tiger fish

Vundu fishing in Kariba

Introduction

My brother and I have fished together many times over the years. Our shared passion started when we were still very young and fished in the River Plate and tributaries and extended to the present expedition in search of the vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) in lake Kariba.

We have fished in several places of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers on a catch and release basis. We have been very fortunate to catch a few of the two most coveted fish: the dorado (Salminus maxillosus) and the surubí (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans). My wife and I had our first experience fishing for dorado in Paso de la Patria, Corrientes in the 80s[1] and have fished more fish in the Corrientes province with my brother afterwards, always on a catch and release basis. Accompanied by my son and I, my brother caught a large surubí at Ita Ibate that is still the family record to be broken!

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Holding the surubí estimated by the local guide to be around 40kg.

We have also fished in the upper Amazon tributaries in Bolivia and earlier in Zimbabwe in Kanyemba where we caught the also sought after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). Despite this, the vundu has remained elusive for my brother although my daughter and I managed a few as described earlier [2]. This, together with tales of gigantic specimens, became intolerable so we went there to try our luck!

Before I go on I need to be honest up front, my brother Agustín is a fisherman with unlimited patience and a passion to get things out of the water. I am not patient and therefore only function when the fish, preferably large ones, are biting. However, I enjoy his company and we have good laughs together and as a late great fisherman of Paso de la Patria, Don Luis Shultz, always said ” the worst day fishing is better than the best day working”.

Preparations

Still following earlier advice from my wife’s dentist and our own experience mentioned above, again we hired a boat to sail lake Kariba up to the Ume River like the last time. On this occasion, in view of the fuel situation in Zimbabwe, we decided to go for a smaller houseboat so we hired the “Harmony”, a cruiser, for a week.

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The Harmony, our home for one week.

Apart from booking the boat, getting food and water to last us for the whole period was the priority. We also needed bait. This consisted of dry kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon), earthworms [3], ox heart and liver and more exotically: green soap! The latter was a favourite of the vundu and my wife secured a couple of bars from the local supermarket just in case. The soap was so stinky that, after a few days, we needed to wrap it tight to avoid its stench pervading all over the garage. Needless to say that it traveled -together with the earthworms- on the roof rack!

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The stinky green soap bars.

Days before the expedition we secured some extra hooks, sinkers, steel trace and line just in case. We were going after large fish and did not wish to fail due to lack of equipment! That prove to be a good precaution as we will see. So, finally all was ready and with the car packed we went.

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Loading the car.

The trip

We left Harare at the unacceptable time of 03:30am. This early start was needed to be able to board our cruiser at 09:00am in Kariba Breezes harbour. After an uneventful trip we arrived in good time and met our supplier of drinks (mainly water) and our crew: Message, the captain and fishing guide, Eddie, the deckhand, cleaner and helper and Smart, the cook.

From the start we realized that we were lucky with Message and Eddie but faced some difficulties with the cook. The latter was used to cooking for the local fishermen and we had brought ingredients for Mediterranean cooking! Therefore it is not difficult to imagine that Mabel, being Italian, needed to closely supervise the food preparation and, although she kept a close eye on the action, we still suffered a few small cooking tragedies!

The lake was, as usual, a beautiful blue and, although we have seen it and navigated it a few times before, still very impressive. The Kariba dam was built between 1955 and 1959 by an Italian company that poured one million cubic metres of cement into it.

IMG_4734 copyWith its 617m of length, 13m of width and 128m of height. It has always amazed me that such small barrier can create a lake of 280 km long with an average width of 18km (widest 32km) and two thousand km of shoreline! Its deepest point is 120m but it is also very shallow in some areas so the average depth, if of any use to know, is 18m.

When the dam stopped the waters of the Zambezi, animals got trapped in islands that were going to get submerged so an operation called “Noah” was launched headed by Rupert Fotherhill, a well known conservationist. Today Fotherhill island in the lake remembers him that sadly passed away in May 1975[4].

Enough of data and history and back to the story.

The fishing

We left the harbour with a farewell organized by the resident hippos and navigated for about five hours. We stopped beyond Elephant Point as it was not possible to reach the Ume river with good visibility that day. We fished there but had no luck. The same bad luck stayed with us during the couple of nights spent at the Ume river, although we had a couple of bites (suspected by vundu) that we missed and we had to be happy with a couple of small bream (Oreochromis spp.) that we kept for the pot and tasted great!

