In the early nineties the international community was again starting to regard the green South African passport as a welcome and legal travel document. The borders to several African countries were no longer locked and South Africans (maybe mostly because of their valuable Rands rather than any political sentiments?) became welcome guests. For South African sport anglers opportunities to target Tigerfish in the Okavango Delta and Nile Perch in Lake Victoria opened up. The British-based Lonhro Corporation, long established as a significant economic entity in Africa, had added tourism to its many mining and industrial ventures, and was promoting its Rusinga Island Lodge on the banks of Lake Victoria, which at that time was recognized as the premier venue for targeting the massive Nile Perch. This resulted in invitations to angling journalists from the U.K. and the U.S.A. – and to me at the Hengel/Angling magazine in Johannesburg – on all expenses paid visits, obviously a PR exercise to provide favourable publicity. As it turned out, I needed only to tell it as it was with no fanciful embellishment of the facts.
So in February 1992, after a three and a half hour afternoon flight from Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg, courtesy of British Airways, together with magazine colleague Gerrie van Heerden our first stop was the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi’s gateway to the country’s international tourist and business markets. It was just a little disappointing that that our flight arrived at Nairobi after dark, so the lights spread out like a carpet beneath us as we sank down the landing path meant nothing – much the same for a tourist seeing Johannesburg’s lights at night.
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is not unnerving – just confusing. Used to the clear signage of Jan Smuts we went this way and that to find the visa office – very important to have one. At the window, the Kenyan official asked us for “the forms”, which I didn’t have (no one told us to fill in forms). Back to a small table and the filled in-forms were duly presented to the two men behind the counter. We paid the US dollars, had our passports stamped and found our way to passport control and customs. A friendly driver with a Eurocar packed the luggage and we were on our way into Nairobi, to the Nairobi Safari Club no less, for the night before flying to the Masai Mara National Reserve next morning. At midnight from a hotel room fifteen floors up, it is difficult to gain even some sort of impression of any city. Nairobi was no different.
Impossible to imagine what Nairobi looked like so many decades ago when it was the safari centre of the world’s trophy hunters. US President Teddy Roosevelt led the largest ever safari from the very portals of the Norfolk Hotel just down the road – 500 porters each carrying a sixty pound load. The Nairobi Safari Club however was in fact a modern, businessman’s hotel – all dark imbuia and teak furniture, deep carpeting and brass plates announcing Rotary Club meetings and so on. It projected a very quiet, serious atmosphere, with somber-looking men walking around in dark suits. Definitely not an ideal venue for itinerant anglers in shorts and sneakers!
In the bar we met a Kenyan businessman who was into anything steel. He told us how he had just that day concluded a ‘big deal’ to buy South African steel. “The business world knows no boundaries,” he told us, almost sweeping his Tusker Export beer off the counter. “South Africa is poised to become the commercial capital of Africa – the South Africans must just get into line with their prices!” he said. “And control the unions!” he added.
We politely made my escape to our suites, a shower and bed. On arriving at Nairobi you turn your watch back one hour, so while my watch told me that it was only half after midnight, it was actually an hour later – and the next morning we had to be up bright and early for our own safari.
Well, we did manage the early awakening, and after a typical English breakfast and a briefing by Lonhro’s Operations Manager, Catherine Everard, and a seemingly suicidal trip to the airport (lanes don’t exist for these drivers, and the few traffic officers on duty did not seem to mind at all) we joined a motley group of people at Wilson Airport to catch an Air Kenya flight to Mara.
No wonder Kenya entranced novelists and movie makers – the characters were all there, the sights, sounds and smells all so romantically exotic to the non-African senses. The ground staff were friendly, although they seemed confused by so many people talking in different languages at the same time (American is NOT English as she is spoke!). After an hour-long wait colour- coded boarding tickets were handed out. You get the wrong colour and who knows where you might end up! Then a friendly hostess led the way to a waiting Dakota, seat belts were fastened and the Dakota’s twin engines coughed into life.
We flew into an April sky stretching horizon to horizon over the Nairobi National Park. Below us, we could see safari vehicles laden with tourists among the pockets of game that cast small, midmorning shadows between the acacia trees. Nairobi National Park, the envy of many cities of the world, only ten or so kilometres from the frenetic hustle of Nairobi’s city centre, remains one of the wonders of any trip to Kenya, in that the concrete jungle is exchanged for the real one within such a short drive. The Dakota trembled and rumbled as it pushed its way west to the Masai Mara National Park, our second destination on the week-long mission to Kenya to see for ourselves what it had to offer South Africans on holiday – in particular the famed Nile Perch fishing of Lake Victoria.
And so we flew westward. In between the bumps and grinds as the swept-back wings of the Dak carved their way through the African sky a hostess handed out boiled sweets and smiled reassuringly at those whose idea of an aircraft was nothing smaller than a Jumbo 747. Across the aisle from us were two French girls who I noted were turning at first pale, then white and then a pasty shade of green. Their boyfriends in the seat ahead of them at first seemed to find their distress amusing, but after a few bumps and grinds, and the Dakota’s typical crabbing along in the air, they too became all quiet and subdued. Fortunately they did not succumb to their nausea!
Below us the African panorama stretched out in a picture-book tapestry of softly rolling hills and acacia savannah. And of course game – lots of it. And game viewing safari vehicles. Then the scene changed as we overflew the Great Rift Valley, with only occasional shambas (huts) dotting the brown, sunburnt landscape.
