Fishing

Simba’s Bush Baptism

By 1985 we had saved enough money to be able to buy a new vehicle. At the time in Kenya –and in Africa in general- the only car to buy was a “Simba” (lion in kiSwahili) for its lion logo: a Peugeot 504.

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Our 504 arrived later. It was a great car. Here we are at Tsavo West National Park with friends. Photo by Bushsnob

We agreed with our friend Paul that we both will order similar cars to get a discount that we did not in the end! For some reason his arrived first and it was a very excited Paul that turned up that Friday afternoon in his Simba with exactly 34 km on the clock to invite us to a safari to the Sasumua dam for the following day. This dam, located on the Sasumua stream, supplied water to Nairobi and it had been stocked with rainbow trout during the colonial times. Some very large trout were still being caught, although rarely  at the time. However, Paul did not lose hope of landing one of them [1].

The dam was located in the South Kinangop highlands where the scarcity of oxygen and the almost constant drizzle seemed to combine to lower the ambient temperature to almost unacceptable levels for us. It was, however, ideal weather for people of Northern Europe and Paul, being British did not mind it! My wife and I were not very keen on trout fishing but Paul explained that the idea was to test the new car going the “back way”. He did not specify the details but mentioned that we would stay in a Government of Kenya forestry lodge, close to the dam. Aware by now of his “innovative” ideas, we readily agreed.

We already had some experience at the dam with Paul and his Avon rubber dinghy. We had gone there earlier in search of trout and also to test a new anchor that Paul had brought from the UK. The anchor, he said, was specially designed to take a great grip at the bottom. Although we did not fish anything, we confirmed that the anchor was indeed very effective. Somehow the thinner “release” rope broke and eventually we needed to cut the anchor rope in order to be able to return home from our firm anchorage in the centre of the dam! But let me go back to the present story…

We left early the next morning, ready for the back road trip, the cold weather and the fishing. The back road was, I believe the Thika Gatura road, probably quite rough even today. To make matters worse we realised that there has been quite heavy rain in the area the night before. However, we decided to go on. From the junction to Karangi the road became quite narrow and soon it was just a narrow path. However, this was the right road, according to the map (and our wishful thinking!).

After a few kilometres driving through a slippery but still passable track we met a mud hole of about fifty metres in diametre where clearly a herd of elephants had wallowed probably the night before and their tracks entering and leaving the mud pool and going into the forest could clearly be seen. We stop to evaluate the obstacle and to take a critical decision. Careful scouting revealed that there was no elephant threat but also no way round it.

I am not sure why but we (Paul and myself) agreed that we could cross it. My wife, as usually outnumbered, was resigned to her fate! We agreed that all we needed to do was to reverse for a good distance and enter the mud hole fast enough so that our inertia would carry us to the opposite side. We were almost sure that the car would grip sufficiently dry ground to enable us to go through.

We reversed for about 150 metres and came rather fast –maybe too fast- so that we went a bit deeper than wished on first contact with the mud but, luckily, the car nose lifted above the mud and the car continued its movement towards the other shore. I believe that there was an element of buoyancy in this manoeuvre that Peugeot was not aware of… Whatever the reason, we crossed, just, and we were able to move on. “Oh, Oh” said Paul, “the speedometer stopped working!” Although this was bad news for a new car, it was not surprising after what we had gone through and, as it was of no relevance for our present situation, it was largely ignored after a couple of brief polite comments.

Encouraged by our success we moved on as going back was no longer an option! We continued our advance on the muddy track that was now cutting through thick forest. After a few kilometres we came to a bend and a junction and deep truck ruts appeared. Despite Paul being a good driver, soon the car’s belly was resting on the road and our back wheels could not turn anymore. To make matters more entertaining, it started to drizzle!

I hate getting my head wet and I could not find my hat! So getting wet we inspected the situation. It was bad! Jacking it up was not an option as 504s did not have good jacks and the latter, instead of lifting the car, would have become buried in the mud.The only possible solution would be to push the car back, and then again gather speed while my wife and pushed it forward hoping that it would gather enough speed to go through the muddy spot. But first we needed to unstuck the car and push it backwards! That took some doing as we had no shovel, but eventually it moved to the relief of our “wet selves”!

Paul -after all he was the owner of the creature- decided to go for it and my wife and I positioned ourselves in a place we calculated some extra push would be needed. Paul came fast and we joined our energies to the car’s to no avail. After a short meeting we concluded that the only chance was for my wife to drive and Paul and I to push. This had a small drawback: she had not driven very often and -in addition- she was not familiar with this particular vehicle. As there was no time for her to learn more and we were properly stuck, we had no choice. We explained the expected move to my wife and positioning the car for her, we placed ourselves to wait for our turn to push the moment she passed by.

Before I go on, I have some relevant additional information. I have always had a weight problem and only a few years ago I managed to get on top of it. However, at the time of this safari I was trying to lose weight through the Scarsdale diet. After five days I had lost a couple of kilogrammes but I was feeling a bit weak. That Saturday was day six and the menu recommended the consumption of as much fruit salad as you wished with coffee/Tea/diet Soda/water. Only dinner -if we were ever to have it- would bring some “real” food in the shape of roast turkey or chicken!

Kindly -and luckily- my wife had prepared a very large bowl of fruit salad and I tacked into it trying to increase my sugar level for the push. While I added energy to my weakened body, Paul explained my wife again what she needed to do. When the instructions and my refuelling were complete we were ready to go.

My wife, following the instructions, started the car and soon engaged second gear coming flat out towards us, clearly barely controlling the car and with a scary look on her face! Luckily, with the wheels well into the furrows there was little to deviate from! When the car started to slow down both Paul and myself pushed as hard as we could and, to our relief, it came unstuck! We had a brief instant of joy before we realized that the car did not stop and continued on its way, leaving us behind! We jumped and gesticulated wildly for my wife to stop until, finally, it stopped when it got lodged in a nearby bush. My wife got out visibly shaken and upset so we refrained from any comments. I collapsed in a mixture of exhaustion and mirth.

After a while, Paul -visibly pleased that we were unstuck- inspected his no longer new car for any additional damage while my wife and I sat nearby. She was trying to recover from her nerve-wrecking experience and I was tacking into the fruit salad bowl in search of sustenance! Eventually Paul announced that the car was fine and that we should move on as we were now after lunch and -according to his “GPS-less” calculations we still had a long way in front of us.

We moved on but things were still not looking good as we entered a forest concession and there were more ruts and mud ahead. As expected, after a few kilometres of what I would define as “heroic driving” by Paul, the car’s belly started touching the road and eventually it accumulated lots of mud underneath until it became hopelessly stuck, sitting on its belly! This time no amount of fruit salad consumption would have helped, as the situation was really hopeless. We were on a tight spot and the rain continued to soften the red mud!

While busy discussing our rather desperate situation, my wife interrupted us and told us to be quiet. “I can hear an engine”, she said. I could not but -as usual- she was correct and after a while we could all hear it. It was a slow revs engine and a long way away. However an engine meant a possible pull and -while waiting for it- we decided to open a Tusker beer to celebrate our luck and wait for the help coming.

The old red tractor arrived slowly pulling a trailer loaded with logs and puffing blue smoke. We did not need to say anything to his elderly driver. We were blocking his way anyway! Quietly, he unhooked the trailer and manoeuvred the tractor in front of the car. He then tied a wire to its underside from the three-point linkage and started to pull gently until the car moved. While Paul sat in the car my wife and I jumped on the tractor. The pull lasted for about ten kilometres until we reached a point where the forest estate ended and with it the groovy road. The old man untied us and assured that we should be fine from there to Sasumua. He turned back while we could not thank him enough!

We set off gingerly and managed to cover quite a distance through a now more populated area. The rain had been heavier heree so this time we just got stuck in mud. I had finished my fruit salad and did not have any strength left so I went for some solid food knowing that my Scarsdale gain –or rather loss- was going down the drain. Luckily this time there was people nearby and we managed to walk ,still under the rain, to a small village where we explained our predicament.

As usual they listened attentively and respectfully and eventually informed us that they had charged Safari rally drivers KShs 1000 to get them out and that this was their fee. We tried to explain that we were not rally drivers but fishermen but we only managed a small discount! We did manage to agree that payment would be the moment we were clear of the obstacle. The push was a formality as all able men from the small village came and we were out and also out of pocket at the same time.

By looking back at the mud hole I could not help feeling that we were probably the victims of a mud hole “improved” by the villagers by making it deeper and wider to make an additional income from Safari rally “victims”. I had seen this earlier in Maasailand and I could expect the same or better from the Kikuyu ingenuity to make some extra cash.

