Heat, gratitude and Trout
As the three of us sat with our backs to an earth bank, the gum trees bent double, dust from the township roads swept across the valley in front of us. We got wet too, but after the heat of the day, it was such a relief that we enjoyed the cool drops. I sat there watching the large droplets fall on the sleeve of my shirt and dissipate in the wicking fabric in mild and unperturbed fascination. You can relax and do that when a storm is not accompanied by vicious lightning, and this was one of those storms.
A storm was inevitable after the heat of the day. It had been severe. Graeme sent me a screen shot of his vehicle thermometer earlier in the day before leaving Maritzburg: 41 degrees. I had been borrowing a vehicle which, unlike my old one, has one of these thermometers too. I dropped in to see some farmers on the Lions River late morning, and only the strong wind there rescued them from 36 degree temperatures. At Jan’s shop in Notties it was as close as you get to thirty. By the time we arrived at Tendela it was 26 degrees and falling, but a lot of that may have been due to the lateness of the day rather than altitude alone: It just didn’t make sense to rush in the heat of the day, and we couldn’t have cast a fly much before 4:30 pm.
While tackling up, we were observed by three small boys who crept up and sat unobtrusively on the grass behind us, observing our every move. I greeted them and tried to engage them in conversation, but they were shy. Graeme handed them a carton of fruit juice that he had in his vehicle. In re-telling of their reaction later that night, my description of their sheer unadulterated joy and delight brought tears to my wife’s eyes. One of them hugged the carton to his chest and danced as he uttered his heartfelt thanks.
On the walk down to the river from Mr Ntuli’s house, I was immediately aware of the easy banks that Graeme had described to me. He was quite right. The goats and cattle had grazed the veld like a lawn, and as I stepped into the river it felt like I was on a fairway of a golf course.
As I drifted a hopper and small weighted ant through a succession of pretty runs, I took in the scenery. It was different to what we are used to. There were houses scattered about the hillsides. The river bed was punctuated here and there with bottles and cans and scrap metal. The odd packet hung from a pile of sticks and swayed in the current. At one point I remarked to Jac about the polystyrene hatch, as a hamburger box floated down the stream past us.
But there was no putrid effluent in the stream. The water ran clean , and refreshing against my legs, despite its temperature of 22 degrees. The land beside the river was covered with grass, and although there were road ditches and gulches that were bare and no doubt dirty the river in a storm, no one had ploughed close to the river, and there were no fences to cross. Communal land does not get carved up and fenced and possessed by anyone. While that means that the veld has been mis-managed and consists of more mshiki [eragrostis plana] than anything else, at least the altitude here precludes ngongoni [aristida junciformis] and the absence of fences makes the riverside progression a pleasure. And the community members who strolled by did not arrive to greet you with the simmering aggression that a poacher might expect from an approaching farmer. This land belonged to no one, or more accurately a welcoming community, and passing individuals either ignored us completely, or raised their hands in a friendly wave.
After the storm we were back on the river, and I had the good sense to give up on the hopper, and switch to a para RAB so that I too could catch some fish. And I did, but not as many as Jac and Graeme, who were polite enough not to mention their tally! As darkness fell, we changed flies with hands held high to grab at the last silhouette of the nylon against the pale evening sky. We crouched beside the river, not for concealment, but to achieve an angled view that put our flies in those patches of silver against the far bank where the small browns were rising. As we crouched, and cast by feel alone, there were jovial shouts across the valley, the barking of a dog, the squealing of a delighted child, and the rattling of an old pickup, whose yellow lights descended the hill before igniting the steel bridge just upstream.
Later we would find Jac only by following the sound of his fly-reel as he wound in for the day…a reel we had earlier nicknamed “The Isuzu” after its “280 D” sounding click and pawl mechanism. As he approached we were only able to distinguish him from the lumbering forms of the shadowy sheep when he got really close. We crossed the bridge together, the three of us walking abreast in the inky blackness, and followed our noses along the rough gravel road back to Mr Ntuli’s house.
On Friday, as I lowered the back door of the aircraft, turned and reversed down the steps onto the tarmac, I felt cool dry April afternoon air swirl around me and lift my spirits.
I had come home. Home to Southern mountains, to prospects of winter frost, to Trout, and good coffee.
I had left behind sticky Mozambique, with it’s potholes, humidity, train ambushes and sugarcane. I had left behind Tanzania’s red earth rivers, it’s bribes and mosquitoes. I had left behind Lusaka’s dust, incomplete buildings, and broken machinery. We had retreated to the place with good freeways, neatly laid out farms and towns, and familiar faces.
Returning home made me contemplate the uniqueness of this Southern tip of the continent. For a week we had emersed ourselves in flat humid places. Places with rolling hills at most. Lush places of brilliant green foliage against a lot of bare red earth. A LOT of bare earth! We had flown over them, conversed with their people, and experienced the vastness of what lies to the North of us. Something more vast than the whole of the USA in a sense: where you can fly for an hour and find yourself two days drive from where you were, and listening to a completely new set of languages in a place ruled and governed completely differently from where you had breakfast. A great big dusty, muddy, overgrazed and degraded landscape. Heavily populated in the sense that the populations of Africa spew across the land like something spilled there. Their occupation hap-hazard, devoid of planning, and the impact on the environment always evident.
Back home, the pollution is piped below the surface, the people live in neat rows, and the bugs get nuked with frost in winter. There are more higher plateaus where one can escape thorn trees and tropical looking bush. Trout plateaus. Something that does not exist at all across Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique….. the places we were returning from.
A week or two earlier I had struggled to convey these differences to two Canadian travellers who are planning a fly fishing trip overland from Tanzania to the Western Cape. In my own mind it was fairly clear. They would see bush and big rivers with Bream and Tigers (which I know so little about) for thousands of miles through indigenised Africa, and then they would emerge down here needing less money for bribes, a small stream stick, a couple of dry flies and some warmer clothing!
I get a sense that we really do live in a cocoon down here. One that is under threat of being burst by things like global warming, the banning of Trout, and the rise of corruption.
I need to get my feet in a cold Trout stream soon to re-visit some of my sweeping statements above, and to give this all some more thought.