It was only a 45-minute flight, and soon we were bumping along the Mara airstrip to be greeted by the usual Jambo and Karibu! (‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ in Swahili), by a smiling Kenyan, nattily attired in decidedly un-African corporate Lonhro brown pants and waistcoat, white long sleeved shirt and Lonhro tie.
Postcard-pretty, Hollywood Africa enfolded as we trundled the few kilometres in a safari vehicle to the famed Mara Safari Club’s River Camp on the banks of the Mara River, home to what looked like a veritable army of hippos. At night their honking and bellowing provided the perfect ‘African night sounds’ backdrop to the chef’s cuisine. The Camp is enclosed along three sides by the brown, muddy waters of the Mara River, which eventually flows into Lake Victoria.
Lake Victoria! That was our real destination, to catch Nile Perch, no less. My angler’s fingers twitched with the longing to get on the water! The intense impatience to get to the lodge on Rusinga Island was heightened by a display on one of the walls in the reception area of the Camp. Snapshots of people with fish – big fish! A deep-sea rod with big reel and a monstrous, handmade lure all conjured up visions of the big fish we were going to catch! One framed photograph showed a very happy man and wife posing with not one, but three big Nile Perch. The caption read: “Jim and Linda Tyree of England with three Nile Perch of 112 lbs, 123 lbs and 154 lbs, caught on 7 September 1990 off Balakwzi skippered by Anthony Dodds.” It was enough to turn a man to drink! To add to my impatience, Anthony Dodds was the man I had been told who would be skipping the boat and guiding me at the Lodge. No wonder I couldn’t wait!
But nevertheless we did our best to enjoy the game viewing safaris offered at Mara. We did enjoy the dinners, breakfasts and lunches; enjoyed the game drives; enjoyed sitting out on the verandah of our tents (some tent!) in camp; enjoyed the moon coming over the river at night; enjoyed the experience of sleeping in a four-poster bed under mosquito netting; enjoyed watching the antics of the boutique khaki-clad American and Europeans. We also enjoyed the friendliness of the staff, that of head barman Billy, and even enjoyed a formal but polite interview with the club manager. We also enjoyed the Kenya Papaya wine – both the dry and medium, and of course the Kenyan Gold, a liqueur made from Kenya’s excellent Arabica coffee, which is just the thing after a good meal and you’re relaxing in front of a huge log fire on a crisp Masai night, with the bellowing of hippos in the river below, the far off wail of hyenas and the ripsaw cough of a leopard in the bush.
But most of all I enjoyed at last being taken to the airstrip for our Sunday morning flight to the Rusinga Island Lodge on Lake Victoria!
Kwaheri (goodbye) to Mara and the Masai who live there in haughty disdain of western civilisation. At the airstrip bush pilot Neal McGovern, who, as visiting American outdoor writers have repeatedly noted, did indeed look more like a schoolboy playing truant than an experienced bush pilot, awaited his passengers next to a small Cessna four-seater. After friendly greetings he revved up the craft and started a slow climb into the Kenyan sky.
We stopped off at another of the small airstrips that were the main arrival and departure points of safari goers in the Mara. This time it was Mike, from Michigan. “We also have a lake there,” he mentioned laconically after the introductions. After the plane again regained its flight path to Rusinga, he took out a notebook and made copious notes (for a thesis, I wondered?). We were dressed in typical South African outdoor gear, shirts and shorts, but Mike of course was wearing fashionable “Kenya safari gear” – ankle-high boots, long khaki slacks with pockets for everything, long sleeved khaki shirt, also with pockets, plus the crowning glory of the safari tourist, the waistcoat-styled flak jacket, also with pockets sufficient to store a week’s supply of food, or whatever. All topped by a wide-brimmed bush hat – this quite justified against the sharp African sun. Thankfully it did not have a pseudo leopard skin hatband! He admitted to being a novice angler but turned out to be a nice enough fellow, and later that afternoon I was really sorry that he dropped our party’s first fish.
We came off the Mara, overflying the Kisil mountains, over thousands of small holdings planted to sugar cane and vegetables. On one side of the mountain range we saw a herd of elephants on their way to who knows where, but on the other side we were over land that had been cleared of every vestige of wildlife and was most decidedly ‘civilised’.
Off to the right in the distance we saw Rusinga Island, its island status not quite true after a causeway had been built to join it to the mainland. The region was home to the second largest tribal group in Kenya, the Luo. They were fishermen by tradition, and during our stay at the lodge we saw miles and miles of seine and gill nets, all used to take tons of fish, all of the Ciclidae family, out of the lake every year. They were also kapenta fishermen, who provided a pageant of lights every night as they set out small platforms carrying paraffin lamps on the surface. The lights were set out to attract the kapenta, and later the paddle boats moved out and harvested them – a sight to see, indeed.
Neal banked the small plane and we bumped onto the small strip. The few cows that had been passing the time of day on it were dutifully chased off by several youngsters, who stood around watching us disembark with keen interest. “What sort of people have come this time?” could be what they were thinking. To welcome us with a smile and a hello was Maria and Anthony Dodds, the resort management team. They operated the lodge like it was their home, and you the visitor were their very special and honoured guest.
The luggage was whisked away by Lodge staff who all offered a friendly jambo and karibu. Tea and biscuits were served on the verandah of the main mess overlooking the beach on which rested the fleet of 18- foot Harley boats on which I would spend the next three days searching for a new IGFA line class record. Alongside the big boats were a fleet of sesse canoes – 38-foot craft with high prows and sleek lines.
