Fishing

South Luangwa National Park

The visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, was a good excuse to travel to the South Luangwa National Park. Although flying with the defunct Zambia Airways was reasonably priced, we opted to travel by road so that we could see the country better.

Unfortunately, the journey from Lusaka to Chipata was rather monotonous and long (568 km) on an almost straight road. From there we still had to travel another 100 km on a dirt road to get to Mfuwe Lodge, our destination for the three days we stayed there. The lodge was run by the Government and offered basic services, but we found it comfortable as well as very reasonably priced.

Our daughter came with us, looked after by her grandad, too young to remember anything despite my efforts to introduce her to the abundant hippos that lived in the river.

The Luangwa River is a major tributary of the Zambezi River and one of the four large rivers of Zambia, together with the Zambezi, Kafue and Chambesi). The upper and middle parts supply water to the North and South Luangwa National Parks and it is also home to a very large population of crocodiles and hippos. It is here where the largest population of hippos in Africa can be found. Although during the dry season the hippos are confined to pools that become muddy, they managed to survive although sometimes they succumb to diseases such as anthrax [1]. This was not the case during our visit as the river was flowing and they were scattered all over it.

The Luangwa River with hippos.

We spent a long time watching the numerous large schools of hippo but in fact we were looking for a place from where we could fish safely as I was aware that the river´s muddy waters also harboured good sized catfish. We selected a treeless patch of a grassy bank about 1.5m above the water from where we had a good view of any animals approaching and could focus on catching fish.

The following morning while Mauro and I fished, Mabel kept an eye for danger, just in case as very little escapes her eyesight! We were not able to bring earthworms, so we resorted to some beef we had brought for the purpose (I was not yet aware at the time of the use of soap!). Although beef is not the ideal bait, we started having some good bites and our enthusiasm grew.

We fished from a similar river bank than the one behind the hippos.

For Mauro, a frequent fisherman of the muddy waters of the River Plate, the kind of fishing we did was a normal event and soon he caught a nice catfish that we returned as we were only fishing for sport. While I was busy catching nothing, he hooked another fish. This time it seemed to be quite sizeable as he had difficulties bringing it in. Eventually it surfaced and we saw that a large catfish that Mauro, with his experience, played well and soon was close to the bank.

Catfish are tough and they take a while to get tired so there was quite a bit of fighting before he started to lift it up from the water. When he had raised the fish about one metre, a large green form came up from the water, seized the fish and disappeared in a fraction of a second. We were completely taken by surprise by this and we looked at each other in disbelief for a while, speechless and it took a while before we could talk again! When we did, it was to agree that we had had enough fishing for the day as we did not wish to have another close encounter with a croc!

We were wise choosing the high bank as the crocodile, attracted by the commotion in the water, took its chance once it saw the fish being lifted and it could have come towards us if we would have been at the river´s edge! The event got imprinted in Mauro´s memory in such a way that, whenever we fished again, he will tell me of the day I tried to get rid of him!

After this incident we devoted the rest of our time to safer activities. So we, fruitlessly, looked for lion and leopard but were rewarded by seeing other game, including many elephants. I had the impression that elephants in Luangwa were smaller than others we had seen in other parts of Zambia but it was just that, an impression.

Elephants at South Luangwa National Park.

Apart from fishing and game viewing, our trip to the South Luangwa National Park had another purpose. I was very keen to meet one of my “bush heroes”, Norman Carr, then living at Kapani Safari Lodge. I had bought and read some of his books [2] and I admired his inspiring work in conservation [3] .

Luckily, he was at the camp, and we had the great pleasure to spend a few hours with him. He came across as an extremely knowledgeable and unassuming man and our meeting only increased the admiration I felt for him. Interestingly, I owned a copy of “The White Impala” dedicated to another person and signed by Norman that Mabel had bought at an auction in Kenya. He was quite amused when I asked him to re-dedicate it to me. He accepted and the book became one of my special wildlife books.

Before we left, Norman invited us to return to Kapani to spend more time there. Unfortunately, soon afterwards we left Zambia and did not return to South Luangwa and, sadly, Norman passed away in 1997.

[1] If interested in the subject, see https://bushsnob.com/2015/12/10/a-new-hippo/ and https://bushsnob.com/hippo-carnivory-press-coverage/

[2] Return to the Wild (Collins 1962), The White Impala (Collins 1969), Some Common Trees and Shrubs of Luangwa Valley (1978), Valley of the Elephants (Collins 1980), A guide to the wildlife of the Luangwa Valley (Collins 1987) and Kakuli (CBC 1996). (Kakuli means Old buffalo and it is the friendly name by which the locals called him).

[3] Norman Carr, born in Chinde (Portuguese East Africa) started his career as an Elephant Control Officer in Northern Rhodesia controlling elephants damaging crops from villagers. During this time Norman gathered a great deal of bush experience that it would later prove invaluable when setting up National Parks for the Government and train rangers and wardens. Apart from South Luangwa, he also established the Kafue National Park.

