Compiled by Dave Rorke from a narrative by George Coates[Originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Ski-Boat magazine]
THE story of Mapelane and the eventual formation of the Mapelane Ski-Boat Club goes back to 1930s, to the years before ski-boating took place there. Mapelane has always been a popular fishing ground. Indeed, the early settlers of the Umfolozi flats — some of whom were the Kirkwoods, Johnsons, the van Rooyens, the Hitchens and the Murphys — used to trek down to Mapelane by ox wagon in the winter months for two or three weeks, fishing, crayfishing and collecting mussels, etc. There was no defined road in those days, so they would send some labourers before them to clear a track that skirted the high-water mark of the flood plain, more or less where the road to Mapelane goes today.
MY FIRST VISIT TO MAPELANE
My introduction to Mapelane was in 1932 when, as a young school boy on a trip to St Lucia, I stayed at the old Anglers Hotel. One day the owner of the hotel, Klaas van Rooyen, invited me to join them on a trip across the estuary to Mapelane, as he had to take food supplies to some campers there.
Naturally I accepted this offer. In those days the estuary was deep and open to the sea, but the estuary lagoon extended well towards Mapelane, almost to where the Umfolozi now comes through the sand dunes.
We landed up behind the dunes and walked through towards the beach, within 400-500 metres of the campsite. The campers were a bunch of fishermen from the Benders Fishing Club on the Natal South Coast who had been there apparently for about a week. They had got there by going to St Lucia and crossing over the estuary. They had caught some beautiful fish which were hanging on the trees behind them — and this gave me the idea of fishing at Mapelane.
THE EARLY YEARS
In 1940s, after the war, the Natal Parks Board was given a piece of land which only included a very small corner of the area from about the very extremity of the Mapelane Point, running in a line just behind the existing Parks Board ranger’s house. That was the little section of land that was included in the St Lucia Park.
After the war ended in 1945, I was one of several ex-servicemen who was allocated a farm on the Umfolozi Flats. Naturally, being a keen fisherman and knowing about Mapelane, it didn’t take me long to make my way there.
The late Walter van Rooyen lived in St Lucia and I got him to take me across the estuary. Once on the other side we walked to Mapelane, this time with our fishing rods and spoons. Fishing in the bay we caught kingfish and ’cuda. In those days the river didn’t run into the sea but dissipated into the papyrus and reeds on the flats, then silted itself out there so that fairly clean water ran into the estuary.
The bay itself was deep and the beach was not more than 50 metres wide from the high-water mark to the sand dunes which extended from the present Parks Board ranger’s house to where the estuary is now. That made the bay deep and clean with very few breakers, so one could catch grunter and stumpies literally by the dozen.
THE ROAD TO THE COAST
In the 1950s there were a number of keen fisherman in the area, so we got together and cut the road through the bush, again following the old tracks of the high-water mark along the flood plain until we got to Mapelane. The last few miles of that road used to run along the bank of the Umsinduzi River. The bank was in fact the spoil from the river, deposited there by the dragline dredgers which the Umfolozi Company operated to keep the river open.
It was pure silt, and in the wet summer months it was virtually impossible to ride along that road, even with a 4×4. Therefore, over the years I cut the road along the sand part which shortened the previous road along the Umsinduzi by three miles, giving us an almost all-weather road to Mapelane. However, it was rough and a 4×4 was compulsory.
Amongst those who used to fish there were the likes of Oom Willie van Rooyen from Nyalazi, Herbie Keen from Empangeni, Graham Balcomb from Mtunzini, Denny van Rooyen from Monzi, Cassie Badenhorst and Boet Bardenhorst from Monzi, and myself.
Because of the hassle to get there, we started building shacks next to the beach. In fact, we weren’t the first people to do this.
When I went there on that trip that I mentioned in 1932, the Benders Fishing Club anglers were living in the remains of a reed shack which somebody had built, and all they took with them was a canvas sail that they threw over the framework.
In 1951 I did the same. I took along some poles to use as a permanent frame, so whenever I visited Mapelane I took along a canvas sail in the back of my jeep, and it no time my campsite was set up.
