Slackpacking the Garden Route
Words by Fiona McIntosh, pics by Shaen Adey
After surviving a backpacking trip on the Otter Trail Fiona McIntosh discovered that the trick to multi-day hiking is to go without a heavy pack. Here’s how.
I waited for two years to get a booking to hike South Africa’s famous Otter Trail. While the beauty of this stretch of the Tsitsikamma coast was exceptional, my lasting impression was that it was really quite hard core. Although reasonably fit, our group had underestimated the strain of carrying heavy backpacks for five days and not exactly packed light. In fact our first night’s dinner was a braai - steak and jacket potatoes washed down with a perfectly quaffable boxed wine.
By the end of day two our knees were sore and our shoulders were chafed. So we ate, or fed to the birds, any non-essential food items in an attempt to lessen the load. We felt foolish. We simply hadn’t done our homework. But it’s easy to fall into the same trap. Everyone I knew had hiked the Otter and when you look at the route map it’s obvious that there are no big mountains to scale. But we didn’t read the small print in the route descriptions. Sure, we knew that the Otter Trail meanders along the coast through the indigenous forest up to spectacular cliff-top viewpoints then down to rocky gullies and gorgeous private beaches. That doesn’t quite convey the full picture, however. The Otter trail is relentless - up, down, up, down with only short flat sections. You do need to be fit.
Once we’d grasped the reality and gained a bit of fitness we began to enjoy ourselves. The magnificent scenery exceeded all expectations. We saw dolphins playing in the surf, had fun wading in the tannin-stained rivers and stopped off to skinny-dip. Of course the Otter is a luxury trail by most hiking trail standards so the paths are well-maintained and well-marked. The superbly located overnight huts are clean and well-equipped - with mattresses, braai places, loos with views and even (cold) showers.
By the time we arrived at the spectacular viewpoint above Nature’s Valley and saw the end of the trail we felt proud if a tad weary. It had been an awesome hike, but we resolved to be better prepared next time.
Accordingly, when I repeated the Otter a few years later I was a bit savvier. I’d packed some freeze-dried meals for the evenings and cut out the booze. It made all the difference. With a lighter pack I could really enjoy the walk and stopped often to admire the fynbos, to take photos and to swim in the rock pools.
We’d decided – in a moment of madness - to combine the Otter and the Tsitsikamma Trail. The latter reverses the journey inland through the mountains from Nature’s Valley to Storms River. Together they make an eleven-day circular hike. After meeting up with a few additional trailists who’d arrived in Nature’s Valley with fresh supplies, we changed clothes and headed the short distance through the lush forest along the edge of the lagoon to the Kalander hut – the first overnight hut on the Tsitsikamma Trail.
This time we’d decided to spoil ourselves and take advantage of the porterage service – sending our bags on from hut to hut. It was a smart move, particularly for those of us who’d endured the privations of the Otter. Our food was labelled according to the day that we required it and was then refrigerated and delivered on the appropriate night by the extremely efficient trail organisers. What a pleasure. We had cold beer every night, steaks, salads and fruit - a whole new multi-day hiking experience. I was hooked. It was a demanding trail through the mountains with some serious uphills and knee-jarring descents; how glad we were that we were only carrying our daypacks.
Our next sortie along the coast, on the Garden Route Trail, was even more leisurely. I’d already spent quite a bit of time at the popular tourist spots of Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and Wilderness but had been seduced by the thought of exploring the area more. I wanted to meander along the beaches, check out the birdlife in the indigenous forests and explore the little visited reserves, lakes and marshes that characterise the part of the world. The fact that, in true slackpacking style, our bags would be transported between the overnight spots was a major drawcard. Not only that; we didn’t even have to worry about the catering – all our meals were provided. It was a fabulous five days.
The Garden Route Trail is wonderfully varied, incorporating canoe and boat trips, wonderful hikes past fascinating coastal landforms and through the fynbos. There are plenty of opportunities to swim, snorkel and enjoy the beach. Although there are some long days, it is a trail that relatively unfit hikers can enjoy. To a large extent the route can be tailored to the wishes of the group. The emphasis is on enjoying the scenery and the wildlife rather than on racing to the end.
What makes this trail so special is the guiding. Mark Dixon, who developed and runs the trail, is as knowledgeable and passionate as any guide I’ve ever come across – and a superb chef and host to boot. We finished the trail relaxed and inspired. The only problem now is: how am I ever going to go back to carrying a pack and surviving on dehydrated meals again?
Otter Trail +27 12 426 5111
Tsitsikamma Trail +27 42 281 1712
Garden Route Hiking Trail +27 82 213 5931 / +27 44 883 1015