The Otter’s Origin & Oom Popo Scott, An Unsung Hero

The Origins of the Otter 

The Otter Trail weaves its way along the Garden Route’s coastline, spanning from the tranquil Storms River Mouth to the enchanting Root River in the west. The genesis of this remarkable hiking trail can be attributed to the visionary dreams of Oom Lappies, who dreamt of a seamless pathway stretching from the Northern Transvaal all the way down to the captivating city of Cape Town, with a substantial portion tracing our South African coastal contours. It was within the embrace of Tsitsikamma National Park that the journey of the Otter Trail began. 

Dr. Robinson, inspired by Oom Lappies’ vision, meticulously devised the blueprint for the trail, setting the wheels of construction in motion early in July and August of 1967, which was meticulously chronicled in personal monthly reports. From root removals to wooden-platform constructions, a footpath emerged, hugging the rugged coastline until it reached the fabled Guano Caves, situated three miles west of the revered Goudgate. Detailed maps were drawn, which charted the course of the trail and marked locations for overnight campsites. 

The labour force responsible for marking this coastal masterpiece consisted of approximately ten dedicated workers, among them were stalwart individuals such as John Nxowe, Tembikele, David Mtombo, Popo Scott, Grahamstown, and John Busakwe. They embarked on their mission to build the trail, following the philosophy of placing it above the high tide mark. This allowed trailseekers to experience diverse habitats, including fynbos, coastal forests, and bouldered beaches.

Leveraging the paths once tread by fishermen, which elegantly mirrored the coastline, became the preferred route, enabling expedited progress along the marked-out route. Meandering through the undergrowth and negotiating treacherous rocky ledges, the foremen tirelessly scouted and cut trails, persistently seeking a viable passage for the path’s construction. Often, they were confronted with sheer cliffs which plunged into the roaring sea, leaving them with no choice but to ascend these precipitous barriers, knowing retreat was not an option. They painstakingly retraced their steps to the starting point of each completed section, steadfastly determined to overcome every challenge encountered. Traversing estuaries presented further obstacles, as steep slopes leading into the riverbanks prohibited the use of the most accessible and shallow crossings. Notably, the Bloukrans River crossing proved to be particularly dangerous, as attempts to ease the passage through the construction of stone drifts were foiled by relentless erosion. 

This team of workers camped out beside the coast and on the site of the trails for periods of a week to two weeks at a time; where they could continuously work towards the ultimate goal of completing the route. In its early years, the Otter Trail remained a hidden gem, traversed by only a handful of adventurers, necessitating periodic clearing as sections succumbed to nature’s reclamation. The year 1971 witnessed a major endeavour to restore the trail’s splendour, as almost its entire length required meticulous clearance and restoration.

Once the task of constructing the trail had reached its triumphant conclusion, the next chapter beckoned – the christening of the hiking trail. Dr. Robinson, in his pursuit of a harmonious fusion of languages, proposed a naming convention that embraced a use of both English and Afrikaans. It was in this spirit that the name “Otter” emerged as a fitting name for this coastal trail. The Otter, with its affinity for both land and sea, epitomised the essence of the trail, while the near identical spelling in both languages gracefully met the linguistic requirements and officially cemented its status as the Otter Trail.

Today, the Otter Trail stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of exploration, inviting adventurers from far and wide to embark on an unforgettable journey through breathtaking landscapes, transcending fynbos-covered hills, coastal forests, and rocky shores. With each step, trail runners and hikers tread in the footsteps of those who toiled to shape this trail, immersing themselves in the pristine beauty and remoteness of Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route. Forever captivated by the allure of this untamed coast and the indelible legacy of the Otter Trail, SANParks and the Otter African Trail Race team recognise the need to shed light on the remarkable achievements of the heroes responsible for this trail’s construction. 

South Africa’s history of oppression and adversity marginalised many heroes, especially those from the working class who contributed to the national parks system. One such individual, Oom Popo Scott, dedicated his life to building the iconic parks in the Tsitsikamma, leaving behind a legacy that continues to enrich the region. Tsitsikamma, nestled within the Garden Route, boasts a wealth of parks and tourist attractions. However, the brains and innovation behind these offerings have remained largely unknown. Therefore, Tsitsikamma park’s management team aims to rectify this by honouring and revealing the truth about the individuals who contributed significantly to the park’s success.

Oom Popo Scott’s Humble Beginnings:

Oom Popo Scott’s journey and work with the National Parks began at the young age of 14, when, on his walk to school, he was approached by the then Park warden of Tsitsikamma. Hailing from a community that was forcibly removed from the park’s vicinity, Popo was assigned the role of a General worker in the early 1960s. This unexpected turn of events forced him to abandon his dreams of education and devote his life to the service of SANParks.

Building an Iconic Legacy:

Over the course of his 45-year tenure, Oom Popo left an indelible mark on Tsitsikamma. His hands built the foundations of some of the park’s most revered trails and world-renowned viewpoints and locations. Notably, he played an instrumental role in the development of the Otter Trail. The original trail huts, which were once simple decks, were transformed into functional structures to host overnight hikers; with one even being named after him.

In addition to the iconic Otter Trail, Oom Popo designed and single-handedly constructed the forest huts and spearheaded the creation of the Dolphin Trail, offering visitors and adventurers an alternative hiking experience. His skills extended to the construction of a network of trails, including the boardwalk leading to the suspension bridge; as well as his contribution to the establishment of various tourism facilities, such as cape sites, viewpoint decks, chalets, and access roads. 

An Enduring Legacy:

Beyond his physical contributions, Popo Scott selflessly shared his knowledge, skills, and experience with his colleagues at the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route. His dedication to conservation and biodiversity, spanning from the park’s proclamation until his retirement in 2007, inspired many employees who followed in his footsteps. Despite his invaluable contributions and the significant revenue his work generated then and still generates today for SANParks, Popo lived and died in poverty. 

The Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route and the Otter African Trail Race team celebrate Oom Popo Scoot’s legacy which continues to enrich the lives of those who experience his work, unknowingly benefiting from the seeds he sowed. Oom Popo Scott, a humble general worker turned master-builder, left an everlasting imprint on Tsitsikamma’s National Park. Despite facing systemic barriers and limited opportunities, his dedication to the park has seen it flourish. It is essential to honour his memory and recognize his immense contributions, ensuring that the true history of Tsitsikamma is written and celebrated. The spirit of Oom Popo Scott lives on, inspiring future generations to appreciate the transformative power of perseverance and dedicated service.