This article documents what you can expect over the 5 Day / 4 Night Otter Trail hike on the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park. If you’re looking for information on how to prepare for the hike, getting to Tsitsikamma and what to do before or after the hike check out my informative article on preparation to hike the Otter Trail.
The total distance is 4.8km and will take 1.5 to 2 hours to reach the waterfall and +-45 more minutes to reach the campsite.
When you get to the South African National Park’s Storms River rest camp you need to present your booking code to the guard at the gate before he lets you in. All hikers have to sign in. Once inside you report to the office where all members complete an indemnity form, pay the SANPARKS conservation fee (presentation of a Wild Card reduces this fee), listen to a safety briefing and receive a copy of the tide charts and a map with important safety information.
This is probably the time that you’d make final adjustments to your backpack, leave any extra items in the car you may have rented and prepare to start the hike.
There is an Otter Room beside the start of the trail with further information and pictures of the trail, drinkable water and flush toilets, and a scale to weigh your backpack. Outside the room is a great place to take a group picture with the start of the “Otter Trail” sign.
You then begin the hike into the forest. It’s not too long before you can hear the sound of the ocean, a familiar sound that you’ll enjoy hearing over the 5 day hike.
There’s a steep staircase leading down to a rocky area in the beach.
A few minutes later you’ll be outside Guano Cave with its impressive 10 x 12m entrance. Leave your backpack on the rocks outside and explore a bit of the cave if you can.
For the next hour you’ll be rock scrambling and walking on some trails to the waterfall at the 2.9km mark. Keep an eye out for dolphins and whales in the ocean.
It’s great to swim in the pool at this waterfall. I took a dip in it in mid-Winter – it’s a bit chilly.
No day hikers are permitted beyond the waterfall.
From then on there’s an easy path through the forest where the canopy can be dense at some times. Try to leave the waterfall at least 30 minutes before sunset or else you’ll be hiking in the dark.
About 4.7km in there’s the path that leads to the hut. It can be a little confusing as the path to the campsite is in a 7 o’clock direction from the trail, whereas the trail continues straight ahead. Maybe there’s another path descending to the campsite. I’m not sure.
At the campsite are the 2 Ngubu Huts. Choose a hut, take a shower (you’ll find it on another trail to the shower beside hut 2), start the braai (barbeque), unpack your gear and pat yourself on the back as you’ve just completed the first day of the Otter Trail.
There are tidal pools in front of the huts. In summer if you bring your snorkelling gear you may be able to spot some interesting marine life. If it’s a moonless night you’ll have amazing views of the night sky.
The total distance is 7.9km and will take 4 to 7 hours (including a few breaks).
After breakfast you’ll begin the day with a steep climb into the forest and soon reach a viewing deck overlooking the ocean and Ngube Huts in the distance.
It’s so peaceful!
Two kilometres further you can take another detour to Blue Bay beach. The trail to this beach is not too obvious.
There’s a steep hike down to the beach. I’ve never been down there myself but I’ve heard that the hike back up is amongst one of the steepest on the Otter Trail. You’ll see the Blue Bay beach a little further away on the trail (beyond the detour) from a viewing platform.
Continue through the forest and follow the staircase that descends steeply to the Kleinbos river.
If the tide is low you should be able to cross the river by stepping over the rocks a little upstream. Worst case scenario is that you roll up your pants to knee level and cross without your hiking boots
Take a good break and have lunch here as the legendary staircases of the Otter Trail are about to begin. There are 3 long flights of stairs (away from each other). Day 2 is generally regarded as the hardest day on the Otter Trail in terms of difficulty (not distance) but there are beautiful sights along the way.
You’ll be glad to arrive at the Scott Huts which is situated beside Geelhoutbos river at the end of the day.
Take a dip in the beach or in the beautiful freshwater pools a little upstream of the river.
Then have a shower, unpack and begin to warm up your supper.
The total distance is 7.7km and will take you 4 to 7 hours (including a few breaks). Look at the tide charts and try to avoid being at Elandsbos at high tide. You should also try to be at the Lottering river at low tide, or at least 3 hours before / after high tide.
Besides Scott Hut cross over the Geelhoutbos river to get onto the path for the day. The water is shallow so you won’t need to remove your hiking boots.
You’ll trek a little through the forest before the path comes alongside the ocean. It’s an epic sight watching and hearing the waves crashing onto the rocks not too far below you. We were able to get cell phone reception here.
There’s quite a few steep staircases at this early part of the day’s trek before you descend onto the beach besides Elandsbos river. If you see anything that looks like a shortcut to the beach, don’t follow it. Follow the path! A few years ago a friend’s backpack got soaked when he misjudged the tide, and this year I thought that the water was shallow until the tide came in unexpectedly. I slipped and fell onto my backpack while trying to seek higher ground on some rocks, landing on my elbow and being in a state of mild shock for 30 minutes afterwards. Once on the beach it’s a good time to relax, have a nice brunch, and swim (in summer).
There will be more staircases after this beach. There’s a narrow passage along a ledge where you get another grand view of Elandsbos river and the beach below you.
There’s an abundance of flora and fauna to see along the way.
There’s one very steep climb onto the scenic plateau before you descend down a steep staircase to the Lottering river.
Many people are only concerned about the Bloukrans river on Day 4 but the Lottering river can be more difficult to cross and appear more intimidating.
Observe the tide and make an informed decision on when to cross; even if it means waiting a few hours for the water levels to subside.
You may need to use your safety bags to secure your backpack, and you’ll definitely need to wear your aqua shoes.
