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Fantastic Amatola trail – a detailed guide and itinerary

The Amatola Trail was our first multi-day trek in South Africa. After spending a lot of time trekking in Nepal and South America we decided it was time to explore more of our own country. We really enjoyed the trail and since then we’ve completed several long-distance hikes in the country including the famous Otter Trail, Outeniqua Trail, and Cape of Good Hope hike.

Amatola trail is an amazing hike near Hogsback, a small town in Eastern Cape province in South Africa. The trail length is 100 km, it starts at Maden Dam and finishes in the town. You hike Amatola trail in 6 days and 5 nights, every night you sleep in a hut, average walking time 7 hours per day and distance between 14-20 km. In 6 days you walk through the rain forest, mountains, and fields, pass many waterfalls, pools, and lookouts on the way. If you like hiking, exploring, and observing nature you’ll definitely enjoy the Amatola trail. We hope our Amatola trail hiking guide will be helpful and inspiring for you to do this wonderful hike.

How to book the Amatola Trail?

You can book it directly through the Amatola trails office as we tried first but it didn’t work for us. We phoned there and they promised to send an email with banking details that we could make a payment but we never got it. They aren’t opened at weekends we had to wait till Monday. In the end, we booked and paid through Away with the fairies hostel it was easy and fast. They booked the hike for us and the price was the same.

The cost of the trail

The trek costs between ZAR 1900 and ZAR 2500 per person for six days/five nights. Children and students get a discount. The price includes the entrance fee, 5 nights accommodation on the trail (huts), and pre and post-hike accommodation (2 nights camping/dormitory/private room at Away with the Fairies), and a shuttle to the start of the trail. On food for the hike, we spent about ZAR 350 per person.

Where to stay before and after the hike?

Hogsback is the nearest town to the trail so most people stay there before and after the hike. As I said we booked Amatola trail through Away with the fairies hostel where we stayed for two nights. The place is amazing, beautiful, peaceful with a nice vibe and very friendly people. If you’re driving from Cape Town to Hogsback you can extend your trip and combine it with exploring the Garen Route.

The best time to hike the Amatola Trail

You can hike the trail all year round though in winter (June to August) days are shorter and temperatures are lower. Snowfalls can occur high in the mountains. Summer months (December to February) are known as rainy months; it’s warmer than in winter and days are longer but heavy rains can be a pain. December is as well a peak season due to the Christmas holidays so it can be crowded and you’ll probably have to book the trail beforehand. October and November is a good time for hiking; the weather is nice and there are very few people on the trail.

We did it at the end of November – beginning of December and were the only people on the trail. It was very easy to book we did it just 2 days before the hike. In 6 days we didn’t see any other hikers or even people (only locals from far away). The trail is well-marked and easy to follow just always check for yellow footprints that you can find painted on trees or rocks.

Accommodation on the trail

Every night you sleep in a hut so no need to carry a tent and sleeping pad. All huts have beds with mattresses, showers, toilets, running water, fireplace, rubbish bin, and outside or inside dining area. No electricity on the trail don’t expect to charge your devices or read with electric light.

Yellow footprints painted on rocks and trees mark the Amatola Trail
Yellow footprints marking the route on the Amatola Trail

What to pack for the hike?

Clothes

  • Good hiking shoes
  • Long hiking pants (the trail goes through the bush)
  • A rain jacket
  • A fleece
  • 2-3 T-shirts
  • Flip-flops
  • Sleeping clothes
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • A cap/hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Swimming costume
  • Underwear
  • If you hike in winter you’ll need more warm clothes.

Gear

  • A sleeping bag. Depending on when you hike we did it in summer and had light summer sleeping bags.
  • Cooking pots
  • A stove and gas
  • Plastic cups
  • A lighter
  • Plates (we ate from pots lids)
  • Utensils
  • A can opener (if you have any cans)
  • A water bottle
  • A towel
  • Firelighters (to make fire if you plan to use fire places)
  • First aid kit
  • Toilet paper
  • A torch
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito repellent (we didn’t have many mosquitoes though)
  • A sponge to wash dishes
  • Soap
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush
  • A book or/and playing cards.

Food

  • Breakfast – oats with sugar and coffee with cookies;
  • Lunch – biltong with crackers;
  • Dinner – spaghetti or instant mashed potatoes with a can of tuna and a can of curry beans/vegetables.

We had just enough food and were quite hungry every day before dinner I’d suggest packing more snacks e.g. energy bars, cookies or chocolates. The good thing about not having a lot of food was that our backpacks were quite light.

How to get to the starting point of the Amatola Trail?

The trail starts at Maden Dam which is about 1h30min. drive from Hogsback. There is no parking place near the entrance so most people take a shuttle bus from Hogsback. You can leave your car in Hogsback at safe parking of Away with the fairies hostel as we did. It’s free if you stay with them if not you pay ZAR 50/US$4  for the whole period.

