Saturday, March 14, 2009

Floating a Backpack Across a River: Judgment Day

You may recall my apprehension regarding one leg of my South Africa hike which involved crossing a river. Just how we were going to swim from one bank to the other with massive backpacks in tow was beyond me. I consulted with experts, Google and drunken friends, but I just couldn't picture it.

The crossing was on Day 4 of our five-day hike, so I had plenty of time to fret. This was compounded by the fact that compared to the 11 other people in my group, I hiked at the pace of a turtle and often fell behind. Hiking near the back of the pack (our friend Patrick was always the "sweeper" at the very back for safety) left me alone with my thoughts--both a good thing and a bad thing.

I had already discovered during Days 1, 2 and 3 that hiking is not my strong suit. I thought it was, until I realized that the word "hiking" means different things in different parts of the world. In Los Angeles, it means meeting a friend for coffee on a weekend, driving to a scenic point along the coast, and going for a walk while catching up on boy talk and celebrity gossip. If you feel like you're breaking a sweat, you quickly and calmly return to your car so you can turn on the A/C before driving somewhere for a smoothie.

In South Africa hiking is a sport. I don't do sports. My mother doesn't do sports. I come from a long line of women who have had to charm their way into getting passing grades in gym class.

Also, we don't swim.

But suddenly here I was far from home with ten virtual strangers and my friend Jen, who was probably regretting her decision to invite me back to her homeland. I was fast earning a poor grade in South African Hiking 101, and the advanced class, Hiking While Swimming, was Pass-Fail.

It didn't help that at the trailhead where we registered with the Park Service, they showed us a safety video emphasizing the danger of the Day 4 river crossing. The footage of another hapless group of 12 who crossed under rough conditions was unsettling to say the least. The message was clear: We had to be at the river ready to go at exactly low tide.

Per the tidal charts, our T minus Zero was 11:45 am. It was decided that we slower hikers would get a 7 a.m. start so that everyone would arrive in plenty of time. Had I known the level of challenge that lay on the trail ahead, I would have left sooner. It was a day of up-and-down and up-and-down, from the sea-level rocky shoreline nearly straight up 150 meters, then back down again. And again. A bit like those heart-rate monitor charts from ER. Meanwhile my own heart was ready to flatline. I almost failed to take in the stunning views as I struggled, covered in sweat ten minutes into it, my backpack a massive concrete block throwing me off-balance as I pulled myself up the inclines by hanging onto tree roots, branches, or occasionally the hand of one of the other hikers who hurried past me on their way to the river.

At last I sensed I was near. The river had to be just around the corner, right? Wrong. Around the corner was: Another straight-up climb. "Are you kidding me?" I yelled at the mountain, furious. I was nearly out of water and had only about an hour left on the clock. I wanted to cry. Nobody cries on the Otter Trail, do they? Do they?

As I stumbled on in despair, Jonathan and Colyn caught up to me and led me through a challenging bit. They shared some of their water and every time I shook my fist at another towering rock ahead they told me, "It's easy, it's easy," and got me up and over it. Apparently "easy" is another term that loses something in translation.

When the trail mercifully leveled off a little I told them to go on ahead--no reason for ALL of us to die here in the wilderness. Finally, I reached the edge of the last cliff and saw the river down below. Far down below. As Jonathan and Colyn waved and shouted up to me, their voices were so faint they might as well have been yelling from Alaska. I looked at my watch: 11:55 am. I was ten minutes late, but I could see that most of the others were moving their packs inland from the edge of the opposite shore. They must have just finished the crossing, and I was third in line to cross next. Jonathan and Colyn were below busily putting their backpacks into waterproof floater bags, the process I had been so curious about. But I only had eyes for my own feet. The hike down to the river bed was characteristically steep so I did my best fast-turtle-hike. I knew that Patrick and Felix were still behind me and the others couldn't just leave us all, could they...could they?

When at last I made it down, I could see that our group was a well-oiled machine. Those who had already crossed swam back with the floater bags, and helped the new arrivals put their bags in and tied them. We took off our hiking boots and readied for the crossing. Paul and Cherelle had both hiked the Otter Trail twice before, and knew exactly what to do. Not only that--they are both members of the National Sea Rescue Institute in Cape Town, and well-trained in water rescue. I couldn't have been in safer hands. (Well if I'd stayed in LA where I belonged, that would have been safer. But let's not dwell.)

