The Cape claw­less ot­ter is an elu­sive and rarely seen crea­ture. How­ever, you can en­ter its world with this thrilling out­ing

Getaway (South Africa) - - Contents -

On the other ot­ter trail – down in Cape Point

WHAT Tracking wild otters WHERE Buf­fels Bay, Cape Point WHO Michelle Hardie

The otters were hid­ing. But they were there all right. It was the smell – pock­ets of rich, musky urine hung in the air. ‘ You’ll never for­get it,’ said Terry McCaan, our guide, push­ing his stick through the fo­liage and fold­ing it back to re­veal a se­cret: a smooth patch of earth lev­elled by an ot­ter. ‘It hasn’t been here for a bit – see the spi­der­web? And that flat­tened grass over there is where one has been rest­ing up. They love ly­ing in the sun,’ he said. I stood back, watch­ing Terry, my ex­cite­ment build­ing. With the eye of a de­tec­tive, he scanned the land­scape through the driz­zle. Then he stopped, star­ing in­tently at the shore­line. It was quiet, save for the sound of waves mov­ing back and forth. I kept tjoep­stil, try­ing to be in­vis­i­ble and hop­ing for a bit of luck. ‘ When the wa­ter pulls the kelp to­wards the shore, you can some­times spot them,’ he said. ‘ They can be seen when sur­fac­ing – a brown head against the shim­mer­ing light in the wa­ter.’ We con­tin­ued south to­wards The Mead­ows, a plain of flowers, fyn­bos and grass kept short by graz­ing an­te­lope. This was ot­ter ter­ri­tory. They wouldn’t sur­vive with­out the fresh wa­ter here, Terry said. Otters don’t have blub­ber to pro­tect them from the cold, so they need to rinse sea­wa­ter off their coats to keep sleek and in­su­lated. Bendy lengths of restio sprout­ing in dense clumps an­nounced this pre­cious re­source. ‘If you come across this grass, you know there has to be fresh wa­ter – it won’t grow oth­er­wise.’ I won­dered if Bear Grylls knew this. Rivulets trick­led through the grass and, fur­ther along, pooled into an ot­ter’s ‘wash­ing hole’. My imag­i­na­tion ex­ploded. There was Mij in Ring of Bright Wa­ter, dip­ping and div­ing, his sweet, whiskered face emerg­ing from the wa­ter to greet me. And then, en­ter­ing the scene came Tarka the ot­ter from Henry Wil­liamson’s clas­sic book which en­chanted me as a child. Pub­lished in 1927, it changed peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of otters, con­sid­ered at the time to be ver­min and hunted ruth­lessly. We were com­ing to the end of our walk and my hope of see­ing otters was dwin­dling fast. I bent down to look un­der a cul­vert, search­ing for two beady eyes. The air was pun­gent with musky scent. No joy. While hop­ping over some rocks, I heard Terry ex­claim, ‘Look here, one’s done its busi­ness!’ He pointed to amor­phous blobs of small, chewed-up pieces of crab shell and fish scales. ‘It’s fresh – it was here. We just missed it!’ FIT­NESS FAC­TOR 3/10. The three-hour walk was easy, with some rock-hop­ping and stops along the way. VER­DICT This experience gave me a unique view of an ot­ter’s world, guided by a lo­cal who knows the ins and outs of ot­ter tracking ( Terry has been do­ing this for 26 years). It isn’t guar­an­teed that you’ll see otters, but you’ll see ev­i­dence of them and learn how to track them – and go­ing off the beaten track at Cape Point Na­ture Re­serve is also special (the tourist buses aren’t al­lowed on the roads where we were). Terry shared his knowl­edge of the flora and fauna, point­ing out in­ter­est­ing sights such as sa­cred ibis feed­ing off kelp lice and he ex­plained why a white-breasted cor­morant perched on a rock in front of us was flap­ping its wings, ‘It’s dry­ing them off. They don’t have very wa­ter­proof feath­ers and so don’t re­tain body heat very well.’ We also found a starfish – turn­ing it over, we saw that it had en­gulfed a whelk and was feed­ing off its flesh. COST R695 pp, plus the park fee of R147 pp ( Wild Card hold­ers get in free). Terry pro­vided a free bot­tle of wa­ter. DE­TAILS It’s an early start (7am) to meet Terry at the re­serve gate. The walk is along Buf­fels Bay coast­line and from Booi Se Sk­erm to Venus Pool. After­wards, we had cof­fee and cake (own ac­count) at Lalaphanzi Farm about two kilo­me­tres from the gate.­pe­ri­ences

So named be­cause of its claw­less front toes which feel and grasp prey, the Cape claw­less ot­ter is pri­mar­ily a soli­tary crea­ture. These mam­mals have the thick­est fur in the an­i­mal king­dom.

FROM LEFT Game trails are your paths in Buf­fels Bay at Cape Point Na­ture Re­serve; about eight nat­u­ral springs in the re­serve en­sure wildlife such as eland sur­vive here.

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