This guide to hiking the Giant’s Cup Trail takes you through each day. The hike is a multi-day hike (a five day hutted hike) in South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal Province. Two fellow adventurers hiked this Drakensberg trail: this is their hiking guide. Written by Ness with photos by Luke (@beardontherange).
Jords and Dan (@thetimelessvoyagers) and my husband, Luke, and I go way back to varsity days. We love their travel blog and share their enthusiasm to get lost in nature as often as possible. And for a couple of geographers, they really do get lost. We wish we lived closer to them to share in their adventures but, alas, we are based in KZN.
Giant’s Cup Trail Info
- Start: Sani Pass
- End: Bushman’s Nek
- Duration: 5-Day Hike
- Distance: ~ 60 km
- Altitude: often above 2 000 m
- Cooking: for all huts, you use your own kitchen equipment (gas canisters, pots, cutlery etc).
- Notes: we used three days of leave – hiked from Thursday to Monday
Rumour has it
Before embarking on the hike in early March 2019, we heard rumours that the huts had been “gutted” of mattresses and plumbing and that the overnight hut on Day Two (Mzimkhulwana Hut) had disgusting ablutions etc.
We struggled to find recent reviews online to elaborate on the conditions of each hut. So when The Timeless Voyagers asked us to write a Giant’s Cup Trail hiking guide we jumped at the opportunity! We want to enlighten those that follow our footsteps on what to expect of the accommodation. Hopefully, we provide some advice on how to prepare accordingly as well.
Let’s start with: The rumours were WRONG! Let me take you through this incredible experience day by day. I really hope that after reading this and seeing the stunning photos that my husband took, you get excited enough to go out there and complete this breathtaking hike for yourself. You won’t regret it!
When planning this trip, we envisioned a large group of friends to complete it with. Sadly, there were a couple of last minute cancellations (Shock, horror!), which left our walking group with just three people. The old reliables: Luke, myself, and my bestie Tracy. We had done the Leopard’s Trail (Eastern Cape) in April 2018 together. We have been friends for more than twelve years. So we decided – to heck with everyone else, we’re going to do this anyway. I’m so glad we did!
Although we were a tiny group, we had an absolute blast and it will forever be one of my most treasured holidays. That being said, the huge huts along the way lend themselves to large groups to create gees (Afrikaans slang for “spirit”) in the evenings. You could probably fit about thirty people per hut. So while the trail was great with a small group; I must admit we felt a bit lonely when we arrived at Pholela hut (Cobham Reserve) on the first day.
Due to some beginner hikers who were meant to be in the group, we had organised a slackpacking option for this trip. We used my ballies (“parents”) as a go-between vehicle, to transport food and clothes between huts. They had already booked into and paid for a cottage at Lake Navarone before the cancellations, and they were keen to support us anyway.
Lake Navarone was pretty central to all the huts of the hike. Once we realised we were feeling a bit lost in them, we decided to stay three of the four nights with my parents instead. We enjoyed each others company. And let’s be honest, the scenic setting of the cottage and all the amenities on offer.
However, I made it my goal to properly check out every hut we arrived at. I looked at its ablutions, running water situation, mattress situation, and level of cleanliness. From what I saw, I definitely would have stayed at every hut if we’d had a group of eight or more people to fill it with life.
Day One: to Pholela Hut
We left Hilton, Pietermaritzburg, in convoy with my ballies at about 6 am.
- From Underberg, take the Himeville turn-off
- Take the Sani Pass Road (about 4km past Himeville on the left – keep your eyes peeled, we nearly missed the turn off).
- After about 6km up the Sani Pass Road, you’ll see an unassuming wooden signboard off the road on your left saying: Giant’s Cup Trail.
My parents left us here and took the two bakkies to Lake Navarone with them. We began our first day of hiking at about 8.30 am. The day was clear of any clouds and hot. I started off in a tank top and shorts and soon had to change to a full coverage T-shirt to try to protect my skin from the sun. Shorts are not a good idea on a berg hike – the long grass lacerates your legs to ribbons. So from Day 2 onwards I was much more sensibly dressed in long pants and long sleeved shirts. You can’t beat hiking boots for keeping your feet dry more times than not, so keep those trail takkies for hot dry days only.
We arrived at Pholela Hut at about 1.30 pm (roughly five hours after we began the hike). That afternoon was spent splashing around in the river. At this hut you can expect clean beds with mattresses, hot and cold running water, and adequate ablutions. There is a large fireplace outside this hut that lends itself to braais and potjies (South African stews cooked over a fire on a 3 legged pot).
Because we had felt a bit lonely in the big hut, we spent tonight at Lake Navarone. We enjoyed a Beer and Beef Potjie as supper accompanied by beer bread and couscous.
- Ngenwa Pool: a large, deep, clear, clean natural rock pool that provided us with handy rocks to jump from. This really was a stunner of a find on such a hot day. We recommend you take your longest stop here to fully appreciate it.
- Crossing the river into the Cobham campsite using their high swing bridge at the end of the day
Day Two: to Mzimkhulwana Hut
On our way back to Pholela Hut in the morning we stopped to change an elderly patient of mine’s tyre (I’m a full-time pharmacist). This delay wasn’t serious as we knew today’s hike was an estimated 3.5 hours with stops. We started the hike at 9 am.
The weather was overcast and cool which was a welcome change from the day before. We stretched the trail into 4 hours to make the most of the gorgeous mountain scenery. We arrived at Mzimkhulwana Hut at 1 pm. This is the only car inaccessible hut of the trail and hence requires you to bring everything with you. The accommodation offers clean bunk beds without mattresses and clean ablutions with cold running water.
