Ottering About

Words & Photos: Sam Bradley

Anything that 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. However, 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. I began packing with the enthusiasm of a kid off to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

At last the planning ended and the big day arrived. Once again, I was grateful for the 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 to sea level (watch out or you could get surprised by a big wave) or up to 150 m 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.

The first day is a mere 5 km, 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 was clean and orderly, and while it’s simple (this is camping after all), you won’t lack for anything. There are two huts of six 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 kitchen area. Soon, we had a roaring fire, hot drinks in hand, and the smell of dinner being cooked in the air.

Day two was slightly longer than the first day and involved more forest hiking, including the scenic lookout point ‘Skildekrans'.

Day three 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.

Any good spot to stop at (and there were many) always evoked cries of lunch, tea or just stop. 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 four is the toughest day of the hike, as it’s not only the longest at 14 km 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 3 p.m., so our group completed the 10 km 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 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 4 km path to the Andre Huts.

The fifth and final day is more like a victory lap, as it’s a short but beautiful 7 km trail (with amazing sea-views) to the finish line at Nature’s Valley. While relaxing our tired muscles and celebrating our conquest of the trail, we heard about the Otter Trail Marathon that takes place here 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!

What you need to know:

How to book: You will need to book and pay a deposit well in advance. Bookings can be made up to 14 months in advance. The cost of the hike is R860 per person.

What to pack: 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). A camera with spare batteries is essential. You’ll also need the camping essentials (although being in a hut you won’t need a tent or mattress), as well as cooking equipment and utensils. Take at least one 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. 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.

How to get there: The closest airport is in George, and from there it’s a two 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 is 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.


Bridget Bagley:
Nature’s Valley Guest House: