The Otter trail is a spectacular 5 day hike along the coast of the Tsitsikamma National Park, situated at the border between the Western and Eastern Cape in South Africa. The National Park belongs to the popular Garden Route National Park and is the first Marine Park established in South Africa. Its name originates from the following two Hottentot words: tse-tsesa (clear) and gami (water), most likely relating to the clear water of the Tsitsikamma River. The 42 km long trail leads you through an amazing landscape where you can spot a lot of coastal wildlife – e.g. dolphins, seals, whales and birds. However, we did not encounter the famous mascot of the trail, the Cape clawless otter. But the daily appearance of breaching whales and surfing dolphins during sunset certainly made up for this no-show.
The path winds along the coast in a constant up and down, alternating between rocky beach paths and tracks through indigenous forest. The Otter trail is also famous for its plant diversity. Tsitsikamma represents an important section of the Cape floral region, one of South Africa´s eight World Heritage sites.
Each daily hike takes between 2-6 hours. This means, if you start the day early, you have plenty of time to still explore the surroundings and go for a swim in the sea – a perfect trail for nature lovers. The track itself is very well maintained and marked, making it also suitable for unexperienced hikers. And, don’t forget one important fact, only 12 people per day are allowed to start the hike. This guarantees a unique nature experience far away from any human crowds!
Otter Trail – General Information
TOTAL LENGTH: 42km
START – Finish: The Otter trail starts in Storms River Mouth Rest Camp – Nature’s Valley
SLEEPING FACILITIES: Two overnight huts each with 6 bunk beds and mattresses. Firewood, drinking water, cold water showers, western style flush toilets (sea view included) and braai area available. Water may be unavailable at the huts during periods of low rainfall.
BEST TIME TO GO: All year round. Watch the whales breach during sunset from May-December, swim in the rivers and ocean during summer or enjoy the mild winter weather.
WHERE TO REGISTER: Register and check availability with SANParks.
DIFFICULTY: Easy hike, well marked trails and plenty of exit routes.
IMPORTANT NOTES: The Otter Trail is the most famous hike in South Africa – you have to book several months in advance. Two river crossings during the hike. Depending on the season, large dry bags and swimming abilities required. Start the day early, it gets quite hot during the summer months.
When you sign in for the hike at the ranger office in Storms River Mouth, you will get a tide table and a basic map including a short description of every days hike. However, it is so well signed and offers several escape routes that you basically cannot get lost and help is usually just a few minutes away.
The water quality of most streams is suitable for drinking purposes without the need of purification tablets or water filters.
Baboons are most likely causing you a bit of trouble on the trail. They know the schedule of the hikers and wait for you at the hut when you arrive, during dinner and breakfast. Take a sling shot or equip yourself with stones and ALWAYS close the door of the hut.
Length: 4.7 km (≈ 2 hours) – Elevation gain: 130m – Elevation loss: 308 m
The first hike of the Otter trail is a perfect warm up day – short, but beautiful. Following registration at the park office (mandatory), the path leads you down to the sea. After about one hour and some bolder-hopping, you will encounter a waterfall, a perfect spot for a lunch break and a little swim. Another hour of walking, including a little climb through the forest and you will reach the first hut. Due to the short distance, there is lots of time available for spotting wildlife – we saw some big spiders, millipedes and even a southern right whale in the distance!
Length: 10.7 km (≈ 4-5 hours) – Elevation gain: 694m – Elevation loss: 694m
A long and strenuous day lays ahead of you. The second day of the Otter trail is quite challenging. The path zig-zags along the coast and one has to constantly climb and descend, tiring the legs a bit. Luckily there are several beautiful places at the beach to stop for a little rest (we were recommended to have a lunch break at Boulders beach but we missed the sign). About 1 hour before arriving at the hut, you will find a lookout providing an unforgettable view over the coast. You should definitely rest there for a photo session! Keep an eye out for breeding birds – we spotted several along the way, including a “future dad” preparing the nest. If you start the hike early, you will arrive on time to spend the afternoon strolling around in the beautiful forest surrounding the cabin: you can follow the little rivers looking for wildlife, go for beach yoga or relax in the sun reading a book. The cabin is ideally situated to enjoy the sunset – one just has to climb over the rocks to get the full view. After such a strenuous day, a campfire and smores in company of the other hikers represent the perfect finish of the day.
Length: 8.86 km (≈ 4 hours) – Elevation gain: 637m – Elevation loss: 643m
Start your day according to the tide time table you were given at the park information center! Today, you have to do the first “real” river crossing, the Lottering River. The walk to reach the Lottering River is quite easy on an already familiar bit of rocky path along the coast. Since we did the Otter trail in summer (beginning of December), the water of the Lottering River was so low we could easily walk through it barefoot. Yet, be aware that you might have to swim through it during the wetter season. Due to the early start, we decided to have a rest in the bay before the final climb to the cabin which was built at the banks of the river facing the sea. However, we were soon surprised by several prying baboons and decided to continue before getting in a fight with them. There were several little rock pools around the cabin – ideal for a swim. If you have time, the banks of the Lottering River are worth being explored in the afternoon – you will find some fish, birds and other insects! Just bear in mind the tide time table so that your way back won’t be cut off.
Length: 13.9 km (≈ 6 hours) – Elevation gain: 731m – Elevation loss: 729m
One more time you have to start the day as early as required by the tide time table for the crossing of Bloukrans River which you will reach after about 10 km. The hike itself is moderate, just a bit slippery when wet. Before descending down to the river, there is a lookout providing you with a magnificent sight over the coast and the river bank. Depending on the season, this river crossing can be very demanding (swim and put all your belongings in a water-proof bag) or rather easy and funny (walk knee to hip-deep in the water). It is essential to cross the river within half an hour of the incoming tide. You will continue for another two hours, mostly doing awesome cliff walks. At the cabin, one can directly swim in the sea, just be aware of jelly fish – we saw some while getting out of the water. The scenery here is breathtaking. We witnessed an amazing sunset as well as several marine animals passing by: a whale, many dolphins and even a seal playing around in the waves! One important note, though: Pay attention to the baboons! Lock the doors and bring all belongings inside (as with every overnight hut). Since you are now closer to “civilization”, they are used to human beings and can only be scared by throwing stones, broom sticks and loud shouting. They steal everything from backpacks to food, clothes and even waste bins.
Length: 11 km (≈ 3.5 hours – Elevation gain: 426m – Elevation loss: 438m
Recommendation: if the weather is good – start early to watch the sunrise from the first lookout! It is only a 20-30 min climb from the hut. You could have your breakfast there instead of down in the bay (arm yourself with some stones to scare of the baboons, though). Apart from the first climb, it is a fairly easy hike on top of the cliffs surrounded by an exceptional flora and fauna. Many different plants are growing sideways of the path, among others the national flower of South Africa, the King Protea. Just before the descend, down to the beach of Nature’s Valley, there is an ideal place for a snack break with a view over the whole coast. Back at the beach in Nature’s Valley you can either arrange for a pick up or continue another 3.6 km to the tourist office where it is mandatory to sign off (if you decide to walk, take the lake route. It is longer, but much more beautiful). If you have a car, as a reward, you should definitely go to the pub in Nature’s valley for a second burger breakfast (the vegetarian version is also super tasty).