No matter how often I travel through the Natal Midlands on my way to a Berg destination, I am captivated by the lush, peaceful scene – scattered homesteads set among rolling hills, cultivated lands, small plantations and indigenous forests, a landscape dotted with decidedly fishy looking impoundments and streams.
Squeezed for the truth, I would have to admit that it is at the end of these meandering country roads where the greatest attraction lies for me – the many clear streams flowing from the mountains below the Drakensberg escarpment that are home to wild trout. No matter how often I am to visit the Drakensberg, I always feel the excitement and anticipation I would if visiting an old friend. It is a place I’m always happy to be part of.
Our destination this time was the Ezemvelo KZN (EKZN) Wildlife resort at Giant’s Castle. It’s one of EKZN Wildlife’s flagship resorts, situated in a spectacular mountain environment below the prominent buttress known as the Sleeping Giant, with towering peaks so close by it feels like you could reach out and touch them.
The area is rich in indigenous fauna, flora and San art. It is also rich in local history surrounding the expeditionary force organised by the Natal colonial government in 1873 against chief of the amaHlubi, Langalibalele, after he first defied the government and rebelled against authorities. He defeated the British, but was then captured in what was Basutoland, and banished to Robben Island. The full history and places of interest in the area are available at Giant’s Castle Resort.
The camp is beautifully landscaped with flora common to the area and the accommodation is out of the top drawer, yet unobtrusive. It is clear that considerable thought went into the layout and design of the camp to ensure that the impact on the natural environment was minimal.
I must concede that, after the physical effort put into a long day’s fishing in search of trout in high altitude streams, and the hardships often endured, it is most welcome to return to a cosy cottage with all the mod cons, hot water, comfortable beds and a fireplace for those chilly evenings. Giant’s Castle Resort offers all this and more.
A part of the natural charm of this place is the Bushman’s River, one of the most beautiful trout streams I know of. It’s a brown-trout stream originally stocked in 1890, a fact, among others, that’s well documented by the late Bob Crass in his book Trout Fishing in Natal.
To be precise, it was on 7 May of that year that 498 trout from John Clarke Parker’s Boschfontein hatchery were released into the river. Some argue strongly that it is South Africa’s premier brown-trout stream. I pass
on being the judge of this one, simply because I have fished a few other streams that could also lay claim to this accolade.
However, I take nothing away from the Bushman’s. It is a magnificent stream and is certainly up there among the very best of them when it comes to flyfishing. It must be said, though, that if it is trophy or lots of fish you are after, this is probably not your kind of fishing. The trout are small, seldom exceeding 12 inches and anything heavier than a 2wt rod and 7X tippet is likely to be a handicap.
After settling into our accommodation, and with a hearty meal under the belt, Mark Pardey and I prepared our tackle for an early start the next morning. It never fails to amaze me how the fastidious preparation for a day’s fishing can be so absorbing and create such an air of expectancy. Everything is discussed and examined in the finest detail – things like leader lengths and diameters, flies, the weather, the habits of the trout, methods of presentation and much more. Even a debate on the quality of the wine, which gets better by the glass, has its place. These are the rituals appreciated by flyfishers alone.
On Saturday morning Mark and I were up at daybreak. The weather was misty, with feathery caps on the mountains. A weak, hazy sun did its best to brighten the landscape, the majestic high peaks revealing themselves occasionally as the mist cleared momentarily before closing in again. The air at this time is always crisp and it’s just a great part of the day, despite the fact that it’s not always the best time for fishing – generally trout in mountain streams seem to be late risers, only becoming active when the sun touches the water.
Still in shadow, the Bushman’s was flowing cold and fast, regrouping occasionally in deep runs, slowing at riffling turns and cascading through small pockets. We decided to walk upstream, leapfrogging the likely spots as we made our way. Mark won the toss and opted to cast first. There were no signs of surface activity so we selected small, lightly-weighted Zak nymphs to start with. We fished upstream, using short drifts and small yarn strike indicators. Anything but a stealthy approach in such fine and clear conditions is not up for discussion, it’s a must if you are to have any chance of deceiving the wary trout of these streams.
I watched Mark working the run above me and was struck by his careful presentation, his low crouch and the fluid way in which he lifted the line into the backcast and then, with minimal movement, just a flick and squeeze of the thumb on the cork to push the rod forward as he systematically covered all the likely spots upstream. Mark is one of those flyfishers I admire; his patience and attention to detail, and the sensitivity he displays to ensure the survival of the trout once released, are all noteworthy. It’s no wonder the trout came regularly to his fly.
