Kimberley – now there’s a name to conjure with. Almost exactly a hundred years ago, during the Boer war, my Grandfather was treading these parched hills at the time of the siege of Kimberley. Well I remember sitting on his aged knee to hear scary tales of how the British defenders ate rats, and hard dry biscuit in order to survive. Then there was the tale of how he, alone, had captured a huge python that had been eating the local natives. He told me that he had put a goat into an iron cage, as bait for the serpent. The python had slid in, and swallowed the goat, and then been far too fat to worm its way out of the cage. I believed him – as a four-year-old grandson must. Grandfather was lovely.
Kimberley was also the home of the huge Culinan diamond, which, cut and shaped, now resides in the crown jewels of England. A hundred years ago too, this was the centre of Cecil John Rhodes power. With the might of the De Beers behind him, he forged a way north into an unwelcoming territory that he wrested by fair and foul means from the local tribes. He modesty re-named that land Rhodesia.
This is still the centre of the South African diamond mining industry, and it still has the air of a frontier town. Beyond, is a semi-arid land of great beauty, where the wise venture with care, and sufficient supplies. This is a magnificent land, but it can bite you in the arse, in more ways than one.
But a great green swathe runs through this parched land – the valley of the mighty Vaal River. The Vaal rises in the central heart of South Africa and debouches many hundreds of miles later into the Atlantic Ocean. In the upper reaches the river is famous for its huge carp, but downstream, in the wilderness beyond Kimberley, it’s the yellowfish and catfish that provide the sport.
Paul and I met our guide for the area. Dirk Potgieter, who runs a full time guiding service on the river. Dirk has negotiated with the local Chief, and now has an exclusive concession on the best fishing areas. With the increase in interest in wilderness fishing even rivers as huge as the Vaal, can be overfished. Dirk maintains a strict catch and release policy, and with his keen interest in nature and conservation, he ensures that reaches of the river are carefully rotated. The result is that each angler is confronted by what amounts to almost virgin water: (although it has been pointed out to me that the words almost and virgin simply do not go together).
The drive to the river is another of those ‘interesting’ African events. The game trails are nearly wide enough for the four-wheel-drive, and the traction on the wheels is almost enough to keep you going, most of the time. Yes, interesting is the best description, and not boring. Wildebeest leap up the slope beside the track, then stare imperiously from the top of the rise. A warthog scuttles across the trail.
With bones and teeth jangling we drove down old dry riverbed to find a broad green scar of lush riverine bush, and the glare of a sparkling river - the Vaal.
During the rainy season the Vaal can be a raging torrent of red muddy water, but we found it in quiescent mode, clear but with a tinge of the same African red - ideal for yellowfish.
The yellowfish had a near legendary status in South Africa. In appearance it seems to be a cross between or own European barbel, and the great mahseer of Asia. Like most gamefish, it can be caught on bait, but the most sporting way to take it is by flyfishing. The yellowfish is an extremely beautiful creature, with flanks that glow with a deep burnished iridescence The Vaal yellows vary considerably in size, up to well over thirty pounds. Even small yellows fight like the very devil, and a thirty pounder is a creature to be taken very seriously indeed. A that size it has the looks and power of a Ganges mahseer.
With that thirty pounder in mind I selected a strong outfit – an eight weight Winston BL5, with a Youngs Sea Venture reel loaded with an Orvis Wonderline floating line, and a Snowbee 10 lb leader. Seeing me staring into an overfull flybox, Dirk bullied me into one of his own concoctions – a black fuzzy thing with no name, and of no great beauty. Dirk opined that if it was black, and moving, the yellows would nail it.
The fish range wide over the Vaal shallows, but Dirk suggested that the better fish would probably be in the deeper channels. We waded out slowly, casting into the marginal shallows as we picked our way over the slippery bottom. I’ve waded a bit in my time, but I’ve never found any bottom as treacherous a the Vaal. With odd patches of ‘thank God’ gravel, the Vaal is carpeted with cannonball sized rocks of impeccable roundness and smoothness, each of which is coated with a friction free coating of green slime. Dirk, wearing disposable trainers, took a dive at one point, picked himself up, and carried on as though nothing had happened. Wearing felt-bottomed Orvis Henry’s Fork wading shoes, I felt just a bit more stable, but balancing over these oversize ball-bearings was pretty athletic stuff. The idea is that you find yourself a patch of sand before you attach yourself to a thirty pounder. Dirk turned and smiled, ‘don’t worry John, it’ll be worth the effort.’
Near the centre of the river we stopped, and with a patch of sand each, began to search the main channel – perhaps 3’ – 5’ deep. Figure of eighting back at sufficient speed to keep the fly from snagging the bottom weed, we were both soon into yellows. They were not huge by yellow standards, but even yellows of a pound and a half bend the rod well. Initially they ran and ran, taking line off the reel. Closer to the net they circled doggedly, refusing to come off the bottom. Very barbel-like.
The fish were very co-operative, and I guess we had upwards of thirty during the morning. My best was just over four pounds, and Dirk had a much larger fish that just came off after a screaming forty yard run. Even my modest four pounder fought like a thing possessed – far, far harder than a four pound trout.
In the shade of a tree with thorns like a Whirling Dervish’s dagger, we made plans for the afternoon. ‘I don’t think the really big chaps are here in force John. Would you like something surprising that will REALLY put a bend in your flyrod?’ Silly question I thought, and, engrossed with a mouthful of Boerwurst sausage, I nodded. ‘We’ll head off downstream a bit then,’ said Dirk.