Once you’ve crossed onto the other side if the tide is very low you’’ll be able to swim in the beach. When you’re ready, trek through the forest for another 15 to 20 minutes to reach the Oakhurst Huts campsite.
This is one of the best campsites in my opinion as you’ll have amazing views and sounds of waves breaking against the rocks.
The waves almost sound like thunder throughout the night, especially near high tide.
Enjoy the sunset and go to bed early if you need to start early for the next day’s Bloukrans river crossing.
The total distance is 13.8km and will take 4 to 5.5 hours (including a few breaks) to reach the Bloukrans river and another 2 to 3 hours on what we call the “dead man’s walk” to reach the Andre Hut campsite. You should aim to reach the Bloukrans river 30 to 60 minutes before low tide to assess the conditions and plan the best course of action. The earliest our group has ever left (in doing the Otter Trail 4 times) was 01:50am.
To get onto the Day 4 trail you’ll have to climb the same steep staircase you descended the previous day and then turn left (toward Natures Valley). You’ll be trekking on top of the plateau beside thick vegetation on one side and the edge of the cliff on the other side until you reach the Witels River about 3.5km away.
If you notice a strange foam covering your crossing point at the river try heading a little upstream and cross where there’s no foam. I once crossed through this foam at night and had this horrible seaweed/fish smell on my clothes for the remainder of the hike. Witels River is downstream from the Coldstream river and a human settlement. The water is not safe to drink here.
It’s amazing to hike here around sunrise.
Your pace will decrease considerably between 3.7 km and 6.5 km as there’s lots of rock scrambling. Watch your step!
After 6.5 km there’s a steep staircase that takes you into the forest.
It’s a quick and easy path to follow until you reach the 10km mark where you get to see the mighty (in most cases) Bloukrans river. Read the emergency information and decide whether you want to cross. The E6 emergency exit can be seen at this point. It’s a steep staircase that rises to approximately 210m above sea level. This is a view of Bloukrans near the top of E6.
You should have cell reception at the top to call SANPARKS for assistance.
I’ve used this exit once when the river was very dangerous to cross.
If the crossing looks safe descend down the steep staircase and rocky path to the river.
There’s a number of options to crossing the Bloukrans river.
I’ve taken the A route in calm waters and the C route when the water levels were high (during low tide). The C route can be dangerous as you’ve got to scramble sideways along the rock face with some sharp outcroppings beneath you.
Once you make it to the slipway you can chill on the large rocks overlooking the river and the ocean. It’s a good place to break for a snack before moving on. There is a dangerous narrow ledge immediately after Bloukrans that you need to cross. There are rope chains for you to hold onto for support. Don’t slip and fall as there is a huge risk of fatal injury.
Once across you’re on a beach with lots of rocks and seashells. Make your way across until you reach the path.
There’s 2 or 3 more steep staircases to climb until you reach the relatively easy path onto the plateau that descends to André huts.
Previously you had to climb down to the campsite along a steep path with rocks. However, this part of the trail has recently been upgraded with an easy to walk staircase.
Andre Hut has a cool outdoor shower where 3 sides of the shower have walls and the one side is open facing out towards the ocean. Hut 1 and Hut 2 are a little distant from each other (relative to the other campsites).
Enjoy your final night on the Otter Trail. You’ll be able to see the lights from nearby Plettenberg Bay in the distance and have cell phone reception.
The total distance for the day is 6.8km and will take 3 hours (with minimal breaks) for you to get to Nature’s Valley beach. There is still another +-45 minutes to cover the last 2 to 3km to the restaurant where everyone usually ends the hike at.
You’ll begin the trek by hiking up another steep staircase to a viewing deck on top of the plateau.
The climb looks much steeper than it actually feels, but it’ll be over in about 20 minutes.
From then on it’s easy hiking along the plateau passing by beautiful flora and fauna, including the Protea Flower (the indigenous National Flower of South Africa).
It’s then a generally flat hike until until you reach the gate at the end of the trail at “The Point”, a panoramic viewing area (for day hikers from Nature’s Valley).
When you see the signpost on the gate behind you stating no entry is permitted you realise how fortunate you were to have exclusive use of the Otter Trail and how lucky you are to be one of so few people in the world to complete hiking this trail. Descend down the staircase onto Nature’s Valley beach.
Your trek isn’t over yet. You still have to remove your boots and make sure your pants are folded above your knees to get across the Groot River. You can take one final swim here (just be aware of the strong current at certain times).
You’ve now officially completed the Otter Trail hike. There’s a nice lake beside the beach at Natures Valley.
If you’d like a hot shower, head on towards Natures Valley Rest Camp
If you’re pining for an ice cold drink, some hot food and souvenirs of the Otter Trail, head on to the Natures Valley Restaurant and Trading Store just over 2km away.
There’s also a cold beach shower opposite the restaurant (if you’re short on time for a hot shower at the rest camp).
We normally have a shuttle collect us at 1:00 pm at the restaurant for a trip to George Airport (for our 5pm flights back home).
Make sure you check out the Otter Trail Preparation Guide for information on packing lists, when to go, how to get to Tsitsikamma and pre/post-hiking activity, restaurant and accommodation recommendations.
Special Thanks to Yusuf Akoojee, Bilal Randeree and M.H. for use of their images in this article, Batuta Food & Leisure for organising the trips, all my friends for arranging other aspects of the trip (food in particular!) and making it an awesome experience each year, and SANPARKS for maintaining the trail & facilities in excellent condition and providing a high quality service to the hikers.