First Ascent equipment specialist shares with us his recent trip down South Africa’s oldest and most famous hiking trail, the Otter Trail. He shares with us the highlights of each day, as well as key tips and gear to consider when taking on this iconic trail.
Our Otter Trail adventure began in Nature’s Valley, a truly unique, small town which lies at the foothills of the Tsitsikamma Mountains in harmony with nature and serves as the end destination of the Otter Trail. We stayed the night in Nature’s Valley before commencing with the hike the next day, it is a lovely town to relax, braai and to complete your final preparations in, and you may even be greeted by bush bucks around your house. The local restaurant in the town is the perfect place to grab a woodfire pizza and the small shop sells the basics. We spent the night around the fire discussing past adventures and talking about the exciting up and coming adventure which awaited us.
DAY 1 - Storms River Mouth to Ngubu Huts - 4.8kms - 3 hours
We arranged a transfer from Nature’s Valley to the starting point at Stormsriver. On our arrival we were required to complete some forms and watch a short video before we were briefed by the ranger. They were very informative and provided us with all the necessary information relating to the timelines of the tides. This being our fifth excursion in a Sanparks for the year, we remain impressed by their passion and dedication to our national parks.
Important to remember before leaving is to weigh your bag on the old school scale at the briefing room. If you want to hike comfortably try not to carry more than 18kg for men and 15kg for ladies (including water). The less weight you have the more comfortable your trip will be. When selecting a bag size, my suggestion would be a 65L to 75L for men and 55L to 65L for ladies. I was using the First Ascent Jupiter II 65L +10L which was great, it provided comfort and all the required space for the trip. It is a standard 65L, but the top part of the bag can expand by 10L making the bag 75L. The added 10L compartment is nice area to pack your food in and as the days go on and the less space is required, you can simply collapse it back to a 65L bag. The bag also features side straps to further compress your bag. My wife used the First Ascent Venus 55L+10L which is a perfect fit and size for ladies.
In the first 10 minutes everybody was fiddling with their shoes or adjusting their packs. It usually takes a little while to find your pack’s sweet spot, especially if you are not use to hiking with a substantial weight. I walked in hiking boots which provided good ankle support for the entire hike. Most hiking boots are also waterproof which comes in handy in the damp forest setting of the Otter Trail, just make sure to dry them out after each day. If you don’t have boots trail running shoes will also be fine.
After an hour or so we arrived at the amazing Jerling River waterfall where the sea meets the forest. If you are brave enough you can climb up the waterfall, otherwise the ice-cold river pool is a great swimming spot. We had some flavored John West tuna on Provita crackers for lunch and snacked on homemade trail mixes made up of biltong, cashews and cranberries. After lunch we walked the final stretch to the Ngubu Huts not knowing what to expect next.
After a brisk walk we arrived at our first overnight spot where we were greeted by a Knysna Bos Lourie 5m from the huts. There are two huts that sleep 6 people each on bunk beds, each hut features a private braai area and is well spaced out from the other. There is also a communal lapa with a braai area and plenty of space for everybody if you are hiking in a big group. We enjoyed vacuum packed chops with mielies which we pre-packaged in tinfoil.
The huts are very neat and well organized. Not being my first overnight hike, I knew that packing in your own single fitted sheet to pull over the mattress is always a good option, it just makes sleeping at night more comfortable. Our choice of sleeping bag was the First Ascent Amplify Down Light, this bag weighs in at 630g and is extremely compact. If you are doing your hike in winter you can either use the First Ascent Explorer or add the First Ascent Thermal Heating Liner to the First Ascent Amplify Down Light for added warmth. We took with us the First Ascent Air Pillow, the perfect travel pillow, packing into the size of your fist and weighing a mere 75g.
DAY 2 - Ngubu to Scott - 7.9kms - 4 hours
After a good night’s rest, we enjoyed a cup of coffee out of our mocha kettle (a hiker must have) accompanied by a bowl of oats for breakfast, we were now ready to go. It is best to walk in the cool morning air, so we tried to get going by daybreak. It’s a bit trickier getting ready in the dark but it is worth the early rise, seeing the sunrise over the ocean is a breathtaking view.
In the first half hour we saw four Knysna Bos Louries chasing each other in the forest canopy. The Knysna Bos Lourie makes a harsh croaking sound which is an unusual sound to come from such a majestic looking bird, look-out for these stunning bird whilst on the Otter Trail.
This is probably the most strenuous day out of the 5-day hike, with a lot of elevation. If you are relatively fit this should be an easy day to handle, and the constant scenery change will ensure that you remain motivated and focused on the path ahead.
The highlight of the day was the Skilderkrans lookout and Blue Bay beach. The lookout point has fantastic views and gives you a great idea of what the landscape is going to be like for the next four days. Bluerock is a secluded bay with the bluest of water, it is an additional climb down, but it is definitely worthwhile and a great place to stop for lunch. While day dreaming of spearfishing in the bay, we enjoyed some left-over chops from the night before.
