A last-minute hiker's guide to the Otter Trail, SA's iconic hike that will have you pinching yourself!
In December 2018, I got the opportunity of a lifetime when a spot opened up in the group my cousins had gathered for the Otter Trail. I got the message on Saturday, 1 December and we were to set out a mere 10 days later.
Not much time to prepare for a world-renowned 5-day, 45km hiking trail, but being something of an overthinker under the best of circumstances, this was undoubtedly a blessing in disguise.
I sprung into action and started gathering gear (much of which I had already acquired for previous trails, but some which I had to purchase/borrow) at a wild pace. Standing at the starting point in Storms River Rest Camp on that Monday morning, I had to pinch myself a few times just to know it was really happening. Now, just more that two months later, it still feels like a dream.
If you’re lucky enough to be doing it soon, here’s a little guide to help you do the planning I never got around to.
Starting point: Storms River Rest Camp in the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park
End point: De Vasselot section of Nature’s Valley
Number of days: 5 days, 4 nights
Type of terrain: The entire trail basically consists of steep climbs through lush Afromontane forests to Fynbos-rich plateaus, followed by steep descents to pristine coastline.
Fitness level: Moderate. As mentioned at the start of the article, I didn’t have much time to prepare and was also not in peak physical form. There were a couple of tough stretches but having patient and kind hiking companions of a similar fitness level to your own, makes all the difference.
Booking process: The Otter Trail is notorious for being constantly fully-booked. If you want to make a reservation for a full group of 12, you will probably only be able to get a spot a year later. So, keep this in mind when planning.
Vehicle arrangements: There are no official shuttle services between Nature’s Valley and Storms River Rest Camp, there are, however, a number of private companies offering this service. If you have a group of less than eight people, you could always go in two cars, leaving one at Nature’s Valley on the way and squeezing into the other for the last stretch to Storms River. Whatever the case may be, you will have to do some extra planning around this.
Ideal backpack weight: According to official guidelines, your backpack should not weigh more than ¼ of your body weight. I was about 3kg over, but by the third day, I had shed enough (food and wine, mostly) to be spot on.
Clothes to pack: You don’t need more than two sets of hiking wear, as you will most likely have time to wash on arrival at Oakhurst Huts on Day 3. Here’s a quick overview:
- Pair of lightweight hiking shorts
- Pair of hiking slacks/yoga-type pants
- 2x t-shirts
- 2x sports bras
- A change of underwear for everyday
- A warm top, preferably a fleece
- Light rain jacket
- At least three pairs of hiking socks, but a change of socks for every day is obviously the ultimate
- One set of comfortable clothes to relax in at the huts in the evenings
- Pair of sandals/flip flops for the same purpose
- Wide-brimmed hat
- Swimming costume
- Water shoes for river crossings (not a necessity, but could come in handy)
Food to pack: This really depends on your own preferences, but here are a few suggestions that worked really well:
- Packets of oats for the mornings
- Good coffee and a moka pot/plastic plunger (this was my ultimate treat every day)
- Milk powder
- Cous cous
- Sundried tomatoes
- Mix of seeds and nuts
- Packets of tuna
- Two-Minute Noodles
- Provitas/crackers of your choice
- Cheese wedges
- Dried fruit
- Small naartjies/apples/oranges if you have space. Having something fresh to eat is a real treat!
- Jelly sweets
- Chocolate slabs for evening treats
- Energy bars (I packed two for every day of hiking)
- Game (powder cool drink) for extra energy and electrolytes
- Wine – I opted for Tangled Tree Shiraz, which comes in a light-weight PET bottle
A note on snacks for the trail – I’ve found that prepacking my snacks for every day of the trail into small ZipLock bags is a really great way of rationing myself. That way, you have a little variety pack of goodness for every day. It’s also easier to keep them handy, than having to dig through your bag for a bunch of different items.
Gear to have on hand: This really depends on how well-equipped you are, but here are a few of the most basic basics:
- Survival bag to put your backpack in for river crossings. This is just a large bag made of thick plastic. You can get them for between R45 and R120 at any outdoor shop.
- Small gas stove (you can always arrange to share with a friend if you don’t have your own)
- Small, lightweight pot for boiling water in
- Rain cover for your backpack (many have this built in)
- Carabiner for clipping things to the outside of your bag
- Rope – this, once again, will come in very handy during river crossings
- Walking stick (I picked a great one up on one of the beaches along the way, so just keep your eyes peeled)
Other useful items:
- First aid kit goes without saying
- Magnesium tablets to help ease sore muscles
- A journal to make notes
- Camera (just be sure to protect it in multiple layers of waterproofing when crossing the rivers)
- Binoculars for bird- or otter spotting
- Goggles and snorkel for enjoying the many rockpools you will find along the way!
Hiking boots or trainers?
This seems to be the question on many hikers’ lips when taking on the Otter. My ankles tend to be a bit wobbly, so there was no question for me – my trusty pair of hiking boots it was! Fortunately, they’re well walked in already and unusually comfy, as they’ve gotten me through a whole lot of shorter local trails, as well as 240km of the Camino Portugues.
Many of my hiking companions wore trainers, however, and seemed to be happy with that choice. So, it really depends on what you prefer.
How much water to carry: It’s recommended that you carry 3 litres of water per day. So, keep that extra 3kg in mind when packing your bag beforehand.
Hydration bladder or bottles: I had a 2-litre hydration bladder in my backpack, as well as a 500ml bottle of Game tucked away in the side pocket. I found the hydration bladder to work really well, as I could sip water pretty easily without having to remove my backpack or scramble to grab hold of a bottle. The downside is that you may end up drinking your water too quickly because of this and be stuck without water for the last few km of a more challenging day. This happened to me on Day 2, which quickly taught me to ration myself on the rest of the trail.
