The Otter trail is considered by many to be the holy grail of hiking trails in South Africa. After completing the hike recently I have to agree. The trail winds through the rugged terrain of the Tsitsikamma Coastal and Marine Reserve and also includes some challenging river crossings. Many times when you are traversing the side of the coastal plateau to get past sheer cliff sections, you expect the map to contain the classical “here be dragons” annotation. The area feels remote and you do not see anybody else, with the occasional glimpse of the tips of the forestry plantations being the only sign of civilization. The purist may object to the poles used to stabilize some sections of the trail, wanting to keep it natural instead. I spend a lot of time at the sea and it is normally very sad to see the level of plastic pollution in many areas. The Tsitsikamma Reserve management and rangers should be commended for the excellent state of the park – it is clean and virtually free of pollution.
If you have been vegetating for a while and are unfit, then you would certainly agree with the rating of “Strenuous” by the guys from Walkopedia – yes, it is an actual site. If you do some training beforehand the trail can be done with reasonable effort, as the 58 and 59 years-olds with us on the trail can testify. The time available for each day is ample to complete the distance, with the possible exception of Day 4 which includes the potentially very dangerous Bloukrans River crossing.
The idea for the walk came from my brother-in-law, who sorted out the bookings and got the group together. He is turning 60 later this year and did very well on the walk – thanks in part to some “fire escape training” (running up and down a fire escape!).
Lisa created some homework for me by canvassing for questions about the Otter trail and I received some really good ones. So here are some answers.
What was your average time per km – walking (From Slowvelder)? We walked in three pods and each pod had their own speed. The pod at the back was held back by a serious photographer with his digital SLR, who did not want to miss any photo opportunities (that was his excuse – but his packing methods may have had something to do with it as well). Towards the end of the trail they did speed up remarkably after his camera ran out of battery power. The fastest walking times were on Day 4 when I averaged 20 min/km, but on some days it was as slow as 35 min/km (excluding stopping times).
Did you have access to enough fresh drinking water (From Slowvelder)? On most days there were enough fresh running streams to top up your water bottle. The water is tea coloured due to the tannins leached from the fynbos and tree roots – but it is still perfectly drinkable. Some of the city slickers were a bit sceptical about this at first. On Day 4 most of the little rivers at the marked water points (on the map) were not flowing and besides the pond scum, it was also rich in tadpoles, crabs and insect larvae (yummy!). So we declined to drink from these rivers and were running low on water. The Bloukrans River was marked as a water point, but was very salty. That was the only day that water was an issue.
I would love to hear more about your river crossings – I have heard some scary tales before (From Slowvelder)? All but one of the river crossings was easy and fun as you cross them slightly upstream from the sea. They were at most just over a meter deep. The big mother of river crossings (that deserves the scary tale tag) is the Bloukrans river. Anybody that lives close to the sea is always watching the moon and its effect on the tides. On the day of the crossing it was in the middle of neap tide, so combined with a 4 meter swell the prospects were not good. We arrived at the Bloukrans on an outgoing tide and there was a rip current going out to the deep-sea. Low tide was 6 hours later and the predictions from Windguru and sea levels from SA Tides were not favourable. We decided to bail and took the escape route to the plateau above. The rangers took us around the Bloukrans river gorge and dropped us off to carry on to the next hut. On average one group a month takes the escape route at this point, it was not a proud moment but definitely a sensible one.
Scariest thing that happened (From Slowvelder)? That must have been the fierce bushpigs encountered on the second day. Dropping down over a ridge we descended down to a river. Suddenly we heard the typical sounds made by bushpigs. As we were well aware that an upset bushpig could be dangerous, we started making a huge racket to drive the pigs away. The pigs quieted down and we went down and crossed the river, when unexpectedly the pig noises were back. Upon further investigation we discovered a blowhole where the waves of the rising tide was pushing through, mimicking almost exactly the typical bushpig noises.
Funniest thing that happened (From Slowvelder)? See the answer to the “Scariest thing that happened” question above. I must add that the photographer man also kept us amused. He poked his finger in the eye of conventional hiking wisdom and packed as though he took things directly out of his food cupboard (which I assume he actually did), without any thought of weight or packing strategy. His pack swallowed jars of peanut butter, honey, mayonnaise and tins of all sorts. He also unearthed a Christmas-size cookie box at some stage. Bearing in mind that he carried his digital SLR and assorted electronic toys in an additional bag in front of him (almost kangaroo style), you had to respect his tenacity in carrying all of this for the distance of the trail.
