Sunday, December 16, 2012

Out On Big Blue

Excerpt from an article (East Africa Magazine, 2010) by Greg Cummings

The sun is pegging and all around us fish are jumping: wahoo, swordfish, tuna. We’re on Albatross, fishing somewhere over the Malindi Watamu Bank, about 17 miles off the Kenyan Coast, with more hooks than Jay-Z trailing from our stern. 
Suddenly a line screams off the reel. “We’ve got a strike!” shouts Joe Baker, and hands me the rod. I struggle to take control of it, grappling with the method and muscle required, but my enthusiasm vastly outweighs my experience. All the while, I’m being given orders from above and behind: “Feed the line!” “Let the pole do the work!” “Don’t let your line touch the boat!” “You can’t take a break now!” I soon get the hang of it, and am rocking and reeling, dragging up a monster from the deep.
It feels like I’ve been fighting for hours, though it can’t be more than fifteen minutes, and I want to give up from the ache in my left arm but I know I have to see this through. Finally I spot him, just below the ocean surface, shimmering in the big blue, and he’s still fighting hard. I put everything I’ve got into the last 5 meters. When at last he’s close enough, the boatmen lean over the stern and grab him with their gaffers.
“Bu yakka!” I shout, staggering away from the fighting chair, breathless, bone-tired and dripping with sweat from the fight. 
“You can’t be a Tuna Murdra without getting blood on the decks!” laughs Joe, as my yellowfin is pulled aboard by the two Kenyan boatmen, and immediately bled with long knives. 
“You must eat the heart of your first yellowfin!” adds skipper JJ Nicholas. It’s a sobering thought but nothing can contain my excitement at seeing this great fish in the flesh. It’s a beautiful beast with vivid silver and black markings, a turquoise stripe down its side, and bright yellow fins and finlets, which give it its name. In my mind it’s plenty big - at least 25 kgs - but I’m told they can reach 5 times that size. I just know it’s going to taste delicious - heart and all - when Felipe cooks it up at Rosada’s in Malindi tonight. 
“Last week I got two tunnies tangled and a Black came up and snatched them both,” says JJ, recounting a recent close call with a Black fin marlin. “Couldn’t hold him for longer than a minute on two bloody lines!” Albatross might be Joe’s boat, but chartering this 33 foot Black Fin Express is JJ’s operation. Born and raised in Watamu, he has spent more than 30 years fishing and diving off the Kenyan Coast. His experience shows as he steers Albatross lightly into the swells with understated skill, like a expert safari guide, instinctively drawn towards the game. 
I open a can of Tusker, Kenya’s award-winning beer, take a hard swig and am feeling very satisfied. We’re getting strike after strike, and with each one every one of the half a dozen lines and teasers trailing from our stern must be reeled in and the rods put aside on deck, so as to not tangle with the active line. The boatmen are hard at work. Mbololongu, a lanky Bantu with ungainly features, is the more experienced of the two and has a pretty good handle on the routine, though he has only been doing this work for two years. 
“Who’s the daddy?” cries Joe, as reels in another yellowfin tuna. He’s an experienced Angler and it shows: it takes him less than ten minutes to bring in his tunny. “It’s yellow-fin genocide!” he hollers with sheer delight.
Joe’s big appetite for big pursuits in Africa is in the vein of Hemingway. Like many Americans here, he just wants to enjoy himself, unencumbered by white man’s burden. He respects the English who settled in East Africa but he doesn’t share their point of view. When he first moved here in the early Nineties, he let his enthusiasm for deep sea fishing be known at the Malindi Fishing Club. “Just what we need, a Yank coming here to teach us how to fish,” was the response. So Joe went out and caught the biggest Black fin tuna recorded in Kenya that year. When he returned to the Club he was greeted with an obliging handshake and a, “Well done old chap!” These days, he’s a deep drop ninja, stalking the swordfish grander: over 150 kg. He believes a day-time deep drop - just one line and bait down - could do the trick and catch one of these deep water monsters.

We are headed back to shore now, Albatross brimming with as many fish as the bin is brimming with empty Tuskers. There are few things in life that satisfy me as much as spending time in Africa’s big open spaces. I have travelled from Congo to the Coast and I am contented. And from this tapestry of sun, sky, ocean, shores and forests I begin to unravel myself, knowing my inevitable departure approaches. We pass a dhow with a big samosa sail, but without much water between us, and I get a glimpse of the skippers eyes: old and sunken but as bright as the day he was born. No doubt he’s been fishing these waters for time immemorial, following the ancient trade routes up and down the Swahili Coast. Perhaps I should follow him.

“Nothing exceeds like excess,” says Joe, bringing me back down to sea level and reminding me of the decadence of our pursuits. I’ve only known him a couple of days, but I think we’ll end up being life-long friends. I have a feeling Papa would have liked him too, and the other Americans I have spoken of on this Big Hemingway Safari, those whom he inspired to take the buffalo by the horns and settle on the Bright Continent. 

Believing I’m all out of quotes, and about to throw the last beer in the bin, an inscription on the back of my Tusker suddenly catches my eye: “When you know where you come from, you will know where you are going.” Ain’t that the truth?!

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