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Road Tripping into midlife, a recollection of an epic tour de force embarked on during lockdown in 2021


Road Tripping into Midlife

I have arrived, the Big 50. This particular milestone has crept up on me. The head feels 28 but the face and body remind me otherwise. Felt like it was yesterday that I was still raving like a lunatic in the 90’s carving up the dancefloors to the likes of dj gods Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox. Thankfully I did not hold onto that lifestyle. A diet of disco biscuits and red bull is not recommended if you considering longevity. The cliché midlife crisis has not really reared its head. I am not rushing off to buy a bright red convertible sports car. I have had some moments of reflection on getting older though. Finding myself counting down how many years I can still go fishing in remote places that require some level of fitness to get to. This has encouraged me to live a little healthier lifestyle  One of the most inspiring encounters was meeting a 66-year-old yank fly fisherman on the Oreti River in New Zealand's South Island. We bumped into each other on route to our beat and got chatting. I learnt he spends 6 months a year travelling and fishing NZ, and on this particular trip, he was with his 90-year-old father who was not able to do the backcountry tramping anymore but could do the closer easily accessible spots. What an inspiration! I want to be that guy.

Fly fishing has always been my compass in life. The one constant. Being close to the water and throwing feathers has been my church and natural Prozac. I cut my teeth on the upper reaches of Sabie River between Lone Creek Falls and Sabie Falls in the early 90’s where I was doing my hospitality management internship through Protea Hotels. Remembering my first river rainbow trout on fly like it was yesterday. Fishing the long dark pool below the timber mill on a crisp winter's morning. The fish gave away its presence with a gentle rise. The old-school classic Red Setter clumsily presented in close-ish proximity to the fish was eagerly eaten. Little did I know at that moment I was also hooked. 

Fast forward 30 years ….

To celebrate my 50th year on the planet my wife Clare had planned to send me to Argentina, thanks to the pandemic this was not meant to be. Clare had another plan . …

"You are turning 50 it's a big deal so we going to celebrate by taking a road trip", were my wife Clare's words. No questions asked just tie flies for Rainbows, Tigers and Yellowfish was her instruction. It was like living with a CIA agent the months leading up to the planned July 2021 departure. Secret late-night conversations, whispering into the phone, and changing subjects whenever I walked into the room became the norm around the house.

The trip would take us from Knysna and cover pretty much the circumference of South Africa, traveling through 6 provinces 4700 km in 2.5 weeks. An epic tour de force road trip with my soulmate.

 Clare and I on the road.

Our route

Ford Eco Sport packed we started our journey on a rainy cold July morning leaving Knysna behind heading for the open road. Military and police presence on arrival in Durb's gave some assurance of safety after the week before's looting chaos erupted. Durban was eerily quiet. We navigated our way to the Natal Midlands. We had 2 nights booked in Dargle at the ridiculously luxurious lodging of the newly developed Star Dam Estate. A far cry from my usual rustic lodgings I am used to on fishing trips to Thrift in the Winterberg and the likes. As cold fronts created havoc across SA the temperatures also plummeted in the Midlands dropping to overnight temperatures of minus 8 and maxing at 5 degrees in the day. It was so cold the shallow edges of the dam froze over. The fishing was tough. Having lost all feeling in my fingertips made tying a fly onto the end of my tippet a clumsy affair.  After a good few hours fishing trying all my go-to search patterns and lines with varying sink rates, my efforts had not even produced a bump. The thought of a possible blank was creeping into the back of my mind but that's fishing, right? Fortunately, at that moment a small rise at the top of one of the shallow bay's caught my eye. I had not brought any light tippets or dries on the boat so clumsily tied on an egg pattern and presented in the general area I had seen a rise. A feisty rainbow was happy to snack on the egg pattern as it sunk slowly below the surface in the crystal clear water. This was repeated to a few more rising fish till all went quiet. I opted to call it a day returning to the comforts of the lodge with cosey fire, great company, a hot meal, and a bottle of fine red wine I had smuggled from home. A reward for my efforts in the freezing conditions was a bout of bronchitis but that was not going to deter me from enjoying the rest of our trip.

Flat and very chilly waters of Star Dam. 

A rewarding Dargle bow released into the icy water.

