Mzelwa ‘ZAK’ Gwala passes on – A tribute to a great man and his link to a trout fly.
I have time to spare. I’m alone in my mud-spattered truck in the Natal Midlands, drifting slowly up the ‘Meander’ route between Howick and Nottingham Road. On the southern skyline I see the familiar shape of the Inhluzane Mountain and I’m reminded of fishing the Old Dam, and of Zak, and wonder when it was I last saw him – eight or nine years back, I work out. On a whim I decide to pay him a visit and swing hard left onto a road running south towards the mountain, thinking back on the man, hoping he’s still alive. I pass Selsley, the Mick Kimber’s farm, stop briefly on the bridge over the Umgeni where the flow is not bad despite the drought and wonder how this river is fishing. Now I’m on dirt, winding up a long hill in a trail of dust to the lip of the Inhluzane basin at six thousand feet in high mountain country. Alongside me the
I move along the road and a row of trees hides the view I remember of the pretty Kamloops Lake and as I round the bend I half expect to see the old house on Heatherdon and its towering Norfolk pines but, of course, they’re gone. A tornado took them out a few years back, the hundred-year-old trees twisted off at the ground like they were match wood. I hadn’t been back since and now the comparative emptiness of the hillside comes as a shock. The place looks naked, despite three new, green-roofed cottages standing where the old house and cottages used to be. They look comfortable and fit in well, but if there was a choice I guessed anyone who knew Heatherdon before the storm would prefer to have the old house and the tall trees back.
Click in images to enlarge
A sketch I did of the old house on Heatherdon
Zak’s settlement lies on a slope of ground leading up from the Old Dam, five or six wattle-and-daub rondavels under thatch, with white walls and turquoise woodwork. Two men are cleaning a car near the outbuildings, but the place is otherwise deserted. I stop, wave a greeting and ask to speak with Zak. A hand signals me to wait. Two dogs run out barking. I work out that when I last saw Zak he must have been in his late fifties, maybe even early sixties. That would make him close to seventy now and I wonder what I’m going to say to him, whether he’ll really remember me.
Zak looked after us – in a manner of speaking – when we were fishing up at Heatherdon, from around 1972 until 1993 when I left for Cape Town, and I know he kept going for some years after that. He was a quiet, dignified man; a man of few words. His job was to see to the serious business of running the farm house and surrounds, but I like to think he enjoyed having us stay up there. Certainly we appreciated him. He’d be around the house most of the day, tidying up, waiting for us to get in after the fishing the Old Dam, or Smith’s. He enjoyed our return. He liked to know how we’d got on, who’d caught what and while we were catching our breath, he’d set in the fire and help sort out dinner.
From the archives. Tony Biggs fishing off the Shale Heap in the Old Dam. We caught trout as long as your leg here.
He’d leave us to it only when we were ready to turn in (which was mainly pretty late), going through a routine of first pulling on his trench-coat, stuffing his pipe deep into a pocket, slipping a balaclava over his head then bidding each of us goodnight. Fortified against the cold with a dram or two, his bobbing lantern would quickly be swallowed by the night and scrub wattles behind the house.
I valued his opinion on just about everything, but especially I valued his opinion on the weather and on the state of play in any local intrigues. He knew about the fishing too; who’d been catching, who’d failed – and why – what flies were working, that sort of thing. We gradually developed a deep respect for the man, and a great fondness. He became as much a part of our fishing in the Inhluzane as did the soft, treacle-coloured light you get up there on summer evenings, the waving columns of hatching trichos as thick as campfire smoke, the apple-green water drop-offs with deep-bellied fish in them, the snowfalls, the occasional Wattle Cranes, the ubiquitous Red-knobbed Coot.
So when we started catching more than just the occasional fish on a new (and outwardly unlikely) little nymph I’d been fooling around with, we decided to name it after him. We called it the Zak.
Zak appears from the cluster of huts, walking slowly towards me down the path to the gate. He is wearing black pants and a new red shirt and his glasses glint in the sun. I call his name from a distance and he lifts a hand as if to say, ‘Hang on. I’m getting there.’ He walks silently, straight-backed, an unhurried dignity about his passage. He stops under my nose, looks up at me quizzically, uncertain who I am. He’s on the other side of a sagging concertina gate.
‘Yes?’ he asks.
I greet him. ‘It’s me, Zak. Dokitela.’ (That’s what he called me. He had a name for each of us.)
‘HOW!’ he shouts, snapping open the gate in a burst of animated Zulu and loud laughter, the two of us hugging each other on the side of the road, at the same time doing a small jig on the bare veld.
Zak at his gate
Suddenly the smile vanishes from his face, replaced by an expression of studied seriousness. He points to his eyes. ‘Sorry. I didn’t see you,’ he says apologetically. ‘My eyes are no good’.
We speak of times gone by and of people we have known. We speak of John Beams a lot, of Hugh Huntley who he really liked, Tony Biggs, Tom Burgers, Bill Duckworth and a host of others. Zak was always more concerned with people than with fish, but eventually I get him around to the fishing and he says it’s been poor; because the rains haven’t been good, and because the winds have blown too hot for too long.
HB (Hooks and Bullets) Huntley, the best fly tyer I ever met, and a superb fly fisher, was a regular at Heatherdon. The Red-Eye Damsel Nymph was his creation.
He is a pensioner he tells me, still fit, other than for his eye-sight, but he says the glasses help. I notice the lenses are thick. He tells me he goes into Howick every month to collect his pension and to shop. ‘I’m not looking after fisherman much anymore,’ he says, maybe a little sadly. ‘Now I take it easy. I watch other people doing work,’ adding, with a sigh, ‘It’s not bad.’ I try explaining the bit about naming the Zak nymph after him and he listens politely, as he always did to our ramblings, but I see his gaze drifting to the horizon and realize my tenuous grasp of Zulu isn’t getting us there.
I need a picture of the great man and ask if I may take one. I haul out the camera and he snaps to attention, his face freezing into a rigid, forward-staring mask. I can’t tease the faintest smile out of him until he hears the shutter click. Then he laughs. I hand him a small gift and tell him I must leave. ‘That’s all right,’ he says and asks to be remembered to my wife, and to my son Robert. He pulls up the concertina gate, waves a hand at me, then turns and slowly makes his way back up the path to his house.
(I wrote this piece in April 2003. Zak died peacefully last week. A thoughtful email from Roger Fitzsimons, for which I was very grateful, said, simply:
We thought you may wish to know that Zak Gwala passed away in his sleep last night 11 April. His funeral will be next weekend and Heatherdon will be represented. Zak had been retired for many years and lived comfortably on a state pension subsidized by Heatherdon...as well as his small herd of cattle and ample goats.
Those of us who will remember him fondly, though saddened by his passing, wish him well into the next life. Here are just a few who would, I know, have echoed my sentiments:
Taken on Heatherdon outside the old house are left to right, John Beams, Tom Burgers, myself, Tony Biggs, Colin Vary, Brian Barry, Chris Hadley-Grave, Neil Hodges, John Duff, Bill Duckworth. Kneeling in the foreground is Hal Orlandini.
Since these great Halcyon days of the Old Dam, much has changed. The fishing is still delightful and that counts a lot. The Old Dam is now called Kimber’s and Smith’s, a lovely triangular small lake above it, is called Huntley’s. I think both these name changes are appropriate and welcome.
Happy times. Zak on the steps of the old house on Heatherdon