OTTER TRAIL – TSITSIKAMMA AREA
19 – 26 APRIL, 2001
This is arguably the most famous and prestigious hiking trail in South Africa – well known and exposed to overseas tourists and has an exceptionally long waiting time to get on board. Keith Ashton, Chairman of the Midlands Hiking Club first made application almost 2 years ago and were it not for his fabled determination and tenacity the hike would not likely have happened. A maximum of 12 trailists are allowed through each day and with a duration of 5 days there are never more than 60 people spread over the 42 kms of the trail.
Four nights are spent with overnight stops in very basic rustic huts.
Eleven club members and one potential new recruit participated in the experience led by Keith. Trailists were as follows: -
Keith Ashton – Leader (and Captain!)
Margaret Ashton – Vice Captain
Helen Elkington (recruit status!)
Peter Wedge (assigned scribe)
Carolee is currently nursing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and had only been home for 2 days so she really was chucked in at the deep end – as indeed was Helen – this being her first major hiking experience. The other members of the team were generally well-experienced hikers and familiar with the rigours of overnighting in remote areas.
Nevertheless most people underestimated the severity of the hike. Distances covered daily are not great – an average of just over 8 kms! However what is overlooked is the continuous ascent and descent of the very rugged terrain to heights of between 150 and 200 metres. This is all in hindsight of course.
This is described on a daily basis with records of experiences good and not so good and whilst the scribes efforts are meant to be as objective as possible – this is not really possible. As a participant you inevitably write down what you felt at the time – albeit with a group balanced view point where possible.
TRAVELLING DAY – APRIL 19TH
Arrangements were made by Keith for a very early start ex Howick with Keith and Margaret picking up PGW at 04h30 and then on to Hilton to rendezvous with Coenraad, Vicky & Helen, before heading down to PMB to pick up Merle, Rod and Carolee and then the long journey through to the E. Cape. Graham, Grethe & Danny were already down in the area having travelled earlier.
The journey to Nature’s Valley – start of the experience was over 1100 kms and took us well over 14 hours. A tired crew arrived at Hiker’s Haven in Nature’s Valley at 18h30. The latter is a very comfortable B & B and backpacker’s resting place. We were accommodated in the upper area of the house in a large dormitory – but very comfortable. After freshening up – to the only restaurant in town – Nature’s Valley Restaurant, pub, shop – everything – and then a long frustrating wait to be served – 2 hours in fact. Coenraad in explode mode by this time. However a promise from the restaurateur’s wife to do better next time! Back to Hiker’s Haven and overnight.
FIRST DAY – APRIL 20TH
After a good hearty breakfast served by Hannes – Manager of Hiker’s Haven, we were all taken to Storms River Mouth in the HH combi for the start of the Otter Trail.
All trailists are obliged to take a briefing from the resident NPB officer. This involves general information about the topography, wild life, do’s and don’t’s and emphasis on how to cross the Bloukrans River. There is a video (53 minutes in total – Merle elected to see all of this) which shows a worst case scenario – crossing at near high tide. Scary stuff with large waves – women hikers marooned on cliff edges etc., etc. All of this introduced a high degree of anxiety for Day 4 of the trail. The trick is to get to the river just before or at low tide. In our case this necessitated leaving the overnight hut (Day 4) by 04h45 – none of us relishing this. However a degree of risk adds some piquancy to life and makes the journey that much more worthwhile.
The first day is relatively easy and a short distance so we spent a bit of time within the resort area – buying up last minute items and also taking the view up the Storm’s River from the suspension bridge. This is well constructed and quite stable (Keith did find a couple of design flaws!) and over 75m in length.
Eventually we got under way just after 12h00. The first 2 kms are fairly busy with people from the camp allowed to walk as far as the waterfall. This is quite impressive with a fall of probably 50m into a pool and thence into the sea. This is the last spot for day hikers and from here only serious trailists are allowed. There is a fair degree of rock/boulder hopping for the next 4 kms or so. We arrived at the first overnight stop – Ngubu Huts – just before 16h00. These are very basic, holding 6 people in 2 x 3 tier bunks. A common loo (with a view) is the only other facility. Water is available from a rainwater tank from one of the huts.
We had a nice fire at Hut A – several people bringing along fresh meat for the first evening meal and enjoying a braai.
Dolphins were seen in the evening just before dusk. Plenty of red collared sunbirds feeding on the prolific flowering shrubbery. In our beds by 20h00. A good first day.
