I’ve sat for three days now, trying me darnedest to find a way to describe the feeling you get during and after the Otter Trail. I’ve come to realise a few things, one, no words will ever truly do the trail justice, and two, the only way I feel I can describe it best is through sharing the rollercoaster of emotions I went through while setting out on my journey. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Otter Trail it’s a four night, five day journey over 45kms on the coastal line of the Tsitsikamma National Park. It starts at Storms River and ends in Nature’s Valley. For those five days all you have is what you’re carrying on your back, a few huts and the path.
First things first, I did not train for the Otter Trail, my chance to go was sprung on me when a group canceled and a friend managed to organise for a group of us to have the booking. Having said that, I am fairly active and exercise at least five times a week, in my Instagram stories you may have heard my chatting about how I hadn’t trained etc BUT I did have a great fitness base to work from. I wouldn’t recommend the trail for anyone who’s unfit, you won’t enjoy it as much and let’s face it slogging a backpack and your ass up a mountain isn’t fun even when you have the strength to do it!
Read my guide to packing and what to wear on the Otter Trail here.
Currently the trail costs R1150 to do and has almost a year long waiting list, for up to date details please visit the Sanparks website.
Day 1 Realisation – 4.8kms ±2 Hours
561 m total vertical – Climb 188 m – Descent -373 m
First of all Day 1 did not take us around two hours, it took us closer to four. We were all really pumped on nervous adrenaline and kept stoping at every second rock pool, formation and cave, I also hadn’t take into consideration how technical the trail would be. At home I can easily run 4.8kms in a few minutes so it really didn’t feel like it would be much of a challenge. What you quickly realise is that 4.8kms at home is NOT the same as 4.8kms on the Otter Trail. In terms of how challenging the trail is on Day 1 it’s a piece of cake compared to the rest of the days, when you’re not used to your pack and you’re still not sure how you ended up doing the trail though it can end up being quite challenging.
What to look out for
Cave: Chances are you’ll still have loads of energy on the first day, use it (and cherish it) to check out a couple of things along the way. About half way through the hike on your right hand side, just before you start to make your way off of the rocky section you’ll find a huge cave. To be honest it is pretty impossible to miss but if you’re in the zone you might not look up. The cave looks like it goes pretty deep, I can safely say that I’ve watched too many horror movies that feature caves and nondescript monsters so I didn’t explore it, but it looks wide enough to keep going on for a while…if you dare.
Waterfall: Just after the cave you’ll find a spectacular waterfall, unfortunately due to the dire drought in the area the water was just a tiny trickle but if you’re brave you can still take a dip in the deep pool at its foot. I did the hike at the end of May so while the weather isn’t freezing in my opinion it was still a little too cold for a dip but I can imagine it being glorious in the height of summer.
Coastline: Your first glimpse of the type of coastline you’ll be exploring over the next four days is pretty breathtaking at first, an even better thought is that you’ll be seeing ever more beautiful landscapes as you make your way through the hike.
Bioluminescence: While cooking at the fire one of our group noticed a little bioluminescence int he waves, after dinner we switched off our lights and headed to the rocks in front of Hut 1 where we got to witness the most incredible lights show as the waves crashed only a few metres in front of us. This was one of my favourite memories of the hike.
Take the time to fit your backpack to your back properly, within the first few minutes you’ll know all about it if you haven’t paid it the attention that it needs. Most of your weight will be carried around your hips, so be prepared for your hips to be pretty bruised for the first few days, don’t worry though by day three you won’t even notice it!
Day 2 Acceptance – 7.9km ± 4 hours
1480 m total vertical – Climb 746 m – Descent -734 m
If you sleep well on the first night you deserve a medal. The huts are really comfortable, warm and clean which I hadn’t quite expected, you’ll get used to calling them home pretty fast. Day two sinks in pretty fast when you put on your back and it feels like you’ve been beaten with a yard stick on your hips and shoulders. Ladies, even your bra straps end up digging into your shoulders, I’d really recommend wearing a sports bra for the duration of the hike. A large part of day two is spent walking in the forrest and it’s a great way to get you acclimatised to the hills on day three and four.