The tea was typically English – although it is grown in Kenya, and strong, so strong that it blunted the teeth. You could have as much as you like – which was true for everything on the Rusinga Island Lodge, whether it be food or drink. The hospitality was generous and unconditional, indeed just like visiting family ‘down on the farm’. Dress throughout was as casual as you liked. Maria certainly took care of the ‘inner man’ – every day saw a delicious array of cookies to accompany tea times, multi-course meals were served on time and if there was anything you needed on top of this, you merely asked.
Our first fishing session on that Sunday morning was memorable. On Balakwazi (Swahili for Fish Eagle) with Anthony as skipper, we were joined by Mike from Michigan and two lady visitors, Ruth Horsey, the manageress of Lonhro’s Ol’Pejeta Lodge of the Lonhro Group, and her friend Trish McCaldrin from London, as crew companions. The two ladies were “just holidaying for a few days at Rusinga”, and had “never ever fished in their lives” before. When we heard this we should have anticipated what was to come and rather stayed home drinking beer and watching the fish eagles in camp…
But out we went, the two 85 Yamahas pushing the boat along at a good rate of knots. Anthony used a three-rod set up for visitors, most of whom were not experienced anglers but tourists taking a very welcome break from the dust and grind of their safaris. Stout deep-sea rods were fitted with Penn star drag reels spooled with fifty-pound line, tied to an eighty-pound trace. The lure which he used exclusively was the U.S.-made Russel lure, a vicious looking contraption of bent aluminium alloy fitted with big 8/0 trebles. Three colours were used – red, silver and green – which were trolled some ten of fifteen metres behind the boat, using one motor at a time. The lures looked ungainly but their swimming action was something to see – they wiggled deep below the surface, very often bumping the bottom.
During the almost three years that he had been operating the Lodge, Anthony had located certain spots that he now knew held fish, and his troll path was all along the ten to twenty feet deep drop-off around the mainland and the many islands. Rocky formations were the preferred habitat – flat, sandy bottoms hardly ever held Nile Perch. Much like a black bass, the Nile Perch liked to hold behind a rock in wait for any food that came past – their strike solid and vicious. I had taken along two Phoenix Mark 1 reels loaded with 6kg and 8kg test line, hoping to set new IGFA line class records. The 6kg record was 37lbs (17kg) and the 8kg record 73lbs (33.5kg), and according to Anthony were “no problem” to beat.
In September the previous year the IGFA All Tackle record was set at 191 pounds, 8 ounces (85,11kg). A heavier specimen of 203lbs was caught in 1990 but as more than one person handled the rod Anthony would not claim the record for the Lodge.
Setting new line class records at first did not seem to present much of a problem. Anthony told us that he had come off the water with no fish on only one day in all the time he had been taking guests out. “And that day we did hook three fish but the anglers were very inexperienced and they were all lost,” he added ruefully. During the six months prior to my visit his catch rate was most impressive: 2 784 fish under 50lbs, 248 fish of over 50lbs, 105 fish over 70lbs and an impressive 47 fish over 100lbs. So, to land two fish of only 37lbs and 73lbs did not seem to be too difficult at all!
Fishing times at Rusinga started from about 09:00, after a good breakfast, until about 12:00 or a little later. Every day, but every day, the westerly wind started pumping round about noon, making the Lake very choppy and unpleasant to fish on. But that gave enough time to travel the three quarters of an hour to the best fishing grounds and catch fish. This Sunday was no exception.
Hardly had Anthony explained to us all what was required in using the tackle, when the first strike was on. It was Mike’s turn to catch (with three more days of fishing available ahead we could afford to be generous so gave him first go) but being a little too eager he allowed some slack in the line and the first Nile Perch of the day was off. I was next up, and after just a few minutes the drag and ratchet screamed. I picked up the rod, threw the clutch and felt something nice and heavy on the line. Something that moved away and which was shaking its head from side to side. Then up the fish came, out of the water, shaking its head to free the hook. Everything held, it dived again and once again erupted on the surface; on that heavy tackle however it was soon beat and Anthony took the trace and gaffed it in the bony lower jaw so as not to spoil any of the meat that the lodge kitchen prepared every day. (See “Conservation” below – Ed)
It had a mass of just over 17 pounds – a “baby” Anthony dismissively reckoned, but what a baby! The Nile Perch, while related to the barramundi and snoek, looks just like an enlarged version of the largemouth black bass – bucketmouth, fins and all. Except the eyes, which glow luminously orange. Its ridge of mesh-like teeth make lip handling not advisable – even this baby took most of the skin off my thumb. With the ice broken it was the turn of the ladies, but both reckoned they were “far too nervous” to fish. Then Gerrie had a turn and after a short fight brought another 19-pounder to the boat.
“This is no good,” mutterd Anthony, “we want some big fish!” So in came the lines and we sped off to another shoreline. Down went the lures and Ruth was persuaded to tie on a rod bucket. “But I don’t know what to do!” she wailed. “Never mind, I’ll tell you – just listen!” Anthony said. Sure enough, hardly five minutes into the new troll path and the rod screamed, line slicing away from the boat through the water.