SECOND DAY – APRIL 21ST
Second day of the hike. Weather overcast with mist which prevailed throughout the day. We had a steep climb from the camp to the 200m contour on the cliff tops and then to Skilderkrans. This is a quartz outcrop literally sticking out from the cliffs. We all climbed to the top with dramatic views of the surrounding sea and rocky shore to either side of us. Had the weather been clear this would have been quite magnificent.
Later we crossed the Kleinbos River – quite full and very brown. This is the tannins from the dense bush growing alongside the river – water is potable.
On to Blue Bay and a lunch break – swimming being out of the question with a rough sea running. A lot of further climbing – rough going with Scott Huts our 2nd overnight stop coming into view in the mid afternoon. This site is probably one of the best of the trail with a delightful sheltered bay and shallow fresh water stream running into the bay. Most of us had a swim – water cold but very invigorating. The ladies took full advantage with an outdoor hair salon in evidence. Fynbos in the area quite magnificent.
A good fire again in the evening at Hut A. We had the rather unedifying spectacle of Danny drying his rods on a stick – nice before dinner! Good yarns and stories later.
THIRD DAY – APRIL 22ND
We had a bit of a lie-in today getting underway after breakfast around 08h30. This was a clear day with quite a lot of the time spent hugging the cliff tops with superb views. More stiff climbs and descents with God’s Finger (Group’s name – similar to the one that used to be in Namibia) and Roman Baths. This was a sea pool at the foot of the cliffs with what appeared to be a man made bath within the pool itself – although clearly natural?
Our first break was at the Elandsbos River – very pleasant and time to reflect on the magnificent wilderness around us.
Later a steep descent to the Lottering River with the tide now coming in quite quickly. We all managed to cross without having to remove boots, using the rocks as stepping stones but another half an hour would have been a different story. Graham and Coenraad being very gallant and helping the ladies over the river.
We were advised at the start of the trail not to drink water from the Lottering River, nor the following two streams. There are several informal settlements upstream and with water borne diseases prevalent this was clearly good advice.
After the crossing – another steep climb and then Oakhurst huts coming into view with a very steep descent down to our third overnight stay.
As we were relaxing an NPB officer pitched up asking for our permits for the trail. This was very encouraging, as clearly such random inspections must materially help to keep out people who haven’t bothered to book and then cause problems for pukka trailists.
We were all now conscious of the following day and the feared (real or imaginary) Bloukrans crossing. After a good evening meal and another good camp fire, we retired a little earlier than normal 19h30) with strict instructions from Keith to be ready to move out the following morning by 04h45 latest.
A somewhat troubled night for most of us.
FOURTH DAY – APRIL 23RD
All of us up by 04h00 to the sound of rain! This was not what we wanted at all. We put on foul weather gear (those who had it) – others had to borrow. Carolee, wearing a sheer pink plastic creation (courtesy of Keith) looked like she was about to go into theatre. Others in various waterproof (or semi waterproof) outfits set out for the Bloukrans, some 10 kms ahead, at the appointed hour of 04h45. We had to walk for the first 1½ hours by torchlight which was hard going. Initially we had a hard climb and then a slippery track, with extreme care having to be taken until first light. Merle, who had been struggling a bit after our first short break around 09h00, suddenly got her 2nd wind (and must have had a double Red Bull hidden in her back pack) and took off! This was a spark we needed and for about 2 kms we had a good cracking pace. We saw the Bloukrans shortly after and then another steep descent with arrival at the eastern bank dead on time for low tide 09h49. This was no surprise to Keith of course, who had planned that we should arrive at low tide precisely anyway! However full marks to Merle for chivvying us along for the last 2 or 3 kms.
We crossed at the preferred “A” route with only ankle deep water. However within 10-15 minutes after low water the tide had turned and started to come in quite rapidly.
On the opposite bank there were clear signs of a very recent otter spoor which was quite rewarding. We all had a break at this point with the mood of the party now much more relaxed.
On to Andre huts – last overnight stop – by 14h30, and a well earned rest. This had been quite a hard day. A large pile of logs at the top of the cliffs leading down to Andre huts and clear evidence of where people had got fed up of carrying fuel and just dumped it on the way down. These last 2 kms to Andre are very dramatic in terms of scenery.
Good camp fire at Hut B – for a change!
