The Dolphin Trail
The Otter Trail is arguably the best known hiking trail in South Africa, with any South African who regards themselves as a hiking enthusiast having done it or planning to do it. It is however, a trail that requires a good level of fitness and hikers have to carry a full backpack for five days with food, equipment and clothing for the period.
For those that prefer the less strenuous option of ‘slackpacking’, but want to experience this pristine coastline, there is the three night Dolphin Trail. The hiking, although not quite as strenuous as the Otter, is still challenging, with some steep inclines, cliff paths and rock scrambling along the coastline. The real advantage is that you are only carrying a small day pack with your warm tops, rain gear, lunch and water; the accommodation is comfortable to luxurious, the food is provided and you can get your choice of drinks in the evening. In addition to that you get a very efficient and knowledgeable guide who is able to point out details about the flora, fauna and geology of the trail that you might otherwise miss.
The first night’s accommodation is at the chalets at the Storms River Mounth in the Tsitsikamma National Park. Not luxurious, but very clean and comfortable. This is followed by Misty Mountains on the second night and The Fernery on the third. Both of the later offer luxury guest house accommodation in a rural setting with views of the coastal edge of Tsitsikamma Forest and the ocean beyond. While the evening meal at the Storm River Mouth restaurant would not rate in the gourmet category, it is reasonable and is more than compensated for by the dining experience at the other two venues. The Fernery is particularly excellent in this regard.
Day 1 (arrival)
Arrival at Storms River is required by six in the evening, where you will check in, followed by a trail briefing by SANParks personnel and then dinner in the restaurant. It is strongly recommended that you arrive a bit earlier to explore some of the shorter walks around the Park, possibly even the 3 ½ km Waterfall walk, which is the start of the Otter Trail. It is a rocky walk along the coastline, that will get you in to the feel of the rocky part of the terrain that you will be covering in the next few days. If you are saving your energy, you can just relax and enjoy the environment of the camp.
The restaurant complex doubles as reception area and has a superb setting with views of the waves crashing on to the rocks close by, the river mouth in the distance and the cliffs beyond. Our experience of the check in was good with the staff being friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Check in was followed by the evening meal, which made up in quantity what it lacked finesse. Service was also a bit chaotic and was probably not the best first impression of the catering for my overseas visitors. The conversation was good however and after quite a long drive and in preparation for a good days walking the next day, we retired to be fairly early – no TV, just a copy of Wild magazine next to the bed.
After a hearty breakfast we were met by Marius, our guide for the next two days, ready to start walking by 9am. Marius is based at the Fernery and proved to be a really knowledgeable and capable guide.
The route takes you out over the board walk to the suspension bridge over the Storms River Mouth. It is a busy path with both bungalow residents and day visitors to the Park walking to the bridge for the scenic view of the river mouth. The image of a flimsy, swinging suspension bridge is dispelled on first sight of this structure, which is an engineered, substantial link made of steel and wood, anchored in concrete. Nevertheless it is flexible and rhythm of the steps of anyone walking across the bridge can be felt.
For most visitors the walk ends on the eastern bank of the river as there is a steep climb to a view point high on the cliff face above. For us on the Dolphin Trail, this is where it really begins and gives us a taste of the day to come. The path zig-zags up and from the viewing platform at the top you look down on the restaurant to the west, the river mouth and the waves below. Here we are met by a vehicle from the Fernery, with tea, coffee, juice and biscuits – ‘slackpacking’ at it’s best.
From here we leave all other visitors behind, as the trail becomes a private trail for hikers on the Dolphin Trail. The trail passes along the cliff face through stands of fynbos where proteas, ericas and restios abound together with deep orange chasmanthes and bright yellow aspalatus. Suddenly we are winding down through the forest towards the shoreline, passing milkwoods, yellowwood, candlewood trees and many other species. Marius identifies many of them and explains features, flowers and legends surrounding them. There is a bit of light rain around but not enough to impact on the enjoyment, as we find a good spot next to a gurgling stream for lunch.
We can see a glimpse of the path winding up the slope and disappearing high above us. It is not quite as daunting as it looks however and soon we are crossing a wooden bridge with open grass fields in front of us. This is a dairy production area and we have to cross the pastures and over a dam wall to reach Misty Mountain Resort. The boots are muddy but after stamping off the worst we are welcomed at the lodge with hot coffee and decadent looking chocolate cake.
The day dawned almost cloudless and any threat of rain carried over from the previous day disappeared. Marius appeared immediately we had finished our breakfast and we plunged immediately into the forest through a gate on the edge of the expanse of lawn.
It did not take long to get down to sea level and the rocks below. Much of this day is spent close to the rocky shoreline with the walking varying from mostly rock hopping to sandy paths slightly higher up above the rock band. The rock formations are quite spectacular and the waves feel as if they are going to crash in to you at any moment as their energy is dissipated into the rock layers and pools behind. The blue of the sea contrasts dramatically with the green forest verge, which is only prevented from touching the waves in places, by grey-brown rock band. The layers of rocks are tilted and bent, hollowed out and shaped into wonderful formations, bearing testament to the power of the earth and sea over the millions of years.
We spotted many gulls, white breasted cormorant and black oystercatchers, out to sea however, the dolphins remained elusive. We stopped for a tea break on a flat expanse of rock, catch site of a pod passing by. We had to be satisfied with enjoying the bird life and the movement of the sea.
As lunch time approached we climbed up away from the shoreline on a steep zig-zag path that took us through a sparse forest and bushy landscape up in to the bigger trees at the top. The hunger pangs from the mornings exertion were starting to gnaw, when a table appeared, set among the trees and groaning with a variety of breads, pates, cold meats, salads, fruit, juice and coffee. It did not take much invitation to tuck in.
After lunch the path meanders through the thick coastal forest and one realizes that without a guide and a clear path, that is would be very easy to get lost in this ‘jungle’ of trees. Eventually we emerged in to the pine plantation surrounding the Fernery. The name is derived from the main industry of growing and harvesting ferns from the surrounding forest and the more exotic varieties grown in the green house. These are destined for the cut flower markets around the world. There we were greeted by the Dolphin Trail team and after admiring the bright red flowers of the coral trees, teeming with double collared sunbirds feasting on the nectar, we were shown to our rooms.
Set a little bit away from the plantation, the log cabins overlook a deep gorge that runs in to the sea close by. A stunning setting and a place where one could quite comfortably relax and spend a few days just enjoying the environment. There are a few short hiking paths and cycle routes around the Fernery, but we were all quite happy to settle for a cold beer and a hot shower and to relax until dinner time.
The dinner that evening was nothing short of excellent. A choice of succulent fillet steak or stuffed chicken breast, preceded by starters and followed by dessert, all beautifully presented and served by cheerful attentive staff. The wine list is extensive and not overpriced. A fitting end to a wonderful walk.
The next morning we had to leave early to catch a flight from George airport, having originally dropped out vehicle at the venue and taken hotel transport to the start. The usual package allows you to leave a <a