We walked across pebble beaches, rocky outcrops and pale sands, with the wind fierce in our hair: next stop Antarctica

About a year in advance I was invited to go on a walk, or rather an otter trail - in South Africa. A family reunion and some communal leg-stretching, fine, but why did they need an answer so far in advance? Once I arrived in South Africa, however, I realised that our walk was going to be more than a Boy Scout's nature trail. To say "I'm doing the Otter Trail" was like membership of an elite club. People were impressed and a little awed, as if you had remarked at dinner you were going to climb Kilimanjaro at dawn.

Roughly midway between Port Elizabeth and George, not far from the popular sands of Plettenburg Bay, the Otter Trail follows the coast from east to west in a narrow strip between the Tsitsikamma mountains and the sea. You cover 41 kilometres over five days, walking along a spectacular shore and winding under the great canopy of forest (with yellow-woods and stinkwood, white pear, climbing saffron, wild grape).

You cross pebbled beaches, pale sands and rocky outcrops; wade rivers; jump streams or step out high on the plateau above, with the wind in your hair. Next stop Antarctica. The surge of the waves is in your ears, rich air forces its way into long-forgotten corners of your lungs: all the elements conspire to bring on a state of near-perfect well-being and fitness.

You will be lucky to glimpse a Cape clawless otter (although these shy creatures give their name to the trail) and you almost certainly will not get eaten by a leopard, although they are in the forest along with a vast menagerie of other animals. Ornithologists can swivel their binoculars at more than 200 species of bird, and there are scores of fish and sea creatures from water snail to whale.

Where the cliffs drop too steeply to the sea, the trail zigzags up to the plateau and back down. This was to be more exercise than I normally take in a year but, just as the initial flush of enthusiasm turned to a blush of exertion, the perfect rock pool appeared. Jewelled dragonflies hovered in the still air as we swam and warmed on the smooth rocks and lazily dived in again across to a waterfall where you could stand, put your head back and drink cool fresh draughts. And then? An eagle sighted high up? Some strange fungus-like dinner plates thrown against a tree trunk? It was all a pleasant blur with my body happily walking on autopilot to the camp.

Two simple log cabins with six bunks limits any party to a maximum of 12. There is water and a fireplace for cooking. You eat anything with an immensely pleasurable hunger, sing any old rubbish around the fire and watch the embers glow away into the evening. Tsitsikamma comes from the Khoi word sietsiekamma meaning "place of clear water" and "water falling" and there are abundant streams, rivers and waterfalls coming down from the mountains - pure music to most drought-aching African ears. Indeed, that night the rain swept in, sudden and cooling. We slept with a steady drumming on the wooden roof and a gentle roar from the sea.

The second day was tough. The path climbed sharply through the forest and descended equally sharply. This was repeated ad exhaustam until we suddenly emerged with trembling knees on to a small sanded cove, with two huts, two small streams trickling down to the sea and a few seagulls. There was an atmosphere of primeval stillness. We slept that night as if drugged.

On day three we had the Elandsbos River to cross and several puff adders to negotiate. Slow and still if undisturbed, they can be quick if startled enough to attack, and are very poisonous. One was basking beneath some delicate white irises, confirming a suspicion that near beauty lies danger.

We came down to the camp right by the open sea in the bay of the Lettering River, with the waves disintegrating into spurting foam against some massive rocks. Two seals were playing in the rough eddies, careless of the immense swell. Further out, a school of dolphins was diving through the water as though on some vast trampoline just below the surface.

Pouring rain the next day soon reduced the path to a small stream, then increased it to a torrent. Crossing the Bloukrans River, the water was almost up to our waists - and this was at low tide. There are strong warnings against crossing if the tide is high or the river too swollen. We waded across, holding rucksacks above our heads and balancing each step.

The last night was spent in a sheltered bay, the huts set in thick overgrowth with a resident doe-eyed bushbuck calmly chewing the leaves and the sound of sietsiekamma all around. The sun returned for the final day, where a vigorous walk brought us to a magnificent view of Nature's Valley - simple name, splendid scenery.

A sheer climb down and a thigh-high wade across the Groot River, then we reached a wide expanse of white sands stretching out to the sea, with a small lagoon inland and a few holiday homes. Other people, houses, boats, cars, TV aerials ... being back in civilisation came as a shock.

Forget that health farm. Here we had been able to exercise in Eden.

Otter lottery: The Otter Trail is extremely popular and numbers of participants are carefully controlled. The National Parks Board runs a postal lottery system with priority being given to written applications received at least a year in advance. Write to: National Parks Board, PO Box 787, Pretoria 0001, South Africa (00 27 12 343 1991). Telephone links with South Africa are poor and connections to wrong numbers are frequent. From October this year until September 1996, the fee per person is about pounds 36.

Be prepared: You must be reasonably fit for this walk. Your backpack has to include food for five days, as well as cooking equipment, sleeping bag, clothes, medical kit, plus extras such as camera, binoculars and books.

How to get there: The nearest international airport is Cape Town, served direct from the UK by Air Namibia, British Airways and South African Airways. The lowest fare from London through Merchant Travel & Trade (01892 526747) is on Air Namibia for pounds 623.50, or on Air France via Paris for pounds 590 including tax; this is also available from Glasgow, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester.

Otter alternatives: The International Otter Survival Fund (01471 822487) is organising a week-long otter survey on Skye and the island of Raasay in late September, price pounds 345 including food and accommodation.

Suggested Topics
News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Sport
Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid
football
News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
Life and Style
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?