Living wild on South Africa's deserted Otter Trail

(CNN)Time is everything when walking South Africa's Otter Trail.

First there's the waiting -- it's popular but protected, so limited places must be booked up to a year in advance.
Then there's the trail itself, crossing an incredible ancient wilderness so removed from the modern world that to experience it is to lose yourself in time.
    The Otter Trail, named for one of the animals that makes its home here, covers a 43-kilometer stretch of the Tsitsikamma National Park, situated in the Garden Route region of the Western Cape.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    The trail is characterized by virgin evergreen forests, rocky contours that plunge into dramatic coastlines and a gushing network of waterfalls and rivers.
    These waterways carve their way through ravines to form freshwater pools amid diverse flora, South African fynbos shrubs and fungi.
    It's the oldest and probably the most famous trail in the country.
    And while it may only be a short distance -- spread out over five days -- it shouldn't be mistaken for an easy walk. There are rivers to cross, cliffs to scale and hills to climb.

    Day 1: Storm's River Mouth to the Ngubu huts

    For most of us in my group, the journey begins with a seven-hour car trip from Cape Town to the Storms River Rest Camp.
    We set off with our backpacks stuffed with dehydrated food, grains, nuts, dried fruits, and everything else we could possibly need to get us through five days of unadulterated contact with the natural world.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    About three kilometers into the hike we encounter an enormous waterfall that pours down in front of us to form great big black pools of water.
    I was instantly energized, grasping the ancient beauty we'd be experiencing on our journey.
    One of the most remarkable aspects of the trail is how the landscape changes depending on what the weather is doing.
    Colors and contrasts are greatly intensified by the presence of mist, infusing the atmosphere with a kind of surreal, cinematic emotion that totally changes when the sun glistens over the land.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    This otherworldly landscape of blue and green hues, the emerald gray waters of the wild ocean and the patterns of granite and quartz form a network of crystal-clear rock pools bursting with fascinating micro-creatures.

    Day 2: Nugbu huts to Scott huts

    From Nugbu, most of the morning is spent walking through the cool forest canopies.
    We're still enclosed in the previous day's mist and by the time we break through the forest and onto the cliffs that run alongside the ocean, the path diverges to the Skilderkrans lookout point.
    Skilderkrans is a solid quartz outcrop, which comes into view like a floating planet suspended in the mist.
    Reaching the top, we're literally sitting on a giant crystal.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    We look down on immense rocks extending into the wild Indian Ocean below, the deep greens and turquoises of the water seeping between the finger-like formations.
    We break for lunch at the Kleinbos river crossing.
    Free from the weight of our backpacks, we explore upstream from where a hurried river becomes a pristine and still pool of water.
    On either side of the black pool, two walls of rock create a canyon in the land. On one of the boulders we spot a chameleon mimicking the sedimentary colors and textures of the rock.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    Dragonflies and butterflies the size of my palm are flying overhead, drawing us further in.
    We swim between the crevices.
    The narrow walls -- with luminous moss growing on black rocks, lush ferns and the fresh trickling of water -- are something prehistoric.

    Day 3: Scott huts to Oakhurst huts

    After arriving at Oakhurst, a short exploration westward along the coast leads to a stretch of unimaginable geological exposures.
    The landscape is transformed into alternating layers of rock -- light orange and dusty reds of the sandstone contrast with the darker bands of shale.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    More than 250 million years ago these rocks were rolled, folded, squashed and contorted by extreme heat and pressure in what has come to be known as the Cape Fold Belt region.
    The surreal patterns and textures created by the bending process were further sculpted by the sun, salt and water to form the mind-blowing three-dimensional geometries that exist today.
    The formations resemble the backs of dinosaurs and gigantic prehistoric oysters that have been frozen by time, while others look like the remnants of ancient fortresses and deserted kingdoms.
    The landscape is hypnotic.

    Day 4: Oakhurst huts to Andre huts

    Day four is the longest and most challenging stretch of the hike.
    It's just short of 14 kilometers, with strenuous climbs and steep downhills that are a test of both mental and physical endurance.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    A 5.30 a.m. start ensures we reach the Bloukrans river crossing at low tide.
    To avoid a dangerous swim and scramble across rocks, we have a half-hour margin before the tide begins to rise.
    It's 10 kilometers to the crossing and we dash toward it to get there by 9.00 a.m.
    I stuff my entire backpack into a dry bag for the crossing. On the other side, I fall into a deep sleep on the beach for a few hours before setting off again to our final night's camp.

    Day 5: Andre to Nature's Valley

    Inside the forest the variety of fungi is astonishing.
    There's the many-zoned polypore -- a gigantic protrusion from the trunk of a tree that has solidified and crystallized and feels as hard as a rock.
    South Africa's Otter Trail
    Others like the truffle fungus and funnel woodcap grow in the shape of flowers and shells, and the red-orange sulfur tufts live off aged tree stumps and damp wood on the forest floor.
    The trail ends at Nature's Valley. We have one last swim in the expansive waters, and are thrust back into the real world.
    I experienced so many moving moments on the trail.
    I remember when I sat alone on a rock, right near to where the waves were crashing. The water rushed over and between the rocks with extreme force, then would disappear again as if sucked into a vacuum.
    I could feel the age and earth.
    There was nothing to judge, nothing to say what was good or bad or even beautiful, no concepts of what was right and wrong, just an intuition that I was looking at the most truthful thing in the world.

    Otter Trail, Garden Route Coast, Tsitsikamma National Park South Africa;