We eventually got to the high, cold and wet dam at night. We were very cold and soaked wet but we managed to find the forest huts and, luckily there was dry firewood. Soon we had a roaring fire going and we soon warmed up, ate well and had a good early night sleep.

Fishing the next day was the usually futile affair but somehow made enjoyable by having survived the earlier day’s ordeal. Luckily the return road was good tarmac and asphalt and only then Simba could demonstrate why it was so famous in Africa at the time!

On the positive note for Paul, the speedometer was not working so the car kept being new for quite some time!

 

[1] He eventually land one that was actually close to the Kenya record!

 

 

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Vundu!

Tiger fishing is one of the top sports in Southern and Central Africa and Zimbabwe is no exception. We had fished for tiger several times before not only in Zimbabwe but also in Lake Turkana and Tanganyika. Luckily I had caught a few good specimens that we always returned to the water. But, if size matters to you and you wish to display your catch, there is no need to kill your fish as fibre glass models exist that would fit your fish if you take a couple of quick measurements in addition to its weight!

Apart from tiger fishing, many people visit Kariba in search of bream (Tilapia spp.) but relatively few are after vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis). Excluding bull sharks, the vundu is the largest freshwater fish in southern Africa, reaching up to 1.5m in length and 55 kg in weight, quite a large fish for my coarse fishing standards! Interestingly, vundu only live below the Victoria Falls as none have been caught above the falls [1].

My wife’s dentist is one of the few fishermen I have heard of that “specializes” in vundu fishing and the re-telling of the fishing prowess of the dentist (30 to 40kg vundu caught!) had an influence on me when deciding this trip.

So, aware of the family’s love for nature, our daughter’s keenness for the sea, our son’s need for resting as well as my desire to fish for vundu, in mid 2017 we booked a trip in Lake Kariba. Unfortunately our son was not able to join us because of work and a couple of invited friends also declined our offer because of pressing domestic commitments. When it looked that we would be just three on a now rather outsized houseboat, Clara, a friend of Flori (our daughter and part-time Ed.) decided to join us all the way from cold Stockholm, her first trip to Africa, almost straight to the bush (and, after the experience, perhaps the last?).

Our final destination was the Ume river, quite far from Kariba town, the place where houseboats leave from. We were told that to reach those far off places you required a minimum of six nights in the lake. After a long search comparing prices and comfort we had booked a rather spacious houseboat known as O B Joyful. We agreed on a self-catering basis so it was our responsibility to organize all food and drinks to last for the week as well as all needed items regarding fishing.

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The moored house boat.

With a crew of four (Godfrey, the Captain, Warren the cook, Pilot the sub-Captain and Silas, the handyman) we sailed from 2 to 8 of January. They were really first class and pampered us thoroughly.

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Plotting the trip’s course.

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From left to right: Silas, Pilot, Godfrey, Warren and the Bushsnob.

Although we had visited Kariba several times before, it is easy to forget its size and the incredible beauty of its blue water, green islands and grassy flood plains framed by the spectacular and distant hills, a hazy blue in the distance. The abundant birdlife, numerous hippos -both in and out of the water- and the usual elephants complete the general picture. Abundant fish eagles were a constant sight and their wild calls are missed now! In addition, we also watched a couple of fishing ospreys.

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Lake Kariba at Elephant point.

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Kariba sunset.

At night you are immersed in a different world with a star-full sky where with patience you can detect a number of known constellations while listening to the noises of the night, particularly owls, frogs and toads with the occasional lion call and hyena whooping [2].

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We also went of game watching trips.

Luckily Godfrey was keen on fishing and helped us all the way, not only getting us to potentially good vundu spots but also on the bream fishing as well. His patience with worms and fish netting was really remarkable! Luckily, fishing bream became a great entertainment for the whole group while waiting for the vundu to strike and we also had some frequent visitors to keep us busy…

 

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The surprises of fishing in Kariba!

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Flori and elephant returning.

Although we knew that the Ume river was as far as we would go, the rest of the itinerary was open as we decided that we could chose where to spend our time. In addition, there was a factor we did not plan for: the weather! Storms are feared in Kariba and the fact that it was the rainy season added some uncertainty to our planned itinerary. Luckily, although the first two nights were stormy, the weather cleared and we were able to move at will.

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Storm looming. Luckily it did not come our way.

Briefly and for reference, our first night was spent at Changachirere and fishing only produced a few bream. The place was clearly used to spend the first night at the lake by most houseboats so we were about eight boats. Luckily there was still ample space to moor. Following Godfrey’s advice the following morning we sailed towards Elephant point, five hours away. It was a good decision as clouds were gathering but we got there in good time and anchored at a safe spot. The boat was secured not only by tying it to some of the dead trees but also to some sizeable iron spikes that were laboriously hammered into the stony ground for about one metre!

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The houseboat moored at Elephant point.

Safely tied we organized ourselves for the next morning fishing. While Godfrey went to bait an area with the aid of a cattle-licking block (a new gadget for me!), we watched the hippos grazing out of the water and the elephants in the distance.

The next morning we were up early and headed for our baited spot but, well before arrival, we noticed that a rather large boat was fishing at our spot as they had also baited it and had arrived there earlier than us. Crestfallen, we moved off to another spot near our houseboat where there was no baiting but it was a deep channel that offered good possibilities. Godfrey was correct.

As soon as I finished casting my “vundu rods”, I hooked a tiger fish that I managed to land after a few nice jumps and a good fight. It was not large but fun and, as soon as I casted again, another one took the bait and it was also landed, luckily.

Too much -unprecedented- success prompted me to share my luck with Flori as she is a very keen fisherwoman. It only took a few minutes until one of the reels started buzzing and she landed a nice African Sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus).

Things did not end there! As soon as she re-casted, the run that followed was “serious” and we all knew that she was into a good fish. After about ten minutes of reeling in, runs and more reeling in, she finally landed a nice vundu, the first one the family ever caught! As we had forgotten the fish scale, we estimated it to weigh about 12kg or more!

We were thrilled but we were also aware of the time and we needed to stop fishing to be able to sail our way to the Ume river.

Although we were quite close from the Ume, because of its size, our boat needed deep water. This meant that we needed to get back out on the main lake, turn and then enter the mouth of the Ume. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and windy so we had a wavy lake. It all went reasonably well going out but, the turning was tricky and we had a few serious shake-ups before we changed direction towards the Ume where we arrived five hours later.

We entered the Ume until we found a good bay where we could moor. The area was no longer open floodplains but hilly with bush and forest that would reach almost to the shore of the lake making game-spotting very difficult. Fishing was also a futile exercise and we unanimously decided that the next day we would spend it back at Elephant Point where not only our fishing had been good but we could also enjoy the landscape and its dwellers.

The following morning we left early and, with better weather now, we got to Elephant point faster and moored near the spot we had been before. Next morning we were fishing again and this time we had some party members going for bream “for the pot” while I was still attempting to catch the elusive vundu. Luckily, after about an hour of watching my companions pulling bream in I had the first strike and, after some work, brought in a vundu that weighed 9kg as this time we had the scale with us. I was moderately impressed…

Fortunately, an hour later I had another run and hooked another fish that gave me a lot of work to bring close to the boat. Eventually I managed to bring it and, while still in the water, we could see that it was a nice size. Suddenly I saw another fish coming towards it and I thought it was its friend! “That is interesting” I thought but Godfrey brought me down to reality when he identified as a crocodile having a look at “my” fish!

Luckily, the croc -smaller than the fish- only came up and then it was gone without damaging the fish and I could recover it whole! The vundu “busted” our balance that would only go to 25 lbs so I assume it to have been about 15kg and I was much more pleased with the achievement this time. Still, it was a far cry from the dentist’s 40kg ones!

All in all, my vundu “thirst” was by now somehow satiated and it was better that way as those were the only two that decided to offer themselves to my rods during the days remaining! I did have a few more bites and runs but missed whatever these were.

Although we did not get more vundu, we still had great fun catching bream and watching birds and mammals all the time. In addition, life on the boat was extremely pleasant and we had a good rest (those who needed) as well as lots of entertainment. Time passed really fast and we needed to return back to Kariba.

It was a great trip that left me still wanting as I realized not only the beauty of the area but also that there are still plenty of vundu lurking in Kariba’s depths and we are already thinking on ways to get them the next time.

 

[1] See http://www.karibahouseboatsafaris.com/vundu-catfish/

[2] We found the iPad app SkyView Lite a useful aid to identify the various celestial objects.

