In the making of food products, scientists have developed the ‘bliss point,’ which is the perfect amount required of an ingredient like salt, sugar and fat to optimise a product’s deliciousness (and make you fat). The theory is that combinations of sugar, fat and salt act synergistically and are more rewarding than any one ingredient on its own. When applied to the formula of what makes a brilliant fly fishing trip, you could swop sugar, salt and fat for great fishing, good friends and paradise. On the remote Indian Ocean archipelago of St Brandon’s, Nic Schwerdtfeger hit those bliss points over and over again. It was a trip high on deliciousness.
“The alarm went off the second time, exponentially more painful than the first. Root canal on a rum hangover seemed a more pleasant idea than having to get out of bed. The coffee offshore is pretty much the only reason the oil and gas sector in Norway hasn’t collapsed yet. It’s also only down one floor from my cabin to the mess where a 5-star hotel buffet breakfast awaits me every morning. Day 10 of 14 had begun. I could feel I was drained, physically and mentally gatvol*. I needed a break, and soon.
Let me just clear something up off the bat, working on offshore oil rigs in Norway is extremely comfortable, the standard of living, safety, food and welfare is top notch. But you work for it. And we work damn hard around the clock to keep Europe’s energy needs in check. But regardless of how comfortable it is, I had been working more than usual, a lot more. Between guiding on the Gaula river for Atlantic salmon in summer and the odd offshore trip in between guiding, I worked flat out for a six-month period. I knew that I needed to shift gears to avoid a neurotic episode of sorts.
Soon enough, an opportunity came up via the Whippit Wednesday Whatsapp fly tying chat group. One of the Flycastaway guides dropped a hint that there might be some cancellations to St Brandon’s atoll off Mauritius towards the end of the season. There were three rods available.
My imagination immediatelty floated me away from the drillers’ cabin on a semi-sub in the North Atlantic, to wading along a sand spit tracking down a school of obscenely overweight bonefish. “Fuck,” I thought to myself, “it would be awesome to fish a destination like that some day.” Most of my fly fishing mates have either guided or fished there during some part of their feather chucking career. It seems almost like a right of passage.
Meanwhile back on board, it was only 10:30am and I was set to work until at least 21:00 that night.
A few weeks went by and in that time my mates Riaan and Warwick had committed. Smokey the Bear (aka Andreas Linz) was on the fence so, sensing weakness, I managed to convince him to surrender his spot.
Deal sealed. Deposit paid. Bang, I was going to St Brandon’s.
“Fellow Whippiter Andre Van Wyk had recently refined a new GT pattern resembling a Beast/Chosen One that I like the look of. Problem is, Wookie hair, Yak pubes and Dolly Parton’s pony tail weren’t materials I could get hold of anytime soon.”
Next challenge – flies! Here’s where I had a big problem as, in Norway, I literally can’t get hold of any saltwater materials or hooks. So, I had to order online which is also a shit show since working offshore most of the time, means I’m hardly ever at home to check the mail. Fellow Whippiter Andre Van Wyk had recently refined a new GT pattern resembling a Beast/Chosen One that I like the look of. Problem is, it’s about the length of my forearm and looks like way too much work. Also ,Wookie hair, Yak pubes and Dolly Parton’s pony tail weren’t materials I could get hold of anytime soon. I tied to the best of my ability and came up with a decent amount of what I would call good quality “BIRBS”. A baitfish/Van Wyk inspired, long tailed hollow fleye-ish thing. It’s got a round profile, great movement and is almost all natural fibre. It also looks like an over-fed small ‘birb’, hence the meme-inspired name. Tying done, after a brief visit back home in Cape Town, Riaan, Warwick and myself were soon on a flight to Mauritius.
St Brandon’s atoll lies smack bang in the middle of the Indian ocean. From Mauritius it’s a 28-30 hour boat ride on a loud but comfortable supply vessel. I imagined we were like the A-team. Riaan, the hard-as-nails Afrikaans ex-military type (now financial guru) would definitely deal with any pirates we might encounter. He probably knew first aid and could shoot the beak off a pigeon from 200m with a .22. Warwick, the MD of pimp-my-bakkie specialists Alu-Cab, would definitely be the MacGyver in the trio, fixing the 9000 DB diesel motor should it fry a piston, or fashion a life raft if we hit a reef and sank the vessel. Me? Well I was terrified, but took comfort in knowing that should the boat sink, I had a luminous orange bag that floated, so that could buy me some time until the plethora of pelagic shark species got hold of me. I’m used to big seas and rough weather on boats, but there was something about a crossing of that distance and how remote we were that didn’t sit well with me. I also don’t react well to sleeping tablets and all the other pharmaceutical cocktails the rest of the guys were slamming. I would be awake and on edge for most of the voyage.
I won’t bore you with the misery of what a 30-hour boat trip in shitty weather is like, but the final few hours of the evening before we anchored were pretty electric. Everyone had woken up in time to catch the last rays of sun as we started to see land masses and some shipwrecks again. The atoll system is pretty big, with a few permanent islands in the north and south and never-ending flats and sand spits that make up a massive lagoon in between. As we arrived, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a massive splash and the unmistakable sound of a large something slapping the the water. At first I thought it was a large billfish, since we had just hauled out a few bonito on the back lines we had dangling over the stern. Immediately, it broke the surface again. A massive manta ray. It did a few backflops in quick succession before disappearing into the deep indigo abyss. Seeing things like that makes you remember two things: we must be pretty far from civilization, and, since these creatures are here and the ecosystem seems intact, we have not destroyed it yet.
Arriving at Raphael Island where we would spend the next week living, we were greeted by guides Craig and Justin in the skiffs. We swiftly grabbed our hand luggage and jumped aboard, high 5’s all round hugs and general stoke as we met the rest of the team. We would fish two rods on a boat per guide, and rotate throughout the week until we had all fished with each other. I prefer this strategy as opposed to fishing with one partner and guide for the week.
The first day I was with Warwick and the silent, but deadly, Justin Rollinson as our guide for the day. We went to a little sand spit on the low tide first, to warm up on some schooling bonefish and maybe scope out a crab-eating sickle fin thing (aka permit). The drive there was nuts, the flats, bommies, turtle grass patches and bits of reef outcrop were endless. The only thing that breaks them up is an odd channel of wide, deeper water here and there that is obviously essential for letting the mass of water move around on the inside of the lagoon. One of the first things I noticed after anchoring the skiff on the sand, was the amount of life in the water. I waded past a turtle, then another one. Then I saw an absolute unit of a lemon shark cruising on the outskirts of the sand I was standing on.
I struggled at first, my casting was off, probably being self conscious in front of the other two, I missed more shots than Bruce Willis in the early 90’s.”
For the rest of Nic’s story, check out issue 19 of The Mission.