The Otter Trail

20 Nov

Day 1 to Ngubu Hut (4.8km)

Day 1 WaterfallIt was with some trepidation that I hoisted my pack onto my back on the first chilly, drizzly morning to set off on five days and four nights along South Africa’s stunning southern coastline from Tsitsikamma to Natures Valley.  We’d booked our spot on the Otter Trail 11 months ago and after such anticipation I felt guilty about dreading spending five days trekking over difficult terrain in the rain.  Despite the inauspicious weather outlook it was only 4.8kms to the first hut and we set off at a leisurely pace which included lots of stops to snap the view and even a swim for a few brave souls at the first waterfall.

Ngubu Hut

Ngubu Hut

Our group of twelve consisted of no less than eight oceanographers, a biologist, a CA, and then H and I (the token IT people perhaps?). We’d camped the night before at the nearby Wild Spirit backpackers who organised us a shuttle to the start so that we could leave our cars behind.   I hadn’t slept well at all on my “extra light” (i.e. thin) mattress in the tent, so my first glimpse of the first hut with sturdy wooden bunks and mattresses filled me with relief!  The huts, which sleep six each, are cleaned every day by SANParks, the rubbish taken away and dry wood stocked up out of the rain. There’s a braai place with benches outside each hut as well as a covered communal cooking area in the middle.  Most “luxurious” though is a flushing toilet (always with a spectacular view) and a cold shower (not always enclosed) at every camp.  Bliss when I was expecting a long drop and river baths.  Unfortunately there were problems with the pipes at the first hut and the taps ran dry soon after we arrived, dashing my ablution dreams, but thankfully at each of the other huts there was plenty of water to drink AND to wash.


That first evening while sitting around the braai we marvelled at the phosphorescing waves, apparently caused by phytoplankton that phosphoresces when they get agitated in the breaking water.  The glow is eerily beautiful and we were lucky enough to see it on the next few nights as well.


Day 2  to Scott Hut (7.9km)

View from the Granite Rock 2 - Day 2

View from the Granite Rock - Day 2

I needn’t have worried about the weather. Day two dawned to bright blue skies and a gentle ocean breeze – perfect conditions for one of the most beautiful (if one was really pushed to choose) legs of the trail. The terrain merged seamlessly from forest to fynbos to rocky beach and took us up and over the headlands and plunging down treacherous paths into the ravines.   An easy to miss highlight was a short detour to a giant granite rock at the top of one of the headlands which gave us one of the most spectacular views of the trial.  We took the day really easy, having long stops to swim at the waterfall, cross a river, and lunch on the beach, only arriving at our hut in the middle of the afternoon.

Scott Hut

Scott Hut

This was my favourite overnight spot, overlooking the river mouth.  At sunset we were lucky enough to spot an otter bobbing in the swell of the river mouth, checking us out from behind the rocks.  Later on we were also stalked by two genets who skirted opportunistically around our braai area like bandits for most of the evening, not put off in the slightest by the torches and cameras flashing in their eyes.


Day 3 to Oakhurst Hut (7.7km)

The sun shone for day three’s trek though scenery just as breathtaking as the previous day.

Oakhurst Hut

Oakhurst Hut

The highlight for me was the Elands River mouth which had a wide sandbank and a deep still lagoon of ice-cold rooibos tea coloured river water  just begging to be swum in (which we duly did, at length).  The few kilometres after that were that were pretty tough, with a monster hill at around 6kms to get to the top of a cliff from where we could see our next huts far below on the other side of the Lourens River.  We’d timed it to get there at low tide, so a careful walk over the slippery rocks with bare feet was all that was required, and we made it to hut in time for lunch and a welcome cup of tea and a ginger biscuit as the weather was closing in by that stage.   The afternoon was spent reading, snoozing, climbing on the rocks, and having a hilarious group stretch session led by a Yoga instructor in the group, squashed like sardines on the mattresses we had dragged outside.  Very good for the now aching hips!  A supper of spaghetti, pesto and lentils was followed by toasted marshmallows squished between marie biscuits with a block of chocolate, and a sip or three of OBs.

Day 4 to Andre Hut (13.8km)

This was the toughest day because of the distance, and the timing to get to the notorious Bloukrans River crossing, 10kms away, at low tide.

The Bloukrans River mouth

The Bloukrans River mouth

After all the horror stories I’d heard about crossing it aided by ropes in swift currents,  and several hours detour to take the escape route instead, reality was destined to be better than my expectations, and it was.  After a leisurely lunch of tuna sachets and cheese wedges on provitas on the rocky bank, we bundled our rucksacks into waterproof survival bags and waded across the narrowest point.   The water was about chest height for me as the waves rolled in (I’m pretty short) so I floated my bag next to me, but some of the others just balanced them on their heads, no survival bag required.  The trickiest bit was hauling the heavy packs up the sharp mussel covered rocks on the other bank, for which we made a human chain.

