RAMBLINGS ON THE UMGENI RIVER
Words and pics by Andrew Fowler.
There is a small river, which flows through the soft folds of the Dargle Valley that converses in the same languages that I do: English, Afrikaans and Zulu.
Let me explain. The uMgeni itself, the Zulu speaker, emerges from a highland vlei as a small stream. It is joined a few miles down, by the Afrikaner (die Poort), and some way along by the Furth (the Englishman). And I think that it is only at this last confluence that it can truly call itself a river, and even then only in the South African sense, given its diminutive size. It really doesn’t last for very long as a trout stream before plummeting over the Dargle falls, after which it hangs on to its population of wild browns for a moment longer, before becoming a sullen brown, dammed thing.
I grew up on the farm that was once listed as the lower boundary of the trout zone: Corrie Lynn Farm, the same one that is accessible to Natal Fly Fishers Club (NFFC) members today. My links to the uMgeni go further up though. My great grandfather is buried in a grove of trees at Umgeni Poort, a small farm at the confluence of those two babbling streams, and where my father spent his early childhood. I have a photo of him atop a very large horse named “Socks”, when he was a very small boy. The picture is taken overlooking the pasture at Umgeni Poort.
This was once a most picturesque haven amongst the wooded hills: It is tucked into a narrow valley with the river rushing by in the way that mountain streams do. It was a small, neat farm, with an orchard on terraces built by the Italian prisoners of war, a stone house, and oxen-ploughed pastures. It was complete with a water wheel that generated electricity from the uMgeni river (and which was known to spin uncontrollably after a storm, blowing light globes at will before the old man could get down to the river to close the sluice.)
It was here that my grandfather would attend the afternoon milking with his mind on the trout, and his old cane rod and creel leaning against the stone wall outside, in preparation for the evening’s real business. That old cane rod is the one I started fly-fishing with, and it hangs on the wall in my lounge to this day.
In my youth I visited Umgeni Poort a few times. The Catholic Nuns who lived there would welcome me, and the river would be mine for the day. Sadly though, by then the farm was infested with wattle trees, the terraces were crumbling, and the place had an unkempt feel about it.
It was my grandfather who attempted a road up the escarpment from the base of the hill on Umgeni Poort. His first attempt was an unplanned one, and he reached a point in his road-building when he looked up and saw that he had engineered himself to the base of a very steep krantz with no prospect of proceeding. The second attempt succeeded and despite his calling it “the Burma Road”, it is still known after it’s less glamorous predecessor: “Fowler’s Folly”.
That steep and rocky road takes one up onto the top of the hills to some of the most expansive and lovely countryside I know. I am fortunate enough to have access to the place; it is the source of the Poort stream and has some lovely still waters with a good head of trout.
Off to the South East of this wetland plateau, the iMpendle road winds its way along an upland valley , with Rainbow Lakes and other magnificent dams in the Furth Catchment off to the east side of the road: The Old Dam; Smiths; The Doctor’s syndicate, and many others.
The road then descends the Furth cutting, where, if you dare take your eyes off the precipitous road, you look down onto a cascade of white water where the stream breaks through beside iNhlosane Mountain and descends towards the uMgeni below.
The walk up iNhlosane is a strenuous one if you are unfit, as I was reminded last week when we went up there. But the view is magnificent, which makes it all worthwhile and takes in the entire uMgeni Valley in the “trout zone”.
Sitting on the boulders above the cliffs you can trace the river’s descent off the top of the hills from Mpumulwane, down its own gorge beside the similar shaped iNhlezela mountain, on through uMgeni-Poort, and Wakefield, and to the farms “Furth” and “Brigadoon”, which I am very pleased to report the NFFC has access to again. This is lovely trout water.
There is some pretty thin stuff, and by that I mean both pretty and thin. This is beguiling water, where shadows and glides play with your eyes, and what you think are fish turn out to be crevices in the flat bedrock. The trout that are there are never where you think they should be. Then there are some seriously deep and mysterious looking pools, where try as you may, you can’t get a sense of how deep they really are, and what lives down there. But I can tell you that some good trout live down there. I have on two occasions seen fish of over three pounds come out of Brigadoon.
Below Brigadoon there is positively the longest pool you will ever see, on the farm called Knowhere. It is over a kilometre long, deep and slow, and with a population of feisty little Browns that I last fished for many years ago. Below that, the river glides in a large sweep along the base of steep south facing hills covered in natural forest.
It was here that, as a student, two friends and I drove a VW beetle down a steep track through the forest, standing on the brakes all the way down to the river where we were to fish for the day. Then, at the bottom, in an awesome display of student wisdom we decided we needed to remove the wheels to let the brakes cool. So there stood the beetle on little cairns of stone, in the ryegrass field, while we went off to catch trout.
Below this is the farm Chestnuts of which Neville Nuttall wrote so fondly:
In Dargle Stream the Brown Trout lie
And tantalise the passer- by.
They will not rise at times laid down
in books perused by Men from Town.
But if you patiently persist
In brilliant sunshine, wind and mist,
And if you keep casting out
Your flies to tempt the wily Trout,
One day you’ll have a screaming real
And stippled beauties in your creel!
Below Chestnuts and the road the river plunges over a waterfall into a gorge , which many consider the end of the trout water. This is not entirely true; the ‘Forestry Section’ as it is known has some very good water, much of it not explored by fly-fishermen in many years (including a little-known tributary called Walter’s creek). This is of course NFFC water too and well worth a try. I have fished Chestnuts many times, but not so in recent years and have vowed to get back there soon and re-acquaint myself with its trout. Chestnuts is more difficult to fish than I think it was in Neville’s day. It has its share of wattles and brambles and the usual bankside vegetation, and getting in and out of the river requires a bit of bundu bashing. That is to say, if you are not bundu bashing, you are probably missing the good fishing. This stretch has always produced a fair number of fish between one and two pounds. You will get them on nymphs sunk deep in the pools and in tight, against steep undercut banks. All of this will demand that you get wet and dirty to really experience it properly.
I was last on the forestry section too many years ago. But around that time I do recall a glorious September day on the uMgeni at Chestnuts with the late Mick Huntley, on which we both hit it right and made pigs of ourselves. Mick gave me a fly he was tying at the time, made entirely of Guinea Fowl.
I still have that fly, stuck in an album with a photo of Mick beside a row of really decent river Browns and one Rainbow of over two pounds. That is the only Rainbow I have ever caught from the uMgeni. Unless you count the one I caught in the tiny stream that is the uMgeni in its headwaters, alongside Lake Overbury.
Above Lake Lyndhurst you can’t really claim to be on the uMgeni river as such, but the threads of streams lead up to some fine lakes tucked up there in the linen folds of grassland. It’s wild country, where the grass doesn’t grow very long, and the wind blows a lot. It’s a perfect setting for a trout stream to set out on its journey through your life and memories. The lakes ice up around the margins on winter mornings, when your lips are so blue you can’t speak any of your three languages.
For more information about the Natal Fly Fishers Club please visit www.nffc.co.za