Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hiking the Otter Trail

After leaving Addo we decided to head west toward Cape Town along the Garden Route. Along the way was Tsitsikamma National Park, home to the highly-acclaimed Otter Trail. The two sentence description in the Lonely Planet said it was one of South Africa’s best hikes and that it needed to be booked almost a year in advance, though sometimes people canceled. We decided to call and check availability and by some stroke of luck, spots remained for the next week. Sure, it was expensive and all we knew about it was that it was popular, but we decided to go ahead and book it.

Over the next week we wandered through the Garden Route. We hiked on dunes and by lakes in Wilderness. Kynsna showed us how the other half lives in fancy resorts with beautiful yachts on a placid lagoon. Sedgefield, the mosaic capital of South Africa, has very few fantastic mosaics but amazing fossilized dunes. We told various people that we were about to hike the Otter Trail, and they warned us that the hike was strenuous, and we would have to ford a river with water up to our necks. Those were details the Lonely Planet didn’t mention, but we decided to do it anyhow.

The 42 km-long trail was divided into five fairly short days of hiking, and each night was spent at a different hut. Six others started the hike the same day, so we shared huts and walked together. Luckily, all of them (Nicola and Elizabeth, John and Anne, and Chris and Almyr) were fabulous people and fun to be around. Many of them seemed to have profound reasons for doing the hike, like celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary or hiking to prove that they had finally overcome unhealthy habits. Many of them did more research on this one trail than we had for our entire nine-month, cross-continental trip. Jeanette and I were impressed and humbled. It was nice to join such an interesting and dedicated group.

From the start the talk was of crossing the Bloukrans, the big river that we would encounter on the fourth day. The river had to be crossed at low tide, which happened to be at 9:33 am. In order to get there on time, we had to start hiking by 5 am and cover 10.3 km. John had luckily hiked the trail twice before and said it wouldn’t be an issue to cross, though we would probably have to swim. Swimming is not exactly my strong suit, so I was determined to arrive by 9:15 at the latest.

The first and second days of hiking were fairly mellow though beautiful. The well-maintained trail stayed along the coast and wandered from beaches to indigenous forest. The second day was filled with steep climbs, much like going up endless staircases, and beautiful beach stops. That, of course, meant many chances for Jeanette and I to pause and have snacks. 

All eight of us hiked at our own paces, but we met up occasionally along the trail. At one rest, Alymer and Chris stopped to say hello while we chomped on some trail mix. Now, that may seem like a normal, simple thing to eat. You pop in the nuts, you chew. But humor me here and run your tongue around your mouth. Do you feel how much room you have in the roof of your mouth? It’s cavernous. That delightful space actually has a massive effect on your ability to eat. Fill it with a piece of plastic affixed to a fake tooth, and eating becomes a dreadful load of work. So in order to eat trail mix, I take out my tooth, which means I had to explain to Chris and Almyr why I looked so odd. And here’s what I learned: I’m fashionable. Okay, well, halfway fashionable. Almyr said that for a while people of mixed race in Cape Town, Cape coloureds, would have their front two teeth purposefully removed. Two healthy teeth pulled just to look good. Even her brother did it, though within a few years he filled the gap with fake ones. Here I was, slightly embarrassed by my gapping gums, and in truth, I was nearly fashionable. So here it is, folks, my new look, all courtesy of a dead tooth and new confidence installed on the Otter Trail.

Okay, just kidding. I still wear my fake tooth. Anyhow, back to the trail.
The Otter Trail is just as stunning as people say. The entire hike you are awestruck by amazing views and stunning coves. We even saw birds, seals, and clawless otters. The first three days passed without much incidence and with many peaceful hours of down time. All of the rivers were easy to cross, and the trail was straight forward to follow. When we approached the hut on the third day we ran into a ranger. When asked about the Bloukrans River crossing the next day he seemed completely cavalier about it. “Don’t worry about getting up early,” he said. “What’s the point of hiking in the dark? If the river is too high, you just hike up the escape route to the highway, and a ranger will drive you across the bridge and close to the last hut.” He didn’t mention that the escape route requires a two hour uphill hike nor did he think of our pride. We were not skipping the Bloukrans.

On day four everyone was out of the camp by 5 am and hiking with headlamps. The full moon was dulled by the overcast sky and blocked by the forest. Luckily the steep uphill climbs of the previous days had mellowed and the 10 km hike to the river, which was three km longer than any of the previous days’ total hikes, was fairly flat. Even hiking mostly in the dark, and stopping for a snack or two, we all made it in time. The tide was out as far as it went, and Chris went on a scouting mission. He found a series of sandbars where the water only went up to your waist. It was shallow enough to walk through but too deep for wearing packs. Since the other six hikers had done their research, they knew to bring dry sacks for carrying packs across. Jeanette and I didn’t, so we are forever grateful that they let us borrow theirs. The river crossing, which was eternally fretted over, was fairly simple. We made it easily and were even joined by an otter that was curious about the weird two-legged creatures and unwieldy red bags wandering through its territory.
In truth, much more daunting than the river, was the part of the trail after the river. We had to use ropes to pull us up thin bits of rock on the edge of a cliff above more rock. In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad. We weren’t high up, and the rock provided decent handholds. At the time, though, it was exactly everything I hate all in one go – steep slippery edges near potentially deadly water. But I only made Jeanette carry my pack for a few feet. I’d like to think I’m getting better. The next three km of the day were fine.

Overall, the Otter Trail is known as one of South Africa’s best hikes for a good reason. It takes you onto a truly wild and majestic coast without being too taxing, and our companions were delightful, especially the otters. The whole experience was otter-ly fabulous.  (Also, Alymr, I made you a fun graphic with your name in stars like you requested, but I can't get it to upload right now.... Sorry. :) )

From Left to Right: Almyr, Anne, Ann, John, Chris, Elizabeth; Bottom: Jeanette, Nicola

1 comment:

  1. Nice summary of the Otter Trail. Myself and girlfriend also did the Otter Trail on our RTW trip. I can't recommend it enough, and am extremely jealous of my sister who is doing it next week.

    Good luck with the rest of your travels!