The Otter Trail

Rock Jumping on the Otter Trail

 

Words and Photographs by Gero Lilleike

 There’s nothing quite like rounding up a bunch of good friends and planning a trip into the wild, it’s one of the best travel moves in the book.  When my long-time friend, Gavin, invited me to join his hiking party on the Otter Trail, I simply couldn’t decline, this was an opportunity of a lifetime, right down my alley. 

The Otter Trail

With a bit of research, I soon realised that the Otter Trail was going to be something special, unlike anything I have ever done before. The Otter Trail is a five day, 42.5 km trail situated in the Tsitsikamma National Park, forming part of the Garden Route from the Storms River Mouth to Nature’s Valley. If you’re like me and don’t have significant hiking experience, planning and preparing for a five day hike can be tricky business and should be done thoroughly and thoughtfully.

In the days leading up to our big adventure, I had to decide how to fill my backpack, a task all on its own. A checklist goes a long way in ensuring that all the essential items, such as whisky, are not forgotten. Planning is a fine balance between taking what is needed and leaving out what’s not. The saying ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ applies as well as ‘you pack it, you carry it’. I failed to heed these warnings and the result was hellishly painful.

Hiking Party at the Waterfall

Our hiking party arrived at reception, faces beaming with excitement, itching to get this adventure underway when a large man with a heavy Afrikaans accent says, “the first part of the trail is closed due to rough sea conditions. We can get a ranger to give you a lift to the first camp”. Excitement instantly mutated into bitter disappointment and bleakness ensued. After a quiet word outside we decided to do what every self-respecting Otter hiker would do, go hike anyway, but not before placing a beer order for our fourth day, a wise move indeed.

View of Ngubu

Ngubu Huts, the first of four overnight huts was 4.8 km away. One by one, we disappeared into the wild and were soon surrounded by ancient Tsitsikamma forest, making a steady decent to the thundering sea below. From the rocky seashore we witnessed an angry sea lashing out all along the coast. After clambering over rocks for an hour we stumbled upon a surreal waterfall and the guys had an absolute blast jumping off the rocks into the cold water below. Well refreshed, we got back on the trail towards Ngubu. We arrived to find quaint huts tucked away in lush vegetation overlooking a magical sea view. Soon a fire was burning and we spent the afternoon sipping on fine whisky and watching 15ft surf bombard the coastline. The scenery was wondrous. We were in paradise and we couldn’t believe it.

View from the Skilderkrans Quartzite outcrop

The next morning I awoke to a throbbing whisky headache that disappeared fast at the thought of hiking another 7.9 km to Scott Huts. We set off in the blazing sun hiking through forest for most of the day, encountering two Puff Adders, Seagulls, Oystercatchers and a few clumsy Knysna Loeries along the way. This particular section of the Otter Trail is gruelling, with many steep inclines and declines for most of the way. It’s on these hills where planning counts. My backpack was insanely heavy and I felt more like a dying pack mule than a hiker, with sweat pouring off my chin, I hoofed it to Blue Bay where we stopped for a well deserved lunch on an isolated beach. The hills continued to wreak havoc on my body for the rest of the day, eventually arriving at Scott Huts completely bushed. Just beyond our doorstep, in all its glory, lay the Geelhoutbos River Mouth, a view that replenishes the weariest of bones.  After a solid meal of two minute noodles and biltong, I turned in early to rest for the next day in the hills.

Scott Huts at the Geelhoutbos River Mouth
 

My eyes opened to the smell of fresh coffee on the fire and after breakfast I was ready to face up to the 7.7 km ahead of me. Thankfully my backpack was getting progressively lighter and walking became easier. Gavin and Craig decided to do some snorkelling, a nice way to have a break and enjoy the sea life flourishing in the clear rock pools.  We harvested a few mussels and cooked them for lunch on the beach at the Elandsbos River Mouth, a prime spot to relax, swim and recharge. Two hours later, we crested a hill and stumbled upon Oakhurst Huts, nestled alongside the Lottering River Mouth, another spectacular view to lull us to sleep as we keenly anticipated the 13.8 km hike waiting for us on our fourth day.

Lunch at the Elandsbos River

With stiff legs and tender feet, we set off early to make it to the Bloukrans River on time for low tide. The even terrain allowed us to cover larger distances faster and by midday we reached the 10km mark at the Bloukrans River Mouth, the most dangerous river crossing on the Otter Trail. Crossing the Bloukrans River was easy and we settled for lunch on the rocks. We spent another two hours on the trail before reaching Andre Huts at the Klip River Mouth. 

The Bloukrans River Mouth

It wasn’t long before our camp erupted into pure elation as we spotted our beer runner swiftly making his way down the mountainside towards us. Within minutes we were sipping on the sweetest nectar in this neck of the woods with smiles beaming from ear to ear. We proceeded to construct a bonfire on the pebble beach and watched the sun set slowly over Plettenberg Bay in the distance, a beautiful ending to our last night in this amazing place.

