The inexperienced hiker's guide to the Otter Trail

I've never been much of a hiker. I'm not a runner. I'm alright at swimming, not great on land. I have old lady knees. I exercise in airconditioned gyms, doing step classes on solid reebok steps. Yet somehow I found myself prepping for the most (in)famous hike in South Africa. Buying hiking shoes, fancy socks, micro towels. Borrowing trekking poles, backpacks, tiny pillows. And climbing stairs, doing squats and lunges with a sandbag on my back, and then some more stairs.

But it would never be enough. Nothing could prepare me for Escher's infinite staircase, the Otter Hiking Trail in the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park.

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I read many a blog, good ones, and I don't want to repeat what they say. What I will do is give you list of the things I, an inexperienced hiker, found to be essential, and the things that were complete rubbish. I also want to share a few moments from each day, so this post might get long.

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Things I could not do without
Obviously things like toilet paper, sleeping bags, and medical kits go without saying. Some items are deserving of the spotlight though.

- Trekking poles: these were my crutches, quite literally sometimes. My knees, even when well trained, are not the best. At times I lost faith in their ability to carry my up, and more importantly down, yet another mountain. The ascents and descents were steep, and slippery, and often involved scrambling up rockfaces, up paths that hardly exists.

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Morning of Day 3. On the beach at Scott Hut.

- Hiking shoes and socks: Guess these should be first on the list. I read everything I could find (on page 1 of google) on the topic of hiking shoes vs hiking boots. In the end I settled on a pair of Salomon hiking shoes, and Salomon socks. Not boots that cover your ankle. Not trail running shoes. Not thick wooly socks. They treated me exceptionally well. My ankles could move and adjust to the steep climbs. And no blisters. Okay maybe one small one because I had a plaster around an ingrowing toenail. But the shoes were so comfy I often wore them around camp even after a long day of walking.

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- The Buff: It was May and the water was cold. Fridge water cold. Showering consisted of soaping up and splashing just enough water on your body to get most of the soap off. I showered twice (wet wipes were used the rest of the time). And washed hair once. A buff not only makes you look like a legit hiker, but it also covers dirty hair, and keeps your ears warm.

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8:20am at Bloukrans. Cold, tired, relieved, and not nearly done for the day.

 -'Proper' meals: Oats-so-Easy for breakfast, home-made protein bars and peanuts for snack time, tuna sachets with a cheese wedge and rice cake for lunch, Knorr pasta 'n Sauce and mussels for dinner. Carb heavy. Lots of energy. MSG never tasted so good. We also packed a plastic bottle of wine, some Woolies jelly sweets, and filter coffee and my trusted Aeropress. Could have done with more chocolate though.

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- Hydration packs, aka bladder: Again, the bottle vs bladder debate. We bought cheap bladders from Mr Price Sport and they worked well. We had water at every campsite and did not need to refill in rivers. Staying hydrated, even in winter, is essential. Do whatever you need to.

- Fire lighters: We were all ready to braai on night one, and excited to sit by the camp fire by night, but only one member of the team, luckily, remembered fire lighters.

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Oakhurst Huts. End Day 3.

Things that were rubbish, or just unnecessary 
- Biodegradable kitchen kit: We bought those fancy biodegradable cups and cutlery. We wanted to pack light so we only packed two cups, to both eat and drink from, and cutlery. Day 1 I retrieved the cup from my bag and it was broken. Now we were down to a cup and a dixie pan. On day 4, after crossing the mighty Bloukrans, we had brunch on the beach. After rinsing our cup and forks in the waves, we got distracted by the anemones in the rock pools, and forgot them on a rock. They are hopefully now biodegrading, or being picked up by a beach goer in South America.

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Beach after the Bloukrans river crossing. Day 4.

- Water shoes: okay they were not completely useless, we used them twice and they were helpful. But they were still wet when we reached camp, so they could not double up as camp shoes. Meh.

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Elandsbos River crossing. Day 3. Photo cred R MacRobert.
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Lottering River crossing. Day 3. Spot me on the other side with my survival bag. Photo cred R MacRobert.

- Expired milk powder: Check before you pack. Curdled milk is quite disappointing

- A book: Some people read at night. My collection of Nataniƫl short stories never left it's ziplock bag. When we arrived at camp we sat watching the sunset. After dinner I chatted around the camp fire until it died (usually at around 8pm), and then fell asleep.

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Watching the waves and the sunset at Oakhurst. Day 3.

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Inquisitive genet. Day 2. Photo cred R MacRobert.

What I took away from this epic five day hike isn't just what plastic spork to buy. The learnings were far greater. I learned that I needed to fight, and can fight. Every step was a fight against genetics, against pain, against what I believed I was incapable of.

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Relief after relentless climbing. Day 2. Photo cred R MacRobert.

I learned that communication and saying sorry, even when you are tired, and scared, and frustrated, is essential.

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Hiking at night. Started at 3am to make it to Bloukrans by 8am. Photo cred R MacRobert. 

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The mighty Bloukrans. A mere trickle at low tide.

 I learned that achieving as an individual often means relying on the group. It means sometimes holding back. It means pushing others and pushing yourself.

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Admiring the ocean below. Day 3.
 My senses were overwhelmed by the waves thundering outside our wooden huts at night, and crashing against the cliffs below the trails we were walking on. But also by the sudden silence when the path turned away from the ocean, deeper into the indigenous forest. And then finally the warm sun on your skin as the light breaks through the forest canopy, and you reach the plateau covered in fragrant fynbos. I experienced that the smell of dewy ferns and decomposing leafs in combination with the salty sea, smells greater than any amount of perfume or deodorant (although a little deo never hurt nobody).

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Beach at Andre hut. Day 4.

I was grateful for every spectacular vista that followed a treacherous climb, even though I knew it would be followed by yet another descent.

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View of Oakhurst huts below. So close yet so far.
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Saying goodbye to Andre hut. Last day. Last lookout.

Would I do it all again? I don't know. Do I miss the silence and clarity away from the media and the cars and the taxis and the fumes? Of course. I'd eat dixie pan pasta any day to experience that again.

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Bloukrans crossing. Some things seem worse than they end up being. Photo cred R MacRobert.


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