Lesotho: It’s not About the Fishing

I have always said that Lesotho is about way more than catching trout. The streams are crystal clear, full of trout and very few people fish there so why wouldn’t it be about the trout? I must admit that the trout have a lot to do with my love affair with the Mountain Kingdom, but an epic hike last summer confirmed to me that the trout are very much a secondary bonus of my frequent visits to Lesotho. The endless mountains and remoteness is why love the place. The endless unexplored valleys keep me going back for more.

In December 2014 an old university mate of mine, Mike Avery (Tex), flew out from Qatar to join me on a hike into Lesotho. He was adamant he wanted to fish as much as possible. I had showed him pictures of big Brown trout that I had recently caught, and that’s what he wanted, big brown trout, sight fished on a dry fly. I decided that helicopter ride to the top of the Drakensberg was in order so as not to waste too much time hiking for two days to get to my secret river. This is not normally my style but I have always wanted to take a helicopter ride along the escarpment, so this was a perfect opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately in my over eagerness I forgot to have a map with me in the flight to check out where the pilot should drop us off. I generally have a very good sense of direction and I very seldom, if ever get lost. This was a little different and I was completely thrown off by our scenic flight along the escarpment and, yes I suppose I didn’t know where we were, and yes technically speaking we were lost within half an hour of setting off on our trip. It was a case of me saying to him that we need to get dropped off somewhere over there and oh wait look at that stream down that valley, that looks like it must be the headwaters of the river, yes! That’s It! Drop us of here, yes here, this is perfect. Yes I’m sure this is the valley, no I don’t think its over that ridge, here’s fine. And so began our adventure down the wrong river.

It was 8 days of incredible adventure that neither Tex nor I will ever forget. The fishing was poor! We caught some small fish, and among the Rainbows we even caught a few Browns. The drought has been bad for the last few seasons and some of the rivers were hardly flowing, notably the Senqu had almost completely dried up.  We fished and hiked 4 different rivers, all with the same result, small fish and not too many of them either. So what made this trip special? Other than spending a few days with one of my best mates who I hadn’t seen for years, the scenery was just out of this world. I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story from here.

 

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Walking down this river I soon realised something was wrong. The gorge looked different to what it should look like from the map. Were we in the wrong valley? Holy smokes how did I get that so wrong? We were in absolute hysterics when we realised we were 20km as a crow flies away from where I intended to be, and the other side of a huge mountain range
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Not a bad valley to be lost in. Sure enough we were in the wrong valley to the north of where I planned. This was the Thlanyaku River. It was a way bigger river that I expected and I had never fished it, so plan B was hatched.
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Walking down the Thlanyaku Valley with our donkey and Basuthu friend walking ahead.
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I would never have thought to look for a fish in this pool. This is an oxbow lake about 50m from the main river course. Obviously when it floods, some fish get stranded in here. Our Basuthu guide told us there was a big fish in there and he was too scared to go close to the water. Tex unfortunately missed the fish, but this puddle held a fish of around 4lbs which we carefully stalked. We found several more puddles with big fish. Puddle hogs we called them. We never landed a puddle hog but I got broken up by one of a similar size in the next puddle a bit further down stream. The moral of the story is don’t neglect those oxbow lakes! you may be lucky to find a Puddle Hog much bigger than its fellow fish in the river next door.

 

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A Basuthu Kraal on the banks of the Thlanyaku River above where we camped. We asked the Basuthu living here for a few donkeys to carry our stuff. The next day we were on our way with two donkeys following behind as we fished on ahead.

Plan B was to walk down the Thlanyaku River in till we got to the mighty Senqu River and then fish all the way up the Senqu to the source. What transpired was that the Senqu was hardly flowing and so we made a Plan C and headed up a small tributary called the Kokoatsi River. This stream had the bulk of the flow at its confluence with the Senqu. We followed this stream a the way to the escarpment and fished the Kokoatsana and the Kokoatsi River. The Junction of the Kokoatsana and Kokoatsi river is a notorious place where all the Marajuana smugglers gather before walking up the Kokoatsana valley, and then down the Sandleni Pass into Natal.

