Memories of Swaziland

A misty morning in the forest


I grew up in the little village of Mhlambanyatsi (translated as “the place of the buffalo”) in western Swaziland. Tucked away in the world’s second largest man-made forest, the village was at the heart of a pulp manufacturing community which had existed since the late 1950s, an era when the country was under British colonial rule. The pulp mill stocked several stillwaters in the forest with trout for the recreational benefit of employees. I recently learned that the pulp mill closed down. In one fell swoop thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods. The forest still stands and the pine wood is now exported to neighbouring South Africa where it is apparently cheaper to produce into pulp. I hear that Mhlambanyatsi is a ghost town, the houses empty and falling into disrepair. It’s very sad, particularly as I have very fond memories of growing up in the village. It’s where I learned to fly fish in the early 1990s,  and the news has me thinking back to the first steps of my fishing education.

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Children were left to be children back then. The internet and cell phones didn't yet exist, and nothing more sinister like drugs found their way to our village. It was an innocent time and place. We were encouraged to spend our time outdoors. On most weekends my family would take a drive into the forest and cook a breakfast on the skottel braai (gas cooker). We’d usually do a bit of fishing, first with spinners and lures and later with flies. My Dad and brother would fish too. Sometimes we’d leave for the forest really early in the morning, well before sunrise (always with a flask of sweet coffee or tea), but most often we’d venture off mid morning, going achingly slowly in my dad's silver BMW on the gravel roads, careful not to damage it. We'd cook a full English breakfast next to the water. I loved the taste of fried toast with my egg.


A Swazi rainbow trout, albeit not the prettiest, September 2009.

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On holiday from boarding school my mother would drive me out to one of the “dams” and drop me off for the day with a packed lunch and bottle of juice or water. I enjoyed the solitude and peacefulness of fishing on my own. We’d set a designated time in the evening and always on cue I’d hear my mom’s Opel Kadett approaching - one loose hubcap rattling on the heavily corrugated gravel roads - long before I would see it. It was usually at B2 dam (the dams were given the code of the section of the forest they were located in) that I would fish on my own. The evening rise in summer would occur like clockwork at B2, shortly before dusk. A small Adams pattern would always do the trick. My mother only ever laid down one rule: I had to wear ankle boots. A bite from a puffadder, alone in the forest, would mean death in minutes.   


Rainbow in the net, September 2009.

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B2 was my favourite dam. The dams at B4 and D4 could all lay strong claims to the title but my fondest memories were at B2. It was at B2 that I caught my first trout with a fly, a tadpole imitation called a "Taddy". I had fished almost daily at B2 for three weeks whilst learning to cast a fly rod. Casting a fly rod is a difficult thing to master and those barren first few weeks were very frustrating. I never once felt like giving up though, and catching that first trout, beneath the solitary pine tree at the grassy corner of the dam meant I never looked back. I didn't own a fly box then. I used a biscuit tin instead with a piece of foam glued to the inside to hold my flies. I started a habit of etching a line beneath my box for every trout that I caught. There were about 40 or 50 lines etched into the base of the tin before I stopped the practice, when I guess catching trout became a routine enough event not to mark.

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My brother learned to fly fish from me, and then our father joined in. My father was given a pair of waders as a Christmas gift and he obviously felt a little too invincible in them at first. The only way to reach the far side of B2 dam was to follow a track through the forest which departed a long way from the dam because it skirted around a marsh. The marshy inlet at the dam was too deep to wade across. Soon after that particular Christmas, when we all went to fish at B2, my brother and I heard a shout from our dad followed by a long silence. We hurried to the water's edge to investigate and looking in the direction of the cry, towards the marshy inlet, all we could see was our father's hat bobbing on the water's surface. A second or two later he emerged, drenched, and had to swim to the shore with his waders full of water, acting like an anchor. He dragged himself out and lay panting on the grass for a long time. We laughed about it at the time but in reality it was a very dangerous situation.  

