It was with some trepidation that four female explorers set out on the Otter trail, SA's most famous and arguably most beautiful hike, in early March this year. We were all confident that we would take the 42,5 km trek along the spectacular coastline of Tsitiskama National Park in our stride. But we were wondering a little about how we would handle the infamous Bloukrans crossing on day four, given that the timing of low tide on the day we would reach it was probably the most inconvenient imaginable: 7 am in the morning. That meant we either had to hike 10 kms in the dark to get there on time, or take our chances with high tide waves and currents -- something all the guidebooks (and signs at the river crossing itself) advised strongly against. Much as we would hate to admit it, we felt that it would have been useful to have had at least one man in our group. There are, after all, times when brute strength has its advantages.
We arrived at Storms River Mouth in the Park late in the afternoon prior to the start of our adventure. Agnieszka and I had left our hectic jobs in journalism to fly in from Joburg while Katja and Sandra had just ended a ten day road trip of note. Katja kept telling us what the picturesque park had looked like several months earlier, when ferocious storms forced the park authorities to evacuate her group and close the trail. We traipsed off to a delicious dinner at the restaurant in the camp, looking around to see if we could spot our unknown companions in the other six-person slot for our hike. There were no obvious candidates.
After a good night's sleep in comfortable huts tucked away in the forest, we packed our rucksacks. Then off to watch the mandatory introduction video at the start of the hike. It was not particularly encouraging, as the hikers who were filmed did not cross the Bloukrans successfully and ended up doing the 7 km detour to the main road and back. We could see they didn't make it up the cliff face, but it was not clear to me at least, why they failed, or what the options were. We also concluded that a detailed sighting of an otter swimming in a river was edited into the video. There were a few more delays as we fiddled with our packs, to be honest, as I fiddled with my pack as my new camel bag was leaking. By the time we started, it was about midday.
The first part of the day's 5 km walk was also accessible to day hikers, so we encountered quite a few other people, as we scrambled over the boulders on the spectacular coastline. With all the crashing waves to admire, it didn’t take long before we arrived at a dramatic waterfall and pool marking the real start of the Otter trail. We must have kept our gaze seaward the whole time as we had somehow managed to miss the huge guano cave somewhere beforehand. It seemed like a good idea to stop for lunch at the waterfall, where we were entertained by a very large seagull brave enough to literally snatch titbits from my fingers.
Afterwards, Katja, Sandra and Agnieszka changed into their bathing suits for a swim in the pool while I took photos, feeling a bit adverse to cold water that day.
We started off and again, it didn’t take long before we arrived at a really stunning, elevated hut overlooking a rocky bay which marked the spot for our first evening on the trail. It was empty, and we figured that the other hikers were in the second hut, which was concealed by some shrubbery and grassy hills. As we stretched our protesting calf muscles on the veranda, a rather hunky man wearing shorts made an appearance. He said hello, and then wandered to the rocky beach bay as if he was looking for something. We went down to the beach ourselves to have a look, contemplating a relaxed late afternoon, sipping wine and taking in the view. At that point another hunky, albeit shorter, man appeared and invited us to come and join him and his two buddies at the fire for supper. We weren't hungry, and didn't feel too social at that point, so there was a short debate after he left. "They were rather cute," I observe. "Yes but didn't you notice the wedding rings?" Sandra retorts. I hadn't. In the end it is she who tells us this is an invitation we can't refuse, given our hidden agenda of recruiting support for the Bloukrans crossing.
So, we made our way to their inviting fire just past the kitchen area between the two Ngubu huts. It took only seconds for us to realise that all three men were completely sloshed. It was partly due to the glazed, rather predatory gleam in their eyes but the real giveaway was the manner in which they kept repeating the same silly questions over and over with the same incredulous replies. The first one was: "What are four chicks doing on their own on the Otter trail?" There was huge amazement that we were all foreigners. I got told that I had a "posh" accent which was pretty odd as I speak American, not English. We exchanged looks and realised that if the humour of the situation was to be fully appreciated, we needed to start drinking our red wine immediately. (We later learned that the guys, who were all very fit, arrived at the huts at 12, got bored by 2 pm, and so started drinking. They had managed, in the space of two hours, to polish off a bottle of whisky, a bottle of Southern comfort and an undisclosed quantity of beer, which was intended to last them the entire duration of the hike).
