Hiking on the Otter Trail
Covering a beautiful stretch of forest and beaches where the Indian Ocean meets the Garden Route, South Africa’s popular five-day Otter Trail offers hikers a marvelous wilderness experience.
The Cape clawless otter
South Africa’s favorite hike, the Otter Trail, is named after the Cape clawless otter. The creatures live in dense vegetation beyond the high-water mark of rivers and sometimes scavenge along the beaches and hunt in shallow surf. These otters have partly webbed and clawless feet, from which they get their name. They only emerge in the early evening, to hunt for crabs and fish. These elusive and fascinating creatures may sometimes be seen along the Otter Trail, hence the name. They are totally protected since the scenic route falls entirely within the Tsitsikamma section of the beautiful Garden Route National Park.
The Otter Trail
This five-day/four-night hike follows the spectacular coastline –from Storms River Mouth in the east to Natures Valley in the west. And whereas the trail is 26 kilometers as the crow flies, it is 42 kilometers in length as the hiker walks. Marked with painted otter footprints, this trail never strays far from the rugged, rocky shoreline. Additionally, it ranges in elevation from sea level to a height of more than 150 meters.
The South African National Parks (SANParks) manages the Otter Trail very carefully. It is so phenomenally popular with locals and foreigners alike, hence bookings are taken months in advance. Only 12 people can start the trail each day, which also controls the impact of hikers on the sensitive environment while also keeping the wilderness experience nice and personal for the participants.
A strenuous workout
The minimum age is 12 and the maximum is 65 and everyone must be able to hike up to 14 kilometers a day over steep terrain. At each overnight stop there are log huts just steps away from the shoreline and the sound of the waves. They have bunk beds, mattresses and firewood. Additionally, hikers need to bring bedding, food and catering equipment – as well as the normal hiking gear.
None of the sectors on the Otter Trail are very long, but can be fairly strenuous. And it climbs steeply in parts before descending to a beach or valley. It crosses 11 rivers along the way, where you will have to wade, or even swim across. Expect lots of boulder-hopping and scrambling, and with full backpacks. The hiking is indeed challenging, and maybe even addictive.
A scenic route
You will experience the beautiful and simply jaw-dropping scenery. Drink in all the beauty: empty sandy beaches, frothy waterfalls, rocky cliff-faces, densely forested valleys and abundant wildflowers. There is plenty of time to take a break and look for rare birds in the canopy of trees. Or watch the dolphins frolicking in the surf from this incredible vantage point. And let's not forget to keep a sharp eye out for the shy Cape clawless otter itself.
Best time to visit
You can hike the Otter Trail at any time of year. Spring and summer (October—April) are the warmest months and probably one of the best highlights is being able to swim along the way. It’s also the best time to see the wildflowers. Once on the trail, hikers need to be aware of the dates and times of the tides since it is virtually impossible (and inadvisable) to attempt river crossings during high tides.