Words and photographs by Gero Lilleike (unless otherwise stated).
It’s a well-known fact that South Africa is home to some of the most pristine fly fishing waters in Africa and the world. The sheer number and variety of locations and fish species afford the keen fly fisherman a lifetime worth of bucket list fishing opportunities, but only if you take yourself seriously…
I don’t really.
Well, not as a fly fisherman anyway.
I’m certainly keen and I’ve dabbled in the art long enough to appreciate and love the act when it occurs, however rare an occasion as that may be.
In Golfing terms, I would be referred to as a “weekend hacker” but seeing that my fly rod mostly gathers dust in my garage for much of any given year, I am not entirely sure if there’s a term for my kind in fishing speak? A chancer, perhaps?
Just over a year ago, I found myself adrift on the Orange River somewhere between Vioolsdrift and Aussenkehr on a 5-day paddling trip. It was a marvelous adventure and miraculously, I remembered to pack my fly rod – dust and all.
At the time, this incredible place was overwhelmingly beautiful and I couldn’t fathom the significance of the fish that lived in this spectacular river system.
For those with a particular penchant for targeting largemouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus kimberleyensis) and smallmouth yellowfish (Labeobarbus aeneus), yes, I had to Google that, few places in South Africa are more lucrative than the Orange River.
But not for yours truly. Not on that particular trip…
My trout-biased fly box was woefully under-equipped, much like me and ultimately had little to no relevance to the fish curiously eyeing me out from below.
Day 3 passed and I still hadn’t caught a single fish.
Out of sheer desperation and withgreat shame felt towards the fine art that is fly fishing, I gave in to the friendly instruction of, Erastus, my local Namibian guide.
I baited my fly.
A wooly bugger, with a piece of dough to put an end to my undying misery.
I caught my first-ever smallmouth yellowfish on the Orange River!
It was a shamefully embarrassing result. I know. But I had learnt my lesson the hard way.
That non-event, much like 2020, in fact, brings me to the purpose of these words.
A tale of revenge of sorts…
I’m fortunate enough to be acquainted with well-known South African fish artist and fly fishing enthusiast, Gavin Erwin.
Plying his trade from his studio in Johannesburg, Gavin is a humble man. He’s a notably talented artist and an equally talented fly fisherman with a long and successful history of fishing that spans just about all of his 35 years on earth. Gavin and his long-time fishing compadres, Sean Bisset and Jason McIntosh were planning their first summer strike mission on the Orange River and somehow, I managed to crack an invite along with Gavin’s brother, Steve Erwin, who ironically is also an established car artist from Cape Town.
The opportunity to return to the Orange River was impossible to resist.
The river was calling and I had a score to settle…
Weeks before the trip, Gavin offered to tie the flies necessary for success and this was something I was hugely grateful for, especially considering my glaring ignorance a year earlier. Needless to say, a bread fly was simply out of the question for this trip!
Gavin’s fly-tying efforts were concentrated on three main fly patterns including a fine selection of nymphs, colorful weighted streamers and for the entrée, a delectable crab pattern.
Gavin assured me that the yellows would “smash” these patterns and I couldn’t have been more excited to see that happen.
Gavin and his crew made the long journey from Johannesburg to Vioolsdrift while Steve and I drove north from Cape Town. We met Gavin and Co at Oewerbos River Camp on the South African side of the Orange River. We shared a few cold beers as the sun set over the barren but exquisitely beautiful landscape that defines much of Namibia.
For this mission, we would focus our combined energy on the waters to the east of Vioolsdrift with the guidance of an experienced Orange River fishing guide, the ominously-named, De Villiers Uys.
With gear at the ready, we set off on a dirt road that led us to a well-known and over-fished weir where we would open the tallies, proper. We spread ourselves out across the numerous pools and it wasn’t long before our nymphing efforts paid off with a few decent-sized smallies in the net from Gavin, Sean and Jason. Steve soon followed suit, as did I, with perhaps the smallest smallmouth of the day.
