20 Years On

Bob Seger put it best: “Twenty years, where’d they go? Twenty years, I don’t know. I sit back and I wonder some times where they’ve gone.”

Yes, you’re right. But they sounded way better on the record; like a profound insight. When I wrote them down, and rereading them now on the edit, I’m inclined to start again. But, as I’ve already inadvertently deleted this entire post once already, they’re here to stay. Buy the CD, you won’t be disappointed. 

This December I will have been married for (insert drum roll here) twenty years. Good grief, that’s almost half my life. Marthie and I have had some unbelievably wildly awesome times and some pretty crap ones. On balance though it’s been a rewarding and loving twenty years and I am by far the luckiest guy I know.  

This may be pretty difficult to believe, but I’m not a nice, stable, easy guy to have around. I’ve been called ‘as strange as an eleven rand note’ before today. How she lives with me I don’t know, but she’s picked me up out of some really dark places and has helped me celebrate in some very bright ones. I hope I’ve done the same for her. 

Despite it being twenty years I have to tell you that it almost didn’t happen at all and that she very nearly came to me slipping from her grasp like that monster I let slip at the net not long ago. Let me tell you how it happened. 

There are only two dams around Umtata that are worth casting a fly into. (Yes, she followed me from Port Elizabeth to Umtata; clear proof that I’m a trophy well worth mounting.)  The first is called Mabeleni and is some sixty kilometers out of town. The second is called Nqadu and is closer to town, some twenty kilometers distant. 

I rarely went to Nqadu. Mabeleni simply trumped it in terms of beauty. That’s not to say that Nqadu was ugly, but it just wasn’t as pretty. Nqadu, the uglier of the sisters had a few things going for it. The first thing was that Nqadu had structure. Lots and lots of structure. Fantastic structure. The sort of structure that had you falling into holes, channels and off subterranean cliffs while wading. The sort of structure that included dead trees, submerged fences and lord knows how much other crap on the bottom of, and protruding above, the dam. 

This place seriously required some sort of boat to fish properly on it. We had a boat. My old mate Greg Leeson had acquired an old, decrepit, piece of crap with an even older Mercury outboard held to it with all manner of wire and glue and clamps and implements of bondage. The problem with this boat was that in a stunt of epic proportions we had recently rendered it (even less) unseaworthy. 

We had named named this most dubious of craft ‘Smoke on the Water’ on account of the waves of noxious and potentially lethal fumes that it would fire out on startup. Still, we thought it a cool boat. We fished the Umzimvubu River at Port Saint Johns on it several times and once you got over the sensation of knowing you could at any minute sink and die it got the job done. 

On one weekend at St Johns we had dragged down a group of girlfriends and would-be girlfriends and while returning from a bit of fishing we decided that we would impress them where they stood on the bank (looking more than a little pensive over the possibilities of our safe return and their ride back home).  Those old enough to remember the South Africa television show Westgate will remember the title sequence where the speedboats fly up to the shoreline, raise their motors and gracefully and more than a little impressively beach themselves. We thought we’d give that a try so we opened the old Merc’ full throttle and set the bow to 90 degrees to the southern bank. 

Little were we to know that there was a small shelf of sand some three meters off the bank and cunningly hidden a few inches below the waterline. We did, however, become aware of it when we hit it at what was, for the dinghy, an almighty speed, leaving much of our skin, musculature and dignity in a sodden heap on the bank. The boat thereafter could never be considered seaworthy by even the most suicidal sailor. It was therefore no longer much use to pursue the denizens of Nqadu dam. 

Float tubing was at that time a relatively new concept in SA and a friend’s father had recently managed to get himself one. We were blinded by envy and, with our usual disregard for water safety, set about manufacturing facsimiles of the much coveted original. These were the days of the ‘belly boat’ where the inner for the craft was a large, probably truck, pneumatic tube. Those things were hell to get in and out of. 

As befits all young fellas our age we were permanently skint (unless in the pub where we were never short of a few shekels) and we hastily drew out sketches of our proposed craft. Ironically, and if my memory serves me well, the sketches were done in the aforementioned pub. 

We shot out and cadged a few used truck tubes from the local tyre dealership. We then procured from the local hardware shop a meter of shade cloth and a roll of 3mm nylon rope. If I remember correctly the entire bill was R28. Well, it wasn’t, we put it on our company account and it was free. Our, now late, boss, Peter Thorburn, was a passionate fly fisherman and I suppose we reasoned that if he ever caught us with our fingers in the proverbial till we would at least get a certain measure of begrudging sympathy. 

We weaved the rope around the inflated tube in a sort of a crisscross pattern and tied it together at the joints. The shade cloth was cut into a shape resembling a disposable diaper, the edges burned to stop it fraying and it was attached to the rope with – frighteningly I don’t know how we attached it, but I’m sure the method was brilliant. 

When inflated the whole system held itself together remarkably stably and we fished off these aquatic death traps for a good few seasons. 

Our mate’s father, the superior bastard, got his comeuppance for modeling his new tube around the dam while we lived in constant fear of our watery demise. One Saturday afternoon while hoiking flies (Walker’s Killer, red, #12, 2 piece, 6 weights, sinking line, rocket taper, level 14 pound maxima leader – we were on the cutting edge in those days) he suddenly started screaming and yelling and beating the water into a froth. The man was clearly in a state of some discomfort, neurosis or suffering a fit. Rods were being jettisoned, hats were being slapped on the water and the whole contraption was listing rather heavily to starboard. In the mist rising as a result of all of the frenzied activity one could clearly discern a beautiful rainbow forming through the rays of the setting sun; you see the most fabulous sights if you slow down and take the time to look. 

