MARBATHO

MARBATHO

On a whistle-stop tour from Cape Town to Joburg via the Bokong River in Lesotho, Swedish filmmaker Rolf Nylinder and his friends Markus Lemke and Håvard Stubø did it all. They caught both hard-fighting indigenous species and beloved aliens, drank all the beer, danced in mountain villages, held skateboarding competitions, and had their eyes opened to what our part of the world is like. Words. Rolf Nylinder. Photos. Rolf Nylinder, Brendan Body, Matt Kennedy. As featured on the cover of The Mission Issue 46 (Jul/Aug 2024)

Click here to watch the Marbatho film at the bottom of this page.

Suddenly the frequency of the jet engines changed. We were 30 000 feet above the Sahara Desert. The flight attendant looked unusually stressed out as she passed me. I’m not really comfortable in the air, and it’s a pretty long way from Stockholm to Cape Town. But neither my Norwegian friend, Håvard Stubø, nor Markus Lemke, the Arctic businessman from Swedish Lapland, seemed to be bothered about the aircraft’s ability to stay in the air. They looked bored.  

rolf nylinder

Håvard Stubø, Markus Lemke and Rolf Nylinder

At the airport, a tall, handsome young man with shimmering long brown hair smiled towards us. Matthew from The Mission would turn out to be a treasure. A little past midnight he dropped us at the hostel in Cape Town. We needed proper sleep but, among fishermen you don’t want to be the one asking for longer mornings. Four hours later Matt was back and without a problem he drove us towards the mountains (though the wheel was on the wrong side of the car, and the road was full of idiots driving on the wrong side). 

rolf nylinder

Witels

In the foothills of the Hex River Mountains in Mitchell’s Pass, microbiologist Leonard Flemming stood with his rod rigged waiting for us. We were late, and that had nothing to do with Matt. Before we reached the river we all understood that Leonard was a real heavyweight. He wasn’t one of those people who mastered fly fishing talk just to be a part of the community, he knew fishing for real. We lined up behind Leonard and the hierarchy was set as we entered the valley.  

“The lush green line carved in the dry hills gave me the sense of being fake. Two days earlier, I had shovelled snow from my porch.”

I’m very used to walking along rivers, but still it felt unfamiliar. The lush green line carved in the dry hills gave me the sense of being fake. Two days earlier, I had shovelled snow from my porch. We pushed upstream while blind-fishing one pool after the other. Our friend from home, the brown trout, was supposed to be there. In every new pool I expected to spot one. But nothing. Håvard, Markus and I agreed that the river was too warm, the trout were further upstream. We talked in Swedish so Leonard wouldn’t correct us. During the mandatory coffee break I took a nap and woke up to the sound of Håvard shouting. In his hands he held a little perch-looking fish, I recognised it as an American. We all caught smallmouth bass during our walk downstream, and celebrated with craft beer in the parking lot. I don’t know the difference between beer and craft beer, but said nothing. It was a great first day in Africa.  

Cederberg

After a good night’s sleep we regained normal brain function and started a lengthy drive into the South African outback. With Matt once again behind the wheel we rumbled along dusty gravel roads through the spectacular landscape of the Cederberg. In the bottom of a deep gorge, a little brown stream was hiding in the bushes. I could imagine David Attenborough sitting there on a rock saying, “And behind me you have the world’s most poisonous snake.” Leonard and our new companion, Platon Trakoshis, would confirm my suspicions. We were in snake country.  

Though we all were beginners and did exactly the same thing, Håvard still ended up with the biggest fish, like always.” 

The fishing reminded me of my teenage years as a dedicated angler, but instead of a bobber I had an indicator and instead of a worm I had a nymph. Håvard was the first one out. Leonard suddenly told him to strike. We didn’t understand anything.  We had all been watching the indicator. Apparently the small vibrations were a take and you were supposed to strike super-fast. After a while Håvard had a new species in his hands, the sawfin. When we had gotten a grip on the fishing, the river provided us with golden souvenirs. Markus was the first one to catch the Clanwilliam yellowfish.  Then I followed in his footsteps. Though we all were beginners and did exactly the same thing, Håvard still ended up with the biggest fish, like always. As he held that golden trophy in his hands I could swear that Leonard gave him a silent nod of acceptance, like he was saying, “Alright, you are one of us, the big fish people.”  

Catching fish is good for the group dynamic, and we caught lots of fish. Matt landed what I assume was a very nice sawfin, twice as big as the other one we had caught that day. Markus introduced Leonard to the art of Kokkaffe, traditional Swedish coffee. It looked like a friendly gesture, but I know my friend better than that.  He is, after all, “the Arctic businessman”. He was introducing our coffee brand, Lemmel, to a new market. The rest of the day we spent looking for rising fish, apparently the Clanwilliam could start to rise in the evening, but the evening came and the Clanwilliam did not rise. 