I’d like to hear his packing tips (From Kathryn McCullough)? For the hike you need to realise that everything you take needs to be carried on your back. So you have a direct feedback-loop: if you packed too much, you will pay the penalty immediately. Starting with a good backpack you need to make a list. The only “what if” questions that need to be taken into account are “what if it rains?” and “what if it is cold?” and you need to pack (lightly) for those. “What if I start stinking?” is not a relevant “what if” question. Clothing needs to be good quality technical clothing, that is versatile, dries quickly and light weight. As with normal clothing, packing a couple of good pieces will give you a large number of different combinations or outfits. Thermal underwear makes a good sleepsuit, can be worn when it is really cold and is very light and rolls up into a small package. “What footwear do I need for a river crossing?” is also an important point. Advanced shoes like Salomon Tech Amphibians are perfect for the job, but outdoor sandals with webbing uppers also work well. “What do I eat?” becomes the most important question on a hike. So make sure you have good quality light-weight food available. Snacks and isotonic drinks are also important – take some extra snacks along for when you need a boost. The complete list of what I took is available, if anyone is interested.
I’d like to know what animal encounters he had – along such a wild stretch of coastline, there’s bound to be some (From Reggie)? Besides the “bushpigs” mentioned before, we saw some bushbuck. The nicest one was an old ram whose coat was starting to turn black with age. At the last hut there was also a very tame young bushbuck that came to graze close to the huts. The most spectacular were the large pods of dolphins that came past us on the first three days. It was the wrong time for the humpback whales that frequent the area in winter and spring time.
And did they sleep in huts along the route, or did they have to take tents (From Reggie)? We slept in two identical wooden huts each night. Each hut sleeps six – on bunk beds with foam mattresses (not thick but comfortable enough). Each site also has a roofed braai/communal area, stocked with firewood. For ablution there is a loo with a sea view (one way mirror glass) and a very cold shower. No pots or pans are available and you need to carry your own white gold (toilet paper).
What were you most excited about the first morning (From Jolene)? I was keen to just get going and see what this trail with the tough reputation was going to throw at us. To see if my planning and packing was good and to see if my training would pay off. At the same time I was going to hike with my sister and her family and was looking forward to interacting with them on a relaxed basis – opposed to the pressure that family gatherings normally bring. It did work out very well and we had some good chats.
Did you run into any unusual animals (From Jolene)? Unfortunately not. See the funniest/scariest question/answers above. Lisa would have loved the large rain spiders that came out to play when we had some rain on the third morning. The scorpions would also have amused her. The spiders that spun their webs across the path every evening, were also a bit of a mission for the person walking in front in the mornings. This person had to clear the path of webs, without messing the spiders around too much.
Other hikers (From Jolene)? I assume this question is different from the previous one? :-) The trail is organized in such a way that you only see the 12 hikers that are with you on the trail, as you walk on further to the next hut every day. Since we booked the full compliment every day (12 persons) we did not see any other hikers until the final day, when at the last stretch we encounter some day hikers in the Natures Valley area.
Who did you meet, where were they from (From Jolene)? I have posted the story of Peter the Nutter previously. This was obviously a very entertaining encounter. The only other people I met, were the new people in the group. Besides my sister and her family plus a family friend (the photographer), there was Chad and his family, and then a fishing friend of mine and his wife. Everybody, except me and the fishing friend and wife, comes from the inland city of Johannesburg. The coastal experience was especially enjoyed by them. Chad and his wife are fitness fanatics. The group was great and contributed a lot to the enjoyment of the hike.
What was the greatest challenge (From Jolene)? It was impossible for me to go to sleep with the rest of the group at about half past eight in the evenings. I am a night owl and stayed up later and went to sleep closer to my normal bedtime. For some of the group, the two long and steep climbs on Day 2 depleted some of their reserves.