It was after serving with the King’s African Rifles during the Second World War that he returned to Rhodesia with a very advanced idea: villagers could make money out looking after of protecting elephants and other animals. This was the start of eco-tourism in Africa!

He established Kapani, his own tourist camp just outside the park gates, and started charging guests to watch wild animals, a novel concept at the time. Later, the loss of wildlife to increased poaching prompted him to set up the Rhino Trust in 1970 which later passed into the care of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He was a major driving force in the development of the Luangwa valley area, particularly with his ground-breaking walking safaris. He then spent lots of energy developing projects in support of the local communities.

The above is just a short account on Norman´s life and work and the interested reader will have no difficulty “googling” information on him.

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/

Gambela

As soon as you got closer to Gambela it became clear that you were entering a totally different environment. Located at the confluence of the Baro River and its tributary the Jajjabe, the city was just over 500 metres in elevation, hot and humid with an average yearly temperature of 27°C and 1200mm of annual rainfall (see also: https://bushsnob.com/2020/09/22/tick-hunting/)

The bridge over the Baro river at the entrance of Gambela. Credit: T U R K A I R O, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, apart from the original Nilotic Anuak and Nuer inhabitants, there were a large number of people from the highlands (Amhara, Oromo, Tigrayan, etc.). Some of them were those who still remained after being brought there by the controversial resettlement schemes being driven by the Government at the time.

These people were moved from their homeland during or after the famine and many, as soon as they could, abandoned their resettlement schemes to get back to their homes, often traveling thousands of kilometers risking the stern measures that they could expect if caught.

The Anuak and Nuer were by far the predominant ethnias. The former built their villages along the banks and rivers of both south-eastern South Sudan as well as south-western Ethiopia. Their population is today estimated between 250 and 300 thousand people. Their subsistence economy largely depended on their rivers as they grew their crops in the riverbanks and they also keep some cattle. During the dry season they fished and hunted the animals that came to drink.

The Nuer are a larger population of about 2 million, concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile region of South Sudan (where they are the second largest ethnic group) and Ethiopia. They are nomadic pastoralists who herd cattle for a living.

An ox being admired for its hide and special horns.

Their cattle serve as companions and define their lives being of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value. So, their lives revolve around their cattle, although some horticulture is also practiced. Their relationship with their cattle is complex and it has been studied by several anthropologists [1] [2].

Although they eat meat and some of their cattle under certain circumstances, their diet primarily consists of fish and millet. We met many of them and most showed long scars in their foreheads. They get these markings (gaar) as part of their initiation into adulthood.

The most common pattern among males consists of six parallel horizontal lines which are cut across the forehead with a razor and applying ash for them to protrude afterwards. Dotted patterns are also common among some Nuer groups and among females. Several of the ethnias in Africa do this and the Dinkas, also from Sudan, also have scars that follow different patterns.

Nuer youngsters and the bushsnob (with a blue cap at the back…).

While travelling in Gambela, the scars on the foreheads were useful to distinguish among Nuer and Anuak and to greet them accordingly: male to the Nuer and dereyote to the Anuak.

We soon learnt that Gambela could be either very dry or very wet, depending of the season. The trip was tough as we usually travel from the Bedele height to Gambela following the curvy murram road behind a convoy of a couple of dozen relief lorries that were almost impossible to overtake safely.

We swallowed lots of dust, an experience I do not wish to repeat, particularly when the hotel in Gambela did not offer the best washing facilities to the disgust of Mabel.

Mabel trying the shower at the Gambela hotel!

Worse than the dust was the black mud during the rainy season and getting badly stuck whilst trying to get to our study cattle was not rare. Getting stuck is usually a nuisance but doing it with a LWB Land Rover demanded lots of work in order to pull it out. In no time, the tire grooves would get stuffed with sticky mud and just turn without gripping anything! Only lifting the wheels would do and, if trees were around, the winch would save us! I noted then that the Nuer would work hard at digging while the job was clearly below the people from the highlands that mostly watched! I had the excuse of being the driver.

Hard at work!
Finally tired but out of the mud!

So, on arrival to Gambela we would find a bungalow at the only hotel suitable for ferengi (foreigners) that offered reasonable rooms and, as I mentioned and showed you above, reasonable showers with muddy water!

Gambela hotel.

Life in Gambela during the hot days happened by the river and we also had the impression that not much mixing between ethnic groups took place, the highlanders staying on one side while the Nilotic would stay in their own river patch.

During the night people came out from their houses and we saw quite a lot of movement in the streets and lots of youngsters, probably Nuer, playing volleyball and basketball in a few fields that were scattered around town. By the way, basketball courts were very common in Ethiopia, probably as common as football fields, probably the influence of past efforts from USA churches?

As some of our Ethiopian veterinary colleagues were educated in Cuba, they knew a number of Cuban human doctors and other technical assistance personnel that were working in the area. We met some of the doctors that had interesting stories to tell and I still remember their amusement when telling us that no operating table was long enough for the Nuer with the consequence that their legs were always sticking out and interfering with their movements!