Day two will serve you your first ‘real’ hill directly after the Kleinbos River crossing, these up’s and down’s make day two one of the hardest days as it takes a little while to accept that climbing hills, dodging roots and panting heavily is now your reality! Luckily on day two I still had a fair amount of energy so while it was challenging it wasn’t too difficult, I’d expect if you’re relatively fir you’ll find the same. I quickly learnt after lunch on the first day that filling my belly was not going to work when you’ve got a huge strap with 14kgs of weight pressing into it. Keep your lunch to light snacks and rather eat a full lunch when you get to the huts if you’re still hungry.
What to look out for
Skilderkrans Koppie: A few kms in to the day’s hike, after the first major hill you’ll see a large rocky outcrop, it’s surprisingly easy to get to and a path has been hewn out meaning you don’t have to bash through shrubs to get there. This outcrop has one of the most spectacular views of the trip and it really puts things into perspective, you’re able to see a huge stretch of the coastline and even all the way to Robberg. The edge of the outcrop does lead to a sheer drop so just be aware of your footing and don’t try any funny business!
Rockpools, River Crossing AND OTTERS: Day two will see you crossing your first river, just before the 4km mark. The Kleinbos River is a relatively simple crossing with boulders to help you skip across without getting wet, some are pretty slippery and you might not be used to the weight of your pack yet so be careful when choosing your footing. We stopped for lunch along the river and were lucky enough to see a super cute otter who put on a little show for us. Even along the Otter Trail they are pretty rare, so keep an eye out for them.
Bloubaai Beach: Bloubaai is definitely a must while you’re on the trail, you’ll find the detour at the top of the hill after climbing up the hill after Kleinbos. Chances are you’re going to feel exhausted after the hill and the idea of veering off of the path to check out a beach isn’t going to sound very appealing. Do yourself a favour, put your pack down and take the path, because the beach at the bottom is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Bloubaai is flanked by towering jagged rocks and littered with man sized pieces of quartz, no words can do it justice!
The huts have two sets of bunkbeds with three beds in a set. Do everything you can to not sleep on the top bunk as every movement sends the whole structure ‘a-shaking’, you don’t want to spend your much needed rest worrying about trying to keep still. In our group we also had a serial snorer (sorry Scrumpy) which resulted in everyone sleeping in one cabin, while he was relegated to sleeping on his own, we were lucky that we were a small group so we were able to do this. When travelling in large groups don’t forget to pack earplugs!
The beach on night two is one of the best on the hike so make sure you get there with time to spare so you can enjoy it!
Day 3 Regret (and pain) – 7.7km ± 4 hours
1257 m total vertical – Climb 623 m – Descent -634 m
Day three was not my friend, in fact after a quick group poll we all agreed that day three could take a hike. I’m not quite sure what it was about day three but mentally I was finished, I only have a few memories of the day so I can neither confirm or deny whether on not I was in physical pain, but chances are I was. Day three is going to feel long, long and hard and never ending even though it’s shorter than the day before. Day three was the only day where I seriously questioned what I was thinking doing the Otter Trail. While the day was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever overcome it helped me come to the realisation that the real challenge is overcoming the mental blocks in your head. I don’t think it’s a matter of not saying I can’t do it (at least for me), because you’re going to say that, but more that you’re going to think you can’t but you carry on moving forward, completely focused on just taking the next step and then the next step and so on.
I’d never really considered the concept of just taking the next step before, but during and after day three I truly came to realise what it meant to stay present and only care about where you’re putting your foot next. Due to this, and an complete unwillingness to unpack my bag to get to my camera day three was my least documented day.
