A Summer’s Escapades Into The Mountain Kingdom Part 2 of 4
Words and photos courtesy of Rex Fey
An Expensive Trip to the Wrong River
A friend asked me why I’m so obsessed with fishing in Lesotho. Well it’s not about the fishing I promise. That’s not to say that the fishing isn’t good in Lesotho. Its highland streams can be amazing if your timing is right. I eat sleep and dream about the remote rivers over the other side of the Drakensberg that are so seldom, if ever, fished.
Last year in December an old university mate, Mike Avery, joined me on an epic 140km hike through the Mountain Kingdom (see here). Unfortunately the fishing was very very poor. The largest fish was a wopping 10” and there weren’t too many smaller ones around either. The rivers were low and slimy and the fish populations have been decimated by several very dry seasons. But the bonus was that there were still browns and rainbows to be caught.
This particular trip was probably my favourite of all Lesotho trips I have been on and I have been on 29 separate multi-day fishing/hiking trips up there in the last 15 years or so. Each time I hike up into the mountains, I try fish a river that I haven’t fished before. On this occasion Mike had 8 days out here so I decided that a helicopter ride was a much quicker way to get to our destination. A helicopter ride along the Drakensberg escarpment has been on my bucket list for a while now. Normally I do things the hard way and walk over the mountains which is about a full days walk, climbing 1500m or more and then over the other side to your chosen river.
Our helicopter ride was spectacular! However, in my overeagerness I told the pilot to drop us off just back over the escarpment on what I thought was the source of the river I intended to fish. Its got good rainbow trout in most sections, and in some sections some very good brown trout. I planned to spend a few days targeting the brown trout that I knew inhabited a certain section of the river. This is the same section I fished in my previous article on running a “Trout Marathon”, except we planned to fish from the escarpment down to the first village.
After a fairly long walk down the valley I suspected something was wrong. The valley was far steeper than I remember. So out came the map and GPS. Soon we realized we were on the wrong river. 20km or so North, and over a few huge ridges! We were in absolute hysterics. Neither of us was keen on climbing up and over this 700m high ridge to the correct river with our 25kg packs. You might wonder how I stuffed that one up. Well I never realised how far north we had to fly from our start point until we found a saddle low enough to fly over. I never had my map open or my GPS on which was the biggest mistake. Call it overeagerness and excitement, and I suppose I should have given the helicopter pilot an exact GPS location – but due to the high altitude and our heavy load we were flying by sight. If he had dropped us off 2km further south we would have ended up in the correct catchment. So we resorted to plan B, or should I say we made a plan B: Hike down the Tlanyaku River to the confluence with the Senqu River. Fish up the Senqu River all the way to the escarpment and then hike down the Rockeries Pass.
We camped the first night on the edge of the Tlanyaku River, just above the first Basuthu village. I managed to find a local who could speak Zulu and I organized a donkey to carry our bags for us the next day. We caught a few small rainbows that evening. The river was beautiful, but very with few fish. The few we caught were big enough to eat, but small enough that we fitted 6 of them in the frying pan at once (without heads and tails).
The next day we headed down stream to meet our “taxi”. It’s definitely the best way to fish up there. You walk along the river fishing and the donkey and his owner follow you along with your bags. Other than several small rainbows, the only excitement we had that day was when we stumbled across a few large fish that were living in a series of oxbow lakes, where the old river bed flowed many years before. They are kept full by the ground water table and must be restocked with tiddlers when the river floods.
It was a great lesson; to never overlook an oxbow lake. Tex missed the biggest one that was upwards of 4lbs. In a separate oxbow lake system I got snapped up by a fish of around 3lbs + which ran straight under an undercut bank and I couldn’t get it out. It was such a thrill sight casting to a fish of that size in a piece of water no bigger than my bedroom. We called them “Puddle Hogs”. I suggest you keep an eye out for oxbow lakes, for you never know what you may find. Our local Basuthu guide said that he has seen a much bigger fish in those pools before, and that the fish we saw were babies. Judging by the condition of the puddle hogs there is obviously a lot of food that could easily grow a fish to 6lbs + over a few years. Makes me wonder just how many puddle hogs I may have walked past before?
Day 2 ended up being a very long slog down the Ttlanyaku River to its confluence with the Senqu river. The Mighty Senqu river was not very mighty. It was very low and slimy. The water was also not that clean. We headed up the Senqu River to the confluence with a small river called the Koakoatsi River. It was flowing decently and it actually was carrying most of the water that was in the Senqu. By this stage we just wanted to find a good place to camp and to fish a bit. So we changed our plan B to plan C and headed up the Koakoatsi River until we got to a small village about an hour’s walk from the confluence. Our trusty Busuthu guide had family here and he asked if we could have a hut for the night. We were welcomed with open arms.
The Basuthu People are some of the friendliest and warmest people I have come across anywhere. In all my travels I have never had any security issues in Lesotho, just friendly smiles and curiosity as to what on earth we are doing there.
The next two days were spent meandering our way slowly up this beautiful valley. I also wandered up the Koakoatsana river which is really tiny, but I caught one little tiddler at least, so I can tick that stream off my list. The upper reaches of the Koakoatsi river are very very special. Its definitely up there with the prettiest streams I’ve fished, and the most remote. We caught the river in a bad year but I have no doubt it will hold some great fish after a few good wet seasons. There are far more brown trout up in this section, but none bigger than about 8”. The browns and rainbows seem to keep to their own sections. I found that the sections where the fishing suddenly became slow, and almost devoid of fish, we would catch the odd brown trout.
By the end of day 4 we were back on top of the Drakensberg escarpment. We had decided that due to the poor fishing, we were going to spend the rest of the trip traversing the escarpment. We walked along the escarpment for a full day and the stayed two days in the Mnweni and Mponjwane area. This also happens to be the source of the Senqu or Orange river. We had a rest day while we were in Mponjwane cave. On our rest day I ran down the Senqu valley to where the trout fishing started. It’s incredible how the fish population had taken such a hammering.
The first time I saw that section was in July 1997 on a school hike. We walked down to picnic at the waterfall which is the barrier to the trout moving upstream. The river was teeming with fish of between a pound and 3pounds. It was incredible! We even managed to trap one under the ice and catch it by hand. Then I was back to fish there in April 2007. We caught hundreds of tiny fish, nothing bigger than 8”. Now here I was and there was hardly a drop of water in the river in December which is in the rainy season, and the pools were there were almost devoid of fish. I managed to catch two fish of 10” which will go down as some of the most rewarding fish I have every caught.
The few days we spent on the escarpment will stay with me forever. It was the most perfect weather with dramatic thunderstorms, and every day the mist rose up the escarpment and swirled around the jagged peaks. Every morning we woke up looking down over Natal which was just a sea of mist as far as the eye could see. When I look back on the trip it was the few days spent on Drakensberg escarpment that made the trip for me. I’m sure you can understand why when u look at the photos.