A thin Indian man asked where the gents was. I didn’t know I was part of the establishment. I had only been there ten minutes. I confidently steered him in the direction of the ladies room, and he set off across the lawns with determination. I presume the bewilderment came a little later.
A fat lady stopped in front of the table. She didn’t look down at the books. She looked straight at me and her oversized lips unrolled in a peculiar unfurling motion, followed by an even more peculiar sound. “Good morning!” I proclaimed. She stared straight through me and said nothing. I felt like a mannequin. She did the lip unfurling thing again and made the same odd sound. “Good morning!” I proclaimed with equal volume and enthusiasm as I had a moment before. She waddled off in silence, as the model train trundled past.
I told my family that I knew what this was all about. This idea of manning a table and selling books. In my student years Kevin, PD and I had a table at a girl’s school fete. We demonstrated fly-tying with enthusiasm. That was for about twenty minutes. Fortunately we had brought beer. Beer at a girl’s junior school.
There is not much interest in fly tying at girl’s school fetes, and it doesn’t help to be tucked away around a corner.
The train trundled past again.
Maybe the Sandton brigade that parades these lawns will be interested in a flyfishing book?
“Owe Da-hling, the kids are jaast playing p-hut-p-hut. We will be along in a seccy. Did you find Derek? Let’s have some coffee shall we. Soop-her!” Lots of gold jewellery and tight jeans, some on bums where they belong. Some definitely not. Sausages.
The train trundles past again.
Two young girls come asking if I have any Agatha Christie titles. “Never heard of her” I want to say. Men stand on the porches, in casual clothes. Shorts and slops. Hands in pockets. Bellies hanging out just a little more than they perhaps planned. I can see they have escaped the corporate world for the Easter week-end. They have endured 5 hours at the wheel. Now they are spending top dollar on some quaint B & B, and they are lurking while their wives spend what is left on the credit card. Three days of this, five more hours in the car, and they will be back behind their desks. What the hell makes them tick. Not fly-fishing. Not books.
The bloody train goes past again.
The Indian man comes past a second time. He must have survived his trip to the ladies room, but he is not asking me for any more guidance. He is returning from the car, where he collected his banana, and now he takes up a position on a bench and eats it in a painfully deliberate way, facing me but noticing nothing but his own fruit.
The damned noisy train-full of kids passes again.
A middle aged woman approaches. Everyone says she should write a book. She is not sure if it will be any good. How does she start, she wants to know. I encourage her. She is a lovely lady. “Just get out a pen and write” I say. At the prospect of having to commit, to actually get started, she retracts. I can see it in her body language. She paints too. She could do her own cover. “What will you write about?” I ask her. She hasn’t thought about that and the question scares her off, and she leaves as the train trundles past. Again.
“Sunil” comes to chat to me. He is from Durban (and all). He is staying at a hotel. The one between the freeway and the railway line. “You all so lucky here man” he says. “Fresh air and all”. “What this book?” he wants to know. “Ay! Nice man. Well done. Good luck man”
That train. It has a lot of adults on it. Many are not accompanied by kids. Their facial expressions are interestingly dull for someone on a fun-ride.
Alan and Lynn drop by, and we catch up on their family matters. They are just taking is easy. Sauntering. They love the book. But they don’t fish.
The train’s bloody whistle is now working.
Someone tries to buy the painting that I have on display. Another asks if the book is about painting. Some youngster lies down on the rails in front of the train as it approaches and his friends get a picture of him, just in time before it rolls past.
Mothers wander past with all manner of prams. Prams with decals and suspension systems that look like they belong on cars. Some babies sleep, granting the parents thirty meters of peace, sometimes even more! Others just scream and smear once edible substances over themselves and everything in reach. The Dads get their turn too. What a lovely outing.
Someone brings grandad. He is 103 years old. He bustles along with surprising agility and then takes up a position in the shade, where he reverses the walker and sits watching the train, which whistles on its way past again.