A largemouth yellowfish alludes most and it’s for this very reason that it’s known as the “fish of a thousand casts”, but here, on the Orange River, that’s far from true. Sean netted the first largemouth of the trip with seemingly little effort and Gavin followed up with a sizable Mozambique tilapia (Blue Kurper) in his net. We returned to our cabin fulfilled and the celebratory beers went down ever-so sweetly.
The next day we returned to the weir, but this time we also had our sights set on the biggest catfish we could find. De Villiers assured us that monster catfish lurked in the pools at the base of the weir. Sean hooked into the biggest barbel of the trip…by far, it was huge! Gavin hooked another in one of the upper pools and handed me the rod to bring it in. I was amazed at how powerful these fish are!
With a full moon keeping watch over proceedings, we spent the evening session throwing out crabs in the shallower runs and the some decent yellow specimens found their way into our nets. Another glorious day on the Orange! How could it possibly get better than this, I wondered?
De Villiers Uys had another ‘Uys’ up his sleeve and he was keen to take us further up the river to waters only accessible by boat. The next morning, De Villiers rigged up two inflatables and we all piled in for a slow 10 km splutter upstream.
Surrounded by only dry, rocky mountains, a nourishing river, blazing heat and not another human in sight, these were remote waters. The yellows were ‘smashing’ our nymphs viciously the moment lines hit the water!
Each fight was cherished but we soon lost count of how many fish we had caught. Hours passed but we had to get back to base. We chased the sun back straight into a headwind, arriving at the weir cold, wet and satisfied at yet another successful day on the river.
We knew this fishing trip would be amazing, but none of us expected it to be so magical. For me, this truly was a fishing experience of a lifetime and I couldn’t ask for much more. I had caught more fish than I have ever caught. Ever!
My phone rings to the tune of Rancid’s Time Bomb and I can’t help but turn the volume up full blast and let it ring, leaving Ross hanging on the other end. As the song reaches its climax, I answer. We exchange pleasantries and the conversation quickly shifts to surfand travel. Out of nowhere, Ross drops the Bali bomb on me.
“Dude, let’s go to Bali” he says.
Neurons fire in my brain as images of warm, hollow and perfectly peeling waves consume me. Surfers standing tall in gaping barrels, bronze flesh, cold Bintangs, golden sunsets, palm trees, paradise — the dream.
A surf trip to Bali crosses every surfer’s path at some point and out of pure desperation to escape the daily grind, I submit to the inevitable.
“I’m in, let’s do it”, I respond. Days later and with more research under the belt, common sense and doubt started gnawing away at the dream.
‘We can’t surf these waves. Our surfing is not on that level yet, we aren’t good enough,’ I think to myself.
How on earth will two average and occasionally kooky Joburg-bred surfers cope at breaks such as Padang Padang, Impossibles, Bingin, or heaven forbid, the legendary walls of Uluwatu or Keramas for that matter? These are some of the best breaks on the planet, right? It felt like we were way in over our heads on this one.
With flights and accommodation booked, there was no turning back. The Island of the Gods had us firmly in its grasp.
My wife, Maree, joined us for the adventure while our friend and colleague, Andrew, decided to come along at the last minute. Our crew was complete
We set off with the goal of exploring the now popularised, wave-rich Bukit Peninsula, using Bingin as our base for 5 days before heading up Bali’s east coast to surf the renowned right-hander at Keramas for the remainder of our 10-day surf bonanza.
The stifling heat and sticky humidity hit us square as we stepped off the plane at Ngurah Rai International Airport. Balinese security thought Andrew to be a fine African drug mule and proceeded to search every nook and cranny of his body and luggage. They even caressed his hair in awe, they’d probably never seen a pale drug mule from Africa before.
Andrew survived the rubber glove and soon we found ourselves in the throngs of Bali traffic with trucks and scooters expertly weaving through the congested streets. We arrived at our private villa in Bingin later that afternoon, frothing for a surf. With skegs in and wax on, we made our way down the steep steps to the beach where countless warungs and guesthouses lie tucked against the plush hillside, providing stunning views of the glistening incoming surf.