Did you pack enough food – or did you miss Lisa’s non-dehydrated home cooking (From Jolene)? I certainly missed Lisa’s home cooked food!! Pasta and dehydrated potato is fine, but dried soya has never been my favourite. Fresh fruit and vegetables would have been nice but dried fruit and nuts made up for the starch and soya main courses. The braais (barbecues) on the first and last evenings were excellent. I certainly had enough food and my emergency rations were still available at the end of the trail.
Did you get voted off the island (From Lisa)?! As you know the game of Survivor is a game of social skill. While some physical ability is useful, it is not essential. As some of you know, my social skills are not that good and my alliance was small. I was definitely in danger of being blindsided and getting voted off. Fortunately I had an “immunity idol” (beers and chocolates)which I played at the end of the challenge on the last evening. So I managed to avoid the elimination vote.
Anything you took and wished you had left at home (From Lisa)? Not a single thing. There were two items that I did not use, a warm fleece jacket and a spare gas canister. But I was happy to carry them for some important “what if” scenarios.
Anything you didn’t take and wished you had (From Lisa)? I made a conscious decision not to take a camera, helped by input from Lisa (“no way is the camera going through dirt and rivers …”), mainly because of the size and weight and the prospect of river crossings. In hindsight I would have loved to have the camera along, there are so many amazing photo opportunities that it is sacrilege not to have a camera on this trail. Next time I will make sure that I have a good quality compact camera with me. Fortunately there were several excellent photographers along. I have used some photos made available by my fishing friend. Hopefully I can post some more from the rest of the group later.
What equipment worked out really well (From Lisa)? My new backpack (First Ascent Jupiter 65+10) worked really well, as you would expect from a modern backpack. The bag has many good features but the best feature is the comfort with which you can carry the load required for a 5 day hike. With the 65 +10 litres space, the bag has more enough room for the equipment required, without feeling bulky. This made it easier to navigate the narrow pathways and do the boulder hopping. The layout of the bag is excellent making it easy to organize equipment, food, water and clothes. The flight mode zipper meant easy access to stuff without having to unpack the bag at quick water/snack breaks. As always there was a bit of rain on the Otter Trail and the built-in rain cover deploys easily from the bottom section. I expected the removable toilet bag/lid section to be a gimmick but it works really well. The perfect addition to the bag was a pair of First Ascent Pathfinder-3 trekking poles. They made traversing the boulder sections much safer and the steeps hills much easier to cope with. The poles are highly recommended, but you have to take two, one is not even half as efficient. At first it feels and looks a bit funny, but once you are used to the poles, the benefits far outweigh the “skier on dry land” caricature.
Is it important to train beforehand and if so what training would you recommend (Bonus question from Willie)? To enjoy the Otter Trail you have to do some training beforehand. With the amount of time available to complete some sections an unfit person could certainly do the trail, but would not have much fun. Any cardiovascular exercises would be good to do. You would benefit from training where you walk with a pack on your back. We had some scary fit people with us on the trail, who train and run competitively in the Comrades Ultra Marathon (distance 89km), but who still needed time to adapt to walking with a backpack.
What were the highlights of the hike (Bonus question from Willie)? On a very basic level the hike forces you to live in the moment. You have to concentrate on where you are putting your feet next, and how you are going to cross rocks and scale the uphill sections. Consequently you forget about everything else, and any stress that you may have had just disappears.
The biggest highlight by far was the snorkelling experience late afternoon of the first day. A couple of days leading up to and including the first day of the hike, the south-easterly wind had been pumping. As any fisherman from this area knows this cools the sea down dramatically. This happens through a process of up-welling of cold water from the lower layers of the ocean. This cold water pushed the fish in the proximity of the first hut, into a shallow pool behind some rocks. When we dived into the water we discovered a dense mass of Musslecracker, Galjoen, Steenbras, Blacktail, Zebra Fish, Sea Mullet and other smaller fish species. These are some of the fish that we normally target when we go fishing. It was amazing to just observe them sheltering in the slightly warmer water of the bay.
And then a final highlight were the beers on the last evening of the hike…
Posts in the Go Take a Hike series (about hiking the Otter Trail) are:
- A Tale of Two Bags
- And They’re Off . . .
- The essential guide to gaining weight in five days!
- Here Be Dragons (this post)
Thank you to T v Zyl and I Bower for the use of their photographs.