Hiking the Iconic Otter Trail
Welcome to the Otter Trail, a true bucket list hike and the pride of South Africa. It is officially the oldest trail in South Africa, dating back to 1968, and is regarded as the most iconic hiking trail in South Africa and hailed as one of the most beautiful multi-day trails in the world. The trail is named after the shy Cape clawless otter (also known as the African clawless otter), which can be found in estuaries and streams along the South African coast, among other locations in Southern Africa.
Distance: 45 kilometres
Duration: 5 days
Beauty: An absolute 10
Difficulty rating: 7/10
Hiking the Otter Trail and getting to those hidden gems takes some effort. However, the greatest reward is the views from the famous sea-facing huts at the end of each day. Steep climbs, descents, and technical river crossings characterise the trail. For instance, crossing the Lottering and Bloukrans rivers involves swimming across (depending on the tide) and climbing steep terrain.
This fantastic coastal trail starts at Storms River Mouth and ends in Nature’s Valley, with a beautiful 3.5-kilometre stroll along the beach. Along the way, hikers are introduced to hidden caves, waterfalls, beautiful beaches, unique indigenous flowers and mesmerising views. Time spent on this trail offers a great taste of adventure coupled with that beautiful feeling of being one with nature and the rejuvenation that comes with it. For this hike, remember that you will need to come down and sleep on the beach or the river banks as you take on the ascents.
Bookings are made a year in advance; demand is high for this trail, which is among the most popular in South Africa. We waited for at least three years to finally secure a spot. I’ll let you in on a secret; join the Otter Trail Facebook group, and you might be lucky enough to catch one of the posts from people looking for replacements.
Along the trail, you will find signposts with information about the plant life, waterfalls and other attractions. So, expect to learn a lot on this journey.
Day 1: Storms River Mouth to Ngubu huts – 4.8km
This day begins with hikers reporting to the Tsitsikamma National Park reception to pay conservation fees, get the trail map and watch a short induction video (Hikers are expected to heed all the advice given during the induction). Then the weighing of bags follows. Most bags weighed 16kg, which I found to be the right weight. The lightest bag was 14kg, and the heaviest was 21kg.
The trail starts with a descent to the beach, where hikers walk on boulders to get to a cave and eventually to the Jerling River Waterfall, where you can swim (if you can stomach it) in the icy cold water.
At camp, you will be welcomed by a hut with the most beautiful views just a few metres from the sea. You sleep and wake up to the crashing waves. There is an outdoor shower and a common area where you can prepare food.
Day 2: Ngubu to Scott huts – 7.9km
The second day provides the first real challenge with some steep ascents and descents, with high and irregular steps (think Machu Picchu). The difficulty level of this section catches some people off guard. It’s easily the toughest of the five days. Take advantage of the slipway to the top of Skilderkrans right after passing the two-kilometre mark for spectacular panoramic views. From Skilderkrans, the trail goes through its typical ascents and descents to reach the Kleinbos River pools.
Bloubaai Beach at the five-kilometre mark is a fantastic lunch and swim spot in good weather. My group was not that lucky because as soon as we finished the descent to the beach, the weather changed, and the tide quickly rose. We had to abandon our big swim plan and picnic at the beach. The descent to the beach is steep, and leaving your backpacks near the main trail is a good idea. You will need all your energy for the final 1.6 kilometres.
Day 3: Scott to Oakhurst huts – 7.7km
Some hikers consider day three a walk in the park relative to some of the other days, with fewer inclines and descents. Day 3 is the most scenic day on the Otter Trail, with several streams, a lovely tidal pool, and walks along beautiful stretches of coastline and picture-perfect wildflowers. If you want to jump into the water early in the day, be on the lookout for a tidal pool. Remember to bring a diving mask to explore the underwater world of colourful fish (including starfish) and sea anemones that inhabit the pool.
It is advisable to try and cross the Lottering River at low tide – at high tide, you may be in for a swim with your backpack. After the river crossing, the Oakhurst huts are close by and are situated in a spectacular location near a small cave. Aim to arrive before sunset to explore the area and uncover all the hidden gems.
Day 4: Oakhurst to Andre huts – 13.8km
Day four is the one to conquer because there is a lot at stake. It has many sharp inclines and declines and is the most challenging day in terms of distance and the number of river crossings. The first ten kilometres will take you through a forest along beautiful patches of wildflowers, and coastal views, after which you’ll reach the famous Bloukrans River crossing.
Survival bags to float your backpack are a must, as the river will likely require a short swim, even at low tide. The Bloukrans River crossing cannot be underestimated. If the river is flooding or you arrive there at high tide, and the sea is rough, it is strongly recommended that you take the escape route.
We arrived two hours earlier to ensure that we would be safe even if the estimated tide times were out by an hour. This also helps to ensure you study your crossing options and take in the beautiful surroundings while watching the tide recede.
After the river crossing, there is a steep and long climb to the plateau. The unassumingly long path then descends to the Andre huts on the banks of the Klip River. I found the tricky part about this was negotiating the steep descent to the huts and negotiating the accent the following day – brutal, I know.
Day 5: Andre huts to Nature’s Valley – 10.8km
The day starts with a short walk on a rocky beach and then a steep climb up to the plateau. From there, the relatively easy trail stays mostly on top of the plateau terrain, moving between fynbos, Ericas (a type of shrub) and proteas. There are some excellent lookout points on the spectacular cliffs as you approach The Point.
A superb example of the beauty of Otter Trail is the view of Nature’s Valley Beach. Moreover, the panoramic views of the Groot River estuary and Nature’s Valley Beach sadly announce the trail’s end. Remember to take your time to soak it all in and, most importantly, do it while taking lots of pictures. Before the victory lap, with 3.5 kilometres of beach walking left to the trail’s end, we commenced our celebrations.
I’ll definitely be back for another round. See you on the trail, and remember to ‘leave no trace.’