Exploring Lake Jozini by houseboat

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All is calm on Lake Jozini … until you put a sardine on the end of your fishing line. All kinds of teeth are lurking under the surface for a game of catch.

Words by Jess Nicholson & photographs by Teagan Cunniffe.

All is clam on Lake Jozini…until you stick your toes in the water or put a sardine on the end of your fishing line. All kinds of teeth are lurking under the surface for a game catch. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

By the time Teagan and I got to Lake Jozini (officially, the Pongolapoort Dam) after our trip to Kosi Bay, and were now fishing, we had been in: two forest baths, an infinity pool, a river, some lakes and an estuary. Trees looked like coral to us, the birds like fish (although she did call a trumpeter hornbill a flying banana – so also fruit).

We had faced crocodiles, hippos, snakes and a moray eel. I did not, however, feel this gave my travelling companion licence to tell me I looked like an old man. She tried to justify it by saying it was just that I looked so natural holding a fishing rod and staring at the water – and she happened to be reading The Old Man and the Sea.

Sure, I’ve done a bit of living, I consoled myself once we retreated to our cabins aboard the houseboat Shayamanzi, but I was feeling youthful again after forest bathing at Kosi Bay. Maybe it wasn’t really the ageing Cuban and his battle with the giant marlin I reminded her of but the fisherman’s creator, ‘Papa’ Hemingway himself. I considered the evidence. Like the famously macho novelist, I:

(a) would be the only guest onboard to catch a tigerfish; pound for pound the best fighting fish this side of the Gulf Stream.
(b) seldom shy away from heavy drinking on boats.
(c) never use adjectives.

Fishing at Lake Jozini is best from September to March. Breeding season in October brings the large tiger fish. Image; Teagan Cunniffe

I was also suffering again from an overactive imagination, common for novelists, suspect in journalists, however. And now a new anxiety gripped me. Who would be on the houseboat with us?

Two nights is a long time to be on a boat among strangers. Six cabins, possibly 12 people. As the guests stepped awkwardly on board from a wobbly small boat, I clocked them: Colonel Mustard, Mrs Peacock. Yikes. Miss Scarlett. With a coat hanger. In the Jacuzzi. It might be one hell of a struggle and then ‘Death in the Afternoon’ as Papa used to say.

It is easy to avoid this kind of stress when choosing to step aboard the Shayamanzi. Either be a different kind of person or choose a group of friends and go together to Lake Jozini. But it turned out well for us. Our group bonded over delicious food and exchanged tales of our travels in Africa.

Anyway, if your new friends become too chatty, from your bed in a spacious cabin with Bar-Ones on the pillow, and fishing hooks and a tiger  sh embedded into the resin toilet seat, you can open the sliding doors, gaze at the land and watch elephants glide by.

You can wave at the hippos and be glad all the rhinos you see have their horns. Or you can go to the kitchen and talk to the chef, Michael, for as long as you want to (like a taxi driver, there is nowhere for him to go). He has many stories to tell. Adam will take you  fishing any time, tell you which birds are calling and that if you fall off the boat you must not wiggle when the crocodile takes you. It will be worse for you if you do.

When you get desperate to swim, but know you cannot because of huge crocodiles, you can instead grab a glass of Chardonnay and jump into the Jacuzzi. If you are lucky, Teagan will decide to join you rather than taking photos of you or sending the drone up to see how you appear from outer space.

The safest water to immerse yourself in at Lake Jozini is in the jacuzzi. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

Then, from this warm, bubbly and potentially exciting position you can watch Adam prepare the  fishing rods, think again of Hemingway and bull fighting and fishing. And then drift on to men versus women and then the moon, and whether water really is feminine ‘as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them’. (Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.)

As I learnt once we were out with Adam, who took us on a small boat to several fishing spots, this sport requires patience. It requires knowing how to  ick without making your fingers bleed, and then how to wait. The ‘striped water dog’, as the tigerfish is known in these parts (strangely, not water cat) is a fierce and acrobatic enemy. It has massive teeth. The instruction for this game is to catch and release. But deep down you absolutely know that if you lose, this particular fish will not follow the rules.

Also read: Getting soaked in Kosi Bay

Adam Mereki never tires of fighting the ‘striped water dog’ and will take you along in a second. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

After what seemed like days but was only about half an hour, almost just as Papa described it, I felt a light delicate pulling… I shouted out, ‘What will I do if he decides to go down?’ (Hemingway again.) Adam stood next to me. We held the rod together and fought that fish all the way around the boat. It jumped and bared its teeth.

Adam said, ‘It’s a monster.’
I repeated, ‘What will I do if he decides to go down?’
Teagan tried to take a picture. With a final twist and a wink the fish released itself.

And on the triumphant journey back to the houseboat, I decided that Teagan had not meant that I was haggard and wrinkly but had in fact intuited that I was both a great fisherman and a sparse writer. And everyone gave me a lot of attention and we all ate another splendid meal and drank bubbly and were rocked to sleep in our cabins on the water.

And when they asked how I was the only one to catch a fish, I replied: ‘Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognise her?’ (Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea).

The houseboat’s cabins are super comfy and spacious, with a direct view onto the water. Image: Teagan Cunniffe

 

Plan your trip

 

Getting there

It is 3½ hours from Durban on the N2. Boarding the houseboat is at 2pm, so there is plenty of time to get there. The route passes Hluhluwe and Mkuze, so you could visit the game reserves.

 

When to go

Game viewing and birding are always good. Fishing is a bit slower in winter so it’s best from September to March. Breeding season in October brings large tiger fish (strictly catch and release). The summer is exceptionally hot.

 

Need to know

Both Jozini and Kozi are geared to protect you from mosquitoes, with spray and lotion and nets, but do cover up. Wi-Fi is slow and patchy at Kozi and non-existent on the houseboats; in some parts of the lake there is no phone signal. It can get cold on the water, whether in small boats or on the houseboat, so pack a windbreaker. If you don’t want to cruise with strangers, book the whole houseboat.

 

Stay here

Shayamanzi Houseboat. The cabins are spacious and comfortable with huge glass doors opening onto the lake. Each sleeps two and has a private loo and shower. Two decks and lots of windows in the communal areas mean you constantly have a view onto the water and of wildlife on the shores. The food was delicious and plentiful. From R1975 per person sharing including all meals, small-boat trips and fishing. shayamanzi.co.za

 

Do this

Watch the game go by. The banks of the dam are lined with animals – crocs, warthogs, elephants, rhinos, buck. The further towards the Pongola River you go, the more you see.

Fight the ‘striped water dog’. You can fish off the houseboat or motor out to a quiet spot in one of the two smaller boats. No experience necessary!

Learn your birds. Staff on board are very knowledgeable and can help you identify species and calls.

Chill out. In your cabin with its huge windows, on either of the two decks (in the Jacuzzi) and in the living room/bar area.

 

This article first appeared in the February issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our February issue features 12 of the best tented-camps around the country, fun-filled water adventures in Northern KZN, Madagascar by motorbike plus a guide to finding everyday magic in underrated Lisbon.