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Johann Cockrell – a eulogy Text and photographs by Jade Dos Santos

Thursday, 19 February 2015 11:53

I never expected to be writing this story, and I say story because I can’t think of it as a eulogy. Some things are too fresh, too real, and I am scared that by putting it down on paper, it becomes real, as real as it is.

 So, let me tell you a story . . .

 I had visited Rhodes once before, but that was in the height of summer and I was still green. Green as the meadows along the rivers we fished together.

 On my second pilgrimage I had spent a few days fumbling around Lady Grey before I drove through to Rhodes to continue two weeks of solo fishing.

 I was completely alone, I didn’t have many friends who fly fished, and even less who were committed enough to take time off from work, drive to the centre of the Universe, and catch tiny trout, on tiny flies in tiny streams, with tiny rods. I wasn’t not going to go, I loved fly fishing more than I hated two weeks of solitude, but I knew good company would make something that was great and something that I love, and turn it into something that I would cherish for the rest of my life. That’s what I wanted and that’s what I found in this tiny mountain town; two of the best fishing buddies any guy could ask for.

 I have been really fortunate like that. I have made so many great friends, lifelong friends, and any fly fisherman will agree, that these bonds made over fly fishing hold a very special place in your heart. I might only see these friends a few days every few years, but every instance of connection has so deeply etched a place into my heart, that I will forever be awed by the gravity of it.

 I arrive in Rhodes. It’s a windy, dusty, hellish day. The weather didn’t know if it was meant to bring a storm or a tornado. You know you are not going to fish today, and maybe the mayfly-god willed it that way for a predetermine reason.

 I called in at the hotel, through which I had booked a cottage in town, only to be informed there had been a mistake with my booking. They thought I was arriving the month prior. To cut a long and frustrating few moments short, I had nowhere to sleep that night and Rhodes was fully booked. At least I had a tent, but the temperature was dropping below zero at night and camping was the last resort.

 So with no fishing to be done and no cottage to move into, I was left with no other conceivable option but to spend the day in Walkerbouts Pub drinking my sorrows away until, out of pity, Dave Walker would be morally obliged to allow me the pleasure of camping out behind the bar for the night. Or so I hoped.

 Dave and I had exchanged a few emails before; casual chats and whatnots. I was hoping he might be sympathetic to this lonesome, homeless fly-bum.

 So I meekly walked into the bar sometime in the mid afternoon, not really knowing what to expect, and what I found I would never have expected. Half standing and half sitting on his bar stool with his elbows on the bar, stood the biggest, loudest, most belligerent Afrikaaner. It was one of the most impressive one-man shows I had seen. I watched him rant, rave and ‘gaan aan’ while I quietly tried to be as gentle and as polite as a ‘soutie’ (Englishman) could be, sipping on my beer, slowly trying to warm Uncle Dave up to my unfortunate circumstances.

Click in images to enlarge them

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 Johann Cockrell

 To be honest, the rest of the day and the evening are kind of a hazy blur. What I can tell you, is that this huge Afrikaaner and I start chatting, and then he starts feeding me double brandies and Coke, and then next thing I know I am not so worried about where I am going to sleep that night. We found ourselves having dinner together along with two other guests, of the tweed wearing variety. I watched, gob smacked at how this monster of a man literally melted the faces off the two WASPS we were having dinner with, blowing away any notions they had of sharing their sophisticated and artistic impressions of fly fishing with some of South Africa’s more subtle-natured elitists. I relished in the absurdity of it. Being in this new town, feeling immediately at home and full of mischief, under the wing of this loud yet gentle giant, I knew only weirdness would follow.

 After dinner our companions turned abruptly to their rooms, and we turned to the pub, where we entertained Penny and Dave into the early hours.

 In the morning I awoke, with a massive hangover, but I was in a bed, a warm and comfortable bed, and not behind a bar lying on whiskey stained floors. Next to me was the slumbering giant; snoring so loudly it was testing the structural integrity of the cottage at the back of Walkerbouts.

 Turns out, we had booked a beat, shared a room, and also booked a cottage together for the remainder of our stay in the Rhodes, all in the space of a night of knowing each other.

