Giant’s Cup: A Fly Fishing Education in the Foothills of the Drakensberg

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Getting the Reels in Motion - Fly Fish Africa 2013

High in the catchment the rivers run clear thin and clear as gin…and fishing requires the lightest touches, ultrafine tackle, faultless presentation and tiny flies.. Those few magic weeks before spawning begins are, in the opinion of this humble pen, the most rewarding angling to which an aesthete can aspire. In calf-deep water, with nowhere to dive, even a two pounder becomes as acrobatic as a gymnast and more cunning than an octopus – Wolf AvniA Mean-Mouthed, Hooked-Jawed Bad-News Son-of-a-fish

Particular thanks go to Ian Davis of the UHTFC, and Wolf Avni, author, philosopher and student of life

One of the great rewards of travel is it’s unpredictability, as is the great pleasure of fly fishing. Underberg is located in what is known as the Southern Berg, the rump of the great Drakensberg, or uKhahlamba   mountains, that great landmark of east/central South Africa. The Drakensberg has been a pinion of great history in the region since the advent of human commerce, and human conflict. Much of the body of the mountain is contained within the independent nation of Lesotho, bordered on all sides by South Africa, with just the escarpment, the leading eastern and southern face of the range, contained within the latter. The area is sectioned off as a national park, and has been a sought after climbing, fishing and associated destination since recreational wilderness usage became a fact of modern life in South Africa.

As I drove inland from the coast on a stifling summers morning, having returned from the relative cool and comfort of Zimbabwe, the road from Port Shepstone wound its way up through the populated coastal hills of Gamalake, a traditionally settled district, falling away eventually into the rolling hills, timber plantations and picturesque homesteads of Harding and Kokstad. A soft landscape, painted in multiple tones of green, washed by occasional splashes of sunlight, but more commonly sunk under grave and brooding cloud, with perhaps just the briefest glimpse here and there of a gathering horizon of blue mountains.

Scenic Berg

A Glimpse of the Berg

I had made contact before setting out with the Underberg and Hineville Trout Fishing Club (UHTFC), and was met soon after I arrived in the small farming community of Underberg by the superbly accommodating Ian Davies, local chairman, who introduced me to his home, and his wife, for a pleasant preparatory lunch, during which we discussed the generalities of the area and it’s fishing potential. I was left in no doubt that I had arrived at the epicenter of the fly fishing culture in South Africa, with the additional suggestion that herein could be found some of the most spectacular trout in the world.

The UHTFC enjoys exclusive rights on a number of privately owned stillwater locations scattered around the district, as well as certain river runs, in particular that of the Umzimkulu River, flowing southeast off the rugged face of the berg. The Umzimkulu is arguably the best known and most sought after river in KwaZulu/Natal, and is recognised for its wild bred trophy fish that are routinely caught up to five pounds, less commonly up to ten.

Ian suggested that my first port of call be Giants Cup, a small, exclusive and highly rated hatchery/stillwater fishery owned by a certain Wolf Avni. Ian’s preamble to my meeting with Wolf was nothing if not enigmatic. Wolf, he told me, was the undisputed doyen of the local fly fishing scene, and to my question – ‘Is Wolf a character?’ – he simply laughed, referring to his wife. ‘Is Wolf a character?’ He asked, to which she almost demurred, yielding only a sage nod of her head.

The Tranquil Waters of Giant's Cup. Photo: Wolf Avni - Rights Reserved

The Tranquil Waters of Giant’s Cup. Photo: Wolf Avni – Rights Reserved

Giant’s Cup, a man, a fish and a collision of destiny

There is no doubt that Wolf Avni is a character. A sparse, somewhat ascetic looking man, Wolf greeted me upon arrival at his door with the warning that his Australian blue heeler dogs that tumbled out of the house ahead of him not only lacked manners, but being Australian they also had criminal records. I was welcomed into a rather lived-in office/living room that immediately revealed by every item of décor, and the haphazard clutter of books and journals, that here was a man who had not only caught (two mounted trophies dominated the walls, a huge brown trout and a no less impressive rainbow) but also studied trout (a bookshelf dominated by the minutia of books and papers focused on that narrow field of study). Wolf himself was a font of information of the most penetratingly technical nature, that burst forth almost immediately, overwhelming me with facts, the few of which that I was able to absorb in the immediate rush probably taught me more in technical terms about trout that I had absorbed by default in the fifty years prior to that.

I remarked to Ian as he left me in the company of, and to the hospitality of, Wolf Avni, that I had been dropped abruptly in a very fertile pool. ‘Yes.’ He replied as he climbed back into his Land Rover, and with a smile rather too knowing on his face. ‘Just be sure that you don’t get caught’.

There can be no doubt that Wolf is a character, and as such one might imagine that there are those that measure his worth on surface impressions. However, as he led me through his home, enthusing with almost impossible energy on the arcane peculiarities of trout, he thrust into my arms two books, authored by himself, and entitled, respectively, A Mean-Mouthed Hook-Jawed Bad-News Son-of-a-fish, and Bitch-Creek Nymphing & The Millennium Bug. Each is a mixed anthology of anecdotal tales and factual journeys of the most incisive and yet entertaining nature, culminating in two pieces of creative/technical work that rank very highly, in my opinion at least, among some of the great works of trout literature that have emerged over many years of fly-cast philosophizing.