After a few challenging climbs we arrived at the Scott huts, where we had a lovely swim and a much-needed chill-out session under the trees in our hammock. I took along my trusty First Ascent Lightweight Double Hiking Hammock with the tree friendly First Ascent Harness System. After each day my wife and I would find a spot to hang it, where we would spend some time just relaxing, reading and looking over spectacular views, if time allowed we would also took a sneaky nap.
We packed in some swimming goggles for diving, as there are some crystal-clear pools with an abundance of sea life. We saw a massive pod of dolphins hunting just 15 meters away from the pool that we were diving in. The trail forms part of the Tsitsikamma natures reserve and it is strictly forbidden to take out any form of sea life.
We enjoyed some vacuum-packed steak with sweet potato pre-wrapped in tinfoil for supper. When Vacuum packed steak can last up to three days when defrosted and kept cool.
DAY 3 - Scott to Oakhurst- 7.7kms - 4 hours
On the third day there are two river crossings, with the last one needing to be crossed in low tide. We decided to walk to the first crossing and have breakfast there, you may have some visitors (otters) at this breakfast spot. Unfortunately, we did not see any, but we did see some tracks. The river crossing was fairly easy with waist deep water.
Oakhurst hut was my favorite overnight spot although each hut is special and unique in its own way. Situated on the tip of a narrow river mouth with an almost Californian forest atmosphere around you. The sea is extremely rough at this location due to deep sea swells meeting narrow gulley’s. By this time the beauty and slow-paced nature of the trail had consumed us and we spent our afternoon looking at the waves and playing cards.
We enjoyed some pesto pasta with diced biltong and crushed pistachio nuts for supper. Pasta is light to carry and a great source of energy. It was a bit chilly that night and decided to make use of my First Ascent Transit Down Jacket. This jacket weighs in at around as much as a cup of coffee (240g) and can be stuffed into a small bag, you can also use it as a pillow if needs be.
DAY 4 – Oakhurst to Andre hut – 13.8kms - 6 hours
Due to the low tide being very early we had to walk two hours in the dark in order to catch the tide correctly. The terrain was technical and the darkness did not help. This definitely tested our patience to be aware of the terrain around you and still hike at a quick enough pace to catch the low tide in time. The upside was witnessing one of the most awe-inspiring sunrises, it is a moment which i will never forget.
The crossing at Bloukrans went smoothly, however you can see that if crossed at the wrong time (high-tide) it can definitely become dangerous. Luckily there is an escape route that you can take if you get the tides wrong.
With our adventure starting to draw to an end, we turned our focus to planning our next adventure and making deadlines to get the next best booking. For dinner we had what my father calls cowboy curry, it’s basically homemade dehydrated mince with a curry bean sauce served on rice. You can substitute the mince for vacuum packed salami sticks if you do not want to go through the process of dehydrating your own mince.
DAY 5 – Andre hut to Nature’s Valley – 10.8kms - 5 hours
The final day is a fairly easy walk. Looking at the Andre hut just before leaving reminded me how truly amazing this trip had been and how fortunate I was to be fit and well enough to do this with my family and friends.
The last 5km is a roller-coaster of not wanting to end the hike, but also feeling the need for a hot shower, a cold beer and good plate of food. In the end it was good to have that sense of accomplishment, knowing that you had completed South Africa's famous Otter Trail.
After a shower we went to the local pub and treated ourselves to a traditional otter drink and a well-deserved woodfire pizza.
One cannot sum up the Otter Trail, it is a hike which each individual needs to experience in their lifetime, make the booking and figure out the logistics later on. This trail further increased my love for my country which I thought couldn’t be possible.
• Pack as light as possible.
• Use hiking boots and aqua booties if you can.
• Keep your feet clean and dry. Your feet are your biggest asset on any hike
• Try to only pack dehydrated food and braai meat for the first two days.
• Make enough food at night to have leftovers for the next day.
• Try to work and pack in teams of two. It’s easier for planning and to cook for two people.
• Be aware of all the tides and escape routes
• Take your time and enjoy.
• Sunscreen and Tabard!!
Gear to have
- First Ascent Super Towel or First Ascent Compact Towel
- First Ascent Dry Backpack Liner
- First Ascent Jupiter II 65L + 10L or First Ascent Venus 55L + 10L
- First Ascent Amplify Down Sleeping Bag (Summer months)
- First Ascent Explorer or First Ascent Amplify Down Sleeping Bag with First Ascent Thermal Heating Liner (Winter months)
- First Ascent Air pillow
- First Ascent Lightweight Double Hammock with First Ascent Hammock Harness System
- First Ascent Men's Transit Down Hoodie
- First Ascent Men's Tobago Long Sleeve Shirt or First Ascent Men's Husk Shirt and the First Ascent Ladies Kibo Short Sleeve Shirt
- Men's Hurricane Jacket or Men's Discovery jacket and the Ladies Discovery Jacket
- First Ascent Men's Utility Pants and Ladies Utility Pants
- First Ascent Wide Rim Dundee Hat
- First Ascent Approach Hiking socks
- One hiking stove between two people
- Pot, cup and utensils
- Good quality headlamp
- Water purification drops
- Diving goggles and snorkel
- Emergency kit
- Emergency bag