Our intrepid Doctor, Bruce Dunlop has been on his travels again – this time in search of the ultimate fishing experience in Lesotho:-
It is the elephant in the room. Huge, high and imposing but few people seem to now it is there. Even in South Africa very few have noticed Lesotho.
Some facts. It sits in the middle of the Republic of South Africa, an independent kingdom and proud of its monarch. It is high. The entire country is above 1000m in altitude and as a consequence is quite cool, you can even ski after a fashion in the Maloti Mountains. Its population is about 2 million and although there is some mining for diamonds and a little industry the majority of the population lives on subsistence farming, pastoral pursuits and remittances from family members working in South Africa.
We wanted to go there to fish. The lure of snowmelt fed mountain streams cascading down from the peaks, filled with trout so wild and wily that it would need all the magic of the fisherman’s art to tempt them onto our carefully tied flies. Either that, or trout so naïve and hungry that they would eat any old fluff on a hook. Whichever way round we wanted to catch fish.
Add to that the idea of parking the car and travelling by Basutho pony from one lost location to the next in a world bereft of mechanical intrusion was happiness sublime. Creature comforts and soft beds could be left for another occasion; we were to be pioneers on the roof of Africa, hunter-gatherers feeding ourselves as we went from natures’ bounty. You get the general idea.
The purists will point out that trout are not native to southern Africa. True, they were introduced to these wild places by obsessed men who could not spell ‘impossible’. Long before reliable refrigeration, men like John Clarke Parker, a Yorkshire engineer turned Natal farmer and intrepid Scots, like Campbell- Johnston and Lachlan MacLean exported cooled ova from Britain in an eventually successful attempt to populate these mountain streams. From their first introductions, trout have spread up hill and valley to populate many of the clear streams of Lesotho.
In South Africa, this is a developed industry with lakes and rivers filled with brown trout at altitude and rainbow lower down. The long range of the Drakensburg, from Lesotho in the East all the way down to the Cape, furnishes a myriad of opportunities for the pursuance of a fly-fishers art. Good fishing in beautiful places. In Lesotho it is, as is more or less everything, much less developed. There are few commercial guides and information is vouchsafed only to the few. I had my sources.
Devil’s Knuckles at Selabathebe
As you drive north in Natal the sheer wall of the Drakensburg looms up before you. Giants Castle, The Devil’s Knuckles and other impressive massifs block your path. An ancient Voortrekker looking at his outspanned wagons on the rolling hills of Natal and then turning to the sheer cliff of red rock that ran as far as the eye could see would not have to make many decisions. It is a curtain wall as impassable as any fortress. From the south the passes are few, far between and very steep.
View from the Pub at Sani Pass
The famous Sani Pass with its switch back road climbing to the highest pub in Africa at its apex. At 2865m above sea level it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive views ever seen through the bottom of a glass. It houses a wide selection of beverages with which to boost your courage for the helter-skelter cascade down the mountain to Natal.
South Africa does not make it easy for its citizens to visit the mountain kingdom. All the passes require four-wheel drive, determination and a distinct lack of vertigo to negotiate. Huge fun.
We went via Quacha’s Nek and to my enormous surprise, once in the kingdom, found ourselves on tar. A Chinese highway ran west and then a brand new construction, as yet unfinished, north to Semokong and the Maletsunyane river and its mighty waterfall. The Maletsunyane falls, at 192 m, form the longest single drop in southern Africa.
The Maletsunyane Falls below Semonkong
Here one of the few comfortable places to stay in Lesotho hides its self, in a small gorge, on the banks of the river and offers solace to the weary traveller. The Semokong Lodge is delightful and its food excellent, a conjuring trick in this remote location.
Absailing the Falls
If the adrenaline of the drive is not enough, you can amuse yourself by descending the waterfall in the highest commercial abseil in the world. Stand perched between the security of the mountain and the abyss below gazing down 200m into a rainbow of spray and let yourself fall into the void. All you need is a good control of the sphincters and a steady heart for a journey into your dreams. The long haul back up on a track, abandoned by all but the most athletic of goats, brings you back to your senses.
Gillie in action at Semonkong and Hoping for a fish
The fishing too is good. The Maletsunyane holds a strong population of brown trout above the falls and mythical monsters below. Run off from the construction of the new road was muddying the waters but small and feisty browns were still rising to terrestrial imitations and surrendering to the net.
