These days a trip to Kosi Bay is a breeze for anglers intent on fishing the fish-rich deep sea grounds just south of the Mocambican border and the many lakes in the Kosi system. But it wasn’t always like this – and Myrtle Hall indulges in a bit of nostalgia as she takes us back almost half a century with her story of those old pioneering days at Kosi Bay.
LIONEL R Gunter (my father) first took his wife and young family to Kosi Bay in 1955. The weeks preceding the holiday were always spent in frantic preparation for a trip into rustic, undeveloped terrain. Without the luxury of a fridge, we had to ensure stages of food preservation and calculate its staggered consumption, saving the tins of bully beef and condensed milk for last.
The bait and prawns were even preserved in boracic powder which ensured that fillets and beautiful pink prawns were available for a good while. Fishing tackle was lovingly cleaned and polished, and the finest, deadliest traces prepared. Being promised fine catches of fish, my mother, Patty, would pack boxes of preserving jars and pickling spices, knowing she would spend many a day over an open fire pickling fish.
The journey would take a whole day, so we would leave around 2:00am and travel in convoy. The whole journey would be along dirt roads, and the idea was to reach the Ubombo mountain range very early. The mountains were treacherous to cross, and one could only hope that it would not rain. However, in the event that it did, we were always equipped with chains to put on the tyres if we had to traverse muddy roads. When the magistrate’s offices in Ubombo opened at 8.0oam, we would collect the vital permits without which we would not be allowed to enter Kosi Bay.
The descent from Ubombo brought us to the Makathini Flats. The earlier we could cross the flats the better, as the track was in shocking condition, the landscape was boring and the intense heat was often accompanied by severe thunder storms. We used prominent trees, large stumps and a peanut hut as landmarks which would lead us to Maputo Store and on to Kosi Bay. Lionel’s trained eyes spotted these beacons in an instant, and he never lost his way or had to retrace his passage.
However, things didn’t always run smoothly, and unavoidable delays would sometimes find the Gunter family still on the road after nightfall. We would then often chatter nervously about possible attacks from elephants, but never felt threatened by the local inhabitants. Evidence of destruction by elephants was everywhere, and we would later see how badly they damaged the peanut fields of farmers on the eastern shores of the Kosi Bay lakes.
At Maputo Store – then already owned by the Rutherford family – final fuel requirements were met with the aid of an antique hand-pump which had two “bottles” which filled and emptied alternately.
The road from the store to the estuary would take at least another three hours, and only after a journey of approximately 12 hours would Lionel finally erect his camp. By that stage the group’s excitement would have reached fever-pitch levels. The camp consisted of a number of Bell tents and tarpaulins which were stretched and tied around trees and poles, and campers often found themselves gravitating to the heart of the camp – the kitchen and dining area.
During those first couple of years, camping was restricted to the area around the estuary. Most often there would only be two or three groups of campers, all of whom became friends before long. Visitors to Kosi Bay were few and far between, mainly because of the terrible roads, the relative isolation and the dangers of contracting malaria. While it may not have been Club Med, for those who took the trouble to get there it was a veritable fishing Mecca.
Continuing their ancestral traditions, the local people had erected very cleverly designed fish kraals which trapped fish and “led” them into a woven basket. Once a day the owner of each kraal would spear the catch in the basket, and it was usually a pretty good haul. These people were always very friendly and were a good example of how a community utilised their environment to the full for their own needs and sustenance.
In the early years, Lionel would walk many kilometres to the first or second lake to fish for the huge kingfish he so passionately desired. He would trade with the locals to get a few live mullet, yellowfin bream or pouter fish for bait, and would then spend the night at the side of the lake. During subsequent visits he started fishing off a boat instead.
Lionel’s family remembers well his unique techniques and fishing skills … He would pick an area alive with shoals of frantic mullet, bream or pouter fish being chased by kingfish in the first or second lake. Then, attaching a live- or deadbait of about a ruler’s length, he would use tackle consisting of a wire trace, 12/O hook and 25kg breaking strain line.
When he was restricted to the banks of the first lake, Lionel used a Scarborough reel and cord line. When he progressed to boat fishing, he used a Tattler reel and heavy boat rods as there was always a chance of being picked up by a huge sea pike or rock salmon if the kingfish were not on the bite.
