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CLIVE AND DIANE HADDOW ON THE MOVE

The Otter Trail – PART 1 – by Stuart Jones


Stuart

Welcome back to Stuart Jones (comrades marathon) with his account of hiking the OTTER TRAIL

The Mad Atter Otters 

My story starts awhile ago, in the grey fuzzy part of my memories. It was during a training run that I overheard my two running friends mention that they were going to do the Otter Trail. I had heard great things about the Otter Trail and had always put it on the “want to do” list, but never got around to it. Circumstances with little kids, work etc etc. All the normal excuses had prevented me from doing it. I was envious that both Rodney and Meryl were doing it together. I made my feelings heard, and grumbled how lucky they were.

Life carried on. I knew that they were scheduled to go in September some time, but really hadn’t paid much attention to the details. I had although been onto the website to check the trail out, which made me even more jealous. It is a 4 night, 5 day trail through one of the most amazing parts of the country. It starts at the Storms River mouth and follows the coast southwards to finish 5 days later at Natures Valley. It covers a distance of 42km through some of the toughest terrains. This stretch of coastline is not for the faint hearted. The trail covers beautiful coastal forest and cape fynbos. Thank goodness there are overnight huts and a toilet (sometimes without water). Therefore a person needs to carry their own kit for 5 days. Being a nature marine reserve, you may not get food from the land / sea.

It was a Wednesday evening when Rodney phoned me and asked if I would be keen to join them at such late notice. Someone obviously couldn’t make it. I was overjoyed and responded with “Yes, yes, yes” I hadn’t even checked my calendar, didn’t even know the dates or requirements, let alone checked with the government. Rodney said that he would confirm on Thursday. Oh boy did Thursday drag on. Eventually the call came through. I was in.

Now reality set in. What were the plans, costs, preparations etc. At a hasty meeting on Friday evening I was briefed of the plan. I was given 1 weeks notice to get my arse into gear. The details were divulged and requirements stated. 

It would appear that Meryl had booked the trail for 12 people a year in advance. (This is the current waiting period and the max number of people per day) She had paid the deposit and spread the word amongst her work colleagues and very quickly was oversubscribed. Between Meryl and Rodney they put in place most of the travel arrangements, before and after accommodation bookings. They had also decided to give the group a name. This was great, as there were some couples and some singles. Not everyone knew each other. Creating a single identity bonded the group straight away. Humans always like to have a sense of belonging, and so “The Mad Atter Otters” was created. And mad they were. What a diverse spectrum of people this group was, but all with a common goal. 

Rodney and Meryl had created different portfolios for the members. Meryl was the Mad Atter herself, and Rodney the Chief Whip. I was delegated the task of “Weather Organizer” Oh boy, I had better get on my hands and knees fast. This could make or break the trail. 

Although I have camping kit, none of it is for hiking. Saturday passed in a blur, rushing from Camping store to store. Later, after denting the credit card severely, I had most of the kit. Now to see if it would all fit. Ha ha ha I had packed each day’s rations in plastic bags, folded clothes into travel bags and laid the lot out on the bed at home. How was I going to get all that into this tiny backpack and still carry it for 5 days? And so with a process of elimination various items were left out and my backpack was full. It weighed in at 19kg excluding my water. Theoretically, an unfit person could carry 25% of their body weight and a fit person 33%. Geez at 19kg plus water was going to put me in at 22kg. Putting it on my back felt like a ton. I could just see myself getting that “sinking feeling” when we walked on the beach. 

The last couple of days passed in a flash. The government had given consent and work was cleared for go. The group had a meeting on the Wednesday evening for final arrangements before we flew out on Friday. There were a number of absentees and Rodney immediately stated that being absent deserved a fine. I liked this group already. 

Dassie

Friday dawned and Rodney and I had to collect Meryl on route to the airport. Meryl’s sleepy voice over the entrance intercom to her complex said it all. Meryl was ready, sort of.  We were meeting the rest of the group at the airport. Looking back at that first day is quite funny. Everyone clean, neat and on their best behavior. How quickly the mighty fall. There should have been a before and after picture. 

The flight goes without a hitch from Durban to Port Elizabeth. Cars are hired and luggage stowed. Port Elizabeth (PE) is wet and blowing gales. I obviously hadn’t done my job right. Rodney and I share a Hyundai Atos. What a joke. This little thing changes lanes when you sneeze or shift your body weight. Two big guys in this tiny little car must have been quite a sight. 

Storms river bridge

Meryl had made arrangements for us to all have lunch at a place called Sacramento. This is where the Sacramento had been shipwrecked during the 1600’s. Of the 160 odd Portuguese survivors only 6 made it to Maputo, a walk of about 1500kms (details are not accurate)

This was my first proper chance to meet the group. What a fantastic bunch of people. Shiksha and Rajesh – the appointed doctor and engineer. Tracy and Andrew – 3 months pregnant and a fellow high school colleague. Tineke and Bruce – It works out that Bruce lives about 5 houses away from me. Andries – who has been training hard for this trail. Meryl, Rodney and Myself. Erryn and Nicole had driven down and would meet us later in the day. 