For the sake of preserving the anonymity (and marriages) of our three inebriated companions, we decided to refer to them henceforth as Tom, Dick and Harry. Harry, the tallest of the three, took a shine to me and after sidling away initially I decided to hear what he had to say. After getting me to admire his sunset photo several times, he gazed into my eyes and exclaimed .. "You're amazing, you've got such a, determined glint in your eyes ... You're amazing!" All complete nonsense but still rather pleasant so I let him carry on for a while before edging back to the rest of the group with a big smile on my face. The guys appeared to have forgotten all about eating and Dick plucked the last remaining alcohol from his back pack -- a nice bottle of red wine. What a waste, I think, they are too sloshed to appreciate it! But no doubt they would offer us some.
Dick couldn't open the bottle so Sandra grabbed it from him and proceeded to get the cork out quite easily. This emboldened her to challenge him to a whistling competition, to the great entertainment of the rest of us.
Harry and Katja were busy with their cameras, and Tom (who was built like Daniel Craig) offered to pose for one with Katja. In the process he scooped her easily up in his arms, in a manner a la Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in "Gone with the Wind". By then Katja also had a big smile on her face. Dick shifted into cave man mode and disappeared to look for more firewood. He returned dragging a log larger than he was. By now all four of us had big smiles on our faces.
It was then dark and we ate our suppers which had been simmering on the fire, but the guys were still too busy trying to impress us to eat. Harry did manage to take a bite of a baked potato, which he described as the most "incredible" he had ever tasted, and offered the rest of it to us. Dick decided to show us a trick he had learned in a health shop somewhere, which involves holding an object against your solar plexus with your eyes shut. If you tilt forward, you need it, if you tilt back, you don't. He did this with some bug repellant. Sandra tried it, standing in front of him, and felt herself going backwards. I tried it, and found myself inexplicably tilting forwards.
To reward us, Dick planted an affectionate kiss on Sandra's cheek, and then tried less successfully to do the same on mine. Clearly the most amorous of the three, he then started doing a strip show, but only got as far as taking off his shirt, before shaking his head and asking himself: "What am I doing?" He did this two or three times.
Tom meanwhile noticed the huge bandage on my injured left calf muscle and decided it would be a good idea to give it a sports massage. I demurred, so he began with a demonstration on Agnieszka's leg. But there was far too much attention focused on my injured calf for my liking. At one stage, the three guys lifted me up over their heads for a photo of the bandage! At this point Katja, always resourceful, said: "Let's divert some of this energy and put it to good use." That involved asking Dick to give her a neck and back massage, which he was delighted to do. I also requested a massage but was a bit less relaxed: I couldn't see why he had to have his left arm pressed over my chest to brace himself. He moved on to Sandra, who had an even more intimate experience of his clinch, which I won't go into here. By this time Harry had started to sober up and was busy apologising to me: "We will be completely different in the morning, you'll see."
When we eventually said good night and traipsed back to our hut, Katja and I reflected that we hadn't laughed so much for a very long time.
When we got up the next morning, the guys had already departed on what has been been billed as the most strenuous part of our hike, in terms of the steep up and downs. Much of the 8 km walk was through lush forest, but the views peppered along the tops of the cliffs were really spectacular. We meandered along at a, leisurely pace with Agnieszka taking hundreds of lovely photographs at the back. Eventually we arrived at a proper river, Kleinbos, where the guys were sprawled on various rocks, sound asleep. They had already been there a couple of hours, so they picked up their stuff and left, while we took a break. The strenuous up and downs continued, but by midafternoon we arrived at Scott Huts -- two more pristine huts overlooking an even more beautiful enclosed bay, surrounded by hills with a nearly dry river bed running down to it -- Geelhoutbos River. The guys were again fast asleep, having somehow arranged to get the people who service the huts to bring them a case of 24 beers. They polished them all off so quickly we didn't get offered a single one!
At this point I must mention that the showers -- and the toilets -- on the Otter trail have to be seen to be believed. Cold outdoor showers have never felt so good. And at this spot, the toilet, which was high above the huts, had a view straight over the sea which could rival any view over Camps Bay. After our showers we joined the guys at the campfire they had started -- as they did every night of the hike. (There's something to be said for gender roles.) As the others were chatting, I was looking over their shoulders at the dry river bed winding past the hill beyond. Suddenly, among the rocks, I saw a large dark shape lumbering along, with a gait I didn't recognise. It couldn't be ... it was impossible, it was so big ... "What's that?" I exclaimed.
The others looked around. "It's an otter!" There was a mad scramble for cameras. The otter was surprisingly unconcerned as he made his way to the sea, with Agnieszka tip-toeing behind with her camera. At one point he turned around to look at us, with his nose and whiskers twitching. Harry took an impressive video clip of the encounter. We really could not believe our luck.