 We walked into the pub in the morning, with Dave openly amazed we survived the night and then proclaimed that was probably the most successful and most progressive pick-up he had ever witnessed in Walkerabouts since they laid the foundations.

 Jokes and general awkwardness aside, we spent a sober day on the water getting to know each other, talking general nonsense and casually avoiding talking about the events of the previous night. We fished terribly, and got along like old friends. This is the company I had been looking for, the friend who was going to make this kind of trip something I would never forget.

 We gave up fishing early and headed to move into our cottage, conveniently situated a few meters from the police station, offering me some kind of assurance that if things took a turn for the worst I could outrun this behemoth to the police station and claim refuge, if they could stop him.

 While we were unpacking, a car pulls up in a ball of dust outside the house. Out of the car steps a still big, but slightly smaller Afrikaaner with long, wild hair tied up in a ponytail. Now things were just getting straight-up bizarre, so strange you doubt this kind of strangeness could be real. These two run out, embrace each other and then begin to question each other about where they hell the one or the other had been. Turns out the smaller Kimberley Boy had been touring the district for the last day searching for the larger Centurion Boy, finally finding him exactly where he should have found him, a few meters from the nearest police station.

So into my life walked Johann Cockrell and Morne “Butros” Joubert, a random meeting of some of the most unlikely of friends you would ever see rambling awkwardly, each to their own pace, along any stream that holds fish, and even some that don’t.

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Butros and Johann

  We fished Parkgate together the next day, where Johann was snapped off by a monster fish in one of the pools above the house. From that day on, it was known as “Johann’s Revenge pool” and every year we went back looking for the big fish he lost. It will always be Johann’s Revenge pool to Butros and myself, and we will go back every until we catch that fish for him.

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Morne “Butros” Joubert, Johann Cockrell, Tony Kietzman and Jade Dos Santos on the bridge over the Bokspruit

 We had Tony Kietzman over for dinner our last night in Rhodes. Drinks flowed along with utter codswallop, and we cemented the fellowship of this merry band of musketeers with single malts and brandy.

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Tony Kietzman over for dinner

 Johann could laugh; I have never heard a deeper, more infectious, audacious laugh. Man, I am going to miss it.

 Together, Johann, Butros and myself met every year at the same time in Rhodes and spent our days together hunting trout, eating and laughing together. I wasn’t fishing alone anymore; I was fishing with two of the greatest friends any guy could ask for, and under the circumstances we met, I can’t believe it was anything short of some kind of universal divine intervention from the Mayfly god. The three musketeers, the most unlikely of trio’s.

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Johann’s fly fishing often lacked finesse, but he had this unique gift of being able to catch fish where no one else could. He could lumber straight into a pool, wearing a disco ball from his neck, loudly proclaiming the fish were not spooked. Then drag a perfectly tied RAB through the meniscus like it was a wet fly, and still catch more fish in that pool than I could have in full camouflage with a 16ft leader and a perfect drift.

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 Johann started fly fishing for yellows in the Vaal and Orange and treated a dry fly like a nymph. He did this to the point where I used to tie him what I called a Cockrell RAB. It was the biggest, bushiest RAB I could tie. I would treat it with as much Watershed as I could, and present them to him at the beginning of every trip. Only to have them sunk and used as soft hackles, but he would still catch fish.

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 I can tell endless stories about Johann from our numerous adventures together, and for that I am eternally grateful. The little time we spent together impacted me in a way that I can’t really express; it left me with so many memories of a giant of a man. Someone who lived life to the absolute limit of what is considered frivolous, borderline hedonistic.

 I missed last year’s pilgrimage to Rhodes. I had just moved to Germany and couldn’t make the flights back. I received daily updates whenever Butros and Johann came into mobile signal, and I was there in spirit, but especially now, I wish I was there in person. Just to cast one my line together, share one more drink, and hear that laugh one more time.

He was one of the kindest, most gentle, hard-headed and caring men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and calling him my close friend is something I am honored to say.

All I know is that I am really not sure what it is going to feel like next time I am standing knee deep in skinny streams around Rhodes without him.

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  “There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

(Johann was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident on 7 February 2015. I sadly never met him, but the occasional emails we exchanged dripped with his enthusiasm for fly fishing, his love of Rhodes, its streams and its mountains. Tom Sutcliffe.)

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