Seasoned middle Vaal flyrodder, Jeff Tyser recently missioned into the pristine wilderness of The Kalahari Largemouth Yellowfish Conservancy with Kalahari Outventures. Comparisons were inevitable.
“The Vaal River – specifically from The Barrage down into the Vredefort Dome – holds a mighty special place in my heart. For over twenty years its rapids, riffles, glides and pools have served both as classroom and sanctuary. A place to learn, experiment and refine. A place to find peace, when peace was needed. As diverse, nuanced, humbling and rewarding a fishery as any I’ve set wading boot in, the privilege of calling this my home water is never lost on me.
Of all the species available to flyrodders on the Vaal, none is more frustratingly enigmatic than Barbus Kimberleyensis – the largemouth yellowfish. Hunting these fish on the Highveld, for the most part, is an exercise in masochism. Ego and expectation are unwelcome accomplices on a largie (largemouth yellowfish) mission. I have found a morbid fatalism – the acceptance that I most likely won’t touch a fish – to be far more useful. Each encounter is celebrated, the rarity of the moment amplified by the briefest connection to an animal that has endured more than was ever expected of it, simply to be there. It is no secret that the habitat of these magnificent creatures is under siege, and nowhere is this more true than on the middle Vaal.
Acid mine drainage, chemical spills and the influx of raw sewage have long been enemies of this precious ecosystem. But when the cogs of an ailing Emfulweni Municipality sewage infrastructure finally ground to a halt in the winter of 2018, disgorging an estimated 1.5 million litres of untreated sewage into the river every day, the Vaal faced its darkest hour. Mudfish were the most visible casualties, perishing in their thousands; their rotting corpses only compounding matters. The stench, at times, was unbearable. The river – ‘my river!’ – was suffocating, and there seemed very little I could do about it. Despair triggered literal depression (try explaining that to your therapist) and a year-long hiatus from the waters to which I owed so much.
Thankfully, due in no small part to the unrelenting pressure of a passionate core of individuals and non-profit organisations, the grim state of the Vaal was escalated all the way to Government. The army was sent in (though one couldn’t help but wonder if military engineers were the best people for the job) and the worst affected sewage plants received some much-overdue TLC. The improvements have been noticeable, yet there’s an uneasy sense that this is an ecosystem forever teetering on the brink.
At the risk of being completely derailed by the Vaal and its plethora of challenges, I should change tack here. This is actually a story about a float trip through The Kalahari Largemouth Yellowfish Conservancy, some 800km to the west. A little context is required, however, because at almost every turn I found comparisons between these two fisheries near-impossible to avoid.
I have always been drawn to wilderness, places that – through enforcement and/or sheer inaccessibility – afford one a glimpse of a time before mankind and his manhandling ways. These places are rare and, as such, of immense value. A float through The Kalahari Largemouth Yellowfish Conservancy – a 40km stretch of the Orange River, somewhere between Augrabies Falls and the Onseepkans border post – is a wilderness experience in every sense. Bar a solitary farm house (which I would consider donating a part of my anatomy to own), human encroachment is conspicuous in its absolute absence. Kalahari Outventures has exclusive rafting rights to this stretch of water, ensuring that, for four glorious days, your solitary bliss remains intact.
Day one, and I’m about to lay out the first cast of the trip, excited as fuck. Luke Pannell, guiding his maiden season on the Orange, has positioned us on the edge of a deep, swift-flowing run, facing downstream. I’m eyeing out the big eddy swirling languidly below us. There’s gotta be one in there. “Not there. Fire this first one straight across the river”, chirps Luke. Off to the right, where he wants me to drop my fly, the bulk of the Orange River charges downstream, seemingly intent on getting to the Atlantic by dinnertime. After years of reading largie water on the Vaal, I find this a curious suggestion. However, not wanting to come across as too much of a doos from the get-go, I oblige. “Dump line! Dump line,” yells Luke, the second the fly hits the water. I awkwardly shake some coils of slack from the rod tip, not entirely sure if this is what he means. The barking continues from the back of the raft. “Okay that’s enough, get in contact with your fly.” I start a slow, erratic retrieve. “No! Let it swing! No retrieve.” In less than 20 seconds, Luke has managed to yank me unceremoniously from my comfort zone. Should be an interesting four days.”
Read the rest of Jeff’s story in issue 18 of The Mission below: