To the Orange River in Richtersveld, South Africa: Part III


By Scotty Kyle

So, having arrived safely at Sendelingsdrif, the Headquarters of the Richtersveld National Park and begun to get to grips with the current river conditions, it was time to get down to some serious fishing. We headed through the Park upstream for about thirty kilometres to Potjies Pram and set up our tents on a beautiful grassy bank right beside the river. We had four tents to house six of us but, as there was almost zero chance of rain, the tents were really a formality. They might, however, keep out unwelcome guests like snakes and scorpions. 

We fished quite hard the first day but there was lots of weed around and not enough clear water. We did, however, catch some nice smallmouth yellowfish during the day. While it is true that smallmouth yellowfish appear similar to carp any resemblance is superficial and ends there.   Yellowfish are active predators that often sit in fast current and, when hooked, can take off like a steam train and usually give you a stronger, longer fight than a similar sized trout. 

Late that afternoon we saw a haze upstream which, it transpired, was actually a massive dust storm that turned out to be the greatest storm in living memory. Firstly it blew two tents flat before we could take them down, breaking several tent poles in the process. It apparently sand blasted several vehicles, completely removing their paint, smashed windscreens with flying debris and rerouted gravel roads. Satellite photos of the region showed dust several hundred kilometers into the ocean off the mouth of the Orange River.

Meantime, as there was still valuable fishing time left, we continued to fish but getting our flies out into the river was extremely difficult and required an extreme effort of the wrist and lower arm. The fish were biting but the wind was so strong that, if a fish was hooked, the fly was torn from its mouth, the fish was simply pulled to the side by the wind or the line snapped if it was a large fish. Our son Robert broke a treasured rod simply trying to cast against the wind. 

We thus had a quick, simple meal, put our mattresses on the ground in the lee of some boulders and tried to get some sleep for a fresh start before sun up the next day. Unfortunately, due to the extreme heat, we had drunk a lot of water and during the night I had to get up several times. I quickly learned to have a large rock handy which I could put on top of my “blow up” mattress to prevent it blowing away. Unfortunately I am not at my most alert in the middle of the night and, on one occasion as I stood up from the mattress and reached across for the rock, a movement caught the corner of my eye. It was my mattress. Immediately as I left it and before I could secure it, the wind had whipped it up and away. I remember seeing it high in the night sky heading west and I tried to scramble barefooted across the rocks after it. Alas, it accelerated ahead of me and I had to give up and hobble back to camp.

As I sat, without my mattress, the humour of the situation overcame me and I began to giggle. I giggled and giggled to the extent that my stomach ached and I leaned over into a vertical foetal position. My dear wife Diane woke at this point and, thinking I was in great distress, asked what the problem was. I tried to answer but was paralysed with giggles and tried to indicate what had happened. She quickly twigged and also began to laugh whereupon our family woke up, one by one, and we all joined in the mirth. There was nothing to do, it was dark and blowing an absolute gale and as Diane had kindly offered me her mattress, I put a large rock on it and tried to get back to sleep while she slept on the grass. In the morning our son Robert recovered the mattress in some bushes a couple of hundred metres downstream and, by pooling all the tent poles, we managed to get all but one tent working again.

When dawn broke we tried fishing but all was quiet so we packed up and headed about 10 kilometers upstream, to De Hoop campsite. This entailed a 40 kilometer, two hour, trip through “Akkedis Pass” (Lizard pass) with its very rugged terrain and lizards on top of rocks observing our slow progress. When we arrived, after a wonderful wild 4 x 4 experience, we found the camp full of very serious off road campers, complete with the most expensive looking trailers and tents. We thus snuck to the edge of the camp and erected our remaining (pathetic) tents near the river. Robert, who is a very serious competitive angler, immediately sat down with his fly tying equipment to create a new fly uniquely suited to current river conditions.

