A thin Indian man asked where the gents was. I didn’t know I was part of the establishment. I had only been there ten minutes. I confidently steered him in the direction of the ladies room, and he set off across the lawns with determination. I presume the bewilderment came a little later.
A fat lady stopped in front of the table. She didn’t look down at the books. She looked straight at me and her oversized lips unrolled in a peculiar unfurling motion, followed by an even more peculiar sound. “Good morning!” I proclaimed. She stared straight through me and said nothing. I felt like a mannequin. She did the lip unfurling thing again and made the same odd sound. “Good morning!” I proclaimed with equal volume and enthusiasm as I had a moment before. She waddled off in silence, as the model train trundled past.
I told my family that I knew what this was all about. This idea of manning a table and selling books. In my student years Kevin, PD and I had a table at a girl’s school fete. We demonstrated fly-tying with enthusiasm. That was for about twenty minutes. Fortunately we had brought beer. Beer at a girl’s junior school.
There is not much interest in fly tying at girl’s school fetes, and it doesn’t help to be tucked away around a corner.
The train trundled past again.
Maybe the Sandton brigade that parades these lawns will be interested in a flyfishing book?
“Owe Da-hling, the kids are jaast playing p-hut-p-hut. We will be along in a seccy. Did you find Derek? Let’s have some coffee shall we. Soop-her!” Lots of gold jewellery and tight jeans, some on bums where they belong. Some definitely not. Sausages.
The train trundles past again.
Two young girls come asking if I have any Agatha Christie titles. “Never heard of her” I want to say. Men stand on the porches, in casual clothes. Shorts and slops. Hands in pockets. Bellies hanging out just a little more than they perhaps planned. I can see they have escaped the corporate world for the Easter week-end. They have endured 5 hours at the wheel. Now they are spending top dollar on some quaint B & B, and they are lurking while their wives spend what is left on the credit card. Three days of this, five more hours in the car, and they will be back behind their desks. What the hell makes them tick. Not fly-fishing. Not books.
The bloody train goes past again.
The Indian man comes past a second time. He must have survived his trip to the ladies room, but he is not asking me for any more guidance. He is returning from the car, where he collected his banana, and now he takes up a position on a bench and eats it in a painfully deliberate way, facing me but noticing nothing but his own fruit.
The damned noisy train-full of kids passes again.
A middle aged woman approaches. Everyone says she should write a book. She is not sure if it will be any good. How does she start, she wants to know. I encourage her. She is a lovely lady. “Just get out a pen and write” I say. At the prospect of having to commit, to actually get started, she retracts. I can see it in her body language. She paints too. She could do her own cover. “What will you write about?” I ask her. She hasn’t thought about that and the question scares her off, and she leaves as the train trundles past. Again.
“Sunil” comes to chat to me. He is from Durban (and all). He is staying at a hotel. The one between the freeway and the railway line. “You all so lucky here man” he says. “Fresh air and all”. “What this book?” he wants to know. “Ay! Nice man. Well done. Good luck man”
That train. It has a lot of adults on it. Many are not accompanied by kids. Their facial expressions are interestingly dull for someone on a fun-ride.
Alan and Lynn drop by, and we catch up on their family matters. They are just taking is easy. Sauntering. They love the book. But they don’t fish.
The train’s bloody whistle is now working.
Someone tries to buy the painting that I have on display. Another asks if the book is about painting. Some youngster lies down on the rails in front of the train as it approaches and his friends get a picture of him, just in time before it rolls past.
Mothers wander past with all manner of prams. Prams with decals and suspension systems that look like they belong on cars. Some babies sleep, granting the parents thirty meters of peace, sometimes even more! Others just scream and smear once edible substances over themselves and everything in reach. The Dads get their turn too. What a lovely outing.
Someone brings grandad. He is 103 years old. He bustles along with surprising agility and then takes up a position in the shade, where he reverses the walker and sits watching the train, which whistles on its way past again.
I sit and stare at the people and wonder if there is more than this for them. Petro assures me that there is. “They probably did a good hike in the mountains yesterday, and this is their rest day”. My scepticism isn’t buying it. I don’t see scratched skin, or a stained shirt, or a worn pair of shoes. I just see bling and boredom.
I start wondering what it would take to derail a small scale train. The rails measure about 30mm each, and are about 400mm apart. The coaches weigh 200Kg each, and can take 600Kg of smiling kids (complete with bored looking adult companions). They say a coin on one of the rails can dispatch a big one.
And the $%#@!>* train passed again.
My misanthropic, antisocial and reclusive tendencies thoroughly reinforced, and with the rays of the sun cutting in low from the west, we pack up. Just before I carry the last box to the bakkie I have a perverse thought of riding the train, but just as suddenly I realise that to ride it would be to let it get the better of me, so I shake my head to clear it, and get the hell out of there.
I need home, and I need the hills.
PS. Rupert stopped by. Nice guy. He is a flyfisherman. We talked knot strength and how long one should expect a co-polymer leader to last. He had lost a few fish the day before. Windknots.
Thank you Rupert
Ok “Bru”, here’s the deal. I really don’t know why, but when it comes to the upper Umgeni River as a Trout stream, I am a bit obsessed.
I am obsessed with getting it back to, or maintaining it at, its former glory as a premium Trout stream. I have had this obsession since I was a varsity student. I conducted a sort of study of, and evaluation of the Umgeni as a prime fly fishing stream, when I was conscripted in the army. I visited farmers, asked them about their view of the river as a “trout asset”, photographed it, and wrote some or other report under my blankets at night in an army bungalow in far off Potchefstroom. In 1996, on a long car drive to a fly-fishing festival in Somerset East with Jack Blackman, Jim Read and others, I remember boring them all with my dream of the Umgeni as a well organised, conserved and revered fly fishers destination.
