Complete guide to The Otter Trail – Tsitsikamma
The Otter Trail
How to book
When to go
The trail overview
Day 1 - 5 in detail
What to pack
You are reading our guide to the Otter Trail. To read about our hike in May, click below:
The Otter Trail
The Otter Trail is on many top-ten-lists of South Africa’s best hiking trails. It’s the oldest official trail and arguably the most iconic. Every step of the way, you are treated to views of the spectacular Garden Route coastline, the verdant Tsitsikama forest, fragrant fynbos, the sound of the ocean, not to mention the sunsets and sunrises every day. It’s an absolute must.
How to book
The Otter Trail is often fully booked. SANParks now take bookings up to a maximum of 1 year in advance.
Get a group of 6 or 12 friends together and book one or both of the six-sleeper huts. It’s always easier to share with people you know. Think carefully, because they will be the only people you see for 5 days :)
Plan ahead and select a weekend well in advance. You can check availability here. If it’s over a long weekend or public holiday, phone on the morning a year in advance of your planned hike.
The current price is R1150 per person for the five days. There is a small SANParks conservation fee payable upon arrival.
When to go
The Otter is a great all-year-round hike. February, March and April are preferable due to reasonable average temperatures (good for hiking and swimming) and less rainfall than other warmer months.
Choosing when to go is a trade-off between comfortable hiking weather and good swimming weather. Summer can be hot and humid and a killer on the uphills, but makes swimming so much better. That said, river crossings in the middle of winter are by no means fun.
Average Length of Day
With most days only requiring between 4 and 6 hours of hiking, you won’t be pressed for time. On days with early river crossings, longer days mean less night hiking. Night hiking is an adventure, but you miss all the scenery.
This region has a high yearly rainfall. Rain occurs all year round and peaks in Spring – August, September & October. Another reason to waterproof your sleeping bag, clothes and gear.
Average Number of Rainy Days
Hiking the entire Otter without getting caught in the rain is the exception rather than the norm. Even the dry months have 8 or 9 days of rain per month. Keep your rain jacket and pack cover handy.
The Trail Overview
The trail is 42 kilometres long, split over 5 days. Recently, SANParks has changed the route to make the Die Vasselot Campsite the end destination, which sits slightly outside of Natures Valley. One can add an additional 2.5 kilometres on the last day if you, like most Otter hikers, want to end your hike with a cold beer in hand at The Valley Inn.
One has to be relatively fit for The Otter. While the daily distances are short, the trail gains and looses 200 metres of altitude from sea level to the plateau atop the cliffs, multiple times a day. Keep your pack light!
Take your time and enjoy the scenery, there's no need to rush the day's hiking. Rather stop for a cup of coffee at the river crossings and explore, go for a swim or just sit at a lookout point and take it all in. Even at a leisurely pace, one can make it to the huts with plenty of daylight to spare.
The trail itself is beautifully maintained by the SANParks team. The majority of ascents and descents have wooden stairs, which is a huge help in the rain. Directional signage and emergency exits are clearly marked. It’s hard to get lost, even when you’re lost in thought.
Maps are available at the start of the hike from the SANParks Office and are perfectly sufficient. Tracks for Africa designed a set of really good maps. They feature points of interest, elevation charts and distance measurements. They are by far the best maps out there. Download them here or check out their site. They include an elevation chart which is very helpful for managing expectations over the amount of uphills and downhills in a day.
Day 1 - 5 in detail
Distance: 4,8 kilometres
Estimated hiking time: 3 hours, including swimming and exploring sights.
From: The Otter Room to Ngubu Hut
Total elevation gained: 240 metres
Total elevation lost: 430 metres
Distance: 8,2 kilometres
Estimated hiking time: 4 hours
From: Ngubu Hut to Scott Hut
Total elevation gained: 750 metres
Total elevation lost: 750 metres
Distance: 7,5 kilometres
Estimated hiking time: 4 hours
From Scott Hut to Oakhurst Hut
Total elevation gained: 590 metres
Total elevation lost: 580 metre
Distance: 14,5 kilometres
Estimated hiking time: 7 hours, including the Bloukrans River crossing.
