Russian rainbow trout that behave like tiger fish, mozzies the size of butterflies and vodka for breakfast in Kamchatka, arguably the wildest place on earth. By Dean Oelschig as featured in The Mission Issue 06.
Some places we want to visit will change us forever. We know this and we group them together in our minds, build them up and label them as bucket list items. I had many. One of them was a fly fishing trip to the Zhupanova River in Kamchatka, Russia.
I’ve grappled with how to tell this story, mostly because I never quite believed all the things I had read. Far-fetched. Hype. Hyperboles dreamt up to sell an experience that doesn’t live up to expectation. Well, let me get this out of the way. Whatever you have read or heard about the Zhupanova, in real life it is significantly better. Everything is wilder, purer, stronger, more beautiful than any photograph, article or fly fishing film fest portrays. The only way you will ever truly know, is to go there. I suggest you add it to your bucket list.
I am writing down some words to try do it a touch of justice. Trying to give you the truth.
Maybe, just maybe, this pushes you over the edge enough to become one of the 54 people a year who get to float down the Zhupanova and experience it. If so, you’ll thank me later.
“This is no ordinary countryside. This is National Geographic meets James Cameron. It looks CGI. We’re operating on no sleep, adrenalin and high octane beers with angry bear labels.”
In 2016, Andy “Kevin Costner” from Texas, Mark “Butcher” from Zimbabwe and Jerome and I from Johannesburg, began the long prep. Not knowing anyone who had been there, planning wasn’t entirely easy. We had watched all the films (Eastern Rises is the best) but we still got the weather wrong, packed far too many unused flies and made some almost costly tackle mistakes. But on the 4th of August 2017, none of this mattered anymore, we were heading to Russia.
Only the culmination of a year of planning and what we believed lay ahead pulled us through the travel. The itinerary is brutal. Leave Friday. Stops in Johannesburg, Dubai, Moscow. Two days in Moscow. What happens in Moscow? A nine hour domestic flight to Petropavlovsk. NINE HOURS. DOMESTIC. The longest domestic flight in the world without crossing a border. Depart Monday afternoon. Land at 11am, Tuesday. Ten time zones later.
We don’t care.
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Kamchatka Peninsula is a 270,000km2 section of Eastern Russia that juts out into the Pacific. It’s not too far from Alaska, on the top right hand corner if you look at a world map. The surrounding ocean is king crab territory of Deadliest Catch fame. The peninsula is known as the most uninhabitable place in Russia. For seven months of the year, water is ice and land is 12 feet of snow. Only hibernating bears can survive, of which there is the largest concentration on the planet. And well, if there are lots of bears, there must be lots of fish.
From Petropavlovsk, a small, sorry-looking fishing village, we have to take a helicopter trip into the mountains. Our ride is an old Russian Mi-8 helicopter. For an hour, we’re treated to a visual feast of volcanoes, untouched terrain scattered with cow hides of melting snow and bears and rivers. One hundred thousand rivers in an area just bigger than the Eastern Cape. And, probably, only one per cent of them have ever been fished. This is no ordinary countryside. This is National Geographic meets James Cameron. It looks CGI. We’re operating on no sleep, adrenalin and high octane beers (9%) with angry bear labels. The anxiety and realization of what we’re experiencing is only beginning to set in. Ever seen four grown men froth at the mouth? I have. I was one of them.
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Every so often, teasing like a pro, the helicopter passes over the meandering Zhupanova below, offering sightings of fish to send us into overdrive. We only realise later that these are zombies; rotting salmon, barely swimming upstream for their instinctual bad judgement of sex and death.
The giant chopper grumbles down at the first of our six camps. Wooden huts, Russian bear dogs, guides and six days of feed including warm beer, vodka and whisky. No ice. The fridge is a large drum filled with cool river water. It doesn’t take long to warm to room temperature which we had expected would be 16 degrees. It is 28. Mozzies the size of butterflies. And in another twist, we have three missing fly rods that mysteriously didn’t make it on to the helicopter. Four of us and 12 rods are down to just nine. And three of them are 5-weights; knives to a nuclear war.
Read the rest of “61 Hours from Jo’burg” in The Mission Issue 06 for free, below, or buy the print edition online (we ship worldwide).