A TRIP TO THE EASTERN CAPE HIGHLANDS
Photographs and text by Jade Dos Santos
No matter how much you watch the weather before a trip to the Eastern Cape Highlands, the one thing you can bet on is that it will be temperamental. It is best to contact a local farmer before embarking on the long drive there.
The Eastern Cape Highlands does have a forgiving side for the adventurous though. The rolling hills are closely divided by many catchment basins and the thunderstorms are localized. No matter how high or dirty your nearest river is there is always a freestone mountain stream running crystal clear within a 100 km radius.
During my first trip to Lady Grey I left the house early one morning to find a man in the middle of the main road dressed as Jesus. He was riding a donkey side-saddle, alone and holding a large cross. I took this as a good omen for the day's fishing to come and only later discovered it was an actor practicing for a nativity play that Easter morning.
The best-known river in these parts is the Karnmelkspruit. But if you get out your topo maps and do some investigating, you are likely to discover some of the most memorable streams of your life.
I headed up Joubert’s Pass to find the source of a feeder stream to the Karnmelkspruit. The Upper Unity crosses many farms to eventually flow under the Joubert’s Pass where it is known as the Ribospruit. This delicate piece of cold, clear water is exceptional in every way; masses of insect life, little to no public access, big pools and tight runs, but it turned out to be fishless. As I descended down into the gorge, swatting swarms of size 18 pale mayflies from the air, in the hope of finding fish, the root of my disappointing observation became obvious: multiple barrier waterfalls made it impossible for fish to migrate upstream. While on the fishing side the day was a bust, I was on a remote stream in the Eastern Cape Highlands, and that’s all that really matters.
It’s not like the Karnmelkspruit isn’t one of the best pieces of water in South Africa. The variety of water, consistency of the trout population throughout its reaches and surprising size of some of the fish makes this stream a very special river; but it’s the mystery of Hog Johnson that will keep you coming back each year.
While I took the fish of the trip from the middle section of the Karnmelk, she was still only around 17 inches. Later that day in a deeper pool, a 22+ inch fish chased a yearling I hooked right to my feet. I paused, the fish paused, we stared each other down and she slowly and confidently slid off into the darkness across the shallow pebble bed, remembering my face.
It stormed the whole night in Lady Frey. The next morning the sky was clear but the rivers unfishable, more like chocolate milk than water. Time to take advantage of another kindness the Eastern Cape Highlands offers. I packed and headed to spend the night with a good friend and respected local fisherman, rod and net builder, Mario Geldenhuys, before making my way to the centre of the Universe, Rhodes. Crossing the bridge at the Kraai-Sterkspruit confluence it is always a special occasion, and especially so when both streams are running clear.
It is easy to see how the Eastern Cape Highlands captures the imagination of fishermen. With the extent of the water, the challenging variety of opportunities, the warm hospitality and the incredible scenery, it’s unique in a South African context. There might be a few places that compare on paper, but it is not just about the fishing. You have to adapt to the flow of life in this place, you fish slower, you laugh more, you watch longer; and the next thing you know, repairing a tangled leader streamside isn’t so bad.
I arrived at Parkgate in Rhodes, a farmstead with a few kilometres of ox-bowing pastoral waters full of eager trout. Johan and Butros were already out on the stream fishing the lower section; I headed upstream in search of familiar lies. We fished this section last year and vowed to return to this epic and little-known homestead and make it our HQ for this season. The flow was perfect, the weather was warm, and the water icy to the touch; and the fish had grown. To our advantage, the wind blew just hard enough to put ripples on the water and disguise our movement. After a session of countless fish, I headed back to the house to await Chris who had left Cape Town that morning and was burning through the 11 hour drive to join us for the trip.
Chris arrived later that afternoon, wide eyed from many hours on the road and the contents of the pile of Red Bull cans littered around the bakkie’s cab. We dashed down to the water, and in dying light, Chris pulled out a beautiful 10 inch rainbow, gently brought it to hand, slipped out the hook and let her go. Later that night we feasted to the reunion of old friends, passing out to the sound of the Bell River, and a vocal wild cat. We fished the home waters for the next few days and became intimately acquainted with the stream, often returned to specific pools in search of Hog Johnson.
Hamilton was running low as the four of us tested Chris’ new Hilux, rocking slowly in low-range up the old tractor paths along the Bell River. Two weeks prior there were considerable rumours circulating about sizable fish on this part of the stream, but due to the dribbling water, high winds and a furious hangover, we opted for some down-time at Parkgate and fished the home waters later that afternoon.
Chris and I ventured up the Bokspruit to Brucedale looking for more water, but the unusually warm weather was testing our sensibilities. The wind was up and the water down. We took many small fish out of the pools and larger runs; tying on size 10 Hoppers to try stop the small fish hooking up. The upper Bok is wilder and rougher than the lower sections and at perfect flow must provide a very real headwater experience. Things were looking a tad desperate, we needed more water. Screw the small stuff we decided, the Kraai was running clear.
The Kraai-Sterkspruit Junction
Johan and Butros left earlier that morning, having Chris and I join them on the road out of town as we headed to the Kraai River. We parked at the bridge and made our way down towards the even-flowing expanse of river. We watched three trout, bigger than the largest fish from the last three days, gently sway from side to side, gills opening with flashes of red, eating nymphs in very specific feeding lies.
The last day's fishing was like having a little slice of New Zealand in our backyard. The fish were strong, shaped like rugby balls and luminescent in the sunlight. All fish were spotted and stalked in the green-hued water, swelling up from deep cuts. We basked in the fading glow of our last Eastern Cape Highlands sunset for this year, watching the moon rise over the Kraai river bridge where the trip had started.
The drive back to town was nostalgic and sentimental; it would be a long wait ‘till next year. We stopped to pay our respects to Uncle Dave at Walkerbouts Inn and had a nightcap with local guide Tony Kietzman. The next morning we drove away into the darkness, towards the faint orange glow of sunrise.