Our brief had been very clear, and very concise. “Whatever you do,” we had been told, “don’t run. “Slowly back off and follow my instructions, but whatever you do, do not run”. Undoubtedly sound advice when walking through the bush, but when it came to the crunch I was overcome with an almost overwhelming urge to run, and run like I’d never run before!
We had been following a narrow game trail, walking down through thick acacia woodland, the air heavy with the scent of game, slowly working our way towards the main river. We had planned an evening session fishing for tiger fish. When we had first spotted the elephant, a lone bull, we had assumed that he had been down to the river to drink, and now he was slowly ambling his way back up the hillside towards us, occasionally stopping to browse at a bush. Having ascertained the wind direction our small group got well out of his way, and remained motionless as we watched him sedately plod his way past us at a distance of no more than 100 yards, before continuing on our way. But we had barely gone 50 yards when the silence of the late afternoon was shattered by an ear piercing trumpeting screech, accompanied by the crashing sound of something considerable hurtling through the bush towards us.
In an instant Alex and the Tanzanian game ranger had each chambered a round and shouldered their heavy calibre rifles and had given us the order to back off; we didn’t need telling twice! Steadily I walked backwards along the path, and even managed to take a couple of quick shots of the enraged elephant as it came towards us. I’m sure you’ll believe me when I say you feel kind of vulnerable when your only defence against such a huge and powerful animal is a Nikon SLR and a 9ft salmon spinning rod!
For several long and anxious moments I winced as I waited for the thunderous crack of a .314 cartridge, but thankfully it never came. At the very last moment the elephant halted its charge and stood flapping its ears and snorting in disgust at us, while Alex and the ranger very slowly backed away. “Just an over boisterous youngster”, Alex had dismissed the incident when we finally reached the river, while I looked for a quiet spot to check my underpants before attempting to catch a fish!
At 30,000 square miles The Selous is the largest game reserve on the African continent, and the mighty Rufiji River runs through the very heart of it. Unlike many of Africa’s better-known reserves, the Selous offers a taste of a truly wild and untamed Africa. It’s a remarkable landscape where apart from a few private hunting concessions there are only a handful of lodges, each with minimal occupancy resulting in negligible impact on the areas eco-system.
There are few roads in The Selous, and these in reality are little more than glorified dirt tracks that are often blocked as a result of the huge resident elephant population pushing tree’s over, so if you want to get around it’s invariably a choice of small boats on the river or walking. It must be every anglers ultimate dream to one day fish somewhere that has never before been fished before, and while I am sure I was far the first angler to fish the Rufiji itself, it’s a fair bet that very few if any anglers have ever fished many of the hundreds of lakes and backwaters.
My introduction to the Rufiji had been following my first night at The Sand Rivers Lodge, which is spectacularly perched right on the banks of The Rufiji at a point where the river makes a broad bend in its course, before once again continuing in an easterly direction towards the Indian Ocean. It was barely light as we clambered aboard a couple of small aluminium skiffs, the outboard engines shattering the early morning calm with a throaty roar as they came to life.
Swiftly we had sped our way up river, welcoming the cooling breeze in the hot humid air, ever careful to avoid the countless hippos that occupied each and every pool and slack water, the angry bulls frequently charging us as we invaded their heavily defended territory. Crocodile lay on the tops of the crumbling sandbanks, and often we disturbed herds of antelope as they drank nervously at the river edge. As always in Africa, the bird life was spectacular.
Our destination was a deep ravine in the upper reaches of the river known as Steiglers Gorge. Here the Rufiji is compressed between shear cliffs that echo to the haunting cry of African fish eagles, barking of baboons and chattering of troops of colobus monkeys. We tied up on a convenient flat-topped boulder and while the rest of our small group trekked off in search of wildlife, I stayed behind with a crewman. I had a spinning rod and a reel loaded with 15lb BS monofilament, and one glance at the turbulent river confirmed I was heavily out gunned, but a convenient patch of slack water lay just downstream inside of a back eddy, and that’s where I fished.