Fired by success and off to greater things we retraced our tracks back down the new road. This time paying a local ‘levy’ to an entrepreneurial road marshal who had ‘closed’ the road. We were invited to take a 200 km detour or accept his terms.
Cheery locals attired in the traditional Lesothan straw hat, woolly balaclava, rubber wellingtons and polypropylene blanket waved at our passage. Men on ponies with sacks of mealy-meal. Small boys pasturing their sheep; caravans of donkeys, invisible beneath brushwood, like a hedge on holiday; smiling lady at 3000m, in the middle of nowhere, with a bookcase on her head -“look no hands”. Chinese construction crews drilling blasting holes in the rock; composting loos in the villages with their white plastic stink pipes, anorexic soldiers guarding the family fertilizer illuminated the journey.
We travelled along the crest of the Drakensburg to Selabathebe. This small national park protects pristine mountain grassland and bog habitat. Decorated with sandstone formations that looked like the set to Lord of the Rings it sits on the lip of Lesotho and its border with South Africa. Watered by the south-easterly rain bearing winds, its streams form the Tsolikane river. In the upper reaches this stream meanders on high mountain plateau beneath the crags of the Devil’s Knuckles and then over an 18m falls into an azure pool before, like all the waters from Lesotho, heading east into the Senqu (Orange) River and eventual union with the sea on the borders of Namibia, 1,200 kilometres to the West.
Chief Jonathan’s Lodge, a 70s built holiday retreat for a trout fishing noble was supposed to be our accommodation. Various levels of confusion meant that the message that it was now closed had not got transmitted to us. A little more negotiation and we stayed in the ‘closed’ lodge and explored and fished this lost world without contradiction, another African solution.
Our true destination and the Shangri-La of Lesotho trout fishing was to be the Khubelu river. East, above Mokhotlong, draining the eastern peaks of Lesotho and flowing clear and cool into the Senqu (Orange) river. Leaving Selabethebe the road turned from graded gravel, to gravel, to rocks, to riverbed, to anywhere you could get your wheels to turn. Horses were definitely the transportation of choice in this part of the world. We gamely scrabbled over two 3000m passes, stopping to cast a fly on a tributary or two in the “hope springs eternal” way of all fishermen. As we travelled, it became evident that there was a developing problem that was likely to impact on our plans.
Roadside Repair with Useful Advise on hand
Not the overheating of the Toyota that created an enforced stop every hour or so. That was the source of much unscheduled entertainment and I can recommend it as a method of truly seeing a country. Stopping in random places enabled us to pass the time of day with shepherds and sheep shearers, urchins and plough-boys and survey all manner of uncelebrated sights that gave deep interest to the journey. No, the developing problem was the rivers were running out of water.
Disappointment of Dried River Bed – No Fishing Here!
As we went east the rivers turned from cascades to trickles and then to dry rocky beds. Not auspicious for a fishing holiday. At our destination the water ran out more or less completely. Faced with a trickle of green goo in what should have been a rushing torrent of gin clear liquor we accepted with the sad truth. We had managed to arrange our trip to coincide with the longest drought for 30 years and our hopes of wild water and wilder trout evaporated along with the river itself.
Initially undaunted we stopped first at a ragged roadside hostelry, the Mashat Lodge with its aluminium foil lined roof and then in dormitory accommodation at St James’s to be entertained by an itinerant musician with a toothless smile who gave Cacophonix the bard strong competition.
Cacophonix the Bard
We tried to find the ever more elusive wet stuff. We took our rods down gorges and frightened shepherd boys with sudden appearances in their midst, aliens from another planet. All to no avail, there was little water and less fish.
Slightly sad we realised that the bare rugged mountains of Lesotho, the Basutho ponies, the hunter-gathering would have to be left behind us. We turned south to the Sani Pass and South Africa. Here we salvaged a sporting triumph or two in the rivers and lakes of Natal. We caught fish that even the most elastic armed fisherman would have trouble describing but that is another story.
It just goes to show that even the best laid plans are at the mercy of the elements and as with all travel, it is the enthusiasm with which you are prepared to embrace Plan B that matters.
Dr. Bruce Dunlop, a GP in Chichester, intrepid traveller and sailor, writes about his peregrinations for The Vintage Magazine