 

 

 

 

 

Hamerkop

Although the hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) is the sole member of the genus, it is now believed that it has genetic similarities that are closer to the pelicans and shoebill stork than other water birds.

We find these true Cinderella of the swamps extremely interesting despite being rather common and overshadowed by the most colourful species. Perhaps their better known feature is their huge nests that take them 2 to 4 months to complete and that are often used by other birds as well.

I have mentioned that these birds frequently visit our former pool (now a water reservoir) in Harare and spending long hours stalking the African clawed frogs [1]. I was intrigued by how the frogs were caught as I always heard a splash but, by the time I looked, the frog had already been caught.

A couple of years ago, while camping at Shumba in Hwange National Park [2] I had the chance of seeing a hamerkop hovering over the dam there but it was evening and I could not watch it long enough to find out whether it was fishing or on some other kind of display so the mystery continued.

Luckily, during our visit to the Kruger National Park early in October we were stationed at a water pond waiting for large game to come to drink and, during the time, we were entertained by a couple of hamerkop that were feeding and we could watch them at leisure and resolve the issue.

Each bird repeated a routine that involved landing on shore and, after a time that went from a few seconds to a couple of minutes of walking about, take off and fly very slowly over the water with dangling feet and slow wing beats that would keep it just above it. During the hovering its feet sometimes touched the water and it occasionally would drag them on the water surface.

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While we were there the bird was performing this routine constantly and our comment was that it must be effective for the bird to spend all this flying energy on this, apparently, futile activity. The answer to our questions came after about an hour when the bird suddenly landed in the water with feet and beak and emerged victorious with a frog!

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It then took off from the water and proceeded to eat it. Unluckily, after its success the bird landed on the opposite shore of the dam so I could not even guess at the identity of the frog and only managed poor pictures.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/garden-and-gadgets/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/watched-at-shumba/

Wild elephants…

As we were in the Zambezi valley, after Mana Pools we decided to spend some time in an area of the river that we knew through our earlier boating experiences when we were in Zambia in the early 90s (blog posts still pending, oh dear!). A number of fishing camps are located near Chirundu town, one of the border crossings to Zambia.

We had fished in the Zambezi before and had some great fun with tiger fish (Hydrocynus spp.) so we wished to try our luck again. We know that there are large Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) lurking somewhere[1] that we had, so far, failed to catch (and release, of course).

The road to Jecha Camp was easy to find just before Chirundu and we managed to slip through the very long lorry queues that are a feature at borders, not only in Africa but also in Latin America.

On arrival to this true green oasis after the Mana Pools dryness, we were warmly greeted by the owners of the camp and shown to our comfortable bungalows. In the meantime we were warned that elephants were frequentl visitors. It was stressed that the latter were wild elephants, unlike the ones in Mana Pools (?). We remembered our Nebbiolo wine incident but politely kept quiet. The elephants are part of a small population of about forty individuals that live in the area and that also visit Chirundu town where they -as expected- come into conflict with the local residents.

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There were elephants all the time!

IMG_2967 copy“If an elephant approaches the swimming pool while you are there, move to the opposite side and wait” said the Manager and then added: “they are allowed to drink from the pool but not to bathe”. I immediately imagined the consequences of such an event and remembered the famous elephant in the pool scene of the movie “The Party” with the late Peter Sellers!

After arrival we spent the sunset at the hide overlooking a small stream where we spotted bushbuck and s few rats up the tree where the hide was built on. After dark we went back to camp (by car as advised) and we were greeted with the “elephants in camp” warning. We were advised to move carefully around the facilities in the dark. As we had no plans for “night walking” we were not too concerned but, indeed, the elephants were walking about feeding on the pods from the apple-ring acacia from the lawn. One of them -I thought smartly- was picking pods only from under one of the camp lights!

That night after going to bed, we heard a commotion at the back of our chalet and realized that two elephants were apparently busy unpacking our car! When we went to inspect the situation, we saw that, despite the watchman’s efforts to shoo them off, they were intent to get the contents of our roof rack! Only then we realized that we had -carelessly- forgotten our Mana Pools rubbish bag on the rack and that was the reason of their intense interest! Aware that there was nothing to be done -apart from re-collecting the rubbish the following day- we returned to bed, leaving a worried watchman that we failed to persuade to leave the animals alone!

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One of the troublemakers near the car, after the rubbish incident.

Luckily, the following morning the car was still there, intact, but we spent quite sometime collecting all the bits and pieces that they had scattered around the area!

Elephants were not on camp sometimes but rather all the time! In several occasions we were forced to move away from our sitting areas to keep a prudent distance from the pod-collecting giants that would get too close for comfort.

Although we tried our hand at fishing, only our son caught a medium-sized tiger fish after a lot of boating efforts over the two days we spent in the river. However, fishing was only the excuse to travel the Zambezi! We had a great time remembering our old days when we navigated these waters in our inflatable rubber dinghy and we really enjoyed seeing the large pods of hippo and the occasional elephants drinking and feeding at the river shore.

 

[1] From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vundu: The vundu is the largest true freshwater fish in southern Africa, reaching up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length and 55 kg (121 lb) in weight.

 

Camping in Kenya. Mara River fishing

Although I do not like eating fish, I am what the British fishing community know as a “coarse fisherman” and I have been engaged on this activity all my life, although I do not fish much these days. At the time we were in Kenya I was already returning the fish, unless someone would be interested in eating them. Tobias, Paul’s camp hand, was such a guy and if he was around there was no way that a fish would escape his attentions and invariably it would end up in the sufuria[1]!

Tobias was from the Luo ethnic group that dwells around lake Victoria both in Kenya and Uganda and, naturally, they eat fish in contrast to the Kikuyu and Maasai that very rarely, if ever, consume them. The rare event of a Maasai herdsman fishing with me was described a while ago in this blog[2] although whether he would have eaten the fish or not will never be known!

As only driving with your eyes closed would stop you from seeing animals while traveling through the Maasai Mara area, sometimes, for a change, we decided to just chill out around camp and on occasions, try our hand at fishing in the shadowy Mara River. We were able to do this as, by virtue of being outside the reserve, we enjoyed freedom of movement within the limits of common sense and/or lessons learnt!

In the area we regularly camped there were a couple of nice grassy spots from where we believed that fishing could be attempted. The problem was that we knew that crocodiles were plentiful in the River and there was no doubt that they were lurking anywhere under the muddy waters. We had already seen them in action snatching wildebeest during their river crossings. Clearly in this setting, fishing would be a hazardous sport.

After careful consideration we chose a nice opening in the riverine forest that not only offered a good view of the river but also towards our back, an important consideration in the Maasai Mara as dangerous animals were also around us inland! As there were no trees nearby we could handle our fishing gear without major mishaps. I have the innate ability to get carried away with the fishing and end up “hooking” a few trees! Although there were lots of hippos cruising up and downriver, we did not consider them a major problem.

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A view of a Mara River hippo pool to show the colour of the water.

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The aftermath of a wildebeest river crossing.

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The Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara. A lorry and us wait for a herd of Maasai cattle to cross.

So, one of the trips to the Transmara coincided with Paul doing some work with wildebeest on malignant catarrh, a viral disease that affected cattle, and we decided to try fishing. I brought fishing gear and cow liver so we were ready to try our luck. Our intended target was the common and ubiquitous African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). Immediately a worldwide event was born as we represented three Continents: Europe (Britain), represented by Paul, Africa (Kenya, Luoland), represented by Tobias while I was the America representative from Uruguay. Similar to the spear throwing competition earlier[3], it was an intercontinental fishing tournament!

The river was at its normal and flowing gently so that was favourable. What was not were the abundance of submerged trees and branches that poised great difficulties to a normal line recovery. The consequence was severe loss of equipment and we were soon running out of hooks and our lines were getting shorter! In addition, I spent lots of time disentangling my line from the trees that seemed to jump towards me every time I would try to get my bait in the water!

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The Mara River from the DC3 when it did regular flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara.

A fish bite was invariably followed by frantic efforts to recover the line in an attempt to get it out while avoiding it getting entangled in the various branches and water plants. However, if you were lucky or perhaps unlucky? and hooked a large fish, the task would become much more difficult as the fish would try to escape by getting inside the branches. In addition, there was the “crocodile problem” as the reptilians would be alerted by the fish splashes and immediately come to “investigate” and get our fish so fast recovery was a must to avoid losing our trophies as those lost “en route” to anything such as snags or crocs would not count.