“It’s a big one!” Anthony yelled. “Just hold the rod upright,” he encouraged the anxious Ruth. The line was moving, fast, at right angles to the boat. “Follow it round,” Anthony instructed. “Watch it, it’s going to jump!”
The line came up, and a Nile Perch erupted from the water. But what a fish! A great, shining, steel-plated head rose more than a metre out of the water, followed by a golden-scaled body with thrashing tail. Water splashed everywhere. I stood, unable to bring my camera to bear, stunned into paralysis by the sheer size of the fish. Never, but never, had I seen a freshwater fish that size! Even our South African world record catfish of 33kg paled into insignificance at the sight of that magnificent fish. Ruth screamed in excitement, “What now, what now?”
“Pull back on the rod, that’s it, now lower it slowly and wind the reel,” Anthony coached her. “That’s right, a little bit faster now. Stop, it’s going to jump again!” and out the fish came, this time much nearer the boat.
“We’re winning,” Anthony said encouragingly. “Lift the rod, lower and wind,” he instructed. “Again, again, that’s it.”
And then the great fish saw the boat. It turned tail and ripped line from the reel.
“Steady, steady,” Anthony calmed Ruth. “Just hold the rod up – it’ll jump again and then we’ve got it!”
Sure enough, out of the water the fish erupted again, but this time not so high and with less thrashing around. Ruth, now in control of herself, was winding in the line, winning yard by yard. And then the great fish came tamely to the surface; Anthony leaned far over, grabbed the trace and put in the gaff. The great fish was secure, but Anthony had to heave and grunt and really exert himself to lift the gleaming silver and gold fish over the gunnel into the boat.
“No, wait – hold it like this, like that, turn it a bit more to the side!” Mike and I yelled at him, our cameras working overtime. “Quick, you guys,” Anthony gasped, “This thing is heavy!” Ruth meanwhile was dancing up and down, alternately screaming and laughing and babbling. “It’so-o big!” she exclaimed, arms waving about.
It took several minutes to regain some sort of composure on the boat, and with the fish at last in the hatch at the back of the boat, in went the lures again. This time it was Trish’s turn. With typical English composure, but all a-tremble inside – she watched the rods, and watched some more. Then it happened: the ratchet buzzed and it was the same story all over again, with Anthony speaking as evenly as he could, calming her down and she trying to do precisely as she was told. Three times her fish came out of the water, with us again almost stupefied at the sheer size and proportions of the huge fish. But Anthony, experienced as he was, managed to coach her successfully, and once again he had to work for a living, lifting Trish’s big fish aboard. Again the shutters clicked, with all of us grinning broadly. What a catch! “This is going to be a piece of old tacky,” I muttered to myself, “tomorrow I get the records!”
The Sunday’s excitement was not finished however. On the journey home Anthony stopped the boat. “Anyone want to photograph a Fish Eagle?” he asked.
For sure, said Mike, so Anthony pointed to a big wild fig tree on the shore. “There they are – when I throw this small fish out one will come down and take it off the surface. Be ready! Here goes!” With that he gave a piercing whistle and tossed the fish high into the air. It plopped onto the surface, and sure enough, up soared a fish eagle and came swooping down, snatched the fish off the water and returned to its perch. “Can we do that again?” Mike asked, delving into a camera bag and changing lenses. He was far more interested in using his cameras than holding a rod, and indeed the enfolding scenes as we sped back to the Lodge threw up many photo opportunities, all good enough to be entered into any competition, which Mike said he fully intended to do.
Back at the Lodge Anthony sidled the boat up to the jetty and there was Maria offering us drinks and snacks. Meanwhile the staff had the boat off-loaded and winched it up the beach – would that I had such a crew at Sodwana!
On the Lodge’s specially set up gantry our fish were weighed, mine and Gerrie’s first, just to get the small fry out of the way! Then on went Trish’s fish, we all could see it was the second biggest of the morning, and it went a decent 39lbs, not too bad for a first-timer, I told her as we gave her a round of applause. Then we all fell silent as Ruth’s fish was hoisted up and the scale approached one hundred pounds and then settled on 125lbs – smiles and peals of laughter and hand clapping accompanied by champagne that Maria had conjured up. “You know, champagne is all very well for a hundred-pounder, “ I told Anthony, “but what about having a special flag to fly when coming into the jetty at the lodge whenever a hundred pounder is caught – just like the marlin guys do?” I suggested.
“A good idea, but who is there to see it?” he answered. A good point, the Lodge caters for only about ten or twelve day visitors at a time, and only six overnight guests. True, who would be on the shore to see the flag and applaud? Only Maria and the handlers, ready at the jetty to help the guests disembark and congratulate them on the catch.
Then it was lunch – fried fillet of Nile Perch, salads and buttered jacket potatoes, or whatever Maria had dreamt up for the day. Coffee was served on the verandah and then it was time for the day visitors to board Neale’s Cessna for their flight to whatever camp they were staying at.
Not for us however – ahead stretched another three days of island life and more importantly, three more fishing sessions. After lunch Anthony suggested we take one of the sesse canoes and go try for tilapia off a certain island spot he knew. Tilapia – at home we call them kurper – grow fat and big in Lake Victoria. Bait is moss scraped off rocks, full of insect life and irresistible to kurper.