Rules

The next day we found ourselves in a new group, the safety of Matt was gone, and Leonard had left us without a leader. In their place we had a relaxed session on one of the Cape streams with Matt Gorlei and Nick van Rensburg from Flybru, and their friend Ryan Janssens. They introduced us to rainbow trout fishing, one fish in each pocket they said, and let their flies drift over. After just a minute we got to see one of the inhabitants of the river. They caught several rainbows while Håvard and Markus sat on one of the round rocks with their eyes fixed on the river. We politely explained that when it comes to dry fly fishing, our rulebook doesn’t allow us to cast unless we can spot the fish or see a rise. We felt ungrateful, but some rules you can’t break even if you are on the other side of the world. A windy day passed with lots of coffee.  

“We felt ungrateful, but some rules you can’t break even if you are on the other side of the world.” 

In the evening we showed our film, A Not Too Steady Flow of Mayflies for the fly fishing community in Cape Town. I felt like Rodriguez in the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman. Unknowingly, we had an audience in South Africa. The place was full of enthusiastic friendly fly fishers. One guy stood out in the crowd. A tall, skinny, weathered ginger with the eyes of a 15-year-old boy. Brendan “Bod” Body, our companion for the rest of the trip.  

Karoo 

When the sun rose we had already been in the car for an hour or two. In a long line of trucks it felt as if we were driving along a railroad through the Karoo desert. Bod said something about trucks replacing the broken railroad infrastructure because of the lack of competent leadership, before he moved on to the next subject. He was a human radio, and we loved the channel. Sometimes Markus and I talk about the fact that fly fishers talk way too much about fly fishing, but Bod wasn’t like that. Skateboarding, Israel, Palestine, climate change, pets, ANC, films, music and the clarity of the night sky over the Orange River. The line between wealth and poverty in this country is blatant, Bod said as we passed a township. During our drive we had seen a few of the tin-shed villages already, I hadn’t seen that kind of poverty before and I didn’t know what to do with the realisation that we had crossed the world in order to catch a fish. We were extremely fortunate to be measuring our happiness in the number of fish rising to a dry fly.

We were extremely fortunate to be measuring our happiness in the amount of fish rising to a dry fly.” 

When the sun reached the horizon again the scenery started to change. As we left the desert, the green colour returned to the landscapes. Shortly after night fall we reached Ficksburg, a small town on the border of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.  

rolf nylinder

Lesotho

Small farmhouses everywhere, sheep and donkeys along the road as we climbed the green hillsides on a surprisingly good road. China has paid for it in some way, Bod said. We made a few stops to take in the view, smoke cigarettes and rest the brakes, before we rolled on to Katse village. The road went from perfect to adventurous, bumpy dirt before we reached our final destination, the pristine Bokong River and the Makhangoa Community Camp (MCC).  

Makhangoa Community Camp

An initiative between the local community and African Waters, the MCC on Lesotho’s Bokong River is a brilliant example of sustainable eco-tourism in action. To find out more about this fantastic fishery with its 20km of incredible yellowfishing (plus big brown trout and rainbows too), as well as the Indifly-backed solar project and the Bokong’s River Rangers, visit africanwaters.net.  

When fishing at home we are used to sleeping in mosquito-filled tents and eating poorly in Arctic conditions. This operation run by African Waters (africanwaters.net) was something else. After being shown our rooms in the MCC, we realised that, for the coming days, we would be treated like royals.  

No matter how nice the rooms were and how good the food they served in camp, our interest lay elsewhere. Riley, one of the guides in camp, talked about the number of fish in the river in a laid-back, confident and almost nonchalant manner. At the same time he was warm and friendly. Riley had what we in Sweden call “storkukslugn” (the calm of having a large dick).  

We never learned about the actual size of his dick. Riley’s confidence perhaps came from the knowledge that he was a guide in a river that fulfilled every visitor’s dream. That worried me.  My mission was to make a film about this fishing. I find the fisherman’s reaction to catching a fish more important than the size or the number of fish, and the joy of catching fish is in direct correlation with the number of fish you catch. I suspected I would need to film the first fish we caught in order to get a good fishing scene with maximum excitement. Soon we stood there gazing into clear water at the very first pool of the river. In the golden evening light a fish broke the surface. This was our first encounter with the smallmouth yellowfish. 

Håvard’s diary from that day  

Hands shaking, I put my dry fly, a size 14 Balbyter, 2-3 metres ahead of the fish. A few seconds later, the fish smashed my fly violently. My strike was way too hard, and the fish broke me off immediately. Damn! Amateur hour again. The guides had warned us that the yellows were seriously powerful fish that could easily snap the leader, but controlling your nerves in these situations is easier said than done. What’s worse, that was my only Balbyter. A few minutes later, we spotted another big yellow cruiser. I covered the fish quickly with an ant pattern, but it flat-out refused the fly. I went through several different dries, including a big hopper and a small Klinkhammer. No luck. Picky yellow bastards. Strangely enough, the preferred fly turned out to be a tiny hi-viz mayfly spinner from Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, Montana. Dry fly fishing is strange sometimes.  