Paul did quite well and caught more than me. However, Tobias was the star and clear winner. He probably knew things we did not, through years of fishing “for the pot” during his early years near lake Victoria. His technique was simple, almost too simple. He chose to use a hand line and threw it very close to the shore. In this way, he avoided a lot of the snagging and did not suffer too badly from line and hooks losses like us wazungu[4]. He will then wait a short while and pull them out, almost unfairly easily!

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Tobias and the Bushsnob with some of the spoils.

Tobias was delighted, not so much for having won the contest but, much more importantly for him, for having the possibility of feasting on fish for a few days! Although later on we tried the catfish, Paul and I agreed that they tasted like we imagine the Mara River mud would do and, luckily for Tobias, we declined further offerings.

 

[1] Saucepan in Kiswahili.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/memories-a-fishing-trip/

[3] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/javelin-throwing-almost-olympics-games/

[4] In Kiswahili, white man. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu

Memories – A fishing trip

Thomas was one of our Maasai askaris[1] at Intona ranch. He liked cattle so, in addition to his guard duties, he often volunteered to take them for grazing. This was welcome as he was fearless when it came to walk in the bush and dealing with the buffalo herd that often intermingled with our cattle. It was rather amazing to see the herdsmen and Thomas separating our cattle from the buffalo herd!

Intona cattle grazing

Intona cattle kraal

Thomas was a very friendly young man and he got on very well with the other workers so, when I proposed to the workers to join me in a fishing trip, Thomas was very keen on the idea and he came along.

During the time of the fieldwork I often travelled to Intona ranch over the weekends, as I also needed to spend time working in Muguga on the laboratory trial during the week so time was short. Although there was some work to be done on Sundays, we tried to keep this to a minimum so that we had time off to rest and relax. Being rather restless I was always looking for some activity to do during this free hours. For this visit I had brought some fishing gear as I wished to try my luck in the Migori river, one of the boundaries of Intona ranch.

migori-flooded-cropped

The Migori in flood. We fished from these banks.

The Migori river water ends in lake Victoria after it joins the Gucha river forming the Gucha-Migori river basin. During every trip that we came to Intona via the Maasai Mara we crossed the Migori river bridge about 10 km before we arrived to Intona ranch. The area was well forested and there were a number of large fig trees in its vecinity making it a very attractive area as the shore of the river before the bridge was open grassland and seemed safe from the presence of buffalo, the main danger in the area.

It was in this bend by the river that we often saw a sounder of Giant Forest hogs[2] (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in this clearing. As these dark grey animals were a rare sight, it was a highlight of the journey for me whenever we spotted them, as they were quite tolerant of our presence with their impressive size, the males being about 100cm high and up to 190cm long with a mass ranging from 180 to 275 kg. Their name honours Richard Meinertzhagen who shot the type specimen in Kenya and had it shipped to the Natural History Museum in England in the early 1900s.

This “hog spot” is what I chose for our fishing expedition as, apart from catching fish, I also hoped to get a glimpse of these animals towards the evening. Our fishing targets were Clarias gariepinus or African sharptooth catfish. We had fish them earlier in the Mara river just outside of the game reserve and I saw no reason for them not to be in the Migori.

After fruitlessly digging for earthworms at various places in the bush I remembered Mrs. Murumbi’s greenhouse and garden at the main house and, after a short commando sortie we managed to get a handful from the large compost kept there.

The final preparation for the fishing trip was to run a tutorial on the basics of fishing as none of my companions had done this before, as they did not come from fish-eating ethnic groups. Aware that it had taken me some time before I could master the proper use of rod and reel, I decided that I would handle these equipment and prepared a couple of hand lines for my companions to use. We chose an open field and, after a while I judged that the team was as good at fishing as it could be so we went.

We left before lunch and took some food and non-alcoholic drinks for lunch and my companions were quite excited at the prospect of trying a new activity. Thomas in particular could hardly control his excitement and this somehow dented my understanding that the Maasai did not care for fish. Maybe Thomas was the exception?

After a quick lunch under the shade it was time to try our luck. I gave hand lines to Thomas and Joseph, I kept one rod and gave the other one to Mark. As expected, the earthworms were attractive as I felt them biting as soon as my hook landed.

Somehow, Thomas got lucky and hooked something that after a short struggle with a rather thick hand line happened to be a reasonable catfish. After a short squabble he soon had it out of the water and his happiness at his feat was incredible. It held the fish with both hands looking at it and laughing while talking to it. He said that he would eat it, something I found strange but, busy with my own fishing, I did not pay much attention. So, Thomas departed to clean his fish. We continued fishing and had some bites that, regrettably, resulted in clean hooks.

maasai-that-got-cut-with-fish-migori-river-copy

Thomas and the fish!

After a while we noted Thomas’ absence but, distracted by our own fishing, did not think much of it. After a while longer of not seeing him and knowing that many dangerous animals were present, we stopped fishing and went searching for him. Joseph went one way and I took another path thinking that like that we increased our chances of success.

After walking perhaps 100 m following the river I saw Thomas seating down against a tree and I called him but did not reply. I called him again but still no reply so I assumed him to be sleeping and got closer to wake him up and then I saw his unsheathed simi[3] and the pool of blood. He had a bad cut in the palm of his right hand that was bleeding profusely and he was very pale.

I shook him and he opened his eyes and, still smiling, looked at me. He was weak but alive and, lifting his wounded hand above his head, I helped him to walk towards the car, calling Joseph to come and help. He appeared and, between both of us, we took him to the car and drove him with his hand bandaged and up outside the car towards the Lolgorian seeking medical assistance.

Maasai lived rather dangerous lives. Not only they fought often among themselves with serious consequences but also, as I described in an earlier post, they were constant skirmishes taking place at the time with the Kisii ethnical group that was moving into the Transmara. As if this would not be enough, they walked through the bush where many dangerous animals dwell. Although they do not fear them, they often suffer the consequences of encounters with wild animals, in particular with African buffaloes as these animals camouflage well and attack by surprise and without notice.

This way of life explained why the Lolgorian clinic was very busy that Sunday afternoon. Concerned about Thomas’ condition, I entered the hospital running and went straight to the emergency room asking for a doctor. A nurse pointed me to an European young guy in white that I assumed – correctly as it turned out – that he was a doctor.

I hastily mentioned that I had an injured person that needed his help and he gave me a rather tired look and motioned to me to look around. In my haste I had not paid attention to the “waiting room”! There were at least five people waiting before Thomas. A couple looked sick with malaria but the others were suffering from various traumatic accidents. I remember one that was holding his bloodied abdomen and another that had almost severed his large toe. It was clear that Thomas would need to wait.

Without much ado the doctor asked me to help him and I spent that Sunday afternoon cleaning wounds and helping him to stitch the severed toe and to close an abdominal wound caused by a buffalo horn! I was shocked by how stoic people were throughout the proceeds and this included Thomas’ stitching, comparatively a minor affair.

After finishing with Thomas, we thanked the doctor and left. During the return journey with a much more recovered Thomas, we learnt that while gutting the fish he had tripped and fell. During the fall his right hand had slipped over the length of the simi’s blade and had cut his hand very deeply.

With a much-recovered Thomas we arrived to the fishing spot at dusk where, before we collected all our fishing gear abandoned earlier, we had the privilege of watching the gian forest hogs! Thomas, now feeling strong again, collected his fish and, laughing again, assured us that he was going to eat it!

 

[1] An askari (from Arabic) was a local soldier serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa. The term is still used today to informally describe security guards.

[2]  Listed as of “Least Concern” as they are relatively widespread, it is acknowledged that there is a general decreasing trend for the species across its range. In Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan Giant Forest hogs live also in very fragmented populations.

[3] A short sword used by the Maasai people with a leaf-shaped blade. It is kept in a scabbard made of wood and covered with rawhide.

Fish and chips[1] 

After seen so many people with fake fishing rods in Milan (read selfie rods) my hunger for fish increased so, apart from eating mussels at a nearby restaurant, my search was again aided by my daughter who informed me that there was an Art Aquarium exhibition that promised to leave you with an open mouth! The information we found told us that the “Art Aquarium” had been in many cities in Japan and this was the first time that it has been staged outside the land of the rising sun. Its creator is Hidetomo Kimura, who has collaborated with Venini, the glass makers of Venice, since 2012 and the latter has been involved with the glass work of the show. “He (Kimura) is the first and only person to combine art, design, and interior with his life work aquarium” said the information available.