Andre Huts Viewpoint

 
The final stretch of the Otter Trail from Andre Huts to Nature’s Valley is only 6.8 km, winding through Fynbos, the trail is mostly level making it a reasonably easy hike. We arrived in Natures Valley in high spirit and decided to visit the only restaurant in town, The Nature’s Valley Restaurant & Pub for a tasty meal, some more beer and many more laughs.

Natures Valley

The Otter Trail is considered one of the best trails in the world but due to its overwhelming popularity, the waiting list can be up to a year or more but is certainly well worth the wait. Our epic adventure was over and at least we would go home knowing that what we experienced was unfathomable. The magnificent scenery along this stretch of coast is simply unreal and makes you appreciate every second of your life. Do yourself a favour and book now, you won’t regret it.

Hiking at its best

 For more information on the Otter Trail visit:  http://sanparks.org.za/parks/garden_route/camps/storms_river/tourism/otter.php

The view before Andre Huts

In the Jump Zone

In the Jump Zone

Published in the Saturday Star on March 15 2008

Written by Gero Lilleike

I’m afraid of heights, I admit it and am not ashamed of the fact. But there comes a time in one’s life where fear needs to be put aside if pleasure is to prosper.  Jumping off a bridge may seem ridiculous to most of us and that’s what I thought until it happened to me. What the hell just do it, is what I kept telling myself, over and over again, but it would never be that easy and even I should have known that.

The Bloukrans Bridge is situated on the Garden Route at the Tsitsikamma Forest Village Market 40km from Plettenberg Bay along the N2 highway and is the highest single span arch bridge in the world.  Spanning an incredible 216m above the Bloukrans river, the Bloukrans Bridge is a spectacle to behold.  Construction of the bridge was completed in 1984 with the Bloukrans River forming the border between the Eastern Cape Province and the Western Cape Province.

The Bloukrans Bridge is not just a roadway, it’s a landmark, a place to visit and if you’re up to it, it’s a place that can change your life forever.  The Bloukrans Bungee Jump is considered the world’s highest commercial bungee jump and at 216m – it’s no joke.  Face Adrenalin has been operating the Bloukrans Bungee Jump since 1997 and have maintained a 100% safety record since.  Even so, nothing can prepare you for that moment you step off the edge.

It was the perfect morning.  The fresh pungent smell of fynbos hung heavy in the air with not a cloud in the sky.  It was 7am and the heat was already unbearable. Standing and staring at the mammoth gorge before me was really amazing but the thought of falling into it left a lump in my throat.  Before long it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I knew why I was there and there was no turning back. Doubt seeped into every corner of my mind but eventually I forced myself to part with R590 for an experience I would never forget, ever.

The friendly personnel took my weight reading and I was immediately directed to the harnessing area, where I was fitted with my very own safety harness, my lifeline from the very hard rocks strewn at the bottom of the gorge. Then, the waiting game began.

The jump

Getting to the jump zone at the centre of the bridge is a frightening experience and there are two ways of getting there. The Bridge Walk is a steel, caged walkway attached to the side of the bridge and offers easy access to the jump zone.  If you are brave and have R100 to spare, a 200m long cable slide called the Flying Fox will get you to the jump zone in no time. Once on the bridge, the shear size of the Bloukrans gorge becomes all too real. The vibe on the bridge is energetic with dance music blaring into the gorge, calming shot nerves and preparing the jumpers for that moment of truth.

The bungee personnel also referred to as ‘The Crew’ always ensure that the bungee cord is safe for jumping purposes.  Jumpers are ordered according to weight and then the thrilling fun begins. Just watching ‘The Crew’ operate made me nervous.  Images of snapping bungee cords flashed through my mind on a regular basis.  I felt ill to the stomach, which by that stage had shrunk to the size of a golf ball.

The Bloukrans Bungee makes use of pendulum bungee technology ensuring that the jumper experiences the smoothest and most comfortable bungee jump possible. Jumpers are required to jump outwards as far as possible to maximise this pendulum technology. In my world things don’t work that way.  I heard a crew member call my name. The time had come. ‘The Crew’ rigged me up, with the bungee cord attached to my ankles and my harness clamped on.  I was struggling to breathe. Adrenalin surged through my veins, making my fingers tingle.

The crew helped me to the edge with my toes dangling off the end.  “Look down,” they said.  Far below, I could see the river making its way to the sea, and all the hard rocks were there too.  I was pale in shock. “Smile for your friends at the camera,” said the crewman to my right.  I obliged. Then suddenly, five, four, three, two, one, bungee.  At that moment nothing went through my mind, my knees went weak.  Unable to jump, I literally fell off the side of the bridge, plummeting to the earth with incredible pace not realising where I was. It wasn’t long before I came around and started howling as loud as I could.  A feeling of weightlessness overcame me.  My attention quickly shifted to my ankles.  My feet felt like they were slipping through the ankle padding and panic set in.  I clenched my toes outwards in distress.  There I was, dangling hopelessly in the Bloukrans gorge only to be rescued by a crew member and hoisted to the relative safety of the bridge.  I was overjoyed.

I had conquered the Bloukrans Bridge but more importantly I had conquered my worst fear and it felt out of this world.  A word of advice though, jump, don’t fall. For more information on Face Adrenalin, visit their website on www.faceadrenalin.com.