At that time ski-boating had become very popular in Durban. Although I had done a bit of deep sea fishing off Durban in a launch, I knew nothing about ski-boating. So Walter van Rooyen and I drove down to Durban to have a look at their ski-boats and decided that, yes, this was the game for us. We needed to do something about it.
But first we needed a boat, so Walter started off by adding Masonite decking to his clinker-built 12ft bay boat which we launched through the St Lucia estuary. Within half-an-hour we had got stuck into ’cuda and Natal snoek — and we were hooked. “This is wonderful,” we thought.
However, every cloud doesn’t have a silver lining as the boat was most unstable, and when coming in with any sort of swell on our tail, the craft would start surfing and, more often than not, roll over.
A “REAL” BOAT
Fortunately for us, the owner of the then Estuary Hotel, David Cork, was a marine engineer, and he designed a 14ft boat for us — a scaled-down 50ft high-speed American navy patrol launch. She was basically a cat, but the tunnel didn’t extend right through to the stern where it flattened out so that the transom was level. However, once I had built my boat, she turned out to be quite stable, though heavy with the motor attached, but she could plane at a very low speed because half the bow wave was trapped and lifted up the stern.
Not being a good carpenter, I built my boat out of sheet metal. I used 3⁄4 inch galvanised electrical conduit for the framework and then brazed a sheet-metal skin on to it, sealing it with various bitumastic epoxies that one could get in those days.
The deck was screwed on with self-tapping screws. For flotation I put a couple tractor tubes inside the hull before screwing down the deck, with the hope that they would keep me afloat in the event of the craft holing.
I launched her at the end of 1951, the first boat to be launched at Mapelane. I got her there by dragging her through the bush with my little army jeep. With Brian Johnson as my first crew, we set off and caught ’cuda and snoek straight off Mapelane like they were going out of fashion. Today the area is called Home Reef.
This became an almost daily adventure. We would leave the boat down there and whenever we could we would spend two hours fishing before returning home.
This led to other ski-boaters joining us — Denny van Rooyen (he bought a mono from a boat builder, Finn Anderson), Jimmy Haveman, Don Preen’s uncle (he had his boat built to our craft’s design — one of the first cats) and Rex Williams from St Lucia (he built himself a cat out of marine ply). The five would leave our boats on the beach and we return to fish Mapelane whenever we could.
When I built my boat, the biggest motor that I could find was a 16hp Johnson with a two or three litre tank on top of the flywheel. That didn’t get you very far because they were thirsty motors. The outboards in those days were completely open at the back, so if we launched in any sort of a shorebreak — even half-a-metre — the bow would lift up and push the motor underwater, causing the engine to cut.
They were also very short-shaft motors — about 15-inch as opposed today’s 24-28-inch shafts — so to obviate this, Walter and I used to put our motors into an army kit-bag, tie it onto the deck, and then our boat boy would wield a pair of oars up front. After launching, the boat boy’s job was to row the boat into deeper water and stabilise it there while we attached the motor.
These were all tiller-controlled motors — you just clamped them on, tightened the two transom screws and away you went. That’s if you could get the motor to start! Indeed, one spent a lot of time pulling on those old 16hp and 20hp motors before they fired.
But it was fun and we seldom capsized going out to sea, but our problems began on returning to the beach. With a small motor and the early unstable boats, if you got a swell on your tail you could rest assured that you would start surfing and you would spin off and capsize.
On one occasion the boat was really overloaded with fish. Brian Johnson was my crew and when we came in we started surfing at about 50 metres from the beach. About 20 metres out we rolled over and lost everything. The fish were all in bags and we had no floats on them — they just sank straight down. Although the boat and a few odds and ends washed out, that was the end of our fishing tackle and catch. Thereafter we made sure that everything was tied down, and we tied empty cans onto the bags of fish as floats so that we could retrieve them.
In the meantime access became easier because the St Lucia estuary mouth had closed up and we were able to run along the beach. We could be at Mapelane in a matter of half-an-hour, instead of the two-hour round trip through Teza.
Between 1951 and 1954 we had direct access to Mapelane along the beach, but then the Department of Water Affairs decided that the Umfolozi River had to be diverted into the sea. Thereafter Mapelane changed rapidly. The diversion of the river, it has proved, was the worst thing they could have done.