The fish inhaled my American dry fly gently and took off in a blistering first run. Euphoria! An awesome fish, almost prehistoric-looking in its beauty. A real powerhouse, too, probably somewhere between four and five pounds, deep-bellied with broad shoulders. Gleaming gold with a tiny moustache. Darkness came creeping fast, and we made for a late dinner and a couple of cold ones at the camp.   

The village

The thunderstorms and heavy rain kept coming all through the night. The river got colder and slightly discoloured. We let some dry flies drift over the blurry shadows in the pool, but they wouldn’t rise. David from the local village upstream had followed us down to the river. I didn’t always understand his English, but I instinctively liked him. It seemed he was a friend to everyone. You either saw him laughing with people in camp or alone by the river constantly bouncing back and forth between solitude and social interactions.  

The Balbyter 

“This thing has as many triggers as Pamela Anderson jogging down the beach in a thong. Fish can’t help themselves, it just screams ‘ant!’” Gordon van der Spuy describing the Bokong River’s most infamous pattern designed by Ed Truter. For more info on this fly, click here. 

He suggested we put a dropper under the hopper in order to catch a fish. Markus politely explained that he would rather wait for the water to clear, smiled and gave David the rod. You go! David caught a fish proving that the hopper dropper was an excellent solution for the tough conditions. After lunch we exchanged songs standing in the back of the Land Rover driving up to the Makhangoa village. Just a few kilometres upstream a bunch of small houses were standing on a steep hillside. The villagers had gathered around the only flat surface, and on a bench in the middle an old man sat looking at us, smiling with his eyes but the rest of the face gravely serious. Bod, Håvard, Markus and I stood there for a while not knowing how to interact with the people of the village. Riley explained that we had to talk to the chief before we were allowed to interact with the rest, and so we did.  

“Where’s your house, David?” I asked. A pretty steep walk later I was standing by a little cabin further up on the slope separated from the rest of the village. We stood there looking down on the village and the river beneath. I live in a very different village on the other side of the globe. Compared to David I was wealthy as fuck, living in materialistic abundance, but I wasn’t sure I was the winner. He had a sense of ease that I envied. Perhaps I just let my mind fill the gaps in our communication, but I recognised myself in him.  

Bokong

In the days that followed we really got to see what the Bokong River is made of. Gin-clear, stunningly beautiful and absolutely packed with big yellows. As you fish you’re surrounded by tall green mountains, with horses, cows, donkeys and sheep grazing on the steep slopes as locals go about their business at a leisurely pace. We all caught more than enough yellows on dry flies – big beautiful fish that fought with true grit.  

After a while I didn’t know what to film, it was too lovely. That was an actual problem for my film. There wasn’t much friction. One afternoon Bod and I realised there was a little strip of concrete outside one of the cabins. Bod fetched his skateboard and we played a game of skate, Berrics Rules. That’s when it hit me how much older Bod was than me. The way he positioned his front foot when making “impossibles” made it clear that he had started skating before I was even born.  

Berrics Rules 

Not to be confused by the way Game of Thrones character Lord Beric Dondarrion lived his seemingly immortal life, “Berrics Rules” are a set of rules designed for judging a game of skate (skateboarding competition), so named after The Berrics, a private indoor skatepark owned by professional skateboarders Steve Berra and Eric Koston.  

Last day

After another long drive we found ourselves in Johannesburg for our last screening. It felt slightly surreal to meet people who have been following our stuff online for many years. Some of them had seen all our films. After the tranquillity of Lesotho, the monster city of Johannesburg was kind of hard to take in. We got the sense that the city was a bit out of control, every house looked like a Swedish prison, surrounded by electric fences. 

Here and there Bod pointed at places and told stories, mostly skateboarding stories from his time growing up in Johannesburg. Ten years ago he and the rest of the skateboarding community had left for Cape Town.  

At the airport we shared one last meal, then we watched the tall skinny ginger walk away. I felt certain we would meet again. 

You’ve read the article. Now, watch the movie…

Marbaten/Marbatho For the Lemmel crew, “Marbaten” is the name given to a mythical place of good fishing. Think Shangri La, but for fish. Combine “Marbaten” with Lesotho and you get Marbatho, the name of the film Rolf made about this trip.

You’ve read the article and watched the movie, now…

Read the rest of The Mission Issue 46 (Jul/Aug 2024) below, for free. The Mission is made with blood, sweat and beers – you can buy us one on Patreon.

The Mission is free to read! All we ask is for your email address so we can send you a rad newsletter once a month (including announcements of new editions). You can unsubscribe at any time and we promise we won't use your details for anything nefarious.

Leave a comment

RELATED ARTICLES

SHOP MISSION MERCH

Subscribe to our newsletter and get all the latest to your inbox!