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I had been fly fishing in the forest for a number of years before a fly fishing club was formed, with Les Deakin as chairman. The club needed a badge and the first newsletter announced a prize of a fly line for the best entry submitted. The winner would be announced at the Annual General Meeting a few months later. I immediately got drawing. I’m not particularly good at art but I needed a new fly line. I drew a rainbow trout positioned diagonally over a pine tree cribbed from a Christmas card and submitted it. The club’s first AGM arrived and I attended with my dad. It was held in the small back room of the village’s main club. I recall there was a pretty decent turnout of around 15 to 20 members. The fly fishing club had something like 60 members in that inaugural year because it was the first time the forest dams had been opened to non-employees. Eventually, proceedings turned to the agenda item of “club badge” and to my surprise I won! I learned later that mine had been the only entry so it was a win by default rather than exceptional artistic ability. Given the paucity of entries, the prize of a fly line was retracted and instead I was called to the front and awarded a handshake and a cloth badge of my own design. I had my mom sew it on to my fishing vest as soon as I got home that evening. In hindsight, I probably should have pushed my case for the promised fly line.



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Two of the dams had actual names rather than codes. The smallest was affectionately known as “Pumphouse dam” after - you guessed it - a pump house on its banks. The other was mysteriously called Enrich, and no-one in living memory could tell you why or who it was named after. Enrich was one of the larger dams in the forest, set in a small valley with a spectacular waterfall at the top end of the dam. People always said there was a leopard resident in the hills overlooking the dam but I never saw it or its prints. I wonder how many times the leopard saw me?


Pumphouse Dam, September 2009.

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Mount Baldie looking down on Enrich Dam, September 2009.


Enrich is mostly surrounded by thick reeds and best fished by boat or float tube. I used to have a doughnut shaped float tube before the more comfortable and manoeuvrable U shape tube became all the rage. One day I was out alone on the water whilst my family were preparing breakfast on the bank, out of sight. The fishing was excellent. I had caught a good number of rainbow trout, and had learned that trawling a fly whilst paddling to a new spot could reap rewards too. In a sheltered cove, with only the sound of a faint breeze rustling the tall encircling reeds, the water bubbled and boiled not more than two metres next to me. A large, shiny, serpent-like creature emerged from the murky depths, and a second soon followed it. The “pucker factor” was extreme. I had heard that African rock pythons cooled off in the forest dams on hot summer days. If you’ve been in a float tube before, chest deep in water, you will understand just how helpless floating in a tractor tyre tube can feel. They aren't the most manoeuvrable of vehicles. The ‘pythons’ soon grew intelligent eyes, whiskers and canines and I was somewhat relieved when I realised it was a pair of otters. They were curious and playful and once I realised they were keeping a modest distance I relaxed and enjoyed the interaction. The moment took on a level of serenity as they stayed with me for a few minutes, observing me, before melting away through the reeds.


Enrich, September 2009.

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The really nice thing about being a member of a club is that you get to know the waters really well, almost intimately over time. You're able to learn where the real hot spots are and it's nice to have some fishing water you can call "home". There was an old Italian man who used to fish at D2 dam a lot. In fact I never saw him fishing anywhere else. He would get under the tall pine trees on the steep right bank of the dam, where not many people bothered to fish, and nail the fish by roll casting one fly - a Mrs Simpson. He wasn’t great at casting and his roll casts would slap down really hard on the water. Not that I believe he intended it - that was just the way he cast a fly. I suspect, looking back, that the fish were probably looking out for surface disturbances, waiting for bugs to fall from the overhanging tree branches. At B4 dam a good trout or two could always be taken on a Prince nymph by wading in to the water under the low hanging pine trees on the far bank. It was always the first place I’d head to when fishing B4. It took a bit of effort to reach but there was usually a reward for a carefully presented fly. My best trout taken in this little hot spot spot weighed in at just over 3½lbs. I noticed that the vast majority of fishermen would stick to the easily accessible spots, or the spots that simply offered an open back cast, and it paid to fish the areas overlooked by others, those deemed too difficult to fish.


Another Rainbow at Pumphouse Dam, September 2009.

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At one stage the club stocked a handful of golden trout into some of the dams. No relation to the golden trout of California, these are simply bright yellow/albino rainbow hybrids stocked for their novelty factor. You could see them underwater from a mile away. I always felt a little sorry for them. They’re glorified goldfish thrust into a wild environment and the reaction to them is rather like the reaction of the paparazzi and fans to celebrities. They were constantly pestered and never left alone. Celebrities don’t have to deal with the attentions of cormorants or otters, but some celebrities probably deserve it more than the poor old golden trout.

