As yellows enter the hillside light and long grass, as ambers of smoke and time tint the mountain view, and the season marches to old hats and penknives sharpened out of shape, so the music changes.
I got called a “redneck” this week, and rightly so. It’s all “Seasick Steve and the Level Devils”, “Trampled by Turtles”, and Ramble Tamble. The banjo rules, and when it doesn’t, its all about the sound of that big grumbling diesel motor taking me over the pass at Bottleneck. On our trip there was a roadside stipple of cosmos, and the streams were low and alluring despite their delicate disposition. Our windscreens on life were removed as they always are down there at Rhodes, and we saw long forgotten clarity and colour in everything we did. Back home the river browns were bigger than ever and we are back now and living the dream.
There is a sense of living large. The beers are bigger (“Hell this beer is HUGE!” remarked PD on a rock beside the Willow Stream. I mocked him, but he hauled yet another longtom out of his backpack and held it beside the open one. Dang!….it was bigger!). The music is louder. The coffee from “Ground” keeps getting better, and I for one am mastering the art of ignoring the overdraft. Large and reckless. Who cares when the country is going down the tubes, the rivers are full of clean water, and fly-fishing chatter fills one’s days. We have a new fly-shop in town, but I need nothing from it. It is hot and sweaty here, but there is a chance of frost in the mountains, and last night the thunder burst like an incendiary over Aleppo with no tailing reverberation. Short. Sharp. Powerful. Big and over as quickly as it started.
Its time to live in the moment and make memories. Bigger fish. More time on the water. More confidence. Smaller flies. More dry fly success. I could be a student again for a while. Perhaps it will endure into the coming winter. Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps it is a season.
and again 2007
and again 2009
It was during a Rhodes trip a few years ago, that I learnt of the death of Tim Wright.
Tim was an outdoorsman, an educator, and a gentleman. He was also a flyfisherman. I had the good fortune of benefitting from the fact that he taught and mentored both of my sons at junior school.
Tim was one of those guys, like my old friend Win Whitear, who punished schoolboys with what modern rules might decree as “cruel and unusual punishment”….(things like making them carry a rock, for rocking on their chair, or famously once throwing all a boy’s books out the window in the rain for some or other misdemeanor)…..and got away with it because the boys respected him so much.
He fed boys yellow Smarties ,from a tub labeled by his friend the pharmacist, as “homesick pills” , while on bush camps. Bush camps that he arranged and lead without profit, during his well earned school holidays. It was after a return from such a camp that he acknowledged me with a fleeting nod and a single sentence indicating that my boy was an accomplished outdoorsman. That eye contact, and brief appreciative nod, live with me as clearly as the lump in my throat that I felt all day on the upper Riflespruit on the day following his death.
On that day, and I remember it well, I was fishing with my friend Rhett. Rhett who I have no doubt would acknowledge the influence of his teacher, Pike. Pike hadn’t joined us that day. His legs were mountain weary, and I do believe he was in the pub while we did the Riflespruit. In Pike’s defence, he had brought Rhett along on the trip when he was a schoolboy, and I reckon he needed to be in the pub. On that trip we also had along some guys touching an undeclared age somewhere over 60. They were a little worried about the social dynamics of a schoolboy on our fishing trip.
Pike defended the judgment call, citing an assurance that Rhett would bring them beers and coffee. Rhett didn’t disappoint. Pike’s mentorship and judgment was as solid then as it is now.
Rhett now has children of his own, and he is coming along on our trip next month. Rhett had to eak out the money for the trip because he has school fees to pay. School fees which would have won over the fishing trip if it had come to that, because Rhett knows the value of a good school teacher.
In flyfishing circles in these parts, I reckon the value of a good school teacher is known. Countless fishermen have related to me how Win was such a great influence to them in their school years. The same Win who one year sat in my boat with a fly rod and a creased brow beneath his beanie and listened intently to one or other parenting problem. It is a good listener who says nothing until you have got it all out, and then delivers a few well considered sentences at the end of it all. Sentences that proved correct and apt and comforting to a parent sitting on an ice cold lake with a fly rod in his hand.
The other day I got a call from Murray. He wanted to clarify the identity of a man named “Pike”, who had taught his friend years back, and had introduced him to flyfishing. The friend wanted to look Pike up, acknowledge him, and thank him for getting him started with a ‘the fly’. The fact that he wanted to do that speaks volumes about his character, and also, might I suggest, the mentorship he received somewhere in his youth too.
It was indeed the same “Pike” . The same one who, when we are about to head out fishing, holds us back, chatting at the roadside to a farmer about his children, their schools and their progress. He does so with an intense interest, care, and attentiveness. It is no surprise that the farmers remember him. I am just the one with the strung up fly rod pacing a few yards away.