It was mid-tide and the waves were small. Further south, larger clean lines groomed by offshore wind rifled in at Padang Padang before offloading the last of their might at Impossibles. Further still, we could see larger sets pummeling the famed Uluwatu. The scene was magical and what was once a dream was now our reality. This heavenly place was our playground.
We shared waves in the golden glow and as the sun set over this watery wonderland, Bali welcomed us into her bosom and with a few Bintangs down the hatch, we were right as rain!
Scooters are a wonderful way to explore the Bukit and from the hilltop above Bingin, we set our sights on nearby Dreamland, which appeared to be picking up a sizable chunk of swell.
We scooted over for a closer look and arrived to find heaving swell filling the lineup. The short paddle-out ended with a beating as solid 6-footers bore down on us from the deep.
Ross scratched into a screamer and raced it all the way to the beach while I got hammered into oblivion by walls of whitewater. He returned to backline with a smile brimming from ear-to-ear and shouted, “That was one of the best waves of my life!”
My turn came soon after and I found myself drawing lines on a large, fast face that took me right to the beach where I got drilled into the sand in front of wide-eyed Chinese tourists. Our stoke pots were overflowing but we were hungry for more and as our confidence levels started surging we soon ticked off more rides at Bingin, Padang Padang Right and Impossibles.
Then, Ross pulled up a surf report and all our attention shifted to the possibility of surfing Uluwatu for the first time. Prior to coming to Bali, we had written Ulu’s off purely based on our skill level and we were well aware that the complexity of the break was perhaps beyond our ability.
We’d gathered that Uluwatu was a break best left to those with the skill and nerve to navigate its often large and powerful barrels that break with bone-crunching force on shallow reef. It’s not a wave to be trifled with, that we knew, but after some consternation, we decided to go see it for ourselves.
Situated on the southern tip of the Bukit Peninsula, Uluwatu is perfectly positioned to receive the biggest swells the Indian Ocean can muster. More so, massive limestone cliffs and an expansive lineup makes Uluwatu even more intimidating.
We arrived on the high tide and the surf was pumping with 8-10 foot waves detonating on the outer reefs and breaking unpredictably across the lineup. The intensity of the rip on the high tide was vicious. The cave at Uluwatu is where you enter and exit the lineup and from above we watched as surfers were being swept from the cave and dragged far down the point in no time at all. It looked sketchy and the paddle was going to be monumental.
We observed the lineup in silence for a long time, grappling with our fear and contemplating consequences. Ross was fighting a ferocious internal battle. The grandeur of what lay before him was tearing his conscience apart. He clearly wasn’t comfortable and truth be told, nor was I. We were simply out of our depth and eventually Ross suggested that we give the surf a miss. We stared on blankly in silence as the surf exploded on the reef below.
In an effort to find some solace, I tried to imagine how Gerry Lopez would have mentally approached his first surf at Uluwatu in 1974, but comfort was lost to me. Gerry paddled out and pulled into a barrel on his first wave, but that’s Gerry for you… what a legend!
Recent events in Uluwatu had cast a darker shadow over our endeavour. Just 3 weeks before our arrival in Uluwatu, Jae Haydon, an Australian surfer and musician perished in these waters after suffering a wipeout in massive surf that reportedly knocked him unconscious. Despite efforts by other surfers to rescue him, Haydon drowned and his body was discovered some 12 hours later in the region of Impossibles near Padang Padang.
Yet, here we were, faced with a critical decision – paddle out, or merely observe. The thought of missing my only opportunity to attempt surfing Uluwatu was crushing me. Time was ticking and our window of opportunity was slipping away fast. I knew I had to push Ross harder to commit.
“Am I paddling out alone?” I asked Ross, nervously.
Ross looked at me and smiled, “Don’t worry G, you’re not paddling out there alone”. It was on!
I kissed Maree goodbye and told her I love her, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her. Minutes later we were in the cave with my heart pounding hard and fast in my chest. Neither of us had ever felt this tense before a surf.
