Waters & words

Posts tagged “Mlambonja River

Lessons from the landscape: the 1600m contour

Here in the KZN midlands, altitude is accepted as a defining criteria for Trout water. It has long been held that trout will survive above 1200meters above sea level, and there is very little fishable water above 1800metres.   So within that band of 1800m down to 1200m, there are a few critical bands, and I would argue that one of them is the 1600m band.  I say that because every listed trout stream in these parts rises above 1600m.

So here is where that contour runs along the front of the Drakensberg:

The 1600m contour in KZN

Interesting isn’t it!

For me what makes it fascinating is that:

  • It shows deeply incised valleys where streams cross the line remarkably close to the escarpment
  • It shows that ridge of high ground that runs out into the province from the end of Giants Castle to Inhlosane mountain, very clearly
  • And from the few spot heights I threw in on the map above, you will see that there are many islands of ground above 1600m, many of which are a long way “from the mountains”.

One also  quickly concludes that the altitude alone is a poor measure of where trout thrive.  In studying a map in detail, you come to realise that trout will survive and indeed thrive in stretches of river at low altitudes where the valley sides rise to much higher altitudes, and cool short tributaries contribute to the river (Examples, The Inzinga and the Umgeni).  Also, if the drainage upstream of where you are standing is overgrazed or densely inhabited, or intensely farmed, then altitude becomes a less significant measure ( Example, The Bushmans below 1400m …below the clinic).  Also, if the stream is on a steeply drained area, where the cold fronts coming from the south west are forced up to generate orographic rainfall, the trout are better off.  So, for example, south of Giants Castle, the 1600m contour averages about 130 kms from the sea. North of the Hidcote ridge, where the berg tracks north, north-west, the sea is an average of 175 kms from the sea, and over 200kms in many cases.  Here it is drier, there are a lot fewer trout streams, and those that there are, have just a short run in the berg before they spill out onto flatter, warmer plains where they don’t hold Trout.  In fact, down south (and off below the limits of the map above), we know that in the Ingeli mountain area, trout are found as close as 80km from the sea at altitudes of under 1000m.  There the slope from the sea to Ngeli mountain is 25m per km.   From a similar altitude on the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, to the sea, the slope is under 8m per km.  Those southern areas get more life-giving mist and drizzle.  Did you ever notice how there are no thorn trees along the N3 from Maritzburg to Hidcote, then on the Estcourt side of Hidcote (the dry side), you can draw a line where the thorns start. Thorns like drier , and/or warmer climates.

Returning to our 1600m contour:  At a glance, it is encouraging to see how much land above this contour is in the Drakensberg park, and therefore conserved as catchment area.  The exception is where the land juts out from Giants Castle.  Parts of that area (top end of Dargle, Inzinga, Fort Nottingham, Western side of Kamberg etc) have at times been threatened by proposed developments. (I hope you will join me at the protests if they try again). 


See you in the highlands……above 1600 metres perhaps….

Books, Boarding School, and Beats

“Often enough, the best position for a trout to see and catch these active nymphs is near the river bed”   ……..

”It is useless to try to tempt such a fish with an artificial nymph fished just below the surface, or to cast a dry fly over him” 

The words of Frank Sawyer, from the book Frank Sawyer, Man of the Riverside, compiled by Sidney Vines.

Frank Sawyer was famous for, amongst other things, The Pheasant Tail Nymph, which you can watch the man himself tying in this link.

Sawyer’s book “Keeper of the Stream was first published in 1952. In 1958 it was followed by “Nymphs and the Trout”, which was revised and re-published in 1970. Sawyer died in 1980, and Sidney Vines compiled “Man of the Riverside” after his death, and published it in 1984.

Frank Sawyer-1

In 1984 I was a schoolboy. A mad keen fly fishing schoolboy.

In that year I fished, amongst other places, Hopewell dam near Swartberg, Lake Overbury, A couple of dams in Underberg, The Umzimkulu, The Umgeni, and the Mooi on Game Pass.  It was my second visit to Game Pass. Back then it was privately owned, but fairly choked with wattles. My photos make for a valuable before-and-after record.  I also fished the Mlambonja at Cathedral Peak, and several dams in the Dargle. I also fished some water in the Hogsback, and fell in at a dam in the Karkloof.

My log book reflects that I was using 3X tippet on the dams and 5X on the rivers.  My best fish of the year was a “four pound, nine ounce” rainbow from “John’s dam”.   I remember this fish well. PD and I had walked up to the dam, and we fished the evening rise. It was in the dead of winter and ice cold overnight. I took forever to land that fish, and by the time I was done, it was pitch black.  We had no torch, and walked back the couple of kilometers to the farmhouse in the dark. Later PD confided that he couldn’t see a damned thing, and that he just followed the pale colour of the back of my shirt all the way home.

fly fishing memories-1


What is puzzling, is that in 1984 I was in boarding school, and I think you will agree that the above fishing exploits were substantial for a youngster with no means of transport who spent most of the year limited to the school premises.

Its best to sit and consider these things to favourite music.  Call me a hillbilly, (which most of my music links will confirm) , but I really like this guy’s stuff:

Artist Justin Townes Earle on Spotify

Image result for justin Townes Earle

And in case you thought I was talking about a different sort of beat:

A recent catch return showing a pleasing number of browns caught on the Ncibidwane has my mind wondering back to our explorations there not so long ago.  I remember hiking up there with my family on a day so hot that what we mostly did was sweat and swim. I remember a day when we went up higher than we have ever done before, and then hiked back and saw a fish of near 20 inches within sight of the car. PD remarked “Why the hell did  we hike all the way up there?”. And I remember another long hot day of hiking with my friend Roy. On that day we found ourselves weakening by mid morning, and only then realised we had forgotten to eat our breakfast. We sat under the scant shade of a Protea, and Roy proceeded to eat a tub of yoghurt with his fingers….he had forgotten to bring a teaspoon!


It’s time I got back there. I have a car nowadays. I am not limited to any premises. I might throw a Pheasant Tail nymph…….