MFANGANO ISLAND: LAKE VICTORIA

THE SUCCESSFUL MISTAKE:

It was still dark as we jerked and bounced our way along the deeply rutted dirt road that jinxes and twists its way through the lush riverine forest that flanks Kenya’s Mara River. In front of us lay the vast expanse of the Masai Mara, shrouded in a heavy cloak of mist, isolated groups of grazing animals just about visible in the morning half-light. Near the equator dawn a brief affair, and within minutes the eastern sky was tinged colour, first lemon then the subtle shades of pre-sunrise orange, as Africa stirred and came awake for another day.

one of the world great wildlife events, wide beast crossing the Mara River during their twice annual migration

One of the worlds great wildlife events, widebeest crossing the Mara River during their twice annual migration

Swim buddy, the croc's are after you!

Swim buddy, the croc’s are after you!

Most wildebeast make the crossing safely, mostly only the young, old and injured get taken

Most wildebeest make the crossing safely, mostly its only the young, old and injured that get taken

Magnificent bull elephant in the Masai Mara

Magnificent bull elephant in the Masai Mara

The wildebeast migration Masai Mara, Kenya

The wildebeast migration Masai Mara, Kenya

My day had begun an hour earlier, with the arrival of a flask of freshly brewed coffee and a tray of still warm out of the oven biscuits. These I had savoured, sitting in a camp chair listening to the grunts and splashes of wallowing hippo’s in the shallow lagoon in front of my tent. Next had followed a short walk through heavy bush, out of necessity led by an armed guard; buffalo, hippo, elephant and even lion are frequent visitors to Little Governors Camp. A short trip aboard a hand hauled ferry took me across the Mara River, and from there we had walked to the safari top Land Rover we were now riding in towards the camp airstrip. Here a diminutive 6 seater Cessna was parked waiting to take me on the next stage of that mornings multi-faceted journey.

Little Governors Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya

Little Governors Camp, Masai Mara, Kenya

Eventually we reached the gravel runway, and I climbed out of the Land Rover and enjoyed a good long stretch, I love dawn in Africa. Then I casually walked to the edge of the cleared strip of ground, unzipped my fly and indulged myself in one of life’s essential morning rituals, as I calmly contemplated my surroundings. There was the game-untold numbers of antelope, zebra and comical looking wildebeest, a glorious African sunrise illuminating the high rock escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, the dark snaking line of distant trees marking the course of the Mara River; and a large, rounded, granite boulder that I had not noticed before.

Something caused my eyes to linger on that boulder, but it was several seconds before the realisation of what I was looking at just 60 yards away from where I was enjoying my morning pee suddenly hit me heavily in the guts like a thunderbolt. Granite, I knew, was grey in colour, not a mottled tawny. Granite, I knew, was immovable, solid and permanent. Granite does not, I suddenly realised, casually swivel its heavily maned head and glare at you with a pair of burning amber eyes, and an open mouth full of teeth!

A magnificent male lion , Masai Mara, Kenya

A male lion in it’s prime, Masai Mara, Kenya

What's for breakfast? A cheetah watches out for a likely meal, Masai Mara, Kenya

What’s for breakfast? A cheetah surveys the African savannah, Masai Mara, Kenya

Granite doesn't have eyes!

Granite doesn’t have eyes!

Hastily I cut myself off in mid-steam, peeing on my legs in the process, and resisting the urge to run walked hastily back towards the security of the Land Rover. I pointed the lion out to my single companion, the pilot, who glanced briefly over his shoulder to confirm my sighting and saying that, yes, he’d occasionally seen the same lion during the previous couple of weeks, and was starting to get concerned in case it had learned that each morning fresh supplies, including meat, were flown from the air strip out to our ultimate destination, Mfangano Island.

Ten minutes later we were airborne, heading west and steadily gaining altitude to clear the high escarpment. We were heading west towards Lake Victoria and another tiny landing strip, this time running along the eastern shore line of Mfangano Island. Mfangano Island is a beautiful tropical island that covers some 50,000 square kilometres, it has a population estimated at 18,000 inhabitants mostly from the native Luo and Suba tribes.

