I love Lotheni. By that I mean the nature reserve and the river from which it takes its name. It’s a really wild place in the way that some places in the Drakensberg have remained wild despite the obvious influences of man.
I try to get up there at least once in a fishing season. When I do venture forth with rod in hand I almost always do day trips. Lotheni is unfortunately just too far for my regular convenience. Whenever I return from a trip up there I’m worn out and inevitably very satisfied. This is not to say that I do terribly well fish-wise on these trips (whatever that means), but I get a few and revel in the surroundings. Actually, I’m stretching that a little; I suck at fishing and I’m frustrated – but at least the mountains are pretty and the air is clear.
I recall just such a trip a few a seasons ago. I loaded my truck with the necessary equipment (and an exponentially greater amount of unnecessary equipment) the night before and left an hour or two before dawn the next day.
When I approached the entrance to the reserve I was a little taken aback at how thin the water was. Insufficient winter snows and stop-start summer rains had resulted in a pretty anaemic flow through the valley. Not too low to fish by some way, mind you, but low enough to make it pretty hard going. With fishing skills that, on a good day, are mostly described by onlookers as “what the hell, exactly, is it you’re trying to do?” it was always going to be an uphill battle. Still, I parked and kitted up; anxious and excited all at once.
By ‘kitted up’ I mean I fixed one of the eight reels I brought along to one of the four rods I brought along. I only ever use that one rod and reel but, like a small child and his safety blanket, I feel safe knowing that I have a spare rod for every hundred meters of river I’d fish that day. Should the need arise to climb down a gorge to rescue a stranded hiker I like to know that I have enough line and backing to braid together a few fathoms of towing strength climbing rope. You can never be too prepared.
As the river isn’t very overgrown a small box containing a few dozen flies was deemed enough to see me through. If I needed seven or eight hundred more flies it wasn’t a long walk back to the truck. Five rolls of tippet in the pocket up front and another five in the pack, two tubes of floatant, a kg of split shot (shouldn’t be needing much more in the thin water), two knives, three pairs of those little trimmy things, a yard of strike indicator yarn, two tubs of strike indicator putty, seven spare tapered leaders, etc. and I was ready to go. Shit! Sunstroke! After some quick mental calculation I resolved that one hat ought to be enough to get the job done. A quick selection from the four pairs of polaroids at hand and I was ready to roll.
I made my way down to the river and almost immediately, in a tight bend, I saw a substantial fish rise and rise again. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, by ‘substantial’ I mean eleven inches, twelve tops. Still, I thought, not a bad fish. Being wild and brown it was eminently worthy of my fumbling attentions.
Its lie was a really good one. The river turned tight up against a high vertical rock wall and had gouged out a deep channel below a car-sized rock that lay in the river at the head of the pool; a remnant of an earlier landslide no doubt. The water split around the boulder and merged again behind it. The fish lay in the eye of the split toward the cliff face. The lie was deep, well oxygenated, had a stable amount of food drifting through it and offered a massive level of safety to the fish. As a result it was rising confidently and keeping close to the surface between rises.
It might have been a perfect lie for a trout but it was an awful one for an angler. The only way to approach the fish with any hope of success was from the rock face. Not a simple task. It was looking more and more like I was going to be doing a bit of rock climbing. No problem, I resolved, I would do what needed to be done.
A brief survey of the wall showed two distinct fissures in it, perfectly aligned as a hand and foot hold. Putting my rod in my teeth, saying a few hail Marys, shining up some lucky charms and generally hoping for the best I put my best foot forward and into the lower of the two cracks. Easy peasy lemon squeezy I shimmied along the wall until I reached a decent casting position. Damn, this was going to make a great story for the grandkids.
I got a good grip with my left hand and shuffled my feet into a steady position. Rod extracted from jaws, river of spittle shaked off it and all I had left to do was to remove the fly from the keep. A small bump in the road, nothing serious, I should be able to do it with one hand. As it turns out, I couldn’t. No problem, I’ll hold the rod in my hand and remove the hook with my teeth. Friends, it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that the potential for personal injury was steadily ticking upwards and my attempts at filling in the insurance claims form weren’t going to inspire a lot of confidence in a full settlement.
After a lot of near falls and much cursing I managed to get the rod where I wanted it, the nail knot through the eyes and that blasted hook from my top gum. No ‘God save the Queen’ or three-count, that bastard slipped right into my gum, between two teeth and stayed there. A previous trip into Africa had me electing to choose the optional anti-tetanus jab and I was supremely confident that I would not contract lock-jaw. All set. Now all that was left was to make the cast.
In, to quote Jethro Tull, the shuffling madness of my preparation I had largely ignored an odd pfft-pfft sound from very close to my left hand. It’s an singularly odd sound and you’ll recognise it if you’d ever heard it before. I’d personally heard it once or twice before, most recently when I removed a large puffadder from my pool filter box where it had decided to spend the winter in the warmth of… FUUUCCCKKKKK! Every nerve ending burst into a conflagration of Great Fire of London proportions. Synapses were shutting open and closed at a rate approaching light speed and my brain almost required a shut down and reboot at the rate it was receiving messages. Remember the old windows where, when trolling the internet, it would open thousands of pop-up windows a second? Picture that. My mind finally made the connection and looking up I saw that there was a, by now, rather angry looking puffadder making mock strikes at my left hand.
