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Garden Route - The First 3km Of The Otter

The sun shining brightly in the sky, the ocean’s waves breaking rhythmically to your side, a forest, some boulders and the prospect of some refreshment at a waterfall not too far away. As days go, this one ranks way there on top with about 12,582 of my favourite days ever.

Many things happened on our way to the start of the Otter hiking trail, among which some confused SAN Parks staff members at the gate to Storms River, a herd of curious milk cows, an intense hike to a viewpoint (as all hikes to viewpoints are), a whole camera filled with photos, a picnic lunch and ice cream from the shop, and about a gallon of sunscreen slathered repeatedly over pink legs.

Even though the morning’s hike was yet another magnificent event on our trip through the Garden Route, we were looking forward to the afternoon hike. Being able to walk a part of South Africa’s most well-known hiking trail was something we hadn’t even thought of until we’d read about it in a magazine a few weeks earlier. The previous day we’d hiked the end of the Otter trail, and today we’d hike the first part.

The Otter trail, inaugurated in 1968, is the oldest official hiking trail in South Africa, and is known worldwide for its beauty. It stretches along the coast for 45km and is usually hiked in 5 days. The ocean, the ancient indigenous forest, the rock formations, rivers, caves, waterfalls, and the songs of the abundant birdlife (of which the Knysna loerie must surely be considered the crown) all combine to create one of the most popular places Man has ever set foot. The only obstacle to hiking this trail is availability. Some people will tell you they’ve had to book almost two years in advance, while others were able to find a spot on short notice due to cancellations. You’re also told that you need to be in great shape, and of course there’s the matter of hiking gear.

For these reasons we hadn’t considered hiking the Otter yet. However, the prospect of hiking the first 3km of the trail, with no required gear, for free, was something that fit nicely into our plans. So after lunch That-Man-Who-Knows-How-To-Involve-Me-In-His-Adventures produced some prime encouragement in the form of ice cream and we started off from the parking lot towards the Otter trail. It started with a slow meander into the forest, winding along the rocky shores, and eventually cleared into some grassy terrain. Soon the grass gave way to rocky shores, and before we knew it, we were climbing over boulders and following the yellow otter prints along the way to the goal: a freshwater pool at the base of a waterfall right next to the beach. The prospect of this oasis was the other reason i’d been persuaded to join in the fun.

Now, if you’d been following the adventures during my physical preparations for the Annapurna Circuit, you’d know that my fitness level was nowhere near any pretense of being high, so i’d set off with some apprehension, although with the confidence that 3km was well within my capabilities. That being said, the route was tough enough. After about an hour or so we arrived at the waterfall, and it was worth every single rock i'd had to clamber over. Streams of icy water cascading over several terraces into a pool so dark it creates the illusion of bottomlessness beckoned us and we gladly obliged.

There were several groups of visitors either swimming in the pool or baking like geckos on the rocks. That-Man was commissioned to explore first, and by the way he was sitting at the waterside, dipping his toes gingerly into the pool and splashing himself profusely with the water before slowly slipping into it, i knew that i'd have to grow some hair on my teeth, and pronto! He swam to the waterfall and back and got out. The fact that he didn’t hang around any longer warned me again as to the temperature of the water, but i hadn’t gone to all this trouble to merely SEE the waterfall and the pool, so i surrendered the camera to That-Man and approached the water line very gracefully and ladylike. The thoughts racing through my mind when my toes touched the coffee-hued water was not similarly graceful OR ladylike, however. That-Man was sitting on his perch in the sun, grinning all too widely at what i can only assume was my face, my body language and my instantly soprano voice. Determination to experience this beauty of a pool (no matter the temperature) eventually won me over and i descended as fast as i could into the pool (which translates to “as fast as a sloth can climb a tree”). Today it’s impossible to recall whether i could feel my toes and fingers while swimming, but there are some clear memories that still linger in my mind: feeling as if you’re swimming in an abyss due to the dark colour of the water; the birds that swam with me and dove into the water searching for food; swimming to the base of the waterfall and listening to the sound of the water pouring into the pool; drifting on the surface and changing my perspective as I gazed upwards. THIS was what we’d come here for, and i felt thankful in a deep, dear corner of my being. What a tremendous privilege to have this afternoon added to my life.

And then it was time to return. The only thing to keep in mind when walking this way is the tides, and by now the tides were turning and we had to get back to the camp before we were stranded. Only one group were left at the pool when we turned homeward and they soon caught up with us. When we had almost reached the camp again, we encountered a couple starting out, but as they realised there was too little time left to reach the waterfall, they aimed to reach the Guano cave.

The beauty of the forest, the ferocity of the waves against the rocks, the placid bird calls and the coolness of the shade were all lost to the wonder in my mind at the experience i'd just had in the pool. In fact, i didn’t even realise that with wet shorts, my inner thighs had been chafing until it hurt almost unbearably. Yet, even though i walked funny for three whole days afterwards, nothing could overshadow the pool.


• Go before low tide and return before high tide.

• Take your swimsuit

• Take some water

• Look out for the yellow otter paw signs along the way

• Follow the signs that direct you to the Otter Trail or the Waterfall Trail

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