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The magnificent Otter Trail

“Make sure your fitness levels are at a reasonable level and get the knees ready for a bit of strain (a walking stick will make you look fragile but you’ll be grateful for it when tackling some of the steep climbs along the way). There are also countless waterfalls and pools to be enjoyed, so make sure you’ve packed your water wings and got that beach body into shape.”

Anything which has to be booked a year in advance and costs a lot of money will probably be very good. Sadly my planning and organisational skills are “somewhat lacking” (in the words of a high school teacher), so I had resigned myself to never hiking the otter trail. But to the rescue came some organised and forward-thinking friends of mine who had managed to book a spot on the famed and elusive trail of the otters. And, due to a member of the group being stuck at work, there was an open spot for me. In this case, one man’s misfortune is definitely another man’s gain, and I began packing and planning with the enthusiasm of a kid off to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Spending some time getting organised is well worth the effort. You’ll need to pack enough food for five days (and you’ll be carrying it all on your own steam, so packing light is a must). Make sure you’ve got all the essentials (torch, cooking utensils, sleeping bag etc) while leaving the extras behind (Pooky the teddy bear might have to miss this adventure). Although the trail is 42.5km over five days (which averages out to a very manageable 8.5km per day), there are a lot of ups-and-downs to be navigated. Make sure your fitness levels are at a reasonable level and get the knees ready for a bit of strain (a walking stick will make you look fragile but you’ll be grateful for it when tackling some of the steep climbs along the way). There are also countless waterfalls and pools to be enjoyed, so make sure you’ve packed your water wings and got that beach body into shape. Lastly, don’t forget about the feared Bloukrans River crossing where you’ll need to swim across to the other side, so you’ll need a waterproof bag and cable ties to keep your backpack safe and dry.

View from escarpment on rugged coastline
The view from the escarpment of the rugged coastline.

At last, the planning came to an end and the big day arrived. Our group met up and we signed the indemnity forms (up until then I’d always thought hiking was a pretty safe activity) and split up the food. Once again I was grateful for organised people in the group who had planned all the meals, as I had simply packed a lot of chocolate and assumed I could gallop along the route on a permanent sugar high. It wasn’t long before the scenery took our breath away. The Otter Trail is set in the famous (and famously unpronounceable) Tsitsikamma National Park, and it isn’t South Africa’s most famous trail for nothing. The route hugs the Garden Route coastline for the duration of the trip, with the path either taking hikers at sea-level (watch out or you could get surprised by a big wave) or up to 150metres above sea level (with great views of the ocean below). Don’t ignore the other half of the view though, as the nature reserve on your right is also astoundingly beautiful. Within two hours of walking (I was on my fifth chocolate and rapidly discovering that this wasn’t just a ‘walk in the park’) we came across our first mountain pool. It was a perfect match: we were hot and tired, the water was cold and refreshing, and so a happy few hours of swimming and lying in the sun passed by.

Bottle Nose Dolphins playing in the waves.

The first day is a mere 5km’s, so hikers can afford to take it easy and still get to camp with plenty of time to prepare for nightfall. We arrived at the first huts (Ngube Huts) and were very impressed. Everything is clean and orderly, and while it’s simple (this is camping after all), you won’t be lacking for anything. There are two huts of 6 beds each (we contemplated splitting guys and girls, but in the end went with the more logical separation of snorers and non-snorers) as well as firewood, a bathroom and a kitchen area. Pretty soon we had a roaring fire, hot drinks in hand and the smell of dinner being cooked in the air.

Day 2 was slightly longer than the first day and involved more forest hiking; including the scenic lookout point ‘Skildekrans’.  Day 3 meanders along the Geelhoutbos River (another name probably keeping foreigners awake at night with the pronunciation) and finishes at the stunning Oakhurst Huts. Camping takes you out of your natural element, so there are lots of strange things that feel extraordinary. Having to use your torch to find your way around (and still tripping over a million things), sitting around a fire chatting instead of relying on technology for entertainment, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean (and snoring – evidently one sneaky snorer managed to infiltrate our ranks) all take a bit of getting used to. But it’s amazing how quickly the outdoor lifestyle becomes normal, and it wasn’t long before the days were blurring together in a collage of happy memories. Every day we woke up at sunrise, had cornflakes and coffee looking out over the ocean and spent the day meandering and exploring our way along the coast.

Tidal pool
The route hugs the coast for almost all of the hike.

Any good spot to stop at (and there were many) always evoked cries of “lunch”, “tea” or just “stop”, and there were never any objections to these suggestions. With 11 river crossings to navigate there were also plenty of swim stops, and we even managed to glimpse an otter (apparently pretty elusive creatures, even though the trail is named after them). Day 4 is the toughest day of the hike, as it’s not only the longest at 14km, but also involves crossing the Bloukrans River Estuary. There’s a fair amount of luck involved in the timing, as you need to arrive at the river mouth when the tide is as low as possible. We were a bit unlucky in that low tide was only at 3pm, so our group completed the 10km hike to the crossing and then had to wait around for a while for low tide to arrive. Just to confirm that it really wasn’t our lucky day, a light rain began to fall. However we decided to toughen up and make the best of the situation, so we built a nice fire and warmed up before we finally braved the cold to make the dash across to the other side. Once emerging victoriously on dry land again, it’s only a short 4km path to the Andre Huts. The fifth and final day is more like a victory lap, as it’s a short but beautiful 7km trail (with amazing sea-views) to the finish line at Nature’s Valley.

Golden shore of Nature's Valley, end of trail
The golden shores of Nature’s Valley at the end of the trail.

While relaxing our tired muscles and celebrating our conquest of the trail we heard rumours of an “Otter Trail Marathon” that apparently takes place every year. Clearly, this is only for the slightly insane, but it would make a great excuse to return one day. Thanks for the memories Otter Trail, we’ll be back!

All photos: Lieb Liebenberg

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
How to book:  As mentioned, you’ll need to book and pay a deposit well in advance. Bookings can be made up to 14 months in advance through Bridget Bagley (Bridget.Bagley@sanparks.org or +27 12 426 5111) and costs around R900 per person. Visit www.sanparks.org and www.otterhiking.com for more information.
What to pack:  A camera with spare batteries is a must. You’ll also need the camping essentials (although being in a hot you won’t need a tent or mattress) as well as cooking equipment and utensils.  Take at least 1 charged cellphone in case of emergency. Water purification tablets are a necessity, as is a first aid kit.  There are emergency exits along each stage of the hike in case of disasters.The closest airport is in George, and from there it’s a 2-hour drive to the Storms River starting point. Don’t forget that you’ll need to leave at least one car at the end (safe parking available).
How to get there:  The closest airport is in George, and from there it’s a 2-hour drive to the Storms River starting point. Don’t forget that you’ll need to leave at least one car at the end (safe parking available).
Accommodation:  Nature’s Valley Guest House offers B&B or self-catering accommodation close to the trail.  They do a special Otter Trail breakfast, and also offer a shuttle service for hikers starting or ending the hike. Contact Pat Bond on +27 44 531 6805.

 

 

Elandsbos River Estuary
Elandsbos River Estuary.

Sam Bradley

Sam Bradley is a travel and adventure enthusiast with a passion for scuba diving, paragliding and skydiving. He has travelled to four continents, lived in the Peruvian jungle for six months and tour guided through most of Southern Africa. He is married to Cristie and is a committed Christian, and is currently living in London along with a whole bunch of South Africans.

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