“There are two things that you must always respect,” said my aged uncle. “the sea and the mountains”.
We were sitting atop Shada’s Ridge at the time….a spot suitable for the testing of peak names. He would have us go from south to north, naming them one by one, ten cents a’piece: “The Triplets, Red Wall, Lesser Injasuthi Buttress, Greater Injasuthi Buttress, Scaly Peak, The Ape, Old Woman grinding corn………”
Speaking of which, he didn’t mention his wife in that respect thing, and neither did he mention rivers. In his mountain name test, if you got one wrong, the clock went back to zero, such that you didn’t just lose ten cents, you lost everything. Crossing your wife is a bit like that too. Come to think of it, so is crossing swollen rivers. And while he had a special whistle for his wife, he really did respect her (If you don’t count that time he put rocks in her backpack). And notwithstanding the fact that I refer to him as my ‘aged uncle’, I respect him. He called himself the ‘aged uncle’ , and he called other things too, like when lightning was close enough to row the fishing boat to shore and pack it in, and when it was, and wasn’t safe to cross a swollen river.
I remember one time with him, when we were just kids, crossing the Injasuthi river, which was in flood. We were on a day long hike, guided by the ranger at Injasuthi, who was a family friend. I seem to remember that we crossed using a rope for us kids to hang onto. Perhaps we were tied to it. After we crossed, the ranger regaled us with a story of a Durban doctor who had been washed away to his death at the same crossing. I remember being very scared, both by the crossing, and because I knew we would need to cross the river again to return to camp.
I remember too that a discussion ensued about crossing rivers safely on horses. I asked why that was safer, and it was explained to me that horses have four legs.
Skip forward fourty years or so, and I remembered that when PD , a guide, and I were looking to cross the swollen Bokong River. We were hiking back from a rain sodden trip, which was less than successful, if you were to judge it by number of fish caught. We looked at the river at one spot and decided it wasn’t safe. Then we walked downstream and looked there, and decided it was worse.
We returned to the first spot, looked for makeshift wading staffs, and finding none, plunged into the river. It was then that the horse thing came back to me, and I suggested to PD that we go arm in arm….you know, his arm over my shoulder, mine over his. Cozy, you might say, but wow, what a difference it made. We really were twice as safe, having four legs between us. I guess it was kind of like a four wheel drive, or a vehicle with diff-lock. We crossed safely, and with ease and relief.
Some years earlier, my wife and I (and I respect her greatly), were crossing the Poachers stream at Injasuthi after similarly heavy rains, and thinking back, we should really have gotten more cozy, because it wasn’t comfortable at the time. I just didn’t think of it.
“I just didn’t think” is the kind of phrase that accompanies stories of near drownings.
Ilan Lax writes in Dave Walker’s guide of the Bell River coming down in spate when he was on the wrong side. On our last trip to the North Eastern Cape, two mates had to make a dangerous crossing of the Vlooikraalspruit. I am sure you have your own stories too. The Bell river looked like a disaster zone just yesterday, and the KZN berg rivers were full before last week’s rain hit us. As I write this, it is storming again.
Stop and think.
Remember: The sea, the mountains, your wife, and swollen rivers.
I’m going to attribute that edited wisdom to my aged uncle (and aunt).
Last night the wind billowed the bedroom curtains, and things dropped off windowsills in the middle of the night. It had been a hot day, and towards sunset, the wind direction swung wildly, and lightning lit up the darkening sky. There was a distant roll of thunder, and we unplugged appliances. Then the wind slowed, we plugged them in again, and then it came at us wildly from a different direction. There was no rain in the end, but I was not troubled. A big front would be in within 24 hours and the weather forecast predicted a 15 degree temperature drop within two hours and rain for no less than 3 days.
As I sit here, the front has blown in, just as they predicted. The windows are open, and gusts of fresh cool air are wafting in and I get a sense that the bricks are cooling like the sizzling rocks of a campfire doused. It has cooled enough to make a hot cup of tea, and I can breathe again, as the sticky heat of the day is relieved. High clouds billow above and the trees are bucking and making pleasing whooshing sounds. All this brings to mind days of wild weather on the water.
Flyfishing, like any other outdoor pursuit, puts you in more immediate contact with the weather. There have been work days when I sat in an office with a furrowed brow, eyes straining at a computer screen, and a telephone at my ear, from which I emerged unable to report what the weather had done. On a river or lake, the weather is literally ‘in your face’. It defines the day. Most fishing days are defined by the weather, and the more extreme the weather, the more easily the memory of the day sticks.
Wild weather makes for the stuff of nostalgic memories. Invariably, suffering the discomforts of adverse weather make a day stick in your mind all the more.
There was the day I spent with Roy, far up the Mooi River, and miles from any sort of shelter, where many hours of rumbling thunder eventually and inevitably converted into a wild thunderstorm, which we sat-out in the open veld, with our graphite fly rods a safe distance away in the grass.