If it is too far to drive all the way from your hometown to Hogsback you can fly to the nearest airport and rent a car at the airport of Port Elizabeth or at the airport of East London. Port Elizabeth is 260 km from Hogsback, East London airport is 140 km away.

If you want to visit Hogsback as a part of your backpacking trip across South Africa and renting a car is not an option you can buy a flexible ticket to BazBus, a mini-bus shuttle service that runs between Cape Town and Durban with many stops in between. You can get on and off as many times as you want. They stop at more than 200 accommodations (hotels, hostels, guesthouses) along the route it’s basically a door-to-door service. It’s a great option for solo travelers to meet people and find a company for further adventures.

Like hiking and live in Cape Town or planning to visit the city? Make sure to check out these amazing hikes in Cape Town that offer stunning views of the city and its surroundings.

Alya at the beginning of the Amatola Trail
Alya at the starting point of the Amatola Trail

Travel insurance for South Africa

If you’re a foreigner and planning to explore South Africa and do some outdoor activities it’s highly recommended to have travel insurance. Make sure to choose a reliable company. We can recommend using World Nomads. They offer very flexible insurance policies that can be purchased online at any time before or during your trip. It takes only a couple of minutes to get travel insurance.

Amatola trail hiking itinerary

Always follow yellow footprints they are everywhere along the trail, you can see them every 50-100m.

Day 1. Maden Dam – Gwili Gwili hut, 13 km, 5 hours

  • The start of the Amatola trail is on the right side of the fence, don’t go through the gate, check for a yellow footprint on the tree;
  • At a couple of places, the trail splits always take the right ones;
  • Long up, about 500 m, from Maden Dam to Gwili Gwili hut.

Our shuttle bus left at 8.30 am from the hostel and after 1h30min. we arrived at Maden Dam. There was nobody at the entrance we found footprints and started walking. The first day is the shortest one only 13km but don’t let it fool you there is a long sometimes steep ascent from 600m to 1100m. Luckily after tackling several hiking trails up Table Mountain we were prepared for ups and downs on this hike.

The first 3km were flat and easy through the indigenous forest with many small streams and rivers on the way where you can get fresh water. Then we had a steady uphill till 7km and from there steeper up all the way to Gwili Gwili hut. It took us just over 4 hours to get there with some short stops on the way to refill water bottles and take photos. We arrived at the hut at lunchtime. This day you walk in the shadow of the forest no need to worry about the sun.

Maden Dam surrounded by the forest
Beautiful Maden Dam, the starting point of the Amatola Trail

Gwili Gwili hut

A big wooden house with two bedrooms and one dining room with tables and benches. Each room has 10 beds with mattresses. There are two toilets, four showers and a donkey (hot water boiler) so you can get hot water. A big fire-place with enough wood to make a fire. The place is nice neat and clean and has a beautiful view over the hills and forest. Uphill behind the hut, there is a dining table where you can eat breakfast and enjoy an amazing view. The main door can be locked from the inside as well as both rooms’ doors and the windows. In order to get running water open the valve on the left of the hut.

An overnight hut on the Amatola Trail
Gwili Gwili hut, first overnight hut on the trail

Day 2. Gwili Gwili hut – Dontsa hut, 19,5 km, 7,5 hours

  • A long but easy day, not real ups mostly down but no steep neither long, about 200 m for the day;
  • Lack of drinking water on the way, make sure you bring enough water with you for the day, we had 2,5l and refiled twice on the way. The first stream is about 45 min. walk from Gwili Gwili and the next one is 15km later.

It was a long day. We started at 7.30 and arrived at Dontsa at 3 pm on the way we stopped several times for resting, lunch, and photos.

The trail goes mainly through the indigenous forest sometimes through pine plantations. Many ups and downs but not very long or steep. In the first half, there are several lookouts with stunning views over the mountains and the valley. This day in the forest about 6km from Gwili Gwili hut we saw many Knysna Louries.

Campbell at a view-point on the Amatola Trail
Campbell at a lookout point on the second day of the trail

Dontsa hut

It is very similar to Gwili Gwili one; a big house with a common dining area and four rooms with 4-5 beds each. Some beds didn’t have mattresses. There are a fire-place and some wood behind the house. As well as one shower and one toilet a bit away from the house. You can get hot water using a donkey (heater).

The hut is next to the gravel road that goes to the pine plantations. We saw workers driving away at 3 pm and driving back at 7.00 am the next day after that there was nobody around. The main door can be locked from the inside, as well as the windows but the rooms’ doors don’t have locks.

