Before I came to Germany, I used to spend a lot of time hiking in the Cape mountains in South Africa. Although I’ve been living in a flat part of Germany, I still travel to the mountains every now and then to satisfy my hiking cravings. I love hiking in both places, but I was interested to notice that the hiking experience is a little different in the two places. It made me realize there are many kinds of mountains, and many kinds of hikes.
These are the differences I’ve observed:
Eating and drinking
When I used to hike in the Cape it was essential that you pack your food and drinks for the day: usually sandwiches, snacks (e.g. dried fruit, biltong, biscuits) and water, because you’re out in nature for the day and there are no shops around (unless you’re at the Cable car station on Table mountain). On the other hand in Europe it is common to come across restaurants during your hiking trip, such as the Alms in the Alps, which serve meals and drinks. So in the middle of the hike you might find yourself sitting down for a coffee and cake or even a full meal. If you’re lucky you might also run into a dairy that sells mountain cheese (Bergkäse) and fresh milk.
In the Cape mountains if we came across hikers walking with sticks (hiking poles), we always knew they were likely to be European tourists. Most people out for a day hike in these mountains don’t use sticks, and it’s not really necessary on many of the trails. For multi-day hikes in SA people do often use sticks to take some of the weight of the backpack off the knees.
However after hiking in the Alps, I saw why sticks are useful there even on day hikes. There are often steep slopes with lots of little loose stones, and it’s quite slippery to negotiate these without sticks, especially if you are going downhill and there’s nothing to hold on to. As our mountains are a different type in the Cape, we don’t get so much of this terrain, though I have seen it. Sometimes in the Alps there are also very steep sections where sticks are useful – in SA the trailmakers tend to make steps on steep slopes. I now use sticks when I hike in the Alps but I still don’t take them when doing day hikes in the Cape. Recently I was in the Drakensberg mountains in SA, and there the terrain also would have made sticks helpful. In general the terrain of the Drakensberg is more similar to the Alps, and I think of them as the “South African Alps” now, especially because they are high and also have snow and ice in winter and massive thunderstorms in summer.
When I first started hiking in Europe I always had the nagging feeling that something was missing and I wasn’t sure what it was. Then I realized it was the smell of fynbos. I have a very strong association between the aromatic smell of fynbos and and hiking from all my time in the Cape mountains. Now I am used to the fact that different mountains have different smells, trees and flowers. Interestingly, the Cape floral kingdom is one of the most diverse in the world, so flower spotting is a fun side hobby to do when you are hiking. Spring in the Alps also brings plenty of flowers, often blue or yellow. You might also find edible plants such as blueberries and wild garlic on your trail.
in the Cape mountains you can drink the water from streams, and we would always fill our water bottles up en route. Mountain water tastes pure and delicious. In Europe it is probably equally delicious, but people seem to be more cautious to drink stream water without adding some purification drops or otherwise cleaning it. The reason there is I guess the increased presence of humans and animals such as cows near the streams, which means contamination can always be possible. Probably you can drink the stream water in some places, especially high up, but most people I’ve hiked with don’t tend to drink directly from the streams, unless adding water purification drops or using devices such as the Life Straw. At most Alms there are taps where you can fill your water bottles.
It is common to come across cows when hiking in the Alps. There are many farmers living in the mountains, and sometimes you find Alms selling fresh milk and cheese. You may also come across goats, sheep and deer. In the Cape mountains it’s most common on walks to come across dassies (also known as hyrax or rock rabbits). In some areas you may see baboons. If you’re on Table Mountain, you may be lucky enough to spot a caracal cat, or even some Himalayan tahrs. A pair of them escaped from the zoo a long time ago and started a population on the mountain, where they look very at home. Some mountains also have leopards (which are smaller than savanna leopards and very shy).
Number of people
In general you come across more other hikers on trails in Europe than on trails in SA. Some trails in SA are more crowded than others; for example Lion’s head gets jam-packed since tourists have discovered it and the top of Table mountain at the Cable station is always busy. Similarly, in Europe the trails that lead to Alms (huts serving food/drinks) or near cable cars are often busy, but popular hiking routes can be busy too. In general in Europe it is less common to be completely alone for a substantial period of time than it is in SA. On less popular routes you can get some alone time though.
Unfortunately in the last few years the incidence of mugging in Table Mountain National park has increased. Criminals simply walk onto the trails from the city that encircles the mountain and use the opportunity to steal cameras, wallets and cellphones. Five years ago it was less of a problem, and a female friend and I often hiked alone in the weekends. Apparently in the last few years there have been more incidents of robbery (and stabbings), though plenty of people still hike there without problems, especially in the weekend when there are more people around. Crime is less of a problem in mountains that are further from the city.
In the Alps, crime on the mountains is not a problem, and safety issues are more of the natural kind: rockfalls, thunderstorms, ice, and so forth. At certain times of year you also have to watch out for cows with calves or young bulls, since some hiking trails cross meadows where they roam freely. Keep a respectful distance from cows – they might look cute, but occasionally people have been killed by them.
In the Cape, winter is actually one of the nicest times for hiking because it’s cooler, and there are often sunny days between the rainy spells. The rains also fill the streams and make waterfalls more spectacular. It’s also greener and spring flowers make an appearance as early as August.
In the Alps, normal hiking in winter is usually largely impossible due to the large amounts of snow. There are some places that lay winter trails, especially in lower mountains, but normally most of the mountain is inaccessible by foot in winter. You can however strap on some snowshoes if you feel like a walk, or alternatively go ski touring (though beware of avalanches).
As trails are constructed based on their surroundings and the lay of the land, the trails are of a different character between the Alps and the Cape mountains. I have noticed that in the Alps there are more steep uphill slopes, whereas in the Cape they tend to make steps using rocks or logs. There are also more paved or flattened surface paths in the Alps, and you cross more meadows. When you get to higher altitudes in the Alps, it does get rockier. The Cape mountains are quite rocky on the whole.
Overall I find hiking in SA gives more of a feeling of being in nature and in the wild, while hiking in Europe is good for scenery like idyllic meadows of flowers and cows, high alpine terrain and enjoying a meal at a mountain hut. Both are wonderful!