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Travelling Friends and the Otter Trail…


Years ago I said that I would only ever visit a place once, unless it impressed the hell out of me.  Well, I’ve grown to love South Africa, and moreover I have a wonderful friend there – Sibusiso Vilane.  I spoke about friendship in my last blog and how the mountains have a way of bonding people together, and so it was that Sibusiso and I met back in 2006…

We met in Jakarta on the way to climb Carstensz Pyramid on Iran Jaya.  The trip was a little too much of a success as we summited so fast, that we didn’t know what else to do with our time.  I was already a seasoned traveler and together we toured Sulawesi and Java, before heading home.  We have trekked and climbed together ever since.  A few years ago we crossed the Drakensburgs and there the idea was born of walking the Otter Trail.  Well, our day had come…

I’d been having a though time at home with sleeping, but something clicked as soon as I stepped on the plane south.  I think I was out for most of the flying, although I looked down onto the darkening Alps before the sun finally left for the day.  It rose again as we passed Kilimanjaro.  Within a few hours the flight touched down in Johannesburg, where I headed east to Nelspruit.  There I met Sibusiso and his wonderful family with hugs and laughter.  I had been travelling for over 25 hours, but such is the world of adventure.

After a brief foray into the Kruger National Park (still haven’t seen a leopard in the wild), we set off south for Storms River Mouth on a monster 1600km (1000 mile) drive.

We set off from Nelspruit at 9pm, cleared Johannesburg by midnight and dodged a maze of HGV’s playing Wacky Races, through miles of road works in driving rain.  It was hardly ideal, but the skies cleared, and the sun rose just after the South African National Anthem was played in the radio at 6am.  It was a burning dawn, with crimson beams illuminating boulder strewn peaks, which overlooked open farmland.  The straight road held a strange beauty in country such as this, but it can also be a danger as boredom creeps in.  We were overloaded on coffee and had to hope that the daylight would keep us both awake.

We passed Bloemfontein and crossed huge expenses of open country, before descending to the sea at Port Elizabeth.  The midday sun was searing hot, particularly behind the glass, but the open roads were swift and sparsely populated.  There were reminders of home, with towns named St. Alban’s, Colchester and Bedford, and hills strewn with huge wind turbines.

We eventually arrived at the Storms River Mouth at 4pm -19 almost hours solid on the road.  This trip really was turning out to be one of long journeys…

I find it hard to describe what awaited our eyes.  We were booked into a small wooden bungalow only feet from dramatic rocks which formed the shoreline.  Rock Hyrax’s ran across the lawns and under the stilted buildings, but the real treat was the sea.  Violent waves smashed relentlessly against a line of jagged rocks, throwing plumes of froth skyward.  Just one crash took your breath away, before another, and another, and another.  You dare not blink in case you missed something.  The cool onshore breeze refreshed my lungs after the long drive, and whatever anguish my soul retained was washed away in the surf.  It seemed that nature had blended her beauty and fear,  condensing it all into one.  I had been warned that no matter what camera I had, there would never be enough battery power and memory cards in the world, to cover the Otter Trail.  From my first views of this brutally beautiful shoreline I could see what people meant.

The next morning we set off to begin our walk.  Maps and guides were given to us, but the path is well-worn and we reached the Ngumu Huts at midday.  Though a short walk (4.8 km) again and again the scenery stunned you.  Cascading waterfalls, quartz strewn shorelines, thick rainforest canopy etc.  Words can hardly describe the place. I dived into a deep rock pool for a dust cleansing swim, before relaxing on the shore as the waves crashed before me.  I was living in an idyll.

The day ended as it had begun, with a sunset as powerful as the twilight of the gods.

The trail is restricted to twelve people a day in an attempt to reduce out environmental impact.  We met out fellow walkers as the sun left the skies and darkness fell.  They were a group of students who had met at university in Pretoria. They, like Sibusiso and I, were walking because of friendship.

The bright moon highlighted a wispy cloud front coming in, and I had an awful feeling about tomorrow’s weather…

The dawn brought thick cloud and rain.  Thankfully it cleared after a couple of hours and though the sun struggled to break through, we were given a lovely, breezy day.

