Magnificent Murchison

A ray of reflected sunshine catches the corner of my eye but I ignore it, I’ve grown to recognise it as the day’s worn on. It comes from the barrel of an AK47 rifle hanging from the shoulder of Serapio’s personal bodyguard. To his right the Ranger has one, too. Usually I’m stepping over these weapons in the bottom of the boat, shuffling my feet to gain sufficient balance to swing out a half-pound bait but when you’re coaching a Rt. Honourable Government Minister on the fineries of trotting a livebait the stakes are raised somewhat.

Welcome to Africa. It’s fishing Jim, but not as we know it.

Funny too, how we’re already on first name terms and I have his mobile number punched into my phone. Fishing’s a great leveller and he’s driven five hours to be with us, but how the hell did I come to be stood next to such an important guy, the same guy I appeared with on Ugandan TV only three days earlier?

We were introduced at the office of Afritours who made practically all of the arrangements for us to fish here in what is surely one of the world’s most spectacular locations, below the magnificent Murchison Falls, on the Victoria Nile.

The perilous days of Idi Amin are over. Entebbe airport is serene, and clean. Uganda is open for business again and the biggest business in town is tourism. The tourism dollar already exceeds that of Uganda’s other major export, coffee, and it will continue to grow. Think Kenya without the crowds and the commercialism.

Serapio Rukundu is Uganda’s Minister of State for Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities. He asked to see us when he heard plans of our little adventure so we met up in Kampala. Of course, such a meeting becomes attractive to many, particularly the Uganda Wildlife Authority who control the park we are to fish in.

Malik is our ‘fixer’, a man who in his time has been on the frontline of practically every African conflict in living memory. A man who was invited to the White House and asked to support the American logistics in Afghanistan and declined the offer, “Africa is MY country, man…”

He’s also seen his own image posted on wanted posters but for very different reasons. Malik’s a ‘logistics’ man who’ll get you spare parts for a tank, or procure 50 land cruisers – at a price, of course.

Meanwhile, the coffee and samosas are pretty damn good.

The people from the Uganda Wildlife Authority are keen to help us in any way they can in return for no more than advice and feedback. Patrick Tushabe who’s the newly appointed Product Development Executive for UWA spends as much time with us as he can spare. He wants to understand what has brought us 4,000 miles to play in his back garden. The immaculate Justus Tusuuriba, Conservation Area Manager tags along, too. He manages the Murchison Falls National Park, 5,080 sq km of unspoilt paradise.

But let’s reel back a few days to our very first morning on the river. We arrived at the falls with a watery sun peeping over the horizon. You hear the falls long before you see them. I’ve been to Niagara but this is something else altogether. Henry Gilby summed it up when he said, ‘I didn’t realise water could explode.’

We film, we take pictures and we chatter away like schoolchildren, amazed by the spectacle, but at some point we’ve got to scramble down the cliff face. Much of it is steps but to get to the actual cauldron is a little more strenuous. Perhaps, downright perilous is another way to describe it. But it’s got to be done because I have some tip-top information from ‘Sir’ John Wilson himself. We have the right lures – Rapala Shad Raps and Countdowns. Each one armed with upgraded split rings and trebles that are honed to perfect sharpness. Nothing can be left to chance.

John told me that lure fishing is destructive so just have six or 7 casts, no more. You’ll catch a couple of fish but after that you’ll just destroy your own fishing. We draw straws to see who has the first go – two casts each and then pass on the rod. One angler on the cameras, one to assist the landing of fish.

We are at fever pitch but six casts later we’re no nearer to getting off the mark. Damn! Obviously things have changed since John was last here. However, this is our first truly close-up view of the falls and they’re jaw dropping. I have never seen water that is quite so violent or heard water that is louder than thunder, nor witnessed eddies where the water crashes over rocks like surf. One slip and you’re dead. If you’re lucky you’ll drown. If not you’re crocodile meat. Hell, they’ll get you either way.

We try other spots to no avail and then retire to lick our wounds.

Back we go to Bakers Point, named after Samuel Baker who, in 1864, was the first European to see the falls, naming them after Sir Roderick Murchison, President of the Royal Geographical Society. Bakers is a rocky promontory jutting out into the river with no shade and it’s baking hot. As the day wears on the rock gets hotter, like an oven stone. I hope you realise how we suffer to bring you these tales(!)

The bait boys have worked their magic and caught us a few awaka livebaits. The ones around half a pound are what we want but they’re not easy to come by. After what seems like hours of taking turns to trot baits around a giant swirling eddy Stu says I’m going to drop one in just here, pointing to a narrow, choppy area just in front of us. Ten seconds later his float slides beneath the waves and his arms are almost ripped out of their sockets as a perch surges out into the main torrent.

An epic battle follows but we finally land our first proper fish of the trip. It weighs 53lb. We’re plagued by smaller fish that sometimes get hooked on the lower bait-holding single but we’re using massive Mustad circle hooks on the basis that we’re here to land a monster and we want it to be landed. The downside is the proper hook is never taken in by the 15-pounders. Who needs these tiddlers anyway!

