The Thukela River proved to be a disappointment. The story begins a few miles south in the Giant’s Castle Reserve where I fished the Bushman’s River, catching several ten inch brownies, but once again, as had been the case everywhere so far, that big fish eluded me. I had deliberately avoided seeking any advice on the upper Thukela River, located within the Royal Natal National Park, because I suspected that if I did someone would warn me that fishing hereabouts would be a waste of time.
The Berg region had just received a comprehensive dousing thanks to a low pressure zone sweeping in from Botswana, which had been followed immediately afterwards by a heat wave. The air in the Berg was champagne clear, and through it the sun lashed down unrelentingly. Driving north from Giant’s Castle to the Royal Natal I stopped at Bergville, a very grubby little town, where I bought a pair of sunglasses for the first time on the trip. From there I drove a few miles out of town and checked in at the Amphitheater Backpacker Lodge.
I would like to pause for a moment here to say something about backpackers lodges in Africa. I am not entirely sure where the concept originated, but the pattern that has emerged in the twenty years or so that Backpackers lodges have existed on the continent is that of a youth hostel combined with a Dutch coffee bar combined with a general travel emporium. If you are a long haul traveler in Africa, forget the luxury lodges. If you are looking for the three essentials of beer, a safe place to change money and an internet connection then check out your nearest backpackers lodge. One thing that I personally value very highly is the informal travel forum that is embedded at the bar of every backpackers lodge anywhere in Africa. There are always those who are coming from where you have just been, and others arriving from where you are going, and the exchange of information that follows is always worth its weight in gold.
The Amphitheater Backpackers, I was pleased to discover, offered all of the above facilities: friendly and helpful reception staff, a montage of cheap and cheerful activities, a grotto type bar with that fuel of the travelers soul – beer – and a swimming pool, all wrapped up in a vaguely ethnic décor package that was clean, well maintained and functional. Like all backpackers lodges, however, the Amphitheater was a little guilty of nickel-and-diming. The WiFi connection, for example, was R10 for fifteen minutes, making any kind of serious online work expensive. And it was noisy. At five thirty in the morning the local staff arrived like a flock of starlings settling in for the summer. African woman have both the charming and the irritating tendency to carry on conversations over large distances and with many participants, so the volume of dialogue is invariably very high – and although rich with gaiety, it is less than what one would want as one slowly rises to the surface of sleep at the beckoning of some gentle morning birdsong.
Anyway, I am not here to critique South African backpackers lodges. The Royal Natal National Park is the closest Drakensberg recreational area to the Gauteng complex of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the main commercial and population centers of South Africa, so it is the most organized, the best appointed and the most popular of all the Berg destinations. It also places a noticeable emphasis on security, which tells a little story all of its own.
I arrived at the park gate on a Saturday morning, and quite clearly business was brisk. At the entrance gate a typically smart and polite young SAPS employee greeted me with a salute, and gave me a quick rundown on what recreational options were available in the park, and in the nearby nature reserve of Rugged Glen. Upon my inquiring about fly fishing he mentioned a small dam within the visitors area where stocked trout could be caught upon the purchase of a fishing license which was obtainable at reception. His smile, however, became a puzzled frown when I mentioned the Thukela River. The river is not stocked, he told me, so he was unable to confirm that it held any fish, Adding in conclusion that I was certainly at liberty to try if I felt inclined. A point worth making here is that the South African Parks Service (SAPS) is hostile to trout. Trout are currently regarded as an invasive species and so no program to formally encourage the development of trout in National Park rivers exists.
Entrance requirements were settled quickly, my campsite located similarly, and after a quick bite and a longish nap I set off to have a look at the river.
One of the most popular day-trails in the Royal Natal National Park is the Thukela Gorge Trail, which follows the river deep into the range until it reaches the Thukela Falls, a towering, gossamer plume of water falling some hundreds of meters from the edge of the escarpment, largely misting as it makes landfall. My first impression was that, although the wide banks of pebbled boulders give the river the correct anatomy – insofar as pools and rapids followed one another as evenly as a string of pearls, and in between there are a multiplicity of current slews and eddies – the pebble landscape provides no stream bank ecology as such to provide any kind of viable food source. I could see that possibly in autumn, as the bigger fish are moving upriver to spawn, there might be some activity, but it seemed to me that there really was very little hope at this moment.
In recognition of this fact I was reminded of an incident that happened many years ago. I think it was actually sometime in the early 1980s. I happened to wandering alone across one of the high plains of Chimanimani, a small mountain range lying between Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and at that time recently liberated from the war conditions imposed by the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia civil war on the one side, but very much affected by the insecurity of war on the Mozambique side. Either way, the mountain had long been, as it remained, undisturbed, protected by insecurity of one sort or another for more than twenty years.
A word of explanation here might help compose a picture of Chimanimani. Ecologically it comprises many elements from miombo woodland to riverine forest to high schist plains. The uniqueness of the ecology is perhaps not immediately obvious to a casual visitor, but the great beauty of this compact, and as such very vulnerable landscape always is. Another point is that if God had ever appointed a permanent secretary with responsibility for designing trout streams, then the prototype of the perfect product would be Chimanimani. The character of the mountain is a spine of white quartz sandstone rising in a modest escarpment to only some eight thousand feet. Radiating away are deep river valleys, usually heavily forested, which are interspersed with high plains whereupon immature streams rise, and meander for several miles between sedge groves, occasional reed banks and grassland, before submitting eventually to one or other of the bigger river systems.
