Trout at the Ends of the Earth. Part 1

 

Over the last 15 years I have ventured into some of the most remote areas in Lesotho on my mission to fish all the rivers that rise on the top of the Drakensberg and flow westward into the Senqu River. Some of the rivers are fairly accessible to your average fisherman who doesn’t like too much of a hike. Most of the rivers, well at least the rivers I prefer fishing are high up above the villages and close to the Drakensberg escarpment. Lesotho is about so much more than just the fishing. The scenery, the people you meet, and probably the most important ingredient in a fun hike is the people you go with.

I had long eyed out a certain river, that will not be named, and thought that this must be the most remote stream in Lesotho. My reasoning being that the middle reaches of the river that I wanted to fish, looked the most difficult to access. Whichever way you looked at it, from in Lesotho or over the Berg, it was at least a 2 day journey to get there. It was either a full days drive into Lesotho followed by a day and a half hike, or a 2 day hike over the Drakensberg. This story is in two parts. The first attempt to get there, and the second attempt, a year or so later.

 

In April 2006 I persuaded some mates to join me on my crazy mission. Our team consisted of my sister Meg, Mike Turner and Lisa Fillimalter. None of us was particularly fit at the time though Mike and I would have considered ourselves drinking fit. Not much help when faced with climbing the Drakensberg Escarpment. I don’t think my mates had much of an idea of what I was going to put them through over the next 6 days. I must say that even I found it tough. The only way to access this river, or at least the middle to upper reaches, is to walk over the Drakensberg escarpment and down the valley the other side.

We set of from the Parksboard offices in the early afternoon which is at an altitude of around 1600m. It took us the best part of a day to get to the top of the pass which is just over 3000m. The plan was to walk down as far as we could and camp on the river where it got big enough to hold fish. Normally this walk would take 5 to 6 hours, but with our ridiculously heavy packs, and us being unfit students, we took all day! We walked avout 2 hours into Lesotho to where it was just big enough to hold fish. One of the most amazing things about the Drakensberg Escarpment is how rugged and steep the Eastern slopes are and how flat or rolling it is once you get to the top. The escarpment rises from a height of about 1500m above sea level to over 3000m, with the highest peaks in the 3300 to 3400m range. People often ask me how I know where to go and fish. Well if one hikes up almost any pass in the Drakensberg and walks 5 to 10 km down the other side, you will find trout. Sometimes you have to walk a lot further as there may be a waterfall that has prevented them spreading upstream.

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Taking a break on the hike up the pass
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Almost at the top
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Lisa celebrating reaching the top. Notice how flat it is once on top.

 

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1st nights camp
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Mike sharing  a smoke with our friendly neighbours
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A frosty morning

After setting up camp I headed downstream to see if I could find some fish. I found some stunning looking water, but seemingly devoid of fish. The water up in the highlands is so clean that you usually see the fish if they are there, particularly if there are rainbow trout. They tend more visible in a river than brown trout. I found a friendly Basuthu herdsman who confirmed my suspicions that there were no trout up here. He pointed to the far range of mountains and told me that you only found fish down there. There was obviously a waterfall preventing the fish moving upstream. He said it would take a day to walk down there, and I believed him because the hills he was talking about looked way off in the distance. This was disappointing news for us. I had hoped to be fishing on the first evening. Mike who is a keen trout fisherman didn’t feel like a wild goose chase down a river that may or may not have trout. So we made a Plan B.