What to look out for
Your ass: dragging behind you
River Crossings: With day three comes your first two ‘proper’ river crossings. By proper I mean chances are you’re going to be up to your waist in cold water. This was quite an adjustment for me, and if you’re not Bear Grylls or don’t like getting your feet wet. The first river crossing at Elandbos River is at the 2km marker, the path leads to a part of the river that’s really deep and requires you to put your pack in a waterproof bag.However, if you leave the path when you first see the river you’ll be able to cross most of the river by walking over a sandbank and then only crossing a short distance in waist high water. The second crossing at the Lottering River is right before the huts, you’ll be able to see them as you cross the river. The Lottering was one of the hardest crossings as you have to cross the river and then walk a little into the sea to get to the huts as they are located on an outcrop. Be sure to check tide times for this as half of our group who were about an hour behind us almost didn’t make it, the tide comes in hard and fast!
Rock Formations: To the right of the huts and a little way around the corner you’ll find a collection of beautiful rock formations. I’m no Geologist but they look ‘lavaesque’ and are arranged in beautiful swirls and patterns.
You’ll find cellphone signal on the rocks just down from the second hut, there’s no match for the voice of a loved one over the phone after a long day.
Day 4 Determination – 13.8km ± 6 hours
1905 m total vertical – Climb 945 m – Descent -960 m
Day four is the longest of all the days, clocking in at 13.8km and has the must talked about Bloukrans River crossing. While the day covers the most distance, much of this distance is relatively flat and in comparison to the previous days relatively easy to navigate although once you’ve crossed the river the hike does turn into a bit of a rock climbing session. The main aim of the day is to get to Bloukrans crossing a the right time, you’ll have to check the tidal times in advance to plan your crossing. We were lucky that low tide for the day was around 1.30pm, but I’ve heard of groups having to leave for their hike at 3am to make low tide.
We arrived at the river well in advance of low tide and were able to explore the river bed and enjoy the sunshine, I even managed to have a nap. After waiting for the water to subside we had a really simple river crossing that was way less traumatic than an accountsI’d read before the trip.
What to look out for
Bloukrans: Bloukrans is a mighty river, and don’t get me wrong if you get it at the right time I’m sure it can be pretty terrifying, but if you time it right it turns into a beautiful flat piece of land dotted with driftwood and deep pools that are hardly terrifying.
André Hut and surrounds: The Otter Trail really does leave the best for last and the huts on the last night are set on a pebble clad beach surrounded by huge cliffs that are truly breathtaking. It’s like the trail is giving you one last reminder just how beautiful it is. The huts also have a really beautiful outdoor shower and the view from the toilet is spectacular…especially at night.
If you head to the beach in front of hut one on day four you’ll find that some trust hikers have created a space on the pebbles for a beach bonfire, I’m not sure of the legality around beach fires on the trail but it’s really beautiful and the rangers haven’t mode the driftwood and pebble arrangements so I’m guessing they condone it.
Day 5 Achievement – 9.8km ± 3 hours
I can’t compare the feeling I felt when reaching the pinnacle of the last rise on day five. Day five has a fair amount of challenging hills but the thought that you’re almost done is enough to get you up them. Day five, after day three was one of the toughest days for me, but I think for the most part it came down to that I was just tired and I was missing my creature comforts and family.
The day starts off with a steep hill but ends on top of a gorgeous and imposing cliff, I’d really recommend making your way to the top of this before sunrise so you can watch the sun turn the world gold and look back on how far you’ve come over the last few days. Most of the guides to the trail are a little older then this post and don’t have the updated distance for the last day. The trail no longer ends on the beach at Nature’s Vally but rather at the De Vasselot, each hiker is required to sign out that they have completed the hike. While the additional distance is quite a lot, most of the distance after the beach crossing is flat, although nothing can comfort you when you know that you were supposed to finish for kms earlier!
What to look out for
Proteas and Views: Once you’ve made it up the hill from the night’s accommodation it’s relatively easy going if you’re in the right headspace. Take your time to stop at the two beautiful view points and to look around and appreciate the proteas and Fynbos that flanks the path for most of the day. The final cliff before the descent into Nature’s Valley is also worth stopping for a break at…you’ll be surprised how foreign civilisation looks.
Nature’s Valley beach is know for its riptides, take time to read up about them if you’re planning on taking a dip as they can be fatal.
Thanks so the whole gang for all the laughs, tears and choast! What a team to be a part of. Special thanks to Craig Rodney for organising the whole trip!