I looked to Greg for direction. “Screw him?” I asked in concern. “Screw him” came the confirmation and, in observance of the need to prepare for the coming democracy, and having counted the votes, we fished on. 

Now, I don’t know what it must feel like to see a snake writhing its way along the surface of a dam towards you in your nice new shop bought look at me I’m so fancy and trendy float tube, but I imagine that it would raise your heart rate just a little. 

Certainly I can understand the theatrics when it decided that the craft was solid ground and decided to climb aboard. Still, up to then the fishing had been hot (clearly a deep hatch of Walkers Killers, red, #12 was in progress and we had matched it perfectly) and Mr Fancy Tube had scared them off. Now I’m not one for established norms and practices, but this sort of behavior was plainly anti social and he could bloody well deal with the serpent himself. 

I’m walking around my house trying to remember what happened next and for the life of me I can’t. (See, I don’t make this shit up.) He drove us home though, so he obviously lived. I do remember (funny how these things stay in your mind) that the drive back was in complete silence and he never invited us to go with him again. Ah, the shortsightedness of youth; from then on we had to foot the bill for our own petrol. 

Anyhow, in summary, Nqadu has lots of structure, is best fished off a tube and I had a recently manufactured tube of relatively safe construct (provided that you were either very brave or very stupid). 

On the day I’m going to tell you about I didn’t have the tube with me and I apologize for what may be any unfulfilled expectations on your part. That the your expectations may have been heightened by the anticipation of a tale of my near-death says a lot more about you than it does of me. 

The second thing that Nqadu had going for it was that it was only stocked very rarely and sparsely as an overflow if the Mabeleni hatchery had a particularly good season. If there were fish to spare they’d be slipped into Nqadu. (Well, that’s not entirely true. Through circumstances that are too long to go through here we had perfectly legitimate access to the hatchery. It would also not be untrue to say that several (hundred) fingerlings may or may have not found their way into the nearby streams which, I’ve recently been informed, may or may not be fishing wonderfully to this day.)

These rainbow fingerlings introduced into Nqadu were unfortunately largely a valuable protein boost to the resident population of bass. More trout slipped through the hordes of insatiably hungry bass than I would have believed possible and, ironically, themselves fattened up remarkably on bass fry. There were (I have no idea about now) very few trout in Nqadu but those that were there were big porky buggers. 

So, this particular Saturday afternoon found my newly installed fiancé on a deck chair with a magazine on the banks of a pleasant cove and me sweating and swearing and hacking and bashing my way through trees and brambles and goat shit and mud and brambles and trees and goat shit and brambles to a little spit of bank that extended into the dam. I was in a hurry to get there but my passage was hindered by a maze of, largely, goat shit and brambles. 

I was sporting my newly purchased Snowbee PVC waders. Those things are designed for three purposes only. 

  • On purchase to immediately puncture so that every winter, when the memories of balmy summer had faded, ice cold mountain water would run down the small of your back, through your crack and hang like little icicles from your nads.  
  • When they were not leaking they were designed to make you sweat like a whore in confession. 
  • To kill you. 

Inevitably me and my swanky new waders made their way onto, and indeed along, the spit to where a comfortable cast left or right would take your fly into some undeniably deep and fishy waters. 

Moving from cutting edge to pure avante garde I clipped off the Walkers Killer (red, #12) and fixed to my leader a muddler minnow. What could possibly have precipitated such a bold move? Bass fry were everywhere and the rainbows in these parts (as you’d know if you were paying attention) took to bass fry like a politician to a luxury 4×4. The muddler with its deer hair head and drab colors kinda bobbed about like a wounded fry if you retrieved it right. 

Two casts, fish on, who’s your daddy? 

I was sure that my betrothed would be watching keenly from yonder shore, a white silk handkerchief being twisted and untwisted in her small, pale fists as she watched her hero engaged in epic combat with a magnificent fish. This was a certainty and my chest swelled and protruded ahead of me in pure pride. Chastising myself for counting my poultry before they were running about the coop I redoubled my concentration and focussed it squarely on my adversary. 

Those were the days when one ‘played your fish out’ but, being wary of the nature of these waters [reference: structure, above] I put pressure on the fish and landed it neatly and relatively quickly. Once netted I reached to remove the fly and it snapped off at the bend. A very close call. 

Steadying my heartbeat I held the fish tenderly and raised it to show my fiancé; ample proof of manhood and aptitude as a provider in hard years to come. I shouted out and she shouted and waved back. 

That having been done I looked down at the fish. In those days I kept the majority of the fish that I caught (come on, we ALL did) but in this instance I was overcome by the need to release it. This was long before the age of the digital camera or smartphone so the chances of a photo were nought. I let her swim away and felt the better for it. 

The following is God-honest truth – this thing, if not double figure, was a damsel nymph away from it. It was by far the best fish I’d ever caught up to that point (or since, for that matter). 

I returned to the cove with a happy skip in my step, despite the waders, beaming with happiness and a “did you see that fish!?”

“What fish?”

“When I shouted to you.”


“I held up a fish? A massive fish.”

“Oh. The sun was behind you and you’re wearing those huge waders.”

She’s lucky I didn’t leave her on the bank of that pretty cove of the second nicest trout dam in Umtata and never saw her walking down the isle towards me. Because that’s how I felt that day. 

But, I think in retrospect, I’d throw a thousand trophy fish unseen back into that dam for a chance to have another twenty years with her. 


2 responses to “20 Years On

    • Thank you Peter. Sometimes I got to put stuff down – when the thought arises I won’t sleep until I do. Doesn’t help that when I finished and went to edit I deleted the bloody post. The air rang crisp with expletives. She’s a keeper alright, that one.

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