From: Oakhurst Hut to André Hut
Total elevation gained: 1140 metres
Total elevation lost: 1150 metres
Distance: 10,5 kilometres (+2,5 kilometres back to Nature's Valley)
Estimated hiking time: 5 hours (+1 hour)
From: Oakhurst Hut to Die Vasselot Camp and back to The Valley Inn.
Total elevation gained: 580 metres
Total elevation lost: 580 metres
The Otter Huts
There are few places in South Africa where you will find private beach accommodation with such a magnificent location for this cheap! The huts are nestled between the coastal forest and the beach.
Ngubu Hut, at the end of day one. The rockpools are well worth exploring and are teeming with enormous anemones, starfish, crustaceans, fish and you might even see an octopus or two. The rocks near the pools are also a great place to watch the sun set or to stare at the distant lights of Plettenberg Bay at night.
Scott Hut, on day two, is situated on a pebbly beach at the wide mouth of the Geelhoutbos River. Also home to some Spotted Genets who managed to give some of the hikers on our group a minor heart attack.
Oakhurst Hut, at the end of day three, sits slightly upstream from the Lottering River Mouth. There’s a great sundowner spot on the rocks in front of the cabin. One can sit and watch giant waves from the Indian Ocean crashing against the cliffs, all backlit by the setting sun. Remember the sherry!
Andé Hut is the last hut on the trail. The descent to the bay is rough at the end of a long day and the ascent the next morning a rude awakening to stiff legs. The bay is rocky, but there are some flat sandy gullies. Keep an eye out for incoming waves, it is good for wading in and cooling off, but not safe to swim. Get up early and hike to the top of the cliffs the next morning to have a breakfast with an awe-inspiring ocean view.
Each camp has two 6-sleeper huts with bunk beds. (After the first night the occupants are swiftly divided into ‘snorers’ and ‘non-snorers’). They also feature a communal kitchen (a table), cold shower, clothesline and a braai area.
One very unique feature at each camp is the loo with a view. The view depends on the time of day. During the day, a framed view of the ocean. At night it becomes a view from the outside of the person using the loo as the light inside the toilet turns the one way glass into a window.
The trail crosses 15 rivers in the 5 days. Some small perennial streams, some big enough to get washed away in. There have been numerous instances where hikers got caught unawares and had to be saved by sea rescue (note, not mountain rescue).
The Bloukrans River, on the fourth day, is the biggest crossing and is the only one that requires advanced planning. To be safe, it has to be crossed within half an hour of low tide.
Upon arrival at the SANParks gate, get a tide chart and look at the time of low tide on the fourth day. Work backwards to accommodate for the 11 kilometres that one has to cover before you reach the Bloukrans River, around 6 hours, to get your departure time from Oakhurst Hut. SA Tides also have long term tidal forecasts. You can view Knysna’s forecast here and select a date.
There’s lots of debate around whether one has to cross at low tide or if one can cross at another time. Check with SANParks and stick to their advice – They know the area and the dangers involved.
We crossed at low tide, wading through with the water at hip height, not even having to take our packs off. Upon our return to the mouth about three hours later the tide has come in and it would have still been manageable. We would have had to put our packs in waterproof bags and hold them above our heads, but could have still crossed safely.
That said, those were ideal conditions. We had had fair weather and the sea was relatively calm. The Bloukrans River mouth is unpredictable. After heavy rains the deepest part of the sand bank gets washed out and becomes significantly deeper. The mouth changes constantly and even if the weather is clear on Day 1, anything can happen and drastically change the situation.
Always plan to cross as a group. You may split up and hike separately from time to time, but you need to wait for one another to make this crossing. It is safer to have more people at hand and remember that the final call to cross or not must happen on the day at the riverbank. There is a clearly demarcated escape route should weather or time of day make it unsafe.