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Very soon after their stocking all of the golden trout but one disappeared from A4 dam. The sole remaining golden trout was a hefty chap, who generally held station near the shallow inlet to the dam. He probably possessed more survival instinct than the rest of his (long deceased) brethren put together as he made it past a couple of months, despite having had countless flies retrieved past his nose. Each visit to A4 furthered my obsession to catch this golden trout. I tried pattern after pattern and experimented with different fly sizes all without success. I wore drab coloured clothing to blend in with my surroundings and tried to be as stealthy as possible. Nothing worked until eventually on a day no different to any other the fish turned its head and casually took my fly. I remember feeling ecstatic but also incredibly nervous that the fish would somehow break the tippet or throw the fly. After a good fight it came to hand and weighed in at just over 3lbs. It had deep wounds on its side thanks to a cormorant or heron. The sad thing is that I killed that fish and took it home to show people as I didn’t think anyone would believe me. A4 felt empty for a while afterwards. I don’t kill fish anymore. Given the choice again I would have released him but I guess, for a golden trout, it’s only a matter of time before your number is called.

D4 dam, September 2007.

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In the early days, before the road between Mhlambanyatsi and the nation's capital Mbabane was tarred, and before Les Deakin stocked a selection of fly fishing gear at his flooring store in the capital, we travelled over the border to Ermelo, the nearest town of any size in South Africa, for essential supplies. It was a six hour return drive. My mother would drive to Ermelo around once a month to buy food and other necessities or whenever anyone needed to visit the doctor. I was always happy to go with because it meant we'd stop at an Indian trader in the town who stocked sporting goods, including fishing flies. They stocked "Hairy Fairy Flies", packs of three flies sold in plastic bags. The Walker's Killer Red Nymph was the most sought after pattern and these were snapped up whenever found. The green and yellow variants never quite seemed to have the same success. The Hairy Fairy fly selections were in the main old fashioned wet patterns from Britain, such as Invicta, Alexandra, Greenwell's Glory, Connemara Black and Jersey Herd.   


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Speaking of flies, a sports shop in Mbabane did stock a very small selection of the same Hairy Fairy flies. This was before Les Deakin's store opened. My uncle was visiting in the mid 90s and we spent a good two weeks exploring the dams in the forest. The Walker's Red Nymph had been particularly successful, but we ran out of them. We drove to Mbabane in the vain hope that Swazi Sports, in the OK Bazaars mall, might have some in stock. We looked through the small selection, found none, and asked the owner if he might have any in stock. He said no, and casually asked where we had been fishing, and we regaled him with our tales of successful fishing in the forest. The following weekend, we drove to B2 dam and there, fishing from the dam wall, was the owner of Swazi Sports, who looked a little sheepish as we waved to him.  


The waterfall at Enrich dam

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On my first ever trip to D2 dam, I went exploring the lake margins. The right hand bank, viewed from the gravel road on the dam wall, was steep and populated by a stand of tall pine trees. I would later learn this this was the most productive fishing spot of them all. There was a small bay across which one of the trees had fallen, leaving a natural bridge. The alternative was to walk up the slope and around the bay, but the fallen tree log offered a more inviting and less taxing route. I made it half way across the log when my legs started to wobble, as if I was wearing ice skates. I desperately tried to maintain balance but the log was mossy and wet. My heart sank in the moment I knew I was going for a swim. Splash! I emerged soaked from the water, with my pride dented as I listened to my uncle laughing from the dam wall. Several hours later, when I had dried off in the sun, another member and his nephew arrived at the dam. Seeing another member was a very rare occurrence. The old gentleman rigged up and caught a trout with his first cast. I was very impressed. Eager to learn, I went over to enquire what fly he had used. 'I only ever use a Mickey Finn' he said, and I inspected the gaudy looking red and yellow fly. The member's nephew, a similar age to me, was exploring the right bank of the dam and approached the tree log over the bay. We could see him pause and deliberate whether to take the easy route over the log or the hard route around it. With a morbid fascination, I was pleased he chose to cross the tree log. Would he fare any better? At precisely the same spot on the tree log his legs started to wobble and his arms started to flap like a bird, and into the drink he went with a loud splash. This time I laughed as one who had earned the right to laugh - and felt much better about my own dunking. As soon as I could afterwards, I purchased a pack of Mickey Finn flies, but I never once did catch a trout with this fly. Perhaps it was a confidence issue. The Mickey Finn is a garishly coloured attractor fly and I never did take to fishing such unnatural looking flies.