Plush Star Dam Estate Lodging

Onto Pongola ……

Leaving Dargle and heading for King Shaka airport we collected the mystery guest my good mate Gavin Schneider who flew in from Cape Town. He had spun many a yarn and pulled the wool over my eyes not to give away that he was joining us on a leg of the road trip. Hugs and high-fives later we headed for Pongola and our base for the next 3 nights. We going Tiger fishing!

The drive from the reserve gate to Inkwazi was like an unexpected game drive, teeming with wildlife galore. In Gavin's words " It's amazing, oh my gosh you can't believe all these animals". We arrived at Inwazi to be met by a spectacular sunset that will be imprinted in our minds forever.

Inkwazi heaven !

Having the lodge to ourselves was a little weird but the management and team made us feel right at home. Now on to more pressing matters, the fishing. Gavin had had some success on a previous trip to Tanzania and could tick off a tigerfish on fly. My previous unsuccessful attempt to catch a Tigerfish on fly was twenty years prior on a trip to Zimbabwe fishing the confluence of the Deka River and the mighty Zambezi. It was early days in the evolution of catching Tigers on fly and I was not successful.  A confession to the purists,  I ended up experiencing the might of a Zambezi Tigerfish with a coffee grinder reel,  spinning rod, using a ball sinker to get my bright pink overdressed Deceiver fly down deep enough. Forgetting my previous sins, fast forward 20 years and I was seriously itching to get my first Tiger on fly. Pongola river is a wild magical place, something so special throwing a fly in waters home to healthy populations of crocs and hippo and an abundance of wildlife surrounding you.

 

We had 2 days fishing ahead of us and with the help of Dumi Inkwazi lodges fishing guide and advice from my friends that have fished these waters, we were in with a chance. First light the next morning we headed out.


Gav and myself

Clare and Dumi Sunset Cruis'n  

Dumi navigated us into a promising-looking bay. It's showtime, stripped line out and I sent out my first cast, rod tip down check, fast long strip check, strip… strip …strip...  good knock ….. miss and 2nd knock and another miss and then gone. It was a very promising start but went quiet. We decided to start prospecting deeper water. A few casts later and boom, a massive hit... strip set and fish on! I was so excited and caused such a commotion that even the hippos turned their heads to see what was going on. It feels proper was my first thought as the line started ripping through the guides. The fish cleared the water with an incredible aerial display. My praying to the fishing gods intensified, please stay on!  After a good few sold runs, my first African Striped Water Dog was safely netted. Wet hands, quick pics, and release. The fish kicking hard swimming off at a pace like it was never hooked. I took a few moments to let what just happened to settle in. Super stoked! The rest of the day we fished hard ( Clare says that's a silly thing to say as how can fishing be hard ? ). Both Gavin and I landed a few lively fish and lost a good number, snoozing on the job with pathetic trout strikes not setting the hook properly.

 That first tiger on fly.

Gav in the zone !

 

 Day 2, armed with the knowledge of the successes and failures from the day before we were very confident the new day would produce. Wishful thinking, what started as a perfect windless calm day changed pretty fast, the wind picked up and was a total blowout. Getting a decent drift was impossible. Dumi patiently untangled fly lines stuck in the motor blades on numerous occasions leaning dangerously forward over the motor headfirst into croc-infested waters. We called it a day as the wind just pumped harder and harder. Both of us agreed an unwanted eye or nose piercing was also not an option. Early the next morning we headed for JHB dropped off Gavin at OR Tambo and started heading North to Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Park. A bucket list for us both.

More than half the drive from Kuruman to Kgalagadi, around 170 km was dirt road. Our little car handled the bone-chattering corrugation and soft sand with no incidents. A pleasant find at the end of the dirt road was the tiny one-horse town of Askham. The Diamond T coffee shop was an oasis of delights. You could refuel on the most delicious homemade ginger beer, incredible springbok pie, and the best cheesecake we have ever tasted. The 2 nights in the Kgalagadi were very special. We were based at the gate camp of Twee Rivieren on the border of Botswana. This was just going to be a  taste of the Kgalagadi and we discussed returning with our children and a suitable 4x4 vehicle to explore the northern part of the park. A trip for next time. A highlight was spotting a honey badger strutting through the dust with purpose. The birdlife was absolutely incredible