When I entered the water it was cold, but good cold. The river was deep enough by now that it was about chest-high, so I could sort of touch my toes along the bottom for much of the way. Cherelle led, pulling my backpack behind her, and I held onto the back of the bag. Wow--this was fun! Super fun! I was having a great time! We swam-walked straight across, but the journey wasn't over yet. Going straight across meant we had taken the shallowest route, but to get to the sandy shore we had to turn a right angle and swim to the left--closer to the mouth of the river which led right into the ocean. The swells got higher as we proceeded, and my feet were no longer on the bottom. I was relying on the bag as a life preserver. Finally, after navigating between some large rocks, I was able to half-paddle to a shallow area and stand up. Success! It wasn't pretty but I didn't care. Patrick and Felix were close behind, and several minutes later we all regrouped, safe and sound. "Let's stop here and have lunch and watch the tide come in," said Paul, still as full of energy as if the day had just started. I declined, uninterested in seeing the waves crash higher and higher and witnessing what might have been. All I wanted was a cold shower, a hot campfire and a long sleep. There was still one more day of hiking to go.

That's me on the left, doing the doggy-paddle.


  1. Michelle MMarch 16, 2009

    too funny! and beautiful photos...except for the water itself.

  2. We did the river crossing on march the 12th 09 and I found the trail as difficult as you !We started walking 4am but it was quite dangerous in the dark.The actual crossing was not as bad as feared,but the last 4 kilometers were VERY difficult.The trail was really tough - one had to be very strong rather than fit.

  3. Finished the trip on Friday 20th April 2009.
    I am reasonably fit for my 59yrs and had the capacity to lead the group but regardless I too felt the pain, so dont think the trail is a "isnt this a nice walk along the coast".
    Crossing the river for us required not only the swim but the climb up the face of the rocks assisted by holding onto those ropes(did you see the ropes) so generously supplied by no doubt a mountain climber.
    We where very reluctant to climb but even though the tide was low the swell surge was to big and created a full tide effect to allow us to swim so we had to make the decision as the tide was turning which left us only that one option. So we climbed with a great deal care. As we all joined one another at the top we realised what we had just achieved and where so proud of ourselves..and rightly so, but as mentioned those next kms where a killer. Would I do it again...nah, think I'll leave it to the insane.

  4. A group of friends, both SA nationals and a group from "across the pond" as they refered to us Canadians, did the hike. No words to truly describe the beauty. THe river crossing was a highlite! Just 2 weeks prior to our "walk in nature" a young man had drowned attempting the river crossing, and the Park Staff with great dramatic effect played this for full value, which put most of our group in a state of fear over the days proceeding the crossing. We to had to climb the rock face on the other side of the river, as even at the lowest tide, the water was still quite deep and the swells also very high. As mentioned, when everyone pitches in to help the others, it goes smooth. Smooth enough that three of us actually took an extra 1/2 hour to dive off the very same rocks that had most in a panic, and swim a bit, found the river refreshing actually. All in all, one of the best hikes I have ever done. Good friends, good weather, great scenery, it was all there!

  5. Girlfriend, you are awesome!!! And I love the fact I can live through it with you with your blog. I hope you're compiling a book with all your adventures because I would buy it for me and all my friends!!

    Can't wait for your next adventure!

  6. Aaaah, the memories. For those that have tackled the "Otter", it must be one of the hikes of a lifetime. For those that have not, well ...... Your loss.

    I recall our river crossing, with low tide at 08h30, being attempted (and successful) at 09h30, along with the strong, incoming current, big swells, jellyfish and blue-bottles. But the battle was eventually won. To those that believe half an hour after low tide will make little difference in crossing this river, take heed. The pain and suffering only lasts a moment, while the wonderful memories of the rest of the hike last a lifetime. Add yes, it is worth the effort.

  7. We have just returned from doing the Otter, and even though it was low tide the wave activity prevented us from crossing the Bloukrans river. The rangers informed us that only one group had been able to cross in the last six weeks. A pity as it was to be the highlight of the trip.
    Next time you want to "do" Africa, call me and we will arrange a fly/drive safari for you. Beats hoofing it with a backpack on your back.