We also met a young Ethiopian that worked assisting the Anuaks with their fishing activities and, one day we accompany him to his working area nearby to watch people fishing. This was a great experience as we saw the wealth of fish that the Baro river offered.

Among the memories I have was to see some medium size greyish catfish being treated wth utmost respect by the fishermen. When I asked the reason why these were not touched, a fish was placed on one of them and it immediately died! These were electric catfish! I had a good look at them just in case I would hook them in future. These were most likely Malapterurus electricus, a fish found throughout the Nile basin and capable of delivering an electric shock of up to 350 volts that they generate from an electric organ that, in the case of the catfish, runs the entire length of its body [3].

The visit to the fishing community planted the idea in my mind that we could also fish so during the next visit we took one afternoon off and tried to fish. We searched for a spot a distance away from Gambela, trying to avoid the overfished areas near the town, and chose a large rock (away enough from the water) from where we tried our luck for Nile perch or anything that would like to take a chunk of meat. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours we still got nothing and, after watching a few rather large crocodiles swam past, we decided to go back to our hotel before dark.

The Gambela river where we fished.

The crocodiles reminded us again of the dangers lurking in the African rivers and the risks that the local people exposed themselves while living close to rivers. The chain of thought made me remember the story of an American that was taken by a crocodile while entering one of these rivers, but I could not remember where it had happened.

Then I remembered that I had read about this in an amazing book written by Peter Beard called “Eyelids of Morning” that presents a rathe gruesome account of the incident that I thought then had happened in Lake Turkana, the area the book deals with. Once back in Bedele I looked for the story in the book and, to my surprise, the incident had taken place in Gambela!

In 1966, a young Peace Corps volunteer by the name of William Olson had gone to Gambela with a group of colleagues and they decided -unwisely- to go for a swim in the Baro river. Mr. Olson was taken by a rather large crocodile that was later shot and his remains recovered [4]. So it was that we were probably fishing at a spot near where this accident had happened but, luckily, we did not consider a dip in the river despite the intense afternoon heat.

[1] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. “The Sacrificial Role of Cattle among the Nuer.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 23, no. 3, 1953, pp. 181–198. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1156279. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.

[2] See: http://orvillejenkins.com/profiles/nuer.html

[3] Electric fish have specialized organs in their bodies, made up of specialized muscle cells called electrocytes. To regulate electrical discharge, they also have a special trigger organ known as the pacemaker nucleus, a specialized group of neurons in the fish’s brain. When the fish wishes to produce an electric current, it triggers the pacemaker nucleus, which sends a signal to the electrocytes initiating electrical discharge.  The electrocytes then use transmitter proteins to move positive sodium and potassium ions out of the cell, building up an electrical charge. The individual amount of electricity generated per electrocyte cell is small. However, when millions of electrocyte cells function simultaneously, an electric fish is capable of building up charges of hundreds of volts… Electric catfish have electric organs that line their entire body cavities. (From: https://www.leisurepro.com/blog/explore-the-blue/electric-fish-produce-charge/). More details on the electric catfish: https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Malapterurus_electricus.html

[4] See: http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0101/101cllook.html for a description of the event that spares the gruesome details.

The Didessa river valley

Once we realized that traveling beyond the project area required permits and fuel that was not easily available without almost begging it from the Bedele Administrator, we decided to spend our time exploring the area around Bedele.

The way to Arjo.

After a few trips we discovered that the road leading to the near town of Arjo crossed the Didessa river and its lovely valley and we chose it as our prime destination for day trips and we spent several Sundays there, birdwatching, walking, fishing or just relaxing with a picnic.

The beautiful Didessa river.

The road to Arjo was one of the roads that crossed the Didessa, the other one being the road between Jimma and Bedele that crossed it again near the town of Agaro. However, this trip was much further, and the road was quite busy.

The Didessa river is a tributary of the Abay River. It originates in the mountains of Gomma, flowing towards the northwest to its confluence with the Abay. It drains about 19,630 square kilometres and in the early 1900 it was a favourite place for elephants, attracted by the young shoots of its abundant bamboo forest.

Although there were no elephants left when we were there, the river still had hippos that we used to see often although they clearly did not like to see us, rather wary of humans as they were not protected inside a national park!

Our initial visit was after the first rainy season that we spent in Bedele and we went for a picnic with Janni and baby Winand (her son). It was a very quiet affair that opened up our appetite to return on a more adventurous approach.

One of our first visits to the Didessa.

We did this soon afterwards and learn a few things.

Being adventurous, we decided to enter an unmarked track that seem to follow the river with the hope that we would get closer to it at some stage while we kept an eye for wildlife. While driving we noted that the road was getting softer and that the tsetse flies were becoming more abundant as we advanced.

A close-up of the tsetse flies.

As the road was now a swamp and the tsetse flies were becoming too numerous for comfort, despite the heat we closed the windows while looking for a place to turn around to avoid having to reverse all the way back!

Tsetse flies were quite abundant!

