After a week of nervous weather watching our day of departure for Lesotho arrived and, as expected, it was raining. The four of us climbed in the Jeep and began the three hour journey that would take us up Sani Pass and into the Mountain Kingdom. Although none of us were new to fishing in the rain, navigating a pass that had been eroded by daily downpours (and was more the likely slippery and wet) was an obstacle that lay in the way of our fishing. We were also a little nervous that the river would be too high and that the trip would be in vain.
We made our usual first stop for fuel and coffee and quickly learned that any slowing of the vehicle would result in Hayden jumping out and sucking down a cancer stick.
After that the journey to the border was fairly quiet other than the incessant babbling coming from the pair of lawyers in the back. As per usual the SA border crossing was quick and easy and soon we were climbing up the famous Sani Pass. The rain had definitely had an effect on the road as the pass was rocky and very narrow in places, thanks to recent erosion. A new waterfall around every corner showed us just how much rain they’d experienced recently. That said the condition of the pass wasn’t terrible and, other than one corner which had a few rocky steps, the drive up was easy and relatively painless.
Thankfully the Lesotho border post was just as painless as the South African one and before we knew it we were unpacking our bags into our rooms at the backpackers. With no time to waste we headed straight from the Sani River (after a cancer stick of course). It was time to get into some fish!
Our first port of call was the small bridge which crosses the river. Thankfully this confirmed that although the river was far higher than during our May trip, it was certainly fishable In fact, it looked absolutely fantastic. We then headed off along the river in search of a safe place to leave the vehicle. Sadly there have been reports of cars being broken into when left unattended. Whether these stories are true I can’t confirm but it’s always worth erring on the side of caution. Although it never ceases to amaze me how in such a barren landscape, which looks devoid of life, you can be surrounded by locals and animals within five minutes of getting out of the car.
Kitting up took longer than expected thanks to Coxy owning every piece of river equipment known to mankind. With the rest of us ready to go we all milled around as he put on his knee pads, kitted up his Tenkara rod, explained to us the beauty of his Stephen Boshoff split cane rod and checked the studs on his wading boots. Hayden had another cancer stick.
And then we were off.
For the morning session we split into two groups and headed off in opposite directions, agreeing to meet back at the car for lunch at 1pm. Nick and I started the session in a long, shallow pool which had proved successful in the past. It was looking good with a decent flow running through it and fish rising freely. I moved away from my usual approach to rivers and opted to nymph the pool rather than fish it with a dry fly. This proved to be a successful approach and I hooked into a small wild rainbow on my second cast. It was looking to be a great day!
We continued fishing the pool with both Nick and I both landing multiple fish. Amazingly the fish were hitting the indicator as often as the nymph and as such Nick turned to a dry and dropper rig which was probably a good idea. I thought about it but had landed so many fish that it didn’t really seem worth the effort.
Eventually we decided we should explore some of the run and riffles and began working our way up the stream. From a rocky ledge overlooking the Sani River we spotted fish rising in a short run. Nick checked his leader and headed down discreetly to throw a fly. On his third cast his dry was smashed on the surface but he missed the fish. He threw several more casts with similar results. Eventually watching got the better of me and I headed down and threw a nymph into the run. Fish on!
We landed fish all the way up the river until we found another large pool which we dedicated some time to. After landing a few fish in the tail end of the pool I opted to fish the inlet. I quickly landed two small rainbows and then, unexpectedly, something big hit my fly. I saw a quick flash of a large fish, well over 40cms, before it took off down the length of the pool pulling line off my reel. I was forced to pursue it on foot, along the bank, and down the length of the pool. After wrestling the fish from the weeds it took off on another long run and then, as quickly as it had all started, it broke me off. Much swearing and the odd tear later I reeled in my line to the sad sight of a fly without a point. The fish had snapped the hook.
We fished for a short while longer before hiking back to the car for the agreed upon lunch time rendezvous. Ian and Hayden were nowhere to be seen so, after a brief wait, we ate our lunch and then headed down to the stretch of river in front of the car. The plan was to fish the short section while we waited for them to make their way back. The clouds were meanwhile darkening and the odd drop of rain fell from the sky. In the distance thunder could be heard grumbling about my lost fish.
