Step-by-Step Guide of the Otter Trail
by Brendon Kassel
Not much can be said about the Otter Trail that hasn’t already been said. It’s officially South Africa’s oldest hike and it arguably has everything anyone could ever want in a hike – indigenous forests; rugged coastlines; deep blue seas; majestic mountains; tidal pools to explore; an abundance of birds & wildlife; rare flowers; exquisite hut locations and the feeling of isolation due to its 12 hikers per day limit – all in an untouched nature reserve that forms part of the incredible Garden Route. It can take up to 12 months to secure a booking but all that will be forgotten the moment you take your first step on this magnificent adventure that is the Otter Trail.
There are many articles that can be found regarding the Otter trail and how to prepare so having done this trail numerous times, I thought I’d share some relatively unknown tips and hidden spots so you too can uncover every treasure of this richly diverse trail. So dust off those backpacks, buy some delicious Forever Fresh ultralight freeze-dried meals and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!
The first question people often ask is where to stay before starting the trail. There are many spots in Nature’s Valley, and even nearby in Plett but for me nothing beats the Storm’s River SanParks. This is where the trail starts, there are accommodation options to suit all budgets, it is an idyllic location right on the sea, and you can even explore the famous suspension bridges as well as a few other small trails to warm up those soon-to-be well-used leg muscles.
Storm’s River suspension bridges
Day 1 – Start to Ngubu Huts: 4.8km.
The first day of the Otter is relatively short. Hikers are allowed to commence the trail up to 2pm and, if you are travelling to the trail on your start day, this late start may be required. But if not I highly recommend getting an early start to not only begin enjoying this stunning trail, but also to make the most of the afternoon at Hut 1. Don’t be fooled by the distances or the ‘average hiking times’ listed on every guide as these are completely inaccurate. These say that day 1 takes two hours but this is only if you are a robot, running from start to finish, not stopping to breathe without the need to ingest water. And that’s without taking into account the many breaks you should be having to marvel at where you are! So rather ignore these and just enjoy the journey.
Once you have checked in with reception, you get to sign the register and weigh your backpack. As most trailists will tell you – try pack light! But at the same time, make sure you have plenty of snacks and some luxuries too so you can really enjoy and make the most of the trail. There will be a quick briefing on what to expect with the most important info being which water sources are drinkable so definitely make a note of this.
The journey must inevitably begin with a group photo outside the briefing room or in front of the ‘entrance’ to the trail. Backpacks are ready, waters have been filled and the excitement is now bubbling over – it's time to take that first step!!
Gateway to the Otter Trail
Once you enter the famous ‘gateway’ you are immediately transported to lush indigenous forest. 10 steps in and you are already in your own world. Definitely look out for the exquisite bird life including the many beautiful Knysna Loeries (now called Turacos). This beginning forested section is only about 1km and it starts descending towards the coast. You begin seeing glimpses of the ocean through the trees but even that does not prepare you for the sights when the forest opens up to display the rugged ocean right on your doorstep. Im always so excited I just want to keep going but take a moment to breathe in the wondrous view where the waves crash right in front of you. This is also where you will find Guano cave – so take a moment to explore and see who are the bravest of the group by who will venture the furthest!
The trail continues by climbing up some wooden steps. Don’t forget to look back to see the endless view of waves crashing as far as the eye can see.
The terrain now turns to a coastal rocky path. This can be quite technical as you have to concentrate on where to take each step. Some find it easy; some find it tough. It's why you get so many differing opinions over the Otter Trail’s difficulty but no matter how difficult you find it; the distance makes it all possible and within everyone’s abilities.
The path – Day 1
After about 2km of walking with the sea at your side, you will reach the impressive tiered Jerling waterfall as its fresh waters flow into the sea. Here you get your first glimpse of the cola-coloured river waters produced due to the tannins of the fynbos. Don’t let the colour fool you though – these waters are fresh and drinkable when it’s far from human activity (so don’t drink from Jerling). This is the perfect spot for brunch/lunch and a swim in the giant pool the waterfall creates.