Luo villages sort a catch of 'kapenta', Mfangano island, Lake Victoria, Kenya

Luo villages sort a catch of ‘kapenta’, Mfangano island, Lake Victoria, Kenya

After thirty minutes in the air I got my first glimpse of Lake Victoria and Mfangano Island, along with neighbouring Rusinga Island. It was here that famed anthropologist Mary Leaky had discovered a three million year old skull belonging to Proconsul Africanus, one of the very first examples of modern day man. Lake Victoria is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, it’s about the size of the Republic of Ireland and from our high vantage point as we crossed its eastern shoreline it looked for all the world like an ocean.

Mfangano airstrip lies adjacent to the lake shoreline, which is where I boarded a boat that was going to take me on the final stage of my journey, the twenty minute run to the idyllic Mfangano Island Camp. Part of the famous Governors family of camps Mfangano is one of Kenya’s best-kept secrets. Situated in a small, secluded bay amongst tropical gardens and framed by large fig trees, the camp consists of just six extremely smart double en-suite chalets that accommodate a maximum of twelve guests. The chalets are built in keeping with the traditional concept of Luo design, but are equipped with electricity and hot water systems. All offer spectacular views across the lake.

Mfangano Island Camp

Mfangano Island Camp

No sooner had I arrived at the camp than I was tucking into a hearty breakfast, consisting of an omelette washed down by copious quantities of refreshing lemon grass tea, that had been freshly picked not ten feet from where I was sitting. Guests come to Mfangano Island Camp to take a day out from the spectacular game viewing that the majority travel to Kenya’s Masai Mara to experience, others come for longer, perhaps to view the amazing variety of birds. Other still, myself included, come to fish for one of the piscatorial heavyweights of the freshwater angling world; oreochromis niloticus-the Nile Perch.

By the 1950’s the lakeshore population of Lake Victoria had grown considerably and this combined with modern fishing methods had led to over fishing and subsequently dramatically diminished stocks of the lakes native species of fish. To remedy the situation British officials introduced new fish into the lake: the Nile tilapia and the Nile Perch, it has been called The Successful Mistake.

Releasing a small Nile Perch

Releasing a small Nile Perch

At the time the new fish constituted only a minute percentage of the lakes biomass while the cichlids, the small indigenous species, made up 80%. In 1980 a survey of the lake revealed a complete reverse in biomass composition with Nile Perch now constituting over 80% of the fish weight and cichlids only 1%. As a result the introduction of the perch is now considered controversial, but it has undoubtedly served to feed the ever-growing lakeshore population as well as providing an economic boost for Kenya as large quantities of Nile Perch go for export.

Malcolm Rusby with a nile perch caught trolling Lake Victoria

Malcolm Rusby with a nile perch caught trolling Lake Victoria

The usual way to fish for Nile Perch on Lake Victoria is to slowly troll artificial lures along the island shoreline, where the perch are often found lying in the cool shaded water beneath the lush bank side vegetation.  A little more than three hours following that early morning call back in The Masai Mara I was fishing.

Catching Nile Perch might have been the primary objective for my trip to Mfangano Island, but there is no finer way of observing the islands rich flora and fauna than in unobtrusively trolling around the lake edges. The bird life in this part of Kenya is truly spectacular with a rich amalgam of both land and water birds to observe. At times it seemed that every prominent tree held an African fish eagle, and that every overhanging bush had its resident colony of chattering northern masked weavers.

My boat crew were eager to point out each new species; paradise fly catcher, lilac breasted roller, various colourful species of bee eater and kingfisher, harrier hawk, hammerkop, hadada ibis, herons, storks, egrets and many, many others. This amazing birdlike was supplemented by frequent sightings of giant water monitor lizards, relics of the time of the dinosaurs that either sulked in the shadows looking for a meal, or languished on an exposed outcrop rock in the warm mid-morning sunshine. We saw otters and troops of vervet monkeys, and before too long the fishing had become almost incidental as a reason for being out on the lake.

All the time I was soaking up the local scenery my lures were swimming behind us in our wake. Every so often a bent rod and a screaming reel would alert us to the fact that yet another perch had made the fateful mistake of engulfing a lure, though aside from one or two fish we kept for the camp kitchen, most were released back into Victoria’s dark and mysterious waters.

