Otter Trail (South Africa)
The Otter Trail is one of the oldest hikes in South Africa and one of the most beautiful in the entire world. Only 12 spots are allocated every day, which are usually sold out one year in advance. This 42-kilometer-long, 5-day trail leads along the southeast coast of Tsitsikamma National Park and is divided into relaxed day-to-day stages. The biggest challenge is the crossing of the river Bloukrans, which can only be crossed floatingly at high tide or in bad weather. If you are lucky, you can see whales and dolphins next to the name giving otters.
With the rental car, I drive to Natures Valley, the end of the trek. Here, at 11 am, the private transport awaits me, which brings me as well as two other hikers, to the entrance of the trail. Some forms are filled out, a few signatures are made and I’m ready to go. The clearly visible path leads steadily downhill through a green forest landscape. The pleasant silence is interrupted only once by a buck, which crosses the path unexpectedly – startled, I look after him as he disappears in the undergrowth.
Shortly afterwards, the rocky coast opens before me. The route is very well maintained – steep sections are equipped with steps and ladders. I follow the clear markings, yellow signs in the form of an otter paw, painted on stones.
The wild Indian Ocean noisily pushes the waves against the red-gray rocks – an imposing scenario. I pass a cave deeply cut into the rock and take the time to explore it – though only for a short while, as a moldy-sweetish smell, the origin of which I would rather not get to the bottom of, drives me out again.
The further course leads me to the most famous landmark of the first day, a waterfall that pours into a deep bathing pool. Here, my privacy is suddenly interrupted by some voices, as it is a popular day trip destination for tourists. After a lunch meal amidst this picturesque cliff environment, I start out for the last part towards the hut. Back in the forest, I catch a glimpse of a Knysna Loerie, a native bird with blue and green plumage and a kind of comb on his head.
The two cottages, equipped with 6 beds each, as well as a shower, a toilet and an open communal hut are built directly on the coast. Here, I meet the other hikers who will accompany me the next few days. There are the two outdoor loving Americans Kyle and Alexandra, as well as members of a regional hiking club, who are preparing the steaks with the provided firewood.
The rest of the afternoon I spend with a walk back to the waterfall and a dip in the cold pool below.
After a short steep climb, which drives the last drowsiness out of the bones, the trail once again leads us through the South African jungle, before the trees give way to a few knee-high Fynbos fields, which give me a clear view of the ocean.
At the 1.5 km marker, a short detour leads to the SkilderkransKoppie, a prominent rock formation, with a 360-degree view. A pair of eyes framed by brown fur watches me suspiciously and disappears some seconds later quickly in one of the numerous crevices.
This is followed by the first river crossing – the Kleinbos River separates the two wild-growing banks from each other. However, since it has not rained for a long time, it does not reach any higher than the boots, leaving the feet dry.
The next highlight of the day is just about half an hour later, when I leave my backpack at a fork and take the path down to the sandy Bloubaai Beach. This is predestined for a swim if you aren’t too afraid of the big waves.
With the new energy summoned up by the rest, it follows the next steep climb. The hiking club pauses at the fork and I thankfully accept the offer of a few bits of Biltong, as the South African beef jerky is called.
The viewing platform on the descent to the hut offers a last panorama and the possibility to look out for dolphins and whales from above.
The cabins are similar to those of the first day – the main difference is the dinner of the hiking group, which today, just like mine, is content with ready-made meals. Afterwards, we sit on the beach and watch the powerful waves crashing on the rocks with full force.
On this day, a few meters before reaching the finish, the Lottering River will have to be crossed. I start at 10.30 am in order not to arrive at high tide and I am happy that the trail includes fewer ascents than yesterday. The first obstacle, however, is not long in coming – the Elandbos must also be crossed. My feet sink a few centimeters into the sandy riverbed, while my shoes dangle on my backpack. The water, which has a reddish color due to the high iron level, reaches up to my calves. While I put on my shoes on the other side, I am astonished that the direction of flow of the water is constantly changing. First towards the sea, until the next wave breaks and the river suddenly flows inland.
The second river and the huts on the opposite side of it can be seen at 3 pm. Two hours after the flood, I cross it – far ahead of my plans. It is a beautiful sunny day, so the water, which reaches to my hip, does not bother me. At the hut, I stow away my belongings and walk back to the stream in order to take a swim. Since it’s low tide, a natural stone bridge is recognizable now, which connects the two sides.
In the evening, the steady roar of the waves gives us a soft sleep – which is suddenly interrupted by a dull sound. A broom cat has grabbed a pack of Oreos and tries to escape through the inner lattice door – and succeeds, however, not without losing half of the chocolate coke. After that experience, we decide to close the outer door as well.
The crossing of the Bloukrans river is one of the biggest obstacles, which is why it has been expressly pointed out that this must be achieved at low tide – today at 8:40 am. Since hikers need a few hours to get there, a light chain from headlamps marches off from the huts at 3.30 am – one hour later I follow. In spite of the darkness of the night, sweat beads form on my forehead due to the sultriness. I freeze for a moment, as the light of my lamp is reflected by a reflection. But the toad, which first bounces against my leg, soon finds the right path. The dawn of the day displaces the last gloom, before a bright disk appears on the horizon, dividing it with bright rays. The rising sun disappears shortly thereafter; however, behind the low-hanging clouds.
The Bloukrans, which I reach at 8 o’clock, can be crossed easily – the emergency routes on the other side, which can be reached with ropes, don’t have to be used today.
At 9 o’clock in the morning I reach the Andre huts and decide to finish today since it’s only 7 km till the end of the trek. That ascents steeply, before the path runs pleasantly along the cliff. I enjoy the last 3 hours to the finish with a exhilarating view over the Indian Ocean, before I pass a gate and the beach of the Natures Valley comes into view. A short descent, a walk over sand and 3 more kilometers through a forest area, and the Ranger hut, where the official Otter Trail certificate is issued, is reached.