Taking the Scenic Route

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This article was previously written for feathersandflouro.com in July this year and it also leads up to this last weekends fishing.

This year in mid-May I had a long weekend available and I had just met a rabidly enthusiastic fly fisherman who was fit and keen join me on a hike up into Lesotho to catch a trout and explore an area I hadn’t been. As usual I decided to do things the hard way and hike over the Drakensberg to get to our destination. As I turned out we could have driven to our final destination. I have learned always to have a Plan B when it comes to fishing in Lesotho. The conditions are very unpredictable and you never know what you going to get. Plan B came into use on this trip, and it involved a lot more walking than Plan A, and a lot fewer fish.

We set off at 4am from Nick’s house in Pietermaritzburg and headed to the St Bernard’s Peak region in the Southern Drakensberg. We arrived at the farm where we left our cars at about 7am. The plan was to walk up into Sehlabathebe National Park and fish the lower reaches of the Tsoelikane River for two days. I had fished the river numerous times before while staying in the Park, but never in the lower reaches where the river flows out of the park. The river higher up near Jonathan’s Lodge was always full of very small Rainbow Trout when I last fished it during my high school years. I had heard that at times there had been good fishing lower down but of late I had heard that for some reason there were no longer any fish there. I hoped that no fish would mean few but big fish. It was a very long hike up into the park. We finally arrived on the river after about 6 hours of walking. We boiled the kettle made a welcome cup of tea on the banks of a beautiful pool. While chewing on a stick of biltong I noticed what looked like thousands of small trout which upon closer inspection the turned out to be minnows. I had never seen the Maluti Minnow in such great numbers. This immediately made me wonder if there were any trout at all, and that my mate was right about the trout dying out in the park. The water was crystal clear and as we walked down the river there was not a sign of a trout. A Lesotho Rainbow is not one to hide from the midday sun. If they are there, you see them. It’s a different case with the Browns I have encountered up in Lesotho. The browns often hide in the bright midday conditions, leaving you wondering if there are fish there at all.

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Sehlabathebe National Park 
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A bottomless pool on the Tsoelikane River 
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A pool full of Maluti Minnows on the Tsoelikane River 

We had planned to stay in the Park (illegally) and sleep in one of the many sandstone caves along the river. We now had two options. Do a scenic hike through the park and hope to find some fish higher up, or walk downstream to the confluence of the Leqoa River where I was sure we would catch fish. Nick was adamant he wanted to catch a fish, and didn’t mind the fact that we would now only have one rainy afternoons fishing and two and a half days walking. I was also keen to follow the Tsoelikane River down to the confluence and see if we could spook any fish and find out why there were none higher up. We walked for another 3 hours, following the beautiful but fishless Tsoelikane River all the way, hoping to see a fish. Just before dark we spotted a few decent sized fish. We found a good looking place to set up camp for the night. By now we were well out of the park and only a few hours walk from the village where I planned to sleep the second night. A howling wind blew all night which made it difficult to sleep, but at least it kept the frost off us.

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Angora goats crossing the  Tsoelikane River
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Walking down to the Leqoa / Tsoelikane junction 

The morning dawned cloudy, windy and cold. We walked out of the valley and headed for a village where I hoped to find a bed for the night. Today was forecast to be cold with showers throughout the day, and it looked like the forecasters had it spot-on. Upon arrival in the village I asked if anyone could speak Zulu or Xhosa which I can speak. The first hut we walked up to we met the most wonderfully friendly guy by the name of Patrick. He spoke fluent Zulu and broken English. He welcomed us to stay in his house with open arms. The hospitality of the Basuthu people is absolutely amazing! Patrick took us to his house, perched on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Leqoa River and the Tsoelikane River. The main road from Qachas Neck to Sehlabathebe was only a km or so away. The Leqoa River and Tsoelikane River join to become the Tsoelike River which flows parallel to the escarpment in a south westerly direction towards Qachas Neck where it joins the Senqu (Orange) River.

