Chongwe confluence

The Chongwe confluence revisited

Mauro, my father-in-law that went with us to Lufupa in the Kafue National Park, loved fishing so we thought it would be a good idea to take him to the Chongwe confluence, after our earlier interesting fishing trip with our friend Chris [1]. Apart from fishing, he was also keen on camping, and, after all, we had acquired a rubber dinghy and we were also eager to use it again on a fishing trip.

So, to make the outing worthwhile, I took a Friday off so that we could spend an extra day in the bush. In addition to Mauro the group included Flori (at the time six months old) and Annie. The two latter members would sleep at the back of the car, just in case.

By the time of the trip, we were familiar with the road, not only from the trip with Chris but also because we had visited the Gwabi [2] Fishing camp in the shores of the Kafue River and spent a couple of weekends fishing there. The camp allowed you to launch your boat and, after a few kilometres down the Kafue River you could reach the Zambezi River and enjoy its quiet beauty.

This time, as with Chris, we left the road leading to Gwabi and turned towards Chiawa, crossed the Kafue river in the men-operated pontoon and continued to the Chongwe, hoping to remember the way but certain that, as long as we kept the Zambezi river on our right, the Chongwe River would block our route and there would be the camping area.

The going was slow as the road after the pontoon had deteriorated and presented us with a few ditches that were challenging but that we managed to cross to the amazement of Mauro that was not used to rough riding! We got to the camp in late afternoon. The grass at the campsite was -again- very tall and, although we could hear the river, we could not see it! Conversely, we could clearly see the elephant family that was busy feeding on the trees surrounding the camping area. The latter were very tolerant of our presence, and they gradually moved away a few metres. In that way we coexisted for as long as we were there.

Once Mauro recovered from the proximity of the elephants and the grunting of the hippos nearby we cut the grass until we had a good area for camp, and set up our tents. We finished just before darkness and, as we had carried our dinner cooked from home, I told Mauro that it was now time to try some evening fishing while dinner was made ready.

Carefully, we walked to the shore through the tall grass and arrived at the river that was, conveniently, clear of grass and offered a good area to fish from. We placed some large chunks of meat on our hooks, casted close to the shore and waited for the action to start.

While fishing with Chris, I had learnt that, apart from tiger fish, the Zambian rivers also harboured other predatory fish, among them the Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis), a kind of catfish that could reach truly large sizes. The largest Vundu recorded reached 55kg [3] but there could be references of larger ones but I did not find them.

A small Vundu recently caught at Kariba, Zimbabwe.

Enthusiastic, I explained to Mauro what we were after, comparing the Vundu to fish that occur in the River Plate so that he could get the idea. He immediately shared my excitement. After a few more minutes Mabel called us for supper. Our hunger was stronger than our will to fish so, we secured the rods and put the “line out” alarms and joined the rest of the party to get some food.

We had not been at the table more than five minutes when we heard the unmistakable “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” of one of the reels that indicated that a fish was taking line fast.

We ran towards the shore, I grabbed the rod and pulled to try to hook the culprit. My effort made no difference and the “zzzzzzzzzzzzz” continued so I increased the drag but it made only small difference and still I was losing line. Soon all the line would had gone out and break. Mauro was as shocked and as impotent as I was and we were both getting ready for the final jerk that would mean a broken rod or a cut line when, suddenly, almost at the end of the line, it stopped. Relieved, I tried to reel in some line to have some in reserve in case another run would come. The line did not move. “Mauro, we have a really huge vundu. Please bring the torch to see where the line is” I said while holding the tense rod.

Light on the line revealed that it was nearly horizontal! The fish had stopped at a considerable distance from us and I suspected that the line had got caught on a submerged tree. Further manipulations, including the trick of pulling the line and suddenly releasing it failed to solve the problem. We pulled the line as much as we thought it prudent with no results and, eventually, we decided to leave it until the morning and go with the boat to try to recover the fish. We finished dinner during which the fish became the only topic of conversation.

After dinner, while sitting by the fire the speculation continued about the size of the fish and how we were going to tackle it the following day until, we were silenced by the unmistakable call of a leopard [4] very close to us! We were explaining Mauro that there was a leopard close when the hyenas added their own calls, adding theirs to the leopard’s.

Postponing our bedtime we hastily moved to the car to go and have a look. Although we saw hyenas, we failed to see the leopard and we returned to camp. While Mabel and Annie were putting Flori to sleep and Mauro aranged his tent, I opened my copy of “Fishes of Kariba” by Dale Kenmuir in pages 84-85 (I had opened the book a few times there so it always opened there!) and I re-read the description of theVundu behaviour “…powerful fighters and if not using the current to assist them will often ‘hole up’ somewhere. Hence you need a stout road and heavy breaking strain line to land one. Common baits are blue-mottled soup, liver, ox-heart, fish fillet, or bird entrails…try the Zambezi … (if not required for eating, please throw them back!)”. Convinced that we definitely have one holed up somewhere, I went to sleep trying to develop a plan to recover it.

