Revisiting my old Haunts

Welcome to the first post on this blog. The first of many fishing and outdoor adventures to come. This will be my fishing/ outdoors diary and photographic journal. I nailed a D for English in high school, so excuse the grammar and all that stuff. I’m sure over the next few years all that will improve but let’s just say the blog will be short on some things but hopefully full of interesting stories about my past trips and many more exciting ones to come.

The Natal Drakensberg and the eastern highlands of Lesotho are the most  beautiful place I know. I have travelled fairly extensively and hiked in mountains such as the Himalayas,  the Alps, Mt Kenya, Mt Kilmanjaro, and the mountains of the Western Cape. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time seeing all of these wonderful mountains, but it’s still right here on my doorstep that I consider the most beautiful place I have been.

I was very privileged to grow up spending most of my holidays with my grandmother Beth Fey, or Grannymum as we all know her. She lived in the Drakensberg Garden’s valley near Underberg for 30 odd years. She used to be the gardener for Drakensberg Garden’s Hotel, and then for Castle Burn Resort. At 92 she is an absolute legend and is still fit,  strong and gardening up a storm where she now lives in the town of Underberg. She would take us hiking and picnicking up these beautiful streams that drain into the Umzimkhulu River. It started off with fishing for crabs with chicken bones and graduated to a fly rod and reel by the age of 5. Sadly I didn’t get to know my grandfather who wrote several books on fishing and hunting in Kenya and South Africa. He passed away when I was 3.  Those days fishing in the mountains with my grandmother we special days. By the age of 10 I was heading up rivers alone all day. My poor grandmother must have worried about this tiny little chap who would disappear  into the foothills of the Drakensberg with a fishing rod and a container filled with cotton wool in which to put any new birds egg that I found. Collecting birds eggs was the only thing that rivalled fishing while I was growing up. Actually for the months of September to December, I hardly fished. I was obsessed about collecting birds eggs. This was egg collecting season. I avidly collected eggs from when I was 10 years old until I left high school. I still have wonderful collection of about 175 species of birds which takes some effort to get that many.

There are several stream that drain into the Umzimkhulu River, all of which hold trout. I fished them all many times over the years. I don’t know what it was about stream fishing but since early school days I would much rather have been fishing for 8″ to 10″ trout in those little streams than than fishing in the well stocked dams at Castleburn Resort.

One of my favourite methods of exploring for new rivers is using Google Earth. Obviously 20 years ago I just used to fish up the river until I thought it wasn’t worth going any higher. With the use of Google Earth I recently “discovered” that the upper reaches of one of my favourite streams looked very different to the lower section where I usually stopped fishing. I would fish up into the Parksboard area until I got to a fork in the river.  It was a wonderful days fishing, but I never bothered to go higher up either stream because for the next few km the river was pretty devoid of any holding water. Anyway after seeing what looked like a very spectacular valley with lots of decent holding water, I decided to make a mission to explore the upper reaches of this stream.

My hiking buddy on this trip was a mate who was up visiting from Cape Town, Ken Beviss-Chellenor. He was keen to go in out into the Berg for a few days an I knew exactly where I wanted to take him. He’s not a fisherman so his plan was just to get out and enjoy the scenery.

It was a 4 hr walk to get up into the gorge where I planed to camp. We set off early on a fresh morning just after some recent rains. These rains were the first significant rains of the season and the river was actually flowing at a decent level. There is a bit of a path most of the way and evidently it’s used more by cattle rustlers and dagger traders than hikers. It’s a valley that’s relatively unknown to most hikers as the Parks board offices are a long way off, but it’s well worth getting up into this valley if you have a chance

Walking into the Gawula River Gorge

I had no idea if there were any trout this high up the valley, but on our walk up I was encouraged by the fact that I saw no major waterfalls that could prevent trout migrating upstream. As we got higher and higher up into the gorge the Southern facing slopes became more and more bushy until it became thick forest. The northern slopes were full of beautiful orange flowers called Watsonias.

The Watsonias almost in full flower.

We found ourselves probably the most epic camp site I have ever slept in. It was an enormous flat topped boulder that was lying I’m the river bed. It even had a few trees growing on it for me to hang up a hammock. The weather was perfect so I had taken a chance and left the tent at home. I usually sleep under the stars weather permitting.

The view down the gorge with our camp on the rock in the bottom right of the picture
Camp Rock
Catching the evening light: The peak towering over our camp
The upper reaches of the Gawula River below Sandleni Buttress

I always spend a lot of time choosing a camp site and I think I got this camp spot on. We had the most incredible view upstream to the top of the Berg, and back down the gorge. Towering around us on either side were majestic sandstone cliffs.

I could have spent a week up the valley just soaking it all in, but sometimes all you have is one night out. We arrived at our rock at 10 am which was perfect timing for the fishing. In these mountain streams I generally find that the fishing gets good around mid morning and improves throughout the day. When I am hiking I like to try get all the hiking done before 11 am and then you have the rest of the day to fish when the fish are feeding. After boiling the water for a cup of tea, Ken got into his hammock and chilled out while I set up my rod to head upstream and find a trout.

This has got to be one of the most exciting aspects of fishing for me, the anticipation of finding fish where you never knew they existed before. This is what drives me to fish these remote rivers. I prefer to fish a dry fly and I will always put on a dry fly first up in the hope that the fish are feeding on the top. A lot of the streams in Natal the fish will willingly take a fly from the top, despite there being no evidence of any surface feeding activity. A great searching pattern that I use is a Para-Rab or my own fly which I call a Para-Daddy.

