The Otter Trail is probably South Africa’s most famous hiking trail. Named after the Cape clawless otter which can be seen (albeit rarely), this five-day, four-night, 42-kilometre quadricep-burner of a trail is certainly beautiful, giving hikers a chance to see some of the most pristine coastline in the country.
Only twelve people are allowed to walk any one section of the trail every day, so you’re assured of being all alone. It starts at Storms River and meanders westward along the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park and ends at the beautiful village of Nature’s Valley. Hikers spend the nights in simple, yet sufficient log cabins, situated right on the shoreline, offering views that are in my top ten of all time.
This stretch of our shoreline is very special indeed. The ocean is filled with marine life – thanks to a marine protected area which extends three nautical miles offshore. The pounding surf smashes against the rocks continuously but there are hundreds of calm gulleys and rock pools which can be snorkeled and swum in, safe from the big seas.
And then there are the rivers, sparkling and cold, the colour of clear rooibos tea courtesy of the tannins from the soils. These waterways have gorged out huge ravines on their way to the sea. The Otter Trail will get you fit, if you aren’t already, and hikers better be prepared for some tough hills – there’s a cumulative climb of 2 700 metres, as the route undulates up and down the countless gorges. There are several river crossings – including the slightly nerve-wracking Bloukrans River on the last day when you have to time your crossing at low tide.
Then there are the forests – thick, beautiful, luscious green forests which line the gorges, their leaves sparkling in the sun. On top of the cliffs, where the climate is drier, the views open up, and the forests give way to fynbos.
The first day was easy, just five kilometres, giving hikers plenty of time to enjoy the big waterfall on the way to the first night’s stop over at Ngubu Huts. We set off in sunshine, and made the most of the good weather.
But the rain came on day two, as we walked about eight kilometres to Scott’s Huts. Fortunately the camps are all stocked with dry wood, so we all warmed up in the evening around the fire.
Day three was little better, but still raining continuously. We prepared ourselves for the worst. However we all found it an easy day and the 7.7 km’s seemed to speed by while we watched the bright Knysna loeries in the forest, discovered the pollen-saturated bees’ knees in the fynbos on the hills, and looked back onto the cloudy cliffs we had marched through the day before.
The view from Oakhurst Huts that night was truly spectacular, and we had a good afternoon drinking tea, eating precious chocolate, comparing bird sightings and chatting. The huts look over the Lottering River to the east, where wild-looking waves were crashing into the mouth. We walked up over some rocks and watched a brilliant sunset go down over the Robberg Peninsula, next to Plettenberg Bay. That night the rain passed and we walked to the edge of the cliffs to watch the phosphorence glow brightly in the pounding waves. What a sight … and what magic!
We were up relatively early on day four to make sure we got to cross the Bloukrans River at low tide, which was at midday. This day is 14 kilometres of tough walking, and it takes about five hours to walk the 10 kilometres to Bloukrans. Fortunately, we were able to wade across the river without too much trouble – quite often, hikers need to swim across the river, packing their backpacks into watertight bags (some hikers have even been swept out to sea, and rescued).
We still had four kilometres to go of our 14-km day, but soon after we set off again we were all surprised firstly by a strong stench, and then the sight of a long-dead beached whale on the rocks. Its skin was orange (from sun burn?) and a few sea gulls were pecking at it, but it was certainly going to take a long time to decay considering its vast size.
Further on from the whale we found another enticing rock pool and cooled off before we tackled one of the highest hills we had climbed yet! There was not much conversation as we each silently willed ourselves up the hill, drawing on energy we didn’t know we had to get to the top. It was possibly hardest for Murray, who was unwittingly carrying a two-kilogram rock in his backpack with him too!
Whether it was the relief of getting ‘home’ or the joy from all our endorphins from our tough walk, we all loved the Andre Huts that night, which were right on the sea’s edge, with an outdoor shower looking out over the sea, a loo with an ocean view, and a sunset over the sea with Robberg in the distance … it felt like perfection. We ate a delicious olive, salami and green pepper risotto that night, cooked impressively on the fire, and it was with happiness and satisfaction that we were all in bed by 20h30 to ease our various joints and muscles.
Day five was mixed with joy and celebration of our achievement as we walked along the top of the dramatic rocky cliffs in amongst the fynbos which, as always, is awe-inspiring. The 6.8 km went very fast and before we knew it we were at the ‘Point’ gate where the trail ends, looking out over beautiful Natures Valley beach, and quite incredulous that five days had passed so happily and quickly in what felt like our very own piece of paradise.
There’s always a sense of pilgrimage when hiking a tough, long trail, and all you can do is put one foot in front of the other. The mind at first starts to race, but soon the body takes over, and all you can do is focus on the physical challenge. Somehow, walking through a wilderness such as the Tsitsikamma coastline, carrying your own food, with a minimum of luxuries, frees your brain from the incessant worrying and nitpicking of modern city life. Suddenly the simple things become important – water to drink, food to eat, a place to sleep, dry clothes, a warm sleeping bag. And the only entertainment one needs is the conversation of friends, the soundtrack of the ocean, and the stars glowing on a phosphorescent sea.
Thank you SanParks and Garden Route National Park for looking after and protecting this wonderland, and Mandy and Murray for booking the trail, we certainly hope to be doing it again soon! There was only one negative along the way – not a big one, but worth mentioning: the toilet and taps weren’t working on the second night at Scott’s Huts. Apparently SANParks are onto it, so it should be sorted out soon.
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Thanks again to my sponsors for making it all possible. CapeNature, South African National Parks, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Eastern Cape Parks, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Ford, Total, Evosat, Conqueror Trailers, Vodacom, Digicape, Lacie, Frontrunner, Safari Centre Cape Town, K-Way, EeziAwn, National Luna, Nokia , Goodyear, Global Fleet Sales, Hetzner, Clearstream Consulting and Escape Gear.