Although we just escaped death by exsanguination by the flies, the road kept worsening and eventually, we could not go forward anymore. We were stuck in wet black cotton soil, a bad medium to get buried in!

Stuck and trying to get out.
The situation getting worse!

After digging a couple of hours and lifting the car to use the spare wheel to at least have one wheel on a firm surface, the car moved, and we managed to reverse fast miraculously keeping to the track as I am a bad driver on reverse gear. Luckily, soon we were on firmer ground and we were able to turn around and depart from this truly mud trap.

Reversing to get out of the mud.

Although we got out of the mud, we did not escape the flies and we were beaten really bad, something that reminded me of a similar situation in the Nguruman mountains of Kenya that I described earlier (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/07/01/the-nguruman-escarpment/).

Tsetse bites were quite bad.
More bites.

That day we decided that we would stick to the main road that, in any case was wild enough as there was almost no traffic, apart from a few horse riders or the occasional group of people bringing a sick or dead person from the rural area to the Bedele clinic or cemetery, depending on the circumstances. Life for the farmers was very tough!

Riders going to a celebration.
People walking on the Arjo road, probably taking a dead villager for burial.

It was on that road that on two occasions we met some of the true “wild” lions we had seen. The first time Mabel spotted a lioness and when we returned to the spot a while later, -very luckily- we found a female and two cubs. We were truly impressed as we did not expect to find them in that area despite the presence of some large tracts of forest. I am sure that there were not many wild lions in that area of Ethiopia at the time!

Some of the forested areas goint to Arjo.
Luckily I managed to photograph a lioness before it disappeared in the thicket.

Arjo was also one of the project’s tick observation sites and we would cross the bridge quite often when going to our tick sites. Every time we crossed it, I made a comment to my Ethiopian colleagues that we should try our hand at fishing one day.

So, the fishing day arrived once the rains were over and the level of the river had gone down to enable us to reach a place below the bridge from where we could throw our lines. I only had beef as bait and that was what we used as I did not know what to expect. I hoped that crocodiles were not abundant!

The fishing expedition included Solomon, both of us and Tilahun, another veterinarian working with the tsetse and trypanosomiasis project. He was probably the most enthusiastic of the group! We casted our chunk of meat down the river and waited while we talked and enjoyed a good picnic. Fish were quiet and fishing was quickly forgotten until one of the reels started to scream and Tilahun got it and, eventually, brought in a reasonable fish.

An excited Tilahun (left), Solomon (holding the fish) and the bushsnob with the rod, celebrating the catch!
Weighing the fish back home.

It was the only fish we caught that day (and in that place for that matter) but it was enough for us to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, particularly Tilahun that I think had never caught a reasonable sized fish before!

We took it back to Bedele as our companions wished to eat it and I weighed. It was 3.75kg but I am not sure of how it tasted!

The fish.

I believe that we caught a Labeobarbus bynni, a species that can reach 80 cm in length and that inhabits the Nile river system feeding on crustaceans, insects, molluscs and organic debris, including our meat!

Deep sea fishing

Watamu was one of the best places for deep sea fishing in the African side of the Indian Ocean so, a group of male friends (bushsnob included) decided to travel there a weekend to try our luck, despite the displeasure of the wives that were left behind!

We left Nairobi on a Friday afternoon in a rather luxurious car for that time, a Peugeot 604 belonging to one of my friends. As the trip was organized at the last minute, we did not have any bookings for a fishing boat but we were sure to find one ready to take us. We were spending our two nights at the Ocean Sports Club and there were lots of fishermen with boats for rent there.

My friend drove fast -too fast for my taste- but the car responded and we got to Ocean Sports before sunset. Later, at the bar, we managed to find a boat for the next day that would take us fishing. The idea was to fish from 06:00hs to 16:00hs and to share all expenses between the four of us.

So it was that, full of anticipation, we got up before sunrise and drove to the harbour from where our fishing boat operated. To prevent seasickness I took a strong dose of dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and I was ready to go.

We traveled quite a distance until we did not see land anymore. I was fine as I also avoided looking close to the boat but far away. Although I did not feel seasick, I felt half-sleep because of the drug for a good part of the morning until I started to regain consciousness. Nothing, however, prepared me for the inhaling of the engine fumes at the back of the boat and we soon decided to travel at the front, at least until the fishing started.

Once we reached the right place that I must say looked like any area of the sea we had sailed through, we slowed down and a number of rods with the expected large reels chained to the boat were thrown while we solemnly drew straws to determine the order of the fisherman in the “hot chair”, the one with the best chances of getting strikes.

I had the shortest so if the fishing was bad, I may not even had a chance to fish! However, it was fun to be there anyway. Luckily I was wrong because at some stage we went through a shoal of tuna when all rods had fish in them and chaos followed as they were running in all directions and the lines got badly entangled!

I had one in one of the rods and quickly learnt that in the sea, as compared with a river, there is practically no bottom and the fish can run for many metres aiming for the deep, something that was disconcerting at first but I got used to after a while.

Soon lines broke or needed to be cut and only one of us managed to land a tuna while the crew aptly guided us on what to do in a situation like this and quickly repared the damage as they were clearly used to this kind of incidents.

