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Day 12: Otter Trail, Tsitsikamma National Park

This morning it was difficult to leave the small National Park cabin I stayed in last night. It was perched 20 feet from the ocean, on a rocky bluff, and all night long I could hear the pounding surf outside. But there was a good reason to get going: for the next 1.5 days I’m hiking South Africa’s most famous and popular hiking trail—the Otter Trail. Just 25 miles long and punctuated with decedent cabins, it’s not exactly training camp for some of America’s renowned trekking routes like the Continental Divide Trail or even the Long Trail, but it fits nicely in a 3-week itinerary.

I was able do 20 miles today in about 9 hours, leaving 5 more miles for the morning. If I had been willing to hike by headlamp I could have reached Nature’s Valley tonight, but I opted instead to throw my bag into one of the Andres Huts and take photos of the evening light and surf. The literature you will read about the Otter Trail describes it as a 5-day/4-night hike, a pace that I think would be torturously slow. [Note: If you decide to hike it in less than the standard time, beware that the 12-person huts might be filled to capacity, in which case you’ll have no priority since you’re not following the schedule. The visitor’s center at the east trailhead can let you know if you should expect to camp out.] Of course, since every other backpacker I saw was carrying loads in excess of 40 or 50 pounds, 5 days might be spot-on. The macho-driven mentality about pack weight holds strong here—one of my favorite scenes from the trip was when a foursome set up a rope to ford a 2-foot deep river that was barely moving. The first guy who crossed fit the persona perfectly: “Give me the rope, Hal. Ladies, wait here.”

Based on what I saw today, I’ll rate the Otter Trail a 7.5 or 8 out of 10, with 10 being the best. It features beautiful indigenous forests, which are hard to come by along the Garden Route—most hillsides have been replanted with non-native trees for their timber value. There are frequent overlooks of the rugged coastline, which is composed of sedimentary sandstone that has been titled to near-vertical angles. The huts are superb: clean, sizable, nicely constructed, rodent-free, and outfitted with comfy 6”-thick mattresses. Lastly, the Trail has some exciting river fords, with the best being the Bloukrans—if you catch it around low tide, it’ll require at least a 15-foot swim to the opposite bank; if it were high tide and there were rough seas, it would undoubtedly be frightening.

Why didn’t the Otter Trail get a 10? First, I would have liked some more variation in the experience—an occasional walk along a sandy beach or alongside a river would have mixed things up. I also would have appreciated better lighting—the sun does not get high enough at this time of year to fully illuminate the shoreline—the rays are blocked by the steep bluffs. Lastly, I’m a mountain man first, a hiker second; so the trail’s lack of big inspiring peaks was a downer. None of these criticisms are within control of the trail maintainers, so I suppose it’s very fair to say that they’ve maxed out the value of what they had to work with.

Otter Trail

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