Why is the Otter Hiking Trail so fascinating?
The Otter Hiking Trail is one of South Africa’s most popular trails and is known world-wide. It is a five-day trail, commencing at the Storms River Mouth Rest Camp and stretching westward as far as the Groot River estuary at Nature’s Valley, a distance of about 43 km. Accommodation is provided in four beautifully appointed overnight camps, i.e. Ngubu (named after the first Game Ranger sergeant of the Tsitsikamma National Park), Scott (a Park’s official who assisted with the initial layout of the trail), Oakhurst (the name is derived , from the homestead above the huts originally built by the Whitcher family) and André (named after André Kok, a former camp manager in the Tsitsikamma National Park).
Inauguration of the trail took place in 1968, making it the oldest official hiking trail in South Africa and is named after the elusive otter, which is found in fresh water and at sea.
Hikers tend to do the Otter repeatedly. Why? The main reason (apart from the physical challenge) is perhaps the lure of its scenic beauty which varies continually along the route and can only be described in superlative terms. One is left breathless by the magnificent scenery and astonishing rock formations. Gushing water forms rivers and waterfalls, which carve their way through ravines and give birth to tranquil freshwater pools and crystal clear streams, winding through the forest with its diverse flora, fragrant fynbos and fungi. A variety of diverse animal species also survive in this environment and insects and birds form a backdrop of sound and song. Huge indigenous trees with moss-bearded branches, watch over their domain like giant guardians.
The environment is unique in that it encompasses the best of both worlds – the exquisite beauty of the forest as well as pristine coastal shores. The trail often meanders very close to the coastline and clear pools teeming with a variety of marine life reveals a world of kaleidoscopic colours and an underwater world which is ideal for snorkelling. Sudden changes in weather conditions result in interesting contrasts, which provide exhilarating challenges to photographers and hikers alike!
On the Otter the scenery is constantly changing. Caves, waterfalls, rock outcrops, sandy and rocky beaches as well as ravines and indigenous forests with unique vegetation and stretches of fynbos can be seen. The Indian Ocean, constantly within view, enhances the rugged coastline and reflect the setting sun at the end of the day. The weather in the Tsitsikamma National Park can be unpredictable, variable, unsettled and has a substantial influence n the visual effects of the coastal scenery.
Fungi, which could also be called “flowers of the forest”, are extremely interesting and capture the imagination, mostly growing on fallen and decaying trees. Fungi are neither plants nor animals. Some species look like plants but need to ingest food like animals.
The world renowned Cape Fynbos could very well regarded as one of the wonders of the world and constitutes eighty per cent of the Cape Floral Kingdom, hosting 8600 plant species, of which 5800 are endemic. Many of these species can be seen along the trail.
Ferns are among the oldest groups of living plants. Fossils of early ferns are found in rocks of the Upper Devonian Period, dating back 365 million years. The Tsitsikamma indigenous forests boast a rich fern flora.
The landward part of the Tsitsikamma National Park consists mainly of rugged quartzite cliffs of the Cape Fold Belt. These cliffs fall steeply to the sea, forming much of the coastline and leaving little room for beaches at their base. For million of years, these rocks have been eroded by waves and wind, resulting in rocks with peculiar shapes and patterns.
RIVERS and STREAMS
Several rivers and streams must be crossed on the trail, each one different and also convenient for filling water bottles. However, these same rivers and streams have been the cause of many exciting and scary experiences. Fascinating scenery unfolds when high tide rushes into these rivers which the plough through narrow ravines and deeply forested valleys, forming myriads of waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.
Besides a multitude of indigenous plants, many animals also find sanctuary in the forest and along the coastline. A forest ecosystem cannot function satisfactorily without the animal population. A typical forest is made up of a vast assemblage of different plants and animals and it is this well-balanced interaction, if left undisturbed, which makes it last into perpetuity. The avifauna along the trail is rich and varied.
TIDAL POOLS and MARINE SPECIES
Crystal clear tidal pools are found along the pristine shoreline displaying an exciting underwater world. A spectacular diversity of marine life is sustained here. The rocky pools host a symbiotic combination of fish, sponges, sea squirts, molluscs, crustaceans, sea weeds as well as turtles, sharks and marine mammals. Each of these is uniquely specialised and occupies a different niche.