We had just finished our first day’s hike on the Otter Trail, one of South Africa’s premier hikes. Judging by the scenery on the first day, I could easily see why the trail is rated as one of the best in the world. I could hardly wait to see what the remaining four days would bring.
I have to admit I didn’t sleep very well that first night. This is unusual for me. Usually, when I am immersed in nature, I sleep better than I do at a five star resort. Apparently, our first day on the Otter Trail, was not strenuous enough, because I tossed and turned all night. Maybe I wasn’t completely comfortable with the fact that I had just spent the night with five men. Probably a little of both.
I don’t know when I finally drifted off, but the view of the ocean and the sound of crashing waves made up for my initial restlessness. I was on the middle bunk, on one of two bunk beds that were stacked three high. Ol was across from me, also on the middle bunk.
Two of our cabin mates, Roy and Allen, doctors from Cape Town were on the bottom bunks and were early risers. In reality, this meant that our entire cabin would be early risers.
Our young bunk mates, Paul and Rummy from Johannesburg who were on the top bunks, awoke late every morning, but because of their youth, arrived at camp first each day. Despite this, they were kind enough to claim the top bunk, knowing it would be a tough climb for us. Maybe they weren’t altruistic, but just smart. Maybe they didn’t want to be crushed by the fat Americans should there be a bunk bed failure in the middle of the night.
There were six of us in our little Indian Ocean hut. We were thankful, that out of the six of us, no one snored. I was also thankful that after the first night one of our cabin-mates shared his sleeping pills with me. I was now truly a happy camper. When I awoke at sunrise, I was rested and ready for another hike. Because they left late, the duties of tidying up the cabin for the next hikers fell to Paul and Rummy. They happily performed the cleaning duties and never complained.
On that first night in our cabin, we learned how Rummy and Paul and Ol and I were lucky enough to get a reservation to hike the Otter Trail even though reservations are booked up to a year in advance and only twelve hikers a day are allowed on the trail.
It turns out that Roy and Allan belong to a rock climbing group. They, along with a group of six hikers from the Cape Town Hiking Club had reserved all of the spots. At the last minute, four of their group were unable to make the trip. We were filling the spots of the last minute vacancies.
The fact that we were in with a group of rock climbers and serious hikers should have been my first clue as to what was in store for us. The second day’s hike was only listed as 7.9 kilometers. Despite this short distance the hike turned into a more serious hike than I was expecting.
Day two on the Otter Trail has perhaps the most diverse and beautiful scenery of the entire trail. Our hike began with a steep climb away from our hut and up onto a plateau. I could feel my muscles working, but I wasn’t sore from the day before.
At the two kilometer mark there was a short detour out onto a magnificent outcropping of quartz rock. The trail to the rock was overgrown, so I decided to take my pack off and leave it at the trail head. Ol got tired of dodging the bushes and finally dropped his pack before we climbed out onto the rocks. From the outcropping we had a beautiful view of the entire coastline. It was stunning. We looked for dolphins and whales passing by but didn’t see any.
We enjoyed the view and had a mid morning break of water and trail mix. I looked over and saw a large bird sitting on Ol’s backpack. When he flew away with something in his beak, we decided to go check on the backpacks. All of a sudden I remembered the warnings about baboons and wild animals that we had received. We weren’t supposed to leave our backpacks unattended! We weren’t used to animals breaking into our backpacks and had forgotten about the warnings.
When we reached Ol’s pack, we noticed that the bird had unzipped the zipper of Ol’s pack. His afternoon snacks were long gone. Thankfully, that was that the only harm done. When we reached my pack, I was glad to see that it was still there. We would have to remember to hike under Africa rules… Keep our backpacks attended at all times, especially since we are carrying all of our food for the next four days!
Our next detour off the trail was to Blue Bay. I looked at the steep descent, knowing that I would have to keep my pack on me. I thought “What goes down, must come up”. We decided to pass. The climb up the mountain was steep enough. If this was the warm up for tomorrow, I was in serious trouble.
We made it to our first major river crossing. Our timing was perfect. We had caught up with Rummy and Paul who had used the river as a place for a lunch break. The water level was low and we were able to hop on rocks all the way across. It was our first big crossing and we didn’t even get wet!
Ol and I got into a little argument over the trail to our next hut. He could see the huts and ended up on a false trail. I knew that if I had to duck under and climb over trees and slide down my butt, something was wrong. I saw another well worn trail, that went in the opposite direction. I dropped my pack went down. I told Ol that the trail cut back across to the huts. We were both exhausted and of course that made us both right. Neither of us wanted to take an extra step if we didn’t have to.
