It was the 18th April 1999. Guy and I were fishing the uMngeni on Brigadoon, on what my fishing log describes as “Blacks Water”. That was the section of river above the confluence of the Furth Stream, and at some time not long past, it had been the farm of John Black, and if memory serves, Derek Fly had bought it or taken it over, and its length was now added to the beat known to us as Brigadoon.
At that time all the riverside lands from the Furth confluence up to Picnic Pool were planted to maize, and the river banks were wild and rank. I have a picture of Guy, whose hairstyle at the time was also ‘wild and rank’, chest high in the undergrowth, throwing a fly into Picnic pool. He is clearly fishing downstream, and I know it would have been with a sinking line, and probably with a #14 Connemara Black or an Invicta on the end.
As we progressed above picnic pool I clearly remember entering a section of river that was a tumble of black rock, with a firm bedrock of the same colour. Tall grass overhung the river on all sides where it split into braided channels. There in that tumble of rock and tall grass that shaded the water as we waded up, I remember pricking and seeing small browns. I seem to remember that I took the left-hand side of the stream, and Guy took the right, and when we rejoined just a dozen yards higher up at the tail of the pool above, we had both seen and pricked numerous fish, and landed none. And that was after a day in which we hadn’t seen fish since we first started out into the valley below. I remember peering up the river into a wattle-shaded tunnel of darkness, and asking Guy where he thought the top boundary of Brigadoon was, and that he replied that we were pretty much there and that all above was overgrown. We retreated back to the bottom boundary where I landed two browns over two pounds that evening. That last run, however, stuck in my mind, and every time I have visited that stretch , I have fished it, with an air of expectancy built on that experience all those years ago.
I had started fishing Brigadoon in April of 1985, but always the lower section. Then in much more recent years I have become very familiar with the water at the top of Brigadoon, and above that on Furth Farm. I discovered that Guy was not wrong about the river being overgrown, but that in fact we were still a way from the top boundary of Brigadoon. I have since witnessed the wonderful transformation of that river, when the wattles were all removed, and the river came back to life.
It was probably in the knowledge of that, and how dear the river is to me, that Tom Sutcliffe sent me this picture from his archives a few months back:
The picture was taken by the late Neil Hodges, some time in the mid eighties.
There was an instant glimmer of recognition, when I saw that braided water in the foreground, but the hills didn’t look right and I started to doubt myself. During lockdown, I kept revisiting that picture, and working my way up the river in my mind, ruling out one spot after another. I was muttering to myself, things like “No…not there…the steep side is on the opposite bank”, and “no, no rapid in that spot”. I couldn’t work out where the shot was taken, and it started to haunt me.
When the end of lockdown finally set us free, I wasted little time in getting up to the uMngeni, even thought the season was closed. I had the picture open on my phone, and I drove up the valley, stopping here and there to look at the horizon, and the orientation of the river, and occasionally to walk down to the water’s edge, where I shook my head in puzzlement. I just couldn’t work it out. I sat in the driver’s seat for a while studying the horizon in front of me, and that in the picture. It all sloped the wrong way!
And then it dawned on me, and I put the bakkie into reverse and beetled back down the road to a spot where I could park. I strode down to the river muttering “Neil, you sneaky bugger” repeatedly, and with increasing conviction as I glanced up at the emerging profile of the horizon as I got closer to the spot. At the river I took my boots off, and waded through the icy clear water, before hiking up the steep hill on the other side. I maneuvered myself to a precise spot in the middle of a bramble patch, and checked the phone one last time. It looked perfect, but if I could just locate the fence-post in the foreground of the old picture…. I searched in the now overgrown area in front of me to no avail. Then I pointed to where I thought the post should be and ran my pointing finger up the slope, tracking the direction of the fence in the old picture. As I swung around , there behind me was a string of old rusted posts tracking exactly the same line, and it was then that I knew I was in precisely the right spot.
I phoned Tom, and accused him of being complicit in Neil’s sneaky attempt to conceal the spot: The photo had been flipped!
I took a picture of the confluence of the Furth Stream and the Umgeni and prepared to sent it via whatsapp it to my friend George. George and I had met in the pharmacy that morning; he with a headache of undeclared origin (I suggested he reconsider his whiskey brand) and me stocking up on kidney pills. He had asked about the river clarity. Everyone has been asking that this week….they want to get on some trout water on the weekend. I said I would send a picture later.
While I was typing the explanation of the clean water from the Furth and the not so clean water of the Umgeni, there was a “gallumph” and a trout engulfed something off the surface in the exact spot I had just photographed. I ditched the message by hitting “send”, and took the second picture just as the ripples from the rise were subsiding.
Comfort was just over the stream working the brush-cutter to clear a path through the blackjacks for our autumn fishing. I worried about leaving him alone to finish the job. Just the day before I had found him clearing grass stems wrapped around the blade shaft, with his bare hands and the motor still running. But I reasoned that since I had just taught him how to use a shifting spanner, and which way to turn a nut to tighten it, perhaps he was coming up in the world, and would be OK.
Him and I had been tightening nuts on the handrail supports of our bridge over the Furth. Every time something went “plop”, Comfort declared it a frog, and I did a quick inventory of my tools to see what to add to my growing shopping list from the local hardware store.
The day before, I lead a team of guys rolling out erosion control mats above the Furth higher up. The choreography of “Rake, seed, fertilise, unroll to a pre-determined point, peg”…… and repeat, had proved difficult. We went back and forth for seed, and rakes and fertilizer bags, and the unroll direction of the mat kept veering down-slope, threatening to steer our trajectory into an uncontrolled downhill unraveling. “Soos ‘n myn trok sonder remme” as they say. I took Comfort off the lead role, and things went a bit better.
That gave me time to go and take a stroll along the stream. It was flowing as clear as the water George forgot to put in his whiskey. Although when you looked at the deep pools, you would have said it was off colour.
Funny how it does that. Put an underwater camera in there and you see how clean it really is. The Umgeni at picnic pool was the same this morning. The pool looked like milo, but taking a look at the rocky sections above and below, Alfred and I agreed, it was perfectly clean enough and called for a dry fly.
A dry fly was what my friend Neil tried on the Furth stream when I lured him there this week, but he lucked out. Maybe it was Comfort who put the fish down. Comfort, the male, Zulu version of Marge Simpson, with a beanie perched on top of his weird hairdo, bobbing about on the river bank. On the drive home on Tuesday I took a look at the arrangement atop his oddly shaped swede , when I turned in the driver’s seat to see where the snoring was emanating from. It seemed that my Colter Wall, Jaimi Faulkner and Mark Knopfler from the stereo had this effect on Comfort. One minute his droopy bloodhound eyes were mesmerized by the yellow line zipping towards him, and the next he was a gonner … Lulled to sleep by this somber music and a day of intense problem solving.
Other problem solving we did this week, was trying to work out where the dirty water was coming from. Ok, the problem solving I was doing. Comfort took the first amendment on that one. I met the farmer in a local shop, and he pointed me to where he thinks the problem might be coming from. With all the rain on the way, I thought of doing a rain walk….a thing I learned of while in the UK: you walk a river in the rain to see first hand where the mud is coming from. I could take a fly rod to use above the offending tributary, go alone, ditch all the blood sweat and tears of river work, and go for a soul nurturing walk.
But then I remembered: Someone has to take care of Comfort. “Pick you up at the turnoff at 7am” I said, and he grinned back at me.