The following morning started with the checking of the rod but the line had been cut during the night so we did not know what was at the end of it. After putting new line in the reel it was time to assemble the boat. We needed to pump its air tanks with a foot pump and install the floorboards, engine, etc. After about an hour we finally started our day of boating in the Zambezi with a full crew.

We spent the day trying to fish but sightseeing in the Zambezi was our first priority. We enjoyed cruising slowly through the river trying to avoid getting stranded on the frequent and shallow sand banks. We watched crocodiles in the water or basking in the sandy shores, their mouths opened releasing heat. We also spotted a few male buffalo enjoying the freshness of the shallows and seeking relief from the itching of the many parasites they usually carry.

The stars of the show, however, were the hippos. We came across a number of large pods engaged in their social activities and announcing their presence grunting from a distance so that we could avoid them without problems. We respected them greatly after an experience we had with a large male in lake Naivasha (Kenya). We were boating in a shallow part of the lake when a lone hippo appeared out of the blue and charged us. We had a very narrow escape pushing the boat to a deeper part before it caught up with us! We remembered this incident every time we saw hippos! However, if watched from a prudent distance, they are very entertaining.

We did not only watch animals but also attempted to fish but with not much success. We only had one good strike and, following Murphy’s Law, it happened while I was passing a cup of tea to Mauro and this interfered with the right response so the fish jumped and got away expelling the lure some distance away, luckily in the opposite direction from our boat.

We got back to camp in the afternoon, with time to start a fire and be better prepared for our second attempt at catching the -so far- elusive Vundu, a much talked about subject during the day! Again, we used sizeable chunks of beef well secured in our hooks. When we were satisfied with our preparations, I threw the first line at about 20 metres from the shore.

As soon as the meat hit the water, something stirred the water nearby and started moving. Then I saw more movement and about five greenish heads with long snouts converging towards my line! I reeled in frantically, trying to bring in the meat before the crocodiles grabbed it and run, trying to avoid a repeat of the events of the previous night! Clearly, the crocs were faster than the Vundu and the mistery of the night before was cleared: a croc had taken the meat, swam away, and stopped to eat it on one of the small islands that dotted the river nearby.

We abandoned night fishing as it would have been only good to fatten the crocs while Mauro was still shockedwith the concept of fishing with crocodiles. After a while we shared a good laugh with Mabel that, for a while, let us know that our fishing reputation had been dented.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2021/05/05/the-chongwe-confluence/

[2] I was informed at the camp that a “gwabi” in the local language means an area where the river gets wider and the current reverses creating a swirl where -apparently- fish like to be.

[3] See: https://www.fishbase.se/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=2319&AT=vundu Consulted on 27 June 2021.

[4] A leopard call closely resembles the sound of a hand saw cutting a log and, as the lion roar, it is unmistakable.

Hooked! A short fishing story

Often beer and fishing go together although I am not sure that drinking had anything to do with this story that happened to a fishing friend that I will call Phil. He loved to go for tigerfish as many people in Southern Africa do.

Tigerfish are placed by many among the best freshwater game fish in the world, together with salmon, bass, trout and the South American dorado among others [1]. Being one of the top predators of the African rivers, it is always on “hunting mode”, looking for prey, mostly smaller fish although some have been seen catching swallows in flight [2] and probably will also catch swimming birds.

The bushsnob with a tigerfish caught in Zimbabwe.

It is no surprise then that their aggressivity is used to catch them by means of shiny and colourful lures that are either cast and retrieved or trolled behind the boat until they are taken by the fish. When this happens, you react by strongly pulling your rod, hoping to hook it. The latter is very difficult to achieve because the fish has a very bony jaw that resists the sharpest of hooks.

The consequence is that often the fish feels the hook, jumps outside the water, violently shakes its head and dislodges the lure that goes flying, often back to the water where sometimes it attempts to catch it again as soon as it hits the water, apparently indifferent to the hooks! Sometimes, however, it lands on the boat and, rarely it can even hit you as if the fish would aim the lure at you!

So it was that one Friday, not thinking on all of the above, Phil and friends traveled to the Chongwe confluence to spend a weekend in search of tigerfish. They stayed at the same place we were with our friend Chris and on Saturday morning, very early, they were in the water. After a while Phil had a good take and he stroke. The fish reacted jumping out of the water and, as I mentioned, shaking its head managed to dislodge the lure.

That in itself would have been frustrating for Phil but it got worse. Before he could move, the lure came flying straight at him, more precisely to his face. One of the hooks got embedded in his upper lip from where the rather large lure hanged while Phil screamed in pain as lips are very sensitive areas of our bodies.

