The Otter trail and the anticipation of the Bloukrans river

The Bloukrans river crossing is usually the first thing that is spoken about by those hikers who have just completed, or are about to embark on, the Otter trail. There have been many stories about the difficulty of crossing a raging Bloukrans river. There have been some drownings that give testament to the challenge of getting across the river. For those who are unfortunate, taking the escape route may be the only safe way off the trail if the crossing is considered too dangerous (in which case the hikers will not be able to complete the rest of the trail).

The anticipation of crossing the Bloukrans can feel like a black cloud that hovers over those who set out on this most beautiful trail along the Eastern Cape coast between Storms River mouth and Nature’s Valley. One has to cross this river on the fourth day of the trail; so the unease and uncertainty lingers with you right from day 1. The crossing needs to be planned for low tide. The river is about 10Km from the overnight hut and you may need to start off very early in the morning when it is still dark in order to reach the river at low tide

If you have an experience for the first time, you have nothing to compare or contrast it with.

In December 2000, I did the Otter trail for the first time. It is a tough trail and you have to be physically fit to cope with the ups and downs as one moves continually from mountain to shoreline (and back again) on difficult, uneven terrain. However, the beauty of the trail is well worth the physical pain that one may have to endure.

My wife and I have just returned from doing our second Otter trail.

In our preparation for this trail, we pulled out some of our old photographs taken in December 2000. As I looked at the images of the Bloukrans river, my stomach turned. I could immediately recall the fear that I had to deal with when crossing the river. Although in the past; that fear was now staring me straight in the face. Doing the Otter trail required me to cross the Bloukrans river again. In 2000, the crossing of the Bloukrans was a taxing experience. Fortunately, there were some strong swimmers in my party that could assist weaker swimmers such as myself.

Ready for the challenge
Tackling the Bloukrans river crossing, December 2000
Looking back at what we had achieved

I have always advocated that you should do an extreme event at least twice. For example, I did the Comrades marathon twice and found the second time far more mentally challenging. The first experience is usually the easiest since you approach it with no pre-conceived ideas. No assumptions are made and you usually encounter the experience with a ‘beginner’s mind‘. There is a naivety in the experience.

As we approached the Bloukrans river in March 2012; my experience in December 2000 was strongly etched in my mind. I was worried. Unlike in the previous crossing, my wife and I were on our own this time. There was no one to assist us, if necessary. This heightened my anxiety.

We had planned our arrival exactly at low tide.

My surprise and relief looking down at the Bloukrans river, March 2012
Where is the raging water?
Crossing ankle deep

The crossing of the Bloukrans in March 2012 reminded me of a number of things:

  • That in life the only constant is change itself and that no two experiences will ever be the same.
  • That my tough first crossing had created fearful anticipations of what I was possibly going to encounter the second time around.
  • I couldn’t stop thinking of what my reaction would have been if my experiences of the two crossings had been swopped – an easy first experience and then being shocked at the raging river for the second crossing.
  • Having ‘no mind’ (clean slate), ‘open mind’ (receptive mind), and ‘beginner’s mind’ (dealing with what ‘is’ in a non-expert way) as a mental stance when encountering an experience for a 2nd or 3rd time helps to challenge the assumptions and anticipations that we may build up in our minds (as fantasies).
One of many breath-taking views
Crossing rivers and passing waterfalls on the trail
The beautiful rock formations on the coast
The tranquility of the overnight huts
High above, looking back at the huts
The protea – such natural beauty on the trail
Reaching the end with mixed feelings; re-entry back into society

Being in nature, away from ‘the madding crowd’ always helps to restore emotional balance and reminds one of ‘one’s place’ in the bigger scheme. The trail is a humbling experience. I had an over-riding feeling of gratitude and joy to have had 5 days in such beauty.

One thought on “The Otter trail and the anticipation of the Bloukrans river

  1. Beautiful pics, they bring back good memories! I was also fortunate to do the “Otter” twice… in February ’92 and January ’98. My first “Bloukrans” crossing was similar to your second, and my second similar to your first (it started raining at 4AM so the river was running pretty strong when we reached at the turn of the tide. We walked upstream and crossed – in our boots – where it was shallower… but still tugging at our feet).

    On the other hand, our “Lottering” crossing was memorable. The black water made gauging its depth impossible. We stripped down, stowed everything in our backpacks and waded into the water… only to find it wasn’t even knee-deep. The black water no doubt plays a large part in the fearful “Bloukrans” crossing.

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