John Wilson had told me on the phone that if he had one day left on earth and could fish anywhere in the world it would be here. As the day drew to a close I loaded up my tackle, looked up at the cliff and began to wonder if this would actually be my last day on earth. The climb up the steps after a day in the intense heat is a killer but the view from the top is more than worth the pain.

Can you believe we didn’t fish the next day? Instead we took in a game drive and it’ll live with me forever. We found ourselves in a landscape where we were often the only vehicle to be seen in any direction and we were surrounded by an abundance of amazing wildlife. Hippos, giraffes, elephant, antelope, buck, buffalo, warthogs, baboons, you name it, but we’re really hoping to see a lion. Suddenly Stu exclaims, “There’s one over there!” Gesticulating at the long grass, “I saw a tail whip up in the air!” We can see nothing then George, smiling away, urges the driver to go ‘off-piste’. Sure enough it’s a lioness and she’s hunting. The pictures say it all. Simply stunning.

We found others, and a leopard, but it’s the thrill of that first one that will live with us for a very long time.

For the rest of the week we alternated between bank fishing and boat fishing. In a moment of madness Stu decided he’d cut a squeaker catfish in half to use as a deadbait with a pair of pliers. One minute he’s slashing away with the pointed end the next he’s impaled on its dorsal spine and there’s blood everywhere. And there ended his fishing for the day. James delivered first aid on the bank but we still had to send him off in the boat for a bit of needlework. Just goes to show which bits of your tackle are really important – a spare reel or the first aid kit – no brainer.

With Stu dispatched we continued fishing, as you do! It was just so unfair that I hooked a special one in his absence. Stu and I have shared many adventures in the past 6 or 7 years and I was gutted he missed what was definitely ‘our’ fish, not just mine.

We’d moored against the rushes in a bay and it had been a very slow day. James was trotting a livebait round the crease while I free-lined a deadbait. Without a single bite for our troubles we’d tried our best to explain what fishing was all about to Patrick Tushabe. Only when I bent into this monster did he begin to understand.

It was a heavy, heavy fish that went where it wanted to. It could have been a huge cat or even a crocodile but when the line snaked through the water, rising from the surface I knew it was a perch and cried out, “James, it’s coming up, get it on the camera!”

A split second later the biggest mouth I’ve ever seen on a fish erupted from the water, shaking from side to side as it tried to throw the hooks.

Eventually we brought it to the boat. What a lump! James was doing a sterling job with the DVD camera before switching to organiser mode, sorting out the scales and sling. James had no point of reference, never having seen a big Nile perch in the flesh, but even he wasn’t prepared for the shock as the digital scales told their tale. I stood back and left them all to it until James began shouting at the top of his voice and dancing like a dervish, “Effin’ hell! Effin’ hell! One-hundred-and-fourteen-pounds…”

I’d done it, I’d bagged myself a buffalo and Patrick finally understood why we fish.

Hours of frustration, trepidation and patient belief before a few minutes of explosive, nerve jangling action followed by tremendous excitement and jubilation. Highs and lows in unequal proportions, but what highs…

For the rest of the week I was happy to let James and Stu do most of the fishing. After all, I’d had my big ’un. James turned out to be our expert cat man – able to conjure then up from anywhere but he was denied a proper big perch so I guess he’ll be returning to Uganda, sometime soon. Get saving James!

We each landed a bait-robbing terrapin during the week. Unlike the ones you see in pet shops these were nearly three feet in diameter and weighed the better part of a hundred pounds apiece. The real fun came when you tried to unhook one as they are pretty aggressive and quite capable of removing a finger.

All too soon our trip was over.

If you fancy a crack at Murchison then you can easily organise the trip yourself by contacting Afritours or the Sambiya River Lodge where we stayed. The food at Sambiya is excellent and the accommodation perfectly comfortable. Debbie and Olga organised everything we asked for including transfers from the airport at Entebbe, daily lifts to and from the river, hiring bait boys, boats, passes for the park, packed lunches, indeed anything and everything we needed and by dealing direct we saved ourselves a small fortune.

More information about the Uganda Wildlife Authority which controls the boats and the fishing can be found on its web site.

Footnote on Tackle: When it comes to taming big wild fish in foreign places it is vital that you take tackle that is up to the job. There’s no point in saving up all year and then facing disappointment because you compromised on your tackle. In the past I’ve used Daiwa’s 4-10oz uptide rods with a Saltist or Saltega multiplier when trolling lures on Nasser and bait fishing for mahseer. Once again this was my first choice combo for live baiting on the Nile. However I also took along a Global Tournament rod and a large capacity Saltega reel and to be honest, this will be my first choice on all future adventures. Not a cheap option but to paraphrase Lord Of The Rings, “One rod to rule them all”. It’ll do everything you need wherever you travel. Perfect for mahseer, Nile perch, catfish, tarpon, even sharks.

And now a little gallery. This is but a sample from the friends we made, the sights we saw and the amazing wildlife we encountered…

 And if you missed the film clips of our little adventure…

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