The Jerling Waterfall
Once you have spent some time here, the trail continues (and from hereon is exclusively for Otter trailists) across the waterfall and undulates between forest and coast. Within an hour you will arrive at Ngubu hut – your home for the evening. Each hut location has 2 huts sleeping 6 people as well as a communal lapa area (it also currently includes 3 canvas tents that each sleep 2 people due to current covid restrictions).
Both the huts at Ngubu have wonderful ocean views and there is a path which leads to an ideal spot for spending a sunny afternoon where one can swim and explore the sea life (especially during low tide). This is also a great place to watch the sunset before returning to the lapa to start a fire and braai! There is also a path leading to an outdoor shower in the middle of the forest for those who are willing to brave the cold.
Sunset at Ngubu Hut
Day 2 – Ngubu Huts to Scott Huts: 7.9km
Day 2, as with every day from hereon, starts with a giant uphill as you ascend and leave the hut by the beach to enter the forests towards the escarpment. It is a nice little climb to instantly get those muscles warm but don’t take a break just yet when you reach the top (by the trail’s first emergency exit) because if you walk a little bit further there will be a viewing deck looking back at the hut you just came from.
Just before the 2km mark you will then reach the first ‘detour’ of the trail. The path continues by entering the forest to the right, but you must venture a few extra metres to the left to view the imposing ‘Skilderkrans’. This is a giant piece of quartzite rock but aside from the geology it boasts never-ending views out to sea and I always make sure to take an extended break here.
On top of Skilderkrans
Once you return to the actual path and another few metres in, you enter the forest and reach a gorgeous little waterfall with a wooden bridge to cross over. The mesmerising sight of seeing the rugged seas and then the calm fresh waters of rivers, never gets tiresome.
After all the uphill comes the first big descent of the trail before you eventually reach the Kleinbos River with its raging waters. Despite the many rapids created by the rocks, which make for some stunning visuals, the crossing is usually relatively easy. You should only need to cross by taking your shoes off, but if there have been heavy rains you may need to use the E2 emergency exit route.
Crossing the Kleinbos River
Definitely have a break on the other side to take it all in because you will see that the path continues straight up, with giant steps required. You are just over halfway at this stage so it might be tempting to have lunch here but my recommendation would be to wait just a little longer. As hard as it is to believe – there is an even better spot for lunch.
Once you continue the ascent you will eventually reach a sign which points right to the hut or left to ‘Blue Bay’. I usually leave my backpack here and take my lunch & water with me (and camera!) and then head left towards Blue Bay. Warning – backpacks are safe….except from baboons! On a few occasions baboons have tried to open someone’s bag and been successful in some instances so just make sure nothing is visible and everything is closed/locked – but do not even consider bypassing Blue Bay - it is astounding. The path isn’t exactly clear but basically you should descend and stay right. If you continue straight/left you come out on the edge and cannot go any further. But if you stick to the right eventually you will reach an opening from the forest and will see the remote and untouched Blue Bay beach straight ahead. Walk right to it, over a few rocky paths and you will be able to spend the afternoon on your own private beach where the waves crash in from all sides.
Blue Bay Beach
Once you leave Blue Bay, you will return to the path and continue the ascent towards the huts. This is one of the steepest climbs but when you eventually reach the top there is another viewing deck with arguably the best view of the trail – overlooking the coastline and the waves crashing against it as far as the eye can see, as well as looking down over Blue Bay beach from where you just came.
Viewpoint overlooking Blue Bay
Take some new profile pics here and then the trail slowly starts descending for about 40 minutes before you will reach your destination for the evening – Scott Huts. Once again both huts are right on the rocky beach next to the river which flows directly into the sea. So enjoy a well-deserved swim in either!
