Fly fishing in the time of Coronavirus

Part Two

March 8-14

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It was a great new bunch of anglers that unfurled their weapons of fish disruption at the Saturday night unsheathing ceremony. They included several of Sandy’s Scottish friends, a father and son from Minnesota, a travel guide from the UK company Farlows and his client, a diminutive Indian, Kamal, who told stories about catching big Mahseer. Like the first week’s guests, we were pretty much all of an age. When I later showed pictures of our two groups to a Kenyan friend, he referred to them as a “bunch of drizzly old men.” I think he meant “grisly,” but the original adjective had a certain wine glass ring about it. As well as their tackle they brought stories from the outside world of Coronavirus, masks, gloves, infections and deaths around the world. In America the Centre of Disease Control was moving towards nationwide testing. Trump was telling people it was all under control. Lockdown was being imposed everywhere. Thousands of people were dying daily from an invisible assassin. We felt strangely immune from it all and joked that we would happily spend lockdown in Kau Taupen. But already airlines were advertising their disinfectant measures. The big C was closing in.
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The river continued to yoyo but, overall, the conditions were slightly better and more encouraging. Sandy landed two 20-pound fish in one day, as well as others. I caught fish between 8 and 17 pounds. Confidence immunises you against despair. The day’s routines felt as comfortable as my oldest jeans. Up at six for coffee and to see and feel the weather outside. Breakfast with my fellow anglers. Like an old couple, Sandy and I made toast for each other, pulled on waders at the same time, and were usually the first outside to await the daily convoy of SUVs bristling like hedgehogs with expensive carbon rods. At nine thirty the convoy would move out, peeling off for the various beats each guide had been allocated for the day. Small foxes scattered in the brush beside us. Sheep bounded across the road to safety in front of us, except for the usual stragglers, who waited until they could smell the steel-braced radial tyres, and then belted across our path. There were always Guanacos, the Llama cousins, and Condors wheeling on crenelated wings on the lookout for things either dead, about to be dead, or alive. All sorts of predators swooped around the riverbanks. It was all too plain that we were guests, and they were the hosts. Even the beavers, crazily introduced some decades back and now a menace, showed furry-faced contempt for two-legged ones with the big polesIMG_0885

We returned at lunchtimes for a sit-down feast; lamb barbecued in the traditional way on a crucifix spit, chicken braised in vegetables with chunky sautéed potatoes; a local paella variant, prawns in a rich sauce……..Kau Taupen is no place to go to maintain your jean size.

Many of us slept in the afternoon for an hour or so. I tried not to but failed more often than not, waking up in time to pull on new mental skin for the old ceremony of waders and boots, hats and polaroid glasses, fingerless gloves tucked into a jacket pocket, my phone ready and dry in a waterproof bag inside my waders.

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                                             Sandy. The Fisher King

The numbers of fish matter less to me these days than the fishing, so I have no record of exactly what I caught the second week. I just know that there were many. I do know that one stormy afternoon I decided to stay back at the lodge because I felt either exhausted or going down with a cold or both. While I slumbered, Sandy caught seven fish that evening in the rain, all of them crackers. I read the upsetting Three Women  (Lisa Taddeo), a fairly damning tale of how men mistreat women. I felt okay the next day, if somewhat chastened both as a representative of my gender and by Sandy’s derring-do.

But the evenings were as rich and full as the food. The lodge serves a very late dinner to its guests but goes out of its way to prepare smaller dishes for those, like Sandy and myself, who did not want the full sit-down experience twice in one day. So we would order soup and a sandwich.  But often Luciana, Hernan’s pretty wife and the floor manager, would bring us tastings from the main table as well. And Guy, the Manager, would join Sandy and me to talk about the world. These were highlight moments. Guy had caught a disease early in life that prevented him growing, so he is trapped in the body of a 17-year-old, a few decades distant from his real age. He is a Franco-Argentine and, like all the staff, loves what he is doing until the day he opens his own lodge somewhere. He walked us through recent Argentine history and explained the Estancia system, enlightened us about ranching and sheep farming as well as fishing and hunting. That he had managed a potentially lethal disease and survived was remarkable. That he accepted it and the multiple medications that attended it and still do, every day, was and is heroic. I have a vision of him turning up at the riverbank one evening as the light fell, dressed in a pair of incredibly outsized camouflaged waders. These, he explained, were what he used for duck hunting. Baggy and loose so he could slither around the fens. They were so big another angler could have fitted inside them. Guy had come down to the riverside on a chilly evening to offer us mulled wine from a thermos.  That’s the sort of person he is.