Do I need purifying tablets? Each overnight stop has fresh rainwater on tap. While the quality is monitored on a quarterly basis, it’s probably a good idea just to pop a purifying tablet/drops in for safety sake.
Non-potable streams along the way: It’s very important to note that water from the Kleinbos-, Elandsbos- and Lottering Rivers, which you will find on Day 2 and 3 of the trail, are NOT DRINKABLE. This is due to the fact that there are large communities congregated around these rivers further upstream. Due to relatively low rainfall, we didn’t find many smaller streams along the way, so it’s best not to rely on finding water as you walk.
There are four overnight camps on the Otter trail, comprising two simple wooden cabins that can sleep six people each, one toilet, one shower and a communal cooking area. Despite the rudimentary nature of these camps, arriving at each one at the end of a long, tiring day of hiking is rather heavenly.
Here are my highlights from each one:
Ngubu – At only 4.8km over relatively forgiving terrain, Day 1 is by far the easiest on the trail. We took our sweet time, stopping off for a swim in the legendary waterfall en route and checking out some bat caves. So, we arrived at Ngubu during late afternoon, when the golden light just turned everything magical. I loved the gorgeous views from each of the huts, as well as the communal cooking area. The open forest shower was an undoubted highlight, however! Oh, also keep an eye out for the cute little genets foraging for leftover snacks at night.
Scott: There’s a picturesque stretch of beach in front of the huts and a small river, where we enjoyed sundowners.
Oakhurst: We arrived at Oakhurst relatively early on Day 3 and had plenty of time to explore the surrounding area. We had a dip in a natural tidal pool and sat on the rocks watching dolphins swim by at dusk.
Andre: The last overnight spot was probably my favourite, as it brought so much relief after the trauma of crossing the Bloukrans River and the seemingly never-ending ‘last 800m’. My favourite parts were the outdoor shower (once again) and the loo with a spectacular view.
Detours Worth Taking
One of the things I enjoyed most about the Otter Trail, was the magical little detours that are not only allowed by SANParks, but actually encouraged. While you may not feel like breaking your stride and veering off the path to enjoy them, I highly recommend you do. Just throw off your backpack and leave it on the trail (it’s safe, I promise) and go explore!
Here were two of my favourites:
Skilderkrans: On Day 2, at the 2km mark, the picturesque Skilderkrans koppie detour awaits – you will spot the rounded rocky outcrop from the trail, as it rises from the bay. When you reach the distance marker, look out for a little fynbos-lined path to your left. Follow it to the foot of the koppie and then scramble over the rocks to reach the summit. From here, you will have a magnificent view of the cobalt blue Indian Ocean, as well as the trail lying ahead. It’s a great spot for mid-morning snack break!
Bloubaai: About 3km after Skilderkrans, you will find a little detour leading down to Bloubaai (Blue Bay). It comes after the Kleinbos River crossing and a climb through the forest, so you’re going to be tired and probably won’t feel like an ‘unnecessary’ scramble down to the sea. But, let me tell you, it’s worth it! Bloubaai is small protected bay of the most breathtaking beauty and you will have it ALL to yourself. Swim, frolic, have a picnic and relax!
You can read more about the detours on my blog, Peregrina.
Bloukrans River Crossings – is it really that scary?
The one thing that people always mention when talking about the Otter Trail, is the much-feared and revered Bloukrans River Crossing. Depending on who you speak to, it’s either “not nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be” or “scary as all hell”.
Well, despite having desperately wanted the former to be true, I’m afraid I have come to fall squarely into the second category.
We arrived a good half-an-hour before low-tide (just as everyone recommends) and decided to sit down and enjoy some lunch before crossing. That was the plan, at least, until we were greeted by the site of a decomposing whale carcass washing up and down the river mouth. Like, what even?! So gross, I tell you!
Now, apart from having to navigate the wild water, we would also need to plan our crossing at a time when there was no chance of the carcass crashing into us.
It finally came to a standstill on a sandbank somewhat upstream and because we weren’t sure if it would start circling again, we sprang to action. Valuables like phones and cameras went into ziplock bags (or maybe two), boots and backpacks put into survival bags, which we cable-tied closed and fastened with duct tape for extra measure.
The first few made it across, then the second and finally, only my one cousin and I were left stranded in the middle of the river. My one water shoe washed off and got swept away upstream – I almost dove in after it. It was solidly low tide by now, but the waves were still crashing over us and the current pulling at our unsteady legs. Finally, two of our brave companions came dashing into the water with a rope, instructing us to grab hold while they tied our bags securely to each end.
We made it across safely, but almost everyone had a battle scar – bleeding toes, bruised hips and knee scrapes from scrambling over the rocks on shore.
So, yes, the Bloukrans River Crossing really is as scary as it sounds. Be prepared.
Trail end traditions:
Even though it’s 10km long, the last day of the trail is pretty relaxed and goes quite quickly. That is after the last steep forest climb from Andre Huts to the plateau.
We arrived at Nature’s Valley Beach around lunch time and ended our incredible Otter experience off with a few traditions:
Swim at Nature’s Valley Beach – Knowing we had reached the end, we clung to the last bit of wildness left to us, shrugging off our backpacks and diving into the waves at the deserted end of Nature’s Valley Beach. It was wonderful!
Get your official SANParks certificate – When you finish the trail, you MUST check out at SANParks’ De Vasselot office. Here, they will also give you a completion certificate for the trail, which is pretty cool!
Drink an Otter’s Arsehole – After receiving your certificate, it’s time to treat yo’self to something delicious at the Nature’s Valley Restaurant and Trading Store. Ending off your journey with an Otter’s Arsehole shot is an important part of this tradition and will win you yet another certificate!