Downstream, we stood on a ridge overlooking the river, which was considerably narrower, and appeared to be deeper – perhaps 8’ – 10’. As we downed our beers in liquid preparation for an afternoon in the sun, a vast shape loomed up from the depths, and gulped in something from the surface, with a sound like a hippopotamus drawing breath – then it sank slowly back to the bottom. ‘Catfish,’ said Dirk laconically. I estimated the fish at about 50 lbs. ‘Good fun on a fly rod,’ said Dirk. I was already changing to a 14 lb leader.
I’m not at all sure about African catfish. There must be several species, but the South Africans call all these big chaps ‘barbel’ just to confuse British anglers. I reckon they’re just the same as the famous vundu catfish caught further north. You may remember John Wilson cackling with laughter as he broke yet another rod on an eighty pounder, somewhere in Zimbabwe – I think. Anyway, I didn’t have bait, and the idea of catching a catfish on fly appealed to my highly-developed sense of the ridiculous.
I’m not going to say that I had to try hard to catch these catfish, because I didn’t. Not having carp-like names, and not having been caught on many occasions on fishmeal super-special boilies, these fish we absolutely ‘up’ for anything that might be digestible. You may think that such fishing is less fine than greased lining on the Spey, but when the first catfish grabbed my black lure and headed off at a speed you really wouldn’t believe possible, I was having far too much fun to think about the social acceptability of what I was doing. And the catfish didn’t give a cuss about what I was thinking, because it streaked straight across the river, and surfaced in huge boil of red mud. Then it sat there. I pulled, and it sat, so I pulled harder and harder until it grudgingly began to kite downstream, with me trotting along opposite, to keep in touch. With the rod in a half circle, and my arm beginning to wilt, and the sun beating down upon a forehead beaded with sweat, I spent twenty minutes easing this fish across the river, and under my bank. At this stage I hadn’t seen the thing – it could have been a fifty pounder for all I knew. But the size matter became quite irrelevant almost immediately, because with another preposterous surge, the catfish took off for the other bank again, stripping line off the drag with contemptuous ease. The strong Winston rod just bend and bent, all the way through to the handle.
It was again a game of tug-o-war, but the fish came, perhaps with less of an impression of immovability than on the last occasion. Under the bank again, the catfish boiled up the bottom. I really wondered whether I could ever get it up to the surface. Eventually though, up she came, with a fixed grin that suggested evil intentions. Paul gripped the fish under its chin, and swung it ashore.
They’re strange fish these cats. Out of the water the fish might have been dead for all the movement it made. I gather that they can live for hours in the air, and recover quickly, even when their skin has dried to become like leather. Lift it, weigh it, take its picture – it was more of a pussy cat. Lowered gently into the water, it once again became live, and went off like a rocket. It weighed 26 lbs and appeared to be about a quarter the size of the one I’d spotted from the top of the ridge. So what on earth would a thing like THAT do to a poor angler.
I caught five cats. I caught only five because, really, after five battles like the one described above, I was absolutely knackered, and I’d had enough. My arms were shaking, and I had a headache to write stories about. The biggest fish was just over 28 lbs.
Dirk spent the afternoon catching yellowfish, and my faithful Paul spent the afternoon telling me to pull harder, although he also had a seventeen pounder on my gear while I was taking a breather. Needless to say, I told him to pull harder, and he told me to ……. well, I’d better not say.
This is terrific fishing, and so unexpected out here on the fringes of the Kalahari desert. Two things I should say here. Firstly, and unusually, its completely safe to wade in this part of South Africa. There are no crocodiles in the Vaal, and there are no waterborne bug diseases (like bilharzia) that you find in many African rivers. Secondly although it feels as though you’re right out off the edge of the map, this area is easily accessible, as it is less than a hundred miles from Kimberley, although you can’t just turn up and fish here. This is tribal land, and access is only through Dirk Potgietter.
Hot or not, (and it was always manageable) I loved it, and I’d go back at the drop of a hat.
Oh yes, and for the readers who imagine themselves to be budding Hemingways - if you fancy a bit of big game shooting while you’re in Africa, Dirk can also arrange that quite easily – guns, tracker, and all. A stuffed sable antelope peering at you from over the breakfast table might be just the thing to remind you of your African adventure. They’ll even dry the meat to make luscious chewy biltong for you, if you want it. I’d certainly have given the hunting a go, if I’d had time.
But time I hadn’t got, because I was heading north, into the heart of Africa. The tales worried me, but the events of the next few days changed for ever my feeling for travel, and for Africa. I tell you about it next month, in the last of this series.
South African Airways reservations 0870 747 1111
Standard fare, London – Capetown Expect to pay around £500 return (that’s a bargain)
Flights are Every day to Johannesburg and Capetown
Flight distance/time 6,000 miles/ 11 hours
Paul Coetzee Fishing Safaris http://www.explore-southafrica.co.za/
(Paul can arrange everything for you)
Visa requirements None from UK. From elsewhere, you should check.
Jabs Check with your doctor. In the north you should pop malaria pills, just to be certain.
Clothing Generally lightweight. A lightweight rain suit can occasionally be useful. I’ll be writing shortly on the clothing and tackle I used.