The ultimate goal of the trip was to catch a large marlin as these beautiful gamefish are known to be present in these waters. We agreed that we would attempt marlin fishing later but before we would try for other species such as falusi (dorado), kingfish, tuna, bonito and barracuda to name a few of the most common. If we were lucky we could catch sailfish but they were not easy.

After a couple of hours fishing my friends had caught their fish, including a sailfish, a truly beautiful fish. By then it was very hot and the situation was not too good as one of my friends was sick on starboard while a member of the crew was suffering from diarrhea and he was occupying the bow. that we, politely, left empty until he recovered.

That was the situation when I started my turn, under a strong sun, sweating and waiting, focused on fishing to avoid seasickness or worse!

After about an hour of nothing happening I saw the unmistakable head of a sailfish with its open bill breaking the surface of the sea towards the back of the boat and I shouted “look, there is a sail…!” but I could finish the sentence as a fish took off with my lure! It was the very sailfish I saw that had taken my lure and I only realized what it was when it jumped entirely outside of the water. (I could not find any pictures of this fishing trip and I failed to embed one from Getty with the new WordPress editor!, sorry).

Sailfish leaping, just thrown the hook, the one that got away. Credit iStock by Getty Images.

The fish fought well, jumping repeatedly and, after about thirty minutes I landed a 37 kg sailfish, the biggest fish I have caught! I would have loved to put it back (as we normally do with all fish) but I was explained that all fish caught would go to a local fishing community that would sell it to the Watamu lodges so I had no option.

Although later we trolled deep seeking to hook a marlin by using a humongous hook with a whole -although small- tuna as a bait, we failed. However, we returned to port with some glory and displaying the fish flags that indicated our catch!

That evening at the bar our fish grew to amazing proportions … We were tired, sunburnt and quite dehydrated so, after a light meal and drinking lots of water and some beer we were ready to go to bed.

The following morning we left for Nairobi, again, at a high speed. too much for me as the car was quite loaded and it was very hot. So we drove until Voi when a red light was noticed but it was ignored by the driver as, apparently, it often appeared often for no apparent reason.

By the time we got near Mtito Andei with still 233 km still to go, the car lost power and we crawled into Mtito Andei where we stopped. Thick blue smoke was coming from the engine compartment and it got worse when we opened the bonnet as the engine was boiling! We waited for it to cool down but it would not start again and we suspected that it had ceased.

We then decided that the car should be left there for it to be recovered the following day and we decided to wait for the next Akamba bus to Nairobi that only appeared when it was already dark. We arrived at Nairobi at midnight and Mabel was not amused with my performance and explanations and it took her a few days to calm down!

Fishing in Kenya

In the 19th. century, the United Kingdom started distinguishing two kinds of fishing: freshwater game fishing that includes salmonids (salmon, trout and char) usually caught using fly-fishing and coarse (rough) fishing that refers to angling for freshwater fish inhabiting warmer and stiller waters (rough fish), except the salmonids, caught by other techniques. It was believed that only game fish made as good eating.

Not being British, I regard this as an academic issue but I am not interested in fly-fishing, having tried it, so I -proudly- fall under the coarse fisherman class. This condition gives me a license to fish anywhere and I am happy with that!

Several of my friends and colleagues in Muguga, Matt, Robin and Paul, were fly-fishers although the latter enjoyed coarse fishing as well and I have already narrated our exploits in Corrientes[1], the Mara River[2] and in Naivasha[3] to name a few.

The fact that I did not do fly-fishing did not stop me from accompanying my friends when they invited me to go to the trout-fishing spots around Nairobi, the Aberdares and to the Sasamua dam.  Although Matt invited me to go fishing for trout, I never made it with him. I did go with Robin but this river fishing was unexceptional, apart from some unexpected encounter with the odd elephant in the thicket!

I also accompanied Paul a couple of times, including the weekend when we tried his car[4]. He used to go often to the Sasamua dam where, according to the connoisseurs, some truly large trout lived. On one of these occasions, after fishing from the dam wall without success, we boarded the rubber dinghy to fish in the open water. It was drizzling and I tried to persuade him otherwise but he was looking forward to try his newly acquired folding grapnel anchor.

As expected, the fishing was bad and we got soaked but the anchor did work, too well. It got hold of the bottom of the lake immediately but, when we tried to retrieve it, it got stuck and the second rope to pull it from the front snapped so that was  fool-proof anchor that operated with two ropes, one to fold it and one to retrieve it. An interesting contraption.

A folding grapnel anchor.

To his credit, Paul kept going to the Sasamua, despite the odds and, eventually while fishing on his own he caught a rainbow trout that came very close to the Kenya record! It is the largest trout I have seen in the flesh! He was, justifiably, very pleased with his trout. Not only he got a fibreglass cast made but also he kept it in the freezer to show it to his friends! It was eventually eaten at one of his birthdays.

