The Sabre-toothed Otter Trail

I had a strong suspicion we were making a mess of this. Slithering over slimy rocks, I tried to catch up with Jaco Prinsloo as he hauled our packs towards deeper water. Fierce wavelets overturned me like a hapless tortoise. I’d lost a sandal, my bottom was covered in green gunk and my legs were turning blue with cold.

Out in the river mouth, bobbing red bags and flashing white arms crested ridges and disappeared. I reached Jaco and realised why he was making such slow progress. ‘Stop! I think the bag’s split.’ We stumbled back to shore, fell over a few more times for good measure, opened the sack and poured out our backpacks, boots and half the Bloukrans River.

Across the channel, we could see eight drenched but determined figures crawling to safety on a slice of sand between jagged rocks. Henk Landman and Serin Gowdy stood beside us, still dry and fully clothed, wondering whether they should attempt the crossing at all.

Heroic in a red Speedo, Oscar de Waal dived back into the water with spare survival bags for us. The sea swept them from his grasp. He tried again and made it, but it was too late. The Bloukrans had defeated me. I pulled on my squelching boots and dripping pack and, as Oscar and Jaco waded into the surf once more, Henk, Serin and I started walking back the way we’d come.

Day 1: 4,8km (three hours) Storms River to Ngubu Huts

Beware of: Boulder hopping with heavy backpacks

Highlights: A swim at the waterfall

On the menu: Braai with steak and toasties

Not quite the boy scouts

We should have known better. All of us were fairly experienced hikers. I’d even been a girl guide and knew the importance of Being Prepared. But someone had heard from someone else that it was possible to wade across the Bloukrans at low tide and that we needn’t even get wet above the knees. So we’d skipped the issue of river crossings and devoted our planning to the critical matter of food.

On our way from Cape Town to Storms River Mouth, we visited wine farms and butcheries, farm stalls and vetkoek stands. We devoted the first morning of the trail to supply shopping in Plett, then to eating a hearty brunch. By the time we set off from the Otter Room, the wooden chalet near the park gate where you sign the register, it was after 14h00 and our stomachs and backpacks were bulging alarmingly.

Luckily the first part of the path led downwards through dim, green indigenous forest that cooed and rustled with invisible birds. Walking through the twisted, lichen-covered trees became one of my favourite features of the trail. The paths, though steep, were cool and shady, punctuated by tinkling, tea-coloured creeks. Here, the thrilling roar of the ocean was softened to a soothing drumbeat. Already I was enchanted by this fairyland – and the knowledge that we’d be spending the next four days exploring it.

When we reached the shore, we were hypnotised by a panorama of misty green cliffs, tumbling grey rocks and frothing sea. It was a struggle to keep our focus – and our balance ­– as we followed the dazzling coastline. We teetered over wobbly boulders splashed with lichen and daubed with yellow paw prints. Chasms yawned underfoot; tree roots snaked sideways. A twisted ankle now would be bad.

Another worry was the sky, grey and cloudy, which threatened to fulfil the forecasters’ promises of wet weather all week. The idea of walking in rain had put a dampener on our spirits, but as we passed the waterfall where the day hikers turn around, golden light chased away the gloom. So did the sight of fellow hiker David Crosoer going for a swim. It was the first time any of us had seen someone wear a bathing cap in the wild.

Soon, the first overnight huts appeared at the foot of a thickly forested ridge overlooking a series of magnificent cliffs that dissolved into sea spray. As the days passed, it seemed to me the camps were like a series of beautifully-wrapped gifts. Though the huts were all identical, the sites chosen were exceptional  – and each outdid the one before.

We showered using our water bottles in a sheltered glade, then lit a smoky fire for a braai and sat around it with a pleasant combination of satisfaction and anticipation. As the sun sank over the sea in a boa of feathery pink, a hundred floating fireflies winked our cares away.

Day 2: 7,9km (five hours) Ngubu to Scott Huts

Beware of: Tough uphills

Highlights: Skilderkrans koppie and Bloubaai beach

On the menu: Thai chicken curry with egg noodles.

Tip: Frozen chicken wrapped in newspaper and stored in a soft cooler bag should keep until the second night.

Passing up paradise

Our first full day on the trail was a walk in the park – as long as we ignored any complaints from our legs. The trail has been devised to torture weak knees and quadriceps while it delights the soul and senses. If you find natural beauty an effective anaesthetic ­­– and most hikers seem to – the second day of the Otter is quite painless.

A long climb through dappled forest over damp leaves glowing red, yellow and green brought us to clifftops furred in fynbos, sparkling with red ericas and pink vygies. At Skilderkrans, a promontory of pale quartz that stuck into the sea like an unfinished fortress, we hopped up the peak to peer into the ocean for whales and dolphins. At the Kleinbos River, which cut a swathe of sunlight through the forest, we lazed on warm rocks and took short, shrieking dunks in the freezing stream.

What we were really looking forward to, however, was the beach. Bloubaai is the first  sandy shore on the trail and possibly the most idyllic. Tucked into the crook of the Tsitskikamma’s thin arm, it’s a hidden jewel. Slightly too well hidden, I decided, as our scouts returned from a second foray down unmarked side paths. Both seemed to lead only to more rocks.

We plodded up an endless hill. At the top was a viewing deck. From there, we looked straight down on a crescent of pale sand licked by turquoise tongues. It was a scene straight out of a movie – the sort where sickeningly gorgeous people are stranded on a romantic tropical island.  We thought about the hill we’d just climbed; we looked at our heavy packs. Then we stood and stared for a long time at the lost paradise below.