However, we learnt that the goldfish (Kingyo in Japanese) we saw descended from the carps kept for eating that showed some colour mutations (red and yellow) over two thousand years ago in China. These were bred until they became common. The latter in turn also mutated and the fancy Kigyo that exist today were developed, mainly in Japan. Most of them can only survive at aquaria or in fish tanks.

Our favourite Kingyo.

Our favourite Kingyo.

Another type of Kingyo of the many shown.

Another type of Kingyo of the many shown.

Clearly the exhibition needs to be seen to be really appreciated, as it is basically a combination of hundreds of goldfish with glass, lighting and music. As our cameras were only those from our phones and light was not abundant, I am afraid that our pictures do not do justice to what we saw.

As a naturalist I believe that, apart from the artistic beauty of what is shown, the secret of including fish into such a show is to keep the biological balance at all times. It must be a very delicate equilibrium that enables the water to be kept crystal clear when large numbers of fish are confined in reduced spaces. Of course this aspect of the show is behind the scenes but it must involve the work of powerful pumps and filters as well as special feeding strategies (the music and prevailing darkness are probably there also to conceal the needed machines!) It is one thing to stage such a show for a weekend and another very different kettle of fish to maintain it for a few months! The thought of the effect of the light on the fish also came to mind!

The

The “Oiran” .

The centre of the exhibition contains several Kingyo, some of which were rather large, of various colours (red, red and white and black) in a large glass water tank. This is displayed using a changing light routine that has an amazing effect. I learnt that it is called “Oiran” that in Japanese means courtesan. It mimics places in Japan where educated and artistic women used to meet during peaceful and politically stable periods that showcased the nation’s good economic growth, known as the Tokugawa period (Edo period) that spanned from the 16th to late 18th centuries.

Another view of the

Another view of the “Oiran”.

Other displays go from illuminated rounded fish tanks that resemble miniature infinity pools with the water maintaining surface tension at the edge of the glass, the “Kimonorium” that, as the name indicates, is presented as an ever-changing kimono design as the fish move and various background shapes projected onto the white outfit.

The

The “Kimonorium”.

The “Byoburium” follows a similar approach to show Japanese screens that depict the seasons although, because of the fish movements, they are always different! There are other displays including our favourite: a large fish tank where kaleidoscopic viewers have been placed to show the changing images as different fish swim past!

The

The “Byoburium”.

The

The “kaleidoscopic” tank. The idea is to look through the triangles.

A very beautiful display, but I value the very fine ecological balance behind it even more!

[1] Of the electronic type…

Water cows

After our trip to the Iberá wetlands reported earlier in this blog, my mind remained on the fishing, as I almost could not remember when the last time I caught a fish worth lying about was!

A very simple armchair exploration showed me that the above-mentioned wetlands drained into the Paraná River, via the Corriente River. Further investigation revealed that in this area there is a town called Esquina in the Corrientes Province where people go fishing! I had heard about this place before but never gave it sufficient attention as it is closer to Buenos Aires than other fishing spots in the region and my belief is that large cities and fishing do not go together.

Arriving back to Esquina.

Esquina.

So, taking advantage of the need to travel from the Andes foothills to Carmelo, our town in Uruguay, I decided to explore the Esquina area with a view to go fishing there in the future.

Esquina, founded with the name of Santa Rita de la Esquina del río Corriente started its life in 1785 when fifteen families of which six were of Italian origin settled in the area. It is located on the left (eastern) margin of the Paraná River, about 670km North from Buenos Aires. Predominantly a cattle-rearing area it is also known for its watermelon production!

The city still maintains the air of a colonial town where its low houses -of Italian influence- are shaded by large trees. Esquina’s main attraction resides in its riverine location where it enjoys the calm waters of the Corriente River delta that connects to the Paraná -located further West- through a man-made channel.

Enough history and back to our trip!

The town can accommodate up to two thousand visitors. This large bed availability for a city of 26,000 people is explained by its hosting of street carnivals in January and February and the Fiesta Nacional del Pacú (National Pacú Festival), a fishing competition that attracts around 25,000 visitors, in May of each year. So, in view of this situation we did not book in advance and left the choice of accommodation to an in situ choice.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

It did not take too much time to find a place to stay, the very nice “Casa del Puerto” that offers reasonable B&B and its lawns end at the river. Seeing the beauty of the riverfront, exploration turned into action and it was not long before a fishing trip was booked for the following day while we spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town and resting, after the rather long journey.

Fishing started at 07:00 hours when our guide José came to meet us at the hostel’s small jetty. All was taken care of and we agreed to fish in two stages, morning and afternoon with time in between to avoid the heat of lunchtime and have a siesta to recharge our batteries. We left with high hopes, as the setting was clearly fishing-friendly!

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

Despite the predictions by the hostel owner and our guide, fishing did not live up to our expectations and none of the “Big Three” Dorado, Surubí and Pacú were caught. To save you reading time, we did fish three “Palometas” (also called “Piranhas”) of the Serrasalmus genus (probably S. aureus) and one “Patí” (Luciopimelodus pati).

Our fishing efforts.

Our fishing efforts.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a "palometa".

The bushsnob with a “palometa”.

The affair was rather disappointing and we remained with the doubt of whether it was a strike of bad luck or the area has too many fishing enthusiasts! Although we fear the latter, we will come back to find out and report accordingly.

Despite the poor fishing, boating through the various channels of the Corriente River delta was a beautiful experience. We saw many water birds and even managed to spot one capybara, a sign that they are either very shy or few as hunting goes on in the area.

And then, while cruising through the channels, we saw it! A large head bobbing in a channel ahead of us that, for a few seconds, brought us back to an African river! We were aware that hippos in South America are still confined to Colombian rivers and it was not a semi-submerged capybara or tapir head either! It was a humble cow swimming to move from island to island in search of greener -or different- pastures. Clearly, to be a successful cow in the area you need to be a good swimmer!

The water cow...

The water cow…

The cow in shallow water.

The cow in shallow water.

We watched and followed the “water cow” for a while and learnt from José that, although the animals are used to water, when floods come cattle still need to be evacuated to dry land to save them from drowning. Further, I could also appreciate the difficulties of rearing cattle in such an amphibian environment and pondered the difficulties of mustering the cattle and the need for good (water) horses as well!

Swimming to safety.

Swimming to safety.

ALmost on dry land.

Almost on dry land.

 

A Fishing Expedition

Playing a Dorado before bringing it in.

Playing a Dorado before bringing it in.

While in Kenya, we shared a few fishing trips with our friend Paul, a great fisherman and our undisputed “African Bush Mentor”. We fished together at Sasamua dam for trout, lake Naivasha for bass and lakes Victoria and Turkana for Nile Perch (and Crocodiles…)[1]. It was unavoidable that we would talk about our fishing dreams: sea fishing for Paul and fishing in Corrientes, Argentina for us, among other more whacky ideas.

Although I knew Paul from the beginning of our stay in Kenya, our friendship started when he invited me to spend some time in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve while he was doing research on Malignant Catarrh, a disease of cattle (particularly Maasai cattle) transmitted by wildebeest. I still remember clearly sitting at a knoll in the reserve waiting for a Wildebeest calf to rush to the site in order to get samples from the placenta! The trick was to be faster than the hyenas and other predators!

The idea of a fishing trip to the, to us almost mythical, Paso de la Patria in Corrientes slowly took shape while siting by campfires. Eventually we made the decision but it was regrettably postponed when Argentina and Britain decided to go to war for the Falklands/Malvinas Isles in 1982. I followed the short-lived war from the safety of Kenya alongside the British as there was a strong team of British Overseas Development Administration[2] veterinarians working at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute in Muguga and I was collaborating with some of them.

I still remember one morning in early May 1982 when the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine. The following day a drawing of a sinking ship with the words “Belgrano” written under it appeared on a blackboard in the staff room. It clearly provoked someone who, a few days later, wrote “HMS Sheffield” under the same drawing, announcing the sinking of the British ship by the Argentinians! In retrospect, it was a very sad time.

Finally and thankfully the war ended and we resumed our fishing conversations that included the planning of the trip to Corrientes. Although the decision had been taken, the actual dates were repeatedly postponed because of working commitments on both our parts. Finally in late 1984 we started to get our act together and on 9 October I wrote to a couple of fishing operators found in an Argentinian fishing magazine asking for information on fishing in Paso de la Patria. We had learnt through experience that -at least for the first time- it was advisable to fish with someone who knew the rivers well.