“Have faith in your ability, we can do this”, Ross suddenly said reassuringly. Fear was replaced by calm as we stepped into the turbulent waters of the cave. Adrenalin surged through our veins. We paddled into the sunlight and into the unknown.
Beyond the chaos of the cave, the rip swept us quickly around the point and we spent the next 15 minutes paddling into position at ‘The Peak’ which was breaking at about 6 foot with bigger sets occasionally catching us off guard. We watched in wonderment as more experienced surfers dropped into the bowels of thick pits that only Uluwatu could conjure up. The power and perfection of these waves was incredible to witness.
I looked around at the pulsing surf and jagged cliffs. I couldn’t believe we were sitting in the lineup at Uluwatu! It was a surreal moment. My heart was happy, content but also filled with fear. We sat in the swell for a while, waiting. The size and power of the surf became overwhelming and with the tide dropping, we decided to hustle a wave and head for dry land.
All we needed was one good wave. Ross eventually paddled for his first wave but flogged it after the drop but then quickly scavenged a rare mid-break right which he almost rode back into the cave. He was safely back on land.
A while later, the Gods of Uluwatu spawned a solid left for me. It was my time to go! I stuck the drop sweetly and rode the wave out onto the shoulder and paddled hard to make it back into the cave before being swept back around the point. A Balinese woman conducted a Hindu prayer ritual in the cave and the smell of incense filled the air. We were blessed, we were alive, and we had endured one of the most intensely special surfs of our lives. Stoke palpably radiated from us for the rest of the day.
We left the Bukit buzzing after surfing Uluwatu, but we still had high hopes for Keramas. We booked into the chic Komune Resort in front of the famous right-hander. The waves were sizey when we arrived, but onshore wind made conditions choppy. We surfed anyway and caught some great waves but we would never see Keramas in its full glory.
That evening, we congregated at the Komune Beach Club for dinner and a few Bintangs to celebrate our arrival in Keramas. I ordered the ‘Chicken Schnitty’ which sounded like a marvellous way to replenish my waning energy reserves. The meal arrived and it was delicious up to the point that I discovered what looked like toilet paper under my schnitzel. I called the waiter over to find out more, thinking that perhaps it was a Balinese custom of sorts.
The waiter was utterly horrified and genuinely apologetic about this diabolical discovery and quickly removed it from the table. The chef arrived in shame soon after to apologise and we shared a few laughs with no harm done. I would recommend the ‘Chicken Shitty’ to anyone visiting Komune Resort, it really was delicious.
Sadly, the surf report for Keramas wasn’t looking good for the remainder of our stay. The wind was skunking us and we needed another plan. With a bleak surf outlook, we decided to take some time to explore the region of Ubud, the cultural epicentre of Bali. Bred, a local tour guide and surfer took us to beautiful attractions such as the nearby Tegenungan Waterfall and the famous Tegallalang Rice Terrace on the outskirts of Ubud, both of which are in easy reach of Keramas and well-worth the effort.
Armed with local surf knowledge, Bred suggested that we catch a ferry to the nearby island of Nusa Lembongan to surf a break called Shipwrecks which would be offshore in the prevailing wind. We took his advice and boated across the Badung Strait from Sanur the following day, reaching Lembongan in time for the tide. Shipwrecks was crowded and we were advised to surf the nearby Nomans reef instead. It turned out to be the best call.
We chartered a boat and headed for Nomans. Our captain couldn’t speak English but he knew exactly what we were after. Crystal clear water and a fun, consistent right lay before us and we had it all to ourselves — what a pleasure! An empty lineup is a rare treat in Bali and it’s days like these that make surf travel so gloriously wonderful.
We couldn’t ask for more, this was Bali magic! After conquering Nomans, we squeaked another quick surf at a nearby break called Lacerations to top off the day before catching the ferry back to Sanur.
Bali left us in a daze and its warm waves and friendly people made this trip truly memorable. More importantly, this surf trip also taught us that with a drop of faith, a dash of hope and a splash courage, your impossible can become your destiny. Your dream is there for the riding, so just paddle in and enjoy the ride…