On March 11, midway through our last week, the World Health Organisation declared Coronavirus a Pandemic. There were 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,293 deaths.  “Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom.  “In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher. WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.” The virus seeped into our conversations, like spilt ink on a desk of papers. Guy thought Argentina would soon close its borders to prevent importing or exporting a bug that the Trump had labelled “Kung Flu.”

March 12 was my 70th birthday.  I bought a new Patagonia wading jacket at the Lodge to gift myself. As I pulled it on, I remembered what the man from Farlows In London told me when I brought my battered, torn and worn old Barbour jacket to be refurbished in the 1990s. “Refurbish? I don’t think so. But we could stuff it,” he said. My old Simms wading jacket looked like heading that way too. Or that’s how I justified the purchase.

It was a changeable day, weather-wise, but fishing-wise it was consistently difficult because of the wind and the height of the water. But I caught one good fish in the 12lb range while J.J. looked on at the improvements I had made in my casting since his tutorial. When we drove back for lunch, and for me to contact my kids and sister, I found Guy, Luciana and kitchen staff waiting for me at the door with birthday wishes on a blackboard and balloons bouncing in the wind. All over the lodge there were birthday banners, balloons and paper chains. And a wonderful lunch, at the end of which the cooks arrived (Soledad, the pastry chef, is an artist, not a cook) and a birthday cake with a Roman candle, while staff, including all the guides, sang Happy Birthday in Spanish and English. It was the kind of thing I had seen happen at restaurants, sharing the embarrassment of the birthday person as he or she blew out the candles. But in Kau Taupen I just felt privileged and  happy. My heart began to swell like a rain-lashed river when Guy told me how my daughter Delia (in Copenhagen), my son Lewis (in London) and sister Joanna (in Dubai) had plotted together to contact the lodge to make sure a cake marked the day.  That evening I caught one more, if I remember right, and floated to bed on a hover-board of contentment.

Why does time speed up like a ball downhill just when you want it to slow down?  I found myself packing my bag two days before our four-in-the morning departure on Saturday. It was an almost reflexive, defensive action. Into the bag went the clothes I would not need or wear the next two days. I took down two rods I had brought with me but not used, I saw people exchanging business cards and Whatsapp numbers around the bar. Guy fretted that guests scheduled for the following week from America and elsewhere would not be allowed entry. The guides started to worry about how they would get to far flung homes and destinations if the lodge had to close down early and the borders were closed.

I think the Celtic Fringe – Sandy and his pals – led the push to make the last day a full day of fishing rather than two sessions demarcated by lunch and a siesta at the lodge.  So instead of coming back to the lodge at midday, we packed a picnic and went out with Eugene, an Australian with more fishing stamps in his passport than I could dream of accumulating. We had found a common wavelength the week before; his easy-going style of dispensing advice and knowledge, plus his quiet enjoyment of everything to do with fishing, marked him out.  His still waters ran fathoms deep, as did his warmth, joy of fishing and sense of humour. And then, on that last morning drive out to the river, he put the Grateful Dead on the car sound system and we bonded like Superglue. He also told me about a special edition Grateful Dead reel. The river was a bit fretful and occasionally cloudy with silt. The fishing was not very rewarding, apart from one very feisty four-pound fresh-off-the-tide fish that, Eugene said, “appears to be quite vigorous.” An understatement.