For those still feeling adventurous, there is a bit of exploring to do here. If you follow the river you will see that it flows from 2 sides (be wary of thorns as this is not part of the path and is overgrown). If you choose to follow the river to the right, and walk just a few metres (you may have to cross some water depending on the tides) you will find a small secluded waterfall that not many people even know is there. A superb spot to brew some coffee!
Another special sunset awaits and if you haven’t seen a genet by now, there is a good chance you will at Scott Hut. They are cute and I love seeing them but be warned – they are quick and sneaky little buggers who have stolen many a cooked braai chop directly off plates as well as some Cadbury’s chocolate from inside a packet inside the hut. So close the doors/windows particularly when you are sleeping and don’t ignore any midnight rumblings which you may think are your fellow hikers!
Sunset at Scott Hut
Day 3 – Scott Huts to Oakhurst Huts: 7.8km
If you think the trail has been beautiful over the first two days wait for what day 3 has in store for you – it is spectacular, and is my favourite day of the trail. After crossing the river and then the mandatory morning uphill, the path opens up to an uninterrupted view of the coastline. You are immediately transported into paradise and for the next couple of kilometres you will walk alongside the sea, so close that you will feel the splash on your face as the waves crash and roar beside you.
The path on Day 3
At about the 2km mark, you will reach your first major river crossing of the trail – the Elandsbos River. If the tide is low, you will be able to simply walk across but if the tide is high you may have to get wet! However, even at high tide you will only need to wade across but dependent on the level you may need to use your survival bag to keep your backpack from getting wet (or the lazy can try carry their backpacks!). On the other side though is soft white sand under the sun to enjoy a rest after the crossing.
Crossing the Elandsbos River at high tide
As usual, after enjoying some time on the beach, the path immediately ascends. As you climb you will get an aerial view of the Elandsbos meeting the sea. Then you will undulate through patches of forest before a nice uphill stretch to the top of the escarpment where once again the view is worth the effort.
Climbing to the escarpment on Day 3
A nice flat terrain is your reward for the next 15 minutes and then, seemingly out of nowhere, you will suddenly gaze upon the phenomenal hut location of night 3, which is nestled on a piece of land jutting out into the sea, directly in front of where the tannin brown colours of the river meets the deep blue of the sea.
A sharp decline awaits before you then have to cross the Lottering River. This is the 2nd largest crossing of the trail yet if you get there at low tide you will simply walk across; high tide and you will have to wade across with your survival bags and be weary of the current. Once on the other side it is a mere 15 minutes before you arrive at the paradisiacal spot where Oakhurst huts await – my favourite huts. Enjoy the afternoon hypnotized by your view for the rest of the day and then after another glorious sunset, settle in for the evening with a nutritious Forever Fresh meal next to the fire.
The view from the lapa at Oakhurst Huts
Day 4 – Oakhurst Huts to Andre Huts: 14km
Day 4 is the hardest day. Primarily because of distance (doing almost double what you have been doing) and then the infamous Bloukrans River crossing. The reason the Bloukrans is so treacherous, is that the crossing is at the mouth where the sea meets the river and if you have to swim across, you will be swimming against the waves, through strong currents, avoiding the sharp mussels and serrated rocks, all while hoping your survival bag doesn’t rip and your backpack doesn’t get wet. It can be quite daunting and even dangerous so hikers must time the crossing for low tide. Sanparks will have given you a tide table on day 1 and you should base your start time for the day around this. The Bloukrans is 10km into day 4 and you will of course want to enjoy some breaks and views so try time it according to the pace of your group (usually 4-5hrs). Crossing the Bloukrans at low tide is often as easy as walking right through and not even taking off your backpacks (depending on seasons/rains etc) so if this necessitates a pre-dawn rising, it’s worth it!
Often I have had to begin the day in the dark and the path is relatively easy and clear due to many hikers having to get an early start. The reward for an early wake-up will be a photographic sunrise when it hits.
Sunrise on Day 4
After about 3.5km you will get to the small stream of Wittels. It is almost as picturesque as a fairy tale and is the perfect spot for breakfast or another cup of coffee!