I remember a day on Cariad Vach in November where the temperature didn’t reach double digits and the mist was so thick that you couldn’t see your fly land when you put out a half decent cast. Guy and I walked around the lake in the mist, unsure of how far around we were, when we came upon the inlet stream. There we caught fish which seemed to have their noses in the flow of the inlet: we literally dropped flies in the little 10 inch-wide flow, and let them spill a foot into the lake and then tightened up on fish that went five pounds.
Then there was the time PD and I fished Crystal Waters in an August wind. While we were setting up, I made the mistake of taking my foot off my float tube, and it blew away across the veld and was stopped by a farm fence. Later we paddled across to what we reasoned was a slightly more sheltered bay, but that crossing was like an Atlantic crossing, I got cramp, and PD landed one miserable fish the whole day.
Then Roy and I went up the Ncibidwane higher than we had ever been before, in searing heat that weakened us to that point where one’s humour becomes childish. Roy forgot a teaspoon and I have a picture of him in the scant shade of a protea eating his breakfast yoghurt with his fingers.
I got one 12 inch Brown, but I got an epic picture of Roy hiking out, visibly tired and drenched with sweat, but with the majesty of the mountain behind him.
Last year on the Sterkspruit, Anton and I fished a particularly windy day at Knighton. Just below the bridge a spectacular cliff plunges into the river at a deep pool. Standing fishing at that pool I watched Anton beat the howling gale to get a fly into the sweetest spot in the run, and land a magnificent Rainbow.
In a section just above, I raised countless fish from the same run, and they were all a fair size, but only every second cast was actually landing in the river. At some point we blocked out the wind and hours later we suddenly realized that it had stopped, and neither of us could remember when.
This last winter, my friend Stu invited me to accompany him on a training exercise with his dogs. We drove up onto the high ground. When we got there we sat in the vehicle, as it rocked in the wind, while Stu dialed into his weather station, which was in sight across the slope. It revealed winds of 35 knots, a temperature of 2 degrees, and a wind chill-adjusted temperature of minus 4! I borrowed another jacket from Stu, tightened my cap until it gave me a headache, and off we went with the dogs. I loved being in that windswept high country. It was exhilarating.
As a school kid, Vince and I were dropped of by my mother at Selsley dam to fish, with a promise to pick us up at the end of the day. In the early afternoon, a storm approached, and then it started to rain. In those days that water was in an expanse of open veld, with no tree or shelter in sight. A Landrover arrived just then, and we went across to greet its occupants, hopeful of shelter. They were fishermen who had come down into the valley to try the lower dam, having been chased off the Old Dam by a storm. They opened the back door of the Landy to greet us, but when a squall blew in, they shut the Landy door in our faces, leaving us to the elements. (May they rot in hell!). Vince and I were frightened by the lighting, so we decided to make a run for Mick Kimber’s house about 2 kms away. Along the way a hailstone hit the peak of my cap, and I said “Hey Vince! I just got hit by….”, but I didn’t get to finish my sentence and we were pummeled by a deluge of stinging hailstones all the way to shelter.
I once got caught in a vicious rainstorm while down in the gorge on Reekie Lyn on my own.
I left my graphite rod a safe distance away and sheltered in what barely passed as a rock shelter. I started out quite smugly, because apart from some splash, I was largely dry. But then the wind changed direction and I was drenched to the skin. I would have carried on fishing afterwards, but the river had turned to a raging torrent. The walk back to the car was a sweet and memorable experience in the cool of freshly doused summer veld, awash with puddles and watsonias. The farmer, drove down the valley to “rescue me”, but I tactfully declined the lift, because I was fine, and enjoying the walk back so much that I didn’t want to be in the stuffy confines of a farm bakkie. Looking back, I suppose that was rather antisocial of me. I hope I didn’t offend him!
One summer we were staying at Shepherd’s cottage. The days were windy and hot and I yearned for a cool still evening or a cloudy day, in which I could fish in comfort. For the first few days, the evenings were blown out by a cold east wind, or by rain, and the windows of opportunity to fish closed in less time than it takes to rig up a fly rod. One day a refreshing storm seemed to be forming in a windless sky and there looked to be an opportunity. I rigged up and set out to walk from the cottage to Reggie’s dam, but along the way the wind suddenly picked up, and mysterious and vicious looking clouds in tornado-like swirls came whisking in close to the ground and scudded across the sky seemingly just off the top of my fly rod.
The light was eerie, and the wind moaned through taught fence wires. It started to feel like the build up in the movie “Twister” . I got to the dam and had a few casts, but to be honest, I was feeling a little rattled by the ominous and peculiar weather. Mindful of the fact that tornadoes are less uncommon here than anywhere else I know, I packed it in and set off back to the cottage at something like a run.
Then there was the time PD and I hiked up the Bokspruit to somewhere way above Kitefell, higher than we had ever been before. It was cold, with the temperature hovering around 8 degrees, and parcels of even more frigid air coming up over the escarpment to the east. We fished a bit, and we made some coffee on the stove, but at some point one of us remarked that we were a long way from civilisation, the weather was displaying a propensity to turn properly ugly; and we had best get down off the mountain while we had some daylight hours left.
