Sunday, August 05, 2007

More Otter Trail

Also: hiking poles. I'd have been lost without them. They prevented at least half a dozen falls onto sharp rocks that could've had grave results. They also made hiking with a pack much much easier.

Other than the hospitality shown us by our Afrikaans cabinmates, the first three days were pretty unremarkable. The walks were not stunningly difficult, though the views were stunning. The scenery was dramatic and the pounding of the waves against the rocks was a constant source of awe. The weather varied from sun to wind and rain. We hiked some in the rain, some in the dark, mostly in the forest. The centerpiece of the Otter Trail is the Bloukrans River crossing on Day Four, so I'm just going to skip to that.

So, after rising at 3:30 on the fourth day with the intent of making it to the mouth of the Bloukrans River in advance of low tide, Meghan and I got out at 4:20 and hiked in the dark for a couple of hours, kept company by a full moon that set as the sun started to lighten the eastern sky. The full moon meant that we were to cross the river at a spring low tide. This was always a very good thing in our planning of the trail, as the Bloukrans is wide and we'd heard that people who'd crossed at a neap low tide--when the difference between high and low is at its nadir--had sometimes had to swim the river. We are both strong swimmers and were prepared for this eventuality if something went wrong and we didn't make it by low tide, though we didn't relish the prospect as our previous river crossings had familiarized us with just how numbingly cold the water in Tsitsikamma Park is. (Tsitsikamma means "place of much water"... We were about to figure out that sometimes it'dd too much water.)

The hike in the morning was really challenging for the first six kilometers or so, with lots of rock scrambling and a couple of slogs through the aforementioned thigh-deep sea scum. I use the word scum rather than foam simply to indicate its disgustingness. It smelled powerfully of seaweed, or rather the sea. Whatever taste it is that makes oysters appealling (if they appeal to you), multiply that by ten. Not off-smelling, but not pleasant. My hiking boots still smell like the catch of the day... yesterday. I cannot, however impugn the experience too much, as I was wearing shorts and the sensation of cool foam against my legs was actually rather delicious. I'm thinking of waterproofing our apartment when we get back and renting a foam machine.

We made it to the overlook above the Bloukrans just minutes after the official low tide of 9:36am. Our Afrikaans hosts, one of whom had injured himself, had arrived twenty minutes earlier and looked grim about the prospect of crossing. The river mouth is daunting. A hundred yards wide, and you have to cross it at an angle to reach a slipway between two swaths of jagged rocks, or go directly across and then scramble along the rocks to where the slipway joins the trail. The waves out at sea were measuring 20 feet or more on their faces. They came rolling up the river mouth carrying lots of debris and driftwood, including some pieces bobbing around that were thicker than telephone poles and about ten to fifteen feet long. The river itself was pretty sedate and pretty low, given the rain we'd had. It was simply a matter of the surges that rolled up the river every fifteen seconds or so.

Meghan was undaunted. She'd made up her mind. We were going to try. Our fellow hikers asked us incredulously if we were going to cross. I said repeatedly that we were going to try. We got down to the rocky shore and proceeded to get all our stuff into the thick plastic survival bags we'd bought just for this purpose. The others looked worried, tried to talk us out of it. I started to take their side. It looked dangerous and was getting more dangerous by the minute. This was not the time to hurry. It was time to make a considered decision. Meghan was adamant. We'd hiked four days to get to this damn river and we were going to cross it. In the end, it was Piet who urged us to cross halfway without our packs, just to assess the conditions, then come back for the packs. We made it five feet. A couple of ice-cold waves smacked us near the shore and we immediately burst out laughing. It was insane to even think about, but we needed the shock of water to bring us to our senses. I'm glad it was the first five feet that convinced us that crossing was dangerous, rather than five feet in the middle, or a five-foot log carried by a five-foot wave. We were never going to cross that river. I'm very glad, though, to have tried. We, at least, had put our feet in the water.

The other group of hikers who came along shortly after our foray took one look at the river mouth and immediately went for the escape route. Meghan and I changed out of our wet, cold clothes and followed the other hikers. Tsitsikamma has 12 (or in this case 13) hikers leaving every day, including Christmas, on the Otter Trail and they've really got their act together as far as the escape routes go. The escape route itself was brutal. Eight hundred meters at about a forty-five degree angle. At that point, we decided we'd had enough. The rest of the hikers got picked up by a ranger and brought to a trailhead directly above the next hut. There was one more day's hiking. They wanted to finish the trail, but for us, the spell had been broken. Getting a lift from one place to another was cheating. Nature had won. We weren't in the mood to ask for a rematch. We decided instead to go back to Storms River Mouth at the start of the trail, where they have lovely chalets overlooking the ocean. We checked into one of the "honeymoon" chalets, which had a living room and kitchen, but we were mostly interested in the hot shower and clean sheets. We had an early dinner. (The concept of a restaurant was at that point stunning to me... A place where you tell them what you want and they just bring it to you? Genius!) And we hit those clean white sheets with no regrets, waking up twelve hours later to a beautiful day and a full breakfast.

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