By TAMMY BALLANTYNE
There were several moments on the Otter Trail where I looked up and thought: “This is tougher than I thought it would be.” When the pack I was carrying bit into my shoulders and my trail runners just wouldn’t grip on the wet boulders, it would have been easy to give up and head for an escape route.
But I didn’t. What this hike taught me was the power of self-determination and that you can push the body past what you think its physical limits are at that point in time. I took up hiking in my 40th year – partly spurred on by my sister in Sydney who trains women for endurance treks and partly because I really wanted to have a goal: to put my training into practice and make all the long hours of running, walking and Pilates mean something.
My first trek was to Tanzania in 2012, where my mum and I joined my sister’s Australian group and we summited Mt Meru (the second highest peak, which we used an as acclimatisation walk over four days) and then tackled Mt Kilimanjaro which took us seven days and was probably the most difficult thing I’d ever attempted in my life.
Since then, the bug bit. I’ve made it my mission to attempt one big hike a year (sometimes two) and it also gives me a way to see the world and connect with my sister in a very special and meaningful way. In 2013, I completed the Great Ocean Walk in Victoria, Australia in April – a 100km hike over five days through pristine coastal nature reserves with the ocean always on your left – and then the Otter in September.
I got a group of friends together and invited my mum along as her 70th birthday present. Having had to make the booking a year in advance, it is really a commitment to train and prepare for the hike. Although it is only 42kms in distance, it is a really tough, arduous walk, but probably one of the most beautiful in the world.
The Tsitsikamma reserve is gorgeous and the trail zigzags close to the pounding surf and then rises up to elevations of over 200m where cliffs drop steeply into the sea. The coastal forest in the north differs greatly from the inland indigenous forest and we were privileged to enjoy a spectacular display of fynbos and proteas. There are river crossings, the big one being the infamous Bloukrans, but more about that later.
Don’t be fooled by the marketing blurb, which maintains that you only have to be moderately fit. This is nonsense – in order to carry a full-pack loaded with all your provisions over five days, it is essential to be extremely fit, well-prepared and able to manage the incredibly steep ascents and descents that characterise the trail. The only flat bit of path is on the final day when you near the end to descend down to the beach at Nature’s Valley.
It was my first trek carrying full-pack and mine was way too heavy – at 16kg, I struggled over long days as I am small-framed and was carrying all the food and equipment plus my personal gear so as to take the load off my mum. First lesson learned: pack light, pack only the essentials and make do with what you have. Despite the weight, I proved to myself that I could manage the distance and keep the body more or less intact but it would have been far nicer to have had less “stuff”.
The first day is the shortest at 4.8km. The map says it should take two hours. We took four. We quickly learned that you can’t go fast and there is no need to – you have all day to arrive at the huts.
Starting at the Storms River Mouth entrance gate into the reserve, we made our way down through forest paths onto the exposed beach and plenty of boulder-hopping and rock-scrambling. It took some getting used to as we had to learn to balance with our packs and maintain our foothold.
The trail is very varied and we spotted whales as we picked our way over the rocks, past a spectacular waterfall and back into the forest. The Ngubu huts are nestled in a little bay and were probably the least comfortable of all four overnight stops. Bins hadn’t been emptied; the promised drinking water was pitiful; a couple of windows were broken and the toilet was broken. However, we enjoyed a delicious camping meal made with tiny gas stoves and crashed into the bunks for a 10-hour sleep.
Day two (7.9km) starts with a very strenuous uphill out of camp and goes deeper into the forest. We crossed several streams where we could stock up on water and the weather was mild and warm. We crossed the Kleinbos River easily at low tide and then took it slowly up a massive climb where we were rewarded with breath-taking views across the ocean and a great lookout spot.
It is a long downhill slog to the Scott huts – situated at the most perfect inlet at the Geelhoutbos River Mouth. The walk took us about six hours. We were majorly hungry and sweaty and dived into the crystal-clear ocean and rinsed off in the river. After cheeses sandwiches and tea for lunch, we sorted out gear before a pasta supper by the fire and another early night. We were lucky enough to have dinner guests of a couple of black-spotted genets.
