The Otter Trail is by far the most sought after hike in the country. It took Mama Cat 3 weeks of refreshing the SAN Parks page 5 times a day to get a cancellation with all 12 spots so that she could do the trail. That was in January, she finally completed the trail this November. Below is her account.
I had incredibly high expectations of the Otter Trail. It is on many people's bucket lists, whether they are hikers or not, and I can understand why. Each day, the scenery, the animal sightings, the huts, the diversity of the trails, the swimming, everything, it all gets better and better. This is 2/4 journal posts I have written about the trail, the first was all of your tips compiled in one place. This is the second, the third will be about the food we ate, and how you can never have enough salty snacks :) And the fourth will be about the facilities at each camp - many of you have questions about the cleanliness, hut set up, braai facilities and the like, I will answer all of these here.
Getting there: We drove from Cape Town, its a long drive so we stayed overnight at Wild Spirit Backpackers. Great spot to gather as a group and pack your bags.
Duration: 5 days
Bookings: SAN Parks
Check In: Make sure you allocate at least an hour to get your group signed in and briefed before you head off. You have to fill out covid forms at the park gate, then a number of forms at the office, and then you have the briefing in the Otter Room.
Facilities: 2 x 6 sleeper huts, 3 x safari tents (mattresses for 12 in total), flush toilet, outdoor / indoor shower, multiple outdoor and undercover braais, firewood.
Water: Make sure you have enough capacity to only be filling up at the huts. The first day there is a waterfall (there was no water at the start, so we were thirsty by the time we got to the waterfall) that you can drink from, otherwise there is not much water on the trail. Do not rely on what the map / briefing tells you, a lot of the streams are dried up / the water is pooled and not safe to drink. On Day 4 we struggled and everyone ran out - there is no water in the Bloukrans River for a while and the goal at this point is to cross safely not find water.
Difficulty: Challenging (I am a fit hiker and this is a lot harder than some of the longer trails I have done)
Weather: We were blessed withe perfect weather. We went in November. I especially chose this month (could have been any of the months from Nov-March) because I really wanted to enjoy the swimming. But so many people do it in winter and love it.
Parking: We parked our cars at the Natures Valley Rest Park (SAN Parks). Your cars will be safe there, behind a gate that is closed every night. The trail ends in this park so its perfect. We got a shuttle from Pete to take us to the start at Storms River Mouth- +27 82 455 1611
Day 1: 4.8km
This is by far the easiest day, its over before you know it, so don't worry about spending a couple hours at the waterfall and enjoying the swim, the views, fill up your water bottles and take a nap in sun.
The hike starts with a descent down to the coast line. You then walk along the coast, some tricky rocky sections, up a stair case, past some German tourists (this section of the trail is open to the non Otter Trail hiking public), and you reach the waterfall after about 2.8km. We spent a while here, filled up our water, had a swim, a nap, some lunch, and watched a pod of dolphins come past. Once we were all rested we continued along the coast (a bit more elevated above sea level) until we reached the huts.
We had a relaxing afternoon, settled into our huts, lit a fire and everyone braaied for our first meal.
Day 2: 7.9km
This was definitely the most challenging day, some serious ascents and descents. We were blessed with two wonderful swim spots, one in the forest, and one on the ocean which we used to reenergise ourselves and get through the day. We did all of the detours suggested in the guide book, and I recommend you do too. None of them are big detours, and are all worth it.
Our first swim stop, where we had lunch, was at Skilderkrans River. You can swim up this beautiful gorge and do some exploring. Our second swim spot was Blue Bay. This is a little slice of heaven. Our crew (unfortunately not me) spotted a pair of Otters swimming in the bay, it was a lovely sighting. When I arrived they were gone, we went looking for them and found some Otter Caves at the end of the beach but didn't see them. From here we spent a good amount of time on the plateau / ridge of of the mountain that slopes to the ocean. We got to the huts around 4:30 pm, had a swim in the ocean and an early dinner.
