My World is at the front. The front of the Drakensberg, that is. My pals and I wander southwards sometimes , and cross over the escarpment to the south- facing end of Lesotho, where the mountains face the cold fronts and catch some rain from time to time, but for the most part we stay just east of the escarpment and catch our Trout here.
With the heat of summer approaching, and mindful of the fact that it would be too damned hot to fish anyway, it made sense to go explore the other side. That is the other side of the mountains….the dry side.
Here at the front end, the berg forces the southern winds upwards, and they let go of rain, which dribbles into our streams, and feeds a humid, if not always cool zone. Our Trout survive through the dry of winter, provided it is a chapter sandwiched in a sufficiently short time-line between autumn and spring. Spring is good. Summer is hot, but with cool rain and oxygenating flow, the Trout can do it. Autumn is heaven. And all this Trout survival takes place within the silently understood limitations of altitude. Everyone knows that in these parts, if you can’t see sugar cane or thorn trees, and if you can see ouhoudt, you can check the map for altitude to be sure, but you are probably in Trout country (1200 metres plus). The North eastern cape is drier, but it has altitude, and the rain that dribbles over the back side of the Drakensberg.
But what of the dry side proper? Time for holiday planning.
I reckoned that if we could stay above 1400 metres altitude, that would make for a good summer holiday. Also, with the 1200 metre KZN trout country paradigm in my head, I could survey these places with a “what –if” mindset, even if I knew it wasn’t trout country. It would be cool surely, at 1400 metres plus?
We snuck through Golden Gate and hightailed it past the tourists of Clarens. At Fouriesberg, the Little Caledon passed through a poort into Lesotho. Or should I say, it oozed. It was not really flowing. There we stayed at an altitude of 1640, and hiked to the top of a sandstone massif of 1860m. It also rained cool rain, and it hailed a little. But the riverside inhabitants had scraped the earth bare and while the cliffs were pleasant to gaze at, and the Moer Koffie was good, we passed on.
At Clocolan, we hiked up off the plains at 1640 metres, and with the aid of a chain hand-rail, we emerged above the cliffs at 1800 metres. But up there, there were just rock pools of storm water, which our guide-dog named “Champagne” could just roll over in.
Despite storms that lashed us, and winds that threatened to blow us off the mountain, the territory just wouldn’t hold a trout. Besides, the cherry wine tasted decidedly dangerous.
Near Hobhouse, in an old, but partly restored mill house, we sat below cool poplars and listened to rushing waters. But there we were flaunting the boundaries at just 1460 metres, and the raging Caledon river was chocolate brown and flowing through flat country.
In a cave near Zastron, we were at 1750 metres, and our hike to the top of a mountain called Mapaya took us to 1920 metres. While the ageing tourist brochure back in the cave made a fleeting remark about “Forelle”, I could see a lot of thorns, and the so-called skinny dipping pool atop the mountain was not only tiny, but dry as a bone.
Average rainfall there used to be 675mm per annum. It hasn’t reached the average in eight years, and this year won’t pass the 300mm mark. Forelle Country: NOT.
At Lady Grey we sat at a restaurant beneath a London Plane tree (at 1650 metres), which only partly obscured the high peaks to the north-east and the east. That shade provided a relief from the 32 degree heat, which coolness was as uncanny as it was refreshing. It reminded me of the notion that dry heat provides greater evaporative potential than humid heat, and that evaporative cooling is therefore more significant. A factor that supposedly explains the survival of trout in our Mediterranean climates, despite air temperatures that routinely reach 37 degrees. Either way, evaporation seems to have put paid to any water that might have flowed in the Wilgespruit past town. The municipality has seen to it that that particular stream will probably never flow consistently again, by putting in an oversized filtration system that backwashes and wastes what water is left, and then adding a couple of hundred low cost houses with flush toilets, to up the demand. The envelope has closed. We drank beer there…trucked in from wetter places.
Over Joubert’s pass, and down past Helvellyn: a picture book farm of such beauty, that I confess to having contemplated variously, murder, land claims, and other undue influences of unsavoury nature, in pursuit of its ownership.
It may be at 2000m altitude, but it’s stream (The Unity stream) was as good as dry.
Where the Unity joins the Karringmelk, the flows were not significantly stronger, and despite being above 1700m it was desperately hot. This is of course known Trout country, but our finned friends live in peril here. Our 2009 visit was in a drought. In the 2015/6 drought, the river dried up. Then in the first 3 months of this year, three violent floods all but decimated the river course, without doing much for the water table. Now, ironically, the enormously flood-altered water course, lies baking in the sun with 23 degree water trickling through it.
I could not bring myself, despite my fly-fishing obsession, to fish for these trout, choosing instead to stalk and photograph them, like some rare animal to be recorded in the moments before their demise.
And so from the dry side, we cross through the known trout areas, Rhodes, Maclear, Matat, Underberg, and home to the midlands.
I have seen the dark side.
I like it here at the front.