The Otter Trail

Words by: Deborah Schäfer

Photos by: Hugo Vincent

The Otter trail is a 45 km long coastal hike in the Garden Route National ParkFive days walking on South Africa’s most beautiful trail through incredibly diverse nature with a feeling of complete wilderness. 

Before starting we weighed our packs at the rangers’ office – 16kg and 18kg. Not extreme, but we would carry it for five days with a lot of up and downs! 

Tip 1: Pack wisely, stick to light clothes and essentials! To enjoy the trip, chose the right backpack and carry less than a quarter of your bodyweight 

A morning on the Otter Trail, lost in the wild at the southern edge of the African continent.

The path is very easy to follow, and well marked with yellow painted otter paws on rocks and trees.

Full of energy wbegan our journey in dense indigenous forest and soon got a first glimpse of the blue Indian Ocean. Before long,we reached a first wonder, a waterfall dropping in a big freshwater pool and dolphins playing in the waves in front of it!  

Tip 2: Bring your swimsuits! Next to the Ocean, the coast offers many tidal pools and rivers, perfect to refresh and relax. 

The waterfall – a highly recommended stop on the first day for a refreshing swim and with a bit of luck the first sighting of dolphins.

Enjoying tidal pools near the Ngubu hut, with crystal clear waters full of sea life.

Following painted otter paw prints, we hiked along beautiful rock formations shaped by wind and sea until the first huts. There wasof course wood and a fireplace: barbeque or “Braai” is a national sport in South Africa!  

Tip 3: The first day is short, bring something to braai! 

Wild atmosphere for our first Otter Trail sunset, waves crush on the rocky shores as stormy clouds roll upon us.

At this latitude, sunsets only last for a few minutes but offer incredible light and color shows.

The next day, woken up by the first lights, I headed to the beach to admire the sunrise. To my amazement I spotted an otter in a tidal pool  after a few seconds the elusive animal disappeared in the waves of the ocean…  

After a steep walk up to the coastal plateau, sweating from the heat and humidity, we stood on Skilderkrans, an outcrop with plunging views on the Indian Ocean and the long way still to come. 

Tip 4: Bring trekking poles! They help carrying the heavy packs and are handy for slippery river crossings. 

Sunrise – the best time of the day to look for the Cape clawless otters searching for their breakfast in the tidal pools.

Steep walk up to the coastal plateau, through a dense and preserved native forest that gives some welcome shade but remains hot and humid.

On top of Skilderkrans. This rocky outcrop offers stunning views and is definitely worth the small detour.

The Otter trail is famous for its river crossings, which must be done at low tide. On day three, with the low tide at 7.20am and a four hours hike to the river crossing, the alarm rang early! We walked under a beautiful starry sky, with the sound of the crashing wavesbelow, and felt all alone on the planet. As the night gave way, the rising sun painted the landscape golden and warmed our faces.  

One does not need to be in the mountains to enjoy a real alpine start! Getting up early ensures you will cross the river mouths at low tide for a more relaxed and safe experience.

Every day, as the first rays of sun pass through the sea spray, the whole landscape is illuminated with a beautiful golden light.

We reached the shore where the Lottering River meats the seaAfter the stories we had heard, we were relieved to discover a small, knee-deep stream. However, going back at high tide, we realized these were not just storiesCrossing the river then would involve swimming in deep, cold water! 

Tip 5: Be at the river crossings before low tide. Plan extra time for breaks and to choose the best sunrise spot! 

The Lottering river mouth and the Oakhurst huts half an hour before low tide.

Crossing the Lottering river at low tide is so easy that it makes you wonder if it was worth getting up so early! The answer is yes – unless you want a swim in cold and deep water!

Arriving at the huts our afternoon routine started: sleeping, eating and exploring. Later we enjoyed the most beautiful sunset of our livesThe sun turned into a glowing ball of fire, the sky started to burnBetween beautiful reflections in the tidal pools and breaking waves, this was an incredible show.  

Another day on the Otter Trail, another unreal sunset. Beautiful colours reflected in the quiet tidal pools in front of the wild Ocean.

Walking back to the hut as the sun sets behind the horizon, turning the sky and the ocean on fire.

Gear and breakfast ready for another “alpine” start, we slept early. In the middle of the nighta loud Bang! Our breakfast, carefully packed in sealed bags? GoneThe thief? A genet with a nest behind our hut… Guessing from the amount of food packagingsone making a living from naive hikers! 

Tip 6: Store food in your closed backpack at night! 

After a 3.30h hike, we reached the infamous Boulkrans River – it looked harmless but would again be a different challenge at high tide! We began the crossing shortly before low tide, sending someone without backpack to check the waterdepth firstLuckywe could walk across easily and even enjoyed a swim!  

Moments out of time, hiking on the cliffs moments before sunrise, high above the powerful Ocean crashing on the rocks.

No joke – if you are there at the wrong time, do not even try, or you might end up all the way to Antarctica!

With good conditions, the infamous Bloukrans river crossing is nothing but fun and refreshing after a long walk!

Tired after 14km hike, we were happy to reach the last hutsAt night, we saw the first signs of civilization: the lights of PlattenbergBay on the horizon seemed to belong to a different world.  

On day five we took it slow, enjoying every second. While having a break on the cliffs before our last descent a large school of dolphins suddenly appeared in the waters below, and many others joined the show. Over a hundred dolphins feeding, jumping and surfing in the waves – what a goodbye! 

Tip 7: Bring binoculars to get the full wildlife experience! 

Enjoying every meter between a beautiful vegetation and the infiniy of the Ocean … In the background, the coastline we followed in the past days stretches as far as the eye can see.

Dolphins are quite common on the Otter Trail, but seeing hundreds of them and their youngsters surfing in the waves was a rare and incredible experience!

Until today our hearts are filled with memories of a wild nature, incredible landscapes and some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets we have ever seen … 

Tip 8: If you ever have the chance to do the Otter Trail, take it!