We finally made it into camp safely, but sorely. We were definitely out of shape. I felt a little better when I found out that Roy and Allan were also hurting. At least we were keeping up with the rock climbers!
That night over the braii (South African BBQ), we again discovered what a small place the world can be. We told our new friends about our recent travels in Cape Town. One of the highlights of our visit there was the modern art museum in a beautiful converted silo. We mentioned our enjoyment of the varied exhibits in that amazing building. It was then that Paul told us that his father, Roger Ballen, is a famous South African photographer and an artist. He said that his father had an exhibit on display there. He described the exhibit and imagine our surprise when we immediately knew the exhibit that he was referring to. Ol had actually taken photos of Paul’s father’s exhibit because it was so unusual!
We all called it an early night, because in the morning we would have our first tidal river crossing. Roy and Allen and the Cape Town hiking club decided to leave at 5:00 a.m. That meant that they were up having breakfast and packing at 4:30 a.m. If you can’t beat them join them. By the time Ol and I got up, had breakfast, and packed, we left camp around 5:30 a.m. We had our headlamps on and gazed at a sky so clear that we could see the Milky Way lighting our path. Despite the clear sky, we hiked for about ten minutes before we lost the trail markers and were hopelessly wandering off trail.
We decided to take our packs off and wait for sunrise. Soon we saw the headlamps of Rummy and Paul. I don’t know how we missed the trail head, but after scrambling over a few boulders on the beach, we were now last to leave. I was anxious about making it to the river crossing in time.
We needed to reach the main river crossing by 10:30 a.m. It was supposed to be a day of ups and downs, with the big climbs saved for the end of he day.
We started the day with the easy crossing of the Geelhoutbos River right outside our hut. The trail followed the rocky coastline with the usual boulder hopping. The Elandsbos River came into view and I was thankful, that it was an easy crossing. We could see that Paul and Rummy had made it safely across. They pointed out a route and Ol and I took off our boots, rolled up our pants and put on our hiking sandals.
Ol found an easier route than they pointed to and we were across in a few minutes. We were making good time. The trail continued, varying between the shore and the cliff top, with many ascents and descents. We walked through unique fynbos and then came to the edge of a steep descent to the Lottering River. We could see our fellow hikers all hanging out on the beach waiting for low tide.
It was a steep climb down to the river crossing. I had prepared myself for a swim at the river if we were late, but it appeared that we arrived with thirty minutes to spare.
It was an easy crossing and our next hut was just a short hike up from the river. We had another amazing hut with a million dollar view. This was my favorite day of the hike so far. We arrived in camp so early that we had time for a nap and plenty of time to explore the beaches.
The afternoon was spent watching pods of dolphins surfing, fishing, and playing. There were at least thirty dolphins that I could count. We watched them dance on the water and play until the sunset. It was mesmerizing.
After the sunset, dinner, and a night around the camp fire, I took my sleeping pill. Tomorrow, would be our hardest day with the earliest start.
On day four, everyone was getting into a rhythm. The climbing/hiking group left at 4:30 a.m. That meant that they were awake at 4:00 a.m. Ahead, we had a ten kilometer hike before the most dangerous tidal river crossing on the trail.
Despite getting lost the day before, Ol and I decided to leave at 5:00 a.m. This portion of the trail was supposed to be well marked. Thankfully we had no trouble hiking under the stars with our head lamps. We could see the Milky Way above us, the white water of the crushing waves below us, and towering rock cliffs along side us, all lit by the beautiful glow of moonlight. It was a magical experience.
When the sun rose we stopped to take in the coast line. It was a long morning hike, but it was incredibly beautiful. We walked through fynbos and virgin forests. The trail continued up and down for several kilometers.
When we finally reached the Bloukrans River we could see everyone exploring the river bank and getting undressed for the river crossing. A few of our climber friends were swimming in the surf after scouting the crossing point.
After a long climb down, we joined the others on the beach. I took off my pants and put on my hiking sandals. The river bottom was sand, but the rocks we had to climb on were covered with mussels. Ol was still on the beach taking photos so I went ahead with a few of the women in the hiking club.
I was glad that my pack was waterproof and that I have long legs. The lady in front of me was shorter and water was getting into her backpack.
The shallow part of the river was very narrow and one wrong step either to the right or the left would plunge us into chest deep water and rushing current. We had to navigate this narrow sand bar and time the waves so they wouldn’t wash us into the rocky shore.
After gingerly making our way across, we reached the other side. The climb out of the water and onto boulders was another challenge. The lady ahead of me was kind enough to give me a hand up. It was a difficult climb with my bad knees and I was thankful that I made it unscathed, especially with the sharp mussels covering the rocks.
We quickly took off our packs and sat up on the rocks and watched the others cross.