Day 3: 7,7km (four hours) Scott to Oakhurst Huts

Beware of: Crossing the Elandsbos and Lottering Rivers at high tide.

Highlights: Idyllic sandy coves to sunbathe on; wave-watching at the Oakhurst huts.

On the menu: Smoked chicken with pasta spirals in tomato and bacon instant sauce.

Slow down for scenery

By day three, the photographers – Oscar and I – were beginning to behave rather strangely. An excess of wonderful scenery can be a dangerous thing, as our companions discovered while I marched them back and forth along a particularly pretty stretch of path. They sped off soon after, leaving Oscar and me to crawl along emitting constant clicking sounds.

We intercepted them having a coffee break at the Elandsbos River. Splashing barefoot through the warm water as it glided over soft golden sand made me feel like Robinson Crusoe on a good day. ‘These river crossings are a doddle,’ I thought happily. The Elandsbos was supposed to be a major obstacle at high tide or after heavy rains but it barely came up to our ankles.

The balmy weather and profusion of blissful little coves made it compulsory to take a long, lazy lunch break. The Otter Trail is all about sunbathing and spa baths in rock pools, I decided as my friend Jean Sleigh and I lolled about on the sand for a couple of drowsy hours. There was no hurry to reach the next huts because there were only a few more kays to go. We’d completely forgotten about the Lottering River.

The sun was dipping below the forest as we stragglers looked down from a clifftop at the small green roofs of the next set of huts. They were on the other side of a wide river mouth, white with turbulence. ‘I’ll swim that,’ said someone deranged, possibly Jaco. ‘I bloody well won’t!’ squeaked someone else. It was my voice.

Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. The river narrowed at the crossing and the water was calmer and shallower there. Unfortunately, the trickle others had crossed without removing their shoes was now almost two metres deep in places and the tide was still rising.

I did what I usually do in such situations. I panicked. While Jean calmly enlisted male assistance and a dry bag, I stripped down to my undies, hoisted my backpack above my head and plowed in. Whoof! The riverbed disappeared from under my feet and reappeared suddenly at my kneecaps. As my head and hands sank beneath salty water, David reached out and grabbed my pack, saving me from certain cameracide.

I doggy-paddled to safety, followed with less drama by Jean and Jaco, and eagerly hobbled the last few hundred metres to the huts perched at the lip of the river’s gnashing jaws. Sunset found us sitting gaping at giant breakers, daring each other to creep closer. When I climbed into my third-storey bunk that night, I felt the bed shudder each time a wave crashed into the rocks. Shaken as I was, I never stirred.

Day 4: 13,8km (eight hours) Oakhurst to Andre Huts

Beware of: Less than optimal conditions at the Bloukrans crossing.

Highlights: Surviving the crossing. Bonus points if you keep your kit dry.

On the menu: Kassler chops in spicy rice with raisins and apricots.

Tip: Smoked, vacuum-packed meat will last until now.

The big, bad Bloukrans

The Lottering had taught us some respect for rivers. Low tide next day was at noon, so we set off by 07h00 and didn’t dawdle. The weather was still perfect and, although we noticed the heavy swells and widening bands of surf, it didn’t occur to us that the sea might be brewing its own storm.

Though we were on a tight schedule, it was hard to pass up the chance to enjoy our surroundings. The trail, bordered with bright wildflowers, seemed to taunt us with exquisite scenes we couldn’t stop to appreciate properly if we were to cover the 10 kilometres to the Bloukrans in time.  On a pebble beach, we paused just long enough to arrange driftwood twigs on a flat rock. ‘Joy’ and ‘peace’ we spelled, and placed a heart-shaped pebble beneath. Perhaps the next hikers would find it.

We reached the Bloukrans with half an hour to spare, barely glancing at a sign that warned us not to attempt the crossing at high tide, in the dark or during rough seas. Again we were treated to a cliff-top view of the task before us. It looked crazy to me, but everyone I knew who’d done the trail had managed it. How hard could it be?

I was still wondering what had gone wrong as the three of us who’d chickened out of the crossing (or taken the sensible option, depending which side of the river you were on at the time) trudged up the escape route, with frequent pauses to stare enviously at our companions. They were having a celebratory picnic on the rocks, which were festooned with their wet belongings.

At the top of the cliff, we made a quick phone call to the ranger on duty. Within 20 minutes, a park bakkie was whisking us along the N2. We’d taken the escape route reluctantly, fearing it would be the end of the trail for us. Instead, the driver deposited us on top of another cliff, less than half-an-hour’s walk from the last huts. We showered him with gratitude and an energy bar and made our way to Andre Hut.

Day 5: 6,8km (three hours) Andre Huts to Nature’s Valley

Beware of: A strong desire to stay put and never return to civilisation.

Highlights: Strolling along Nature’s Valley beach feeling like a hero.

On the menu: Cheeseburgers, beers and rudely-named shooters (with free Otter Trail certificate) at the Nature’s Valley Pub.

Next day, as we strolled along the last easy stretch of beach into Nature’s Valley, most of our group bore marks of the Otter’s wrath: torn clothes, lost shoes, soaked cameras and assorted scrapes and bruises. But we also wore golden suntans and huge, relaxed grins. Despite the challenges it had thrown at us, we’d loved every inch of the Otter. After all, it wouldn’t be the great South African outdoors if it didn’t have teeth and claws.

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