Eventually, over an hour after the agreed meeting time, we decided that a search party was required and headed off down the river hoping not to have to carry Coxy back. Thankfully we found them around the first bend fishing a good run feverishly. They quickly confirmed that the fishing had been so good that returning to the car was the last thing on their minds. Thanks guys.
By now it was after 2pm and the question was whether we should have an afternoon session or head to the pub for a cold beer instead. No question really, an afternoon session it was.
Although I had originally planned to head off in the opposite direction for the second session, the lure of my lost fish was too high and I once again headed off upstream. This time all four of us fished together, hop-scotching one another and taking turns at pools. The fishing remained good but sadly my pool did not give me a second chance at the lunker I knew it held.
At around 5pm we decided to call it a day and headed slowly back to the backpackers. The plan was to have a quick shower and then to head over to the bar for dinner and a few drinks. Sadly our plans were foiled when we arrived and discovered that our bags were no longer in our rooms. This was made worse by the darkness and lack of electricity in the backpackers. Eventually we located them in the lounge and decided to head to the office to sort out the confusion. This however meant skipping our much needed shower but was sadly necessary. It turned out that, despite have booked those two rooms and having booking slips for them, we still needed to check in first.
Now in the pub we decided that we’d have dinner and a few beers before heading back over the rocky road to the backpackers. This is when our well planned trip began to fall into disarray. We each ordered a Maluti (a local Lesotho beer) and were charged R100 for the round. That worked out to a whopping (and ridiculous) R25 per beer. Querying about other prices we discovered it was R18 for a coke and between R20 and R40 for a shot of whiskey. This news was further worsened by being told that dinner was R200 for soup, a pork chop, and chocolate pudding.
If you take into account the fact that the backpackers cost us R195 per person and that the rondavals can cost you over R1000 per person per night, it was hardly surprising that the bar was empty (as were all the rondavals). The days of a packed pub running merrily into the early hours of the morning seems to be a distant memory, as was sitting around the fire with other guests chatting about their adventurous trips through the Lesotho Highlands. How sad.
So after begrudgingly ordering the cheapest item on the menu we sat in the bar that lacked atmosphere, finished our meals, and then headed back to the backpackers wishing we’d packed a few beers. The vibe of the Highest Pub In Africa is gone.
The next morning we were all up at 6am and exceptionally glad to find that the showers had hot water. Our original plan had been to eat either a big breakfast or an early lunch at the Sani Top Chalet but, after the previous night’s experiences, we decided to snack on what we had left in our backpacks instead. We then moved our bags out of our rooms and headed for the river for what would hopefully be another good day’s fishing.
Once we’d gotten down to the river my first observation was that the water was a lot colder. In fact after our first crossing I could feel that well known cold water ache in my legs. As a result the fish were a lot less active than the previous day and there was very little (if any) activity on the surface. Fishing was tough for the first hour or so but we all got into the odd fish which kept us going. Slowly the water warmed as the sun rose in the sky and, eventually, the river came back to life.
Soon we were all catching fish freely and having the time of our lives. Ian, Hayden and I kept heading upstream while Nick opted to fish the area near the car.
My lunker once again alluded me but, on the up side, Hayden swears he saw it jump later in the day. Fishing further upstream also revealed a lot of good pools which showed the potential to also hold bigger fish. It was in one of these pools that I had the pleasure of throwing a few casts with Ian’s Stephen Boshoff split cane rod. I must admit that it was an absolute pleasure to cast. The action is incredibly slow (as one expects from bamboo) but the presentation of the line and fly is flawless. The truth of the matter is that for small streams you just can’t beat a slow rod. The moment was further improved when I hooked into a feisty little rainbow which gave me a spectacular fight on the rod. I would say I’m converted, but then I can’t justify fishing with such a beautiful piece of craftsmanship just yet.
At around lunch time the three of us turned around and headed back towards the car, fishing the odd pool (of course). We landed several more fish before reaching the vehicle and having a quick bite to eat. From their we headed back to the backpackers where we picked up our bags, packed the car, and made our way carefully down the pass.
The drive home felt long as the Underberg road usually does. The lawyers continued their banter in the back while Nick and I chatted about fly fishing and future trips.
The Sani River is definitely worth another visit although I certainly won’t be staying in the Sani Top Chalets (now called the Sani Mountain Lodge) or supporting their pub. It’s a real shame considering the fun we used to have there. I can only hope they notice their mistake, after all, the echos in the empty chalets should quickly point it out.