Fishing in the African rivers is never boring, even if the fish do not bite. Apart from the abundant birdlife that can always surprise you as we will see below, the abundant hippo population is always keeping you “entertained”. Either you watch their water antiques and interactions while letting you know that they are there or outside when sunning themselves when you discover the very small babies that you miss in the water when they travel in the backs of their mums.

In addition, apart from the usual antelopes, there is always the possibility of seeing some of the large predators and the certainty that elephants will turn up and also keep you amused.

Disappointed after having fished at the Ume river we decided to move off the following day. That night we decided to leave two rods baited with green soap from the stern of the house boat with the hope that we would get some fish during the night. We set the reels with their alarms with the idea that we would hear the fish taking the bait and running. Although we tried to stay long, very soon, tired after a whole day under the sun, we forgot about the rods and retired to bed rather early.

Although neither we nor the crew heard anything that night, both rods had fish on them the next morning and we were very excited! It was immediately clear that we were on large fish as the rubber tie that held my rod had been cut by the fish pulling! Sadly, our lines had also become entangled in the many submerged trees and we could not see what we had as both lines needed to be cut!

So, that morning we went out fishing seeking revenge but, again, we drew blanks but my brother continued fishing from the houseboat after lunch and his efforts were rewarded with a vundu. It was a very small one but at least it was good to confirm that vundu were not yet extinct!

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Agustín’s first vundu.

This small success, together with the night episode, was sufficient to prompt us to stay fishing that night. Needless to say that our enthusiasm gradually waned and by 01:00am, in the absence of fish activity, we gave up as a result of a combination of feeling cold and sleepy!

Following our lack of success during our night fishing, in consultation with Message, we decided to depart from the Ume area after lunch as we would still try to catch something in the morning. Message was sure that we would catch what we were after at Elephant point so, after yet another luckless morning we departed at midday of day four.

Once moored safely at our new location we resumed our fishing. The water was very calm but we saw lots of dry trees in our new location as the water of the lake was very low. Although we joked that with less water the fish would be more concentrated, the hidden trunks were a menace to our lines.

We decided to go all out and put all our rods out with different baits to care for all possible tastes! After a while I had a fish on the green soap that I missed by striking it too early and taking the soap away from its mouth (apparently). It was a good start and a while later I had another strong run. This time I waited but stroked too hard and broke the line, causing great hilarity all round as I nearly fell backwards out of the boat! It seemed that Message had been right, there were some interesting fish at Elephant point.

The following morning (day five) we hooked a couple of fish that we also lost as they would go around submerged trees causing the lines to snap. The situation was getting desperate when, luckily, Agustín hooked a vundu that ran towards a treeless area and, eventually, was brought in. It weighed 6.5kg and it was returned to the lake to continue growing! That was something after the effort we had put in so far and it was celebrated that evening with some whisky on the rocks.

During day six, while I was busy losing hooks, sinkers and line for various reasons, my brother caught another fish that at 11.6 kg was quite decent and, although still far from our expectations, made as (and mainly him) very happy. Of course Agustín still claims that my balance was faulty and that the fish must have weighed about 15kg but I ignored his comments as I used my luggage balance and it has worked well for many years! The new fish provided another good excuse to give our bottle of whisky another hard time!

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Agustín with the 11,6 kg vundu.

That day, while my brother was busy fishing and I entertained myself losing gear, my attention was called when I herd loud honking coming from a sand bank about 60m from us. Through the binoculars I saw that two Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) were having a fight. This was not the usual confrontation in which posturing and threatening displays end with the withdrawal of one of the contenders. The fight had gone physical!

They were holding each other by their heads while strongly hitting each other with their wings. Several other geese had formed a crowd around them (no doubt cheering their favourite wrestler) honking madly.  Just before the scuffle broke up, a Fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) swooped down towards the fighters and, when I thought it would take one of them, it changed course at the last second and flew off to a perch nearby, unnoticed by the furious fighting geese.

About a couple of minutes later the contenders separated and, one of them flew off very close to the water. This was spotted by the eagle that attacked it again at full speed forcing the flying goose to crash into the water to avoid the killing talons of the eagle that did not made contact. At that point I thought that the goose was a goner and waited for the predator to return. Surprisingly, the eagle did not press the attack and flew off!

