THE OTTER TRAIL

There are no otters, no luxuries and no guide on the Cape coast's famous hike, so why do walkers book more than a year in advance?
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JUST how wonderful can any five-day walk be? By the time the twentieth (or the thirtieth?) South African has sung the praises of the Otter Trail, you begin to smell a warthog. Is praise of the Otter Trail some kind of national nervous tic? Having walked the trail, I can only add my rand's- worth and say that this is indeed one of the most exhilarating and beautiful walks anywhere in the world.

The trail ambles through the Tsitsikamma National Park which stretches 80km along the southern Cape coast. The walk itself is just 41km long, which may sound weedy to a hardened British fell walker who would knock off this distance in one soggy, windswept day (and still have time for a game of football and a long cycle ride home afterwards); but, the Otter Trail is a very different proposition from the Peaks or the Pennines.

It rambles along a rugged coastline beside the warm breakers of the Indian Ocean, climbing high through hills and dropping into virgin rainforest. Walkers cross 11 rivers en route; unless you are Tarzan, such crossings cannot be hurried. This is a sensationally beautiful walk, but it requires time. Those 41kms will take a fit person 24 hours to complete, non-stop.

But this is not a race; the time spent sitting and gazing at the magnificent landscape, or swimming in the ocean, is as rewarding as the walk itself. Here, in one small area, you will find more varieties of flora and fauna than almost anywhere in the world. South Africa boasts more types of birds than any other country.

Best of all, perhaps, you will never encounter more than 11 other human beings along this one-way trail, for 12 is the maximum the National Parks Board allows each day. A permit is essential, obtained from Pretoria or Cape Town (tel 00 27 21 22-2810, fax 00 27 21 24-6211). Unless you are lucky (as I was) and someone drops out at the last moment, you will need to book a place on this unguided walk at least a year in advance.

This limiting of numbers may seem a draconian policy, but it makes good sense. It means that, unlike the footpaths of the Lake District or Snowdonia, say, this unparalleled stretch of coastline will never be trampled into rubble or soiled by the detritus that mass tourism brings in its wake.

Only a week before setting off on the Otter Trail, I had been in Pilanesberg National Park, two hours' fast drive north-west of Johannesburg. Here, Jeep-loads of drunken visitors (business executives for the most part, attending conferences) had hurled beer and Coke cans into the bush. The ranger I travelled with on a trip tracking lions, cheetahs and elephants, spent nearly as much time picking up rubbish as he did pointing out rare plants and wild animals.

Those who walk the Otter Trail leave nothing behind. This is tough, because everything you need to survive for five days must be carried on your back. Any litter has to come out with you at the other end, so you need to think carefully about what you will be eating and drinking. If you want hot food, you will have to carry a stove - not necessarily a great idea. Though you might like the idea of a few cold beers at the end of a day's walk, do you really want to carry six-packs of Castle around with you?

The one thing you won't need to shoulder is water. There is an abundance of the stuff, though you need to think carefully about where the stream has come from on its way to your greedily cupped hands; have animals been peeing in it somewhere higher up? If so, stay thirsty.

On my trip, it rained unyieldingly for two days and nights, which meant a lack of water was the last thing I had to think about. Keeping dry was the problem. You need good rubber-soled boots for this walk, a cape, a hood or hat, and a spirit that refuses to be dampened by 48 hours of pelting rainfall. Still, I loved the hissing of the rain, the smells it awoke from the sodden forest and the runnels of water chasing down the rocky path. The Wagnerian spectacular of thunder and lightning riding over the Indian Ocean, slashing an electric machete through the treescape, was worth every mud-sucking step.

The main advantage of rain is that you keep cool (when the sun is out, it can be very hot), but wet weather also treats you to such eye-boggling and hilarious sights as the path before you smothered in a plague of fat, chortling frogs. The disadvantage is that rivers can become dangerously swollen. Ropes are provided so you can pull yourself across, which can be scary (two people were swept away to their deaths in 1993). Care is needed.

On the fourth day you have to get up early to cross the Bloukrans River at low tide. If you are a late riser you will get more than your feet wet. At this point, though, there is one of several escape routes that allow walkers to climb up from the riverbed and so away from the trail to safety.

Rain, danger, slips and falls upset some Otter Trailers. A day after doing the walk, I met two groups of Cape Town yuppies who said they were writing to the National Parks Board to complain; their walk had been muddy and dangerous, and had spoilt their smart new walking gear.

In fact, the Otter Trail is not very difficult - and no more dangerous than a hike across the Scottish Highlands. True, the second day requires legs of steel as the morning is spent climbing. There are times, too, when lungs and legs begin to conspire against you and your clothes become soggy with sweat and rain. The rewards of arriving at one of the simple timber huts provided along the route, however, repays this mortgaging of energy with compound interest. All are well protected, with hypnotic views of the surrounding landscape. Each has a chemical toilet, hard mattresses, and not much else.

South African hikers settle down in the evenings to eat a small mountain of tinned junk such as dehydrated meat cubes, soup, instant mashed potato, sardines, and glucose sweets. Alternatively, you can get by with cheese, fruit and strips of chewy biltong (sun-dried meat, a South African speciality). I enlivened my diet with chocolate and a bottle of Jamesons.

The most important part of your kit, however, isn't the food you carry; you can, if you are hardy, manage on surprisingly little. Far more critical is a sketchbook, and most important of all a set of field guides. These are essential to the curious, because the Otter Trail overwhelms you with a rainbow of unfamiliar birds, a garden of unknown plants and flowers, and hordes of brilliant creeping things (creeping into your clothes and bunk) that sometimes defy description.

The creeping things you meet on the way are, it should be said, on the large side of gigantic. If bees the size of canaries are not your thing, stick to the Cornish Coast Path. Insect repellant can be handy, but it is horrid stuff and a waste of space in a tightly packed rucksack; it is much better to face up to the fact that for every X-certificate insect (the maddening mosquitoes are not malarial), there is a flower of strange and unfathomable beauty.

Here you will meet some of the most gorgeous birds in the world, such as the masked weaver. The electric yellow male spends weeks at a time wooing the drab but spirited female; he weaves her splendid nests that hang precariously from many-stemmed trees. Having led him on, she takes a cursory look at his efforts before biting through the nest's supports with her horny beak and sending his tiny architectural creation crashing to the path before your clod-hopping boots. There is a lesson to be learnt here, I am sure.

Other spectacular birds include the red cardinal and birds of prey galore. At the end of the second day of the walk, sitting at the confluence of the sea and the Geelhoutbos River, I spotted dolphins at play in the ocean swell. Seabirds of all sorts pecked away at slimy things on the white sand beach.

There was, as a child might write in a "What I did on my holidays" essay at school, so much to see, so much to take in. By the end of the trail, at Nature's Valley, my clothes were sodden but my spirits had soared. I would have liked to have hitched to the nearest town (fashionable Plettenberg Bay, where the beautiful Jo'burg people come to top up their all-year tans), loaded up with more fruit and more chocolate, and plunged back into the teeming coastal forest.

Sadly, though, the Otter Trail has to end here, as west from "Platt" the coast is built up with glamorous seaside houses for the well-heeled. It is here, too, that the N2 road intrudes, running all the way from Durban through Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.

South Africa's Otter Trail is enough to turn any one of us into a wild man (or wild woman) of the woods. And perhaps, if you were to spend long months in this exquisite seaside rainforest, you might uncover one of the trail's greatest mysteries: I saw not one otter the whole way from Storm's River Mouth to Nature's Valley. JG

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