The successful deep diving trolling lure I used for nile perch

The successful deep diving trolling lure I used for Nile Perch

The Nile Perch is not one of the world great species of sports fish, but on light and sporting fishing tackle they do provide a reasonable account of themselves, occasionally jumping clear of the surface as they attempt to dislodge the lure. The average size of those fish we caught was between 10-20lb, but during my stay I caught several much, much bigger specimens though, sadly, none of the colossal one hundred and even two hundred pounders that on occasion area caught here.

A Lake Victoria Nile perch, fish over 200lb have been caught here

A nice Lake Victoria Nile perch, fish over 200lb have been caught here

Dinner that night was el fresco, my table set all but at the lake edge. Looking out across the lake into the great blackness of an African night, suddenly the surface of the lake became bejewelled with hundreds of tiny bright lights. There were so many lights they gave the impression that there was a town on the distant horizon, butI knew there was no town.

Mfangano sunset

Mfangano sunset

The lights, I was told, were lanterns lit by the lake fishermen who use light to attract  shoals of tiny kapenta, a small fish similar to whitebait, up to the surface where they can be caught in fine mesh nets. During the day we had passed many small fishing villages where I had seen the fishing fleet tied up for the day. Also I had watched the village women and children tending the nets, making repairs, I had assumed, though apparently this was not the case. Fish caught the previous night were being dried on the net fabric, prior to being sent for export. Kapenta are an important source of protein throughout much of Central Africa.

The following day we interrupted our fishing to visit a local fishing village, so I could see for myself the process upon which entire communities depended. As we drew close to the village beach the stench of millions upon millions of tiny fish drying in the hot midday sun was almost overpowering, yet not nearly as overpowering as the warm welcome and smiling faces of the villagers who welcomed me ashore.

Village life, Mfangano Island

Village life, Mfangano Island

Theirs is a way of life that has barely changed over thousands of years, a way of life built entirely on fishing, traditional boat building and subsistence farming on individual plots of land that have been painstakingly cultivated on Mfangano’s steep hill sides. Were it not for the occasional outboard engines and other subtle giveaway signs of modern day life, I could quite easily have arrived in the mid-1800’s at the time when the great Victorian adventurers, John Hanning Speke and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, were finally establishing that the cataracts at what is now Jinja on the distant Ugandan shoreline of Lake Victoria were, indeed, the fabled source of the River Nile.

One of my biggest Lake Victoria Nile Perch, unfortunately these fine looking fish fight poorly when compared to other species of gamefish

One of my biggest Lake Victoria Nile Perch, unfortunately when compared with other game fish these fine looking fish fight poorly

Sight seeing over, again we went trolling for perch, and this time I started off by clipping a small 7cm red and white Rapala Magnum lure on my lightest rod. Often the size of a lure is as, if not even more critical than colour. When fishing in various tropical seas around the world, many times I’ve seen a day of general inactivity turned completely around simply by swapping a smaller lure. On this occasion the results were equally spectacular, with the first perch nailing that diminutive little Rapala within ten minutes of it starting to swim.

Derek 'Del' Elliot with a Lake Victoria Nile Perch

Derek ‘Del’ Elliot with a Lake Victoria Nile Perch

Prompted by the success of one lure change I delved deeper into my lure collection and came up with a lure that for the life of me I cannot remember what it’s called!  Basically it was a moulded plastic lure fitted with a deep diving vane; and for the rest of that first day and over the subsequent days I fished, Lake Victoria’s Nile Perch population found it irresistible.

2002 was clearly a vintage year!

2002 was clearly a vintage year!

I presented this lure a long way astern of the boat, at least 80 yards, which ensured that it was fishing at its maximum depth, which I guess was around 20ft. Frequently it bounced off the bottom, occasionally it became snagged, though thankfully on each occasion we managed to free it. The biggest perch I caught weighed a little under 60lb, a very nice sized fish to catch anywhere in a fresh water lake, especially when that lake is in the heart of Africa with such spectacular surroundings as you will find at Mfangano Island.

My favourite Nairobi restaurant, 'The Carnivore'. Here you get to work your way through much of the cast of The Lion King!

My favourite Nairobi restaurant, ‘The Carnivore’. After a great safari, here you get to work your way through much of the cast of The Lion King; I don’t think they have a vegetarian option!

For information on trips to Little Governors Camp and Mfangango Island contact, along with many other exciting destinations throughout Africa, contact Safari Plus at: www.safariplus.co.uk or Tel: 01306 883204

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