Simple but discrete accommodation. Photo: Wolf Avni - Rights Reserved

Simple but discrete accommodation. Photo: Wolf Avni – Rights Reserved

That was just the beginning, though, and while there is not space in this narrative to even begin to cover the vast fly fishing credo that surrounds Wolf Avni, it is perhaps enough to say that the man is immersed in trout lore, mythology, science and history to a degree that I would guess few other laymen on this planet can aspire. One might imagine certain tenured biologists in universities here and there more steeped in the craft of understanding this fish than he, but I would doubt that any adds to the discipline such colour, vivacity, entertainment and interest.

Anyway, enough about Wolf’s multi-layered study of trout. My interest here is to report on the fishing, and obliquely on the facility that Wolf offers for those fortunate among us to enjoy it. Giant’s cup is a110 hectare enclave within the 5000,000 hectare Drakensberg park, and situated in a singularly beautiful valley of a character very much that of southern African highlands. It consists of rolling and open grassland on the valley floor, dominated by the lake from which fish of astonishing size are regularly pulled, and surrounded by broken kranzes, or ridges, also dressed with green grass, and populated by a small number of baboons, jackals and other nameless creatures that cry bleakly, if invisibly, from a million cuts and crevices that tower over the dam. The dam itself is fringed on one side by a deep reed bed, within which, at least while I was here, massive flocks of starling roost each night, and emerge in clouds the following morning to take to the sky and disappear to who knows where.

During my visit the weather was poor, with driving sleet and rain and a sharp edge to the wind. While this did little for visibility, and an appreciation of what must only be superb aspects of the mountain looming in soft blue layers above, it did add a Brontesque atmosphere to the valley that might easily have found Heathcliffe alone in the hills, brooding menacingly over the sins of the homestead below.

Under such heavy atmospherics, and with the esotericism of this sport displayed so well in both Wolf’s home and the self-catering units that he offers incoming fisherman, the act of launching a boat onto the lake and selecting a spot to fish seemed fraught with a virtual mysticism. In fact the fish in this dam are wild bred, and being carefully managed by a man to whom trout appear to mean more than coinage to Shylock, there is a solid sustainability in the program, allowing angers to hunt and sport with powerful fish that certainly are as acrobatic as gymnasts and more cunning than octopus.

Umzimkulu Catch

A Nice Catch on the Umzimkulu. Picture: Wold Avni – Rights Reserved

On the morning of the day of my arrival a ten pounder had been hooked, and lost, on a faulty knot, and although Wolf did admit later that evening that a ten pounder in this context is defined by anything that gets away out of brute strength, it is a fact that some astonishingly big fish are fairly routinely caught here. A photograph on the walls of my cottage portrayed an extremely happy looking angler, posing against the aforementioned backdrop, and holding aloft a trout that is easily of the ten pound pedigree, possibly more. Another image in his collection shows a ten year old boy holding a record 12-pounder he hooked and landed himself.

That trophy fish eluded me on my first two outings on the lake – late in the afternoon, and before dawn the following day – both trips undertaken under a steady rain, and each yielding two excellent fish of eighteen to twenty inches, and powerfully aggressive in the fight, all four of which were returned to the water, although a bag limit on a sliding scale of size does exists, and which varies according to conditions.

The Umzimkulu River, perhaps the most iconic body of water hereabouts, runs adjacent to the Giant’s Cup estate, although much of its length is privately owned, and so fishing is restricted, however the UHTFC enjoys rights over several runs that are accessible to non members by arrangement. A smaller tributary of the Umzimkulu, the Umzimkulwana, a much smaller stream, runs in part through Giant’s Cup, and is fishable with light tackle and a small streamer or dry fly. I tried both, without luck, but, as is often true, the walk along this lovely river, embedded as it is in a deep and beautiful valley in the pure Drakensberg pattern, was worthwhile for its own sake. Once again, big fish have been pulled out of this water, but the likelihood is that smaller fish would be more common, which, of course, as any fly fisherman will concur, are as agreeable to catch in their context as any.

The beautiful Umzimkulwana. Picture Wolf Avni - Rights Reserved

The beautiful Umzimkulwana. Picture Wolf Avni – Rights Reserved

On my last evening at Giant’s Cup I rowed out onto the lake for the last time. I had purposely not bought in provisions for supper. Tonight, I thought to myself, I would catch my evening meal.

At first the sun shone harshly through breaks in the fast moving cloud. The surface was choppy and the breeze brisk. Above me banks of swallows dived and skidded, catching something on the wing. I tied a black fly nymph, uncertain how it would be received here in the southern hemisphere, discovering shortly afterwards that it would not be received  at all. I changed it for a green micro bugger and tried again. The wind rose steadily and rain began to fall. Soon it was raining hard. For a good while nothing stirred other than the rain rippled surface. There I stood in the drenching rain, the boat slowly filling with water, sending out one cast after another. I lifted the anchor and let the boat drift. It edged into a reed chocked bay, the inlet of the Umzimkulwana, and suddenly the action started. I hooked a small but powerfully energetic foot-long. All kinds of acrobatics followed as the anguished creature tried to throw the hook.

Wolf Avni

Wolf Avni

For such a small fish it certainly fought a good fight, but I would have my fish dinner that night. Then soon afterwards another hit, and another landed, slightly bigger. I returned him to the water though. One fish was enough for one person.

Back at my cottage Wolf’s profoundly ugly Australian cattle dog kept me company as I grilled my fish under a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of mixed herb. A meal for one, washed down with a tall glass of clean Drakensberg water.

On the whole my visit to Giants Cup was memorable for three key reasons. The fishing was excellent, it was available in a uniquely beautiful setting and was underwritten by the richly quirky, fearless and at times unorthodox credo of Wolf himself, without whom Giant’s Cup would still be a superb destination, but with whom it was an education as well.


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