The Drakensberg may be higher and mightier, but for sheer cliff-faces and jagged peaks, the Cape Fold Mountains are the place to go. They feel and look like mountains should, all grey and leering and prehistoric. Their rivers give the right impression too: crystalline sepia-tinged water tumbling over polished grey-white stones which look like prehistoric ostrich eggs.
I have fly-fished and walked every inch of the kloof’s three biggest rivers, the Elandspad, the Smalblaar and – a little beyond the main valley – the Holsloot. It all started at school. One fishing club outing when I was about 15 and I was hooked. We walked for miles, scratched our shins beyond recognition and slipped and fell into the icy September waters more times than I care to remember. One palm-sized rainbow trout caught in a pool that was still shaded at midday made it all worthwhile and I’ve been going back ever since, discovering something new every time and gradually increasing my success rate on the fishing front.
Stalking The Prey
Both rainbow and brown trout were introduced to the rivers by the British, towards the end of the 19th century. The browns didn’t last long, but the rainbows took hold and the fish we catch today still stem from those first stockings. The fish are small, but lean and healthy like only wild trout can be. They’re clever too, especially towards the end of summer when the rivers flow slow and low and even the most delicate cast sends the fish scampering for cover.
The clear water that allows them to see you coming, means that you can see them too. When you get it right – stalking carefully upstream, taking care to ensure that your shadow doesn’t spook them – you can sight-fish, singling out your quarry, casting to him, and hopefully deceiving, hooking and catching him. The fishing is some of the most technical in the world, and although the fish don’t come close in size to those in New Zealand, Alaska or Patagonia, they are just as difficult to catch.
The fly-fishing only waters are managed by the Cape Piscatorial Society, which enforces a strict catch and release policy. Once you’re a member, a daily rod fee will allow you to book a ‘beat’ – a section of river which you will have entirely to yourself – any time between 1 September and 31 May, when the season is open. Just make sure you have a Wild Card too, as the rivers form part of the Limietberg Nature Reserve.
Fly-fishing is a delicate art: feathers and other fabrics are used to make flies, which imitate the aquatic life of the rivers – mayflies, sedges, nymphs and even crabs… there are hundreds of different flies imitating each species. Casting is tricky too, as you cast the line not the fly, and even detecting a ‘take’ (known as a ‘bite’ to conventional fishermen) can be a challenge. But it is all these intricacies which make it what it is, and we Capetonians are privileged to have such world-class waters to hone our skills on.
Fending Off Mother Nature
If it weren’t for the fishing I wouldn’t have got to know the mountains and that would have been a great pity. I have seen mother baboons bathing with their babies, and giant kingfishers swooping on fingerlings. I have had afternoon naps on the white sandy beaches far up the Elandspad ravine and woken to find fish rising all around me. I have looked up at 737s on their flight paths to Joburg and beyond and thought to myself: ‘How near and yet so far. I wouldn’t trade places with you for anything.’
There have been hairy moments too. Baboons once threw rocks at me from a cliff high above the Smalblaar, while on the Holsloot (on the day I introduced my wife to the gentle art) we were chased off the water by a two-metre boomslang swimming straight towards us. “What’s that shape in the water?” she asked.
“Oh it’s just a log,” I replied.
And then, when the log stuck its head out of the water, we started to run. Most of my time on the water has been both tranquil and therapeutic, though. I won’t go quite so far as to suggest that I don’t care whether or not I catch fish, but I will say that I value the peace that fishing has brought me more than I do the trophy trout.
The Du Toit’s Kloof Waterfall
High up the Elandspad, on a tributary which forks off to the right, is an ever-dark canyon which comes straight from the Lord of the Rings. Moss, ferns and permanent mist make it cold, atmospheric and slippery. It takes a lot of fortitude to abandon the warmth of the main river and trudge up this narrow chasm (especially considering that it holds no fish), but this sacrifice is rewarded by a waterfall that is the Du Toitskloof’s pièce de résistance.
A small stream tumbles off the edge of a vertical rockface at least 50m above where you stand. The water is always icy, but at least once a season the pool must be swum in, the waterfall must be showered under. The current is almost too strong to swim against, but the cold seems to give me renewed energy and I make it. The water pounds on my back and it relaxes my aching muscles blow by painful blow. I first made this pilgrimage when I was 15, and I have been back at least ten times since. Every time I have to convince myself to make the swim, and every time I am happy afterwards that I have done it.
You don’t have to be a fly-fisherman to appreciate the DuToitskloof. People far crazier than I am kayak down the flooding streams in winter and climb the vertiginous cliffs and peaks in summer, while slightly saner individuals hike the paths and trails that invariably follow the rivers and streams of the reserve. All you need is a Wild Card, a map and some common sense to appreciate the Cape’s very own Shangri La. If you live in Cape Town, you’ve got no excuse…