Lionel also taught us to make bloody fillets of freshly-caught bream. The bream was filleted and smacked robustly on one side to encourage bleeding, while the veins along the bones were cut, all resulting in a fillet well soaked in blood. He would then attach it to a large hook in mock prawn fashion. This proved to be a highly effective bait.
Lionel himself boasted many a catch of huge kingies – one of 63 lb, two of 68 lb, another weighing 75 lb, and a monster of 83 lb which was his largest ever. The 85 lb fish was hooked just before dawn on lake one.
That day, early-rising campers were entertained by the sight of Lionel fighting this beauty. Indeed, we can still recall the great excitement that morning when he returned sweaty, victorious and highly elated – his trophy resplendent on the deck – a silent epitaph to a great fight and the bounty of Kosi Bay.
Lionel never succeeded in catching a kingfish in the estuary, but spoke of a massive fish he hooked and fought there at length one night. Greatly excited, he manoeuvred what he assumed was a brindle bass with great skill, but in an attempt to steer it over the rocky outcrops, he was misled by his lackey and lost the fish. Lionel swore it could only have been a brindle bass because the fight was entirely different to that of a kingfish.
During those early times, most of the fish caught were used for our meals, and the excess were pickled and bottled by Patty. Once the campsites at first lake were opened in about 1956, Lionel acquired a boat and a paraffin deep freeze. Conditions became easier, but the quest for the great kingfish continued. Lionel’s father, CF, also joined him on these camping holidays, but CF only fished off a raft which was, in essence, a wooden platform positioned on four inflatable tractor tubes with the added “luxury” of a Seagull outboard. The going was very slow, but that’s how CF liked it.
Lionel also established a rudimentary “network” consisting of the few local people who always helped when we camped. Some of them were Willem “Tell” Ndlovu,“Scotch Whisky” and “Palm Wine”. These people somehow always knew when we would be arriving: our camp would be cleared and a beautiful rooster would be sitting on its perch waiting for us. The rooster would crow Lionel awake very early each morning, and stayed with us our entire holiday.
“Scotch Whisky” was CF’s personal valet who would make CF tea at any given time throughout the day or night, shaved and trimmed CF’s beard and cut his toenails.
Willem Ndlovu was Lionel’s close confidante and a school teacher in Lionel’s absence. No distance was ever too great for Willem and the destination was always “just around the corner”. Willem’s son, Edward, was Louis’s big mate. “Palm Wine” was the minstrel of Kosi who danced ferociously while telling some really tall stories – all in direct proportion to the quantity of palm wine he had imbibed!
Making palm wine the way the locals do involves an intricate process of cutting and tapping an ilala palm to get its juice, and then fermenting it.
While the adults fished or pickled the catch, the gang of youngsters from the camp spent lazy days swimming in the channel of the first lake’s camping area. All were equipped with goggles to be able to watch the fish and their movements. I recall that there were large shoals of small fish of innumerable quantities. They fed off the fungi growing on the sticks forming the fish kraals, and one could see how effective the fish kraals were: fish feeding along the walls of the kraal would soon become trapped in the basket.
We watched shoals of small kingfish and pike, and there was also an abundance of bream, pouter fish, grunter, springer and mullet. One might even have been lucky enough to have an unexpected catch of queenfish or milkfish which were attracted to the slime on the fish kraals. We often hooked really big rays, and after observing and admiring them, would release them.
The local youngsters were very skilled fishermen too – after a fashion. They would mark a fair-sized fish and collectively chase it into the shallows where it would flounder. They would then accurately spear the fish in the head so they wouldn’t damage the flesh. We saw many grunter and yellowfin bream caught this way, and the shallows were always dotted with youths running and spearing fish. The spears looked much like a miniature javelin.
On occasions they tried more conventional methods of fishing, and we would watch the young people of third lake skillfully manipulate a “new” plastic reel of line with rudimentary tackle. Using jerking movements, akin to jigging, they would catch sea pike and even kingfish.
Huge shoals of sea fish would enter the lakes on the spring tide which affected the lakes greatly, and kingfish could be seen swimming on their sides to negotiate the channels between the respective lakes. We were fortunate to witness many sea pike, garfish, rare Cape salmon and various species of shark being caught. One of our party landed the record garfish of that time.
Very often a “breakfast run” on the lakes would find bag limits reached by mid-morning, and campers would then relax for the rest of the day. Lionel would then quietly pack his boat and prepare to spend another night on the lake in his never-ending quest for the “big kingie”.