I, in the meantime, put on an old trout fishing “woolly bugger” and started fishing in a small side stream about 50 meters from camp. Wham, in my first full cast a nice fish took the fly and headed off downstream between weed beds on either side. The fish played hard but cleanly and avoided rocks, weeds and sticks. I brought it in and shouted  for Diane to come and take a photo. It was a smallmouth yellowfish of 55 centimeters fork length, my largest of the trip so far. Diane went back to camp and, on my next cast, wham, again. Same story and this time 56 centimeters long and Diane took the photo and returned to camp. I moved to the next small pool, cast out and…..wham, 57 centimeters and a photo but Diane told me that, unless the next was a fish of a lifetime, no more photos! This had been my best period of smallmouth fishing ever, so far.

So, the trip was producing results, not yet any of the 60 centimeter plus fish, that we knew were there, but beautiful fish in excellent condition. There were also many small fish around showing that recruitment seemed to be pretty good. The family fished well and got some really nice fish but some, or even one, “monster” would be really nice.

Richtersveld can be extremely hot with summer temperatures staying in the 40 plus range for weeks on end. We had one day of 37 degrees and that was hot enough but it cooled at night in the desert conditions. That evening, as I tried to make our fire, I found that the sticky tape I had left inside a plastic bag with the matches had “sweated” resulting in all six boxes of matches becoming useless. I remembered, too late, about not putting all your eggs in one box and then, more usefully, that Diane had bought a small “flame thrower” lighter which I found and used to start the fire. 

The evening was most pleasant and we decided to use extremely heavy tackle to try and catch some very large barbel in a nearby deep pool. After dark we negotiated the rocks upstream and set up on a very large rock above the pool and cast in a large piece of fish. The scene was very special as there were myriads of fireflies dancing among the reeds and everything was dark and peaceful. Very soon, however, there was a strong, long pull and, in the dark, some unseen leviathan gave fight. It was eventually landed and was a huge barbel about 1.5 meters long and about 15 kilograms. Great! We repeated and the same happened again and again. We finally landed four very large barbel, put them in a safe side pool to take photos in the morning, and headed carefully back to camp. 

On the way back to camp, Amy, Robert’s wife, let out a very controlled squeak and pointed at where she had been about to step. In a small indentation in a rock was a beautiful and quite uncommon mountain viper. Amy had been very controlled, as she is the least keen on snakes member of the family. We carefully took the snake 100 meters back to camp, photographed it and then let it go about 200 meters away. 

Next morning we went to see the barbel in their pool – disaster, something had visited the pool during the night and eviscerated and partially eaten all the fish. On examination of tracks we discovered that it had been Cape clawless otters –  beautiful creatures but not often seen. Sadly, we did not get good photos of the fish which we left to be fully recycled. Several times we saw these delightful, very curious animals gliding through the water, sometimes close to our rods and almost ignoring us.

Snakes are not really a concern but scorpions are very common and can be quite dangerous – – using tents reduces the chances of problems. One morning, on returning to camp, we heard a strange “grrrr, grrrr, grrrr” noise coming from some rocks. We investigated and found a large, black, very hairy scorpion trundling along in direct sunshine making the noise by scraping its “sting” along a rough ridge behind its head. It looked very angry and indeed produced a large drop of whitish venom from its “sting” when we attempted to pick it up. It was a Parabuthus villosus, the “black, hairy, thick tailed scorpion”, largest member of the Buthidae, a very venomous scorpion family.

A fishing trip to the Richtersveld is many things, not just one of the best fly fishing experiences anywhere in the world. The journey is long and testing, the area is remote and extreme and the people few but friendly. Although almost desert we saw graceful oryx antelope, tiny mountain klipspringer antelope, vervet monkeys, baboons, ground squirrels, otters and the most awesome and impressive rocky and desolate scenery.

So, we had arrived, settled in, got used to the current conditions and adapted our fishing to the present whims of the fish but had not yet seen, never mind caught, the fabled monster fish of the lower Orange River. But, we still had two days fishing left. We had learned a lot and yet each day was completely different from the previous one.  As the next day dawned each of us thought that we were now much better prepared and ready to test the boundaries of fly fishing in the wonderful Orange River in the amazing Richtersveld.

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