I sit and stare at the people and wonder if there is more than this for them. Petro assures me that there is. “They probably did a good hike in the mountains yesterday, and this is their rest day”. My scepticism isn’t buying it. I don’t see scratched skin, or a stained shirt, or a worn pair of shoes. I just see bling and boredom.
I start wondering what it would take to derail a small scale train. The rails measure about 30mm each, and are about 400mm apart. The coaches weigh 200Kg each, and can take 600Kg of smiling kids (complete with bored looking adult companions). They say a coin on one of the rails can dispatch a big one.
And the $%#@!>* train passed again.
My misanthropic, antisocial and reclusive tendencies thoroughly reinforced, and with the rays of the sun cutting in low from the west, we pack up. Just before I carry the last box to the bakkie I have a perverse thought of riding the train, but just as suddenly I realise that to ride it would be to let it get the better of me, so I shake my head to clear it, and get the hell out of there.
I need home, and I need the hills.
PS. Rupert stopped by. Nice guy. He is a flyfisherman. We talked knot strength and how long one should expect a co-polymer leader to last. He had lost a few fish the day before. Windknots.
Thank you Rupert
We fished on up the stream. If anyone had been watching, and this far up there definitely would have been no one, but if they had, they would have seen two tough fly-fishermen. Fly-fishermen far from the comfort of a cottage or a car. Far even from a cave, or any other shelter, and plying their nymphs rhythmically and unaffected by the approaching storm. Relaxed fishermen, confident in their plodding steps. Bold and unaffected men. Guys who maintained a singular focus on the finesse and accuracy of their casts. Guys, who in the face of a darkening and foreboding sky, paused and considered a change in fly pattern, which they then exercised unhurriedly.
The old man wore a wide brimmed hat of gunmetal grey. It was one of those with hard deep stitching, that keeps its shape and looks as timeless as it does serious. Beneath it he clenched his teeth against the fine nylon and expertly pulled the new knot snug and tight. He handled the nylon with a ceremonial tug to check the knot, even though he knew it was good. Then he swung the rod tip out, carefully peering about with narrowed eyes to check that the leader swung free for the cast. It snagged a little on his sleeve and he gave the rod a short shove, pushing the slightest pulse of energy into the trailing line, and bouncing the tippet off the snag. Then in a smooth movement he pushed out a loop, allowing the fly to rest briefly on the wind ruffled grey water surface in front of him. The fly plopped in a way that satisfied him, and he lifted off into a smooth cast, delivering more line until the rod loaded and the fly was on its merry way into the run.
Into the run, piercing the surface and immediately entering the competition of currents and gravity in that mysterious watery place below. With the brisk and swirling wind, and the sudden absence of sunlight, what was below the water was obscured from view. Earlier sun patterns had danced on yellow and ochre stones on the streambed, and the hope of spotting Trout was real. Now the surface shone and glistened in a low silvery light. Each wavelet gave off a face of black and a face of grey. Neither were bright, or welcoming. Both were greeted by an ominous roll of thunder. A deep, close, and threatening rumble. A rumble as deep and throaty as that of a large dog that means business, but at a volume which signaled a storm threatening more than a mere hound could ever do. The reverberating rumble seemed to narrow the valley. I looked about nervously, as if looking for an escape route. I wasn’t. I was trying to get a sense of how imminent the storm might be. No looking around would answer that. There was no need to answer that. The storm was definitely on its way. There was no question that things would get worse.
I looked downstream at the old man. He was un affected. He plucked his nymph from the slick grey surface, and using the tug of resistance on the departing line, he loaded the rod in first one and then another line shooting stroke. He angled the line slightly further out into the current than the previous cast, and placed the fly like a croupier places the first card on the felt of the table. Placing it down on an exact spot selected quickly but purposefully and without doubt.
