Perceptions, deceptions, and decisions.
Many years ago, PD, Luke and I were returning from fishing this lovely piece of water. We were in high spirits as I remember it. We had caught plenty of small, athletic rainbows on dry flies during the day. As I remember it, it had been sunny and windy, as it often is up there, and if my checkered history in these matters is anything to go by, we probably didn’t allow for the effects of high altitude, and got roasted in the sun. That would have added to the end of day “glow”. And in that glow, it seemed wise to put Luke at the wheel. Hell, I know he was only 12, but he needed driving practice.
After Luke’s 180 degree spin, those eligible took a swig from the hip flask, and we proceeded, in an ever so slightly subdued state of mind.
Marks dam: October 2002
That was by no means my first visit. My fist visit was as a high school boy. The details are very hazy in my memory, but I remember setting out from the very rustic cottage that nestled in the forest on the northern shore. I remember not having waders, and I remember a lot of time spent in a bog, with the smell of mud and methane. I remember thinking that this was very difficult, and I remember other people catching fish from somewhere off in the mist, where there was allegedly a dam.
When I returned there the other day to poach with Anton, him and I spent a lot of time in the bog again, and some memories came flooding back. The poaching thing was a very well informed decision. Research. Sampling. Just checking the fish growth rates. Important stuff. At some point I lost Anton, and many hours later when he loomed down the road, dripping in the mist, he made some remark about losing the dam. It was my fault. It happens!
We caught fish that day. Just a few, and they were not as fat as we had hoped. They did however take dry flies. Some things don’t change.
Petro and I were back there recently. Funny thing: all the signs on the way in were gone. I don’t suppose it matters…we know what its called. I pointed out the spot where Mike had proposed to Tessa just days earlier. Later she pointed out the large Rinkhals, that was between the dog and ourselves. The dog had walked over it, and was now on the other side, intent on coming back, and struggling to understand why the “stay” command was being delivered when he was not at Petro’s side. He cocked his head on one side and looked quizzically at us, while we shouted and threw stones into the veld in front of him. The snake reared and opened its hood, but didn’t move. In desperation I suggested that Petro throw stones at the dog, who was advancing one step at a time, while I threw them at the snake. I don’t know if that was a good decision.
The dog got within striking distance of the snake before he saw it but somehow it ended OK. And Tessa and Mike are happily engaged.
Now there’s a good decision!
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.
“Because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness” Robert Traver.
On Saturday my boys & I headed out to a lake that lies amongst the pine trees, at the very end of a fine long ridge that runs all the way from Mooi River to Greytown.
We reached the top of that same ridge by driving up from Howick, through the Karkloof, on what you might call ‘the scenic route’. This is a wonderful drive, taking you up a narrow snaking road through the Karkloof forest. After cresting the ridge you descend to the junction with the main road at Rietvlei. We turned right onto this road , that more or less follows the high ground all along its route.
At times one gets a glimpse of the thornveld of the Mooi and Tugela river valleys off to the North, and moments later one might get a sneak look down to the South, where a cradle of pine forests stretches off in the direction of ‘Seven Oaks’ and beyond.
Having travelled through Greytown on to the gravel roads through the plantations, we came out at the very top of the high ground, where we turned in at the airstrip. The boys were bubbling over with high spirits by this time, and our encounter with a comical warthog fueled their excitement. He raced us down the landing strip as though he might take off at any moment, and then, just as suddenly as we had encountered him, he veered off, and handed the baton to four magnificent Waterbuck, that leaped across the road in front of us.
Soon the water appeared between the trees and we were parking and offloading the ‘red eyed damsel’, our trusty little canoe.
The boys were quickly out on the water, and I put up my float tube and ventured out to join them at the inlet to the East.
It was one of those glorious summer days when its just perfect. Not too hot, not at all cold. Clouds drifting about, and the sun trying hard to dominate, but somehow never succeeding for long. The water looked a deep dark green. A sort of brooding mysterious look, often accompanied by the whiff of soft pine needles and the hope of big trout. Insects hatched here and there, and fluttered off, backlit against the dark beneath the tall stands of pines. There is something so unique about a pine forest. I don’t know what it is. It is such a soft, quiet wonderland amongst the rows of tree trunks, and when that all comes down to the waters edge on a sparkling lake its just very special.
The water was surprisingly warm, but the small stock fish did not seem to mind. In fact those little trout seemed to be in wonderland too. While I drifted, reclining in my tube, and throwing long lazy casts towards the shoreline, they just leaped for joy. They were careering out of the water and landing two feet further on, in a great big splash, often on their sides, in ‘belly flops’ that would have had kids at the junior school gala all saying “oooh” in unison. One could theorise that they were taking the caddis that were hatching, but it is much more likely that they were simply jumping for joy. They were as playful as kittens and calves!
This show of magic had the desired affect on the boys, who judged the size of the fish by the splash they made, and were suitably impressed.
Fish bumped and knocked the fly all day, and both boys had had the opportunity to bring one in before we broke for lunch.
Lunch was a rendevoux at some magical spot in the shade beside the lapping waves. The beer, delivered along with sandwiches by boat from the other side, was cold, crisp, and heaven sent.
After lunch James took his dad out in the Red Eyed Damsel to catch a particularly cocky fish that had been trying to splash us all through our meal. He turned out to be a a master boatsman, but the fish was un-cooperative. Having found his ‘sea legs’ James proceeded to make deliveries and attend to other logistical challenges that a good sized piece of water offers up, while I tubed happily.
The fish took a sunk beetle on the dropper, and a small brown nymph on the point. They chose to ignore Luke’s dry fly, but somehow they managed to pull that off without offending him. I think things were just too pleasant for anyone to get uptight. The evening brought a bit more cloud and a breeze that ushered in a brooding storm, but it stayed away long enough for us to get in some more fishing. We threw little black beetles from the shore, aiming the backcast into slots between tree trunks, and when the fish moved out, I followed them in the tube. They seemed to like that little beetle! It is a creation of peacock herl, and black foam, with some rubber legs and a touch of bright yarn on the back of its head to make it visible.
They slashed at it and grabbed it from amongst the waves, before an ominous roll of thunder sent us to the shore.
We stowed our gear, and hoisted the boat back onto the roof in preparation for the drive into the scarlet haze that hovered under the clouds to the West. Time for a quick record of events with the camera’s self timer, and we were off.
A quick stop off in Greytown got us a burger and chips, which was devoured to the spectacle of columns of flying ants under every roadside light en route home via Maritzburg.
All in all a magical day, that shall remain etched in my memory, and no doubt that of my sons as well. It sure beats the mall!