I made a hasty decision strongly favouring flight over fight and with grace and poise not top of mind as I unceremoniously launched my portly arse off the cliff and into the river below.
The shooting pain through my left knee was fortunately quickly tamed by the almost freezing water. The water was so cold only an hour or so after sunrise that the rapid ascent of my gonads into my throat has forever left me with two small sacks of flappy skin, one either side of my Adam’s apple. I bobbed along for a few metres and made landfall a soaking, self-pitying, expletive muttering, untidy, shivering, knee-clutching, snake hating mess.
I stripped down and settled on a rock to warm up and to assemble into some sort of order my gear, confidence and self-respect. I lost a fair amount of equipment and felt entirely vindicated at carrying three of everything. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Everything that I never use I carry in multiples. Everything that I use frequently I carry one of. Half of that was gone now. It took me years to borrow that stuff from other guys’ bags and I wasn’t looking forward to having to share my trips with company to replenish it. Screw you, karma.
Once I had dried off and regained feeling in most of my extremities I felt a little more eager to fish on. If my wisp of a rod had survived the fall I saw no valid reason why I should not soldier on and I hobbled off upstream.
Remarkably I wanted another crack at the tail of the pool that I had just fallen into. But I’m a patient man, perfectly prepared to rest a pool as long as it takes. In this instance I reckon the pool would need about three or four seasons before its denizens resumed feeding. As for the fish I was preparing to cast to, it would take a little longer. If the mass of my considerable personal bulk plus the sum of the masses of the various of items of gear hanging off my personage multiplied by the gravitational constant (this is very clever way to say ‘weight’ – use it to impress girls) applied directly to its dorsal region had not reduced it to a scaly smudge on a rock it would certainly need a long period of rest punctuated by regular sessions with physicians, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and certainly psychiatrists. No doubt it would bear the physical and emotional scars for some time. I’d be back. All I have is time.
A little way upstream there is a pool that always holds a good fish. What is its name? How the hell would I know? Pool nomenclature and naming standards just piss me off. They’re all so stupid I just can’t bring myself to remembering them, much less using them. I don’t even ask. I just don’t care. Breakfast pool. Picnic pool. Luncheon pool. Bloody hell, did you come here to fish or to eat? Afternoon Sojourn With Canapés And Caviar And A Delightful Mediterranean Salad And A Well Matched Unwooded Pinot Noir (Slightly Chilled And Well Aerated) And ‘Did You Get That At Woolies?’ Pool. I shake my head in don’t-give-a-flying-fuckedness. Where are the days when a man was a man and carried his peanut butter sarmies in an old bread packet, drank fiery Scottish stuff from a hip flask and washed it down with water straight from the (mind pissing downstream, we’re trying to drink here) river?
And waterfalls! Don’t get me started. Jacob’s Ladder? Any little glide of moisture falling from ceiling height, bumping its arse on a rock shelf, into a puddle and then slipping away into aquatic obscurity is named Jacob’s. Bloody. Ladder. Now, for the benefit of our non Judeo Christian friends, Jacob’s Ladder was a ladder that took a dreaming Jacob all the way up to heaven. He was surrounded by angels and cherubs and things on the way up. I know; that Nazarene Poison was killer stuff and more than one hit could do all sorts of things to a normally sober man.
The Jacob’s Ladder on most trout streams ends somewhat short of heaven and the cherubs are a whole family of red faced sweaty hikers dipping their mouldy blue cheese stinking hiking feet in the river, skimming stones and generally screwing up my sport. “Are there fish here? Are you trying to catch them? Are they bass?” Yes. Well, there were before you got here. Yes. Well, I was until you got here. Bass? Oh, please just fuck off. And please stop waving that neon yellow rip-stop, moisture wicking hiking shirt around. Oh, you’re calling your sister? She’s skinny dipping in this pool, just to my right? I was just stopping for lunch. It’s only 9 AM? Never mind, I’m foreign. Would you like a bite of my peanut butter sandwich? Yes Patty, get out quickly, there’s a weirdo down there dressed in brown with a ridiculous hat trying to lure you in with peanut butter sarmies. Yes, I do know how cold the water is. They’re cold enough to cut glass, from what I can see. Bye Patty, nice to meet you.
Where was I? Oh yes, I don’t know the name of the pool to which I was heading. It’s something of a favourite though. There’s a slight bend in the river and a massive flat rock leaning over it from the far bank at a slight (less than 30 degree) angle. You can get right over the fish, pop your head over the top of the rock and catch a butcher’s at what they’re up to without (unless you’re a total knob) being seen. Spotting done and you back off and make a cast that leaves just the leader over the rock. Tip up and you get a great, long drift right over the fish without them seeing you. I call it death-satan-spider pool.