Not long after that, before our picnic, I attempted to make a very long cast across the river through swirling mean-spirited wind. It was a badly timed and executed cast and clattered into the middle of the river downstream from me. I put my hands on my knees, yelled obscenities at myself, and started to pull the line back in to try again. At which point, one of the biggest fish I had taken in a fortnight announced itself at the end of my line and began to fight like a cornered bobcat. It pushed 18 pounds when we weighed it in the net. I felt a complete fraud. We talked about it, lying in the grass under a scant group of trees the guides jokingly call “our forest.” “It always happens,” said Sandy, who had taken two good fish at least with proper casts that landed where he wanted. “The bad cast always catches the biggest fish because the line sinks while you curse and gets the fly down to them.”

Bread, cheese, salami, good company and conversation. I think the fishing trip ended there for me.  There was still an afternoon of fishing scheduled but I don’t remember it. I think I spent most of the time talking to Eugene and absorbing, rather than angling. We finished early, that much I remember. That evening, in between packing, there was champagne and Tapas and another video put together by Luciana, to the music of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The links were emailed to us so that I enjoy them still, and often.

We left in convoy for Rio Grande airport in darkness and were seen off by the guides. Some passengers were wearing masks. Guy had told us that lockdown in Argentina was only a few days away and that many people blamed “foreigners” for bringing the curse south. In Departures I sat down in a row of plastic seats beside a young woman. Sandy followed and sat beside me. As soon as she heard us speak English, she got up and left.

March 15-17

The real world of Buenos Aires had changed little at first sight. But there was panic and concern. Our hotel would not accept guests who had arrived in Argentina that week. Sandy and I survived this sanction, having been in the country  for two weeks. Others in our group found accommodation at the airport but flights uncertain. It seemed fairly sure the country would shut down on the night of my return to Dubai.

Sandy left in the morning having plucked dates for a return to Kau Taupen in 2021 from a fairly full-looking fishing diary. My flight left the same night, but the airport was chaotic with people fleeing home. Flights were delayed. There was tangible anxiety. My own booking on Emirates was good but the clattering departures board signified a long delay. The queues at immigration were long long long. Foreigners were not allowed to shop at Duty Free. Children wailed. Couples clashed. Frustrations fomented. My room at Kau Taupen seemed a long way away but Guy told us that he was probably closing the lodge down weeks early because no new guests would be allowed into the country.

China was reporting a third consecutive day without Corona deaths. All 16 temporary hospitals in Wuhan were closed. In the United States, 4,000 cases had been reported. Across the globe, from South Sudan to Spain, borders were being closed down.

It felt a relief when the wheels of the aircraft lifted. There was still uncertainty 20 hours ahead because the United Arab Emirates was not issuing tourist visas, like the ones I have used over the past few years. None of the in-flight movies seemed interesting. Nor the music. I couldn’t read much. I found myself more often asleep than awake.

At Dubai the queues were just as long, but my anxiety was misplaced. I had left from Dubai and had an onward ticket to London the following week. So I was admitted and was soon at my sister’s home, being reassessed by our dog Finlay, and caffeinated by my sister, Joanna.  And soon in complete lockdown allowed out only once every three days with a police permit to buy food and supplies. Sandy is in lockdown in Scotland, but can at least ride his bike and walk, but not fish his many hallowed Salmon waters. I cannot reach my little home in Ireland because all flights from Dubai are indefinitely suspended and Ireland itself is in lockdown. Fishing is pretty much outlawed.

In the first 24 hours after my return the guides got in touch to tell us that the river had risen mightily and was un-fishable; that two guests had managed to arrive. And that in the end the lodge was closed for the season, mothballed like an artwork. But not before Guy caught an enormous fish and sent Sandy and me a picture.

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The guides eventually got out of Argentina through diverse routes to South Africa, Venezuela and Australia. We are in touch. We send each other best wishes that we will meet again beside the Rio Grande next year. I’ve paid the deposit and earmarked a flight. I’ve no doubt that Kau Taupen will be the same wonderful place it is in reality that it is already in my heart and mind.

I’m just not so sure what the rest of the world will look like.

AJH

DUBAI April 2020

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