Drakensberg Travel Diary



The Real Africa

I bet you keep the best ’till last - that slice of succulent lamb, the extra toasted bit of cheese. My Africa trip was like that. It wasn’t by design - it’s just that that’s the way things had been organised.

By John Cooper


So before I get into this, I’ll say in advance, to encourage further reading, that the hours I spent in the far north of South Africa were some of the most memorable of my life. Here I found fishing, but here too I found proof enough for me that there really is more to fishing than simply catching fish.

The great South African southern Cape has an Algerian-like terrain and climate. The country’s far north province, about 1,250 miles closer to the Equator, is a profoundly different place. We were heading to these northern outposts now. From Kimberley, we flew via Johannesburg to Pietersburg in the Northern Province. As the plane door opened, we were met by a blinding sun, a blistering dry heat, and a large, beaming, Afrikaaner who introduced himself as Chris Oliver. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ he said. ‘Three beers each, then we drive.’

Chris Olivier is an extraordinary example of humanity, both in appearance, and as a personality. Chris’ lack of top thatching is trebly compensated for by his vast Boer beard, which flows and flows, like the Victoria falls, to almost meet a belly of, well, prodigious proportions. Once a university lecturer, now a tour operator of international repute, Chris is a fount of all knowledge. Without once, or ever becoming boring, he oozes information on all things natural, esoteric, tribal, historic, and alcoholic. Within an hour I realised that I was listening to of one of Africa’s great communicators. No bull-shit here – just a brain full of knowing.

Three ice-cold Amstells seemed to glide down very quickly, and we headed north towards the Zimbabwe border. The tinsel trappings of Johannesburg might be only a few hours away from the Northern Territory, but in its essence, it feels like a journey of light years. ‘You have just crossed the Tropic of Capricorn,’ announced Chris. But this Africa had felt pretty darn tropical for several hours, I thought. Bright coloured head-scarves topped laughing pewter-bright faces. Earthenware pots were here and there for sale, and the road-side fruit sellers told of entry into an Africa that Livingtone and Speake would have recognised. Through and past the Boer Voortrekker town of Louis Trichardt, and due north again we went.

In the gathering evening, smoke wafted into the big combi. ‘That’s a mopane wood fire,’ said Chris, with pride. It was a smell I would learn to love. ‘And there’s your first baobab tree.’ The baobab really is the soul Africa. Tall, yes, but a giant in girth, often thousands of years old. The fleeting image I gathered as we sped into the night was to become indelibly etched upon my mind, as the days unfolded.

Left then, before the Zimbabwe border, east now, towards Mozambique. Here are the Venda people. Good folks, living as their people have lived over hundreds of years. Few of them will know the pace of city living, and few will care. It was a cheery smile for us, and a cheery wave in return.

Our headlights started to pick out game – a kudu, an eland bull, and a warthog that scurried across our bows when it shouldn’t have. A turn here, a turn there, some miles on unmade roads, and down a steep track to Waller’s camp. Shaun Waller, a man made from steel wire and rhino sinew, bounded out to meet us with oil lamps to guide the way.

If you do only one thing in Africa, you just have to stay at Waller’s. Whatever I tell you here, it will not do justice to the experience that is this camp. According to its most unembellished description, Waller’s is a log-built encampment, comprising a central kraal, or lapa. A lapa is a sort of stockade with a central fire, surrounded by covered seating, tables, and a high level open clubhouse, known to all as ‘the pub’. The lapa is the hub of Waller’s. Guests are accommodated in very comfortable and substantial riverside lodges, built on stilts, and each named for the nearest tree – acacia, leadwood, sausage tree, and so on. Guests are treated as members of the family, and there is no ceremony at all. Food is usually prepared over the open fire, and the booze is sort of – on tap.

Five o’clock in the morning was too early for me, but the colossal male baboon sitting on my veranda wore no watch, and grief, was he ever giving it some voice. On the sand just below my lodge a small crocodile had hauled up, and with bared lips, and gnashing lion-sized canines, this baboon was screaming bloody blue murder at it. I watched for a while, then rattled the screen door, and the baboon shot off stage left, leaving a large pile of poo as a visiting card. Ah, Africa.

The outdoor shower was fun. Heat up a pail of water, pour it into an urn, haul up the urn with a rope, then turn on the tap. Far too much breakfast, then into the Landrover for our first fishing trip. We were off to the Luvhuvhu River - a substantial tributary of the mighty Limpopo.

The journey was mechanically interesting, and very athletic. I rediscovered body movements that have eluded me since my honeymoon. We forded the home river, and with bouncing wheels and an all-enveloping cloud of red dust, ground our way up the opposite bank. That was the easy bit. Shaun usually carries four spare tyres, but we used only one on this occasion.
We parked in the shade of an ancient baobab showing obvious signs of recent elephant enthusiasm – tusk holes, and large peeled-off-bark areas. I feared for the well-being of the Landrover in our absence, but Shaun seemed unconcerned. But there again, Shaun was quite unconcerned about all sorts of things. Yes, there were a few lions about, but they seldom attacked folks. Ditto leopards, and in any case they preferred to hunt at night – although having said that, one had apparently jumped into a truck-full of Venda folks last month, leaving a trail of unmatched blood samples, and much unhappiness, before it dashed off into the night. Oh yes, and don’t forget to watch where you put your feet – puff adders are very well camouflaged. I learned that cobras are comparatively easy to dodge, but that you have to run like hell to get away from black mambas. To cap it all, Shaun did admit that he was a bit worried about the crocs here-abouts, as they grow to about 15’. So there you are, he did after all harbour some concerns. What fun.