#14 Para-Rab with CDC
#14 Para-Daddy with CDC

My first fly I tied on was a #18 Para-Rab. It was immediately gobbled on the first cast by a beautifully spotted rainbow of about 8″. I was ecstatic! Ken, who was watching me from his hammock must have thought I was crazy with all my celebrations after this tiny fish of 8″. After fishing a few more runs and catching several fish of the same size and some smaller too, I thought stuff it and I put on a #14 Para-Rab. I wanted to avoid the nuisance of all the 3 to 4 inch fish having a go at my fly. The result was far fewer genuine takes but I caught just as many of the bigger fish. The small fish would splash next to the fly or bump it and the bigger fish took it properly.

A Picture Perfect Fish
A Rainbow splashes free
An ambitious little fella
The upper reaches of the Gawula river

I fished upstream for a few km until the river split. I caught one fish in each fork of the stream just to say I had been there and done that, but the water now looked pretty thin indeed, so I turned around and ran back down to camp. This is why I like fishing light. I spend a lot of time running along the river. It enables me to fish and explore far more of the river. Usually I fish upstream as high as possible and run back down, or run down stream and fish back up. I typically fish in crocs which I find very easy to run and rock hop in, or a pair of those diving/snorkeling booties which have good grip. I have never owned a pair of waders, or wading boots. I can’t imagine running 100m in wading boots, let alone several kms.

My feet after a days wading up a river in crocs and socks.

I returned to our camp rock to find Ken completely chilled out after a morning of snoozing in the hammock. I was starving after the long walk in the morning and my mission upstream. We tucked into the usual fare of biltong, nuts, and dried mango. I didn’t wast too much time over lunch before running off downstream with the plan to fish my way back up for the afternoon. I ran where I could and walked where I couldn’t for a good half hour before I got to the start of the gorge. I probably went a little too far for one afternoons fishing, but seeing as much of the river as possible was far more important.

The lower section of the gorge looked better for big fish than higher up with a lot more big pools and deeper water. What I found was that lower down there were definitely more fish, but more small fish too. The upper reaches with smaller pockets and less holding water actually seemed to have more 8 to 10″ fish and less of the really tiny little tiddlers. Maybe with the lower fish population there was more food per fish and so they were a bit bigger? Anyway I had an amazing afternoons fishing back up the valley. The fish were all over my dry fly like it was the first food they had seen this season. It was actually a little silly how many fish I caught but it was a hugely satisfying afternoon of flicking dries into crystal clear runs, and taking in the majestic scenery.

About half way back up the valley I decided to change from a Para-Rab to a new creation of mine which is sort of a combination between a Para-Rab and a Red arsed DDD. It was also tied on a #14 hook. So its a big juicy meal of a fly. The change was incredible! Suddenly where I was catching a fish out of every pocket, I was catching several. Instead of taking the fly only once, the fish kept coming back again and again. The way they took the fly definitely suggested they thought it was something very different. As soon as the Para-Daddy hit the water the fish were leaping clean out the water to take it, compared to a normal splashy rise to the Para-Rab. The bulkier fly with a deerhair body floated better than the normal Para-Rab, and they seemed to like it best floating high. To keep it floating high I used a bit of floatant only on the halo hackle fibres, the tail and the post. I didn’t want to interfere with the CDC under the head. I know it’s not exactly the best place to try and compare effectiveness of fly patterns, but after what I saw, I will definitely put on the Para-Daddy before I use the Para-Rab.

I had to fish quite fast to get all the way up to camp rock by sunset, and I did miss out on a little section close to the camp. I like to get everything prepared for the night before darkness falls. Apologies to the catch and release purists but I kept a few of the bigger fish to eat for dinner. I wouldn’t do that in any river with fishing pressure, but trout fried in lemon and butter remains one of my favourite meals, especially when out camping in the mountains. There is so little if any fishing pressure up here that I will actually do some good to remove a few.

I like to keep a few for the pan


Sunrise from camp rock

We had an amazing night out under the stars. The moon was up and bright. It lit up the valley so bright that you could almost see colour. The morning dawned bright and cold and the view we had back up the valley as the sun lit up the high Berg was one I won’t forget in a long time. We packed up our gear and had a milky cup of tea before we set off home. We left our camp by 6am with the plan to spend a few hours picnicking lower down stream where I could explore up the Sandleni River for a few hours. The morning light shone through the Watsonias and lit them to provide me with some great photographic opportunities. I spend a good half hour photographing them in the crisp morning light. It did eat into my fishing time, but it’s not often u see such beauty and it’s worth your while slowing down sometimes and just taking it in.

The early morning light on our way out the valley

We finally got down to the Sandleni junction. The Sandleni river was a lot smaller than the Gawula river and in the lower section where I fished that morning it was very thin water with not many fish present. I’m sure it’s due to a lack of holding water and the recent drought. Higher up the stream might change, but that’s for me or someone else out there to find out. I went a few kms up the stream and I did catch a few small fish but it was nothing like as productive as the Gawula River gorge where we had just been.


Stalking a trout in thin water in the upper reaches of the Sandleni River

It was a memorable night out in the wilderness and my mind just boggles at the endless fishing opportunities that the lesser known Drakensberg streams hold, thats assuming that you have the same philosophy I have: “Size doesn’t matter, it’s how and where you got it.”


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