The greatest peril in life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, souls that do not perish with the body and must therefore be pacified lest they should revenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies – Inuit Proverb
The Nyanga leg of Fly Fish Africa 2013, Get the Reels in Motion, was a little bit of a lesson in the futility of planning, especially in Africa. Nyanga is the only real publicly accessible trout destination in Zimbabwe, the main focus of which is the Rhodes Inyanga National Park. The park itself was at one time part of the Rhodes Trust Estate, previously being the private estate of Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of colonial Rhodesia. There are a handful of small dams and fishable rivers in the park, and despite the many political and economic difficulties that Zimbabwe has been experiencing of late, the fishing is reasonably good. Emphasis has tended to be on stocking the dams, so the rivers offer only the hardiest angler any decent sport, with the exception perhaps of the upper Pungwe River where wild bred rainbows and brownies of small size can still be caught – and released.
My intention had been to add a little colour to the trip by jumping on a local commuter bus and rough traveling to Nyanga to fish the dams and rivers of the national park and report back. However, catching up with a few friends in Harare yielded an old climbing companion – Steve Brown – with whom I had climbed both the Rwenzori Mountains and the Drakensberg years earlier, and of course the Chimanimani Mountains on many occasions in between. Steve was at a bit of a loose end, also feeling a little overwhelmed after the festive season, and suggested that we drive up to Nyanga together and base ourselves at his cottage at the Connemara, a small and exclusive township clustered around a group of trout stocked dams in the vicinity of the famous Troutbeck Hotel. Nothing pleased me more at that moment than the prospect of a few days fishing and fellowship in the aftermath of the glare, noise and hilarity of Kariba, and so I accepted the offer immediately.
Our first stop was the Master Angler in Borrowdale Village, an exclusive suburb north of Harare, where the fly cabinet revealed two old favourites from my apprenticeship under the tutelage of my father many years ago. Hammil’s Killer and Mrs. Simpson (named after the notorious American temptress who ruined the reign of a British monarch, catching for herself a big fish in the process), two well established killer patterns that he and I had used in the streams and dams of Inyanga over countless trips. I selected two of each, a red, white and black Zulu pattern worm and a nondescript selection of midge pattern dry flies. From there we visited the supermarket – both sworn off alcohol for the duration – and collected a few basic supplies before heading east towards Mutare and the gorgeous Zimbabwean Highlands.
The road east, and the small settlements punctuating the route, are reflective of the general breakdown of Zimbabwean society. There is much documentation available on this phenomenon, which needs no explanation here, other than to reflect that the journey as far as the rural Rusape was rather depressing, made worse perhaps by heavy cloud and a moody atmosphere as the annual rains threatened. Nyanga lies about eighty miles east of Rusape, and, after turning off the main Harare/Mutare road, the general aspect of the countryside, thankfully, improved considerably. As the road began to climb, leaving the shabby bustle of one of Zimbabwe’s main transit routes behind, the atmosphere cleared, breaks in the cloud shed a weak sunshine and the landscape opened into the signature highland grass and woodland, punctuated by stone cropped kopjes and deep valleys of rubble strewn heath. Our destination was the Connemara Township in the higher reaches of Nyanga, which I had never visited before, and knew very little about, other than perhaps that a number of notable business people in the old days had boasted of owning cottages in Connemara.
Once through the national park, we turned up towards Troutbeck Hotel, whose gorgeous gardens and golf course, and of course the associated lochs, we passed as we wound our way along a rough dirt track, turning eventually along an even more degraded track that was signposted Connemara. We continued on through low and heavy cloud, grinding gears over a slick and gullied road eventually before cresting the rise. And then, thanks to a a serendipitous break in the clouds, a scene painted in the Scottish Highlands, a little flash of Brigadoon, appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly. Loch Caree, the largest of three small dams around which the settlement was clustered, appeared in that moment to be as perfect a trout water as God ever created. It was set in a shallow valley in a signature Nyanga colour splash of bottle greens and blacks, punctuated by patches of silver heath, all in the shadow of a brooding ridge that was cloaked in roving cloud.
A little further on we arrived at the entrance to our cottage – Trout Haven – set deep in a colonnade of mature wattle trees, and leading down a pine fringed lane, deep in the gloom of late afternoon, and around a hedge of bougainvillea to a compact and neatly tended garden. Therein stood a squat stone cottage under a black corrugated iron roof that was to be our home for the next four days. I was enthralled. I barely glanced at the simple but comfortable interior of the lodge as I unpacked and assembled my fishing rod before hurrying down to the water’s edge. There the Scottish aspects were complete – contrived one might say, and one would be right – but doubly welcome after the grim pictures of raw Africa that had preceded this unexpected encounter.
With a fresh Hammil’s Killer tied on I cast into the shallows, rippling the sheer surface of the evening water with a shock of unexpected activity. One cast, two and then three, and a strike among the rock strewn edges. A stiff fight followed before beautiful eleven inch, dark toned rainbow lay briefly in my hands. A more energetic and determined fish than anything of similar size in my home waters, I lifted the hook and let her back gently. A few minutes later another was on the hook. If this was what could be achieved in a few minutes of twilight, the next few days promised to be extraordinary.