Timeless Africa

Luvulu Gorge

Sean Waller

Lions behind

Waller lapa


Buffalo bull

The only way to go

I decided to stick with a companion or two, my calculation being that each companion reduced my chances of being selected for jungle lunch. After clambering down a steepish high cliff, we settled onto a rocky promontory (above croc lunging height). I was pleased with this spot until it occurred to me that it was exactly the sort of place a lion might come to drink. Crocs in front, lions behind, watch your feet, and hope that the Landrover would still be on the ground when we needed it. The situation offered a pleasing sort of generalised fear factor. Not like the Hampshire Avon, I thought.

The quarry were tigerfish. With all the thick bankside bush my fly gear was not really an option, so I plumped for the Hexagraph/Ambassadeur combination. Subliminally, I may also have thought that it would offer me a better defence against salivating lions.

Above me was a shallow rapid. Below, the river slid along slowly between tangled banks. I combed all the river within casting distance with a range of lures, but the only invitation accepted came from a little catfish with wicked spines, and a loud squeaky voice. My companions were doing no better. The river looked as though it should be stuffed with fish, and this far from humanity it certainly wasn’t overfished. A preposterously large crocodile fanned lazily across the river, about a hundred yards from our rock. Mmmmm. I guess crocs eat a lot of fish.

Our concerns for the fishing were interrupted, or should I say overwhelmed, by a crashing of trees on the opposite bank. This is where you go to the photograph marked elephant, because that’s the photograph I snatched before we scooted off up the hill. The water of the rapids looked about two feet deep, and the elephants looked to be about fourteen feet deep. I didn’t even look to see what was under my feet as I departed through the dust storm kicked up by my brave companions. Shaun said it was unusual to see elephants at such close range. Just like the leopard in the truck, I thought. But seriously – what a privilege to meet such terrific animals, and in retrospect, they would have had no reason to harm us, so I’m sure we were quite safe from marmalading.

With the heat of the day sapping our reserves of water (and beer) we headed back on the long haul to camp, and our first proper Waller’s evening.

That shower again, and off on the short walk to the lapa with an oil-lamp for company. And yet, still the quick glance behind, and the quickening of the step as the lights of the lapa come into view. Would leopards come this close to camp? Then, phew, ‘good evening all.’ Heart-rate slows with the first glass of mampoer. Didn’t I mention that before? For mampoer read ‘moonshine’ man, and for expert in the field read Chris Olivier. Old camp hands recalled Chris’ potato mampoer of last year. Eyes glazed over at the memory, and knowing livers shrank in fear. ‘Knock it back in one,’ said Chris. Oh God! I can feel the scalp to toe shiver of it now. My lips are permanently curled out, and the chances of my fathering more children are probably gone for ever. ‘Another one man?’ Was that really educated me saying ‘not arf?’

The dinner was wonderful, and the company fantastic. ‘You can stare a lion down,’ said Ian, ‘but if a leopard comes at you, you just bend over and kiss your arse goodbye.’ Old hands agreed, but they seemed to have no first-hand experience of the game. Then we got onto scorpions, and snakes, and buffaloes. In the centre of the lapa the mopane wood fire curled off its glorious smell of tropical Africa, and David crunched an iron pot into the embers – he was making his delicious meallie bread for a late night snack. Chris’ bottle of mampoer rocket fuel was making friends fast. New chums - travellers from the four corners of the earth, talked with a familiarity born of shared understanding. Life gets no better.

In the small hours, with plans laid for the next day’s fishing I headed off to my bed. A light breeze rustled the trees, and the night was warm. Warm as we just do not know it in Britain. The air was dry, and smelt sweetly of Africa. Installed in my lodge, I drifted off to the sound of crickets, a distant barking baboon, and frogs intent on love. I realised, in a way that we seldom do realise, that I was profoundly happy.

Shaun was adamant that we should try the ‘pots’ gorge on the Mutale river. Again we set off cross-country. The bush was close and it bit back as Landrover pushed its way forward. With malice aforethought, a ‘wait a bit’ thorn bush plucked greedily at my sleeve. They say a local lad rode his bicycle into one of these bushes, and it took two days to cut him out with side-cutters.

Hornbills hopped drunkenly from the road ahead of our tyres, and above a bateleur eagle swayed from wingtip to wingtip, like his French tightrope-walking namesake. Within an hour the dense thorn screen gave way to lush riverine trees as we slid down a steep track to the banks of the Mutale.