A community dining area in Dontsa hut
A dining area in Dontsa hut, second night on the Amatola Trail

Day 3. Dontsa hut – Cata hut, 19 km (optional 16,8 km), 9 hours

  • Long ups and downs; first 500 m up, then 500 m down, then 300 m up;
  • First trail option at 5 km you can go over Doorn Kop mountain (harder) or around it (easier);
  • If you go over Doorn Kop always follow yellow footprints it’s easy to confuse the trail with one of many cow paths there;
  • Second trail option at the bottom of Eseka Valley; the Upper trail (shortest and easiest); the Middle trail (a bit longer) and the Lower trail (the longest and the hardest but the most beautiful through Waterfall Forest);
  • Refill your water bottles at the second waterfall from the hut next water source is hours away.

It was a long and quite tough day. We started at 7.30 am and arrived at Cata hut at 4.30 pm but we stopped several times for swimming, lunch, and photos. During this day we had two long ups and one long down.

The first ascent starts right at the beginning after the first waterfall and continues till the second waterfall and a bit more further. Here we saw many monkeys. At 5 km there is a split we took the right path that goes over the top of Doorn Kop. The view from there was stunning. After reaching the top, you start a long descent to Eseka Valley. On the way down we saw many dassies running around and Black Eagles gliding above. 

Once at the bottom, you have three options; to take upper, middle, or bottom paths. We took the bottom one that goes through Waterfall Forest. It’s the longest and the most difficult though the most beautiful way. We saw many small and big waterfalls the last two were especially beautiful. After the waterfalls, you have quite a long steep uphill to the hut. If you arrive early enough and aren’t very tired you can go and check some pools that are 5-10 min. walk from Cata hut towards Mnyameni.

A waterfall dropping down from a plateau into the forest
An impressive waterfall with a great view over the valley on the third day of the hike

Cata hut

The hut has four rooms each with four bunk beds with mattresses. There are a toilet and a shower with a donkey for heating water outside. An old half-destroyed brick hut now serves as a dining room and fire-place. The hut is in the middle of nowhere between mountains and fields. The entrance door and the windows can be locked from the inside, rooms’ doors have no locks. The hut’s roof makes a lot of noise especially if the wind blows.

A dormitory in Cata hut, an overnight hut on the trail
One of the dormitory rooms at Cata hut, third night on the trail

Day 4. Cata hut – Mnyameni hut, 13,5 km, 8 hours

  • The first 5 km is a steep ascent for about 500 m;
  • Halfway up there is a short cut in case the weather is not nice or you feel tired;
  • After up you have long down, about 800 m, till you reach the hut;
  • Sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses are must you walk all day in the sun;
  • Prepare a swimming costume there are many nice falls and pools;
  • Refill your water bottle in one of the waterfalls, in the beginning, you’ll need it for a long climb up.

We started a bit late at 8 am because the walking day promised to be short. Right from the beginning, we had a long and quite steep ascend all the way to the top of the mountains. On the way, we passed several waterfalls with nice pools for swimming. The view from the top was amazing! Here we saw many Black Eagles gliding around the cliffs and many other smaller birds.

From the top, we started to descend first to the pasture fields with some stunning views over the canyon. We again saw many eagles here gliding along the canyon as well as dassies running away like crazy.

After a short flat part, there was a second descend for the day, down to the river, about 3,5 km to Mnyameni hut. We walked through the forest with many beautiful waterfalls with pools. That was the main reason why we took so long we stopped at every second pool for a short dip and photos. Overall the fourth day was the most impressive for us.

Campbell swimming at one of the waterfalls on the Amatola Trail
Campbell sliding down to the rocky pool at one of the many waterfalls on the fourth day of the Amatola Trail

Mnyameni hut

It is very similar to Cata hut just everything is a bit more dilapidated and unattended. When we were here there was no running water so no shower or washing. Luckily there is a river right next to the hut we could get some water for cooking and drinking. The hut has four rooms with bunk beds and mattresses, toilet, shower, and fire-place are outside. The lock at one entrance door was broken so we used a big log to keep it closed. The windows can be locked from the inside but the rooms’ doors have no locks. This hut was the hottest we had to leave windows open for some fresh air. The hut is in the middle of nowhere no roads or houses nearby.

Campbell trying to warm up water for shower
Campbell making a fire in the donkey to warm up water for shower at Mnyameni hut

Day 5. Mnyameni hut – Zingcuka hut, 18 km, 8 hours

  • First 2 hours uphill, about 300 m;
  • Last 2 km down all the way to the hut, quite steep in the beginning;
  • Use sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses;
  • Long hiking pants and long sleeve shirt is preferable some parts you walk through the bushes with thorns;
  • At Zingcuka hut to get running water you have to open a valve (behind the shower).