I awoke before dawn the next morning to the monotonous cry of a piet-my-vrou, or a red breasted cuckoo, a quintessential sound of the southern African highland summer, which can after a while be wearying in its unendingly repetitive tedium. After a quick cup of rooibos tea I dressed and collected my rod and walked through the misted dawn to the edge of the lake. There the water was once again glassy smooth and placid, the ambient temperature cool but not cold, and a heavy fog hanging low over the water. I began to probe a bouldered corner of the shoreline with a black beaded woolly bugger, and after the results of the evening before, I was quite surprised to register no activity at all. On my home waters in Oregon any kind of woolly bugger would usually succeed where everything else had failed, and I pondered as I made my way back for breakfast how peculiar trout can be.
Later that morning, under a light rain, Steve and I launched a boat and drifted over the dam working a Hammil’s Killer on a sinking line (Steve) and to begin with a Mrs Simpson (myself), but I adopted a variety of patterns as the morning progressed, and while I enjoyed not the slightest interest in my line, Steve quickly pulled out three fine sized rainbows, accompanied by a number of strikes and losses.
Within a few hours, however, the action had subsided completely and we weighed anchor, and after a light lunch headed for Troutbeck Hotel. Troutbeck is one of the country’s premier resort hotel, which boasts excellent fishing on two dams located in the grounds of the hotel, and ringed by one of the loveliest golf courses in Africa. Troutbeck has an august history, being the home waters of Lieutenant Colonel McIllwaine who is reputed to have been the pioneer of trout stocking in the Nyanga area. The story goes that the trout fry were introduced to Rhodesia from South Africa in the early 1930s, transported to Troutbeck by Colonel McIllwaine in the flatbed of a Model A Ford, and kept alive by a native using a bicycle pump to aerate the water. The family of the good colonel, some still present in Connemara, are somewhat vague about the details of his general influence, but he was certainly responsible, at least in part, for the development of Connemara and the community of cottages and houses that surround it.
Connemara, or Little Connemara as it is correctly known, basically consists of three ‘lochs’, or dammed reservoirs set along a river of the same name in a high valley above the Troutbeck Hotel. Embedded around the lochs are some fifty cottages, perhaps more, although some are much more than cottages. Each is nestled in its own lakeside half-acre, some with sprawling gardens and others compacted into the pine and wattle forests in deep intimacy with the surrounding nature. It is a most tranquil and beautiful spot, truly the best kept secret on the fishing circuit in Zimbabwe, and something of a refuge from the hubris and vitality of raw Africa that surrounds it.
The fishing at Troutbeck, however, was poor. We paid our US$12 license for a day of fishing, and were directed to the lower of the two dams, I suspect in order to ensure that the stocked fish in the upper dam remain for the guests. Thereafter we thrashed the water for the best part of the afternoon achieving nothing whatsoever.
Somewhat jaded and disappointed, we returned to Connemara, and launching the boat at about four thirty in the afternoon, we were able to bag one fat hen to round off our first trout dinner scheduled for that evening.
Those were the last fish we bagged. For the remainder of the trip to Inyanga and Connemara Steve and I sport fished, clipping off the barbs on our hooks and releasing the half a dozen or so fish that were caught thereafter. Conditions on the evening of our last day, and on the mid-loch – Loch Maree – were perfect for a dry fly. The valley was sunk in the deep gloom of the pre-rains, with roving mist, racing cloud and high rolling thunder adding to the majesty of great nature at work in the mountains. Across the placid surface of the loch fish were rising. A party of schoolboys nearby where working the edges of the water with sinking lines and getting nowhere. I attached a tiny mosquito from the hodgepodge of US patterns in my fly case onto a three pound tapering leader. I then threw a long cast into the midst of the swells, and was rewarded almost immediately by a soft inhale and a sharp strike. The fight on a light line, and with a strong fish ranged deep into the center of the loch, exciting the interest of my fellow anglers who were no doubt impressed, and a little envious.
A reliable rule of fly fishing is that when surface feeding, a trout will rarely entertain a wet fly, no matter how tempting it might be. I slowly brought in a nice sized rainbow, perhaps fourteen or fifteen inches, after a dramatic and highly animated play, releasing her from a barbless hook back into the water to ponder, as I was myself, the advent of the unexpected in life.
Yes, this is true. I had not intended of coming here, but the door had opened into this secret world, and I was so glad that I had stepped through. Connemara had offered me wonderful fishing in a most gorgeous setting, and with the added pleasure of fellowship with an old friend, this had been a few days superbly well spent. As I hitched up my rain cape and began the long walk home, the clouds opened and a heavy rain began to fall. Back at the cottage a fire was roaring, the inner rooms were bathed in candlelight and the kettle was boiling.
It rained all night, heavy, drenching rain of the type only found in the tropical highlands of Africa. The season had broken and little would have been gained by staying. The next day Steve and I loaded up and made our way back to Harare, supremely happy with the results of the few days past.