It is in pouring rain that we travel via Jefferies bay to Storms River Mouth. Every now and again I see a patch of blue sky in between darker clouds. This is not a good sign. Starting off wet and cold is not a good way to start. Along the route we stop at Storms River Bridge. Rodney has his GPS and is out looking for a cache in the pouring rain. In his spare time, Rodney plays a game called Geocaching. Basically, you follow a set of GPS co-ordinates and clues to find a “cache” that someone else has hidden. As you find a cache, you log it on the internet. It is an excellent way to learn more about your country and see places not normally seen. Following the road least traveled presents some exciting and interesting sights. 

Rodney comes back drenched and a look of dismay on his face. Damn cache must have fallen off the bridge or something. Not there. 

We continue, and after disregarding his GPS, Rodney gets us on the wrong road. The whole convoy turns around and heads further south. We eventually get to the Storms River Mouth Nature reserve and book into 3 cottages. Erryn and Nicole meet up with us. They have had time to explore the area already and are keen to show us the river mouth where another cache is hidden. Rodney and Erryn are like two little boys. We have barely had time to put our kit down and they are climbing into the cars to get to the mouth. A few of us tag along and drive the 1km to the mouth. This is the first opportunity to see the coastline. It is awesome, breathtakingly beautiful. Rugged rocks line the coast and huge waves continually pound them. We take the walkways to the mouth. Already I can feel my leg muscles pulling and my chest screaming for air as we climb steep steps over the boulders. Wow, this place is amazing. You can only sit back and marvel at the forces of nature, as they continuously sculpt the coast. The beaches are littered with rocks, moving backwards and forwards in the wash of the sea. A loud whooshing sound is followed by the grating of rock on rock. I have never heard it so loud. 

The sun is getting low on the horizon as we find the cache, hidden discretely under some rocks. We make our way back to the cabins, all with looks of excitement on our faces. We have dinner at the local restaurant and so starts the friendly banter and cajoling that was prevalent throughout the trail. 

The next morning, the earth moves so that the sun peeps over the horizon. Clear skies and no wind. YES, my prayers have been answered. A leisurely breakfast, some fancy shuffling of cars and its time to check in to the trail. We all make our way to the reception to pay our fees.

Check in station

The Receptionist has a surprise for us. It would appear that Meryl paid the deposit and not the final amount and therefore the booking was not confirmed. Meryl has a look of panic on her face. We turn around and see the same look of shock on the groups face. Nooooo, how can we have come all this way and be turned away. The receptionist winks at us and says that it is ok, we can still go ahead. Phew, that was close, Meryl. 

After the obligatory indemnity form and a quick video presentation, we saddle up. It is 1pm and the sun is blazing down on us.

Day 1 is only 4.8km and should take about 2 hours. No worries, we all think. Only 4.8km. Ha ha. The start takes us through a forest down a steep hill to the boulder strewn beach. We haven’t even gone 1km and our legs feel like jelly from the decent. People are already sucking at their water. Oh boy, 1km down 41 to go. Not far along the beach, we come to the first cave. It is long, and narrows down at the back after about 100mts plus. Erryn and Rodney know that there is a cache inside somewhere. Andries is in like a shot with Rodney, Erryn and I in pursuit. Through mud and over boulders we go deeper into the cave. Only Rodney and Erryn have torches with them. Andries and I had left ours at the entrance in our haste to explore. Aaagh, bats and lots of them. Hanging upside down from the ledges with their wings folded around them.  Not my favorite creatures. Thankfully, Andries finds the cache and both Erryn and Rodney can tick this off their list. We make our way back to the entrance, where the rest of the group is taking a quick snack break. 

We start out again and clamber over rocks along the coastline. Geez, this is hectic stuff. The rocks are not nice smooth shapes. No, they are sharp fierce fangs, waiting for you to place a foot wrong and fall. It takes immense concentration, as each footstep has to be well placed and calculated. We make it to a beautiful waterfall that falls down the cliff into a pool and then into the sea. Unfortunately the sun is at such a difficult position that we are not able to get really good photos. Andries and Andrew decide to brave the cold water and take a swim. The water has that characteristic brown tinge that most of the rivers in the area have. This “tea” is created by the tannins in the tree roots etc that the rivers flow passed. I am not to sure if it is the colour of the water or the need for a break, but out come the gas stoves and before long water is on the boil for tea. Not even 3km and we are having our second break. 

We had made an agreement that we would all do our own thing individually, but still remain as a group. If you felt like a break, or wanted to stop and look at the scenery, then you did that. You weren’t going to hold the group up. They would carry on, and you would eventually catch up. If it took you double the amount of time, so what. The distances between the huts were not great; it just took long due to the terrain. The only time constraint would be on day 4 when we would have to swim across the Bloukranz River Mouth. We had agreed to do this together and assist each other. 

