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Birdy Days on a Fishing Safari
Clive Gammon
August 26, 1968
It takes a stout heart to overcome even the usual frustrations connected with fishing. But problems the author found in Zululand would make a crocodile shed human tears
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August 26, 1968

Birdy Days On A Fishing Safari

It takes a stout heart to overcome even the usual frustrations connected with fishing. But problems the author found in Zululand would make a crocodile shed human tears

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In the end I had to be firm about it. "Look," I said carefully, "I don't think we're going to do a lot of good here." Jim Feely, mildly puzzled, looked round at me. Wasn't this water? Where fish lived? So what was wrong?

From a mudbank 50 yards away a crocodile stared at us with an expression of bored contempt. It had kept that up for two hours without a movement. In my lap I cradled an unlikely looking fishing outfit: a 6/0 reel loaded with what looked like 100-pound-test nylon, attached precariously to an anonymous bait-casting rod by plenty of string and a knotted handkerchief. On a large hook I had mounted a frozen pilchard, which now reposed on the muddy bottom of the St. Lucia estuary as far away from the boat as I could throw it—a good 20 feet. High, straw-colored reeds cut us off from the rest of Zululand. I could have been fishing a good-sized farm pond if it weren't for the crocodile and a small flotilla of hippopotamuses that showed nostrils, tiny ears and gigantic rumps some little distance away. The water must have been deeper where they were. I calculated that my pilchard was lying in two and a half feet of water, and not even the crocodile showed any interest.

"What's wrong?" Jim asked. Brian van der Merwe, the game ranger from the St. Lucia Game Reserve and Park who had taken us out on the estuary, was also very concerned. He abandoned his attempt to line up a magnificent black, bronze and white fish eagle in the telescopic lens of a camera that he'd fitted onto a rifle stock. "Maybe you've got the wrong bait," he suggested helpfully. That wouldn't have surprised me, but there was a lot more wrong with this fishing expedition than just the bait. No fishing guides could have been more genuinely anxious to please than Jim and Brian, or more anxious for me to get some sport. The trouble was that neither of them had the vaguest notion of when, where and how to fish in Zululand. Or anywhere else. It had taken some time for this devastating truth to come to light. For some weeks I had been fishing my way around the South African coast, the arrangement being that I should meet local anglers and go out on expeditions with them. "Don't bring tackle," they'd told me before I left London. "It's going to be all laid on."

I remember saying once in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that I was going to write a fishing book called You Should Have Been Here Last Wednesday. That, admittedly, is still in the planning stage, but I have already thought about the sequel, which will be entitled It's All Laid On. To be fair, a lot of it had been laid on this trip. It wasn't anyone's fault that I'd spent a week in Cape Town, looking out of the hotel window at the big seas running in False Bay, hoping vainly that the weather would ease enough for tuna fishing. And I had enjoyed some success down in western Cape Province with kob, a big South African sea perch that weighs up to 50-odd pounds. There had, of course, been the morning I fished for largemouth bass in a mountain dam, above the town of Oudtshoorn, at the mayor's invitation. It was a good morning, too, as I told him euphorically at lunchtime. Twenty good fish I'd brought back with me. There was a short, strained silence before the polite congratulations came. How was I to know that there was a bag limit of six?

Then there was the night trip at Knysna. Night fishing always paid off best in the lagoon, said the club secretary. So the pair of us sailed off to fish through the dark hours. Another species called white steenbras was what we had in mind, and the technique was not difficult. You baited up with prawn, cast out, left the reel on click and out of gear and went to sleep in one of the bunks, in the happy knowledge that the scream of the reel would awaken you if you had a strike. But I spent the whole night afraid to sleep in case I missed the magic moment. No magic moment came, and that was not surprising, since the secretary, torn between hospitality and sport, allowed the former instinct to win and surreptitiously reeled in the lines before he went to sleep, shamefacedly explaining in the morning that he thought I'd appreciate a good night's rest. There must have been some County Kerry blood in him somewhere, but at least we could fish the hours of early light, and, in fact, I took a good steenbras before I had to come in.

All the time, though, I had been looking forward to Zululand, to the great beaches of Kosi Bay and Sordwana Bay, where the warm Mozambique Current touches the coast and where the blue, rich water holds game fish from marlin down to king mackerel. Real Africa, everyone said, where the proud, sad, handsome Zulu nation still maintained its culture and identity. There were Zulus around Durban, certainly, in the bedraggled concrete townships provided for them outside the city. You could even get a ricksha ride along the sea front, with the motor power provided by a Zulu dressed in a technicolor travesty of the plumes and beadwork of a 19th century chief, if your tastes ran that way. Meanwhile, in Durban, from my room in the great clifflike Edward Hotel, I watched the surfers come sweeping in on the huge Indian Ocean rollers and waited for a message from the wild north.

It was Jim Feely, in fact, who came to pick me up, a slight, out-of-place figure in the smart hotel lobby in his faded khaki safari suit. He had a VW outside, covered in what I would soon recognize as the red dust of Zululand. For hours on the road north out of Durban we drove through endless plantations of high sugar cane. The townships thinned out until they were 30 or 40 miles apart, and then we were crossing the dark red Tugela River, the southern boundary of Zululand. We were headed for Ubizane, west of Hluhluwe, where Jim was a partner in a game ranch, outfitting hunting safaris and wildlife photography expeditions. We didn't talk about fishing, and it didn't occur to me how odd that was until later.

Late that afternoon we sat on the veranda of the lodge. Green, brown and yellow, the bushveld stretched away, and through binoculars we watched zebra and impala moving on the hillside. It only needed Gregory Peck in his leopard-skin hat band. "Where's your leopard-skin hat band?" I asked Jim. "They're out this year," he said unsmiling, "especially the nylon type."

It seemed a good time to look at the gear and to make a few plans. "What'll we do tomorrow?" I asked.

"Well," said Jim easily, "I thought we might take a look at the St. Lucia estuary. Get up early, try and get a full day in."

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