Being brave and trying not to spoil the fishing for everybody, he held the lure up to avoid it pulling from his lip while a friend carefully cut the line and then detached the lure, leaving only the hook in his lip. A quick check revealed bad news: the hook had gone in beyond the barb. Phil, bravely, tried to pull it out but, as expected, the pain was too much. He decided to leave it in place and put up with the pain to enable his friends to continue fishing.

After a while, the pain was getting worse so they decided to return to camp to attempt to remove it on firm ground. Soon it was clear that the hook would not go back out and the movement only made matters worse. It was then that Phil decided to have a final attempt at removal by pushing it so that it would go through the lip and they could cut it. He nearly fainted with pain and all further attempts were abandone hoping that leaving it alone would decrease the discomfort to tolerable levels.

Soon it became apparent that Phil could not put up with the discomfort any longer and, unanimously, they decided to return to Lusaka to see a doctor that could remove it and end Phil’s misery. Although the journey back was rather tough, the actual removal of the hook took the doctor about ten minutes and Phil did not even end with a scar to show for his predicament!

This rather unusual and rather unpleasant event did not dent Phil’s fishing drive although I believe that he remembers it (as I do) whenever he hooks a tigerfish!

[1] See: https://igfa.org/game-fish-database/ and https://pescariasa.com.br/english/top-13-species-of-freshwater-fish-in-world-sport-fishing/

[2] G. C. O’Brien, F. Jacobs, S. W. Evans, N. J. Smit (2013). First observation of African tigerfish Hydrocynus vittatus predating on barn swallows Hirundo rustica in flight. Fish Biology 84, 263-266.

The Chongwe confluence

After the traumatic experience of the riots, things calmed down for a while. Mabel came back with the news that her pregnancy was going well and she was happy that we were going to have a baby girl. We decided to start exploring Zambia, starting from places relatively near Lusaka, before the pregnancy advanced and our travel got reduced.

Among the items we “inherited” from the earlier project was a mechanic to maintain the vehicles called Des. It was through bringing the cars to him in the outskirts of Lusaka that we got to know him and his wife Mary very well. We spent a few Sunday lunches together with a number of their friends, including businesspeople and hunters, among others.

Amid their close friends was Chris, a son of a Scottish father and a Zambian mother that was a very prosperous businessman, owner of the largest petrol station and spares shop in Lusaka. From the start we realized that we got on well and it did not take too long to discover that we shared the passion for fishing and we became friends.

He was a very kind man, very supportive of our efforts to enjoy Zambia and it was him that arranged for our rubber dinghy maiden voyage at the Kafue Marina and participated from the exercise with great enthusiasm.

Assembling the rubber dinghy for the first time at the Kafue Marina. The Kafue River is in the background.
Testing our new rubber dinghy.

Chris knew every fishing spot in Zambia, and he kept boats in several of them so that he did not need to tow a boat whenever he wished to go fishing! Apart from Kafue, he had boats in Kariba and lake Tanganyika, to name what I recall now. One day, he invited us to join him at a place known as the Chongwe confluence. We happily agreed to meet him there travelling by land in our now repaired Land Cruiser while he would get there from the Kafue Marina.

So, we left early on a Saturday and followed his travel instructions taking the road to Chirundu (the border with Zimbabwe) and turning left a few kilometres before to enter on a dirt road (now the RD491) towards Chiawa. We drove on and we came to the Kafue River where we waited for the pontoon to arrive as it happened to be going towards the opposite shore. We joined the other cars in the queue and had a few “mates” [1] while we waited.

When the pontoon arrived we paid our fee and boarded it, together with the other cars. The crossing was quite picturesque as the pontoon was operated by a couple of guys that would pull from a rope and move it across. Of course, the passengers were free to join in the effort to make the trip faster! Luckily, there was not much of a current and the operaton was successfully completed after about thirty minutes.

The human-powered pontoon.
Mabel pouring hot water to our mate during the crossing.

Leaving the Kafue River behind we drove through a narrow dirt road for a while until we came to the Zambezi river where the road turned left and from then on we drove along the river following its current. After a while we passed what looked like a derelict farm with a number of windmills in the water. Apart from pumping water from the river, we could not think of anty other reason for their existence but we did not stop to investigate as we were anxious to get to our destination.

After a long but beautiful drive along the river where we saw planty of game, including many elephants, we go to the confluence and found Chris. He was already fishing while two of his employees were busy cutting the very tall grass and collecting the rubbish left there by other careless campers to enable us to camp in comfort. Although we were meant to be at the Lower Zambezi National Park, its existence was still in its infancy.

