“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).
There suddenly came an October day when I heard the rumble of thunder. I heard it in the early hours of the morning, and then it got hot and humid. Smudges of pale cloud hung in a white sky. Then in the early afternoon, the pasty blue sky over the berg rumbled at us, and taking a look at it, I discovered that it may in fact be grey, not blue. I took my glasses off; then put then back on again. Somehow those colours were barely distinguishable as I squinted westward. We were sharing a rod and throwing dries at some tiny trout in hot treacle sunshine. The water was low, but it was cool, and clean, and soothing to be beside. Small Trout flashed at the flies.
We dipped our fingers in the water. Then we went back to the truck, packed up in the shade, and drove on. Later we put the vehicle in four wheel drive and drove it up a bank to get the bonnet under a pine tree, after the biggest hailstone in the valley hit the windscreen, scaring Trevor half out of his seat.
That was after we had explored two valleys, stopping at vantage points and on bridges and peering at clear water to better assess the flow and maybe spot a Brown. The flow was slow, and the runs held no cover. The pools were reasonable though, and we had no difficulty imaging trout in them, even if we couldn’t see them. We drank a lot of water, and the sweat trickled down our collars. At one spot, high above an enticing blue-green glide through a dolorite channel, we debated whether to rig a rod and clamber down the hill. It was stifling, and we couldn’t dally too long. In the end we allowed laziness to conquer us both and we merely spent an extra minute or two looking wistfully down the slope at the thing. Then we drove into welcome raindrops.
Once the risk of hail had passed we drove south through countryside that glistened following the passing of the storm. At the next river the flow was still low, but gulches and road drains poured red earth into the river in billowing, widening clouds, that contrasted with the slow clear flows.
We picked our way towards home on a back road that I had not driven before. We chose it because it took us all the way down the valley and then crossed the river again on the way back. We slithered along on wet roads, and then suddenly we were on tar again. The rain had stopped but it felt steamy again.
I recognised hills, and reported our position to Trevor. Then I got some hills wrong, and had to re-orientate, until I was nodding confidently again. Then we were back on dry roads, but soon after I dropped Trevor off there was more of that grey/blue sky and lightning. As I climbed out of the cab at home I was greeted by thunder, and a piet-my-vrou. I put my feet up on the veranda, after a long day of driving, and had a cup of tea, looking out over the lawn and sniffing the petrichor.
The next day was hot. We washed the mix of winter’s dust and summer mud off the bakkie, and the inside got a spring clean. Boots were dried. Winter clothing was removed, and I re-stocked the vehicle with a repaired tow rope (after we broke one helping someone out) and made sure there was a raincoat in there, and snake gaitors.
Later we holed up in the cool of the house, barefoot and in shorts, and feeling the humidity. I checked my stream box, and resolved to tie up a few more dries. I hadn’t looked in there until now.
Its uncanny how you can’t really tell the blue sky from the grey but thunder serves to sharpen the focus a little, and suddenly you realise it’s a storm. A bit of thunder and humidity signals the passage from spring to summer, and suddenly you know it is here.
Strong, invigorating river flows. (we hope!)
For the most part, the mountains lining the valleys of our upland Trout streams could borrow descriptions from the Dales. But then we have our peaks, which do tower over you as you flick a fly in staircase streams, deep in the berg. The contrast is as rich as the texture of a black and white photo, as polarising as dark shaded ravines cut in a blanket of winter snow.
So here is a contrast: Giants Castle in the snow, and Catlow’s description of the rounded hills of his beloved home waters:
“It is these mountains that bring me back year after year, to the valley through which she flows. They are not the spectacular peaks of the west, thrusting jagged silhouettes defiantly into the sky.They are massive shapes, rising with calm assurance in great sweeps of brown heather, lifting themselves patiently in long and flowing lines, raising their vast bulk to the sky with the huge authority of sufficient strength.”
Laurence Catlow, The Healing Stream
I don’t know about you, but after a day which typically involves say 2 hrs in the car, 8 hrs on a river, and traversing say 7 to 12 kms of rough territory, I need a break. Call me soft, but at least half of that “traversing” involves getting in and out of the stream, boulder hopping, and scrambling, and it is normally with a pack on my back that is heavier than it need be. To add to that, I may have fished for 8 hrs and driven for 2, but the number of hours between when I left home and got back seems to end up around 13 hrs. I guess there is time in coffee shops, talking to locals, setting up, and the like.
It is a long day.
But the day following such a foray involves a late start, a big breakfast, and I confess, sometimes not getting out of a pair of slippers!
This is why I like to fish on Saturdays.
My rest day is then spent filling in a logbook, editing photos, downloading GPS tracks and the like.
This last Sunday I cleaned all my floating lines, re-tied and glued a line to leader connection, and re-darkened the tips of my fly lines with a permanent marker. I didn’t get to tie flies, but I emptied the fly patch, adjusted some of the stuff that I hang from, and bury in my pack-vest, and topped it off by cooking a curry so hot that not even the dog wouldn’t try it.