When I got up on the rocks I relaxed for the first time all day. When Allan passed me, he said “you really are one of the boys”.
For the past few days, especially since I had been Iiving with five men, I felt like one of the boys. I know that Allan meant it kindly, but part of me wanted to remind him that women can be as tough as men!
We decided that this would be a good time for lunch even if it was only 10:30 a.m. I couldn’t believe that a few in our group were hiking back down to the beach for a swim. We enjoyed watching them play in the surf but I didn’t have the energy to climb back up again. I was slathering on sunscreen as usual while everyone else was enjoying the sun’s rays.
It was amazing to see how fast the tide came in. If we had arrived an hour later, the river crossing would have been a dangerous swim.
When I exceeded the length of my sun allowance, I reluctantly told Ol that it was time to go. I was worried that we still had four kilometers to hike with a few big climbs. We were the first to pack up and head off. Everyone else just enjoyed the sun while Ol and I tried to blaze the trail. Off we went.
Within a few minutes I had my first experience as a rock climber!
After a narrow edge, there appeared to be a rope that went about five meters and then ended. I pulled myself up and along the narrow edge with the rope and was left with just my fingers to grasp the rocks. I was the first to go and I knew that if I waited for Ol, I would chicken out. At one point, I made the mistake of looking down and I could see that the rocks below were slowly being covered by the incoming tide. I was terrified.
I was near the top when my foot became wedged in a rock. I was only stuck for a few minutes when Rummy came up behind me and freed my leg. I made it to the top and wanted to kiss the ground! This was one of the most difficult climbs that I have ever made. I decided right then that I was a hiker not a rock climber!
Ol soon joined me up on top and confirmed that yes, this was as dangerous as it seemed. When I asked him if he took photos, he looked at me like I was crazy!
We now had the entire afternoon to hike four kilometers. We were able to stop several times on our way up the steep climb to the plateau. Just when I didn’t think that I could go on, Ol pointed to the ocean far below us. A pod of dolphins could be seen jumping, splashing, and surfing in the huge waves crashing along the shore. We sat and watched as they put on a private show for our enjoyment.
At the top, I led the group in high fives on successfully completing the climb. Our new hiking friends confirmed that it was not my imagination and that this was a tough and dangerous climb. We made it into camp and I surprised myself by finding that this had been my favorite day on the trail. I began to regret that we had just one more night.
We made it to camp and decided to freshen up. The outdoor shower at the camp has a view that rivals any shower in the world. Although there was no hot water, the shower overlooked the secluded beach with crashing surf and towering rock cliffs. There was a small wooden wall for a little privacy. The view was spectacular, although I’m not so sure that someone on the beach would think the same. Ol and I took a quick shower and then took a short nap. Later we joined the group for a bonfire on the beach.
This would be our final night on the trail and we knew that we could all sleep in. The river crossings were behind us. Unfortunately, some of our mates had flights to catch and long drives back to Cape Town. No matter, after a few days of waking up at 4:30 a.m. our bodies were conditioned to waking up early anyway.
The final day was to be an easy five hour hike to our end point in Nature’s Valley. We left our hut and crossed the Klip river which was an easy boulder hop. After that, we had the last steep climb of our hike up to the plateau.
We had amazing views and stopped to take some farewell photos with Paul and Rummy. We could see the length of the trail that we had just hiked over the past four days.
Soon, Nature’s Valley came into view. We had one last downhill to the sandy beach and we were finished! We took off our boots and walked the final few kilometers barefoot. We talked about what we would order when we got to the restaurant. We both agreed that a pizza sounded perfect. Unfortunately the pub said it was too early for pizza it was only 10:30 a.m!
All I could think about was food. Fortunately, our apartment was right around the corner and we were lucky that our innkeeper was outside. She gave us the keys to our car and we quickly got showered and into some clean clothes.
After freshening up, we drove to a local winery for lunch. I put on a sundress and makeup. It was a wonderful afternoon and it was great not being one of the boys!
During lunch I googled massage therapists and found a Yelp review that was amazing. I quickly sent an email and received a quick reply. The therapist said that he could bring his table and meet me back at our apartment. When Ol let him I recognized him immediately. He was the runner that kept lapping us on the beach at the end of our hike. In reviewing our photos we noticed that we even captured an image of him running down the beach on the last leg of our hike. It really is a small world!
After lunch, we made our way to the park ranger’s office to officially check out of the park and to pick up our Otter Trail certificates. We didn’t go to the bar for the free Otter’s Arsehole shot, but we had a grand adventure, saw some beautiful and pristine scenery, made incredible memories, got some amazing photos, and will cherish some new friendships. What more could we ask for in a five day hike?