In years gone by I have put landowners and fishing clubs in touch, and put conservationists in touch with conservation minded farmers along the banks.
I am still not letting up.
Last year the Natal Fly Fishers club organised two work parties clearing wattle and bramble from river banks. Trout SA made a short video clip. Also, over the last year or two the World Wide Fund for nature (WWF) has been working in the catchment to reduce the number of water sapping wattles. It seemed to make sense to get alongside that initiative while there is groundswell. Then at the same time Penny Rees and her DUCT team did “River Walks” blog about their walk from the source to the sea.
Penny has since walked most of the major tributaries of the Umgeni and journalled of her experiences on the blog. Like me, she is passionate about restoring this important river, her for her reasons, and I for mine.
This Saturday the NFFC is holding its third cleanup day. This time the club has thrown some serious resources at the task, hiring in a crew of professional tree-fellers, and with the landowner on board with tractors and staff. Here is a short clip on that: Video.
I have used the opportunity to create a hashtag (do you launch one, or create it……I don’t know. Maybe you hash it!)
Blue Ribbon Umgeni
What is it all about? It is about recognising and valuing the upper Umgeni River as a trout fishery. In this way we hold it up as something that has value. People look after the things that they value. So my “shout-out” is to fellow flyfishers here in the midlands of KZN to go and fish the Umgeni, catch its stippled beauties, photograph them, and tell people about it. Attend the NFFC work-party on Saturday 12th September, or the one on the 17th October, or next year’s ones.
While the internet has rightly been accused of ruining good fishing spots, I am going out on a limb here and guessing that there are few enough river fishermen in South Africa, that those we do have, practice catch and release, and that sharing my favourite fishing spot with them will do a LOT more good than harm.
So #BRU is also an invitation:
Come and fish the Umgeni with me bru!
I am also going to ask you for some money soon. Money towards wattle removal. But you will get something in return. More on that in coming weeks.
A good few years back, my son and I accompanied my father and his brother on a Saturday sortie to inspect a farm in the midlands of Natal.
It was not just any farm this one. It was the farm of my roots in a way. It was the place where my father grew up.
Umgeni Poort is situated near the headwaters of the Umgeni river, in a tight little valley which stretches South East from the little known Mpumulwane mountain.
“You will hear the silence of the folded hillside brushed by the wind in its grasses..”
The other day I grasped an opportunity to go out on the river alone. From time to time I have this urge for the utter solitude and peace of being alone on the water for a full day. In fact I have that urge most weekends, and seldom get to fulfill the dream. So when this particular late September day dawned, I woke with my soul upon the lip of the precipice, ready to soar. I was happy. I left my bed with a sense of freedom and liberation. I had awoken early. The kids were baby-sat.
All was well until I reached the bedroom window and drew back the curtain a few inches to inspect the conditions. It had been raining. In fact my memory was suddenly jogged that in the half sleep of the bewitching hour, I had heard a thunderstorm and the drumming of the gutters. It was now cold and miserable. I stepped back and pondered the situation briefly, and then looked again.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to join a Kombi load of fly-fishermen, and travel down to the unlikely destination of Somerset East in the Cape to get some trout.
On that trip, Maurice Broughton and I were assigned a beat on the tiny Naude’s river, and with our guide, we had an enjoyable morning hunting trout in the better pools.
At lunchtime we found a lovely willow tree growing in a patch of lush grass beside a pool in the stream.
We settled down to some sandwiches, and if memory serves, a chilled bottle of wine!
While we were sitting there, enjoying the tranquil setting, a small trout began rising at the head of the pool. He rose a few times, right up in the funnel. Right up where the water cascaded over some stone into the pool.
He only rose a few times and then stopped. Maurice and I began to postulate as to what he might be taking. We decided it was a terrestrial of some sort, because nothing was hatching, but a light breeze buffeted the veld grass beside the water.
It was then that we decided to have some fun.
A memorable day on the Bokspruit at Carabas. One of the most beautiful pieces of water I know.
I was out the other morning on a piece of water I hadn’t fished in a while. It was one of those peculiar days when everything seems quite on its head.
I had set my alarm for five minutes to four on that Sunday morning. At around three I couldn’t stand the suspense any more and looked at the clock to see how long it would be before the thing went off. No luck….still another hour. Barely enough time to get sleepy when you’re sleepless. Too long to sit around waiting for a decent departure time. After what seemed an agonizingly long time of resisting the temptation to look at the clock again, I noticed a pale light oozing through the curtains. I grabbed the clock, and just about throttled the damned thing. It hadn’t gone off! Now I was ‘late” by 35 minutes. You don’t want to be 35 minutes late in mid summer when there’s just an hour or two on the water before the sun starts roasting the heads of the trout and fisherman alike.
Anyway there I was out there in the mist and the rain, with my collar turned up to the South Easterly wind, dipping my frigid hands into the water to warm them.
(Yes, in the water) It had blown in cold you see, but the water was still a seething cauldron from the heat wave of the previous two days. The water was 23 degrees. The air was about 16 degrees. I prefer it the other way around, and the think that any self respecting trout would agree with me on that.
I am not immune to the vagaries of laziness and the inability to arise from my warm bed before dawn. However, when I go fishing on a summer’s morning I tell myself that I will never remember the morning that I slept in.
My mornings on a river are however unforgettable.
On Saturday I went out before dawn and made my way up to the Umgeni as I am inclined to do from time to time in the summer.
“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!