On route Day 4

On route Day 4

The 3.8kms after the river crossing felt like the toughest yet, probably just because of how weary we were by then.  On the beach we came across a dead baby humpback whale which had turned orange in the sun.  It was a fascinatingly gruesome and sad sight.  Apart from a few shark bites and a crushed face it was largely intact (although rotting) and the beautiful shape of the flukes and tail were amazing to see up close.

View from the Andre Hut toilet

View from the Andre Hut toilet

Finally after another very steep climb, and then a long plateau through the fynbos we arrived at our final camp.  The setting was as dramatic as the last, nestled  into the forest, right by the rocky shore looking out over the crashing waves.  The huts were a lot further apart this time so we met for dinner in the communal shelter in the middle.  H and my final meal was “paella”, also known as Spanish rice mix with a small tin on smoked mussels, a sachet of tuna, a carrot and a fresh chilli thrown in.  We’d been warned about petty theft during the night at this last hut because of the relatively close proximity to the highway but we were surprised when two nights guards arrived as we were finishing supper to patrol the area till the morning.  On the one hand I’m impressed that SANParks provides this security, but on the other it’s such a pity that they need to.  The illusion of being alone in “the wild” was gone.

Day 5 to Natures Valley (+- 6.8km)

The last day of hiking was bittersweet as we looked forward to resting weary legs and hot showers but dreaded going back into “the real world”, to work worries and cell phone ruled lives.   As we walked through the fynbos I tried to etch the picture of what we were walking though in my mind, taking big lungfuls of fragrant air, listening to the crashing waves and absorbing the colours of the sea, the sky, the flowers and the rocks.  As we crested the hill to look over the expanse of Nature’s Valley beach, and could see the houses and car park in the distance, and met casual walkers in slipslops on our path we knew our journey was over.  From then all thoughts were focussed on the long trek along the length of the beach to the Nature’s Valley restaurant where burgers and cold beer awaited to celebrate our success.

Nature's Valley Beach

Nature's Valley Beach


Food Tips:

Beside the practical guidelines of dried fruit & nuts, crackers, smash etc that all the official gear lists for the trail recommend (and which I followed far too closely), some of my trail mates had some really great food ideas, especially on the treat side which should not be underrated! Many thanks to everyone who shared the following (amongst many other things) with us:

  • Hot chocolate sachets  are a winner. Teabags may be light and reusable but something sweet and creamy hits the spot way better.
  • Peanut butter/Nuttella/ condensed milk decanted into small plastic containers – best enjoyed eaten straight off a spoon after crossing a river.
  • Hip flask of whiskey/sherry – a small sip passed around the fire in the evening warms you from the inside out.
  • Garlic cloves/fresh chilli to add fresh flavour to dehydrated packet mix suppers.
  • Tinned mussels worked well to add some punch to our rice.
  • Sundried tomato/pesto – big flavour in small packets.
  • Marshmallows – light and squishy to pack.

Most useful gear:

Cape Union Mart has a great Otter Trail gear list. but besides the standard stuff I think our most useful items were:

  • Headlamp
  • Leatherman
  • Zip-lock bags – for everything from keeping your toilet paper dry to portioning out trail mix for snacking to preventing suncream from leaking in your bag.
  • Compact Gas cooker with stackable pots which double as bowls (we used 1½ gas cylinders cooking for two of us, breakfast and dinner with lots of cups of tea in between).
  • Trail shoes – I didn’t have proper hiking boots, and wasn’t willing to invest in a pair that I’d hardly ever use, but my trail running shoes were more than adequate with enough grip and easy to get wet and dry out.

4 Responses to “The Otter Trail”

  1. Jill November 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Cath, thanks for a well documented journey and an enjoyable read 🙂

  2. Anne November 20, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    What a wonderful read! You make me want to dig out my diary of the trip I did more than twenty years ago! I still recall the smells, the swims, the waves, crossing the rivers and – above all – that wonderful feeling of being far away from civilization!

  3. Hagen November 21, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    This trail really had some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen. From thick forest, to rocky beaches and beautiful fynbos. The huts were also located in the most beautiful places!

  4. Seb June 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Cath, didnt realise you had such as awesome blog…or at least i forgot. Was great to check it out briefly. Ill come back for a proper read one day in the sun on the couch.

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