The Ford Eco Sport somewhere between Kuruman and Kgalagadi

Richersveld - Yellowfish

Driving towards Springbok we were greeted by the most insanely beautiful Namaqua flowers, colors so incredibly bright and exaggerated reminiscent of a good LSD trip. Clare was going to hand me over to the next mystery guest and she would head off in the direction of CT and would meet up in 3 days.  My mate Brian Fanner had driven up from Hopefield would be my company for the next few days. We hit the road in Brian's Subaru, destination Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. The insanely corrugated road between Alexander Bay and Sendelingsdrift ate the Subaru's shocks and they decided to pack up.  Spirits high we ignored the bone-rattling shakedown as we snaked toward the Richtersveld. We stayed overnight at the gates chalets and left first light for Tatasberg, taking 3.5 hours covering 73 km plus a few extras as we missed a turn ending up at De Hoop Campsite.  

Doing a terrible job as navigator.

Brian and the Subaru De Hoop. 

At De Hoop, Brian noted a definite rise and we debated throwing line but opted to push on to Tatasberg.  With not another vehicle or person sighted on the route, we arrived late morning at the spectacular Tatasberg Wilderness Rest Camp. The isolated camp is perched on a hill overlooking the impressive Orange River below. We dumped our gear in the chalet, rigged rods swiftly, and made our way upriver so we could fish back towards the camp. With spirits high, we walked with confidence and purpose across the thick sandy terrain towards the Orange River. On the first assessment, the water levels were rather high and the flow rate pumping, visibility was almost zero. We blanked properly.

Brian Tatasberg

Mixed emotions after a blank day at Tatasberg. 

That night around the fire under the big sky we discussed a strategy. Brian's thinking was we stood a better chance at De Hoop as we had seen some fish activity. His theory was the water could be clearer further down due to filtration. Sounded plausible and worth a go.

Tatasberg night time vibes. 

The next morning we woke, it was the 4th of August and this Leo was officially 50 years of age. Looking out over the mind-blowing landscape that surrounded the cabin, I took in a deep breath and exhaled with a sense of accomplishment. I have arrived. So grateful to be alive here and now, at this moment. I count my blessings, my amazing wife, 2 wonderful Children Kealoha and Lil-joy, good friends, and my health. Apology if this sounds like an academy award speech. This last year turned the world on its head and now more than ever my mother’s words resonate. “Tomorrow is never promised, live in the now “ , not a bad mantra to live by . 

Back to the trip, sorry took a reflective side turn.Brian in true form only remembered it was my birthday sometime later that morning. On route to De Hoop campsite, we spotted a massive troop of Baboons with their impressive thick shaggy coats and we wondered how the hell they survive in this Mars-like landscape. We arrived at an empty De Hoop campsite. Rigged up a largie rod and 2nd smallmouth set up with floating line, indicator, and tandem nymph and control fly. No chance of Czech/ short line nymphing, water was just too fast so opted for a longer cast and swing the heavily weighted flies. Success! On my 2nd drift, a fish snacked the point fly and I was rewarded with a birthday smallmouth yellow. I thought that was pretty cool.

Little big fish, on my 50th b-day

 Not long after Brian landed his first Richters yellow. After some more action targeting Smallmouth, we decided to spend the rest of the day looking for the iconic Largemouth Yellow but was not meant to be. We agreed that in a month or two when the water warms up and runs clear the place would be firing. Seed planted for a return trip.  As the Subaru bounced through the passes driving back to Sanderlings drift our eyes scanned the rocky mountains trying to spot the iconic Pachypodium Namaquanum, also known as Halfmens. We spotted a few and joked that it was similar to looking for the big 5 but not.

Brians first Richters yellow.

Clare met us at the Ultra City in Piketberg and we said our goodbyes to Brian. Catching up on the happenings of the last few nights Clare drove us to Paternoster for a night and the very special experience of dining at the award-winning Wolfgat restaurant which she had to book 6 months in advance. A 7-course tasting menu with indigenous ingredients specific to that coastal region and incredible wine pairing with wines I had never heard of. It was out of this world.  The last stop on way home to Knysna was The Riebeek Valley. A surprise get together was arranged on a mates farm joined by friends and family. What a wonderful way to end this epic trip.

Clare Ovens thank you for creating these very special memories. 

I leave you with this, enjoy each breath, time with loved ones, and fish as much as possible. Loosely quoting the poem by Robert H.Smith, the clock of life ticks but only once, you never know when the clock will stop ticking, so best get on with it and live every moment as if it's your last.