We pulled into the parking lot at Walkerbouts Inn amongst a number of other mud splattered vehicles. Rob cut the engine of the Land Cruiser. It was almost 9 hours to the minute after our 5 am start from Durban. The trip had passed quickly on conversation with an air of anticipation, the expectation was palpable. Following reports of torrential rain throughout the region the previous day and the possibility of flooding and wash-aways, instead of risking the Pitseng and Naudes Pass short-cut, we opted for the longer tarred route through Maclear to Barkly. It was pretty much an uneventful trip with a stop for breakfast at our new found spot in Kokstad , “Loafers”, top up with fuel in Barkly and a dram or two of a decent single malt on the Kraai River bridge to toast our arrival in wild trout country.
There is something about arriving in the village of Rhodes. It has an ambience that has to be experienced to be fully understood, it feels a little like stepping back in time in tree lined gravel streets and quaint Victorian era cottages. It is quiet and peaceful, far off the beaten track, accessed by long winding dirt roads and surrounded by deep valleys and mountains where the vehicles, mostly bakkies, SUVs and 4x4s, are mud splattered and covered in dust. It’s the kind of place where you can step into the bar unshaven, your fishing pants mostly wet below the knees, with a faint smell of fish about you and you won’t get a second glance, it’s just taken for granted and comes with the territory.
Unpacked, it was time to settle in, grab a cold one, make our acquaintance with those already there and in my case, pack my watch away and set the position of the sun as my clock for the next four days.
The Dirt Road Wild Trout Association Trout Festival is arguably the premier one of its kind in South Africa bringing together flyfishers from around the country – a gathering of the likeminded, a shared common interest in fly fishing, many returning annually, where old friendships are rekindled and new ones formed. Apart from the fishing it is a great social affair – this year was no exception. The pub at Walkerbouts Inn, the very epicenter of the Centre of the Universe, is always a hive of activity each evening, where stories are told and tales of the tape still fresh in the memory are exaggerated. It’s here where the length of the fish grow by the inch after each passing hour. Of this John Gierach once commented that, “all fishermen are liars except you and me…. and, then sometime I wonder about you.”
Mr Dave Walker the head honcho, the glue that binds it all together – Thank you Sir.
Of course the festival is not just about the fishing, it’s friendships and the ‘gees’ (spirit) and a few well-established traditions. The likes of the infamous ‘road block under the willow’ where anglers returning home at the end of a days fishing are stopped to partake in a dram or two of the large selection of fine whisky. It’s here that the stories begin and usually continue long into the night at Walkerbouts, tales from the past and the present, of battles won and lost. Then the annual fund raising auction of donated items from rods and reels to handmade nets, original art works, flies, flyfishing books and more. This year the lively bidding and the deep pockets of the bidders raised just north of R50k – amongst the beneficiaries were Rhodes Animal Care Project, FOSAF and the Tony Biggs Fund. Absent sadly, but not missed by some, were Walker’s legendary ‘prairie oyster’ delicacies. Those little oval shaped parts that come wrapped on a bag (aka balsak) from the nether regions of young rams in the district. There is always next year.
Rereading John Gierach’s book recently, ‘Flyfishing the High Country’, the following words got me thinking about my time in the Highlands – “Mountains-any mountains-can make you pay for your fishing with time, shoe leather, exertion, and even disappointment. But, they usually give back more than they take in terms of solitude and the sense of adventure that you just won’t find on more civilised waters”. Each day we flogged new tongues of water, cold and clear, streams as pretty as you will find anywhere with riffles, runs, bends, home to a healthy population of wild rainbows. The fishing in four days produced more trout than I’d seen at any previous festival. They were hungry, looking up, perfect little fatties many still with their parr marks from tiny 3 inchers to the odd beast of 20 inches. The waters were fast and cloudy to quick and clear, there was the clicking sounds of wading sticks, then a fair share of twisted ankles and barbed wire ripped clothing and torn flesh, all in the day of the intrepid flyfisher. We were a mixed bunch of dry fly enthusiasts and nymphos but all with a common goal to fish, catch a few trout and revel in the spectacular Eastern Cape Highlands – summed up in another of John Gierach’s quotes from his book Dances with Trout – “Fly-fishing is solitary, contemplative, misanthropic, scientific in some hands, poetic in others, and laced with conflicting aesthetic considerations. It’s not even clear if catching fish is actually the point.”
Every day fishing is a good day, but if I was to single out one during the festival I’d have to choose the last day on the Riflespruit at Francisdale – unquestionably one of my favourite small streams. It wasn’t because of the number of fish, because previous days on the Bokspruit had produced more – It was a bamboo rod day with Rob Hibbert, Andrew Mather and Grant Visser who still has to be convinced to join the ‘dark side’. Tucked away deep in the mountains, the Francisdale beat is the perfect small mountain stream, quick, crystal clear, pocket water, runs, pools and riffles. Here the fish are on average larger than we’d experienced elsewhere, it’s here where 12 inchers are not uncommon, heavily spotted, pink and silver. My best fish for the day was around 15 inches, but dwarfed by the old mossback in a run no longer than a couple of bath tubs that rose to the #16 Klinkhamer – it exposed its wide back, pricked himself, I felt the weight and then in a blink was gone. I tried again on the way downstream under a heavy bruised sky that rolled over the mountains, thunder rumbled around us, but he wasn’t having any of it. Strangely, even so it felt like a triumph and a fitting way to end this years festival.
Leaving Rhodes and the Eastern Cape Highlands on a morning like this below as we drove back along the road to Barkly watching Rhodes village disappearing slowly in the rear view mirror was a downer, but at least in the knowledge that we’d be back again in 2023, if not before.
All images and copy in this post are copyright Peter Brigg Photography © 2022. All rights reserved