We had rain in the late afternoon/evening. Thankfully, we had already reached shelter. The Drakensberg is famous for its afternoon thunderstorms. So we kept our hiking times to the mornings and early afternoons throughout the trail to avoid being caught in these downpours. This tactic served us well as it rained every afternoon from this day onwards.
Our hiking times are relevant to medium or experienced hiking fitness. If you’re a little less fit than average or have young kids with you, I suggest you leave earlier in the mornings to accommodate the slower pace.
What’s in my backpack?
Luke and I have recently purchased Osprey 65L and 70L packs (we’re training for the Grand Traverse in May 2020) and we were excited to have the chance to test them out. Our packs contained the following:
- sleeping bag (First Ascent Ice Breaker), sleeping bag liner, inflatable mattress, inflatable pillow
- hiking towel, swimming costume
- rain jacket, set of sleeping pants and shirt, change of underwear and socks, buff, cap
- toiletry bag (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, a bar of biodegradable soap)
- set of beanie, scarf and gloves, warm down jacket (K-Way with a compressible bag),
- set of lightweight pots, lighter, MSR pocket rocket stove,
- enamel mug, set of lightweight cutlery,
- dry bag, pocket knife, rubbish bag (leave only footprints, take only memories)
- food (keep reading for the food and snacks packed)
The walking sticks were essential to help me balance out the new heavier weight on my back and help me keep pace with my team.
Day Three: to Winterhoek Hut
At 7 am we started today’s trail because we knew this was meant to be a 6 hour hike with stops. We climbed out of the valley for two hours with our big packs as the day dawned hot and clear. Although it was a struggle to crest Little Bamboo Mountain, it made the spectacular view we found on top (Crane Tarn reflecting Castle Burn Peak in its still waters) that much more rewarding and memorable. Today was the toughest, with steep ascents and descents. There was also no shelter from the sun. But it was also the most beautiful because of all of this. You will eventually hit the tar road an hour before you get to Winterhoek Hut. That night we reunited with my parents and had a well-deserved braai.
Winterhoek Hut is made up of several rondavels. The largest of which is an open entertainment area for groups to gather in the evening and gaze at their surroundings while they eat and rest. There is a clean kitchen and an ablution rondavel with cold running water. The dormitories have mattresses and plastic chairs but are locked with a code. The code is found at Pholela Hut so make sure you take note before you leave Day One’s hut.
Luke’s Note: These huts are close enough to Castle Burn Resort; you could easily walk the 1km or so to their pub for an ice cold beer!
Day Four: to Swiman’s Hut
We started from Winterhoek Hut at 8.30 am. We climbed for an hour out of the valley on the ridge of the Castle Burn mountain. The climb was considerably easier in our light day packs. The ascent was in the mist. Once we reached, the plateau the mist cleared. It was a cool overcast day and an easy walk to Swiman’s Hut.
Along the way, we looked down on my parent’s old farm (the lower dam next to Crystal Waters), as well as Lake Navarone itself. We arrived at the hut at about 12.30pm. The cool weather and lighter packs led to a quick hike. It took 4 hours rather than the anticipated five hours.
At Swiman’s Hut you can expect a clean house with wooden floors, a kitchen and bathrooms. There is electricity and hot running water, as well as mattresses and plastic chairs. As always, you need to bring your own kitchen equipment. You are within walking distance of the Drak Gardens Hotel. We walked back to Lake Navarone from here and enjoyed burgers with the family.
What food did I bring?
- Breakfasts: Oatso Easy
- Lunches: ham and cheese sandwiches, Provitas, a tin of flavoured tuna, and Melrose cheese triangles.
- Dinners: Mexican Quinoa. We had premixed the quinoa and dry ingredients into a Ziplock bag. Later we added one chopped pepper, garlic clove, and jalapeno, and one tin of chopped tomato. We forfeited the corn, avo and lemon juice for weight purposes.
- Snacks: dried fruit, nuts, and sour worms (Manhattan’s are the best).
Day Five: to Bushman’s Nek Police Station
We left Swiman’s Hut between 8.30 am and 9 am. The day was cool and overcast. It rained solidly the evening before (as well as the three evenings before that) so the grass was drenched. Water was literally pouring from every crevasse in the mountains.
Luke and my boots were very soon sodden with water which we had to cope with for another four hours. While Tracy’s boots (HiTech DryTech) were totally dry. I think ours need a little TLC as the waterproofing has obviously deteriorated. Despite the wet shoe situation, we loved the last day.
There is a big river crossing using a damaged wooden bridge. The experience was made more exciting by the gushing river swelled by the recent rains. There was one intense ascent midway but again the cool weather coupled with the light day packs made it easier to climb. We saw a breathtaking waterfall at the top and then we stopped to snack at Langibalele Cave. We then started the steep descent to Bushman’s Nek Police Station to sign out at about 12.30pm.
To home and leaving words
At Bushman’s Nek Police Station, we met my parents with both bakkies. We then made our way in convoy to the Olde Ducke. We had an enjoyable late lunch (and chocolate milkshake) before heading home to Hilton.
Although I’ve picked out the highlights of each day, every step of this Trail is breathtaking. It has stunning views of gushing waterfalls, deep pools, green mountain ranges and strange rock formations. There was plenty of time to sing (badly), delve into each other’s thoughts and opinions, and muse on what’s really important in life: family, food, love and laughter. We are blessed with a beautiful country. We intend to make the most of what the outdoors have to offer.
Booking was made via Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife with the cost being R120 pppn (2019).
The Timeless Voyagers here! We thoroughly enjoyed joining in on this adventure through Ness’ words and Luke’s photographs (@beardontherange). And if we’re honest, we cannot wait to get them hiking the trail again, but with us! In return, we will hike Robberg Nature Reserve with them.
Have you hiked the trail before – what were your experiences? Don’t forget to share this post with fellow adventurers!