Apart from the diversion, the Umfolozi River ran continually after they opened it in 1954, in fact right through to 1960. There were very wet years and there were very few days that the sea wasn’t chocolate-brown and full of debris. Therefore, not much fishing was done at Mapelane in six years.
THE 1960s — THE CLUB IS BORN
By 1960 the rainy cycle seemed to have abated. Once again we were back at Mapelane with a few more boats joining us, including Graham Balcomb and Norman Theunissen. At that stage we started building shacks to stay in and to house our kit when we went there.
Naturally, the Parks Board — who were in charge of Mapelane — became alarmed at these shacks on the beach, so they ordered us to remove ourselves. However, after negotiating with them we got permission to stay there under certain conditions, and that is how Mapelane Ski-Boat Club was formed.
The Parks Board insisted that we form a club of some sort so that they could negotiate with a representative committee, rather than with a bunch of individuals. The first meeting held at Mapelane to form a club must have been in 1961. The minute book was saturated during the Demoina Floods in 1984, so the first few pages are missing, but the original members of the club included Jimmy Haveman, WFJ van Rooyen, Cassie Badenhorst, Denny van Rooyen, Graham Balcomb, Herbie Keen, Arthur Wadman, Boet Badenhorst, Pietie Nel, Candy Nel, Norman Theunissen, Andries Spies and myself.
All had shacks of some sort at Mapelane and used fish there. When the club was formed, I was appointed chairman, Graham Balcomb as vice chairman, and the committee was Boet Badenhorst, Pat Peddie and Denny van Rooyen. Our first task was to write a constitution acceptable to the Parks Board. We allowed everyone who had a shack at Mapelane to become a full member of the club, but the constitution stipulated that only bona fide ski-boaters could join the club thereafter.
COMPETITIONS AT MAPELANE
It is a natural instinct amongst participants in any sport to compete against one another. And so it happened at Mapelane.
On a few occasions Graham Balcomb and I had fished in Durban at the annual “Mielie Boere/Banana Boere Competition” which the Durban Ski-Boat Club used to hold every Easter holidays. It was purely a social competition with no prizes, no rules, just like-minded anglers who were keen on ski-boat fishing competing against each other — and we had ourselves a ball.
Because of that successful event, Graham and I considered holding a competition at Mapelane. I think it was in 1960 that we invited a few ski-boaters from Durban SBC, which was the only registered club in Natal at the time, and from the Transvaal SBC which was registered in Johannesburg. Each club was invited to send a team of six — and so the seeds were sown for competition fishing at Mapelane, and eventually the annual Mapelane Trophy Competition.
Just before this competition took place we were approached by Bob French — he managed a farm in the Pongola area — to ask if he could participate. He would bring his own boat and crew. He duly arrived with Alistair Pilgrim and the two Riley brothers.
The competition was held on 30th May 1960, an informal competition with no particular winner, but if I remember correctly the team from Pongola hit a huge shoal of snoek at Railway Camp and cleaned us all out.
We had a happy, most enjoyable time, so following that we decided to have an official competition in the name of the club, and I think that it must have been in 1961 that the first official Mapelane competition took place. Two years later saw the first staging of the Mapelane Trophy Competition in 1963.
MAPELANE SBC CLUBHOUSE
In 1964 a club shack was built to house members’ outboard motors and equipment, and in 1965 a clubhouse and club compound was built. It was in 1977 that the club was given notice to vacate and demolish their shacks and clubhouse on the beach due to pressure from the public and the Parks Boards.
When the Mapelane Ski-Boat Club was ordered to vacate the shacks and clubhouse, I identified an alternate site for a clubhouse and camping area. After considerable negotiations with the Parks Board a compromise was reached, and once the new clubhouse had been built, the Mapelane Ski-Boat Club had an official home.
André Olivier concludes: The official opening of the new clubhouse was attended by all the members. Natal Parks Board director, the late John Geddes-Page, announced at the function that the club would be named the George Coates Hall.
The opening of the new club facilities made way for more ski-boaters to join the club, and soon boat numbers were stretched to 30. A rating system was put into place and strict rules were imposed .
After 20 years at the helm of the club, chairman George Coates stood down, bringing to an end a truly remarkable pioneering era, an integral part of the history of gamefishing from boats in South Africa.