From here, the trail becomes very technical for the next few kilometres as the path hugs the rocky coast. Once you get to about 7km, you will start to enter the forest again. But just before you do, there will be a very appealing rock pool on your left, overlooking the seas down below for your own private infinity pool. If weather permits, this is one of the most exhilarating swim spots and saying that during this trail speaks volumes!
Another 3 km further and you immediately notice the mighty Bloukrans below you. A steep descent follows before you will be meeting the challenge of crossing the Bloukrans. If you have timed low tide correctly (barring rainy weather and look out for Neap & Spring tides) the crossing may be as easy as just walking across. Otherwise you will have to put your backpack and shoes in your survival bags and begin swimming across, being aware of the waves and currents and the rocks as you get out. Should it be too high and dangerous, there is the E6 emergency exit route.
Bloukrans River at low tide
Bloukrans River at high tide
Once you have crossed, there is only 4km left for the day but don’t let that fool you – it’s one of the most difficult sections of the trail so just be mentally prepared for another couple of hours but as usual on this trail, every climb is reciprocated with the most incredible views. Immediately after the Bloukrans you will have to climb up a very sheer and almost vertical ledge, but there is a rope to aid you and despite being quite tricky, it only lasts for a brief moment. From here, you will repeat a few up-and-downs between patches of forest and rocky beaches before your last but lengthy uphill of the day. Once at the top you reach one of my favourite sections of the trail – the path flattens out for the next 40 minutes, there are ridiculous views over the rough seas below, and the display of fynbos and proteas is always a resplendent sight to behold. Enjoy this last stretch before another sharp downhill brings you to Andre Huts.
Yellow Pincushion Proteas (Leucospermum Cordifolium)
Once again the huts are in a stupendous location and you can spend the day hypnotized by the ocean or exploring and swimming in the river a few meters away (on the path to day 5). There is also an outdoor shower and the toilet is fitted with one way glass so you can still enjoy the view while on the throne.
Sunset at Andre Huts
Day 5 – Andre Huts to End/Sanparks Offices: 10km
Day 5 starts by crossing the small river and then – you guessed it – the morning uphill! This is your last big ascent of the trail so that should be all the motivation you need to climb up.
The climb up on Day 5
Once you are up, a short walk will take you to a viewing deck which looks down upon Andre huts from which you just came.
Viewing deck overlooking Andre huts
The bulk of the rest of the day will simply be meandering on the escarpment enjoying the extraordinary views of the sea that are almost coming to an end.
You will enter small patches of hilly forest but it is mostly flat all the way until the escarpment ends.
The path on Day 5
As you reach the end of the escarpment, you are greeted by the breathtaking sight of Nature’s Valley beach. It is a truly special scene however it always brings me a tinge of sadness as this signifies that the trail is almost over. So enjoy a break here while you try and take in the whole adventure you have experienced as well as the accomplishment you are about to achieve.
Nature’s Valley beach
There is an abrupt descent down to the beach where you will now walk on soft sand and this presents your last chance to swim in the sea.
The trail used to just end here, however the trail has been re-routed to go through the forest to the end point which is the Sanparks’ offices. You will see the trail markers pointing right into the forest from the beach. I sometimes take one last break here as it is still about 3.5km to the end (hence day 5 now being 10km). While some do not enjoy this extra mileage, I see it as one last goodbye to the trail and one last chance to spot some loeries or even some buck.
There is one last small crossing (at waist height if high tide) with a chain to help you across if needed. Not long after, you’ll reach some boardwalks taking you the last kilometre out of the forest and signifying the end of your amazing journey. Once you exit the forest, all that remains is a short walk down the road to the end point of De Vasselot Rest Camp. Take this time to reflect as the whole sublime experience that you have just completed starts to sink in, and then go collect your Otter Trail certificate from the SanParks’ office.
Congratulations on completing the Otter! Now to book it again.