For an attempt at true coarse fishing we traveled to Lake Victoria in search of the introduced Nile Perch (Lates niloticus), one of the largest freshwater fish, it can reach a length of 2 m and weigh up to 200kg! We were aware that the latter were difficult to get but our hopes were high.

Nile Perch was introduced in Lake Victoria in the 1950s. Its introduction was ecologically disruptive and the subject is well known[5]. However, we were not going there in a “damage assessment” mission but to try and get some out of the water!

Nile perch drawing. Credit: Nile_perch Attrib- Boulenger, George Albert; Loat, L. [Public domain].

Working at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), I could arrange accommodation at the institute’s research station (the same that was being built when I visited with my boss Matt years earlier), and we booked it for a weekend when rain was not expected.

Rusinga island seen from Mbita point.

We prepared the strongest tackle we had and took Paul’s rubber dinghy to have our own fishing experience. We left Nairobi early and after a long drive through Nakuru and Kericho, we got to our accommodation quite late and tired but looking forward to the next morning.

The start was the pumping of the boat by the lakeshore. This was a true public event and we were not short of volunteers to step on the pump and get the boat ready. We explained the onlookers of all sexes and ages that we were going to fish Nile perch or in their Luo language, mbuta. This caused quite a lot of excitement and anticipation for our return with the fish. People in Kenya were very hopeful!

The boat ready, we left the beach, taking great care not to enter the water as Schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharzia) was known to be a problem in this area. We sailed towards the east part of Rusinga island, where I was meant to work according to the original plan of FAO! Being a less populated area we thought that the fishing would be good. We decided to troll at about 100m from the shore using our largest lures.

We fished the whole day apart from a break for lunch and a rest and returned to Mbita Point empty-handed before sunset. We did not get a single fish bite and the anxious crowd that waited for our fish were rather crestfallen and soon left while we pulled the boat out to a safe location.

Alarmed and disappointed, we discussed the situation over dinner and following Mabel’s down to earth advice, decided that, despite our intention to do the fishing ourselves, we should swallow our pride and consult some “experts”. We knew that a new company was starting to bring sport fishermen from the Maasai Mara by plane and we decided that meeting them was advisable as our fishing time was running out.

The following day, after finding our the whereabouts of the fishing company, we boated straight to their camp. Luckily they had no clients that weekend so all guides were present at camp and they kindly gave us some useful advice that I still remember: “Fish by trolling near the white rocks” and added “you will find the rocks easily and these are the best spots”.

We had boated past these rocks that had been “whitewashed” by the guano of countless cormorants stopping there to sun themselves after fishing. We realized that the Nile perch would also feed on the same fish, coming from the deep.

Clearly these rocks were the obvious places and we had overlooked them! We wasted no time and as fast as the small engine could take us, we did a beeline to the first rocks. Luckily it was a Saturday and a market day so, although the canoes were there, the fishermen were at the market and the lake was empty.

We caught a small Nile perch on our very first troll! Although it was not of spectacular proportions, it was a Nile perch.

One of the first Nile perch I caught.
Mabel and her fish with others on the bottom right.

By lunchtime we had all landed fish and returned to shore to weigh them at the fishing camp and we gave them some to thank them for the information given to us. They were very happy as fish is the main item of their diet.

Thanking them again, we re-started our fishing and trolled near some other rocks where we caught a few larger fish, closer to the “real thing” although we did not have a balance to ascertain their weights.

We also tried our luck to fish them from the shore and Paul managed to hook one, although -luckily-not too large as to bring it in would not have been easy with the tackle he had.

This time our return to Mbita Point was very different as we came with fish that we gave to the waiting crowd that were immediately cut up and shared. Our mood had also changed and we slept dreaming with our catches!

The following day, during our long return journey we had lots to talk about!

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/02/05/camping-in-kenya-mara-river-fishing/

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/23/lake-naivasha/

[4] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/21/simbas-bush-baptism/

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile_perch#Lake_Victoria_introduction

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

Turkana safari Land Rovers jc and pr copy

Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

turkana koobi fora

Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

turkana sunset in k fora croc.jpg

Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

Lake Naivasha

We went to lake Naivasha often as it was an easy weekend out of Nairobi and I still have vivid memories from those visits.

naivasha

View of the lake.

Usually we drove down the rift valley wall, passed the catholic chapel built by the Italian WWII prisoners after 50 km, then the junction to Narok and the Maasai Mara (B3). Further we found Mt. Longonot, the volcano on the left and kept driving, already seeing the shiny blue lake in the distance framed by fertile cultivated farmland with the spectacular backdrop of the Mau escarpment.

l naivasha from n kinangop rd

Lake Naivasha in the distance on the left behind which is the Mau escarpment.

Gustav Fischer, a German naturalist, found the lake it 1883, while heading north and before the then hostile Maasai found his expedition and forced him to turn back! However, the Europeans kept coming and, after Joseph Thomson arrived, the colonization of the area followed.

lake naivasha

A few kilometres ahead we would drive through the small town of Naivasha and soon we were at the lake. Although sometimes we stopped at the upmarket Lake Naivasha hotel or the Safariland lodge for a refreshment, a bite or simply to soak-up under the shade of their Yellow-barked acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) [1] or Fever trees. The latter name given by the first pioneers when they blamed them for catching malaria well before the role of mosquitoes in its transmission was known!

