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