My mind is a whirl of flaming Lombardy poplars, water clear and cool; of shafts of sunlight cutting across the mountains and igniting the yellowing veld.
Whisky from the bottle cap, ice on boots, and rocks on two wheel tracks. Rods, flies, cussing, jokes and dust.
Cold wet socks.
Nuts, mussels and biltong from the backpack.
The Birkhall porch: swirls of light and clinking glasses in the night. Tobacco smoke and fishing plans. Roads: ever curling , descending, rising, twisting and demanding another gear.
The veld: whisked and brushed by wind, seed-heads bowing and bucking, in browns and pale sun-washed ambers.
Footfalls: plodding and tired in wet boots, stumbling on stones, sliding into the water, jarring knees, and pushing aside ever resisting swathes of grass and current.
Fatigue. Freedom. Beer. Faces of true friends ignited in the day’s sunlight, smiling, jovial and a little reddened. Steaming plates of hot food. Coffee. Sleep. Tea. Frost. sunlight and wind.
Punching fly-casts. Fish, fleeting, fleeing, watery and dreamlike. Sheep paths. Tippet and gink. Wet poplar leaves. Tongues of current and water spreading over pale gravel and stone.
Drifts, flicks, drag, and lightning takes. Sleep, drive, walk, fish, walk, drive, drink, eat, sleep.
Gilboa Estates, named after mount Gilboa is a beautiful place.
The mountain itself is the highest point on the Karkloof range of hills. Although less striking than Inhlosane mountain, the Karkloof is an iconic skyline, and is visible from far across the midlands of KZN.
What makes this range unusual is that it protrudes out from the main Mount West/Greytown ridge as a high narrow spur, in an easterly direction. This gives it some unique characteristics. Firstly, it gives it a cool southern side, that is ideal for natural forest to form. So unlike the main ridge to the North (which runs out from Mooi River/Mount West to Greytown in a more North easterly direction), it boasts significant natural forests on its slopes. For those not familiar with this bioclimatic region: that is an anomoly in a landscape which would otherwise be covered in an endless sea of natural grasslands. In its verdant state, as described in the book “Stories from the Karkloof hills” , it must have been on a par with the steppes of Mongolia.
This anomoly is not immediately apparent, because much of our landscape is now dotted with commercial timber plantations, and the Karkloof area in particular is considered timber farming land.
In fact much of that timber is planted right up to the margins of the bush, and to the uninitiated it may all appear a homogenous dark green mass.
I often find myself correcting people when they speak of the commercial timber and refer to it as a forest. It is not a forest. It is a plantation. A dead thing in which nothing else lives. The forest on the other hand is a delight. A mass of species: ferns, Cape Chestnuts, Lemonwoods, Yellowwoods, stinkwoods,……… you name it. It is home to leopard and Duiker and monkeys, and a vast number of bird species.
From the ridge that runs west of the summit of Mt Gilboa, you can stroll along the top edge of the forest, and listen to the sounds of birdsong drifting up to you, in a manner not dissimilar to the mist that tends to drift up over that escarpment.
The cool mist can catch you by surprise, even on a warm day. At around 1700m altitude the ridge is fairly high, but more importantly it is a good 400m higher than the road, visible about 2 km away to the South.
So this ridge catches the wind, which often rises and condenses, and thus it receives a rainfall as high as 1400mm per annum, further supporting the cool lush forests. It snows on top too. Not often, but it does snow. After a winter front the locals will speak of the severity of a snowstorm in progressive terms, from “High berg only”, to “Little berg as well” and on to “It snowed on Inhlosane”, followed by “It Snowed on the Karkloof!”, indicating a real “hum- dinger”.
All that water and cool air augers well for Trout! Trout are to be found, but the ridge is a narrow one, and so they hang precariously to these slopes.
On the Northern side, where the slope is more gentle, the landscape is an open grassland like that I described earlier. Most of it is in prime condition.
It also sports some of the most pretty wild flowers imaginable.
There are one or two lakes in that zone. The recently repaired “Marks dam” is one of them. It is a superb water, and is about to be re-stocked by the NFFC.
Then there are a few more, out on the Eastern end of the ridge, where they are surrounded by Pine plantations.
Below the Eastern crest is Mbona estate and one or two other stillwaters that boast a trout population.
In terms of streams, they are all delicate and precarious threads, and the status of their trout populations is largely unknown nowadays. We know that many had Trout in them. I recently read an account in a private unpublished family history, in which a Durban family would ride out to the Karkloof by wagon, and fish the streams for trout. It would have been in the first 10 years after these were introduced at the turn of the previous century. And of course the Karkloof was the site of John Parker’s first (albeit unsuccessful) hatchery. There are more recent accounts of people shocking the streams in the 1970’s to thin out fish populations, and using those fish to stock dams. But the land is privately owned and these streams are often overgrown and difficult to reach. The Mholweni / Yarrow flows South. Every map you consult has a different labeling as to which arm of the stream is the Yarrow and which the Mholweni, and which name carries to the main stream that flows out onto the flats and runs South West beside the main road. Others say it is one and the same, which I guess it probably is.