Both offer almost unbelievably superb fly fishing habitat. In the bigger rivers the pool/rapid sequence are clearly defined, immutable and of perfect configuration for the development of big fish. At higher altitude the rivers meander over grass plains, decorated by lily tables, occasionally bloating into miniature lakes cobbled by white quartz pebbles and stained a dark sepia by the high peat content of the soil. Nymph husks decorate the rocks and hang off the reeds, and otter scat rich with crushed crab shells decorate the banks, each attesting to the richness of the habitat for those creatures that thrive off such prey…trout for instance.
However, these beautiful lakes and streams that stitch the mountain together are barren. No fish have ever lived here. At some time in the early 1960s a few trout were dropped into the main river system, and no doubt there was some fine fishing for a while, but they did not survive, and the stocking was curtailed because of the war, the difficult logistics and the rare incidence of a fisherman climbing the mountain to fish. It was a beautiful idea, but it died soon after it was born, and those few men who continued to fish those waters did so for reasons other than catching fish.
Anyway, on that particular day I was surprised as I walked across a plain to see in the distance a lone figure plying a very delicate cast upwards from the tail of a long, steady run of black water. This angler was a long way from the more trammeled reaches of the mountain, and certainly a long way from anywhere that had ever witnessed trout stocking. As I approached him I noticed that he was old. He also happened to be very traditionally turned out, wearing tweed hat and coat, a pale blue square pattern shirt and a pair of hip waders over corduroy trousers.
Having arrived alongside him I waited until it seemed appropriate to approach. One does not, after all, intrude on the meditations of another. If I was tempted when we did speak to mention that there was no chance here of his catching a fish hereabouts I restrained myself. Something about this man suggested to me that he already knew. He certainly did not seem to find it necessary to explain himself, for really, I suppose, the discipline of casting a fly, in its purest form, is only very obliquely related to the catching of fish. I understood that fact suddenly, and I understand it to this day. In fact, I understand it very well.
I cannot say, however, other than those occasions when I have been testing a new rod, that I have ever fish in the absolute certain knowledge that there are no fish to be caught, but I am also not discounting the fact that one day I might.
I discovered in the meanwhile that the man was a priest, Father Sharkey was his name. As we settled into a chat, and with the keen instincts of a celibate, Father Sharkey made the analogy of sex as to why he had chosen to fished here. When a man is over sixty, he told me, his instincts in regard to women tend to change. A man might find, as he once thrashed the water with urgency, that now he likes to frequent the pools in which hens play in order simply to watch, to enjoy the sight of smolts congregating in the eddies, perhaps even to reflect on one or two of the finer specimens that he once had on the hook, and the fewer still that he landed. One day a man wakes to find that he has lost some interest in the thrill of the chase, the exhilaration of the catch. Inexplicably, he is content to reflect that to ponder fish can sometimes be more rewarding than to catch them.
So, just as pornography and self pleasuring might be regarded as the safest kind of sex, or touring the fleshpots of a city at dawn when all prey is under cover the same, or even frequenting the school playground during the summer break even more so, each offers a man with curious appetites the ritual without the substance. Thus dropping a fly on a vacant pool offers the faux anticipation of the catch, while also allowing full scope for the expressions of skill and dexterity in the action of fly casting, which is, after all, much of the reason that we all do it.
And then, of course, there is just the simple pleasure of being where trout live, in high and beautiful places, places where God also lives. One needs a reason to enter a church, as one does the chapels of nature, and if casting a fly into a dark and silent pool that one’s knows is empty, then casting a prayer into the empty cosmos is not that different.
Anyway, it does not pay to dwell too much in a narrative of fly fishing on waters where there are no fish. The following day I woke before sunrise, brewed up a cup of coffee and quickly set off towards the Thukela River. Selecting a #14 Mrs. Simpson I began the ritual of working up the runs. The river anatomy was perfectly suited to this, and as I quickly lost what little edge of anticipation I had woken with I began to enjoy the exercise simply for its own sake. Controlling the cast to short, measured and accurate placements, no false casting, getting into the rhythm with twenty foot of line, three foot of leader, working the immediate area ahead and moving forward, repeating this inch by inch up the channel, keeping a low profile, holding to the shadows. Once a tempo has been established it becomes like the double tap of a machine gun, one in the ground to get the distance and one into the chest of the target. Moving forward. Skirmishing up a narrow alley of foliage.
Then my mind was abruptly distracted by the first rays of sunlight touching the high ramparts of the Berg, and I remembered that I was also here to breath in the opportunities of the moment. I hitched my fly into the eyelet, spooled in the slack and left the river for the trail some two hundred meters distant up a steep grassy bank. From there the day devolved into a simple hike, fishing forgotten. The Thukela Gorge route runs for about six miles either way, following the river off its north bank, plying inwards towards the escarpment until the trail ends abruptly under the Thukela Falls.
Not bad, although the heat on the trail had manifest a thirst within me that could not be quieted by the champagne water of the Berg. For this kind of thirst there can only be one answer. I drove from the Thukela Gorge car park to the park store, and there purchased a six-pack of ice cold castle lager before repairing to the campsite.
Two bottles went missing during the course of that short journey, and another two followed soon afterwards. I entertained myself during the course of that afternoon watching the campsite baboon touring the vacant camps, tearing into what was not locked down and ripping off what he felt like. This he did with the proprietary air of a creature at total peace with his station in life, even as he loped off casually towards the main gate once security had rumbled him, and two guards careened across the lawns in his direction at a startlingly virile pace. Moments later the shrieks of younger baboons in the bush beyond the fence-line indicated that the boss had indeed arrived home, and had just smacked up a few of his bitches before settling down for a nap, believing, as well he might, that all was right with the world.