© Wolf Avni September 16, 2003
THE HEARTS OF HUNTERS
The rains are late this year and the greening of the hills has been slow. For months we have watched
the steady, inexorable retreat of the lake’s shoreline, exposing by degrees, first the stone rip-rap on the dam wall, then the sand banks up in the estuary and finally, great swathes of sweet water-grass. The dam spillway has lain dry since May. The Umzimkulwana river, from whence springs its life, has been little more than a trickle since midwinter and waiting for those first rains to break upon the flanks of Mvuleni (Rain Mountain) is about the strongest meditation that a fish farmer could know. It imparts patience and humility.
For those creatures that must forage, there is precious little nutrition to be found out on the steep flanks of the high berg through the austerity of winter. All of Nature is drawn in upon itself and even the porcupines and ant-bears are made presumptuous by empty bellies.
But now, with cumulus building in the updraft over the escarpment, the time for stoicism is over. The first showers of the new season have just fallen, washing the smoke of a thousand veld-fires out of the air, so that the high berg stands chiselled, severe and proud above the cloud. Within 24 hours the grasslands will blush verdant. Shy grazers - eland, rehbuck and mountain reedbuck - will venture cautiously onto the open meadow pasture in the foothills enfolding the lake. We may even see an occasional oribi, higher up, just below the protea line. All their likenesses, daubed in tableaux of the hunt, long ago by the vanished San, on the walls of rock-shelters carved out of the sandstone - by time and by summer thunderstorms - attest to the paradoxum of fragility and resilience that their survivals represent.
The jackal, caracal, civet, genet and serval will all cease their nightly skulking - on frosted feet - around the fringes of our habitation, where, all winter long, at the risk of an encounter with the dogs, they ran raids on the compost and stalked the red- eared hares that come into the garden, searching for grass roots and rhizomes.
Out on the lake, great flocks of yellow-bill and white-face duck have gathered to feed on the newly exposed aquatic vegetation, while, against the grey clouds, a pair of fish-eagles bank and wheel. Every pass they make over the water sends the waterfowl into paroxysms that scatter in all directions. The ducks are just too quick for the great lumbering eagles - most of the time. Occasionally the winged hunters will surprise a juvenile bird blinded by the imprudence of youth. For them, it makes a nice change from trout and the ducks will stay till the Umzimkulwana again grows robust, filling the lake, flooding afresh the exposed shallows.
In the half-light of dusk, a family of otters slip from the reeds into the rain-mottled gunmetal water - but the ducks, made edgy by the incessant optimism of the fish-eagles, see the water-dogs as they surface and stay well clear of the sinuous surges that mark their progress and their intent. The otters too, are hungry. It is yet too early in the season for any abundance of the frogs, crabs, nestlings and the rodents that make up most of their forage. They hunt for hours, ranging over the open water. At this time of year, for them it is trout or hunger. Like the eagles, they strive long and hard and are often bested by their prey.
I am struck by how much better they are, than we, at sleuthing, how unobtrusively they move through their space and yet still, how hard they need work for every small success. Their oiled sinews glint and flash as they porpoise in pursuit of fleeing trouts.
I wonder if, like some of the luckless anglers who seem never to crack the codes, to whom stealth is not a strategy, but merely a brand name, they too snarl in frustration “The fish’ns up to C**p here, let’s go find somewhere easier”,
I think not, for while we may not always again see some of the sorry anglers who leave here fishless, there are others who know that every hunt cannot end in victory. Where there is an abundance of trout there will always be trout predators. Along with the kingfishers, otters, cormorants and fish-eagles, are the fly-fishers with hunter’s hearts. We see them in all seasons. They are a part of the landscape. Their focus and movements mark the presence of the fish finning beneath dark waters, at least for those that bother to read the signs. The benefice of the surroundings is what draws them back and keeps them here.
The new season will see the fish fatten and grow fast. Much of the nutrient locked away in the vast weed beds has been released by the grazing waterfowl and will fuel the primary production that drives the web upon which the trout feed. There will be good hunting upon the Umzimkulwana’s water this season.