Eventually we reach hut 1 (Ngubu). It is late afternoon and we are all sweaty and hot. Oh no, no showers and 1 toilet. Thank goodness there was some fresh water, but not for much longer. We all change and make our way to the beach. The sea is like ice, but is a welcome. We rinse off and make our way back to camp as the sun sinks lower on the horizon. It is quite strange for us Durbanites to see the sun set over the sea, and so it gives a spectacular display as it goes down. Some of us had brought steak and a potato for the first night. After a grueling start, that steak tasted like heaven. We wolf our food down, and sit around the fire chatting, sipping sherry. 

There are 2 huts per overnight camp. Each has bunks to sleep 6 people. The huts are virtually a couple of meters away from the beach, and the continual crashing of the waves puts us to sleep quickly. Well, some of us quicker than others. Sunrise brings about the nasty surprise that there is no more water for the toilet to work. Thankfully there is a bucket for such an emergency and it is with great urgency that you see people rushing off to the sea to get some water to flush.

Day 2 is 7.9km to Scott hut and passes through some really majestic scenery. A relatively steep climb out of camp onto the platau sees the first of the Cape Fynbos. Spring has just started, and many flowers are in bloom. We can only imagine how lucky those that come a week or two later must be to see everything in bloom. We pass Skilderkrans (Picturesque ridge) an outcrop of pure quartz. Many of the rocks along the coast have these quartz veins. Obviously as the earths crust cooled and buckled, this liquid quartz was forced into the cracks, thus leaving these characteristic veins. From Skilderkrans we descend to the coast again. Meryl Rodney, Andries and I are way ahead of the others and so decide to have a break on a beach. The beach is full of debris and flotsam. It looks like stuff from a Chinese fishing boat, as there are canisters with Chinese writing and parts of fishing nets. Serve the buggers right, fishing in our waters. Meryl and Rodney decide to catch some shut eye, lying on the rocks in the sun. Andries, the regular klipspringer is off exploring. I discover a dead seal and call Meryl to come have a look. Rather sleepily Meryl wanders across and asks where? I tell her to follow her nose, and off she goes clambering over the rocks. Meryl must still be half asleep, because she almost puts her foot on the carcass, before I shout. Almost, I giggle to myself. 

A gentle climb out takes us through some muddy patches where Duiker hoof prints are visible. Meryl in her wisdom discovers that she has left her walking pole at the beach and decides to experience some trail running, as she heads back to fetch it. The path starts to climb gently when Andries discovers another path down to another beach. We drop our packs and clamber down to the beach. The rock formations are unbelievable. There is a stream that flows over some rocks and enters the sea. Andries and I are climbing over these great rocks and crevices, exploring. Rodney, in his wisdom decides to start the climb out of the valley to the plateau. He obviously knew what was coming. Meryl, Andries and I follow shortly. Before long we are cursing. 1 meter forward, 1 meter up. Sweat is pouring off of us as we stumble our way to the top. Erryn and Nicole were adopting the Tortoise and Hare tactic, and are passed just below the crest. From the vantage point, the long hard climb is soon forgotten. The view is amazing. Far below is Blue bay, which we had just left.  The coast just carries on and on. Harsh, raw and wild, but amazingly beautiful. 

The decent from there to camp 2 is gentle, and we get into camp early afternoon. Great stuff; gives us time to relax and swim. The camp is on the banks of the Geelhoutbos River. There is running water and a shower. We quickly strip off and head for the beach. Ouch, the water is really cold, but no one minds it after the long hot day. 

This is the first night that we are onto the serious rations. Everyone prepares their own food and we sit around the campfire sipping sherry and the odd Jagermeister. Erryn had brought a whole lot and had dished out everyone’s rations before the hike. He wasn’t going to carry anyone else’s drink. I had brought a litre of sherry and 500ml of Sambuca, which I was now desperate to get rid of. 

Just before bed, Erryn calls us to come and see a Genet (A wild cat) that is sitting in the tree waiting for us to leave the communal cooking area so that he could scavenge for left overs.

PART 2 TO FOLLOW IN A DAY OR SO

Keep blogging

CLIVE

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October 23, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. Thank you Stu – the best way to face the Monday morning blues was reading this hot off the press 😉 lots of nostalgic giggles on us Mad Atter Otters and you haven’t missed a beat! Excellent writing… can’t wait for the rest 🙂 Mer (chief-Mad-Atter-Otter)

    Comment by Meryl Rahme | October 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. Well done Stuart! It’s great to go down memory lane, or should I say the up and down climbs of Otter trail, especially during the Monday lunch break at work. Looking forward to catching the next episode 🙂
    [Going to send this link to all my friends and family – couldn’t have described the details better! Thanks]

    Comment by Rajesh | October 25, 2010 | Reply


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