Shaun led us along the river to a great plunge, where the water drops headlong into a narrow gorge. With sheer walls on either side, access looked impossible. On closer inspection though, small gullies appeared. Not for the frail of limb these descents, but nevertheless, a weakness in the gorge’s defences. I clambered down to a tiny ledge about six feet above 20’ of water. And how to get out of that tumult? It didn’t matter, I’d be too damned frightened to possibly fall in. Thus I furiously rationalised.

The first tigerfish hit my Rapala within a few minutes. It was as if the rod had been hit by a brick. It took yards of line off a hard-set drag, and it all but pulled me off my ledge. Then the fish jumped three feet out of the water, tossing the lure with an ease that suggested contempt. I guessed it at about 5 lbs. An hour later, with ten of my lures lost to the rocky bottom, and three more fish having shed the lure, I was becoming frustrated. My companions had disappeared downriver, and I was also feeling rather alone. It was time for a move.

Once more up the rocky groove - with anxiety. Hopping from rock to rock as I advanced into the gorge, I was concerned to find that there was no sign of my friends. The way descended, and the gorge closed in on both flanks. I shot glances up the rocky walls, dotted with ledges and caves - leopard country. Down another track by a waterfall, and there were the others. I breathed sigh of relief.

The sun was now directly overhead. The cicadas and crickets dozed, and a glance up to the cloudless sky produced a blue haze that swam before me as I pitched my little Rapala into the river’s pools. Sensibly, the others retreated to the shade of an ironwood tree, and the pshhh sound of ice-cold beers being liberated filled the silence momentarily. I was tempted. But all thoughts of beer were exorcised in an electric millionth of a second, as a tigerfish hit my lure with a primal ferocity all the more intense for its unseen happening. In that moment my arm was wrenched around, and the reel’s clutch shrieked as the fish tore into its barbed lunch-time meal. At other times and in other tropical rivers I have witnessed the utterly uncompromising nature of life. My lure was being savaged. On its lifeless behalf I turned to fight. The tiger reached the end of the twenty-five yard pool in a long single stride. It could have charged over the ten foot drop into the pool below, but instead it rose high into the air, where the light struck its armoured scaly flanks, as sun on a mediaeval knightly army. My line fell slack as the fish run back towards me, so much faster than I could wind, then doubled back again to the end of the pool, again wrenching the rod-tip down as we met with a jolt somewhere between. Up again, and then again; then across the pool on the tip of its tail. No tiger is caught until it is landed, and here was a creature bent on escape. But no fish can career around like this indefinitely. The steam went suddenly, and in she came, all toothy and wicked-looking. The fish from all nightmares. The eyes have it, they say. The eyes of a tigerfish say it all. At once remote, without remorse. No quarter asked, and none given. Was she surprised to swim away? Probably not. And would that act of kindness soften the heart of this waterborne terror? Not a chance.

Beers and sandwiches later, we returned to the river for more of the same thrills. The tigers were in dour mood, jerking the lures, and occasionally connecting for long enough to take to the skies. We landed just four more. They may have subtracted from our life’s allotted spans, with their heart-stopping gymnastics, and their soulless stares. It’s fast lane fishing for the adventurous; but this is not a sensitive man’s game.

The next morning we left Waller’s. Hooty, the eagle owl who visits the camp each morning, sat at the entrance of my lodge as we headed out. Shaun and his team waved us to the top of the ridge, and the camp receded in the mirror - but not in the memory.

Back to Pietersburg through the magnificent Kruger, where we were very pleased to narrowly avoid the attentions of a huge old Cape buffalo bull. A quick flight down to Johannesburg, and a restful 747 to London. Twenty-four hours after leaving Waller’s, I was sipping a single malt by my own fireside in Hampshire. Travel at this speed leaves one with a sensation of unreality. If my family thought me a little remote, they probably put it down to the exertions of my journey. But then, they were not to know, a part of me was still on top of the ridge above Waller’s. In the west, a great baobab, blackly silhouetted by a vast, orange, setting sun, was watching over timeless Africa. Above, an eagle circled, calling its plaintive cry.

The red dust of Africa is in my clothing, my reels, my hair, and my soul. Some of that dust will never wash out.

They say you can’t buy happiness, and I guess in the purist sense you can’t. But you can certainly put yourself in the way of special moments. I’ve tried, in the clumsy way of words within these articles, to describe the intense flavour of the Africa I found. Selfishly, I’m almost jealous of the unique effect it has had on me. But I know there are those who would look beyond this damp and wonderful island of ours. I hope my Africa will also become their Africa.


Useful information

South African Airways reservations :
Standard fare, London – Capetown Expect to pay around £600 return (that’s a bargain)
Flights are Every day to Johannesburg and Capetown
Flight distance/time 6,000 miles/ 11 hours

Paul Coetzee African Fishing Safaris
(Paul can arrange everything for you)

Visa requirements:  None from UK. From elsewhere, you should check.
Jabs Check with your doctor. In the north you should pop malaria pills, just to be certain.
Clothing Generally lightweight. A lightweight rain suit can occasionally be useful. See the reviews pages on the clothing and tackle I used.


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