FISHING THE DRAGON’S BACK
As the plane banked on its approach to Jan Smuts airport I craned my neck to peer down at the landscape below. After a few hundred flights around the world I wasn’t too worried about flying, it was touching the tarmac that makes me nervous. I was searching for South Africa’s famed Drakensberg Mountains. A range 1000 kilometres long that stretches from the north-eastern Cape to the north-eastern Transvaal. It divides Natal from the Orange Free State and Lesotho, providing the great escarpment over which the Tugela River falls. Viewed from a plane it looks no more than a thin thread of white, glistening in the sunlight. There are two local sources as to how the Drakensberg got its name. The Voortrekkers thought it reminded them of a Dragon, because of its undulating outline. Another was of the legend of a Dragon inhabiting its height. I personally prefer the name given to it by the Zulus,”Quathlamba”…..the barrier if spears! I had no idea what legends were held in its craggy peaks, but I did know virtually any stretch of water in its heights held trout. More to the point the scenery was supposed to leave you spellbound.
After spending an overnight in a hotel I took another short flight across the “Berg” to the coastal city of Durban, and began a beautiful car journey back up into the mountain range from its Eastern approaches. To say I was impressed by its landscape would be an understatement. Having travelled to East, West and North Africa I naturally assumed the southern portion of this huge Continent would be just as dry and arid. Instead I could feast my eyes on rolling hills of lush green pastures, almost reminiscent of the Dorset countryside. It was two hours drive before the slowly rising ground gave way to a silhouette of solid rock on the horizon. It took another half hour to reach the “Berg” proper, winding out way up to the hotel at Mont-Aux-Sources. This was situated in the North, to the South is Cathedral Peak, and the famous Amphitheatre.Thisa is a shallow, half moon of wall, flanked by the Central and Eastern buttresses,blue,purple,immense and startling beyond expectations. It was in the shadow of the Amphitheatre that I was to discover the trout fishing.
The following day was organised so that I could coincide my visit with a fly fishing clinic being held by the Natal Parks Board, who manage the surrounding grandeur with justifiable pride. It was also my good fortune to meet a couple of the area’s top fly fisherman, who could fill me in on the history of their sport. Both were a little pessimistic about the timing of my visit. Upcountry rains had coloured both rivers and dams, so a visit to the hatchery was scheduled in the hope that given a day or so, the levels would drop. There are several hatcheries in Natal that are responsible for stocking 300 miles of escarpment, together with the area around the Amphitheatre.
Trout fishing was first introduced to Natal from Scotland in 1890, when a small hatchery was established at Balgowan.From here, several rivers were stocked and trout fishing soon became a popular sport. In fact the locals were told that the strange spotted fish were poisonous in an effort to minimise poaching. Of course it didn’t take the locals too long to realise that the white men were going to incredible pains in an effort to catch this “inedible” fish! Natal claims to be the major trouting area and boasts 22 streams, the best of which are the Umzimuubu near Mataliele, and the Ingwanwane,Umzimkulu and Polela in the Underberg/Himeville District. A further sixteen rivers are stocked with Browns, the best of which are the Umkomaas,Loteni,Mooi and Bushmans.The hatchery produces around 300,000 fish a year,Underberg raises 100,000 fingerlings, and another at Kamberg concentrates rearing the larger fish for stocking the dams. The water that feeds the hatchery is not cold, especially when you consider the altitude that the river cascades over the Amphitheatre from. These escarpment rivers proved to be marginal for sustaining trout at first, but it appears they have now adapted.26 degrees was recorded around 26 years ago, but the lethal range is rising towards 28 degrees with global warming. The pellet feed has to be imported, but around 25 years ago a new culture of Daphnia was produced to feed the fry on. When temperatures soared towards 30 degrees some of the hatcheries recorded losses of up to 80,000 fish. All this information fuelled me for the next day when the levels were hopefully dropping.
I fished one of the small dams at Mont-Aux-Sources for just one pull, and noticed others in the Fly Clinic struggling as well .Down on the Mahai River a tributary of the Tugela I found two anglers walking back with a nice 3lb Rainbow. Generally the size of the river fish is much smaller, but occasionally the bigger specimens fall to those anglers prepared to cover as much water as time will allow. The scenery on the river made up for the slow fishing. Blue skies abound up here, and contrasted against the brown and purple of the Amphitheatre the Mahai tumbled and raced along. Other than our small group there was not one other angler as far as the eye could see. Heaven indeed.
The following day I left, travelling to the Loteni Reserve where there were facilities of hutted camps. For just a few pounds per person you get a large bungalow style hut, showers, cooking facilities, bed etc and the local staff will cook during fixed meal times. The power was run by generators, and switched off at about 10pm, so you could sit looking out on a superb mountain scenery, the sky full of stars, sipping your drink in the flickering candlelight. Away in the distance is the perpetual murmur of the river. All you do is supply the food and the staff will cook it for you. Over the next couple of days I managed several trout, including five from one of the dams up in the Hills. I was again the only angler fishing, and found a small Jersey Herd to be the killing fly. This pattern was always a “taker” in any coloured water situation, and it proved no different several thousand miles from the British fly scene. Not many fish moved on the top during the evening so I went exploring one of the rivers. Much of it looked too fast with tumbling riffles and little in the way of holding pools. However, I did find one pool where a waterfall poured out of a cliff, and ran down to meet the main river. Its junction had scoured out a deep pool and I hooked into a nice Brownie first cast. Although Natal doesn’t boast double figure rainbows, what they lack in size they more than make up for with fighting quality.
The accommodation is cheap. The clear mountain air, blue skies and magnificent scenery make at least one visit to this country a must. The trout season is the reverse of our own, situated as it is, in the Southern hemisphere. It opens (subject to change) on 1st September and closes around the end of May. Every angler must possess a valid license and on the dams the limit is three fish, while it can alter locally, up to ten fish. You can also get an 8-day license. So if you are thinking about the British winters getting longer and colder, South Africa could just be the tonic to see you through those dark nights. Once you have fished in the shadow of the “Dragon’s Back” there really is no other place like it.
COPYRIGHT – Graeme Pullen.All Rights Reserved.