The wind swung wildly for a moment, ripping my line from the water a few inches. I cast quickly, more to get the line out of a potential tangle. Just to get it out there where a fisherman would. And with it out of the way I glanced nervously about and back down at the old man. His face was set in concentration. His focus somehow seemed to smooth the lines of his weathered face, and as so often happens, his unabated enthusiasm placed a youthful spring in his apparent demeanour. His eyes attempted to pierce the dull gun metal water surface, but they danced at the same time. They were light and receptive in their gaze. Young and inspired in their quest to find a Trout. His shoulders were hunched forward. His feet were anchored in the current that swirled about his shins. His mind was occupied with his quest, and another loud crack of lightning was in some parallel world in which he had yet to show interest.
I swung my gaze back and cast furtively, and only because it is what one does when one is standing in a river. The old man’s toughness gave no home to my nervousness. I retrieved too fast and looked back up at the sky, trying to assess its intentions, its earnestness. The hilltops were obscured in cloud now, and the cliffs up at the head of the valley had long disappeared. The cloud hung low enough that we were almost in its mist. A mist white as linen in places, but thin enough in others that the deep dark thunderclouds could not hide themselves. The light had suddenly gone out of our valley, and a darkness the nature of which foretold of endings, enveloped the exposed grasslands. The valley became small and intimate in a way that made me claustrophobic. Large raindrops suddenly let loose from the sky and pelted the brim of my hat and the grass stems that hugged my calves as I strode from the shallow stream, winding my reel furiously as I went. I wound the fly clean up to the end eye of the rod, keeping the rod tip low and not daring to wave it as high as I would have needed to hook the fly into the keeper ring.
The raindrops had moved the old man. I shot him a glance. Mine was a fearful glance. One of someone trapped and wondering where help might come from. He returned the glance, at first seriously and with determination, and then he broke into an easy smile. A warm comforting smile that shone through the now furious deluge of raindrops. He stowed his fly carefully in the keeper ring, and I waited for him to draw up alongside me.
The old man had hiked not only these mountains, but those above us, many times in his youth. I knew what to do, but he was practiced in what to do. He said nothing. I said the obvious. “Let’s put the rods down here” I shouted above the din of the storm, “and go sit it out in the open over there”. He nodded.
I dropped my rod quickly and scuttled to a spot worthy of the place name “over there”. He looked around as if to get his bearings, and placed his rod deliberately beside mine, taking a moment to re arrange it slightly. It was as if he were choosing a spot in a room for a piece of furniture.
I was already huddled over my own knees. I had checked my rain jacket and drawn it tight over as much of my being as I could. The hood was up over my head and secured by the drawstring and my eyes were narrowed against the stinging rain. My head was bowed low, as if to avoid the next bolt of lightning, which came quick enough. I was trying to make myself smaller than I already felt.
The old man’s shoulders were drawn confidently back. His rain jacket was zipped closed, but not to the last tooth of the zip. The various drawstrings swung loose from his jacket, un used and apparently not needed. He strode over towards me slower than I am able to walk even in good weather. He sat down beside me, but not close enough for us to achieve conversation in the roar of the storm.
We sat it out there. Our Trout water was barely visible through the haze of stinging rain. Our ear drums were beaten by thunder so much louder than those first peels. The grass about us was drenched and rivulets flowed under us wetting our backsides with water a whole lot colder than the morning stream.
When it was over, the sun returned quickly to the valley. It came in from the west, piercing through under the last drifting clouds as suddenly as the relief and bravery washed over me. I sported a furtive smile of relief, and tried not to give away my surprise at having made it out alive. I failed and grinned stupidly for a moment. The old man’s face lit more sedately, and he delivered a creeping and unmoved smile of knowledge, self assuredness and comfort.
He stood up slowly , and started for the rods.
“I think I am going to switch to the dry fly” he said over his shoulder, as he plodded back to to his rod, and the stream beyond, at the same speed at which he had left it earlier.
