It’s not often you get given the “job” of exploring remote valleys to find trout in seldom fished rivers. When Luke Pannell and fellow guide Ruhan Kruger went to Lesotho, they found all that, plus mythical water-beasts, runaway donkeys, midnight cowboys and more. Full story in issue 34 of The Mission.

For as long as I can remember the outdoors have fascinated me. As a young boy my family would visit Nylsvley Nature Reserve (in Limpopo Province) whenever the opportunity presented itself. I remember sitting on my father’s lap while steering the car along the endless dirt roads as he controlled the pedals below my dangling feet. My siblings and I, a trio with nightmarish tendencies, would fight for turns behind the wheel or for the chance to sit on the roof of the old Nissan bakkie. Driving around the park, badgering each other incessantly, it’s a wonder we saw any animals at all. At times, the car would stop and the three of us would clamber out with our tiny bare feet, free at last from the cramped backseat and on the lookout for any animal that we could ‘hunt’ through the veld. Luckily for us, our enthusiasm far-outshone our stalking abilities. I think it was in those formative years that my affinity with adventure really started to develop. Guiding has given me a platform to search out those places that excite and frighten me, sometimes in equal measure. Although, as time goes on, we all become desensitised to our experiences. It takes just a little bit more risk, the chance of a slightly bigger fish or maybe even the thought of going somewhere less travelled, to really kindle that excitement. None of us is immune to this.

When the opportunity to spend some time exploring remote areas in the Lesotho Highlands on behalf of X-Factor Angling presented itself,  I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having recently fished and guided throughout the Eastern Cape as well as Kwa-Zulu Natal, it felt like being so close —how different could it be? Regardless, the mandate was simple — find an unheard of river with the potential for big fish that logistically has the possibility of turning into a product for the company. As with anything good, it does not come easily and so, once briefed, I started the process of sifting through the less mentioned river systems in Lesotho. A week later I stumbled across an old blog post, written by a hiker almost ten years back, in which he detailed his encounters with big brown trout in a lesser-known area of the country. His account made me hold my breath briefly. He spoke about how difficult it was to reach the river and how he had been told that no other fly fisherman had passed through the village at the base of the gorge. This was it. Or was it? Doubt started to creep in. Deliberately, he had not named the river or, for that matter, given any names at all of the surrounding areas. Google Earth, the blog (with some nondescript photos) and a map of the different river systems in that area of the country were superimposed on each other and carefully analysed. Finally, I narrowed it down to two rivers.

With winter fast approaching, time was of the essence. The prospect of hiking high into a mountain range, with limited supplies, when temperatures were already expected to drop below minus six degrees Celsius, meant that the sooner we got there the better. The following week, myself and Ruhan left Jo’burg and set off for the border. The idea was to drive to the highest point possible before loading up our packs and pushing, ideally with the help of a donkey, past any villages and into a valley leading to the source of the first river. We would spend three nights there, working our way up the river, before hiking back out and driving another six hours to the next river where we would repeat the process. There were a lot of unknowns. Would the chief allow us to explore the area? Was there even a chief to speak of? How far could two guides, armed with five packs of two-minute noodles, a bag of rice and a tent, make it up the valley? It was time to answer all these questions.

When entering Lesotho from the north the one thing that is abundantly clear at the border is that you are travelling upwards. Small hills quickly expand into larger and more ominous shapes. Before you know it, you are zig-zagging up the side of a never-ending mountain pass (Ru and I both questioned how anyone could build a functional road in such a perilous position). By 10 o’clock we had summited the tallest of these passes. Worryingly, the clear skies and bright sun had done little to melt the ice scattered across the escarpment. We drove for another few hours, our only pit-stop being at a bridge above a glacial stream with blue water. We managed to spot and catch a small trout from the bridge before jumping back in the car and pushing on to the first river.  We were now even more excited than before.

Kids in Lesotho

“Ya better make that cast, ya jackass”

Arriving at the village was as bemusing as it was exhilarating. Between us we could barely mime our way through filling the car up, the language barrier being one of the worst I have ever experienced. Somehow though, we managed to locate the house of the head chief and were quickly informed that he was away. We were introduced to his wife. She, along with the small crowd gathering, was confused as to why we were there, what we wanted to do up in their valley and, most importantly, whether or not we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We smiled and assured her as best we could that we would be fine, our tent and tiny sleeping bags doing little to comfort her. Warnings of rogue cowboys, dangerous snakes and ice on the river did little to deter us. In any case, after sharing pleasantries and receiving her blessing, along with the promise that her son, Paul, would join us later in our journey, we set off to start our first exploration.

It was now 3 o’clock and the light was dimming in the valley. Knowing that the hike would be difficult and as we were anxious not to be left walking in the dark, we rushed to start. A young Basotho boy, Debello, was introduced to us as we were about to leave the village. He had been asked to show us the best route into the valley and proceeded to set an unimaginable pace along a small goat path. Both Ru and I had overestimated our fitness at such high altitude, my Garmin satellite phone read 2630m above sea level, and the 18kg of weight we each had strapped to our backs (and fronts) made the going slow. Debello pushed us to speed up as he still needed to hike back out of the valley before it became dangerous. When we finally reached our camp for the night, a suitably flat beach, it was almost dark. Debello quickly turned around and started his return leg. We watched him disappear over the looming mountain we had just descended, only for him to reappear half an hour later. Ru and I stood silently as he explained that it was no longer safe to walk home and that he, with nothing more than a thin blanket and collared shirt for warmth, would be staying the night, but not in our tent! When I broke the ice on the fly sheet’s zip the following morning a part of me was scared to look in the direction of Debello’s fire.

After our first afternoon’s hike it was abundantly clear that without a donkey we would never cover enough ground with our tight schedule. Debello, after thawing his toes out against the heat of the fire, agreed to meet us higher up the valley that afternoon with his own donkey, Anna. Ru and I decided to explore just below our camp in a very steep area of the gorge. What we found was a succession of massive pools, some so deep we couldn’t see the bottom. We were later told that the deepest of the pools, referred to as ‘Teronko’ (Sesotho for jail), held a water beast with malicious intent. Some villagers had even drowned in the pool and now no-one dared to fish near it.

Luke Pannell with a Lesotho rainbow trout

Luke Pannell with a Lesotho rainbow trout

After observing ‘Teronko’ for a short while, Ru spotted movement. A really big shadow crept along the bottom. Slowly it took shape and we cast our eyes on a massive fish, easily over 60cm, lazily moving side to side eating nymphs in the current. I decided to watch from above while Ru made his way down the 40-metre cliff face and into a position that allowed him to present a fly. I watched as he hooked and broke off the same monster twice in the space of five minutes. Unfortunately, 5X tippet just was not going to cut it and the aggression the fish showed when it ate for the second time made it clear that it had no concept of being hooked. We regrouped at our bags and laughed at the sheer insanity of what had just happened. Having heard the tales of Teronko gave us comfort.  We knew that this was no ordinary fish but rather a water beast.

Read the rest of this story in issue 34 below. As always, it’s free.