Day three, 7.7km, was the most spectacular day. We walked mostly along coastal paths right alongside the ocean. The start is in the forest and we wound our way up and out along the cliffs. It is varied with rocks, sand, then down to an inlet at the Elandsbos River and back up and out along more cliff paths. After a heck of a steep climb up into the fynbos on the cliffs, we came to a very sharp descent and we could see the Oakhurst huts on the other side of the Lottering River.
Descending carefully, we crossed the river easily as it was low tide, then we had one last climb up to a path that led to the huts. Nestled right on the rocks, the sea spray was our companion as we enjoyed the sunshine, showered and whale-spotted. A night of star-gazing and with the ocean pounding in our ears, we bedded down for an early night, all a little nervous of the Bloukrans crossing the next day.
A small group of us decided to head out at 5am with head torches so we would reach the river at low tide or as near to it as possible. This was one of the hardest days I’ve ever spent on my feet – 11 hours to do 13.8km – it is the longest day distance-wise and the most nerve-wracking. Starting out in the dark is eerie but beautiful and the weather was calm and mild.
We kept a good pace until the 5km mark along a windy path next to the ocean. Then we hit boulders and slippery rocks for a while. It was tough to negotiate these with full packs and without the lone male in our group, I would never have been able to assist my mum. She is fit and hardy but did find the wet rocks rather nerve-wracking. It was only at this point that we found out that five of our group weren’t going to finish – one of the guys had put his back out at the huts and was being rescued by the medical services and taken to Plettenberg Bay.
We then proceeded up through magnificent gorges and into the forest before reaching the lengthy descent to the Bloukrans. It was already half an hour past low tide and the sea was pushing. It is a wide, tricky river mouth and then we had to float our packs wrapped in waterproof bags and wade waist deep across to the rocks on the other side.
Nothing had really prepared us for the really treacherous part around the side of the cliff which required us to hang onto a fairly pathetic piece of rope while pulling ourselves up a sheer rock face with packs on our back. We were all completely wet and after surviving the haul up the cliffs, we wound our way down to a beautiful beach, where we de-robed and dried out our clothing and munched on whatever snacks we could lay our hands on.
We were quite ragged and tired by then and headed down the pebble beach for the last part which was still 3.8km. It seemed to take forever but the glorious beaches and an impromptu swim in the freezing ocean revived us and we plodded up another steep path and out onto more cliffs where we were surrounded by fynbos and proteas.
A hairy descent of loose rock and a new, wooden staircase (still under construction when we passed through) gave us a bird’s eye view of the coastline and the forest below. This was probably our favourite overnight spot – the Andre huts are situated in a little bay right on the ocean and we were rewarded with a fantastic sunset all the hues of the rainbow as we dried our kit, showered and warmed up by the fire.
Never has a cup of tea, clear stream water and a handful of nuts followed by rice, olives and pesto tasted so good! All finished off with a few squares of delicious dark chocolate. I think we all died that night in our bunks – nothing could have disturbed us from that exhausted slumber.
Our final day was the easiest and shortest – took us three hours to do 6.8km. It was a huge climb out of the gorge but our packs were considerably lighter now all the food had been consumed and we enjoyed the scenic walk along the top through the indigenous flowers and fynbos. It was magical and a cool breeze pushed us along to the exit gate where we stopped to survey the beach below and muster up the last reserves for our final steep descent.
After removing our boots and enjoying the sand between our toes, we had another 2km to go before reaching the Nature’s Valley restaurant where our shuttle driver was going to ferry us back to Port Elizabeth to catch our flights to Joburg. We ate until we could eat no more and sank a rather dodgy Otter Trail shooter while receiving our certificates to prove we had actually completed the hike.
I still say to those intrepid runners who do the Otter dash every year – you haven’t fully experienced the Otter Trail until you’ve done it with a pack on your back and had the time to soak in the atmosphere, cook around a camp-fire, enjoy good company and marvel at the beauty of that tiny part of the world.