A good portion of my personal fishing history, has developed upon a patch of landscape from which the Inhlosane mountain is in view. Often the mountain is barely in sight, when some fishing tale unfolds. It might be in the background at some obscure and seldom seen angle, or it might just be peeping over the horizon, its furrowed brow of wrinkled cliffs crowning the ridge, like some concerned Grandpa looking in. Like an elderly father figure, concerned for the way things might turn out. Its dome giving away its ever watchful presence from afar.
The Inhlosane must have looked on that day that PD and guy were out on JJ’s dam at Zuivergout.
They were huddled in heavy jackets in the gathering gloom. Huddled in HMS bottletop, that was smaller than the both of them. HMS bottletop with its two micron, transparent fibreglass bottom, that separated them from the icy winter water. And Guy was taking aim at a bass they had caught , and was letting rip with his oversize wooden kudgel. The wooden kudgel with a lead ingot buried in the business end. And above the barrage of ant bass swearing, there was an earnest and nervous plea from PD to please stop, as guy missed, again and again, smashing the delicate boat bottom, out there in that cold water, a long way from shore.
The Inhlosane probably has eyes in the back of its head too. I am sure of it. It watches us on cold winter mornings, as we trundle up the side of the field to Mbovana.
Up along the edge of the field of cut grass, its sandy spread of colour punctuated by scattered guinea fowl, and the stillness of morning split by the raucous clatter of a franklin from somewhere between the hay bales . South African river chickens, I call them. Calling boldly , but running scared with wings and feet competing for their speedy retreat. The sun pierces the eastern skyline beneath the london planes, and the Inhlosane holds watch.
Then there was that furious run over to Boston to find fish boxes floating in the reeds, to strip the hens and cocks, and race back with PD in the passenger seat, an ice-cream tub of precious trout eggs cradled on his lap. We had to forego the comfort of the cab heater in favour of a good trout egg temperature. PD did a fine job of cushioning bone rattling dirt roads as we circled the mountain from below, on a day dominated by driving, that cut into fishing time. Fishing time lost to so few eggs. The hens were few and far between, and the instructions had gotten mixed up….all the good ones were released right beside our box. We cussed and drove and cussed. But we loved it. Circling our mountain in cold dusty air in the pale failing winter light. It was a harsh day of leanness. Real winter. Too short a season for those fond of good jackets, hip flasks and cold trout water.
In recent days we have sweated and toiled and scratched ourselves on wretched wattle trees. Cutting, dragging, hacking and stacking. Efforts to please the watching mountain. To rid its love-child, the river, of the scourge of spreading trees that don’t belong. With our shins brushing bramble patches, our eyes squinting against flying wood chips, our clothes ragged and dirty, and our hearts filled with well-meaning aggression. The mountain looks on. Motionless. Unmoved.
But surely pleased. Please tell me he is pleased.
Family members have proposed marriage atop the old fellow, and spread ashes on his slopes. We have hiked up the back end, and dare I admit it, rolled rocks down his sides.
We have owned properties within line of sight of those eyes beneath the heavy brow. Caught some good trout too. Big ones, from some private syndicates, and from little known farm dams. Inhlosane has watched too as we have celebrated little Browns from the Umgeni.
As he has watched our family, so we have watched him too. I cast my eyes westward every day on the way to work. A quick check, as one might expect to check a wristwatch. Just a “Look see”, to establish if he is spending the day in cloud, or sun, or snow, or storm. A quick run over, like a brail reading, or a memory imprinting. A flash of vision that captures and imprints yet another image of his shape, and height, and colour and mood.
From Nottingham Road, or Greytown, or Fort Nottingham, or Kamberg, and many places more, Inhlosane is a beacon. A beacon to establish direction. Sometimes barely visible, and maybe to some, barely recognisable, but so often there, peeping over some ridge or hill. Beady eyed it seems. Watching a landscape of toil and heat and cold, and dry and flood.
Too many flights. Too many meetings and negotiations and calculations.
No mountains. No rivers. No trout.