Oakhurst to Andre, 14.5 km, 8 hours
A long whistle cut through the inky darkness … No, it didn’t (it wasn’t necessary), but that had been our plan to make sure everyone was up on time, at 02h30 in the morning.
For those who don’t already know this about the Otter Trail, the most challenging crossing is that of the Bloukrans River on day four. If you don’t arrive within an hour of low tide, you are unlikely to be able to cross at all. As luck would have it, low tide on our Bloukrans day was at 09h00, and since we had 10 km to hike before reaching the river, we had to leave at 04h00 sharp and maintain a pace of at least 2 km per hour.
Marno’s video, available here (see 20:30), captured the scene inside our cabin after our middle-of-the-night wake-up call: Talitha (the night owl) took a while to muster the courage to get up, Tim tested his ankle and found it to be sound (hooray!) and I munched on my overnight oats – a fantastic option if you’re unable to boil water or know you’ll be pressed for time the next morning, by the way.
Our preferred warm-ups differed that day ... Marno went through a short yoga sequence, Dehan and I simply stretched, but Clifford – dare I put it down in ‘print’ – twerked! 😊
Starting a trail in the pitch dark is always exciting, whether you know there’s a big river waiting for you or not. That morning (night?) there was a sense of anticipation and appreciation that permeated the group, and after getting a couple of kilometres under our belts, we stopped to enjoy the sunrise.
Those who have hiked through a forest in the early morning may well know what my only complaint was … Spiderwebs! Even in daylight and when you wave a stick ahead of you, those little strands manage to escape capture, tickling your cheeks, nostrils and lips and giving rise to all manner of phantom itches too. So imagine dealing with that in the dark with only a headlamp to guide you. Thankfully, my hiking buddies took turns in front as well, saving me from being driven half mad by too many unexpected need-to-brush-off-my-face moments.
The first river we came to was the Witels River. It was a little … daintier … than some of the others we’d crossed, with millions of tiny yellow flowers decorating green banks next to the gentle flow of water.
After that, the trail took us across rocky beaches and past sheltered spots where weathered driftwood had accumulated over many high tides. We even saw a large pod of dolphins swim past when we stopped for a snack.
It was along this stretch of coastline that I asked one of the guys to take a photo of me pretending to use my hiking pole as a telescope.
The story behind this is that Cindy, one of our receptionists at Sunset Beach Veterinary Clinic, had misunderstood what a ‘telescopic hiking pole’ was. We’d laughed about it at work in the days leading up to the trip, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to take this pic and tease her a little.
(Laughter was one of the things Cindy did best – the reason we called her Ms Sunshine – and when she lost her battle against Covid-19 in August 2021, the hole she left behind was one of unnatural stillness. I’ll always think of her when I remember this stretch of the trail or look through these photos. Yellow flowers, the ‘telescopic hiking pole’ and dolphins – right up Ms Sunshine’s alley.)
We made good time and reached the Bloukrans River a few minutes before low tide. I remember how I felt when it first came into view: the butterflies of excited anticipation were tickling my belly and there was a part of me (the adventurous go-getter) that actually hoped we’d have to swim across!
Because we’d arrived at the perfect time, we could cross using route A (in dark green above), heading for the cove closest to the sea. Despite this situation (and the conditions) being ideal, the crossing still required better preparation than our previous ones.
I’d learnt my lesson re. the rocks, so followed my friends’ lead when they moved onto the sand to pack survival bags. Clifford and Dehan again shared a survival bag (the thinking behind this being that if one was damaged, they’d still have an unspoiled back-up) and Marno kindly offered to share his intact survival bag with me. We also opted to remove shoes, socks and outer clothing, and actually place these items inside the survival bags.
Once ready, we headed into the water. The first part was super easy, and even when in the middle of the stream of the river, the water was only about hip-height; but navigating between the large, unseen rocks in the cove while keeping balance when small waves broke was trickier.
The downside of putting two packs in one survival bag was that the package was twice as large (and twice as heavy) and it was awkward to carry it between two people while watching out for rocks and waves. And it didn’t help that I spotted leopard tracks in the sand when exiting the water, getting so excited that I nearly dropped the survival bag Marno and I were supporting between us!
A leopard would have come in handy when we encountered a troop of baboons further along the trail. Thankfully, they seemed wary of us and sat in complete silence, barely visible in the forest a few metres off the path, as we passed by. (Unlike the menaces at Andre Hut! But more on that later.)
It wasn’t that late in the day, but we’d been on the go since very early and we felt it. Half of the group decided to stop for lunch and a siesta in the shade looking out over a beautiful near-white beach with piles of sun-bleached driftwood dotted here and there.
Marno built a cairn (Apparently, he didn’t learn from our experience being misled by wayward cairns in the Cederberg … Read about it here.) and then the rest of us pushed on towards Andre Hut. We didn’t want to get our hopes up for our last night on trail, so we decided to play a game of sorts. We pretended the hut was going to be average, discussing mediocre details in bored tones while we hiked along the clifftop.
Only to find it was the best one of the lot! Not only was it right on the beach, complete with an open-air shower and a toilet with a view, but the supplementary tents were huge and had been set up in the deep shade of the coastal forest.
I enjoyed a quiet moment by myself in the forest that afternoon. But in the forest you’re never truly alone. I was deep in thought, drinking in the bliss of the trail in general and that patch of forest in particular, when there was a barely audible flutter of wings above me. I looked up, and saw a beautiful Chorister Robin Chat looking down at me intently from a branch barely two metres away. He was quiet at first, but a minute or two later did grace me with a song.
My fellow hikers were having a less peaceful afternoon. I returned to the communal area to hear that there were two male baboons around. They still harboured a degree of fear (for men only, I suspect) so didn’t come to our kitchen area while we were all sitting there, but they got into the dustbins and my camping soap in its little Tupperware container had mysteriously disappeared from the basin.
In addition to the baboon raid, Nigel had experienced a mishap with his stove. It was a delightful vintage model that looked like it belonged in an explorer’s museum and used a combination of methylated spirits and benzene, but it had served him faithfully for over 30 years. Clifford, in his typical dry fashion, simply stated that it had been on fire and looked like it might explode. Dehan (the forester), on the other hand, had been more stressed – specifically about it starting a fire – and he emphatically insisted that no, it had NOT been fine!
Clifford’s camping stove technique is worth a mention here and will probably shed some light on why he wasn’t too concerned about Nigel’s mishap. On a number of occasions along this trail, I saw him light his stove by first switching on his gas and then waving the stovetop in the general direction of someone else’s already-lit camping stove. Sometimes, he’d open the gas, then pick up a lit stove and tip it over to light his. The ease and nonchalance with which he twirled and flung these camping stoves around was frightening to me, but I’m certain he knew what he was doing and it was all quite safe.
Although a little cramped, we enjoyed all sitting and cooking around one table that evening. Marno struggled to interview Jess and Aubrey for his video (see 25:35 here) and Tim and Talitha went heavy on the garlic that night, but it was a ‘gesellige’ last night on trail nonetheless.
To catch up on Otter Trail Day 1, click here.
To catch up on Otter Trail Day 2, click here.
To catch up on Otter Trail Day 3, click here.
To move on to Otter Trail Day 5, click here.