The first and second lakes were our most popular venues for boat excursions. Occasionally we would venture to the awesome third lake, but to get there we had to use great caution to negotiate the deep, narrow, winding channel.
Over the years Lionel grew more and more familiar with the big third lake and developed a great love for it in the mid-‘sixties and ’seventies. The fishing there was very productive which proved that the channel was fully open. Lionel even managed to find the nesting areas of the elusive rock salmon and landed many beauties.
Going out by boat at night with my dad, the water was alive with fish jumping, and these were often highlighted by phosphorescence, leaving a trail behind the fish stretching for many metres. It was a fairyland whichever way you looked at it.
Our daily fishing trips and nightly camping activities were always accompanied by the sounds of the bush, but most specifically the sounds of hippos. We never troubled the hippos, nor they us, although we often imagined they were attacking. The peanut farmers would beat drums throughout the night and light fires at the corners of the fields to protect their crops from elephant and hippo invasion. They stood guard and paced the fields between their fires until dawn broke.
Sometimes the elephants on the eastern bank would break through the boundaries and cause quite a commotion. On those occasions, “Palm Wine” had much to relate in his frenzied story-telling dance. Cattle also grazed all around the area, and in the evening or at low tide they would cross the channel to return to the eastern banks and cattle kraals for safe-keeping during the night.
Lionel also developed lasting friendships with Hennie van Schoor and Coenie van Rooyen, which would later find these wonderful people hosting our family at their homes.
During bad weather we would often take a trip to the Mocambique border where there was an alluring, simple little trading store. Of interest to us were the Portuguese wine, beer and cashew nuts, although the store undoubtedly offered more. This trip entailed crossing the border post on foot, and on one occasion a black rhino had become trapped between the two fences. We still crossed through but were very wary of being charged by the rhino. No doubt it was also a very daunting predicament for the guards who weren’t sure how to oust the enraged creature.
Through all the years, Lionel, his wife, Patty, their children, Myrtle, Marian and Louis, worked as a close-knit team, all sharing in Lionel’s enthusiasm. Initially they were always accompanied by friends, and – later – the daughters got married and sons-in-law also joined the expeditions.
Eventually Lionel acquired a cottage at Makakatana Bay on the St Lucia lakes and retired from fishing at Kosi Bay. However, Marian, her husband, Mike, and Louis and his wife took over where Lionel left off and continued to enjoy many trips and fine catches at the wonderful Kosi Bay lakes, all the while noticing the many social and ecological changes that were taking place at their beloved holiday spot.
Continuing in Lionel’s footsteps, Marian caught a 40 lb kingfish in the second lake in 1979, using a live yellowfin bream as bait, and in an attempt to outdo his sister, Louis managed a 38 lb kingie a year later.
In true family tradition, on one outing in 1987, Mike landed a glorious 85 lb kingfish at the estuary. It was caught using a wave garrick as livebait. At the end of the fight, Mike expertly lifted the fish over the rocky ledge before he, Marian and the fish all collapsed, totally exhausted on the beach. Mike and Marian were moved to release the exhausted giant, but were dissuaded by their friends. Today it is their policy to do so, and they only keep sufficient catch for the table.
The Gunter family traditions at Kosi Bay continue still, and Louis recently took his son, Jason Lionel’s grandson – there for a fishing trip. Their quest? You guessed it kingfish!
One night was particularly windy and stormy, but the two enthusiasts were determined to fish second lake regardless. With the weather deteriorating further in the very early dawn, they sought shelter on the southern shores of the first lake.
Light was just beginning to paint a foul, stormy sky when Jason saw a huge shadow in the water. He skillfully cast in a plug which landed right in the path of the prey. The kingie swallowed the “bait” and in the ensuing battle stripped off between 200 and 300 metres of line.
Louis and Jason followed the fish in the boat, but disaster struck when Jason’s reel popped. They followed the fish further and fought on, but with the wind and rain at full scale they eventually lost the kingfish. Exhausted and terribly disappointed, the father and son team collapsed on the deck to recoup and prepare for the next fight. One wonders if Lionel was watching from the campsite
Indeed, this magical northern Zululand resort holds unforgettable memories for our entire family, and if ever I was asked to describe a veritable paradise on earth, my answer would be forthcoming in the wink of an eye: Kosi Bay!
Published in Ski-Boat Magazine July/August 2001