The Natal Fly Fishers Club once had water here on the farms of the Shaws and Landale Train. Peter Brigg writes beautifully about his interview with Landale Train in his book (“Call of the Stream”), wherein he suggests that the trout may no longer be there at all. The status of those stretches is uncertain though. It seems hard to believe that the trout are gone completely. I can tell you that I watched trout rising in a pool below the house on the property known as “Twin Streams” about 15 years ago. We have had some severe droughts and floods, and commercial timber clear-felling results in massive silt loads. Who knows what you will find in that stream.
There has also been talk of trout in the hanging valleys up on top: both the Mholweni below “Bosses dam” and the Umvoti below “Barlbarton dam”.
Turning to the Northern side, The Nyamvubu was dammed about 15 or more years ago, and that dam (Bloemendal), while it started out with some good trout, now has Bass and other species. Roger Baert writes of this stillwater, as well as the Craigiburn dam below it, in his recent book, “Meandering Streams”. The Craigiburn dam , as far as I know was last stocked with Trout in 1984 (for some obscure reason I still have a newspaper clipping about that stocking!)
The status of the trout population in the diminutive Nyamvubu that flows into it is unknown. That stream rises in the verdant grasslands which are protected in terms of the stewardship program whereby private landowners sign up to protect their land as a nature reserve. It is good to know that this small sanctuary of natural beauty is valued by enough people for that program to have succeeded.
Gilboa and the Karkloof really is a beautiful place, and it begs further exploration with a fly rod, a map and a camera.
Easter time, or more specifically late March through all of April, is a magical time for us trout fly-fisherman here on the eastern seaboard of South Africa.
We have just come out of the stifling heat of February, which is about as “un-trouty” as you can get, and those of us with European origins are feeling ever so slightly more comfortable, no matter how African we profess to be.
Our rainy season is drawing to an end. We can still get rain at this time of year. In fact we can get rather a lot, but the wild unpredictability of our thunderstorms is abating.
A month ago, there was a not unreasonable chance that the river would turn into a raging torrent of chocolate while you were on your way there, or while you were busy fishing it. And I am not talking about Easter egg chocolate here. I am talking about mud. Mud was in January and February, and it came with water that more often than not was over twenty degrees C (68 degrees F). The weather was humid too, so that even on a cloudy day, you could feel sweaty.
There were trout to be had for sure, but all the talk was around releasing them carefully and water temperatures vs oxygenation.
Now, as the season turns, mornings have a crispness to them. Stepping into a stream in the morning is a thing that you hold your breath for. The moment that the stream clutches at your old ragged wading longs, you find yourself standing on tip toes!
The grass changes too. This part of the world is all about grass. It its natural state, and thankfully our mountain streams are largely in that state, there is barely a tree to be seen. The grass bolts and produces seed heads in late February. By late March it has taken on a yellowness. One doesn’t really notice this insidious change, but when you look at your December photographs, against the ones you took yesterday, you suddenly see it.
I don’t know that the trout feed more, or are more willing. It is hard to tell. Being a cold water fish they are supposed to be happier, so we tell ourselves that they are. In reality it is probably that we are happier, and fishing better as a result. We certainly get out more, so we catch more fish.
The light gets a little softer. It makes for great photography. The rain that falls is invariably cooler, and raingear and a change of clothes become important. In mid summer, it didn’t matter if you got drenched: you were either wet and warm or dry and warm. Now you want a jacket on the back seat.
When the sun is shining, it can hang above you in an azure blue sky all day, and you don’t have that feeling that its rays are penetrating your skin and boiling your blood beneath.
I for one feel a little safer not having to rely on an unseen layer of sunscreen alone to protect me from certain incineration! Days of sheltering in the shade at some point of the day, and returning home physically drained to swat mosquitoes all night, are thankfully gone.
Now you can walk the veld with something of a spring in your step.
It is a magical time, but it passes all too quickly. It is a time when the rivers will be at their best, and although the stillwaters will be good too, they will be good right through the winter, when the rivers are closed. So, figuring that one should make full use of this fleeting opportunity I advocate getting out there on our streams and rivers.
It is an Easter thing.
End of lent.
Good river trout are to be had.
Go get ‘em!
Some days will always be slow ones. There will be those days where a long week will catch up with you, and instead of heading out at 5 am, you will put your alarm on snooze, get up at 6:30, and have a decent breakfast, complete with a cappuccino. Driven as one might want to be to get out on the water, sometimes fishing days will turn out that way. The rigors of a business week will catch up with you, and your body will rebel and tell you to “chill”.
On Sunday, I obeyed. Egg, bacon, beans, toast, ended off with a good coffee and a resigned but satisfied sigh. The river would have to wait.
