Gwabi

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.