The Bloukrans River at low tide. We crossed at low tide at 08:45AM without having to take our packs off.
The mouth, three hours later, with the tide coming in. In this instance, still crossable but significantly harder.
The three routes suggested by SANParks. Route A is the preferred route and taken at low tide. Route B and C are alternative routes as the tide comes in. What makes B and C less ideal isn’t the crossing, but the steep terrain on the other side. The loose soil is tricky when it’s dry and dangerous when wet.
Despite the brownish colour of the water, all river water is drinkable with the exception of the Lottering River on day 3. SANParks have been unable to tell us if it is because of pollutants upstream or due to sea water washing in and increasing the salinity of the water. Either way, hikers are advised not to use this water. It might be a good idea to not drink the Bloukrans River water either. One hiker from our group miss-stepped and unintentionally examined a mouthful – it’s pretty much like drinking straight from the ocean.
What to pack
The Otter is like most other multi-day hikes, but with a few exceptions. With huts and bunk beds at each camp, one can leave tents and sleeping pads at home. Snorkeling masks and underwater camera casings are strange things to add to a normal backpack, but there are a some nice snorkeling spots and rock pools along the route. The steep ascents and descents make hiking poles a must.
We created a gear list specifically for the Otter Trail. Download it here or explore the interactive list below.
Pack a pair of wet shoes / rock shoes for the river crossings and exploring the rock pools. Include talcum powder to dry your wet feet before putting your shoes back on.
Take a survival bag and some cable ties to keep your pack dry when crossing the bigger rivers. Most hiking shops sell these bags for around R70 – usually used as emergency bivouac bags, but work perfectly for this as well. Remember to keep your pocket knife handy to snip the cable ties off on the other side, or else you will have to tear open your bag. It’s a good idea to put valuables like cameras and cell phones in a dry bag – for rain and river crossing.
If you’re flying down to George and checking your backpack in, consider a zip up cover for your pack to prevent theft and protect your bag. Have a look out our post on how to pack your backpack for check-in luggage.
Pack four light-weight breakfasts, five lunches and four light-weight suppers. Also pack two snacks per day.
We packed oats for breakfasts and for snacks energy bars, biltong and nuts. Lunches were a mix of biltong, cheese, crackers and peanut butter & honey tortillas (delicious and easy to flat-pack in a ziplock bag). Suppers were meat, mash & gravy for the first night, herb cous cous and chicken for the second night, tuna & two-minute noodles for the fourth and Back Country Cuisine for the last.
Take vacuum-packed meat for the first night. SANParks deliver firewood next to the trail a few hundred metres from each hut. Help them by taking a stack down to the huts. Only use one stack a day and leave the rest for the following groups.
Depending on the tide tables, you may be in very for a very early start on Day 4 to make the low tide window to cross the Bloukrans River. For our group, this meant hoisting packs onto backs at 4am. It is hard to get a group of 12 onto the trail on at the best of times, nevermind in the dark. It is advisable for everyone to go to bed the night before in their hiking clothes and with their backpacks zipped up and at the ready, snacks in side pockets to serve as a walking breakfast just after sunrise. This allows for minimal packing in the dark.
Night hiking can be a little unsettling but the paths are clear under the bright light of a headlamps and can be an awesome part of the adventure. It is beautiful to see the landscape revealed as the sun rises. A large part of this day’s hike is seaside and rocky. So plan enough time and don’t rush. A tumble down a cliff path can ruin the day’s hike.
There is no electricity along the trail. So use your phone sparingly on flight mode and consider a power-bank. There is also very intermittent signal, so don’t count on keeping in touch via cellphone. Make plans as a group in the morning before leaving camp and set meeting points. You may all walk at different paces, but cross the big rivers together. It is advisable to walk in groups no smaller than 4 people in case you need to split up for help.
Let us know if this guide was helpful, so we can improve future trail guides. We appreciate any feedback :)