a quarter of your backpack's final weight (not if you're doing the Camino de Santiago, of course - you'll be a goner before you even get going). Then cover a longer distance every week until you have completed about half your route with half your backpack weight by the end of week five.
"Rest" every fourth week. It's important that you walk less and make the following week a hard one. For example, for the Olifants Trail you begin with 16 km in total in the first week and work up to 53 km in week 11, with week 12 being an easy one again.
To prepare for the Fish you must climb up and down stairs to strengthen your thigh muscles for all the braking action you'll need for the steep decline on the first day of the route.
The fitter and more conditioned you are the more you'll enjoy the hike. Yes, you might be able to complete it with less exercise but it's awful to have to keep on walking when you are sore and stiff and have blisters on your feet. You also don't want to be the one slowing the group down.
Chat to people at Cape Union Mart, Cape Storm and similar retailers where you'll get advice on what works and what doesn't. They will also be able to provide important information on what to take with you and what may be unnecessary.
Break news shoes in first:If you're buying special shoes for the hike walk at least five to six times while wearing them so you don't get blisters on the hike. Also try to walk at the same time of day you'll be hiking (9 am to 1 pm) so you can get used to the temperature. You'll also be able to see how your clothing reacts when you start sweating.
Try to go for quite long walks at least four to six times so you can see how your body reacts when it gets warm and you become tired.
*Prices correct at time of publishing.
[This is an extract of an article that originally appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS.]