It was an unhurried, almost lazy Sunday afternoon, so Maria and their dog Bundu, a friendly cross between a staffie and something unknown – accompanied us, along with a picnic basket and a cooler. Two Kenyan skippers were on board to handle the boat. For tilapia fishing the locals used a stick to which was attached a length of line and a hook. Baited up with moss the rig is cast out and the bait allowed to sink to the bottom. For us Anthony broke out a few light tackle float rigs and had two tins of freshly harvested insect-infested moss, and “just in case” he said, earthworms.
Travelling in the sesse canoes was an experience all by itself – only just more than a metre wide they discouraged any moving around – you sat where you sat and stayed there! But they were surprisingly very stable and seemed to fly above the water. It was definitely a “lazy” afternoon – we anchored some fifty metres off one of the islands on which several youngsters were standing knee deep in the water and watched as they caught fish after fish. Albeit small the tilapia were definitely on the bite, but in the deeper water our moss and earthworm offerings were ignored. Not that we minded too much – for me the experience of enjoying Sunday afternoon coffee and cake as a passenger on a locally fashioned canoe on one of Africa’s major lakes was memorable in itself. Besides, back home I had in any event caught enough big kurper.
And so we whiled away the afternoon, watching the youngsters catch fish, re-baiting our hooks and giving Bundu a pat or two as he came looking for a tidbit. The sun started to set over the horizon, with the lake setting off sparkles of light from the wave tips. Only Anthony had caught a tilapia, the fish pulling the float well below the surface, but other than that, it was a true “lazy Sunday afternoon’! But it was relaxing, miles from nowhere on a lake that stretched horizon to horizon, covering an area of 26 800 square miles.
Meanwhile the wind had definitely come up. In the lee of the island we were quite sheltered, but beyond the point the wind had whipped the surface into a very short chop with metre-high swells. It did appear as if we had horribly over stayed our welcome when the skippers politely but firmly stated that we should start returning to the Lodge. I saw the looks exchanged between Anthony and the two Kenyans – acknowledgment for the instinct and boating skill of each other? It was already dusk when the one skipper turned the canoe into the waves and we were off. In the gathering dusk we could see the swells coming at us as the canoe sliced its way through the ever increasingly large waves. Sitting low as we were, the waves appeared ever bigger, but these canoes are wondrous watercraft. The high bow cut through the water, throwing the spray well to the sides. It was rare to have spray coming into the boat. It was quite a ride, and quite some sea in which the skippers could show off their skill. But then at last we were pulling into the jetty at the lodge, with the staff very happy to see us. They had started to wonder what had happened to our party coming in so late and with such a heavy swell running.
After a quick shower and a couple of drinks we dined on roast mutton, with strong coffee and Kenyan Gold to finish. Tommorrow, Anthony said, we would use the light tackle and see if those records could be broken.
Accommodation at Rusinga is rustic but very comfortable. Thatched cottages each have two double rooms, with bathroom en suite. Gauze keeps the mosquitoes out. The beds are extra long, a real treat for tall people.
Before I knew it, my first night at Rusinga had passed, and early morning tea was being served. The crisp, early morning air reverberated with the cries of the pair of fish eagles which had made their home atop the tree next to the dining area of the lodge. Who said fish eagles are shy of people?
Balakwazi was being loaded for the day, this time with two 2-pound test pike rods which a British fishing writer had left there, fitted with the two Phoenix reels. I tied a double line with a Spider Hitch to act as a shock tippet before attaching the swivel and trace. Remembering what Anthony had said, namely that the bigger fish were usually caught on the green lures, both rods had green lures tied on. Also rigged were the standard heavy tackle outfits, a silver lure on one and a gold lure on the other. “Just to spread our bets!” Anthony remarked.
We headed south, passed the Gingo and Ngeri areas, pushing on a nice easy plane for about three quarters of an hour. Anthony cut the engines; we got the rigs out, re-tested the drag settings on the light outfits and started the troll. Anthony used a Humminbird 4-ID, not just to locate fish, of which there were huge shoals just about everywhere, but also to follow the drop-off contours. Big rocks on the bottom in particular excited him.
“The Perch is a vicious predator,” he noted, “but they are lazy beggars. You have to put the lure just about on top of his nose, then he’ll smash it. They also like lying behind rocks, where it’s comfortably out of the currents. It’s like bass fishing!” Only here we were trolling with one motor on; to me it felt far more like pulling feathers for bonito off Sodwana! Now and then a lure snagged on a rock; to get it free Anthony reversed the boat so I cannot remember losing even one lure.
Then far out, over the western horizon, we saw cloud banks, spilling into dark blue masses. More ominously, I saw a long, sausage-shaped cloud in front of the mass. “When we see that at St. Lucia we get off the water fast,” I told Anthony. “Never seen that before,” he answered, “so I’ll keep a sharp lookout.” Wind is of course a crucial factor, as it is on any big body of water. “We always get a west wind in the afternoons,” Anthony explained, “but that cloud is far too early for this time of year. Besides, the rain season doesn’t start until March or early April.”
But the clouds were there, and they got bigger. We continued trolling, drank colas, ate biscuits and snacked. The fish were few and far between – but we did get five for the session, between 11lbs and 14lbs, all “babies”, but good sport on the light lines. At around one o’clock Anthony reckoned it was time to up lines. The clouds had moved closer, and the wind had picked up. Our homeward journey would be quartering against a fast swell on the forward port quarter.
“We’ll be wet in five minutes,” Anthony said, “Best put on these rain coats. Yes, not for rain, but for the spray that’s going to be coming on board shortly,” he explained.