The final drama

It is mandatory that the last night on the lake is spent near the harbour at Kariba town as the boats must be back by mid morning. That s the time to re-fuel and settle all expenses with the suppliers. Usually that night is spent at a rather nondescript area called Antelope island where we had not fished anything before.

This time we discussed with Message whether it would be another place where we could stop where we could still have a chance of getting large fish. He proposed to go to the Sampakaruma island. As the name sounded quite exotic, we instantly agreed to go there.

We arrived at Sampakaruma late afternoon and went for our last attempt at catching a vundu. It was not to be although I had a good pull that eventually lost, nothing unusual in this trip. So it was time to return to Kariba the following morning but we still decided to leave two rods from our tender boat to see if we could catch anything at dusk and leave them until after dinner when we agreed that we would pack our gear and end our fishing.

Fed up with losing equipment I decided to leave my reel brake rather tight so that the fish could not take much line in case it decided to take the bait. This in my mind would avoid it running far and getting entangled in the submerged trees. Satisfied, I went to have my shower to prepare for the last dinner on board.

The rest of the team planned to take their showers in the morning so they preferred to sit at the table to enjoy a sundowner. However, their relaxation was abruptly interrupted by an ear-splitting noise coming from the stern of the boat. It sounded as if another boat had crashed against us so all able seamen and women, except me that was enjoying my shower, ran towards the stern.

“Julio!, Julio!” I heard my wife calling “come quick, something happened at the tender boat!” and added “they are there trying to see what is happening!”. I put my clothes without drying myself and run to join the rest of the team, rather confused at the news.

“Your rod is gone” were the words my brother greeted me before I reached the tender boat. When I could look at the scene I saw Message and Eddie illuminating the boat and the water. The rod had indeed gone and so it had the rod holder, hence the loud noise herd.

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The first view of the place where the rod was. The outline of the holder and screw holes are clearly seen.

I saw that Message and Eddie were busy assembling a few hooks together to rake the bottom of the lake in the nearby area to see if they could hook the line.

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Message and Eddie attempting to recover the rod.

All efforts were futile and the rod and reel were gone forever! A suitable end to my constant losing of gear!

Speculation immediately started on whether the responsible for the damage was a very large vundu or perhaps a hungry crocodile. As you can guess, the discussion of the cause of the rod departure is still being hotly debated and it will be for a few years to come as it could have been either of the two suspects.

However, I am about to reveal a different explanation, fruit of careful thinking that considered the local mythology, the history of the lake and the location where the incident took place.  

The Tonga ethnic group that lives in the Zambezi valley believe that a River God known as Nyami Nyami lives in Lake Kariba. It is a serpent-like creature of very large proportions, so long that no one dares to guess his length. The dam separated Nyami Nyami from his wife and this has angered him. He has  remonstrated in the past by causing severe floods and even some earth tremors. 

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Nyami Nyami and the dam.

Apparently, when Nyami Nyami passes the water stains red and Chief Sampakaruma saw him on two occasions many, many years ago, but the River god has been in hiding since the white men arrived.

I believe that what happened to my rod was nothing to do with a vundu or a crocodile but that it was the River god remonstrating against us being there trying to remove its creatures from the lake! After all I am sure it was in this area of the lake that Chief Sampakaruma saw Nyami Nyami and I swear that I saw the water turning red towards the end of that day. Although it may have been the effect of the dying rays of the sun on the still lake, I am convinced that Nyami Nyami was around!

 

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

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/15/vundu/

[3] Amusingly earthworm sellers have different names for them while they advertise them on the road. “Puffadder worms”, “Black mamba worms”, “Men worms” and “Worms of note” are some of the names that come to mind.

[4] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1975/05/28/archives/rupert-fothergill-is-dead-at-62-led-rescue-of-animals-in-africa.html; https://www.safaribookings.com/blog/operation-noah-rescue-of-the-kariba-wildlife; http://operationnoah.blogspot.com/ There is also a book: Robins, E & Legge, R. (1959). Animal Dunkirk: the Story of Lake Kariba and ” Operation Noah, ” the Greatest Animal Rescue Since the Ark. Jenkins publisher. 188p.