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Looking up the valley towards the escarpment. The far peaks are looking over the escarpment into Natal.
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Such a pity to find no trout up here
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The last place we checked for trout before heading over the range of mountains to our right.  The trout as I eventually found out start at the base of the furtherest peaks

Plan B was a 25km hike over another range of mountains to a river that I knew held trout. So we set off the next morning to climb over the ridge. We were stiff and tired from our previous days hike and today was supposed to be a day where the girls lounged around on the edge of a beautiful gurgling stream river while the boys caught the dinner. Here we were trekking over another mountain to another river and getting further from home. It took a lot longer to get there than I expected. I had no Map of the area and was just following my nose. My rule of thumb is, up river and you will get to the top of the Drakensberg. Downriver you will get to villages and eventialy the Senqu River . We encountered a big valley that I didn’t know about and after a full days walking we reached small tributary of the main river I wanted to fish. We camped the night on this tributary, about 3km or so from the main river. The girls were shattered after 2 days of hard walking and there was no ways of persuading them to push on. Mind you I was also feeling a little tired myself. Mike and I must have had well over 25kgs on our backs. Whiskey is heavy stuff u know! In a way I’m glad the way it turned out, as I had a few hours of amazing fishing on a tiny little stream that I had never really thought of fishing before. The fish were small but it was a very special few hours fishing. It was some ofthe best looking small stream pocket water that I have seen and I doubt that many people, if any, have fished this stream. I returned to camp just as it was getting dark with 4 beautiful little rainbow trout for dinner.

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Dinner after fishing an unknown and probably undfished stream

The next day we headed down stream to the junction with the main river. It was a section I had never fished before. I had only ever fished this river much higher up near the escarpment. The summer rains had obviously been very good as the river was flowing full and crystal clean. While walking upstream looking for a campsite I had a few casts and was immediately into a fish of around 1lb. The fishing that followed over the next two days was nothing short of insane! I have never caught so many fish, and all of a decent size. All fish were in the 10″ to 16″ range. I only got one fish bigger, about  18″ and weighing about 3lbs. The fish were strong fighting and in great condition. The fish that we ate had the most beautiful pink flesh, as if they had been farmed. I had only experienced that once before on one of my previous trips up the Leqoa River in 2000.

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My first cast with a dry fly and I was into a beauty
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This was the average size fish we caught in every run. We ate the most delicious fish I think I have ever eaten
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A fat hen fish that fell to the Basuthu Basher
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Another beauty

The rivers in Lesotho tend to have boom and bust cycles, and this was the peak of a boom year for this river. I wish I could have spent more time fishing that trip, although I may have got sick of catching fish. I must have caught close to 100 fish over the two days. I caught about 10 fish in the camp pool within the first half hour. I doubt in my life time I will fish another river as productive as that, anywhere in the world. I have been back to the same part of the river since then, and have caught some big fish, but never anything close to the numbers that we caught in 2006. In saying that 2001 was a hugely productive year in the upper reaches of the same river. Back then my methods were fairly crude and all I wanted to do was catch lots of fish. I wish had a day to spend walking the river and only sight fishing. There were so many fish yet I hardly remember sight fishing even one fish.

 

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My sister Meg with one of her many fish. I caught about 10 fish just out of the run behind Meg
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Mike landing a beautiful cock fish
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Mike fishing on the go

It was a lot of fun to catch a good fish on almost every cast, and even the girls were hauling them out. Over the 6 days we walked close to 100 km for only two days fishing. I suppose a km per fish is pretty good going then. We caught the fish predominantly on dry fly/dropper rigs, and the bigger pools we used Basuthu Bashers (a big red-eyed dragonfly nymph). Sadly our time was limited and we only fished for 2 days before we had to leave on our on our 2 day hike home. On our walk home we followed another small tributary up to the escarpment where we had some amazing fishing too all be it for only a few hours as we passed through.

 

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That the sort of water we were fishing
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I sight fished my biggest fishbowl the trip in this pool
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Our last bit of fishing while heading back to the escarpment

We averaged 25km per day of walking, in very rough terrain. We didn’t get to fish the river I wanted to, but what an awesome trip with some of the best fishing I have ever had. Respect to my sister Meg, and Lisa. That hike will be one that they will look back upon and tell stories to their kids about going fishing with this crazy fisherman who insisted on walking 100km over the Drakensberg, to illegally enter another country, just to catch a trout.

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Bumb sliding down a steep pass that isn’t ever used, for very good reasons. A good reason to take a map
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Our team from left to right: Myself, Mike Turner, Lisa Fillimalter, Meg Fey

 

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