It was the perfect small stream for lightweight rods, fine tippets and flies mostly no bigger than size 16s. The morning passed quickly and by 8.30am we had covered almost two kilometres of the stream above the main camp to the confluence with the small tributary, the Tweedassiespruit. We didn’t take many fish, but enough to keep us focused.
By 9am we were back in camp for breakfast. I recall reading somewhere that when anglers have a poor day there is a tendency to slip into camp unobtrusively, but after a good day you can expect a rather boisterous return — our wives complained of the latter. We had had a wonderful morning on the upper Bushman’s, a delightful piece of water in a place as pretty as you will find anywhere, and decided to enjoy the comfort of the camp during the heat of the day. We only rigged up our lines again after 3pm to try the section of the stream about seven kilometres below the camp at the confluence of the Bushman’s and uMtshezana. Access is from the Champagne Pools parking area on the reserve entrance road and from there it’s an easy walk down to the stream.
It has been my experience in clear, shallow, quick-flowing streams like this, to find that the trout quite often rise readily to the dry fly. Most of the time I don’t worry too much about imitating hatching insects because the trout in these tiny mountain streams are seldom truly fussy – they have to grub out a pretty meagre existence and are opportunistic rather than selective.
As long as you sneak up unnoticed, a well-presented, drab, buggy-looking fly will usually get their attention. And so it was on this day. Some of the takes were so ferocious they belied the small size of the fish, which were displaying personalities reminiscent of a junkyard dog. They had our light rods kicking and bucking in their attempts to break free — some were successful, but quite a few were brought to hand. I have also found that in these waters the initial presentation has the best chance of attracting a strike.
The likelihood of a take on subsequent casts diminishes progressively. It was an eventful afternoon on this equally pretty stretch of the Bushman’s, each of us catching a number of browns and spotting a couple of bigger fish of a pound or more, which we spooked before we could get a fly over them. About 500m downstream of the confluence, in among the browns we started catching the odd rainbow still showing its parr marks. It appears that at this point there is a small population that has established itself – the offspring of escapees from the private trout hatchery just outside the entrance to the reserve. One hopes that they don’t, in time, affect the reputation of the Bushman’s as one of the country’s most premier brown-trout streams.
As the afternoon drew to a close, typical of summer in the Berg, the sunny skies gave way to some ominous-looking storm clouds, the sky as dark as a livid bruise. Far away, the grumbling and groaning that sounded like some meteorological indigestion hinted at the weather preparing for a great event. We decided to pack it in and headed back to camp, arriving just as the first drops started to fall. Fortunately nothing much came of it and we were later able to enjoy a braai under the stars. It had been a good day covering only about four kilometres of the approximately 12km section of the Bushman’s River within the Giant’s Castle reserve area, all of it very fishable water.
I have unfinished business with this stream and will be returning to fish the section between its confluence with the uMtshezana and the camp. Judging by the glimpses one gets from the road high above, it is inviting with many interesting and promising spots. However, it will no doubt be hard-going physically. The stream forms a sparkling thread on the floor of a deep, steeply sided valley, winding its way through many natural obstructions and banks, protected in places by thick indigenous vegetation. As there is no defined path to follow you will need to be prepared for a lot of scrambling. Ideally, I would like to hike this stretch over a couple of days, camping overnight in the valley, but it’s unlikely that the authorities would give permission for this.
All too soon the weekend drew to a close. As we drove out of the reserve gate with a smart salute and courteous wave from the friendly warden, self-titled Prince Charles, the rain came bucketing down. Our only consolation on leaving was that the fishing would have been over for the day anyway – at least that’s what we convinced ourselves of.
I have returned many times to fish the Bushman’s River at Giant’s Castle over the years and have never been disappointed. Today when I walk alone along the banks I recall many of the trout that have risen to my fly, and the memory brings a smile. I sometimes even wonder what I have done to deserve this.
Giant’s Castle Resort is situated at the end of the road below the Drakensberg mountain escarpment, a distance from other resorts. It has therefore become the norm on our weekend trips fishing the Bushman’s River to spend a little time on our way there over a cup of coffee or maybe lunch at one of the quaint restaurants in Nottingham Road.
Some of our favourites are Blueberry Hill, Café Bloom and Barb’s Café. Notties is also the hub of the Midlands Meander, with comfortable accommodation establishments that include Loxley House, our usual overnight choice, as well as many arts and craft places of interest and, of course, flyfishing venues and a range of other outdoor activities and sports facilities.
Giant’s Castle Resort 036 353 3718
Tourism KZN www.zulu.org.za
Loxley House 033 266 6362
Midlands Meander 033 330 8195
For more accommodation options see