The perils of fishing in the Dark Continent

By Herman Labuschagne

Just when you thought that fishing was a safe and relatively bloodless sport – you read this article.


In the rivers of tropical South America there live two monsters who are said to instil mortal terror into the hearts and minds of fisherman. One is big and the other is small. Not the piranha. Nobody seems to bother much about those pan-sized death machines as Hollywood depicted them. What these fisherman fear more than anything else in the rivers, is a particularly large fish, which is said to be able to swallow an entire leg of a fisherman in one gulp. And the other one is a tiny little fish which, for some perverse reason, likes to swim up some of the more obscure body apertures. This might have been cause for only mild alarm, but for the disturbing fact that these little critters have barbed scales, which necessitates their surgical removal.


Yet Africa too, has its share of horrors associated with freshwater fishing. Some real, and some... well, let’s just say, they haven’t been scientifically proven yet. One of the most famous, which fishermen used to warned about in times of yore, was a large snake with the diamond on its forehead. Strange how the legends of this mythical creature seems to be universal amongst the various tribes of southern Africa. For decades generations parents have warned their children to avoid certain stretches of river, for in the greenish depths of its deepest pools, they said, the great snake lives. Those that are said to have seen the great snake, swear that it wears a large, shiny diamond on its forehead. And woe to him that should come across this wonderful beast. There are, of course, many different versions of the legend. In some versions one is assured of great wealth and power if one should be able to steal the great snake’s diamond when it takes it off to go swimming, and in others, great disaster is foretold. 


Whether the great African river snake is indeed fact or legend, remains to be seen. What is deniably true though, is the fact that great snakes do seem to frequent much of the good fishing waters. Probably not so much to hide diamonds and take a swim, as it is due to the presence of cane rats, frogs, and other “fast foods” in the dense vegetation surrounding streams and rivers. It was with a particular display of careful behaviour that I fished in Grandpa’s river where the big old python used to lie. I also had an uncle who had the uncanny habit of for ever running into large snakes. Poor Uncle Hennie was plagued by bad nerves and a morbid fear of snakes. And as so often happens, that which man fears most, tends to seek him out. Many a time Uncle Hennie would be seen running through the tall grass in terror, with rods, lures, bait, nets and gaff flying in all directions, causing a scene which looked alarmingly like the crash-landing site of a cargo plane transporting a consignment of fishing tackle.  If it wasn’t for this trail of debris, I fear it might have been difficult for Uncle Hennie to have found his way back at times. For some reason Uncle Hennie seemed to have a particular relationship with puff-adders and mole snakes. Puff-adders are mean critters. They like to lie in the footpaths leading to the rivers, and for this reason they are often stepped upon. The bite is cytotoxic, causing gangrene, but it doesn’t kill fast and you have more than enough time to seek treatment. The mole snakes, however, looked fiercer. My favourite fishing spot had the largest one I’d ever seen, as a permanent resident. As thick as a boy’s wrist and perhaps six feet long, it moved fast, but would bite only when provoked. And although the bite is said to be painful, it is harmless nevertheless. Needless to say, uncle Hennie and Mollie the moll snake came to know each other too. –  There may still be rusting fish hooks marking the spot to this very day.


The old folks also used to delight in scaring children with tales of Makumazaan. A nightmarish creature called a water-bobbejaan, or “water-baboon.” This ape-like object from hell would lie sleeping on the muddy bottom of pools, only to come out at night, looking for those that were still roaming around the rivers after dark. I don’t remember what harm it would do people, but I do remember that it was bad and I was scared of Makumazaan. Perhaps this is the reason why I never went catching eels at night. The German neighbours used to enjoy eating eels. Thick as a man’s arm, and quite long, we used to catch them on night lines with the strongest possible woven nylon line, and heavy steel hooks. Despite this, however, you only brought one in five in. Whether the others were so big or had just worn the lines through on rocks, is a matter of debate, but I do know that those eels were the reason why little boys preferred not to go swimming without swimming trunks.


Other monsters were more real. Like the time when Dad went fishing on Lake St. Lucia and heard big feet charging at him. Looking over his shoulder, he was just in time to jump out of the way when a large hippo came tearing past him like a bullet from the forest-tunnel, hitting the lake’s waters like a steam locomotive and drenching everybody present. Reminds me of the old coward that galloped away in fear during the Boer War.

“I don’t take fright easily son,” he said when asked for an explanation later. “But when I take fright, I do so badly.”


Apparently hippo do too. Yes, hippos have been the ruination of many a fisherman’s career. Sometimes temporarily, but all to often permanently. Anglers do not want to scare hippos. Not in a boat, and not on land. Ask the woman who was nearly bitten in half below my home last Christmas when she went to hide her moonshine in the river...


Of course, everybody knows about the dangers that crocodiles pose to the fisherman. In fact, bold fisherman seem to form an important part of many crocodiles’ diet. You just don’t mess around with crocodiles when fishing. To tell the truth, the fact that I’m spinning yarns today is only due to someone once having warned my great-grandma just in the nick of time that a crocodile was just about to strike where she sat quietly fishing. As she jumped up, the croc reared up to get her. It was that close.


But there are other dangers beneath the waters, besides crocodiles. I’m not talking about the Vaal River barbel (kind of African catfish) that are alleged to have taken whole oxen from teams drawing their waggons crossed the river in days of yore. Nor the monstrous yellow fish which are said to have scared the blue hell out police divers inspecting the Vaal dam wall one year. Perhaps some might be surprised to hear about the dangers of shark attacks in African rivers. “But there shouldn’t be sharks in fresh water?” you might say. Indeed. But tell that to the ferocious Zambezi-, or river sharks, which can grow up to seven feet long, exhibit an unbiased taste for human flesh, and have been found vast distances up the Zambezi river. Other sharks too, have little objections to fresh water and are often found in rivers and estuaries. The aggressive Ragged Tooth Shark is another example of a critter that can grow to fifteen feet, can bite man’s head clean off, and will readily attack in shallow waters many miles from the sea.


So there are a few things to think about before boldly venturing into waters where no man in his right mind had gone before. Let’s just not forget the smaller critters either. The lowly little bilharzia parasite, for instance. In southern Africa, the snails that act as vectors are only found in east-flowing rivers. Nowadays the disease is easily cured, but it is wise nevertheless to avoid skin contact with slow-moving water. Even the touch of a wet fishing line may be enough to enable successful infection. And let’s not forget malaria either. The fishermen are especially vulnerable since they make a habit of invading the malaria mosquito’s favourite domains. 


One can say many things about Africa. Yes, the fishing is great, but it is often more the accompanying adventure that makes it all so special. To some the element of danger is just too much for their television-fed minds and social mindsets. As for me, I’ll rather take the adventure of fishing in the beautiful wildernesses of Africa than having to sit and fish for minnows at a Norwegian ice-hole in sub-zero temperatures with only vodka and a vicious wife called “Helga” at home to make the experience worthwhile.