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Otter Trail part one: Pretty pictures and things to look out for!

November 22, 2011

About a year ago Ben made a booking for 12 of us to take on South Africas most famous hiking adventure: The Otter Trail! You’ll read more about my practical experiences in my next “survival guide” post, but for now here’s an overview of the trail itself and some stunning pictures courtesy of Ben 🙂 We were lucky to have pretty much perfect weather with a little drizzle on the first day and a mix of sun and cloud on all other days so it was never too warm or wet. We also had great tide times (around mid day) making river crossings easy.

You can read more about the trail from sanparks

Day one – Storms River to Ngubu camp – 4.8km

Departing from the Storms River registration hut, the trail begins by taking you through some beautiful forest on a flat, meandering path to the sea. Eventually you reach the coast and clamber across the rocks for a couple of km. It’s worth taking it extra slow and stopping to explore the big cave on this section of the trail and to take a swim at the huge waterfall – the biggest on the trail.

This section is really short and before you know it you emerge out of a final section of coastal forest to find the Ngubu huts. This first camp has access to a rocky shore full of rockpools to explore and there’s a lovely shower in the bushes by the little stream.

Around the camp we saw bush buck and a ridiculous number of birds including bar throated apalis, mousebirds and bulbuls. I’d recently watched a fantastic video showing bioluminescent waves on the coast of California at night, however even though I knew we’d had a huge red tide all along the South African coast, I was totally surprised and blown away to see the waves light up as night fell at the first camp! My inner geek was pleased and we continued to see this over the next few nights.

Day two – Ngubu camp to Scott camp – 7.9km

The second day on the trail starts with a pretty steep climb up to a gorgeous view point.

After this the trail proceeds through some beautiful cliff top forests before popping out in to fynbos on the highest point of the cliffs. After about 2km the trail descends to a lovely waterfall where it’s worth stopping for a swim and some breakfast/elevenses!

Another steep climb awaits hikers after the waterfall, in fact I think this day felt the hilliest. The trail then winds its way down to the first river crossing – the Kleinbos river. This one doesn’t have much tidal influence so timing isn’t very important, we had a couple of us stand in several points across the river and passed the bags across. It was pretty easy, leaving us plenty of time to enjoy the cold, water on our feet. This is a really beautiful river, where the water is dark red/brown with leaf tannins from upstream. Getting out of the river valley is another steep climb but after about another km you can leave your bags on the upper trail and take a short off trail trip down to a beach. There are some stunning rock formations here – amazing strata revealed in sandstone and some odd shapes created by erosion.

This is a great place to stop for lunch, however don’t be fooled by the sign near this point on the trail – it says 6km but it’s clearly in the wrong place when compared to the map. This led us to think we were further along than we were and in reality we had another huge hill to climb – probably the worst on the trail as it was so unexpected. Still, we made the best of it, leaving little messages along the way for our friends following behind!

The view from the top of this hill is really spectacular and allows you to look back along the coast and the path of the trail. It’s a great spot for looking for whales and we saw one breach from the platform. After another few km’s the trail descends in to the second camp. This is probably the nicest placed camp – with access to a fresh water river and the sea for swimming. It was probably my favourite – even with the vast numbers of horrible locusts around! This horridness was somewhat made up for by the fact that we got to see one of the trails namesakes! A cape clawless otter popped his head up out of the surf just as the sun was setting – making a long day of hills and jumping away from fornicating locusts totally worth it!

There was more to come though, as we lit the braai and the sun set we realised we were being stalked by two genets. These sinuous cat-like creatures had no fear of us and happily snuck up to steal a packet of Laurens vegetarian sausages! They must have been disappointed as I can’t imagine they tasted anything like the venison skewers they’d smelled!!

Day three – Scott camp to Oakhurst Camp – 7.7km

I think this was probably my favourite day. The trail hugs the coast line for most of the morning, dipping in and out of rocky shore and low level forest environments. This is a good place to keep an eye out for birds like the Knysna loerie – who’s gutteral calls and flashes of red wings in flight make them easy to recognise. Another river crossing awaits at the Elands Bos mouth – this one was easily done daintily….