Anthony was a skipper par excellence. He took the boat on the best course possible so as to give his crew the softest and driest ride, but even he could not always escape the waves of spray coming over from time to time. We got wet – sopping wet.
The fresh water was warm enough, so cold we were not, but the water washed the sunscreen from foreheads into our eyes. It burnt – but we held on. The boat took the running swells with ease, and pretty soon we were pulling up to the jetty. The staff had enquiring looks. “Maybe tomorrow” we muttered, flopping down on the lawn near the gantry, eagerly accepting the drinks Maria offered. Even without ice – there was no electricity during the day as the generator was switched on only late in the afternoon – the drink was welcome. We wrung our shirts, quickly drying in the hot, dry wind and bright sunshine. Four day-trippers came in on one of the other boats. They all had fish, but complained about the bumpy ride. Their heaviest was 18lbs – better than our heaviest. But so what? Tomorrow we’d be back on the water and they would be back on safari. We were far better off!
At lunch bush pilot Neale was quite surprised that I had not yet bettered those IGFA records. 37lbs and 73lbs he reckoned were quite common, and Anthony also was quite nonplussed that he could not get me onto those record-breaking fish. “But stick around, we’ve still got two more days!” The next day Neale‘s Cessna was grounded as it had to go in for a service. No plane, no day guests, so Anthony and Maria planned an extended fishing session for us on the Tuesday.
“We’ll go north,” said Anthony. “Pack a lunch and we’ll stay out as long as we want.”
Steak and pepper sauce went down well at dinnertime. Out in the bay the kapenta fishermen were setting their lights. It looked like a festival of Christmas trees. I lost count after counting more than one hundred lights. “It looks like this all over the lake,” Anthony said. “The light attracts the kapenta shoals which makes it easier for them to be caught.”
The Lua tribe knew nothing else but fishing, he explained. “Without the fish in the lake this whole region would die,” he added. “Every day you’ll see trucks coming in from Nairobi to collect fish. It’s mostly dried but some fresh fish does get sold. What it’s like by the time it gets to town I don’t know!” Once again I was asleep within minutes – must have been the fresh air!
With Maria and Bundu along for the day trip, we headed north, to the Saiyusi region of the lake which is dotted with many small and not so small Islands. The day seemed more placid than yesterday – that massive bank of cloud on the western horizon had given way to clear skies. Promising for sure, but high above us the jet stream and puffy popcorn-like clouds told its own story of wind. For the moment however the water was calm, and soon we were into fish.
Ten pounds, twelve pounds, but no record in sight. Then the port side Phoenix started to run, the 6kg line peeling off smoothly. “I’m on!” I yelled as the other lines were quickly brought in. The fish was kiting to the left, pulling back doggedly. The drag let out line, bending the pike rod almost double. How I wished for a quick taper rod from my rod rack at home! But the British rod did the job in the end. Up came the line and the fish exploded into the air, its head shaking and rattling the lure almost out of its bony mouth. The Russel lure flashed in the sun, but the hook held. Steady pressure again brought the fish to the surface, and once again the tackle held.
“One more jump and we’ve got it!” Anthony exclaimed.
Braced against the canopy strut for support, I coaxed the fish closer to the boat. This time the jump was more of a lunge to the surface than a real jump, and, energy spent, it floated on the surface, giving Anthony the chance to grab the trace and gaff it.
Was it perhaps the same weight as Trish’s fish? If it was we had a record in the bag! But Anthony did not share my enthusiasm. “I don’t think it’ll make it,” he said, “but don’t worry, there’s still time yet!”
But, looming ominously on the western horizon was a piling mass of dark blue cloud, and the wind, even though it was still not near noon, had already started its daily push. Anthony skipped between the islands, seeking the calmer bays, trolling the lures right up against promising looking rocky peninsulas. He certainly worked hard for us, taking the boat over the rocky bottoms that Nile Perch prefer, but with the wind creating an ever-increasing short chop on the surface, the job was difficult.
We called a halt for lunch, beaching the boat on one of the many island beaches and breaking out cold chicken, sandwiches and fruit, and the small, sweet and firm Kenyan bananas.
“With this unstable weather it doesn’t seem to be our day,” Anthony remarked. I could only agree. “Just our luck!” I grumbled through a mouthfull of chicken.
But persevere we would, so after that pleasant lunch break, we pushed Balakwasi off the beach and tried again. But the elements were stackerd against us, with the wind picking up with every passing minute. Trying a slow troll was extremely difficult as the boat bumped over a wave and then quickly dropped into the trough behind it. Poor old Bundu – he was finding it almost impossible to find a spot on the boat that gave him a solid footing. For the journey back home we’d have to go right into the teeth of the wind, and worse still, against that swell, which by now whipped frothy white caps off every wave. But it couldn’t be helped – in came the lines and on went the raincoats.
“Just hold fast,” Anthony said, “We’re going to bump and get wet!” I had been in very heavy seas before – that’s my special brand of fishing ‘luck’ – but three metre swells on freshwater? Never!
The Hartley hull took the angry water well, but all credit to Anthony who gave another demonstration of boat handling as good as I’d ever seen. A deep-sea skipper licence would be a cinch for him!
