Left, right, left, right. Left. Right. The words ring in my head, cycling round and round as I will my feet to move. To take me over peaks and troughs, step by step, my hiking pack laden with food, gear, and other trekking detritus.
This inner monologue began, not unjustifiably, on the third day of the Otter Trail.
I had jumped at the chance to skip the two-and-a-half-year waiting list and hit the trail with a crew of newly made acquaintances just a month before—despite being a little unfit for a five-day trek and the undulating track the Otter is known for. But here I was, putting one foot in front of the other.
The Otter Trail is a 28 mile (45-kilometer) trek that covers a pristine stretch of coastline in South Africa’s famed Garden Route. Although (as you can probably tell from the long waiting list) it’s extremely popular, a maximum of 12 hikers per day are allowed to set off on the trail. Which means that you have this slice of untouched wilderness almost all to yourself.
The journey begins at the Storms River Mouth in the Eastern Cape—a slightly off-the-beaten-path destination that’s well worth a visit if you find yourself in South Africa. The quick walk on Day One takes you down to the coastline, past a guano cave filled with bats, and on to a cascading waterfall where you can cool down with a swim in the rock pool. It’s 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of pure bliss. And it’s deceptively easy.
Day Two, they say, is where the real Otter begins. You’re met with a climb as soon as you step out of the rest camp (much to my horror, this is pretty standard for the rest of the trail). You will hike up and down, up and down, until you turn red in the face. Then, if you’re not too delirious to spot the path, you can descend to an isolated beach with crystal blue waters where you can frolic in the waves, have some lunch, and catch an afternoon snooze. After which you’ll have to carry your slightly lighter pack and much heavier belly up the steepest and highest ascent of the trail.
At this point, trudging up the hill on a full stomach, I began to worry about my choice to do the Otter. Fortunately, the second rest camp awaited on the other side and I was able to assuage any fears that my legs may not carry me to the end. We’d made it! The worst was over. Or so I thought.
The third day brings with it a unique challenge: timing your crossing over the Lottering River. Your proximity to the coastline means that your ability to traverse the various bodies of water you come across is highly dependent on the tides. The movement of the ocean usually gives about an hour’s leeway to get to the other side of a river. And to your rest camp for the night.
With a 9 a.m. low tide and four-hour walk to Lottering ahead of us, we needed to be afoot by 5 a.m. at the latest. Which meant a 4 a.m. wake-up call. This was the day I began to question my sanity. And the sanity of every other person who had navigated this path before me. And all of those who would come after.
Weary-legged and bleary-eyed, we set off in the pitch dark. Walking up and down, up and down. Laser focused on arriving at the river on time.
Hiking in the dark brings with it a special kind of serenity. There’s always an element of a moving meditation when you’re on a trail, but shuffling along a narrow path with a heavy pack before the sun has made its first appearance of the day adds something to that.
My thoughts meandered to this and that. But one that struck me when we ascended a particularly steep climb was this: In my early 20s, I was—similar to most other 20-year-olds—like a prancing stallion. Now, settling into my 30s, I’m more of a packhorse. Although my coat isn’t as shiny and my physique is a little less defined, I’m able to carry a heavier load, I’m laden with good memories, and always have a hankering for adventure.
The smile this idea put on my face was short-lived though, as we arrived at the foot of the hill that would take us up to the coastal plateau. It was time to test the packhorse theory.
Up, up, up we went until we thought we could go no further. “We surely can’t go up anymore,” we’d say. Followed by, “It must be around this corner.” And, each time, we were wrong. Another incline awaited us as we rounded the bend. But we continued forging ahead, planting one foot and then the other, over and over again, until we finally popped out of the forest and onto the fynbos-covered plain.
All of our hard work was rewarded with a sighting of a bull shark gliding through in the Indian Ocean below us as we descended to Lottering and passed a school of sand sharks as we waded across. And, of course, a full day at the rest camp to relax and recover.
Day Four brought with it another river crossing (Bloukrans) and therefore another early wake-up (this time 3a.m.). Mercifully, despite the pre-dawn rise time and longest distance of the trek, the penultimate day on the Otter is generally quite flat. Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to splash in the warm water and explore the river valley.
The biggest treat of the day awaited us at the rest camp. Like many Otter Trailers, we’d organized a local runner to bring meat and drinks so that we could have a traditional South African braai (barbecue) to celebrate nearly reaching the finish line.
As we sat around the fire enjoying our food and chatting about the events of the past few days, sun sinking in the background, I looked out towards the ocean to take the pristine beauty in. And right there, on the shoreline just 100 feet (30 meters) away, stood the trail’s eponymous mammal: the Cape clawless otter.
We were gobsmacked and delighted—“What a way to end the Otter!” So with full bellies and even fuller hearts, we headed to bed for the final time on our trek.
The fifth and final day of the trail is a quick 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). A short uphill (and thankfully the last) leads you from the rest camp back up to the coastal plateau and along this plain for about 3.7 miles (six kilometers) until Nature’s Valley beach—and the finish line—come into sight.
Day Five’s easy walk provides the opportunity for a little bit of reflection. And my mind floated back to that thought about the packhorse. While the idea of evolving from a shiny racehorse to a trusty steed may once have sounded dreary, it now feels revolutionary.
There is a lot of temptation to place emphasis on how the rest of the world might perceive us. But the determination it takes to walk tough paths and the resilience that overcoming those challenges bring, whether in everyday life or out in the wild, are incomparably liberating.
A Five Day Itinerary for Your Otter Trail Adventure Our Otter Trail Adventure
|Start and end points||Distance||Elevation||Time||What you’ll see|
|Day 1||Start to Ngubu Huts||4.8km||561m vertical
|±2 hours||Guano cave
|Day 2||Ngubu to Scott Huts||7.9km||1,480 vertical
|±4 hours||Blue Bay
Skilderkranz quartz outcrops
|Day 3||Scott to Oakhurst Huts||7.7km||1,257 vertical
|±4 hours||Lottering River
Cape clawless otter
|Day 4||Oakhurst to Andre Huts||13.8km||1,905 vertical
|±6 hours||Bloukrans River & Pebble Cove
|Day 5||Andre Huts to End||10.8km||926m vertical
|±5 hours||Coastal plateau
If you’re thinking about trekking through the Tsitsikamma, check out our complete Otter Trail guide. Or if you want to read about more hiking and trekking journeys, explore our Outdoor Travel Stories.