The trail to the Scott Huts (7.9km) felt harder that the distance looks.  Continuous up and down along the cliff edges, slippery paths and an entertaining tidal river crossing at Kleinbos made it a hard walk.  The quartz outcrop at Skilderkrans allowed extensive views east and west along the dramatic coast.  The sea, as ever was smashing itself against the rocks with great vigour all day.  I was happy for the extensive cloud cover as I had caught the sun whilst swimming yesterday and I didn’t want to be burned.

Sibusiso and I arrived at the Scott Huts just past 3pm.  It is situated in a beautiful bay about 100yds wide with crashing waves running up it.  Evidence of baboons was everywhere as a waste bin had been torn open and it’s contents strewn across the bay. Otter tracks littered the beach, but no animals were seen that evening.  We relaxed as the light fell and powerful moonlight illuminated the lonely bay.

The next day was a real tester.  Not in distance, but in swimming ability. Walking to the Oakhurst Huts brought more stunning scenery.  Oyster catchers rode the rocks as waves smashed against them, the power of the sea became more apparent and the country opened up.  We crossed the Elandsbos River easily enough, the guidebook description for crossing the Lottering River was less than helpful. ‘Prepare yourself for a swim’ was true enough, but being swept up and downstream at a stiff walking pace with a bag on your head isn’t fun.  We decided to split the weights and do a couple of crossings, which worked, but I came out with aching ribs and bleeding shins after being scraped across underwater rocks.

Thankfully the Oakhurst Huts were close by and we all collapsed in varying states of repair. All ten of us had worked together, but even then we found it a hair-raising experience.  I’d learned many years ago about waterproofing your kit after being on a boat which sank in Borneo.  My gear is all stored in canoe bags, but a few folk only used plastic, or survival bag, which leaked and kit was strewn around the huts drying all evening.  The worry was that the well reported Bloukrans River crossing was tomorrow and the rangers had warned us about it dangers.

My alarm sounded at 03:30am.  Outside it was dark, damp and dismal. Rain fell almost continually for the 10km section before the river crossing.  It’s a typically tropical problem that though you’re getting soaked, but it’s too warm to wear any waterproofs.  Dawn broke around 06:00 allowing us to switch off our headlamps, but there was no time to dawdle as our tide tables gave 09:10 as the best time to cross the Bloukrans River.  Thankfully we were in plenty of time and brewed up before crossing.

It wasn’t that bad really.  For all the scare stories and warnings, I was never more than thigh deep and even crossed whilst eating my breakfast.  Bear Grylls eat your heart out..! After a short rock scramble there was a couple of hour stretch to the Andre Huts.  The sun threatened to poke through, but failed, which disappointed me.  I was soaked all over and aching to dry out.  A large blister had appeared on my right heel and I needed to rest.  For the first time on the trail I felt jaded and spent the afternoon recovering.

Thankfully the sun broke through for the final days walk.  We climbed a steep path to the cliff tops and we’re lucky enough to spot otters playing in the sea.  What a beautiful sight they were, bounding around in the approaching tide like children at play.

The trail opened up and became an easy walk until we overlooked the resort of Nature’s Valley, with its wide open sands and rolling waves.  Mentally you think you’re there, but a disappointing drag through the trees and finally onto a sealed road brought the trail to an end at the De Vasselot camp.  Sibusiso had organised transport back to the start, and we were soon on our way back, via the traffic jams.  The Easter holidays were here and so were the tourists.  Roads were clogged and parking was difficult, but a hot shower and a decent meal made the day.  The numbers of tourists reminded me of seaside Bank Holidays back at home.  Too many people, in too small a space…

We headed north, driving overnight to Johannesburg (another 16 hours), before I could finally relax.  Climbing friend Paul Gurney and his wife Ally were living in the city, so now seemed an excellent opportunity to catch up.  Paul and I had climbed together on Mt. Elbrus in 2012 and we toured the city and relaxed before I headed home to the UK.

My thanks to Sibusiso and his family, and Paul & Ally Gurney for their friendship and hospitality.

My life has been forever altered my temperature, and here I have an interesting few weeks coming up.  The +30C of Johannesburg will very shortly be replaced with the -30C of Greenland.

I must be mad…

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