Add the Otter Trail to your bucket list

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Starfish ponds and skinny dips. Clawless otters and baby seals. Dust and sweat and up up up. These are the highs and lows of the Otter Hiking Trail, as discovered by three Rhodes students and two friends who completed South Africa’s most popular trail in January.

Starfish ponds and skinny dips. Clawless otters and baby seals. Dust and sweat and up up up. These are the highs and lows of the Otter Hiking Trail, as discovered by three Rhodes students and two friends who completed South Africa’s most popular trail in January.

Journalism Masters student Romi Reinecke says the 42.2km hike between Storms River Mouth and Nature’s Valley should be on every South African’s list of things to do before they die.

“You want to go to Thailand, Mauritius or the Philippines to see beautiful coastlines and wild, untouched places. But you don’t have to go on a plane. You can hop in your car and be there in three hours from Grahamstown. And it’s relatively cheap compared to other getaways. Even as a student, it’s affordable,” she said.

However, at R810 for the fabled five-day trail plus R130 to enter the Tsitsikamma National Park, it might not suit the pockets of all students or even working people. An added challenge is also to secure a booking, for which even the South African National Parks’ website states perseverance as a requirement.

But ex-Rhodent freelance writer Nicola Rushmere, who led the trip, believes it’s well worth the wait. Her highlights included watching dolphins surf off the coast and spotting Knysna loeries and African black oystercatchers.

She informed the group on day one that oystercatchers mate for life – a piece of information repeated with such zeal that the four others actively sought out the missing partner whenever catching sight of the endangered wader. The ‘sky pool’ on the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean on day four was also a favourite feature.

“That was before things got bad, really bad,” said Rushmere, referring to the notorious uphills of the undulating trail, of which there were no shortage. Wits Genetic Counselling Masters student Megan Morris agreed that “those hills” were the most taxing part of the hike.

Clambering out of the valley after the Bloukrans River crossing was especially daunting. But for many, the river crossings rather than the hills are the greatest challenge of this character-building trail. Crossing the Bloukrans was particularly dangerous as the group was forced to attempt it near high tide, despite leaving at 5am that morning.

But when Rushmere spotted two Cape clawless otters, a rarity on the eponymous trail, it made each trial worth it. It was the small luxuries that Rhodes second year student Frances Hannah brought along that she appreciated most.

These included a pair of stokies, fresh herbs in every evening meal, Old Brown Sherry on the hut stoep and an Irish coffee before dinner. “I don’t know why it’s all got to do with alcohol. You can see I’m a Rhodent,” she chuckled.

Her lowlight was falling asleep on the stoep at Andre hut and waking up to make a meal of soy mince and smash. “It looked like dog food,” she grimaced. “But then I found a baby seal and it was fine.” Hannah said she learned a lot on the trail, like not to take chances and to work as a team.

She loved being among the fynbos, “not giving a crud about my sodden, sweaty shirt and socks, and just being able to embrace nature.” And what better way to embrace nature than through a skinny dip or two? Favourite spots for the age-old pastime included the sky pool and a secret cove just before the end of the trail. Being an all-girl group suited the five well, and one in particular, who said that not having to wear a bra in the evenings was what she loved most.

What, with nicknames like Naughty Nicola, Revealing Ruth and Reckless Romi (the meanings of which will be reserved), there was no end to the playfulness on the trip. The words ‘literally’ and ‘awkward’ were also dished out with much enthusiasm. Literally.

Playful competition with “Team B”, another group that occupied the second hut of the trail, was just as common. Although Team B was unable to reach their hut by lunchtime like “the A Team”, but it did manage to impress the five gals by producing a bottle of caramel vodka just before sundowners at Oakhurst hut.

Whether it’s marine wildlife and virgin forests or embracing nature in the nuddy that floats your boat, the Otter Hiking Trail is a must for any adventure-seeker’s bucket list. The trail reinforced that the toughest uphills and the simplest pleasures remind us that we are alive. Thailand, Mauritius or the Philippines can wait for another lifetime.

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