Saturday, August 04, 2007

Rich's Impressions from the Otter Trail

First: ouch. Before setting out, if anyone had told me that I'd have a hard time hiking 26 miles in five days, I would've scoffed at the idea. Pack or no pack, I figured I'd be fresh as a daisy every morning except the last, which would come after a ten mile hike and a river crossing. But the Otter is not very playful. We didn't have time or energy to sit around watching birds or otters or any of the hundred or so dolphins. This was hard hiking. I've hiked 15 miles a day for three days in a row in Patagonia. I've gone to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in a day. The Otter Trail is not to be scoffed at.

Second: if it's going to be even a little bit chilly, it's hard to overpack on instant coffee/tea/soup. We budgeted our food weight pretty tightly, but there were many times I wanted a cup of something warm and a nice little break, but couldn't do so without robbing myself a few days hence of the same pleasure. Next time, plenty of this kind of stuff.

Third: Bring one book. I brought four, including my South African bird book. The rain we had on the trail made that and my binoculars pretty useless. I really thought I'd have a lot more time to read, but quickly found that backpacking offers a mix of strenuous exercise, lots of sleep, and huge amounts of futzing (a.k.a faffing). Add to those the fact that there's tremendous natural beauty about and you really need to be disciplined to get an hour's reading in. This dictum extends to traveling in general. I brought a half-dozen books on this trip and have been lugging them all around. I should've brought two, max.

Fourth: Tides. The Otter Trail is principally ( at the time we did it at least) a race against the tide. River crossing at the coast is very dependent on the tides. Over the first few days, we rushed a few times to make it to a river crossing at low tide only to get there and be greeted with a knee-deep river and some gentle surges coming up the river from the crashing waves a couple hundred yards away. At that point, it's easy to wonder why you got up early and busted your hump to get there when it was obviously an easy crossing. Several times, though, the group that came after us had a difficult crossing only an hour later. Meghan and I stopped on the far shore a couple of times and watched an easy crossing turn into a daunting one within the space of forty minutes or so. This made timing pretty important, which brings me to my two last points.

Fifth: If you're planning on doing the Otter Trail, the estimated hiking times are very low, bordering on irresponsibly so. Leave plenty of extra time for steep ascents, rock scrambling, unforeseen obstacles (such as thigh-deep sea-scum), and such niceties as eating and drinking. It took us five hours on the last day to get to the Bloukrans river mouth, the most significant crossing. This had been estimated at four hours, and the whole day's hike at six hours.

Sixth: Faffing. On the last day, we rose at 3:30am and were out the door by 4:20, but only got to the river at about 9:45, right around low tide. Every day, we left about a half hour after we'd intended, and our companions, who were five people, took up to an hour of faffing to get ready. I'm convinced that the bigger a group is, the harder it is to get it going, and that's because there's a bunch of permission-to-faff being passed from person to person. You look over and say to yourself, "Jim's not even got his shoes on yet, so I have time to repack my pack so the snacks are on top." Then Jim gets his shoes on, looks over at you and says to himself, "Rich isn't even packed yet, so I have time to..." The more people, the more this gets passed around and the harder it is to get going. I thought again and again of getting an army up and going in the morning. There's a reason for that strict discipline. Without it, half the day would be taken up in getting ready for it.

Phew. I was going to tell some stories from the actual crossing, but I'm beat! I'll just echo Meghan's sentiments that our South African cabin-mates really showed the best of their country and culture. A nicer group of people, you'll never meet.

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