This day we started earlier at 7.00 am in order to have more time for swimming in pools and arrived at Zingcuka hut at 3 pm. First two hours or so it was quite steep up through the bush. Here for the first time on the trail we heard and saw baboons, they were making loud noises but never came closer or bothered us.

Once the up is finished here comes the most beautiful part of the day many waterfalls with nice pools for swimming. Near the first fall, we saw a deer in the forest. The best were the first and the third waterfalls. In total there are about five or six but not all are easy to access. After the last waterfall, you walk about 2-2,5 hours to the hut. This day we again saw no other persons.

A beautiful waterfall in the middle of the forest
Another beautiful waterfall in the forest on the trail. We’ve never seen so many waterfalls in 6 days of hiking

Zingcuka hut

It is located in the forest, in a beautiful and tranquil place, there is no road access to it. The hut has two big rooms with 10 beds with mattresses each, two showers, one toilet, an open-air dining area, and a fireplace. We tried to use a donkey to get hot water in the shower but it didn’t really work. The doors of both rooms have no locks so we had to move one bunk bed to keep it secured.

A dormitory room in Zingcuka hut on the Amatola trail
A dormitory in Zingcuka hut, fifth night on the trail

Day 6. Zingcuka hut – Hogsback, 16,5 km, 7 hours

  • Long and steep up, about 800 m;
  • Long and steep down for 700m;
  • The last place you can refill your water bottles before the steep up is at the wooden bridge;
  • The end of the trail is 1,5 km from Hogsback where you walk along the gravel road for about 30 min.

We wanted to see a bit of Hogsback before leaving the next day so we took an early start. We left the hut at 6.15 am. The first little bit was down to the waterfall. There is a split 15 min. after the hut where you can choose to go down to the waterfall or just keep walking through the forest, we took the first option. Once down at the waterfalls, it was time to start steep long up. Here you again have two options to climb over Hogsback 1 peak or to follow the gravel road and skip the tough part. We went over the peak though it was very cloudy in the morning by the time we climbed it cleared up and we had amazing views. It took us about 3,4 hours to get to the top and then 2 more hours down and to Hogsback.

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Merilyn Muller

Tuesday 13th of October 2020

Good day guys,

Thank you for the valuable information on the Amatola hiking trail. I am looking for the contact number/s details to make a booking for the 2 day Zingcuka Loop trail? Could you assist me please? Kind regards Marilyn

Stingy Nomads

Wednesday 14th of October 2020

Hello, Merilyn! Thank you for the comment! We booked all the huts on the Amatola Trail through Away with the fairies backpackers. You can contact them and ask if they can help you to book accommodation for the Zingcuka Trail. Cheers!

Izak

Thursday 13th of February 2020

Hi Thank you for the guide. I was wondering, how did you manage to make a booking for only two people? It seems this is not possible anymore as the minimum number is three people. Thanks

Stingy Nomads

Saturday 15th of February 2020

Hello, Izak! We didn't have any problem booking the trail for two people but I must say we'd prefer to walk in a bigger group for safety reasons. We didn't have any problems but no all huts could be locked properly it was a bit uncomfortable at night to be only two people in a huge house in the middle of nowhere that couldn't be locked. Not sure if the new rules is for safety reasons or not. I'd suggest contacting Away with the Ferries to confirm. Cheers!

Bav

Wednesday 25th of September 2019

Thanks for the guide! Just finished the trail.

A few pointers: Using Away with the fairies is a must, Dan and his crew give critical advice about the trail, i.e. the warnings about when to have water, how important it is to start early, and which loops to take during the hike. Second, You have to have a relative amount of fitness to do this hike. Keeping in mind, even though its 20km a day, which should take say 6 or 7hrs to do normally, the terrain, steep inclines and descents turn the daily walk time to 9 or 10 hours for 6 days.

The scenery is beautiful, and we ran into a few cows a couple of times. When you get close to them they move off the trail.

Bav

Kabo

Tuesday 9th of April 2019

Thanks for the guide. We doing this trail on 29 April - 5 May 2019 and although we experienced hikers, basic things should be followed as part of preparatory requirements. I will share this information with my fellow hikers??

Stingy Nomads

Tuesday 9th of April 2019

Hello, Kabo! Thank you for the comment! We're glad you found our post helpful! Enjoy the Amatola and safe travels!

Thandi Davies

Thursday 9th of March 2017

Hi guys! Thanks for the great guide! We are doing the trail in a week's time and I am wondering where you got a map from and/or whether you have one? i can't find one anywhere online!! thanks so much! Thandi

[email protected]

Thursday 9th of March 2017

Hello, Thandi! Thank you! We got a map and good explanations in Away with the Fairies hostel. They were very helpful and know the trail well. But the trail is marked and easy to follow you won't get lost. Good luck and enjoy this beautiful hike! Cheers!

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