Putting the curry aside for a while, I re-looked at my pack. I had straps that hang and snag, so I rolled them up and pinned them. I had a fly patch that was catching on things, so I put it in a pocket. My zinger was hanging the nippers too low out of their tuck-away sleeve, and I found a second zinger to try putting my New Zealand strike indicator tool into a spare sleeve port. The egg yarn I first used as strike indicator material the day before, and which kept sinking, was removed and replaced with some fresh Antron.
I tied some tippet rings on the end of my treasured flat butt leaders to make them last longer, and I re-tied fresh tippets, with UV glue in the loose surgeon’s knot before I pulled it tight.
I cleared the GPS memory and made space on the camera card while charging the battery.
On Saturday I will hit the river again, and I will be tackled up before my mate.
I like my rest days.
Vir die van julle wat die Afrikaanse woorde van hierdie liedjie ken, sal julle seker met my saam stem as ek se dat dit heelwat toepaslik is.
I remember several years ago, taking my [then] girlfriend to a favourite stretch of the upper Mooi in September, and finding it very low and slimy.
She must have doubted my honesty, because for months I had described to her this babbling brook of ice cold crystal water, rushing over rocks. And on a hot dry September day, it was anything but that. The water was clear, but it was undeniably sluggish, and there was a furry brownness to the underwater rocks.Water limped between pools, rather than gushed, and nowhere did one see water droplets thrown into the air by the force of the stream, as I had no doubt described to her. It looked dead, even if it was not. I tried to explain, but I sense that with each description of how it CAN look, I dug myself deeper.
Rivers are remarkable in that they are barely recognisable from one trip to another. A push of rainwater or snowmelt, a flood, or a few dry months, and the place is transformed into something that has you doubting your own memory.
So of course the Mooi did return to its old self, as it always does, and as it will this spring too.
On further trips to the Mooi I was able to show her what I mean when I say that the river is “sparkling”, and I can’t have done too badly, because it was at a special spot beside that same river that I proposed to her. It was sparkling that day despite the lateness of the season, and she accepted!
I remember once fishing Reekie Lyn on another of those dry spring days, and it was once again in a sorry state. It was a dry dull hot Sunday. The most action we saw was a large angry puffadder that I imagined wanted to kill me. The following day I flew to Joburg, and we flew straight over Reekie Lyn. It had snowed heavily overnight, and was now clear as a bell. I refused to give up my window seat to another passenger who wanted to see the snow. I wanted to see it more than he did. As we flew over Reekie Lyn I looked down and spat “take that!” through my teeth at the puffadder below. I hadn’t seen him coming the day before, but can’t have seen the snow coming a few hours later either!
On another occasion I took my wife to a remote spot much higher up the same river. A spot where a misplaced oak tree grows peacefully beside the river, well within the Drakensberg, where such an alien species does not belong. But the tree is far enough up to have escaped the notice of the rangers, and somehow I am OK with that. It is a loner, and has no offspring, and it is a lovely shady tree. The spot where it grows is flat, with whispy verdant grass, and beside this veritable lawn stands an enormous lichen covered boulder, alongside which the stream plunges into a pool that cries out to be fished, photographed or swum in. The choice depends on your particular passion, but either way, the spot is something like one of those scenes that used to appear on the front of chocolate boxes. Deep green water, short grass on the banks, not a sign of mud or erosion. A backdrop of heavenly mountains. It is perfection.
The day that I hiked my better half up there, the heavens opened as we arrived, and the mountains remained shrouded in mist. She sat on an uncomfortable root under the tree, and remarked that there seemed to her to be no lush lawn anywhere. There were just roots and sticks and rainwater puddles. She read her book while the branches above dripped on her pages. The torrential rain did not let up, and once I had caught a few small Browns, and her book had disintegrated, we hightailed it out of there.
I have since taken a fishing buddy there with similar descriptions of this jewel of a place, but on that occasion it was in spate and we saw and caught nothing.
Then I recommended a stretch of the Umgeni to someone who asked about it. They returned with tales of impenetrable bramble, nettles and turpentine grass, and have not asked my advice since. A year or so earlier another friend and I fished the same stretch together in early spring before the rankness had set in. It was one of those glorious days, with a cool blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and if I remember, a few willing Browns. He twice asked me why I hadn’t told him about the beat sooner.
So I guess my point here is that streams and rivers are places where a fly-fisherman needs to throw his expectations out of the window. He needs to go with whatever the season throws at him. He should probably shut his mouth when it disappoints, and revel in it when the going is good.
Come to think about it, he should shut his mouth when the going is good too, lest he later be judged a fraud, or worse still an NAHRR*
( * a Nostalgic and Hopelessly Romantic Recidivist)