The oldest official trekking trail in South Africa - The Otter Trail is the best trek in the country. Located entirely inside the Tsitsikamma National Park, the trail is right in the middle of the famous Garden Route, another one of South Africa’s most famous attractions.
The diversity of the route is what makes it so unique. The Otter trekking trail winds along breathtaking coastal cliffs, in addition to dense and untouched forests, offering trekkers the best of both worlds. Admire the striking rock outcrops, explore the caves, or go for a dip in one of the naturally formed rock pools. Piled high with fauna and flora and graced with impressive waterfalls, and many rivers and streams, this is a place of pure, uninhibited beauty. Over the course of the trek, visitors can enjoy bird watching, wildlife spotting, and tidal pool paddling. Don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for the Cape Clawed Otter, for which the trail was named!
- Start/End Locations: Storms River Mouth Camp (east) to the Groot River Estuary (west)
- Trek difficulty: Medium. For a short distance, there are a lot of ups and downs and changes in altitude, which makes this trek strenuous at times. Children below 12 and adults above 65 years are not permitted to embark on the Otter Trail.
- Trek duration: Five days and four nights. Covers a distance of 45km.
- Remoteness: The trail is well marked and safe. However, the restrictions on the number of trekkers allowed per day (only twelve!), the big changes in elevation, and challenging river crossings certainly make it feel like you’re roughing it alone in the wilderness!
- Accommodation type: There are four stops along the trail that provide basic accommodation. At each stop, there are two wooden huts with bunk beds, thin mattresses, and no bedding. There is one shared toilet and cold-water shower per hut. There is no electricity. Each hut can accommodate 6 people at a time. Firewood is supplied at all the stops and the tap water is drinkable. There is a BBQ area, but hikers will need to provide their own food, pots, pans, and gas stove.
- Best season: Summer (November - March) is the best time to do this trek. The weather is the warmest and the chance of rain is the least. The warmer weather also makes swimming at the waterfall and beaches along the way more enjoyable.
- Permits required: The park only admits 12 hikers per day for the Otter Trail. This means booking well in advance is 100% mandatory (think 6-12 months). Permit for 5 days on the trail costs USD 89 per trekker, which includes accommodation. An additional daily tariff of USD 15 applies per foreigner, money which goes towards the conservation of the National Park.
Note: Purchase a Wild Card (USD 38 per individual person, USD 63 per couple, or USD 75 for a family of seven with two adults) and you are not required to pay the daily tariffs to the National Park. This card should be purchased online ahead of time and can save you some money!
The Otter trekking trail can only be done one way; from east to west. There are only four accommodation points. Trekkers must complete the distance between each point by the end of each day. There are no other accommodation options on this route.
Day 1: Storms River Mouth to Ngubu Huts, 4.8km (roughly 2 hours)
This portion will bring you down to sea level where you’ll scramble over large rocks that lead to Guano Cave, which is worth a stop to explore. After that, continue to the multiple cascades of the majestic waterfall.
(FYI: Known as The Waterfall Trail, this is the furthest point allowed for those not embarking on the full Otter Trail. If you are traveling with people who don’t meet the age requirements, they may accompany you to this point. At this waterfall - 3km away from the starting point - they must turn back to the Storms Rivers Mouth).
Take a dip in the chilly water then continue to the Ngubu Huts, where you will spend the night.
Day 2: Ngubu Huts to Scott Huts, 7.9 km (roughly 4 hours)
The second day has the most ups and downs. The first “up” you’ll reach is the Skilderkrans Koppie, a large, rocky pinnacle offering breathtaking 360-degree views of the ocean and surrounding scenery.
Walk down again and find the side path that leads to Bloubaai Beach. Up from the beach is a wooden deck that provides a lovely viewpoint of the same beach. The path leads down again to another beach, where you’ll find Scott Huts. Spend the night here.
Day 3: Scott Huts to Oakhurst Huts, 7.7 km (roughly 4 hours)
This day requires several river crossings. Keep in mind that the tide chart should be consulted when making the day’s schedule! Be prepared to get wet when crossing the Elandbos River and Lotterings River. This day is considered especially picturesque with the trail winding through gullies, valleys, and rivers.
The Oakhurst Huts are perched on a rocky area above the water. Swim and snorkel in the tidal pools and to discover native marine creatures, or take in the panoramic views from the huts while trying to spot dolphins and other wildlife. Spend the night here.
Day 4: Oakhurst Huts to Andre Huts, 13.8km (roughly 6 hours)
The longest portion of the trek combines the terrain of all the days preceding it. Rock climbing, steep inclines and declines, and the most challenging river cross of all.
The crossing of the notorious Bloukrans River defines this day; the use of the tide chart is imperative to your planning. This river must be crossed at the lowest tide possible to avoid the potentially dangerous situation of being swept away.
Note: DON’T RISK a crossing if the water level is high upon your arrival. There is an Escape Route which can be used (and many do), which leads to the top of a plateau. Cell service becomes available from this altitude and you can call the Ranger Station to arrange a pick up from this point. S/He will drop you to the next starting point.
After the river cross, there’s several more kilometers of ups and downs and beautiful scenery before arriving at the Andre Huts. Located on a pristine beach, this is a lovely setting to enjoy your final evening on the trail.
Day 5: 10.8km (roughly 5 hours), Andre Huts to Groot River, Nature Valley
The hike is not so strenuous on Day 5. The final day is all about enjoying the vistas and photo opportunities.
When you arrive at Nature Valley (the end point), there is a restaurant where you can put up your feet, enjoy a meal, and reminisce on all the wonderful memories from the trek!
The Otter Trail can only be hiked one way, from east to west. If you are looking for a more comfortable and less challenging way to experience a Garden Route trek, check out The Dolphin Trail. Known as a semi-luxurious alternative to the Otter Trail, The Dolphin Trail is a four-day, three-night experience. You will still start at the Storms Mouth River, but head east instead of west. While the sights on the Dolphin Trail and on the Otter trail differ, you do experience a similar environment.
The accommodations are luxury lodges and chalets with extracurricular activities like quad tours, mountain biking, fishing, and golf at offer. You also have the choice of having your bags transported from each accommodation point, so all you carry for the hike is a small day pack.
- Bring water purification tablets and refill your bottles from the rivers and streams along the trail.
- Bring your own bedding, at least a sleeping bag; it’s not provided!
- Pack light. The steepness of the trail makes carrying a heavy pack very difficult and tiring.
- Pack enough food for the entirety of the trek, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.
- Check the tides. River crossings should be attempted at low tide to avoid being swept away in strong currents.
- There is no cell phone reception on the trail, but you should activate a local SIM card in your phone before you embark. In case of emergency, there is an Escape Route near the Bloukrans River that leads up to a plateau where cell service will become available and you can call the Ranger Station to arrange a pick up. Make sure to save emergency numbers for the Park Rangers.
- Take a map of the trail, small first aid kit, thermal blanket, survival bag, rope, water shoes (for river crossings), power bank, and your cell phone.
- Since, it is a technical trekking, involving river crossing and steep ups and downs, a guided tour is highly recommended. An experienced guide will not only give you information, historical insights, but will also ensure a safe journey.
The best plan of action for those who have their own vehicle is to park it at the end point in Nature Valley so it’s there waiting for you when you finish the trek. You’ll then need to arrange transportation back to the starting point. There are several lodges at both the start and end of the trail and many of them will assist you with this if you’re staying with them. If you are booked with a Otter Trail tour, transportation should not be a problem.
The Otter Trail is a worthy addition to any traveler’s Bucket List. It may take some advanced planning, and a very arduous journey but the most scenic coastline in South Africa is worth it all!