The dangerous thing about such huge waves in freshwater is that they occur very close together, in boat parlance a ‘short chop’, not giving the boat any time to lift its nose after sliding down the face of a wave into the trough. Anthony had braced himself against the centre console, wrestling with the wheel and throttles. Every time a wave came over the bow, he’d duck his head, protecting his spectacles with the peak of his cap. But even so he was sopping wet, just like the rest of us hanging on for dear life. It was quite strange though not to taste salt, because everything else was just like in a heavy sea running over a shallow reef! It was impossible to talk -we just hung on, trying to anticipate the jarring drops into a trough, our knees doing overtime as shock absorbers. Fortunately it was not cold, the water warm to the touch even though it had turned a dark, angry green.
Maybe thirty minutes (that felt like hours) later, with arms aching, legs trembling, sodden to the skin, we hove to in sight of the jetty. “Everybody still here?” Anthony chuckled. He’d had a tough time of it, but knew that he’d handled it very well, and was looking justifiably pleased with himself.
“That’s just about the worst we’ve had since I’ve been here,” he added, flapping his cap around to shake out water. “Normally we would have come back much earlier, but we’re still chasing that record!”
“Well, Maria is still here, but she very nearly went overboard just before we saw the jetty,” Gerrie said, water streaming down his face, hair plastered. “I just wanted to change hands,” Maria explained, “when the boat bucked sideways and I was going over the side when Gerrie managed to grab my coat!” Thankfully we were back, safe and sound.
The lodge staff took off our fish – my ‘big’ one plus the others. Anthony’s prediction was proved correct as my fish weighed just on 30lbs, missing the IGFA line class record by 7lbs. We lay about in the sun, letting the dry wind whip away all that water. Maria, unshaken by her almost ducking, already had the drinks ready.
“What do the locals do in such weather?”
“Didn’t you see them all leave this morning?” Anthony rejoined. “They don’t even go out in this type of weather, although those dhows can take heavy water quite well.” It was a real luxury not having to unpack and clean the boat. The camp staff did all that, leaving us free to change clothes, have a drink or three, and just laze around, contemplating the next day’s fishing. I retied the traces on the light tackle rigs, checked the cameras.
That night we had a fish braai – not that they had ever offered it before, but with Anthony’s South African upbringing in Natal, he knew that South Africans always enjoy a braai, so this was his special treat for us after a rather tough day on the water. Tables and chairs were set out beneath an acacia in the back court next to the kitchen (out of the howling west wind), the kitchen staff provided a bed of hot coals, Anthony had fashioned a grill and Maria provided a garlic-lemon-butter marinade, plus all the usual trimmings for a fish braai.
The Kenyan staff seemed perplexed at their lodge guests cooking over an open fire. To their credit however, they never turned a hair and reacted to every request with good grace. What they must have made of a South African saying to them: “Letti hapa mingi sana coals! Asante sana, ‘(Bring many coals! Thank you very much), only they know!
In the kitchen the head cook thought that we wanted the fillets for our braai, but I wanted the pectoral bones that hold the sweetest and most succulent meat of any fish. Just trim off the fins. My thirty –pound Nile Perch certainly delivered the biggest “fish chops” I’d ever seen, and they were braaied first. Both Anthony and Maria were surprised that the two “chops” were sufficient for the four of us, and left no space for the large beef fillet that Anthony reckoned no decent braai should be without!
“Snakes?” I asked Anthony, looking up at the clear star-studded Kenyan night sky through the branches of the acacia under which we were seated. “Sometimes we get the odd mamba,” he replied nonchalantly. “But that hippo that’s trying to break my pump station in the lake is much more of a problem!” Just thirty or so metres from the Lodge’s beach there was this hippo, obviously irritated that this pipe was in his way. So he was bumping it. The hippo was also very keen to root up all the nice green grass that Anthony was planting on a plot of ground next to the lodge.
“Excuse me a minute,” he said, giving a whistle to call his two Masai moran (warriors) that were employed as security guards. Thin men, typical of their tribe, but with very educated throwing arms (from all the spear throwing practice of their boyhood and initiation school days), they collected a pile of stones and wherever the hippo put out its head, they pelted it. Accurately too.
The locals were quite overawed by the two Masai – that’s why they were there. The Lodge was as safe as a fort when the Masai patrolled the grounds. No stranger dared to even put a toe on the property. With war lobes pierced and stretched, the bottom loop tucked over the top, their traditional red cloak and their spears and kieries, the Masai indeed looked formidable. “And they’re very fast,” Anthony said. “Don’t be fooled by their size – they’ll have a spear through you before you can blink!” Theft at the Lodge just did not happen – obviously!
The two Masai tackled the hippo with their stones and once again persuaded it that the Rusinga Island Lodge’s water pumpline, and its grass was, after all, not that desirable!
Lying in bed on that last night of our Lake Victoria adventure, listening to the waves lapping on the beach, I reflected that with only one session remaining, those two IGFA records had become more difficult to break than we all had anticipated. But being anglers, and ever optimistic, we planned to go out even earlier on the Wednesday morning. Neal would be bringing day guests, three of them, and we would fly out with them after lunch.
Anthony was also keen to leave earlier than usualy, so Maria had packed a boat breakfast and by the time the sun rose over the Gwasi hills we were already on our first trolling path. But today the fish were not cooperating; the unstable weather had put them down, and our job was not only to find out where they were sulking behind their rocky lairs, but to also persuade them that our Russel lures were indeed, tasty morsels! Two small fish, around ten pounds each, did come into the boat, and at another of Anthony’s hot spots, at an island where large flocks of comorants were perched on wild fig trees, we we did start getting a pattern of sorts to prompt bites, but also too many foul-ups: a lure was lost to a rock, another line entangled with one of the long lines set by a Lua fisherman, and a reel went off with neither Gerrie or I striking, both believing the other to be responsible.