When we did get up to the Umgeni, it was off colour. We paused at the bridge where the tar road ends and inspected it. Unlike the slate grey of a mountain stream in spate, we got cheap weak instant coffee colour. As always, there was hope that further up it would be better.
Arriving on the farm we met Russell. “It was crystal clean yesterday” he said. There had been a storm. He didn’t get it, It happened up there. He gesticulated in the direction of the source.
We went down to the river anyway. We crawled under the electric fence and went down to the water’s edge. It was still cheap coffee coloured. Damn!
I always peer into dirty water, normally along a protruding stick or log, to try to get a sense of how far into the water I can see, and therefore what the visibility will be for the trout. This time the dark shades of a wet branch disappeared within a few centimetres. Not good. Often the Umgeni appears a little ginger beer like, but this was nothing like that. I always wonder how much muddy water a Brown Trout can tolerate through its gills in a season. There must be a red line somewhere.
We strolled down the river, looking into each pool as though we expected, against all odds, to suddenly find a clean one.
I pointed out the log jams of wattles, and explained how these and other alien trees were the major contributors to the water colour we were seeing. Not only do wattles (Acacia mearnsii) contribute tannins, which give the Umgeni its yellowy brown hue on the best days (see What makes rivers different colours), but on the worst ones like today, it is the clearfells and Allelopathy that give rise to erosion. Years of apathy have lead to widespread patches of wattle, and they are especially prevalent on the farms of absentee landlords, and in road reserves. They also predominate on farms where licensed commercial timber is grown, but where there has been scant effort to contain plantations within the approved plantation blocks. The farm opposite us that morning is one managed by a corporate poultry concern. Their lack of veld burning and the absence of cattle to devour small wattles has lead to a wasteland of weeds and increaser species (the precursors to afforestation which are associated with poor basal cover).
We walked back to the car, and drove up river, stopping at another spot higher up.
I pointed out a recent clear-fell on the hillside in the distance. The commercial timber plantation there had been felled. It is a very steep slope, and it could be argued that no timber should ever have been allowed to be planted there. But the deed is done, and now we should be looking at how to minimize the damage. When last I was up there in the clear-fell last year, I noticed that the timber trash had been laid in windrows lying straight up and down the hill. An opportunity to use that trash as a soil holding device, by laying it along the contours, had been missed. I shudder to think how many tons of topsoil this caused to wash into the Umgeni river!
The section of river we were looking at there within sight of the clear-fell was dirty too. No surprises there. The banks at that point are planted to pasture. The pasture land extends too close to the river bank, if one is to follow the law to the letter, but one has to be pragmatic about these things. The cows grazing in the field near us have devoured any small wattles. The ground is also secured by a mass of grass roots that bind it all together, and there is no sign of erosion on this well farmed commercial enterprise.
Driving further up the river we passed onto the tenement above. While it is now owned by the same farmer, its history is different. Maybe no cattle were around to eat the emerging wattles many years ago. Maybe a fenceline kept the cows from the river bank, which on the face of it is a good thing. I do know that this piece of land was not owned by a man whose elderly father was a fly-fisherman. On the farm below, where we had just been, this was the case. Derek used to run a tractor down near the river with a mower, so that his ageing dad would be able to fish it in the late summer without undue effort. Twenty years later, it shows! The farm below is relatively clear of wattle. The one we were looking at now has a ribbon of big wattles running up the river banks. They are big trees now. In my estimation the cost to remove them would run to about….let’s see: A conservative estimate: R500,000 ($50,000). That would be to remove them properly: cut, pull from the river, stack, burn, and do some follow up management. On second thoughts, my figure is way too low, and that is just for a few kms of river. There are many more kms above this farm with the same problem.
My mood turned. I became dejected. It was not because I was not getting to fish on Sunday. Sure, that was a pity, but it was bigger than that. It was about our apparent collective apathy in handling this conservation problem. The same type of apathy that had me ignore my 5 am alarm clock, is the very thing that is at play here.
In recent years I have witnessed wattle infestation high up berg rivers, and in other places, where no one has noticed, and no one is doing anything about it. In many places those trees are already large and the job of removing them seems insurmountable. In other places the trees are still small, but no one has noticed. The passage of time alone will surely multiply the extent of the problem to something beyond our grasp.
On the way out I witnessed freshly felled wattles along side streams, where a WWF initiative is underway. At other spots I saw an absolute mess where a contractor appears to have pillaged the useful timber and done a runner with the money, without finishing the tidy up job he was employed to do. It was an emotional see-saw in which I tried desperately to interpret the mixed results as an overall win. I am unsure if we are going backwards or forwards in this river valley at present.
We stopped for a beer and a pizza at il-Postino to cheer us up.
It worked. It was a relaxed Sunday, and it was pleasant to sit on the porch of what was our local trading store in my childhood. From there we pulled in at Steam Punk, a simply superb coffee shop in the most obscure of places, where I had a “Coppucino” ( a cappuccino made the Syrian way, with Cardamom, just the way I like it).
It is easy to just enjoy the beer and the coffee and forget about it all.