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Our new friend Patrick Thene
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The view from Patricks house 
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Ha Moshebe graveyard. Not Not a bad place to rest in peace
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Tea in the morning before leaving Patricks 

Patricks daughter was away at boarding school in Qachas nek so he gave us her bedroom for the night. It was now about 10am, and we were itching to wet a line. We unpacked our bags made a quick pot of tea and had some brunch. We left our bags at Patricks house, packed our daypacks and headed off along the ridge above the river. Not much was taken in the way of food, all the space was used for some extra warm and dry clothes.

We ran about 2km downstream and in the process we gave ourselves about 6km of river to fish back up around a big horseshoe bend in the river. As we got onto the river it started to rain. We managed to find a shelter under a huge sandstone boulder. We managed to get together enough dry firewood to make small fire to keep ourselves warm. The temperature couldn’t have been more than 5 degrees. Not the sort of weather you want to be outside fishing in. After an hour or so the rain stopped and we could get fishing. This is an amazing section of river. Its banks are lined with willows, and there are lots of deep pools created by the odd large sandstone boulder that’s fallen from the cliffs above the river. The river just screams “Big Fish” at you. The water was crystal clear, the river was low, but it was very gloomy and windy. Not good for sight fishing unfortunately. The water temperature was probably between 8 and 10 degrees, and every time I got my feet wet it was agony! Nick stayed out of the water and had warm feet. I got wet and cold but I did get into much better casting positions and so caught a few more fish. We fished blind which is not ideal in those big slow pools. We started off using wet flies such as dragonfly nymphs and bead-headed nymphs. Only when I put on my good old trusty big bushy dry fly dropper rig, did I start having some fun. It was amazing how even in the gloomy weather some of the fish were taking the dry fly although most took the small black dropper nymph. Nothing big was landed, though we did see a few fish in the 2 to 3Lb range. The fish we caught were in the half pound to 1lb range. The conditions made it difficult and we had to work really hard for dozen or so fish we caught.

We arrived back at Patricks house chilled to the bone, but with happy hearts. We had walked 13hrs through spectacular mountains to catch a dozen fish, and now we were staying in some friendly stranger’s house who treated us like royalty. I have received this hospitality many times on my travels through Lesotho, but nick was just blown away and quite overwhelmed by it all. We arrived back to have a freshly boiled kettle, waiting for us to make tea. We had said we would be back just after sundown and our host had the kettle ready for us when we got back. That night we cooked up a storm for our host: Tai Trout Curry. It’s a favourite of mine on hikes. Ingredients: Tai Curry paste, a few packets of powdered coconut milk, a packet of snap peas, cashew nuts. You first fry the trout then debone it and keep the chunks of trout flesh separated until you have made the base for the curry. Give it a try, it’s a winner!

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Waiting for the rain to stop
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A typically daunting pool on the Tsoelike River
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Trying our luck in the Tsoelikane River 

The next day we had a very long walk back to our car! We set off early just after sunrise, but not before Patrick shared with us some freshly made pot bread. He had woken up especially to bake us a big loaf of bread to keep us going on our long hike home. We had the most spectacular walk out of the valley. It was a frosty morning but the valley below us was a sea of mist. I can’t remember the name of the village where we stayed, but it’s got to be the most beautiful location of any village I have visited in Lesotho. The walk back home was a lot shorter than the walk in, as we took a more direct route and it was mostly downhill, but it was still a good 6 hours walk. In total we walked for 20 hours and I estimate we covered 70km over the 3 days. Although the fishing didn’t turn out as I hoped, it was an amazing trip and we saw some spectacular country. Over the last season the Tsoelike River was by far the best river I fished in terms of average size. It’s just very unfortunate that I didn’t have a few more days in better weather conditions.

Regarding the cycles that these rivers go through, I am still baffled at why there appear to be no fish in the lower Tsoelikane River. The Tsoelike River was the first river I fished on a multi-day trip back in 1999. Then it was full of fish of 6”-8”, and nothing bigger. It’s totally different now. There are far fewer fish and much bigger.. Weather and rainfall conditions probably have the biggest role to play, and I suspect that a wet/ and or snowy winter is very important in getting the fish through the late winter and early spring which can be very dry. Every time I fish in Lesotho I seem to come away with more questions as to how the cycles of the rivers work. One day I will figure it out, and in the mean time I will keep gathering data and having fun while I’m at it

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