|Golden Gate Fishing|
|Golden Gate Travel Diary|
On the Edge of the Desert
I fell to believing that I was becoming something of an old hand at this African bwanna business. Even fresh out of a cool British autumnal chill, I’d acclimatised pretty quickly. With some defensive moves on my part, I’d come to assume that the orange African sun held nothing in store that I couldn’t handle. What amazing stupidity. We were off to the Vaal river near Kimberley – reputed to be one of the hottest areas in South Africa.
By John Cooper
now there’s a name to conjure with. Almost exactly a hundred years ago,
during the Boer war, my Grandfather was treading these parched hills at
the time of the siege of Kimberley. Well I remember sitting on his aged
knee to hear scary tales of how the British defenders ate rats, and hard
dry biscuit in order to survive. Then there was the tale of how he, alone,
had captured a huge python that had been eating the local natives. He told
me that he had put a goat into an iron cage, as bait for the serpent. The
python had slid in, and swallowed the goat, and then been far too fat to
worm its way out of the cage. I believed him – as a four-year-old
grandson must. Grandfather was lovely.
Kimberley was also the home of the huge Culinan diamond, which, cut and shaped, now resides in the crown jewels of England. A hundred years ago too, this was the centre of Cecil John Rhodes power. With the might of the De Beers behind him, he forged a way north into an unwelcoming territory that he wrested by fair and foul means from the local tribes. He modesty re-named that land Rhodesia.
This is still the centre of the South African diamond mining industry, and it still has the air of a frontier town. Beyond, is a semi-arid land of great beauty, where the wise venture with care, and sufficient supplies. This is a magnificent land, but it can bite you in the arse, in more ways than one.
But a great green swathe runs through this parched land – the valley of the mighty Vaal River. The Vaal rises in the central heart of South Africa and debouches many hundreds of miles later into the Atlantic Ocean. In the upper reaches the river is famous for its huge carp, but downstream, in the wilderness beyond Kimberley, it’s the yellowfish and catfish that provide the sport.
Paul and I met our guide for the area. Dirk Potgieter, who runs a full time guiding service on the river. Dirk has negotiated with the local Chief, and now has an exclusive concession on the best fishing areas. With the increase in interest in wilderness fishing even rivers as huge as the Vaal, can be overfished. Dirk maintains a strict catch and release policy, and with his keen interest in nature and conservation, he ensures that reaches of the river are carefully rotated. The result is that each angler is confronted by what amounts to almost virgin water: (although it has been pointed out to me that the words almost and virgin simply do not go together).
The drive to the river is
another of those ‘interesting’ African events. The game trails are
nearly wide enough for the four-wheel-drive, and the traction on the
wheels is almost enough to keep you going, most of the time. Yes,
interesting is the best description, and not boring. Wildebeest leap up
the slope beside the track, then stare imperiously from the top of the
rise. A warthog scuttles across the trail.
During the rainy season the
Vaal can be a raging torrent of red muddy water, but we found it in
quiescent mode, clear but with a tinge of the same African red - ideal for
In the shade of a tree with
thorns like a Whirling Dervish’s dagger, we made plans for the
afternoon. ‘I don’t think the really big chaps are here in force John.
Would you like something surprising that will REALLY put a bend in your
flyrod?’ Silly question I thought, and, engrossed with a mouthful of
Boerwurst sausage, I nodded. ‘We’ll head off downstream a bit then,’
Wading the Vaal
A small yellowfish
A catfish on the fly!
and another at 26lb
The best one at 28lb
not at all sure about African catfish. There must be several species, but
the South Africans call all these big chaps ‘barbel’ just to confuse
British anglers. I reckon they’re just the same as the famous vundu
catfish caught further north. You may remember John Wilson cackling with
laughter as he broke yet another rod on an eighty pounder, somewhere in
Zimbabwe – I think. Anyway, I didn’t have bait, and the idea of
catching a catfish on fly appealed to my highly-developed sense of the
I’m not going to say that I had to try hard to catch these catfish, because I didn’t. Not having carp-like names, and not having been caught on many occasions on fishmeal super-special boilies, these fish we absolutely ‘up’ for anything that might be digestible. You may think that such fishing is less fine than greased lining on the Spey, but when the first catfish grabbed my black lure and headed off at a speed you really wouldn’t believe possible, I was having far too much fun to think about the social acceptability of what I was doing. And the catfish didn’t give a cuss about what I was thinking, because it streaked straight across the river, and surfaced in huge boil of red mud. Then it sat there. I pulled, and it sat, so I pulled harder and harder until it grudgingly began to kite downstream, with me trotting along opposite, to keep in touch. With the rod in a half circle, and my arm beginning to wilt, and the sun beating down upon a forehead beaded with sweat, I spent twenty minutes easing this fish across the river, and under my bank. At this stage I hadn’t seen the thing – it could have been a fifty pounder for all I knew. But the size matter became quite irrelevant almost immediately, because with another preposterous surge, the catfish took off for the other bank again, stripping line off the drag with contemptuous ease. The strong Winston rod just bend and bent, all the way through to the handle.
It was again a game of tug-o-war, but the fish came, perhaps with less of an impression of immovability than on the last occasion. Under the bank again, the catfish boiled up the bottom. I really wondered whether I could ever get it up to the surface. Eventually though, up she came, with a fixed grin that suggested evil intentions. Paul gripped the fish under its chin, and swung it ashore.
They’re strange fish these cats. Out of the water the fish might have been dead for all the movement it made. I gather that they can live for hours in the air, and recover quickly, even when their skin has dried to become like leather. Lift it, weigh it, take its picture – it was more of a pussy cat. Lowered gently into the water, it once again became live, and went off like a rocket. It weighed 26 lbs and appeared to be about a quarter the size of the one I’d spotted from the top of the ridge. So what on earth would a thing like THAT do to a poor angler.
I caught five cats. I caught only five because, really, after five battles like the one described above, I was absolutely knackered, and I’d had enough. My arms were shaking, and I had a headache to write stories about. The biggest fish was just over 28 lbs.
Dirk spent the afternoon catching yellowfish, and my faithful Paul spent the afternoon telling me to pull harder, although he also had a seventeen pounder on my gear while I was taking a breather. Needless to say, I told him to pull harder, and he told me to ……. well, I’d better not say.
This is terrific fishing, and so unexpected out here on the fringes of the Kalahari desert. Two things I should say here. Firstly, and unusually, its completely safe to wade in this part of South Africa. There are no crocodiles in the Vaal, and there are no waterborne bug diseases (like bilharzia) that you find in many African rivers. Secondly although it feels as though you’re right out off the edge of the map, this area is easily accessible, as it is less than a hundred miles from Kimberley, although you can’t just turn up and fish here. This is tribal land, and access is only through Dirk Potgietter.
Hot or not, (and it was always manageable) I loved it, and I’d go back at the drop of a hat.
Oh yes, and for the readers who imagine themselves to be budding Hemingways - if you fancy a bit of big game shooting while you’re in Africa, Dirk can also arrange that quite easily – guns, tracker, and all. A stuffed sable antelope peering at you from over the breakfast table might be just the thing to remind you of your African adventure. They’ll even dry the meat to make luscious chewy biltong for you, if you want it. I’d certainly have given the hunting a go, if I’d had time.
But time I hadn’t got, because I was heading north, into the heart of Africa. The tales worried me, but the events of the next few days changed for ever my feeling for travel, and for Africa. I tell you about it next month, in the last of this series.
South African Airways reservations www.flysaa.com
Standard fare, London – Capetown Expect to pay around £600 return (that’s