Pike once arrived on just such a trip as the aforementioned Rhodes trip, having taken a group of schoolboys fishing in East Griqualand. He related this story:
On a particularly slow day, he had elected to take an afternoon snooze in the vehicle while the boys fished a little way off. One youngster…a little guy called Leo who couldn’t open gates, and forgot a lot of stuff at home, and needed a lot of looking after …declared that he would stay back with Sir in the vehicle, out of the wind. He fidgeted. Pike tried to sleep. Leo then found a cable tie and asked Pike if he could place it on his wrist as a bangle.
“Not such a good idea” said Pike.
“Just loosely Sir” said Leo.
“don’t pull it tight now Leo! ” said Pike.
Pike dozed for a while…….
Then there was a high pitched “Sir!” from Leo.
You guessed it!
Pike has taken countless schoolboys fishing over the years. He says he is going to write a book called “looking after Leo, and other stories”
I sure hope he does.
“all the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives
choosing the shiny ones instead” (Pearl Jam: Lyrics to the song Thumbing my way , from the album “Riot act” 2002)
My mind is a whirl of flaming Lombardy poplars, water clear and cool; of shafts of sunlight cutting across the mountains and igniting the yellowing veld.
Whisky from the bottle cap, ice on boots, and rocks on two wheel tracks. Rods, flies, cussing, jokes and dust.
Cold wet socks.
Nuts, mussels and biltong from the backpack.
The Birkhall porch: swirls of light and clinking glasses in the night. Tobacco smoke and fishing plans. Roads: ever curling , descending, rising, twisting and demanding another gear.
The veld: whisked and brushed by wind, seed-heads bowing and bucking, in browns and pale sun-washed ambers.
Footfalls: plodding and tired in wet boots, stumbling on stones, sliding into the water, jarring knees, and pushing aside ever resisting swathes of grass and current.
Fatigue. Freedom. Beer. Faces of true friends ignited in the day’s sunlight, smiling, jovial and a little reddened. Steaming plates of hot food. Coffee. Sleep. Tea. Frost. sunlight and wind.
Punching fly-casts. Fish, fleeting, fleeing, watery and dreamlike. Sheep paths. Tippet and gink. Wet poplar leaves. Tongues of current and water spreading over pale gravel and stone.
Drifts, flicks, drag, and lightning takes. Sleep, drive, walk, fish, walk, drive, drink, eat, sleep.
Once every two years we go back to the North Eastern Cape.
It’s not often enough, I know, but we figured, when we started this thing all those years ago, that we could sell every second year to wives and family. In fact we were confident that we could ensure the event would take place if we did it seldom enough. And we were right I suppose, because we have indeed been back every second year like clockwork.
Some time back, I fished the Trout Bungalow section of the Mooi River with a good friend of mine. It was a magical April day. We arrived late morning, perhaps a little too late, as I like to be on the water by about 10:00 am at the very latest. We tackled up quickly and headed upstream to do battle.
I carried a particular air about me that day. It was an air of curiosity and comparison. An introspective sense of evaluation, and an acute appreciation of the nature of this river. The reason for this is that the outing was hot on the heals of a visit to Rhodes in the North Eastern Cape.
Now those rivers are unquestionably different. We had done well at Rhodes, and refined our skills a little more. We had adapted to those rivers and moulded our approach around them, and here I was back on home water. Now I was asking myself whether I would fish this river as I had at Rhodes, and if not, why not.
The first observation was that Guy and I remarked on the clarity of the water on the Mooi. It was full, and sparkling, and looking great. However it was not a patch on the clarity of the Bell or the Bokspruit.
Clear water on the Bokspruit at Welgemoed. (Can you spot the Trout?)
It is a simple fact that hardly anyone can afford to have a dedicated fishing car of any quality nowadays. There are those who have written about their fishing cars, but they were all somehow old “jalopies” (as we call them in South Africa), that made for a good story but were not reliable enough to provide a fishing trip of any comfort. So the reality is that the vehicle one goes to work in every day, has to double as your fishing car.
With this in mind, any self respecting fly-fisherman, will of course choose his vehicle without any consideration to its normal everyday use. He will buy it for his outdoor pursuits alone, and live with its idiosyncrasies on the city streets. I applaud that.
I too have chosen my mode of transport over the last two decades, with regard only for my fishing.
I have in fact done this only twice, because rightly or wrongly, I like to drive a vehicle until it can drive no more. I started with “Rufus” some 17 years ago. Rufus was a maroon coloured Ford ranger, 2 wheel drive 2,5 diesel double cab. What a “bakkie” that was! I christened it with a fishing trip to the Rhodes area within weeks of having bought it, thus consummating it’s role as a fishing vehicle.