Only one answer came back and it arrived rather fast, on 24 October. It was from Mr. Coco Barthe’s PIKIPÉ (the acronym of his company) who informed us that currently in January of each year -the time we could travel- there was a ban on Dorado, Pacu and Manguruyú[3] as this was their reproduction period. However, “catch and release’ was possible. As this is our normal practice it did not offer any problems. We read and re-read the letter! The fishing seemed to be excellent and the sizes of the Dorados caught could not be believed. Needless to say that this information was thrilling to us and, although we allowed for some fisherman’s exaggeration from Coco’s part, it still sounded amazing.

He also gave us useful details on accommodation and transport options as well as other fishing details. The key information for us were the costs involved. Thankfully (for us!) Argentina was at the time undergoing one of its recurrent economic crises so costs were affordable and we decided to go for it. January 1986 was fixed as “F Day” so we were committed!

Although today it seems almost incredible, at that time there were no available faxes or electronic communications so all arrangements were done through the Post Office and airmail letters between Nairobi and Paso de la Patria took about three weeks! Emergencies were dealt with by telegramme or telephone calls, the latter a rather expensive method reserved for extreme situations.

Several letters were exchanged from October 1984 until my last one of 4 Dec 85 when I announced our arrival at Corrientes on 6 Jan 1986 on Aerolíneas Argentinas AR 774 at 18:45. We had booked fishing time from the 8th to the 11th. This encompassed the services of a boat and a guide, with other related expenses such as petrol, lures, bait, etc. at an additional cost. Accommodation was arranged -by Coco- at what was then the only hostel in Paso de la Patria. It offered individual air-conditioned chalets under shady flamboyant trees. The place also offered meals at reasonable prices.

Suddenly we hit a serious snag! Carried away with our enthusiasm for the trip we somehow overlooked the fact that Paul was British and the latter had beaten Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas war. Although more than two years had elapsed since the end of the conflict, relations between the two countries were still tense and the granting of a Visa for a British national seemed difficult not to say impossible!

As we only realized this at the eleventh hour, we had a panic as this threatened to derail the whole project! While considering our options, we wrote to Coco to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Argentina. This he did but the news was still bad: no Tourist Visas were being given to British nationals! There was a hope though: a Business Visa and Coco, of his own decision, wrote a letter to the Minister informing him that Paul was coming for a visit to discuss the possibility of bringing Kenyan clients to Argentina for tourism, fishing and hunting!

We also took action locally. The Latin American community in Nairobi was small and we all knew each other. Among our friends were Argentinian Diplomats, we met with them and they promised to help. Luckily, our two-pronged approach worked and we were told that Paul could get a Tourist Visa and there was no need to go for Coco’s white lies. If not the first, he was probably among the first British nationals entering Argentina after the war. We jumped this fence and we were ready to go!

Paul arrived in Uruguay after we had been there for a couple of weeks and, after spending a few days in Carmelo -our town- we met in Montevideo and from there we flew to Corrientes as planned. Coco was waiting to take us to our hostel in Paso de la Patria, about 45 km towards the Northeast. We travelled in his car, an enormous mustard-coloured Chevrolet “Chevy” with an equally large engine, showing some wear and tear and being rather noisy with a boot that required a laborious intervention with a large screwdriver to pop it open.

The following day -7/1/86- we needed to exchange money so Coco took us to the bank in Corrientes only to learn that bank employees were on strike. However, we managed to get some money to see us through for a few days and pay the hostel. We did have credit cards so we were not too concerned at the time. While travelling to the city with Coco, we asked him if it would be possible to go and watch wild animals somewhere. He agreed and promised that late in the afternoon he would take us for a boat ride on the Paraguay River, where we could see some interesting birds as well as animal’s footprints. Now, that was exciting!

Paso de la Patria in January is very, very hot! Nothing moves from about 12:00 to 16:00hs as the heat is just unbearable. We put on our air conditioner and decided to stay inside, away from the furnace. We never thought about Paul’s ideas. In an act only explained by the maxim “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” he decided to go for a walk! Luckily he was an intelligent Englishman and returned after only a few minutes, rather suffocated!

Eventually the time for the excursion came and we were picked-up by Coco and his teen son, towing a very large and magnificent boat with an enormous engine (150HP) placed on a large 4-wheeled trailer. Coco had borrowed the boat from a good friend. “We need a fast boat for the trip I have in mind” said Coco. Things were looking good, we thought, while sharing excited and satisfied looks and comments in anticipation. We all jumped on the Chevy and went to the river. This was our first real look at the mighty Paraná River that, in Paso de la Patria, is about four km wide. Its width and the strength of its rather clear water were the features that called our attention. There were sand banks, sandy beaches and islands all over.

The Paraguay river joined the Paraná in the Cerrito Island, a place we could see in the distance. That was the start of our adventure up the Paraguay. With the fading light, the river and its environs was a beautiful sight. Coco informed us that the water was very low and clean for the season and the fishing excellent.

While we were lost in contemplation we had glimpses of Coco maneuvering the Chevy into position and dextrously reversing the trailer into the river, something that could have taken me at least an hour to do. This drew our attention for a while and we also saw him unhooking the trailer from the car in order to immerse it sufficiently to release the launch.

Our attention went back to the river as we could see splashes and ripples created by fish all over the river and, to our surprise, an osprey fishing. Coco’s voice brought us back to the boat launching. We saw him standing with the water above its waist. He was clearly under great strain holding the trailer. His son was frantically trying to unfasten the boat. Somehow this took longer than anticipated or the teenager did not know exactly what to untie. Regardless, the end result was that Coco, the trailer and the boat were going deeper into the river while he kept shouting instructions to the increasingly ineffective and nervous youngster!

Eventually, successfully released, the boat floated free and, to the relief of all, the son brought it to the shore, smiling. We prepared to board our first Paraná adventure. But we were not there yet… The release of the boat meant that the weight of the trailer was solely on Coco. We could see the strain in his head and shoulder muscles and he muttered something like “I cannot hold this much longer” while moving to chest depth. “Hang on Coco” we shouted while running towards him. However, before we could reach him we witnessed the final and uneven battle between Coco and the mighty Paraná. Abruptly his body relaxed and we saw his empty hands above the water “Shit” he exclaimed, “the trailer is gone!” a rather obvious statement but something I would have also said!

Once we recovered from our disbelief, we felt pity for Coco and then tried to guess where the trailer had gone! We had just witnessed the loss of an expensive-looking trailer, probably forever! Coco was very brave about it, considering that probably more than our fishing trip’s revenue was “gone with the river” before the fishing even started and, without one word of lamentation, he prepared the boat and off we went.

Our itinerary took us across the Parana river towards Paraguay and we entered the Paraguay River. While the Paraná’s water was very clean, the smaller Paraguay was very flooded, running fast and muddy and full of floating plants and trees. Clearly the rains were in full swing up river. Into the Paraguay we went, always at very high speed, navigated by Coco who seemed to be enjoying the ride as much as we were and had clearly forgotten the trailer by then.

The boat was really fast and the ride exhilarating. Then, at about 100 metres we saw a humongous full tree coming towards us at speed. Our mild surprise at Coco not taking evasive action became an alarm call as the behemoth was almost upon us. Coco was unruffled and, before we could scream in pre-death desperation Coco avoided it at the last second swerving violently to the right only to resume our course. A nervous calm was restored when another fishing Osprey was sighted and pointed out by Coco. The next floating forest colossus that tried to kill us was avoided the same way so we relaxed a bit and endured the following ones in a much calmer way as the situation seemed normal. We did disembark to see some Puma footprints but the general feeling was of relief, as at least on the way back the trees would be travelling in our direction!

We were soon back in the Paraná and we travelled downriver for a while as Coco wanted us to see how, for a few km, the two rivers go side by side without mixing and with a clear line separating them in similar fashion to the White and Blue Niles near Khartoum. Back in Paso de la Patria Coco left the boat at the small harbour and took us to our hostel where we talked a lot about the lost trailer and the boat ride.

So that was the start of our river adventure in Paso de la Patria and the fishing would only begin the next day at 06:00hs!

As Paul and I scribbled some notes day by day, I will start each fishing day with these in Bold and then add my own recollections.

Day 1. 8/1/86. Trolling above rocks. 8+ kg, 15+ kg, 3 of 5-6 kg, 4 of 5-7 kg. 115 HP Mercury engine. Moreno. After a good night’s sleep (aided by the air condition again) we were up and about at 05:00hs, excitedly waiting for the start of the actual fishing. As the hostel was actually on the river, we walked to the harbour to meet our guide. Coco and son were also there with a grappling hook, trying to retrieve the sunken trailer. Our guide presented himself as “Moreno” and he was indeed dark skinned. He was quiet but friendly so we were happy with him and looking forward to sharing the boat with him for the next few days. He explained that today we would be going for large Dorados and this would mean mainly trolling over rocks where water moves fast and Dorado wait for their prey.