All now very relaxed and a good final nights sleep.
FIFTH DAY – APRIL 24TH
Fifth and final day of the hike. It had rained again during the night but clear by 07h00. We had a sighting of an otter in the sea – just off the beach around 08h15 – very exciting. This was really only a fleeting view but sufficient we felt for a confirmed sighting.
After a steep climb to the cliffs – very beautiful and dramatic 5 kms through fynbos. This is almost like walking through a huge natural garden. The variety of plants and wild flowers is staggering. Coenraad’s interest is in botany so he must have had a field day today. Then a sharp delineation of the cliffs to an open beach and Nature’s Valley approx. 1-1,5 kms away. This was a most welcome sight.
After a mad rush to the showers and bathrooms – those more thirsty than unduly concerned about personal freshness sank a brace of welcome beers and then bathed. We all then repaired to the Restaurant again for bacon and egg butties - most welcome – and this time served within acceptable time limit!
As this was the last evening for the majority of the party we decided to treat ourselves and we all ate at Fish Eagle Creek restaurant outside Plettenberg Bay. This is a class place and we didn’t mind waiting (again!) with good company and wine flowing freely.
After an excellent meal we all said au revoir to Carolee who was leaving for Cape Town very early the following morning. Danny, Helen and Rod taking her into Plettenberg Bay to catch the “redeye” Greyhound. We all then spent a comfortable final night at Hiker’s Haven.
After a good breakfast we all went our separate ways – Coenraad, Vicky & Rod to Gonubie and overnight, for an easy 2-day journey home. Danny & Helen also electing for this option.
Keith, Peter, Margaret and Merle to Storms River Mouth for an easy relaxing day around the camp.
Worth mentioning was the short trip up the Storms River by Zenith (rubber duck) for about 1 km. This is an incredible journey – the cliff walls rise sheer from the water to 150m and once away from the mouth the water movement is considerably reduced. There is a slightly sinister feel about the place with the black water from the river, bats cave (thousands living in this cleft in the rock face of the eastern cliff face) and then the area opens out to very dense riverine bush. We picked up several blackwater tubers who wanted a “lift” back to the jetty. This is a 3-hour experience from about 3-4 kms inland and not for the faint hearted. On the way back we saw a pair of giant kingfishers, which was very rewarding.
The weather had worsened and this was the last trip of the day so we were indeed fortunate.
After an excellent dinner in the Storms River restaurant we slept overnight in the Forest Cabins – excellent value for money.
RETURN JOURNEY APRIL 26TH
The long journey home – over 1100 kms and the last section included diversions, thick mist & rain, so some 15 hours later we arrived in PMB firstly to drop off Merle and then Keith, Margaret and PGW to Howick, arriving around 21h00.
SUMMARY – An exceptional worthwhile experience. This area of the E/W Cape boundary is unique in its botanical diversity. The Otter Trail itself should not be undertaken lightly and you need to be quite fit to complete the 5 day hike.
A few accolades for members of this superb experience; -
Keith – for his usual precise planning and attention to detail and for putting the whole act together. This doesn’t just happen – it needs a huge amount of hard work and tenacity to make it so.
Coenraad – for his knowledge of plant life and good stories around the evening camp fires. Also his fire lighting skills!
Vicky – for always being helpful to less experienced members of the party and her general cheery nature.
Danny – for his sense of humour and enthusiasm for the trail in general.
Helen – for rapidly becoming one of the team and generally putting up with a load of old farts. It can’t have been easy for her some of the time.
Merle – for hanging in throughout the trail. She had a wonky knee but never complained. She also played a big part in getting us to the Bloukrans River on time.
Rod – for his energetic photography and also for getting this onto the club website for us to all enjoy in double quick time.
Carolee – for sorting out the club medical pack and discarding stuff well past its sell by date. Also for her energy and enthusiasm. I suspect she didn’t mind the rain and mist one bit after just jetting in from Saudi.
Margaret – for her great help during meal times (particularly for the party scribe) and her ability to always find a good place for ablutions in each overnight camp.
Graham – for his quiet determination in tackling anything required to get us from camp to camp and his help for the ladies in river crossings. One in particular was quite hairy (river crossing – not lady!).
Grethe – for her cheery nature and infectious humour. She always somehow manages to find something funny in whatever she does or if the going is difficult.
Great to share this experience with a great team.
Where do we go next?