I baited up with a chunk of chicken liver, scrounged from the camp kitchen the previous evening, and cast into the centre of the pool, where instantly it vanished in the coffee coloured water and sank to the bottom. Closing the reel bail arm I sat back to enjoy the scenery and wait for a bite, which took all of 10 seconds to materialise! A couple of vigorous tugs followed by a healthy bend in my rod confirmed that chicken liver had indeed been a good choice, while the solid immovable resistance of an unseen boulder confirmed that hooking a fish was one thing, actually landing one was going to be something else!
After retackling the next bite came equally as fast and while this time I was ready, I still had to force the rod into an impossible angle to prevent the fish from taking the line into a snag. For a few moments I could feel the line grating against rock, but thankfully I somehow managed to lift the fish into mid-water, where it promptly swam straight into the main flow of the river. Using the rivers momentous flow it surged powerfully off downstream, forcing me to follow by hop-skipping across the precariously smooth and rounded boulders. About 50 yards down river we arrived at a small beach with an insurmountable slab of rock at the far end that very effectively halted my progress down river. Forced into playing the fish where I stood, somehow the line held and the lithe little rod did not snap under the considerable strain, and ten minutes later I dragged a particularly ugly looking brute of a catfish ashore.
During the rest of that morning before we headed back off downstream, always dodging the countless groups of aggressive hippo along the way, I caught well over a dozen more catfish of at least three different species, and lost several others that were clearly significantly bigger. On several occasions during the time I fished hippo’s would surface in front of me, surveying me with their piggy little eyes before snorting and diving back down into the murk. The sandy beach was covered in crocodile tracks, and on the advice of Alex I kept myself well back from the waters edge.
As much fun as it was to catch the catfish, they were not what I had travelled to this remote part of Africa to fish for. Tigerfish, I knew, were abundant in the area and it was tigerfish I wanted to catch, but I had a problem. Heavy rains, many miles away to the west in the Iringa Mountains,near the border with Zambia-the source of the Rufiji, had significantly coloured the river, with the result that soaking smelly baits were pretty much the only option, consequently catfish were far more likely to find the bait before a tigerfish. I did managed to catch a few small ‘tigers’ in the main river at a series of rapids near the lodge, but these were mere tiddlers of a pound or so that somehow managed to beat the catfish to the bait in the faster, oxygenated water running through the rapids.
Alex did, however, have another option up his sleeve. Each wet season, he had explained, the Rufiji bursts its banks and covers a huge flood plain. Then when the rains eventually subside, it recedes back to within its established banks to leave dozens of lakes and lagoons scattered around the adjacent bush; lakes that are full to bursting with fish. The following morning we once again set off up river along the hippo obstacle course, before sliding to a halt on the edge of a huge sand bank. After hauling the boat clear of the river and securing it we headed inland towards the dense riverine forest, Alex leading with his gun, a Tanzanian National Parks game ranger taking up the rear with his.
Dawn is the time of greatest activity in the African bush and we were highly likely to encounter a hippo returning from a night grazing on land, a daunting prospect as without a doubt these most dangerous of animals will charge unprovoked with devastating consequences for anyone stood in the way. Then there were the elephant, which were everywhere, along with herds of Cape Buffalo numbering several hundred, the elderly bulls being almost as dangerous and unpredictable as the hippo’s. There were, of course, lions in abundance though Alex dismissed these as being highly unlikely to attack us, as were the leopards we heard each night around the camp and the packs of rare African hunting dogs for which the vast remoteness of The Selous is one of their last refuges. The Selous Game Reserve is as close as you will get to experiencing Jurassic Park!
It was dark and stiflingly hot and humid inside the forest, the air thick with the combined aroma of thousands of animals mingled with the beautiful scent from flowering jasmine trees. Every so often a large animal, usually an antelope, would break for cover startling us, and once a lone bull buffalo crashed its way through the bush within fifty yards of us.
After about half an hour we stepped out into a grassy clearing that surround a small and tranquil lake. Lake Utunge is not a huge expanse of water, perhaps covering an area the size of 10 or more rugby pitches, but we could see its surface was constantly disturbed by swirling fish. Dozens of hippo’s languished in the shallows and grunted noisily at us as we cautiously skirted the waters edge to small cove where Alex announced we’d be fishing. The water was clear with just a tinge of green, a result of the bodily functions of dozens of hippos, and it was a great temptation to start casting lures, but we had with us a bucket of live bait, a species similar to our roach, and these, I was told, were the the very best bait for Tanzanian tigerfish.