You see, I did see a fish rising right at the head of the pool where the rapid comes in and rather than doing the proper thing (sorry Dr Sutcliffe, I really do try to follow the instructions but I never manage to finish the course) and fishing it from the bottom up I went straight after that rising fish in the throat of the pool.
I took off my hat, engaged stealth mode, made a mental image of where the fish was and shot a line to somewhere just behind its position as a ‘ranging shot’. I peeked over the top and high-sticked the dry in a perfect drift for about three metres back towards me.
Another metre and I was going to have another shot but this time aim for the bullseye.
Slash and my little parachute Adams disappeared in a splash and a ring. Fish on and the little bugger headed straight under the overhanging rock. With the advantage of height this was no problem. Besides, I’ve caught many tuna off a ski boat and am well used to them running under the boat and how to handle it. My flyline or a grass stalk or something was rubbing on the back of my calf and was disturbing my concentration. I leaned back and swatted it off and went back to ensuring that the 6X tippet wasn’t rubbed through on the edge of the rock.
It was a small fish but, as sometimes happens in a stream, it provided an interesting little tussle. What the hell? The grass stalk was moving up to behind my knee and was kind of itchy and ticklish all at once. I leaned back and grabbed… the biggest, nastiest, ugliest, meanest, hairiest, spawn-of-arachnid-satan baboon spider I have ever had the displeasure of encountering in my life. I’m not talking about that thing that hangs out in the corner of your bathroom and freaks your wife out when she’s having a wee. I’m talking about a saucer sized specimen of biblical proportions.
I dropped the rod, jumped around, screamed like a schoolgirl, turned the air blue with expletives and sobbed. I sobbed quite a lot actually. My heart wasn’t going to take a lot more of this. Shaking the eight legged nightmare from my hand I picked up my rod to find the fish still merrily bobbling away on the end of the leader (barbless hooks lose fish you say?) and neatly landed him. Well, by neatly I mean I yanked him up, turned out the hook, tried to hold him in my shaky hands and dropped him straight back in.
By now I know that you don’t believe this story. I don’t expect you to, but it happened some years ago and I’ve told a few people about it in the past. If I gave an agricultural damn about what you do and don’t believe I could refer you to them; but I don’t. I only raise this because, dear friend, my day didn’t get any better from here and if you’re offended by the perceived mendacity of this discourse I implore you to read no further. I also want to take this opportunity to warn those with weak constitutions, hearts or those given to sudden uncontrollable nervous episodes to read no further also. What I’m trying to say, to not put too fine a point on it, is that an agitated alpha male baboon is a frightening animal.
A male baboon, when threatened, drunk or just in a belligerent mood after a spat with an unreasonably demanding spouse is apt to within a few days turn a strong and healthy grown man into a tearful eulogy. They’re mean bastards and I neither like nor trust them. (Baboons. Not spouses. Mine is a rare find. My spouse, that is. I neither own nor want to own a baboon.)
The aftermath of my frightening encounter with the spider found me sobbing deeply and again making my way along the river, this time downstream to the area below the car park halfway up the hill towards the nature conservation office. I know, I know, that area is named after the name of the pools below it. And you know how I feel about that. For the sake of tradition let’s call them Post Lunch Pre Afternoon Tea And Will You Pass The Cream Pools.
In this area the valley widens somewhat with the southern back a sort of grassy floodplain that rises into steep hills into which the aforementioned road is cut. The northern bank is a steep mountain. Honestly, at that time I didn’t give a shit about the topography of the land or its indigenous ground cover. My gaze was firmly fixed on the very large troop of baboons coming down the hill, not twenty metres from where I was knee deep in both the Lotheni and my own excrement.
I use a lot of words to explain the most arbitrary concepts and experiences, but there is not a single word in my vocabulary that can even approach describing the fear that I have for baboons. The huge bastard a few metres from the water’s edge that was barking at me and making short runs up and down the bank had me, honestly, fearing for my life. After all I’d been through that day you’d think that I would have brushed him off but I promise you, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve previously been shot at, held hostage and held at gunpoint in my own home, I was as afraid as I’ve ever been in my life.
There was nothing for it. The troop wanted to cross the flat rocks a few metres above where I was standing so that they could get to the other side; and I was squarely in their way. The whole troop was making a noise now with even the juveniles making a strange pre-adolescent bark that was as chilling as their father’s.
Below me was a fairly deep and fast glide of some fifteen or twenty metres where the river ran below the flat rocks that were to be the baboon’s pathway. There was nothing for it and I once again launched my sorry arse into the river, bobbed down to the end of the pool, scrambled up the tail and hightailed it as fast as I could downstream in the general direction of far, far away.
I like to think that I’m a philosophical sort and not given to overreactions as a result of unfavourable external stimulate. My locus of control is firmly centred within myself and I don’t avoid what should be normal circumstances or places on account of a previous bad experience. I’m not superstitious. I suck it up. I soldier on. I’m not a sissy. I’m an African.
I told myself all of these things over a hot reassuring café latte and a second pack of Marlboros in Nottingham Road a little after midday.