The Paraná River has a number of game fish that attract fishing lovers from all over the world. The Dorado is the King of the river as it is a very strong fish that, when hooked, fights to the bitter end with spectacular jumps and runs that very often result in the fish going away. Apart from the Dorado, the Surubí (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans) is also sought, as it is a very large fish attaining up to 80kg although these are now rare. When hooked they resist by swimming away and, because of its weight, they are difficult to reel in until it tires. Finally, there is a third fish, the Pacú, who takes dough and or fruits. It can also reach a large size and it offers a good fight as, being a wide-bodied fish, it swims sideways, making its recovery very difficult.


We left Coco throwing his hook and headed for our eagerly anticipated fishing trip. From previous experience we knew that trolling can be tedious so we prepared for a long wait after we put two rods in the water. Moreno manoeuvred the boat through fast running water, trying to get our lures to pass where the Dorados were poised for ambush. This was risky and we had a couple of snags. The first strike happened after 30 minutes and during the course of the morning we experienced the best fishing I have ever had. We caught about ten Dorado, a couple of which were above the 12-14 kg mark and the largest -as usual caught by my wife- that struggled bravely for a while to bring it in! We all fished as we took turns but none of us was left wanting!

A good fish caught by my wife.

A good fish caught by my wife.

By lunchtime the sun was too strong and, despite our willingness to continue, we returned to the shade of the hostel for a cool shower, a light lunch and a siesta. This time we managed to persuade Paul to lie down. At about 16:30hs it was time to go to the river again but there was no sign of Paul. We decided to call him and he gave a feeble reply. After a while he came out of his bungalow and said “Good morning!” in his cheerful way. We burst out laughing at his confusion but, at the same time, we knew that he had rested well as this is a common mistake one makes after a good siesta! We congratulated him for having achieved this despite his Anglo Saxon origins!

The shorter trolling of the afternoon complemented the morning’s success and rounded up an excellent day that ended up dining with Coco at a local Parrillada (BBQ place) sitting “al fresco” to enjoy the fresh evening air while partaking of typical roasted beef and insides. We praised the fishing to Coco’s delight while Coco informed us that the trailer was still under water!

The largest Dorado I have fished.

The largest Dorado I have fished.

Day 2. 9/1/86. AM Itatí trolling, 6+kg (tumour) eaten, 12+kg, 7+kg, 7+kg, Basilica, shopping, grilled fish on island, swimming, finger chewing. PM hit the Sábalo, initially with lures, then anchored upstream letting bait drift down. Six Dorado 5-7 kg. The excellent fishing we had the day before had lowered our anxiety level. However, Moreno still wanted us to enjoy the day so he took us up the river towards Itatí, an area well known for its submerged rocky formations where Dorado and Surubí are found. The fishing was similar to the previous day but we caught less fish. In my enthusiasm for a picture my finger inadvertently ended up in the mouth of one. As these fish have a reflex that causes them to clamp their jaws shut when touched, my finger suffered the consequences of a “Dorado chew” and it was kept in its toothy mouth until it decided to open its mouth; attempting to pull my finger out would have ended badly! We noticed that one of the Dorado caught had a large tumour on its side and it was chosen to be barbecued.

Itati small

Satisfied with the fishing, at about 11:00 we docked at Itatí to buy salt and lemon for our lunch. A small village, Itatí is well known because of its Basílica to the Virgin Mary that attracts great displays of devoutness to the wooden image of the Virgin. The walls of the Basilica are literally covered both inside and outside with ex-votos or votive offerings. Its small size and its design are apparently unique for the region. It can hold up to nine thousand people and its 88 metre high dome is the highest in South America and it can be seen from a long distance away.

Later on we visited the local market where Paul bought traditional trinkets and we got a mate made of Ilex paraguayensis, the wood from the bush that produces yerba mate, the typical drink of the region and a bombilla[4] with the effigy of the Itatí virgin on it.

Itatí done, we boated to a lone sand bank/island where the Dorado was quickly barbequed by Moreno with only salt and lemon. It was a good fish, its usually dry white meat quite juicy and even tasty to me (I must confess that fish is not my dish!). While the fish was cooked we bathed and swam to keep fresh. With lunch finished, it was time to go back to the hostel to recover.

In the afternoon, as the river was low and very clean and the sun rays were at the right angle, fish could actually be seen near the surface, something that I had not thought possible. There were huge shoals of thousands of fish. They were the herbivorous Sábalo (Prochilodus lineatus) Moreno informed us. They are the natural prey for the Dorado. It was almost at the same time that we all said that the situation somehow reminded us of the wildebeest vs. predators in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve!

The idea was to fish a few Sábalo in order to use them for bait and let the chunks of silvery flesh drift down with the current waiting for the Dorado to find them. The issue was the catching of the Sábalo. No problem said Moreno as he was preparing a single hook with a weight that he threw into the river and retrieved by pulling it strongly. By the second pull he foul-hooked the first fish to Paul’s horror “He is foul-hooking them” he said with a derogatory tone. “That is the way” I replied. “Very unsporting” came Paul’s reply.

Soon we had a couple of fish in the boat and fillets were distributed among the three of us. We threw them and let them drift for about 60 metres. As soon as we stopped the line from going out, we could feel the gentle pulls of small fish nibbling the bait. “These are the small fish, be attentive as the Dorado will hit next”. He had not finished the sentence when each of us had a Dorado running with our fillets! Although we had many bites and lots of fun, the result were just a handful of Dorado as lots of them took the food away and left us with an empty hook. We liked this way of fishing and agreed with Moreno to repeat it the following day.

Another Dorado caught with Sabalo bait.

Another Dorado caught with Sabalo bait.

Day 3. 10/1/86. AM Back to Sábalos. Shoal feeding. Catch several (6) Sábalo by foul hooking. 1 Sábalo of 3+kg. Dorado – 8. PM 3 more Sábalos. Dorado feeding well, another 12-15 Dorado 2.5 – 8+ kg. Many fish lost. Amazing fishing. Amazing sunset. Cicadas. Back early because of wind. (I added: Fantastic Dorado hunting and feast over Sábalo). As agreed, we went straight for Sábalo fishing. I was surprised to see Paul being the first attempting to foul-hook Sábalo but refrained from make a rude comment as he was enjoying it like a child! The climax for him came when he got a rather large fish of about 3 kg that gave him an almost a harder fight than a larger Dorado. While we fished for bait, we witnessed a spectacle that delayed our fishing for a long while.

They have a large mouth.

They have a large mouth.

The Sábalo shoals were, again, all over the place, shining silver as they rolled in the clear water. There were thousands of them feeding on the clay riverbanks. At frequent intervals you could see and/or hear splashes: Dorado attacks! They seemed to be cruising among the shoals and striking at the Sábalo. Paying closer attention we could actually see the dynamics of the hunt on the surface but we could not agree if they were hunting in packs or whenever a Sábalo was caught several Dorado congregated to feed. This was the only time I have ever witnessed this amazing event, despite having returned to fish there several times by now!

Regarding the fishing, the fun continued and it was increased when we decided to change to very light gear. This meant that we needed to play the fish for a long time before they were sufficiently tired to bring them in. It also resulted in fish swimming in all directions, passing under the boat, jumping behind you only to return the moment you turned around. Fishing people bumped into each other and several times we nearly pushed each other into the water as a result of our excited movements. Soon we were exhausted and decided to call it a morning. We all agreed that it was great fun even when it resulted in substantial loss of equipment! We thanked Moreno profusely for his guidance.

The afternoon outing started with a very loud Cicada choir that, according to Moreno, indicated the brewing of a storm. We repeated the same fishing approach and witnessed more Dorado kills. Even Moreno was impressed in his quiet way! Then the wind picked up and while Nature was putting together a most beautiful sunset it was time to return as a heavy storm was indeed brewing. We managed to get back just before a small tornado hit Paso de la Patria with the usual consequences of broken branches and other light damage.

The condition of the lures after a day fishing!

The condition of the lures after a day fishing!

Day 4. AM Topadoras in the river. Dionisio Romero (“Moreno”). Went 56km up river, past Itatí. Tried for Surubí and hooked one Dorado 4kg – lost (JJC). Then tried Pacú no luck. 11:30 Went for big Dorado from Itatí stones. Hooked Dorado (big) and the steel trace gave in but recovered although damaged. The storm calmed down at dawn and all we were ready to go. As we had had sufficient Dorado fishing by then, we focused our interest in attempting to catch Surubí and Pacú while travelling around. An outstanding feature of travelling upriver was the densely forested river margin in Paraguay and the amazing noise that Black Howler Monkeys make early in the morning.