I tied a short wire trace to the end of my line, clipped a single hook on the end, selected and then hooked a lively bait and lobbed it out into the bay towards an area we had already seen several fish moving. Barely had the fish hit the surface when it was engulfed, taking in a huge boil of water. The line cut through the surface film towards my right with an audible hiss, and when I struck I watched in awe as better than 6lb of chrome plated, crimson tinged tigerfish exploded into the air in the first of a dramatic series of gill rattling jumps, the last of which sent the now desiccated bait flying back at me!
With trembling fingers I lip hooked another bait, re-cast, and again was almost instantly rewarded by a vicious strike, and again I failed to ensure a solid hook up. It was only the third or possibly forth fish that I finally managed to beach, a plump, fin perfect five pounder that gnashed its ferocious fangs threateningly as it surveyed me with a beady black eye. This was one of my first ever encounters with tigerfish, an experience that has resulted in a passion for the species that borders on obsession. That magical little lake had certainly not seen another angler for several years, if ever before, and with the rains moving ever closer with each passing day and the main river starting to rise, it would not see another for the next six months at the very least.
Pound for pound there is not a fish in freshwater anywhere in the world that comes close to the tigerfish when talking in terms of shear aggression, power and acrobatics once hooked. There are those who say that on average you’ll land perhaps one out of ten strikes, and with many years tiger fishing beneath my belt I’m inclined to agree. Without a doubt these are the ultimate freshwater predator, and they can readily be caught on pretty much any angling technique.
In some areas I’ve fished for tigers they are commonly caught weighing into double figures, but in The Selous the best of the many fish I have since caught might just have nudged 7lb, and while much, much bigger fish are certainly abundant in the areas I have fished, the overwhelming population density of small-mid-size fish is so great that these bigger fish rarely get a chance to eat your bait or lure before its eagerly grabbed by smaller fish.
Since that first exploratory trip I’ve been back on one other occasion. Once again the fishing was nothing short of phenomenal, though again sorting out the bigger specimens, be they catfish or tigerfish, was a case of having to work through colossal numbers of smaller specimens, not that this is too much of a chore in this pristine, wildlife enriched and little known corner of Africa.
Walking with the freedom to explore the thickest areas of bush is one of the major attractions and activities for many guests who stay at camps within The Selous such as the Sand Rivers. Most afternoons we would board an open top Land Rovers and drive for about 20 minutes to the starting point for our walk. As the Land Rover drove off into the bush and we set off at a comfortable pace through open Miombo woodland, we would set off following a well trodden game path.
We made frequent stops as Alex pointed out a certain bird or other point of interest along the way, all of which would almost certainly have gone unnoticed had we been sat in a Land Rover or mini-bus. This is, of course, the real beauty of a walking safari, you never know just what you are going to see next. As you enter each thicket you can never be sure what you will find, and judging by the obvious caution with which Alex lead us through certain areas, not all species of animals welcome the surprise of a group of walkers suddenly stumbling upon them!
We spent a fascinating five minutes or so watching a determined dung beetle struggle to roll a perfectly spherical ball of dung many times its own size through the dust and stubby grass. We saw an endless column of ants which stretched for a far as the eye could see, each ant carrying a termite egg from the nest they had raided. And then there was the ‘spoor’ of many different animals. The twin hoof prints of various species of antelope, the enormous dinner plate depressions from elephant, the distinctive pads from various species of cat, the mud-wallows frequented by buffalo, the well worn ‘salt licks’ visited by countless generations of elephants, and the polished bark on an old tree where many elephants had regularly stopped for a rub and a scratch.
One evening after about an hour of walking we came across a dozen elephants, feeding amidst the lush grass on the edge of a swamp. For almost half an hour we stood motionless as they quietly worked their way in front of us, totally unaware of our presence. And then there were the zebra, wildebeest, warthogs, giraffe, and much, much more. If you want a taste of real Africa, the Africa of adventure and mystery, the real wild Africa, forget the popular game parks in Kenya and Northern Tanzania, head south to the Selous for the experience of a lifetime.