“Settle down, guys” Anthony muttered, “the fish are here and we’ve just got to catch them!”
Then we had a double strike: one line went surging off to starboard and the other to port. The starboard fish came out in a rush near the boat and spat the lure out; the other jumped only once and promptly lay on the surface. It later weighed in at only 15lbs – still no record.
Then I had another strike, with the fish this time putting in its three aerial displays. I was ready for it though, applying pressure at the right times and soon Anthony had it in the boat. “Maybe twenty pounds,” he said. “No record,” he grimaced. We trolled some more, this way and that, up and down. Anthony searched out his ‘hot spots’, but to no avail. Those records eluded me.
And then, coming up to one o’clock, the cut-off time for this session (we still had Neale’s plane to catch), Anthony pointed westward. “Look at what’s coming!” he exclaimed. “It’s a fly cloud!” There, almost on the horizon, was a black cloud, but not of water, but of flies. The “cloud” swirled up and sideward, dipped towards the surface and then climbed back into the sky. It was coming straight at us, and we already could hear a faint hum as the swarm came nearer.
“We’ve got to get out of the way!” Anthony yelled, “lines up, fast!”
It was certainly an amazing sight as we motored away to see that huge cloud of flies buzz past some two hundred metres on our stern. “They’re on their way to a new breeding ground,” Anthony explained, “but no one knows for sure how it happens, but if you are covered by that swarm, you’re in trouble!”
Well, thanks very much – asante sane – for the fishing! I thought sarcastically. No record, but then as anglers we’d had a great time, caught fish every day and experienced good and bad weather, enjoyed the company and the hospitality – what more could one want? Back at the Lodge we met the day guests, a husband and wife from Canada and a Londoner, burned bright pink but looking very happy. Their fish – they each had one, were just into the twenty pound class.
Over lunch they enthused over their catch, were sympathetic about our failed record attempt, but all being anglers, with the exception possibly of the wife, the company was bright and friendly.
But we had to pack, say our goodbyes to Anthony and Maria and the Lodge staff, and then Neale had us loaded into the Cessna.
Could our time have passed so quickly? It had, and soon we were winging out over the Lake to the Mara, where we all had other flights to catch.
We landed at Keekorok, the southern most airstrip in the Mara, and joined a group in another craft, a Dakota, for Nairobi. Sad to leave? Sure! But very satisfied indeed for the experience. No wonder visitors talk about going back. Those fortunate to be able to return enjoy a special relationship with a destination that, while operated professionally, still manages to retain the soul healing assets of wide open spaces and unique experiences.
The American dollar rules, for sure, but rural Kenya, like the rest of Africa, retains its brooding, self-confident serenity, no matter what human beings attempt…
Back at the Nairobi Safari Club – my preferred accommodation of the famous Norfolk Hotel down the road unfortunately being booked to capacity – we met Catherine Everard again for a debriefing session, and then ambled down to the Norfolk (it is just down the road) for dinner on its famous Lord Delamere Terrace.
It was packed, but a dapper Kikuyu waiter promised us a table ‘shortly’ and we moved over into the open bar. For a good ole’ brandy and coke, just for the hell of it! Fillet steak and the trimmings at prices that made us feel very much at home plus Kenyan Gold afterwards, had us in a mellow mood as we walked back to our hotel.
“You know, that Norfolk is an international landmark,” I murmured into the night air, “it was started in 1904 when there were still lions in a papyrus swamp in front of it. All the safaris started from it; the Terrace is named after Lord Delamere who in the old days used to charge into the bar on horseback and shoot the place up. Real wild! Writers such as Earnest Hemingway, Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley made it their headquarters; Baden-Powell also stayed there and very many English Earls and Lords. Some place, some history!”
But I was quickly brought back to reality when my colleague exclaimed after yet another vehicle had roared past us: “Man, watch out for these cars, they’ll take your legs off if you aren’t careful!” So much for the romantic past!
The next morning our Eurocar driver had us at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport in time, although at one stage we really thought we’d not make it. The driver had had an “accident” in the early morning traffic, but not to worry he said, we’ll be there “shortly”! We changed Kenya shillings for US dollars, managed to negotiate check-in, customs, passport control and departure tax payments, bought Kenyan coffee and brass arm bangles at duty free, and boarded the British Airways 747 for the flight back to Johannesburg. In our World Traveller section we met three Germans on their way to Johannesburg’s Kyalami racetrack for the Grand Prix, reminding us that while we had been fishing the world had, indeed, still carried on. In between the excellent English breakfast and the comedy hour on my headphones, Kilimanjaro’s snow-covered peak encircled by a great cloud loomed large through my window. I could not help wondering: was the wind blowing on Lake Victoria again today? Would another hundred-pounder fall to a lucky first-timer?
After landing at Jan Smuts, we both knew the answer: the only way to find out was to go back again, soon!
The Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) is indigenous to the Ethiopian region of Africa and was introduced into Lake Victoria during the 1950’s to supplement the indigenous native species that supported lakes side communities. While it did result in a short term economic boom, as an invasive predator it decimated the indigenous cichlids, a native fish on which the local commercial economy was based, so catch and release was forcefully discouraged with total harvest the norm.