Watamu

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!

The Kenya coast

The next visit following our train journey ended up at Diani beach, south of Mombasa. We stayed at a tented camp right on the beach called Nomad’s Tented camp. The only place we could afford. It was only a weekend with little time and I found the tents at the camp too hot although the sea had a truly wonderful temperature for my taste.

I must confess that beaches are not my seen as I was soon sticky and full of sand as well as bored of too much resting! Sea food was good and this somehow compensated for the rest. As expected, however, Mabel loved it so I knew that we would come back often!

The coast of Kenya has been somehow separated from the mainland by the nyika, a Swahili word meaning bush or perhaps dry bush to explain better what you find over hundreds of kilometres between this area and the Kenya highlands to the west. Not surprisingly then, before the Lunatic Express was built, the coast looked east beyond the Indian Ocean and traded with the Arabs for slaves and ivory and with India for spices.

Luckily we managed to visit most of the areas south of Malindi as well as the island of Lamu further north. So it was that over the following years we discovered a new and different Kenya, tropical and hot with nice beaches of warm waters and with a hitherto unknown world for us: the coral reef.

What we knew at the time as the Kenya Coast Province was replaced in 2013 by four counties from north to south: Lamu, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale. Irrespective of the political arrangement there are 1,420 km of Indian Ocean shores, enough to get lost.

We started from Mombasa, the most important town. It developed in an area where there was a gap in the reef barrier that enabled ships to anchor in deep waters. It still is the main harbour of the country known as Kilindini or “place of deep water”.

Mombasa is a colorful city where several races, cultures and religions coexist in apparent harmony in a warm and tropical environment. We only got a superficial knowledge of the place and drove under the four elephant tusks or Moi avenue, the city’s hallmark.

Moi avenue.

We visited its fascinating, smelly and noisy market and Fort Jesus, an imposing defense structure with 2.4m thick walls with “re-entrant” angles. The latter make every face protected by crossfire and very difficult to storm. Despite this, the fort changed hands repeatedly over time!

Mombasa’s Fort Jesus.
The sea from Fort Jesus.
Fort Jesus.

We also spent time at the old harbour where we were lucky to see still being used and where we saw a number of fishing boats as well as several dhows anchored there. It was during that occasion that we spotted Nawalilkher and Tusitiri (see:  https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/29/two-dhows/).

A dhow.

After that first approach to the south coast we learnt about the beauties of the northern coast so we decided to explore it and discovered the “local Airbnb” of those times in the shape of Kenya Villas that had a number of beach houses to rent at Watamu. This area became our base from the first time we stayed there as we greatly enjoyed it and visited it often getting to know the nicest houses.

One of the houses we rented at Watamu.

The arrangements were on a self-catering basis but most houses came with a cook and maids that pampered you, as usual. The best feature of staying there was the service of fresh sea produce that was delivered to your door everyday. Delicious fresh snapper fish, live crabs and lobsters at reasonable prices that allowed you to enjoy these delicacies, usually beyond us. Fish in coconut sauce and lobster thermidor were included in our home menu during those visits.

There was however a few hazards even if you did not get robbed as happened to a friend of us in one of these houses. Coconut falling sounds silly but to get hit by one of these weighing 1.4 kg falling from 20 metres can cause a major injury [1]. This was, all things considered, a risk worth taking as- if you survived and got the coconut, its juice was one of the most refreshing drinks I have drunk.

Apart from milk, coconut palms provide coastal communities with coconut shells for various utensils, oil, leaves for the makuti roofs in the shape of tiles, wood for housing and coconut flesh for eating either raw, dried or toasted.

While in Watamu, a small fishing town, we often traveled to Malindi, 23 km north, a town with a strong Italian influence where we had more shopping options. It was also attractive for its good pasta and pizzas and even -despite the heat- ice-creams. It was loaded with tourists, mostly from Italy that flew in charters directly to the coast, a practice that has now been reduced because of security concerns.

Malindi was where Vasco da Gama picked up his pilot to navigate with the monsoon winds to India. Both Malindi and Watamu offered lots of exotic food and local specialities such as halwa, a sticky and sweet dessert made of brown sugar, ghee (clarified butter), rose water, and cardamom sometimes garnished with pistachio, almond slithers and sometimes toasted sesame seeds that we always bought at the local markets, risking a severe increase in our calories count!

It was true that the beaches were great but the biggest discovery for us was the coral reef, one of the richest ecosystems of animal origin in the planet with thousands of colors and shapes. The Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve protected the coral gardens. Although some were further off into the ocean, there were coral gardens a few hundred metres from our rented house!

These were home to hundreds of coral and fish species and other life forms too many to describe. Although we never saw turtles, manta rays or whale sharks, they did exist there and proof of that is the manta ray that “flew” over a friend’s boat while he was fishing for the pot at the Watamu lagoon!

In addition, our friend Ken hobby was the coral reef fish and, for years, he towed his wife Betty on a car inner tube behind him as he swam along the reef in search of fish![3]. He was a very good source of information on what to look for and where.

These true gardens could be enjoyed by walking from the beach during the low tide, renting a glass-bottom boat from one of the hotels there, snorkeling or diving. Usually during most mornings the tide was low and this enabled us to explore the reef, either from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat or by the more energy-consuming snorkeling while swimming slowly over the reef.

Although there were a few fish to be avoided such as the stone, scorpion (lion) and jelly fish, the view compensated for the risk that was low if you were careful not to touch anything.

Immersed in this new world we lost all sense of time and space and often floated a long way from the coast and we had a laborious return although with no great risks as we had good life belts and there were no strong currents there. The problem was the sun as no sun block would keep you covered for such a long time!

We wore a t-shirt and a life jacket that took care of your back but not the legs and I paid the price the first time when in the afternoon post-snorkeling I could hardly walk as the back of my legs were badly burnt and in the evening I could not bend my legs. There it was when I learnt why people at the coast wear kikoys wrapped around their waist as this lessens your burns rubbing against tighter clothing.

We continued exploring the coral reef during every visit but during the periods of high tide, while Mabel enjoyed the sand, sea and sun I started to get bored, as usual in any beach. So, after a while of looking for entertainment I hatched the idea of windsurfing and, with my Muguga colleague Robin, we decided to buy one on a 50:50 basis and keep it at the coast with some friends of his.

Luckily the windsurfing equipment came with a manual so I studied it and immediately went for a try as it seemed simple. About four hours later I came back to the house bleeding from several cuts inflicted by the coral as well as a few bruises and loudly declared that I will offer my share of the artifact for sale from that day, not exactly in those words though.

Mabel kept quiet while I ranted freely and simply told me that my problem had an easy solution: to go for lessons at the nearby Turtle Bay hotel where there was bound to be someone teaching how to do windsurf! I must admit that out of pride I pretended to dismiss the idea but that same afternoon, while the tide was up and the wind blew, I walked to the hotel and booked an intensive course for the next day!

I was happy to see that the teaching was on a windsurf simulator on firm ground and that soon I was able to master the technique’s basics and then I was told to go back and attempt to stand on the table minus the sail so I spent time gettin on it and falling until I was too tired to go on.

The following day, as indicated, I went for my final lesson with my windsurfer and I was fitted with a new much smaller sail and then I saw some sea action. With a smaller sail things were easier and eventually I was ready to go around the turtle rock at the bay and return to be given the green light to sail on my own!

It was in this way that windsurfing entertained me from then on while Mabel enjoyed the beach in peace.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_by_coconut

[2]See: Bock, K. (1978). A guide to the common Reef Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean. Mcmillan Press Ltd., London & Basingstoke.