….of course there’s no persuading some people 😉

The river mouth is very beautiful with a wide sand beach and the almost purple river flowing down one side. A stop for a swim is recommended.

After the crossing the trail climbs up the cliff side and meanders around fairly low down until you round a corner and see a set of stairs high on this cliff top ahead. There’s a fairly steep, exposed climb at this point and I really only got through it thanks to our dear friend Brett who sang every Monty Python song and most of a version of Bohemian Rhapsody to speed me on my way! Genius. The good news is after this climb its a lovely jaunt through the fynbos topped cliffs until you arrive at the Lottering river valley.

The steep climb down is a good place to spot lots of little lizards and worth taking time over if you’ve got a little time to kill before low tide.

We arrived pretty much right on time, in fact as we got to the river the water sounded like it had turned off entirely – we reckon this had something to do with a surge from the sea putting back pressure on the river flow, but were not sure! We easily crossed the river in bare feet and were soon at the camp having a nice cup of tea and some food that the team before us (they were horrendously messy and smokers – eurgh) had left behind.

It was another glorious evening at this camp as the waves crashed violently over the rocks, putting on another beautiful display of bioluminescence once the sun had gone down. We saw several whales from this camp as well and the sunset, which with Plettenberg bay in the distance was stunning.

Day four – Oakhurst camp to Andre camp – 13.8km

The longest day dawned clear for us as we set out early to make a low tide crossing of the Bloukrans river. This is the crossing that requires the most thought, so when booking its worth checking the tide times so you don’t have to leave at 4am to make the 10km hike in time for low tide. Its a long hike but not particularly difficult. There’s a lot of walking close to the sea shore and clambering over rocks. One thing to note about this day was the water – the last few water stops were dry (from about 5km onwards) so its worth filling all your bottles constantly whenever you hit a water stop, to save running out as a few of our group did. Don’t try and drink the water from the Bloukrans either – salty tea is bad as we learnt to our dismay!

The crossing itself was a lot better than we thought it was going to be. We weren’t at the lowest of the low tides so we wrapped our bags in plastic survival sacks and floated them beside us before climbing up over the rocks to the right of the preferred slipway route.

After the river crossing we continued the last leg of day 4. Sadly we came across a huge whale carcass on the beach. It was both a sad and interesting experience. I’ve always wanted to see humpbacks so it was terrible for this to be my first sighting however the size and structure of this creature was so imposing and impressive. It had been nibbled by sharks, but we couldn’t work out what the likely cause of death was.

The section after the Bloukrans shouldn’t be underestimated, there’s some nasty rock scrambling, walking across rocks, a huuuuuge hill and then a never-ending flat trek across the hill top to contend with before you finally have to slide down the rough hillside in to the last camp. A long and tiring day.

The huts in the last camp are set a fair way apart but there’s a nice boma in between so you can all sit together. This camp also has the nicest shower, with a lovely sea view! The illusion of being alone in the wild is a bit destroyed here by having guards come down and sit in the middle of the camp at night – apparently there’s been some problems with crime. They were lovely though and we were glad they were there.

Day five – Andre camp to Natures Valley pub! 6.8km (with an extra km or 2 to the pub!)

We had a lovely long sleep after day 4 before starting the final day. The last stretch of the trail begins with another really steep climb – not so good for sore and cold legs, but the view from the top was lovely and it was rewarding to look back at how far we’d come!

For the most part the trail is flat for this final stretch and I recommend taking time to enjoy the views, look for sunbirds etc.

However most of our group were keen to get back and so we kept a pretty fast pace. Descending in to Natures Valley at the end of the trail I could almost taste the beer! The group decided to walk along the beach, but I’d recommend the road if your feet and legs are as sore as mine were by this point!

The pub is a cool stop for post trail drinks – they even have their own “otters arsehole” shot which comes with a certificate for the trail – a great end to the trip!

We stayed a couple more days in the Tsitsikamma area before heading back to Cape Town, but I’ll cover those events in more detail soon!

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