Usually we kept driving by the lake to our final destination, the modest Fisherman’s Camp up in a dry hill where at first we “camped” with our rather basic gear under the scanty shade and thorny company of the candelabra trees (Euphorbia spp.)! It was while driving towards this camp that Mabel spotted the “antelope up the tree” [2].

naivasha fishermans camp top camp 1

Our early camp! Note the use of the car seat and absence of chairs that did not dampen our enthusiasm.

After our first rather tentative and exploratory visits, we got to know the area better and participated in a number of activities, many of which with our friend Paul that had a rubber dinghy, an ideal vehicle to explore the lake. It goes without saying that fishing was one of the main activities we practiced at the lake that had been seeded with black bass (Micropterus salmoides) and that it was “crocodile-free”.

MC fishing bass L Naivasha copy

Our first fishing attempt fn a rowing boat from Fisherman’s camp.

These adult black bass feed on crayfish, small fish and frogs and we caught them with a variety of lures and spoons and every fisherman has its favourite. I was not a great bass fisherman and did not find them good fighters compared with the Dorado (Salminus spp.) I used to catch in Uruguay before our Kenya days. Despite this I never refused an invitation to fish and we had great fun doing it. Paul, conversely, was good at fishing in general and had no difficulties getting bass also.

I lacked practice with my casting that very often ended up with my lure entangled in the shore reeds, a feat that I maintain even today and my family expects it from me when we go out to fish! It was during one of these “failed” casts that my green frog-like lure landed on land, even beyond the reeds.

As usual Paul started to make a rude comment but before he could complete it, a long green snake went for my plastic frog! Startled, I pulled and recovered it while we laughed at the incident. I then re-casted to the same spot and, again, the snake attacked it for a second time. This time I was ready so, to avoid hooking the aggressor, I withdrew the lure and continued casting to a different spot.

Although usually we did not catch many bass, sometimes we did and, after a while, we looked for some added entertainment and threw some fish to the very common fish eagles to catch. These birds were usually perched at more or less regular intervals along the lakeshore, in their territories.

fisherman camp naiv

After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

They position themselves high up the trees and there are always watching, not only for fish but also any movement in the water or potential prey of any kind. So, throwing a fish overboard almost instantly called their attention, and before it had moved too far, the eagle will come and take it. This was great fun to watch and we decided to photograph it for posterity!

The idea was to get one eagle at the exact moment that it grabbed the fish with its talons or while lifting it from the water! Easier said than done. I was chosen as the photographer and Mabel and Paul were the observers that would tell me when to shoot as, with my eye in the viewfinder, I could not see very well the eagle approaching.

We used a lot of fish and, needless to say, after several tries I have dozens of pictures of a floating fish or water splashing. The best I could manage is one with a brown blob on the left that was an eagle’s tail! After that attempt, we abandoned the idea and decided to eat the fish!

On one of these fishing trips we witnessed a Fish Eagle attack a Goliath Heron while it was flying a few metres from us. I do not know the reasons for the aggression but the result was unusual. The attack took the heron by surprise and in its effort to avoid the attacker it dived but, being too near the lake surface, it crash-landed on the water rather awkwardly.

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A Goliath heron in flight. The world’s largest living heron with a height of 120–152 cm and a wingspan of 185–230 cm.

Herons, unlike ducks and geese are waders and not built for take offs from water. Worse still, it was totally soaked. So it floated there for a while like a “goliath crested grebe”. Luckily the eagle lost interest and there were no crocodiles at the lake so, once it recovered its wits, it swam rather fast considering its long legs! It soon reached the shore and it just stood there among the papyrus, drying itself with extended wings!

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Elsamere.

Some time later we discovered Elsamere, a beautiful house by the lake shore that belonged to Joy Adamson, hence named after the famous Elsa the lioness. It was run by the Elsa Foundation after Joy’s sad demise a few years earlier. Because of our work we were admitted there and it was very affordable. It was a wonderful experience to stay in such a nice house where Joy had lived. In addition, the personnel really pampered us and served very good food. As a curiosity, Elsamere was next to the Djinn (Gin!) Palace, made “famous” by the Happy Valley crowd years before our arrival [3].

Jock Dawson [4] had been recently designated Honorary Game Warden of Naivasha and lived with his wife Enid very near Elsamere where they had some magnificent Spotted Eagle Owls in their garden. Through Paul we got to know them and spent time in their very interesting company and joined him on a number of activities related with his work as Game Warden.

At Elsamere there were still some animals from the time of Joy Adamson, most notably the Black and White Colobus monkeys that -unusually- would come down from the trees to visit us and feed in the lawn. It was great to see them often and to approach them closely as they were used to human presence. We had great views of females with tiny (woolly white) babies!

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Enid, Mabel and Jock watching the black and white colobus’ antics.