We were on the Zambezi river shore at the point the Chongwe River entered it, a place renown for its good fishing. I believe that there is a luxury camp there nowadays [2]

Chris loved fish and he knew a place where Tilapia [3] were abundant. He told us that the fish congregated at a particular spot where tree branches came down to the river offering shelter to the fish that stayed there, probably feeding on the muddy bank. He explained to us that the river there formed a “gwabi”, a place where the water turned against the main current and fish liked.

He sat on a canvas chair with his rods pulling fish out. He had the system well oiled: another of his sidekicks was gutting them and dropping them in a frying pan without delay! We could see that there was already a good pile of freshly fried fish. I realized that Chris loved fishing more than I did and that he not only enjoyed the actual fishing but loved to eat his catch as well.

We left Chris to continue getting our lunch and went to a place where the grass had been cut to set up our camp. A number of large trees offered good shade in the campsite and we were the only occupants, apart from a few elephants busy pulling tree branches that largely ignored us. We joined Chris and his men for a purely Tilapia lunch that, even to me that I am not fond on fish, tasted delicious, probably because they were fried as soon as they came out.

After a good siesta we took off on his boat after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). We trolled along the banks with a couple of rods with shiny lures traying to get the attention of this carnivorous fish. Tigers are fast and ferocious predators that would attack the lures violently and eject them when jumping outside of the water. We had a few strikes that we missed but still we enjoyed the action. Luckily, by sunset I hooked one that I managed to land. It was my first tiger fish, and a reasonable one as well so I was extremely pleased and so was Chris that had skipped the boat for me to get it!

My first tiger fish.

In twilight we returned to camp, guided by the fire and our lights, had another Tilapia dinner and, as usual in Africa, we went to bed early for a well deserved rest after a long drive an a very exciting fishing day.

As it often happens, things did not work out as planned.

A couple of hours later we were woken by a leopard started calling very close from our tents and, although it was not a threat for us, it was a rather loud leopard! As the calls continued, we decided to find it. So, Chris and us got in our car and started to drive around trying to reach the place of the calls that now, as usual, stopped! We drove for a while but nothing appeared in our headlights.

We were about to turn around when we caught a glimpse of a spotted hyena running through the thicket and we followed it through the bushes until we came to an area next to the river (about a couple of hundred metres from our camp) where there were a number of racks made with sticks that had been recently used to dry meat and, before we could think what meat it was, we bumped on a large hippo head lying on the ground.

The hyena was after the meat that was left on the head and the leopard was also part of the action but we were not sure on what capacity. We knew that we would not spot it after our drive with headlamps and spotlight and we returned to our camp. Fortunately, our sleep was not interrupted again.

The following morning, we were up early for a sightseeing tour of the Zambezi. It was the first time that we had a chance to appreciate the unmatched beauty of this “mighty” river that traversed very dry country and it was its lifeline. The water was unbelievably clean (at least for our standards) and it contained bright specs that we learnt to be suspended mica particles.

Zambezi River view.

The deep parts of the river showed a dark green hue while the many sand banks were brownish and carefully avoided by our skipper. There were a number of islands between us and the opposite bank that was Zimbabwe, where no motor boats were allowed as the area was protected and it included the Mana Pools National Park, a place we would come to know in the future.

Seeing the windmills, now from the river, we express our perplexity about them to Chris. He was quite amused while hetold us that this had been the farm of someone called Winston that, in the mid 80’s, had convinced President Kaunda that he could make oil from grass! The machines -probably operated by the windmills? – were crushing grass at one end while oil was coming out of the other! The President, convinced by the project manager, had travelled by helicopter to visit the farm and even gave Mr. Winston a Zambian diplomatic passport! The latter was probably deported once it was discovered that the oil was coming from a jerrycan! [4]

We saw lots of game. While the groups of hippo were rather abundant and often loud, there was also game along the river banks where the ocassional crocodile could be seen basking. Apart from the large numbers of elephants, we also spotted many impala and buffalo as well as several troops of baboons. There were also many interesting birds in addition to the expected fish eagles that dotted the shore perched on top of their favourite trees. The African skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) were great fun to watch while flying a few centimetres above the water with their longer lower mandibule -extremely sensible to the touch- in the water. The moment it encountered a surface fish, its beak would snap shut and fly off to process its prey.

The morning passed very fast and it was soon time to return to camp, pack and start the return journey. Chris would stay longer for an afternoon fishing as his return by boat was much shorter and he wished to store a few more fish to take home.

We had gone through a great experience and we decided that the place was worth another visit.

[1] Mate is a traditional South American drink made by soaking dried leaves of the “yerba” plant (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and sucked through a metal straw from a container typically made from a calabash gourd.

[2] See: https://timeandtideafrica.com/time-tide-chongwe-camp/

[3] Several Tilapia species occur in the Zambezi River. For details see: https://zimninja.org/zambezi-river-fishing/

[4] See https://zambiareports.com/2015/03/26/chama-oil-if-only-it-had-become-reality/