There was no argument, and we quickly set off for the hike back, only truly relaxing several hours later when we were back down in the valley on familiar paths in warmer climes, and with enough daylight to know we would make it easily. Of course afterwards I wondered if we hadn’t been a bit hasty. Maybe if we had stayed another hour we might have got one of those rare and beautiful Rainbows from up there……..
A few years back, my friend Neil was up in KZN on a medical conference, and we managed to line up a night away at West Hastings in the cottage. The weather turned that week-end, and by the time we got up there on the Saturday, it was hovering at around 4 degrees and everyone was listening for news of snow. It never did snow, but it rained and it blew, and our cheeks stung from the cold. But we fished, and if memory serves, Neil out-fished me convincingly with a couple of strong rainbows going 4 to 5 pounds.
We were wading and fishing short casts in rolling swells as the southerly wind pushed through. That night we got a roaring fire going, and caught up on news over a fine bottle of red that he had brought up from the Cape with him.
Then there was Lesotho, up at Mordor on the Bokong in the driving rain…….
I could go on, but I guess we all have these memories. You undoubtedly have your own. I wouldn’t mind betting that a good many of them revolve around beating or suffering, wild weather.
I don’t exactly make a habit of picking up rocks and bones and bringing them home. I have heard of a guy who makes a habit of carrying rocks in his backpack (big heavy ones) and placing them back on mountain tops, as his way of countering erosion everywhere. That sounds like even harder work than bringing them down off the mountain to put on one’s fly tying desk. I have done that very seldom. Three times in fact (if memory serves). These three idiosyncratic items serve to centre me in an obscure metaphorical way. There are three of them you see, and they come from locations far from one another, and that fact lends them perfectly to triangulation. Thinking about it now though, they all come from higher altitudes, so I do wonder if that triangulation thing would work….me being down here and their collection points being “up there”. Maybe it would prove uplifting. In a lucid moment I will of course deny ever having written this weird stuff. Here they are:
Clockwise from the top centre item: Top of Inhlosane Mountain: KZN Midlands; The dipping tank: Bokong River, Lesotho; The Lammergeier ossuary above Gateshead cottage: NE Cape.
The donkey launched itself up onto the river bank and made its way to near the small circle of rocks that was our fireplace, where it stopped and awaited the unloading of the bundle of sehalahala from its back.
The sky was darkening somewhat more than the progression of the afternoon suggested it should, and it was cool. It would be wet, and the evening fire would be warranted, and whether or not we were high enough to source leholo or lekhapo, sehalahala is best for wet conditions. So said Martin the muleteer, and we were not about to argue with him. Martin may have forgotten to bring his mealie meal on the trip (necessitating a 26km round trip on a donkey to fetch it), but somehow I still got a sense the he was the kind of guy who would keep you alive on a fishing trip this far into the mountains, if ever it came down to that.
Martin and David were our smoke makers. They would construct a pile of sehalahala each evening that would billow white smoke for long minutes before anything else happened. They typically stood in that smoke, as though bathing themselves in it somehow had a cleansing effect. I would have coughed out my left lung, and developed vicious red rings around sore eyes. Not them. They stood there with the heavy rain wetting their balaclavas and their Basutho blankets from above, while the sehalahala burst into flames, spewing sparks, and dried them from below. I guess if you were dry above your waist then you knew your fire was stronger than the rain. If you didn’t have red eyes, you knew you were a Basutho. If you were worried about a wet blanket, then you were a foreigner. Us foreigners just knew we were cold, and we lay in the back of the kitchen shelter, while supper bubbled on the gas stove.
The day had been cold and windy, with a few rain showers. Those rain showers had sent us up onto the ridge where we sheltered, as best one can, in a ruin with no roof. We made coffee there on the camp stove. At some point it brightened enough that we should have run back down to the river to see if we could spot another big brown. Good spotting light should not go wasted. But we knew that the light would be fleeting, and our legs were sore from hiking.
We were not wrong about the light. You have to decide on these trips how much chasing you are going to do. It is not difficult to overdo it. Tomorrow was another day, and maybe; just maybe; it would be a bright day, and we would have several good hours of looking down into aquamarine pools onto pale bedrock and fine gravel, where twenty five inch browns would stand out like the white flecks in the rock all around us.
We would cast out long graceful loops and land our select few, well aimed casts exactly where they needed to go. Maybe the Trout would eat, unlike the big one yesterday. Maybe the fly would hold, unlike it did the day before.
We thought of these things as we lay there in the damp grass beneath the canvas, and watched the pot boil, and watched David and Martin in the rain making smoke. We did not think about how bedraggled we looked. We didn’t think about the comments that would meet our news of blank days. We were on a trip, and there were no mirrors up there asking us to evaluate how we were doing. That would come after our return.
For now there was just smoke and rain in that happy place in the mountains.
* Sehalahala : Erica or Erica like plants that burn when green, and are used extensively in the Lesotho highlands for making a fire. Leholo and Lekhapo are variants with slightly different fire making properties.