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Fishing the shallows of D4 dam, September 2007.

I hoovered up as much fly fishing literature as I could find, which in those pre-internet days was limited to whatever printed works were available in the shops or second hand. Of course, South African books dominated my bookshelf, the most prominent of which was Tom Sutcliffe's 'My Way with a Trout'. Tom is the doyen of South African fishing and became my angling role model. He would also regularly contribute to the two South African fly fishing magazines, 'The Complete Flyfishermen' and 'Flyfishing', and I enjoyed reading his articles the most. These magazines would make their way over the border to Swaziland several weeks after their on sale dates, and would provide hours of reading. There were also local books by Malcolm Meintjies, Bill Hansford-Steele and Dean Riphagen. Overseas books were more rare, but I did own the New Zealand book 'Stalking Trout' by Les Hill and Graeme Marshall, and the British book 'The Classic Guide to Flyfishing for Trout' by Charles Jardine. A Scotsman who lived in the village, Jim Raybould, would also let me have his old copies of the UK's 'Trout Fisherman' magazines. The images of the much larger trout overseas provided much wonderment and awe.

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The books and magazine articles mainly spoke of river fly fishing for trout. I read wistfully of those accounts because no river fishing for trout existed in the forest or indeed Swaziland. Attempts had been made decades before to stock the Usutu River above the pulp mill with trout, but a sustaining population never took root and stocking was abandoned in favour of the dams. My brother and I tried to create our own river fishing by releasing the trout we caught from B4 dam into the small outflow stream beneath the dam wall. Back then, pine trees were planted on the ground next to small streams (now a margin is left clear). Despite the thirsty trees, this little stream still carried a good flow beneath the cool, dark canopy of the pines. I recall watching in amazement with my brother as two of the trout we had stocked held side by side in the middle of the shallow stream, swishing their tails in apparent contentment. We didn't fish the stream, having some notion of letting the trout settle and breed in peace, but we would inspect it every time we visited B4 and top it up with more stock. On one occasion we spooked a tiny fish, seen only in a blur of speed, a size far smaller than any we had stocked, and we allowed ourselves to dream that our efforts were succeeding. We stopped when we realised our efforts were probably being hampered by the huge freshwater crabs found in Swaziland. That realisation dawned on us rather horrifyingly when a crab reached out and grabbed a trout I had just released, and plucked out an eye in a flash. We didn't think it was fair to continue to stock trout into a small stream with large crabs, and no doubt the crabs would have eaten the eggs deposited by any spawning trout in any event.


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There was also a river which flowed through the village, which looked viable enough for trout even though it had a sandy bottom and always seemed to have an opaque tinge. Before the flyfishing club existed, when the pulp mill was responsible for stocking the dams, I volunteered to spend a day with the Forest Manager, Arnulf Kanzler, overseeing the stocking of the dams. The trout came from South Africa. We met the oxygenated truck at the Redhill border post and spent the day driving from dam to dam, watching as hundreds of trout were tipped into their new homes. It was fascinating. I managed to convince Arnulf to stock a few into the village stream as a trial, and 15 duly went in below the village golf course and another 15 near the downstream extent of the settlement. They were never seen again. Some years later, after the flyfishing club was formed, in more enlightened times, the club commissioned an environmental impact assessment with a view to stocking the same village river with rainbow trout. The report came back with a firm recommendation not to stock trout, because of the presence of a rare species of frog. I hoped that my 30 trout had not taken too much of a toll on the local frogs before their mysterious disappearance!

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Comments

  1. Wonderful story and what looks like a beautiful place to live.

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  2. That place looks great. Those fish a quite healthy looking. I have never had the chance to fish for Golden Trout but hope to some day. Great pics, I really like that foggy forest one. Tight lines.

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  3. What a great looking place to fish.

    I've started to lose heart when it comes to taking fish too Justin. Golden or not.

    But as long as I know how to catch fish I know I should never go hungry! (unless I blank again...)

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  4. Thanks for commenting. I enjoyed sharing a few of my childhood fishing memories of Swaziland! What a shame the village is no more and other kids won't have the same opportunity.

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  5. Nice story thanks Justin.
    Having grown up fishing New Zealand still waters close to home I can relate!
    I feel envious of the pics, I am missing still waters here in my new home of Germany so far...

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  6. the Mrs Simpson was v popular in NZ in the 90's, along with the Hamills Killer lure fly also.

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