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A beautiful Brownie that came to hand in the Koakatsi River.
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The very remote Kokoatsi River is one of the best looking small streams I have fished. I definitely need to return in a good season. We stayed in a charming little village where the locals said we are the first white people to pass through this way. We were given a house for the night and looked after very well indeed.
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A beautifully marked Kokoatsi Brown. In these streams you tend to catch a lot of Rainbows before suddenly in a very likely looking section, there are no fish. This is when to slow down and be patient, for this is where the brown trout are living. The Browns and Rainbows are seldom caught in the same pool.
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The Kokoatsi River near the top of the escarpment is an amazing piece of water with mainly Browns, but very few and far between.
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A morning run down the Kokoatsi River to fish my way back up to our camp.
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Prospecting for a Kokoatsi Brown. Very thin water and very difficult fishing.
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Looking up the Kokoatsi River towards the top of the escarpment.
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The upper reaches of the Kokoatsi River are out of this world! One of the best looking small streams I have fished. Up here its just brownies from what we caught. I only caught a couple but didn’t see any Rainbows higher up.

 

After a 4 day trek where all we caught were the odd fish of 8″ we decided that Plan D was on the cards. After much pouring over maps I came up with a cunning plan to turn our fishing trip into a Drakensberg traverse. Tex had never spent a night on top of the Drakensberg Escarpment and was longing to do so. Our plan D was to follow the Kokoatsi River up to the escarpment and the hike north west along the escarpment to the Mnweni area. The Mnweni area is probably the most spectacular part of the Drakensberg that I have been into, and it has two of the best caves I have stayed in, Mponjwane Cave, and Ledges Cave. I had stayed in both caves twice before on a school hike and more recently on a fishing trip in 2006 to fish the upper reaches the Senqu and Khubelu River. There could be no better place to introduce Tex to the Drakensberg than this area. This was probably the best I have ever had it on top of the Berg and it was undoubtedly the highlight of our hike, if not one of my lifetime highlights and I reckon the same goes for Tex. I have hiked in the Himalayas, Mt Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and the Alps, but the Drakensberg is still the most beautiful mountain range that I have seen.

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Our route. We got dropped off in the helicopter at the furthest dot to the right. This was the headwaters of the Thlanyaku River. we ended up at the Mnweni Cultural Center in the North. The disteance says 82 km but that is straight lines from point to point. it would have been close to double that. I would guess 140 to 160km. It was bloody far to carry heavy packs through very rough and rugged terrain.

 

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Finally after a long slog we arrived on the escarpment. Cathedral Peak in the background.
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This photo was taken from in front of our tent. Looking north from the Elephant to Cathedral Peak in the distance.
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Tex on the edge
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Looking north towards our destination which was over the other side of that high peak on the left of the picture. We walked along the escarpment the whole way and enjoyed the mist rising and subsiding throughout the day providing us with the most dramatic views.
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Looking on to the Cathedral Peak Range
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the view at Ledges Cave. We walked close for 11 hours to get from the Elephant to Ledges Cave.
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Looking back into Lesotho, down the Senqu River valley
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The evening light after a dramatic thunderstorm passed over
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The same view as above, just with the fading evening light.
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Sunrise over the Rockeries in the foreground. This was taken looking east from Mponjwane Cave
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Tex on the edge of a 2000ft sheer drop. Mponjwane peak  with the mist swirling around in the background.
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A Cup of tea in front of Mponjwane Cave. Mponjwane peak towering over the valley below, at 3200m in the background
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I had to do this a few times before getting the right shot. It looks worse than it was:-)
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We had a rest day on the escarpment when I ran down the Senqu River to try catch a trout. The river was hardly flowing and there was hardly a fish to be found.
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This is the last barrier on the river above where there are no fish. I have caught heaps of fish here in previous visits, but this years there was not a fish to be seen except in two separate pools about a km downstream.
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Red hot pokers in full flower in the wetland at the source of the Senqu River.
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One of the most rewarding fish I have ever caught, and tastiest I have ever eaten.
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Walking down the Rockeries Pass
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Tex looking down the pass with the Rockeries in the background
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3 Comments

  1. Wow Rex you make me wish I was 20 years younger and 200% fitter. Fantastic story and photos. That sunrise is one of the best pix I’ve ever seen from the Drakensberg. Did you see any butterflies?

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    1. Hi Steve. U obviously forgot that we got there by chopper. U should do that sometime. That wetland at the source of the Senqu is full of flowers. I font particularly remember much in the way of butterfly’s as was a very dry season

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  2. Brilliant !!!!..what an adventure!! and tiur article with the photos is a feal treat to read…..must be one if the most outstanding wildernesses in the world!! Thank you!!! for sharing. Not sure Mike and I fit enough to scramble around in this country!!! But even if we just visited two or three spots, that would be amazing!!….must get planning!!!…and get more fit !!ha!ha! Best!!! from the MAGs!

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