In late December 2021, three generations of Briggs, from 6 years to 74, hiked into the mountains near Garden Castle in the southern Drakensberg – my sons Craig and Warren and their boys, grandsons, Calvin, Travis, Brode, Max and ‘Motor Mouth’ Cole who entertained us with his non-stop random chatter and endless stories from Nintendo to Pokémon, monsters and superheros.
A 4.30am start from Westville saw us at our destination with backpacks on, mountain register filled in ready to go from the Ezemvelo Park office by 8am. Under steely grey skies and the occasional spot of rain, we followed the clearly defined trail as it gradually climbs along the steeply sided verdant Mhlambonja valley and up towards the Mashai Pass – the well-used route to the prominent Rhino Peak. Surrounded by some spectacular pristine scenery, ancient rock bands and fascinating eroded sandstone formations, the excitement was palpable especially amongst some of the boys who were experiencing their first Berg hike. Our plan was to spend a night in Pillar Cave at an altitude of 2123m just below the base of the pass, a hike of between two and a half to 3 hours.
The first river crossing approximately an hour in, produced a heart stopping moment when the youngest ‘Motor Mouth’ aka ‘Walkie Talkie’, seen describing how he did it in the picture above, dropped one of his shoes into the stream. A frantic chase downstream, thankfully spotted and retrieved – disaster, without a replacement and two days still ahead of us, avoided. The constant chatter and laughter carried us up as the gradient steepened and the oxygen thinned, the mountains towered over us and temperatures dropped, but the enthusiasm of the younger generation never waned. We arrived at the cave by 11am, unpacked, sleeping spots selected between the drips from seepage through the roof and it was a time for a splash and dip in the freezing cold crystalline stream.
Time flies when you are having fun. Without signal or any form of coverage and the distraction of phone screens, the boys swam, explored rock bands for signs of bushmen painting, the stream for signs of life and new found imaginations hatched plans for games of their own making – there was lots of fun and laughter.
In case there was an opportunity, I’d taken along my 5ft Boshoff bamboo, a rod named Didima that has its own story for another day, 3 dry flies, a RAB, Klinkie and Para-RAB – a perfect combination for Lilliputian streams. At an altitude of just over 2000m my expectation for trout was low, but if they were there, they’d be 4 to 6 inches at best. Within a short distance from the cave I found a few likely holding pools no larger than a couple of your average bathtubs between steep cascades and rushing flows. My second cast of the tiny Klinkie to the first of these pools, I was surprised by what appeared to be a trout larger than expected, but it slipped the hook before I had a chance of seeing it – my heart pounded – this wasn’t what should happen up here. A few more casts, but nothing. I moved to the second pool, first cast and I was tight into a decent fish, a feisty dash for freedom into the fast water before eventually being brought to hand. Twelve inches of fin perfect wild rainbow trout much larger than expected. I went on to catch another two of similar size all in their individual pools before a downstream wind made casting the tiny dry fly impossible. For fear of being impaled by chemically sharpened steel, I gave it best.
It was a special moment for me, the first time I’d caught trout at over 2000m on the KZN side of the Drakensberg Mountains. To find 12 inch fish at this altitude in twig water made it all the more memorable and to share my excitement with my sons and grandsons, a memory to cherish.
There was an innocence about these fish. I’m pretty sure that they have seldom seen an artificial fly or a flyfisher, if ever, more likely the latter.
In a blink the day was over and before the light faded it was time to feed the boys – coffee, hot chocolate, smash and tuna and two minute noodles (what is that stuff, flavored string?) It wasn’t long before darkness enveloped us and tired bodies crept into sleeping bags and the cave fell silent for 8 hours. No surprise, Walkie Talkie, refreshed, was the first to rise, a new day and new conversations and stories of the imagination.
The couple of days together was good for the soul, we’ll do it again.
All images and copy in this post are copyright Peter Brigg Photography © 2022. All rights reserved