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A colobus mother and baby.

Apart from the monkeys there was also an orphan Zebra, once a baby, that was now a fully-grown animal that maintained its playful nature without realizing its size. So its favourite trick was to surprise guests and try to bite them -soetimes with success-  or engage them in “zebra-play”. Not surprisingly, the decision was taken to relocate it to Nakuru National Park.

The operation was simple as the zebra was easy to catch by the people that fed it daily so we soon ended up with a sedated and tied-up zebra in the back of a Land Rover with Jock at the wheel and Paul and I at the back, with the rather large zebra. It all went well until about half of the journey when our cargo started to wake up as it was under mild sedation.

There was no much room left at the back so when it became more and more restless we asked Jock to go faster but the Land Rover would not cooperate and we were forced to manhandle the zebra to keep it down until we reached our destination! Once there, we rushed out of the car, lucky to have avoided being kicked to death!

At some stage in Elsamere there were American scientists studying animal behaviour and one day they returned with the news that they had seen a lame zebra in one of the areas they were studying. The leg was quite swollen and Jock suspected that it had been snared.

Off we went to have a look and confirmed that it was indeed a wire that was embedded on the foreleg, just above the hoof and the decision was taken to dart the zebra to remove it.

We left the car so that Jock and Paul would do the chasing and darting and re-joined them to help holding the animal while the wire was removed. The animal recovered quite quickly.

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

Naivasha was also known for its flower plantations and thousands of carnations were exported by plane to the European market every week but Naivasha also had buffalo and they are herbivorous and enjoyed carnations! So, Jock had received a complaint from a farm nearby that they had suffered a “visit” by a few buffalo that were busy chomping the flowers that were meant for Europe!

Under the circumstances, the only thing that could be done was to destroy the intruders with the hope that the rest would move away to the uninhabited bush higher up in the hills.

That is how I participated in my only African hunt ever as part of a group of curious onlookers that followed the hunters at a prudent distance. Although I did not care for the hunt, it gave the great opportunity to see how the trackers worked while following their quarry. We walked up and down the dry hills for a couple of hours until the order came to stay still and quiet. We then heard a few shots and two of the offending buffalo had been killed and their meat would be shared among the workers of the carnation estate and other nearby villagers.

Our exploring of the lake took us on the road that goes around it, first climbing ridges to get to a small lake separated from the main body of water called, very originally, the Small lake! In this place, away from visitors, hippos abounded among the papyrus and under the shade of a dense yellow-bark acacia forest. It was here that the Great White Pelicans were also found.

Following the lake shore towards the north, we discovered an area that was more remote with abundant game as well as where the Maasai grazed their cattle, often organized into group ranches [5].

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A Maasai group ranch.

We were in posession of a secret. We had been told that there was a Secret lake in the area and that to reach it we needed to enter through an unmarked farm gate! Eventually we found the entrance and went in. We followed a very narrow track uphill and, suddenly, below us we saw a small crater full of water the colour of pea soup.

The lake was fringed by large yellow-barked acacia trees and it seemed to be fed by rain water although the existence of springs could not be ruled out.

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naivasha secret lakeA steep walk down the crater, following a track made by the Maasai when taking their animals down to the lake allowed you to reach the water edge. The Maasai were known to bring their cattle to this little lake as, apparently, its mineral-reach water would do them good, a fact corroborated by Tommi, the Maasai herdsman that worked with me at Intona. He came from this area and he knew of the existence of the lake and the curative properties of its water [6].

We did go all the way round the lake once but this had little more to offer and we decided that we better continued frequenting Elsamere and its surrounding area where we enjoyed our closeness to nature with comfort.

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Small farmers in the rift valley on the way to Naivasha.

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/08/24/green-eyes-in-the-wild-2/

[3] A classic book about the Happy Valley era was written by James Fox: White Mischief. Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition 320p. The book was made into a movie of the same title by Sony Pictures in 2011.

[4] A well-known professional hunter who transformed himself into a respected conservationist after Kenya banned hunting in 1977, and -after his time in Naivasha- headed the Rhino Rescue Trust in Nakuru. Unknown to me at the time but of interest is that Jock inherited the only gun that belonged to Dennis Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover. After Jock’s death in 2004 his son took the gun, minus the case, to the UK. For the specialized, the gun was a .450 3 1/4″ Nitro Express by Charles Lancaster. John Ormiston (a UK gun trader) bought a case with the initials D F-H (Dennis Finch-Hatton) and looked for its missing contents for years until he bought the gun in 2009 to for £ 27,000 at an auction in the UK. For more details see: https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-450-double-rifle-of-dennis-finch-hatton.40240/

[5] Group ranches are defined as a livestock production system where a group of people jointly hold title to land, maintain agreed herd sizes, and own livestock individually but herd them together. Boundaries are demarcated and members are registered. See: http://www.focusonland.com/countries/rise-and-fall-of-group-ranches-in-kenya/

[6] Today the Crater lake is a game sanctuary where you are charged a fee to enter and there are walking paths and camping sites near it.