On the morning of the third day we were still euphoric about the otter sighting. The guys had again left before us so we were alone when we arrived at Elandsbos River, which cuts through cliff walls but was also fairly empty -- the tide was out. We spent a bit of time walking up and down the dry part of the river bed on the opposite side, looking for the yellow otter paw which marks the trail. It took a little while before we found it (and we could see from the guys' footprints they had also searched) but the other distraction was real otter prints in the sand. By that time, a swim seemed like a good idea -- the sea was just so inviting, and the beach so soft.
We decided not to bother with swimsuits, and literally skipped naked into the water -- it was unbelievably idyllic. At one point, a helicopter flew overhead, but it was high enough for us to think they couldn't really see anything. On the way back, it was flying much lower, but by then we had put our clothes back on! At the end of the day, we reached what was probably the most beautiful overnight place on the trail -- Oakhurst huts, perched next to a ridge of rocks where we all climbed to watch the sunset. Sandra and Katja shared their last litre box of red wine with the whole group -- there were only a few sips for everyone but it was perfect. I don't think I've ever seen such a beautiful place to spend the night. The evening was made special by the arrival of a few gennets who were caught in the act of stealing bread which Agnieszka and I were supposed to eat for lunch the next day -- after devouring Katja's biltong. These were experienced little creatures, they knew exactly where to go and what to find.
Day four began with an early start: We had decided to leave at 6 am to give ourselves ample time to cover the 10 kms to Bloukrans for a noon rendezvous with the guys. The plan was that we would all swim over just before the high tide turned, as the currents would be less strong. The guys had promised to help us with the crossing. Long before we arrived, the walk proved quite eventful -- it wasn't always easy to spot the otter footprint, Katja fell and hit her head on a rock, and I narrowly missed stepping on a small puff adder coiled in the middle of the path. How on earth do people manage this bit in the dark, I wondered. Eventually, we reached the top of the cliff looking down at Bloukrans.
The sea was quite wild, and it still wasn’t clear to me exactly where we would find the trail on the other side, which was also steep and rocky. The guys were already at the bottom of the cliff, having wrapped their backpacks in big plastic survival bags for the swim. We did the same, helped by the guys, who had also brought packing tape. They told us they would swim across first with their bags, swim back against the current, and then to cross over again with us. We were suitably impressed. But we were all still a bit nervous -- at least, I was, having spent New Year getting swept down a rapid on the Orange River.
Tom swam across with his bag first, and visibly battled with the waves as he tried to get into the narrow inlet which was the only way to access the trail on the other side. When he returned, he was exhausted. One by one, the other two did the swim. We clapped and cheered when they emerged from of the water. Then it was our turn. Tom gave us the instructions: we had to start swimming to the right as soon as the inlet was visible -- he had missed it initially when he went on his own. The entrance was "like a washing machine", so you had to hook your feet in between the rocks and wait until the waves literally spat you in, or something like that. I don't think I was so scared since my bungie jump at Vic falls years ago. Nevertheless, I went first (having dubbed myself the weakest swimmer) with Tom by my side in case I got into trouble. The guys let us take our bags ourselves, and I kept getting my foot caught in the loop which Harry had helpfully tied for me to pull it over rocks with. Luckily, this wasn't necessary. After swimming down a trail of sea foam, we reached the entrance to the inlet, just a few metres wide, where it was a bit of a challenge to get in. I groped madly with my feet and eventually did get them wedged between a couple of rocks, which helped me to wait until I could launch myself into the opening. This was really exciting. "I’ve found the rocks" I yelled triumphantly. For some reason Tom decided to take my bag from me there and told me to swim for it. So I did, and the inlet was kind of magical...once you were in, the waves just swept you along to the beach at the top. As my feet hit solid ground, I quickly looked around to see the heads of the others bobbing at the entrance. It took just a few seconds before we were all inside. Whew! What an adventure.
We got back into our clothes (rucksakes and contents all completely dry) with a profound sense of gratitude for these nutty guys who turned out to be such gentlemen.
The last four kms to the Andre hut are supposed to be "quite strenuous" but after our adrenalin-inducing swim, it seemed easy. There were deer grazing among the huts. The following day we got up in time to wave goodbye to Tom, Dick and Harry, who by then were pretty focused on getting backing to their families in Cape Town. The 7 km route was also pretty straightforward, although there were initially some very steep ascents and descents. The panoramic view behind us was magical -- at the viewpoints on the top you could see cliff after cliff of the nature reserve gleaming in the sun, probably right back to the start of the Otter Trail. A quick walk along the sandy beach of Natures Valley, we hitched a lift from a friendly woman in a 4x4 who took us to the restaurant where Otter hikers traditionally end their trek with a good meal and a few beers. The guide books don't tell you how far it is to get there!!