Day 3: 7.7km
Now that we were all used to the weight of our packs on our backs and enjoying the pace of the hike we had yet another incredible day. This day also has a number of great swim spots, we stopped at 2 of them and were forced to swim / get soaked in the third - Lottering River. Our first stop was at a rock pool with a giant rock that looks like the hull of a ship, if you are with someone who has done the trail before they can show where you to cliff jump! I was less brave and walked down to the beach and swam in the rock pool from there. Be careful of the waves, they come crashing in and really push you around.
Our next stop was at Elandsbos River Mouth, we had some coffee and snacks, read our books and swam in the river. A really beautiful spot. From here we headed through fields of flowers along the coast, and then waist high fynbos until we reached Lottering River.
Lottering River Crossing:
This day also has a river big crossing, which could have you swimming across if you don't time it well. We chose not to have two early mornings (Bloukrans is a much more dangerous river to cross on Day 4). We had a leisurely day, stopped when we wanted, and reached Lottering River at 1pm, 4 hours after low tide. We all managed to carry our bags over our heads. We sent one person ahead (thank you Kyle :)) to check the best route and then helped each other across. No one fell in!
Day 4: 13.8km
We woke up at 4:45 am to get on the trail by 5:30, our goal was to make it to Bloukrans River by 9:30, with low tide being at 9:40am. While we were rushing to get to the river, we had a great show from the pods of dolphins swimming along the coast. They were surfing the waves, doing flips, and enjoying their morning as much as we were.
We had an exceptionally fast pace of 4km per hour, so we stopped fo a coffee break and quick brekkie. The first group of our crew (we had a peloton going and encouraged each other up the hills and safely down the descents) arrived at the river at 09:00. Crossing was a breeze, we were ankle deep, rising to our knees just before we climbed out on the other side. The current can get really strong and the water did rise more as the rest of our crew eventually came across. I would really advise getting to the river at low tide if possible.
Once we had all crossed we had a big chill session on the other side, found a sweet little beach, had naps, ate lunch and replenished our energy. The final stretch to the hut was diverse in terrain, rocky beaches, low fynbos along the cliff path, and then a steep staircase down to the huts.
I SAW AN OTTER! This was such an exciting day, I was taking an afternoon nap, and was woken up as a friend spotted an Otter swimming around in the bay. It took me a couple minutes to spot it as my eyes were still groggy, but then there it was. Swimming so gracefully in the wild ocean, bobbing in and out of the big waves. We followed it up and down the beach until it finally disappeared. My boyfriend took me up the river near the hut to see some Otter prints he had found, so distinctive and so special. This was the cherry on top, Otter sighting on the Otter Trail!
There is a serious baboon problem here, after stealing a few of our things, from around the huts, we became vigilant (we didn't know about this issue before we got there otherwise we would have been vigilant from the get go). We locked our door as they can't undo the locks, but it turns out they can rip the door open anyway and get into your things. We then placed benches in front of the doors (when we were not at the huts, this camp is quite spread out) but they had left. Ideally SANParks puts in proper gates and burglar bars (one baboon climbed into the hut through a window not closed properly while everyone was on the deck a couple meters away and also stole food) as the existing safety measures are very poor and bin locks are broken. I don't mind too much about food being stolen from a personal perspective, but having wild animals become reliant on food from hikers is very poor conservation and SANParks should remedy this.
Day 5: 10.8km
The last day is always longer than you think. We chose to have an early morning as most of our crew were heading back to Cape Town, plus its really lovely to hike in that first morning light.
Once you climb out of the gorge you get to experience each type of terrain you have cross over the past four days. From the waist high coastal fynbos, to the lush and ancient forest, to the rocky beaches, some slightly scary rocky cliff balancing sections, a mini river crossing and some boarded walks. We got into our peloton groove and were back at the rest camp by 9:40am.
This hike is an absolute dream, the terrain is challenging, the views are exceptional, the animal sightings will bring tears to your eyes (puff adder especially :)). Get on that SAN Parks booking page and start hitting the refresh button until dates become available to you.