We travelled many km to get to places where our target fish could be caught but failed to find them. On our way back we tried the Itatí stones again and hooked some large Dorado that we could not get out. In the afternoon we accepted an invitation from Moreno to cross into Paraguay to visit the shops, as it was cheap there. Not knowing really what to expect, we accepted.

After boating along the Paraguay River for a distance we entered into a tributary and docked near a large wooden building on stilts. It looked as a makeshift contraption and we looked at each other anticipating time wasted. We climbed the stairs and entered. Our surprise was huge at finding all the electronic equipment you could dream existed and wished to buy as well as all the alcohol and cigarette makes and amounts you wanted. Although we wasted time as we did not buy anything, it was an amazing find in the middle of nowhere. Clearly smuggling was involved!

We had come to the end of our fishing trip and we had a final meeting with Coco to whom we needed to explain that we could not pay in cash for the fishing as our travellers cheques from Kenya could not be cashed in Argentina but that we could pay him with a credit card. He mentioned that he did not have the means yet to accept credit cards so we agreed that we would send him the payment once we were back in Kenya. This was the coronation of Coco’s bad luck with us: he lost the trailer and, at the end of our safari, did not get any money from us! However, he continued to be a friendly and helpful host.

So, the following day it was time to catch our plane from Corrientes to Buenos Aires and he was there to pick us up. Unknown to us, the time for departure had been anticipated. At first we did not think much when we saw a plane approaching the Corrientes airport while parking Coco’s car. The truth became clear when we arrived and the plane was taxing its way to the departure area and, when we were explaining the situation to the check in desk we heard the engine noise and it was gone.

We were told that there was some hope for us as the plane stopped in Resistencia before continuing to Buenos Aires. We rushed our farewells to Coco and took a taxi to Resistencia, faster and safer than the Chevy! Despite our mad rush, it was a “deja vu” in Resistencia and we had to book another later flight from Resistencia. Not a great problem really. While at the airport we met an Australian lady tourist visiting family in Asunción that had not been allowed on her plane, as she did not have a Visa for Paraguay. As she was having communication problems we assisted her and, in the process, ended up inviting her for lunch! Naturally we went to a BBQ place in Resistencia where we went through the normal carnivorous diet of the region to her horror!

Eventually we walked with her to the Paraguayan Consulate where she got the Visa and placed her on a bus to Asunción. We were still in time to get to the airport and, this time without snags, leave for Buenos Aires with the best fishing memories ever!

The record of Dorado: 30.7kg!

The record of Dorado: 30.7kg!

 

[1] Some of these trips deserve a separate account that will come, eventually.

[2] Now the Department for International Development.

[3] Salminus maxillosus, Piaractus mesopotamicus and Paulicea luetkeni respectively.

[4] Mate is the main traditional drink from this region of South America. The dry ground up leaves of the yerba mate plant (Ilex paraguayensis) are placed into a container and hot water poured on it. The infusion is then sucked up through the bombilla, a metal drinking straw with a bulbous strainer at the end.

Out of Africa: Plank phobia

“The fear to step on a plank or a precarious tree trunk(s) contraption in order to board a floating device -a boat- and/or to cross a small river” (Bushsnob, 2014).

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

Rurrenabaque harbour and market on a Saturday. These were the fish we were after!

I did not know I suffered from this condition until I was in my fifties. It appeared without warning hence I could not resort to preventive psychiatry. Maybe it was the altitude in La Paz that did it. I do not know!

The first encounter with it took place in Bolivia so I ask your permission to digress yet again and to depart from the African bush to the Amazonian one where, in pursuit of these very large fish, we booked an “expedition” up the Amazon tributaries. Eventually I will give you the complete details but now I will only focus on my phobia.

Early in the morning, the boat came to collect us and we needed to climb on board, over the water. The plank in question was about two metres above the water and rather precariously bridging land and boat. The river was calm and I do not suffer from vertigo but, the moment I set my foot on the plank, I knew I was in trouble so, pretending to be a gentleman, I allowed the family to go first, the luggage to be loaded and all to be ready and then, in a final and desperate attempt not to “plank” I informed all present that I would go and pay the hotel bill. “Dad, what are you saying, we paid it already!” my daughter said. “Oh, yes, I forgot” I lied and then added; “I will check the room to see if we left anything”. “Dad, we all already did”, it was my son’s turn to talk. So, aware that there is a limit to lame excuses and for my love of fishing, I faced the music and “walked the plank”, eyes closed, having memorized the route beforehand as you do when you are a child walking through a dark room!

Faltering I just managed to get on board, tumbling over fishing gear, people and bags which were clutched desperately as my arrival literally rocked the boat! Once on board I felt perfectly normal -as usual- and did not dwell on the moment any longer. Thus we were heading for the Madidi National Park, an area immortalized by “Exploration Fawcett”, a great read.

The plan was to camp on the shores of the river Tuichi, after a few hours of arduous travel up the river towards the Andes. The navigation would not be a direct one as we all agreed to our guide’s suggestion of stopping to watch the macaws. “No trip to the Madidi is complete without seeing this natural wonder” he had said. These were the Red-and-green Macaw, Ara chloropterus, the largest of the macaws belonging to the Ara genus and only smaller than the Hyacinth Macaw, the largest macaw. We could not wait!

On arrival I was relieved that disembarking was “plank-free” and it involved a quick jump ashore. “Easy” I thought. We walked in the forest towards the red cliffs where the nests were. All was going well until a small river appeared. In these areas the infrastructure is not well developed so there was no bridge to cross but two tree trunks tied together that spanned the three metre breach. I crossed it with my eyes wide open this time. I was very relieved that I made it to the other end quite easily.

After walking another kilometre we arrived to the site of the nests, wich took the shape of holes in the cliffs where the macaws were seen perching either singly or in pairs, together with other smaller parrots. It was beautiful to observe and hear these large birds interacting, going in and out of their nests and flying back and forth continuously. These are predominantly bright red birds with iridescent green-blue wings and long tails in the same colours.  There were about 40-50 birds at the time and they were as entertaining as they were loud! After watching them for a while and taking a few pictures, it was time to return.

We walked back basking in the glow brought on by our experience when we came face to face with the trunk “bridge” again! The guide crossed first with the ease of one well used to the action. Then it was my turn and, again, I went for it without stopping to think as this had worked in the other direction. Regrettably, it did not this time…

The moment I set foot on the trunks I felt an almost imperceptible rotation of perhaps two or three centimetres, enough to throw me -the athletic bushsnob- off balance. By the time I completed the first step, my body angle was already unsustainably tilted and, although I tried to compensate with the following step, my balance was already gone. Now, while I am suspended in mid air, I will stop for a moment to describe the situation around me. The guide had already crossed, but my family was behind me so everybody was watching my act. They may have shouted in alarm or relief at my imminent demise, I will never know. I did not hear anything.

What I remember next is landing on my back about two and a half metres below on the reeds growing in the water. The dense vegetation clearly spared me from serious physical damage as it cushioned my fall before I hit the water with a mighty splash (I was about 90kg at the time). As usual in these cases, wounded pride was stronger than overall damage so I shook myself off and promptly climbed the steep bank at an appropriate place a few metres away (where I could have crossed the river with only wet feet!). I was totally soaked in muddy water, shaken, winded, and upset at my clumsiness but otherwise fine!

Maybe my family asked me how I was, I do not remember. What I do recall was the guide saying: “You fell really well. How did you manage to turn around in the air as you did?” I looked at him and he seemed serious! I do not recall what I replied or if I did but my self-esteem felt a bit restored. His remark was certainly better than the fit of giggling that took over my family and that continued for the rest of the trip whenever the incident was remembered!

After a few steps I recovered control over my senses and I remembered the camera in my shirt pocket. Muddy water dripped out of it and it became evident that no macaw pictures would illustrate any future publications (sorry!) and also that the rest of the expedition would only be remembered! So the picture of the boat I show here is from another trip in the Tuichi, later on, prior to my second camera’s desintegration under similar circumstances…

So it was that, wet and with my pride badly dented, I climbed back on the boat and we proceeded to have a great trip, despite my newly discovered syndrome. Thankfully it did not affect my fishing skills.

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions...

En route to the river Tuichi. My daughter at the prow is making heroic moves to steer the boat while the bushsnob, on the right, gives instructions…