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All Roads Lead to Rhodes

All Roads Lead to Rhodes

Flyfishers take your pick. Rhodes is a great place to go flyfishing. There is so much fishable water in the Eastern Cape Highlands it’s impossible to name a favourite. 

Words and Pictures: Peter Brigg

Rhodes (32)The trail of dust behind the vehicle marked our passage over gravel roads, across landscapes dotted with tall Lombardy poplars. In shades of autumn they stood sentinel over old stone farmsteads, cultivated lands, and flocks of fat sheep grazing in the natural grasslands.

We made a late start and, by the time we topped Naudé’s Nek Pass at 2 500m, we had been on the road from Durban for more than six hours. Below us on the western side, the road snaked down the mountain, offering spectacular vistas in the late-afternoon light, the deep valleys in shades of purple trimmed with gold. The village of Rhodes was just 30 or 40 minutes away.

The tiny hamlet lies in a remote northern corner of the Eastern Cape Highlands, along the southern border of Lesotho. This Victorian-era village was declared a Conservation Area in 1977, with a view to maintaining its timeless charm and beauty. Much of the attraction of Rhodes lies in its distance from all South Africa’s major towns. Yet a steady flow of roadtrippers and visitors from across the country and abroad make the journey, some on a regular basis.

It is a place for nature lovers, flyfishers, birders, mountain bikers, hikers, wildflower enthusiasts, horse riders and adventure seekers, or those just wanting to relax, away from the grime and bustle of city life. Enjoy the hospitality of the local people while soaking up Rhodes and its surroundings. In short, it is a place to do something or almost nothing.

Visiting Rhodes, however, is not without its challenges – it is remote and at times seems to be on the very edge of Earth. It feels the effects of distance and a slowing economy more than other villages closer to the country’s large towns and cities. This has, in particular, impacted business in recent times – the Rhodes Hotel is currently out of operation and up for sale, and fuel is no longer available in the village.

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Of course these are not insurmountable problems; there is plenty of other accommodation. Proper planning ahead of a visit should take care of all your needs, and you can take comfort from the fact that the people of Rhodes will never leave you stranded – their hospitality is legendary. Some of these difficulties simply enhance the remoteness – this is not five-star stuff, rather a place for adventure and experience.

Like many people, I am attracted to Rhodes for these reasons. But here’s the rub, I’m more than a little OCD when it comes to flyfishing for trout, and the infectious charms of the rivers and streams of the area. There is a river or stream for everyone and the diversity is such that even the inexperienced will find suitable water to satisfy their level of skill. And then there are local guides whose services can always be hired to enhance the fishing experience.

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In these Highlands, with Rhodes at their heart, is arguably the country’s premier wild-trout flyfishing region. The discerning flyfisher has a wide range of fishing opportunities from large rivers in pastoral settings below awe-inspiring sandstone rock bands and outcrops, to tiny, clear streams in deep valleys in the shadow of towering mountain peaks. There is some 700km of fishable water in the region.

At the core is the Wild Trout Association (WTA) with headquarters at Walkerbouts Inn in Rhodes and which promotes and manages sustainable flyfishing. The WTA also organises South Africa’s most sought-after, annual, flyfishing event in March each 0 anglers from beginners to the experienced, many returning year after year to enjoy the fishing, and to revel in hospitality and old and new friendships.

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Currently the devastating countrywide drought has taken its toll. Many fish have succumbed to the unfavourable conditions but, despite this, some good-sized trout in the 16 to 20 inch range have been caught and released. It is not all bad news because the strong survive and this improves the overall gene pool for the years ahead. There have already been sightings of young trout, which bodes well for the coming seasons.

All the rivers and streams in the Rhodes area eventually drain into the large Kraai River below the confluence of the Sterkspruit and Bell rivers. There is so much fishable water that it is difficult to name particular favourites. Each river offers different conditions and flyfishers have a wide choice.

I have, however, an affinity for the small streams in their upper reaches – the Riflespruit, Bokspruit, Kloppershoekspruit, Vlooikraalspruit and many more. Their gradients are steeper, quick flowing and usually crystal clear with many riffles, plunge pools and the occasional deep slot.

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Other than the rainbow and brown trout that inhabit these waterways, there is also the powerful indigenous smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus) that can be caught on fly, especially in summer when they migrate upstream from the Kraai River to spawn.

I prefer visiting Rhodes in the autumn when the weather is more predictable, with fewer storms, cooler temperatures and the trout feeding ahead of their winter-spawning period. It is also scenically the best time in my view, when the surrounding landscapes are a rich tapestry of browns, yellows and oranges that contrast with wide, blue skies.

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Handy Contacts

For more information on the area and events organised annually, like the Wild Trout Association Fly Fishing Festival, Stoepsitfees and the Rhodes Marathon, and to find out more about prevailing weather conditions, availability of fuel, food supplies and personal necessities:

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