(Originally published in the January 2020 Issue of Ski-Boat)
By Erwin Bursik
THE sun’s golden orb settled gently over the red western sky into the bush-lined horizon of the north bank of the mighty Zambezi River. Before disappearing for the dark of night, it left its telltale path of shining gold over the rippled surface of this, one of the biggest east-flowing rivers in Africa.
A sight such as this not only reignites the soul, but also for me personally brought back memories of standing on the same spot exactly 30 years before, witnessing this same spectacular sunset on my first expedition to hunt the Zambezi’s legendary tigerfish.
During the final stages of the ceasefire of the Border War I was a guest at a Captain Morgan competition held at a military camp on the very site where the new fantastic Zambezi Mubala Lodge stands. I was filled with excitement and anticipation at the thought of hunting the waters to hopefully catch my very first river tiger. (See the November/December 1989 issue of SKI-BOAT). This time, as I surveyed the river, I held in my hand a tall glass of Captain Morgan to toast my return to a magical destination and the fervent hope of tackling one of the big tigerfish for which this stretch of river within Namibia’s Caprivi panhandle is renowned.
Gondwana Collection Namibia purchased the two adjacent lodges that previously occupied this high cliff situation on the river bank. They subsequently demolished them and, with innovative design encompassing modern construction methods, brought the recently opened Zambezi Mubala Lodge into being.
Lining the cliff top are 22 self-standing ultra modern cabins which stretch east and west of the lodge’s lounge, dining, bar and swimming pool complex, and are all connected by a boardwalk.
However, at that moment of contemplation. it was the mystery and magic of the river that held my attention until the blackness of the African night closed its curtain on past memories and opened my mind to the extremely comfortable and inviting surroundings of the lodge itself.
Gondwana Collection’s lodges in the Caprivi panhandle provide access to both the Kavango River that arises in Angola and runs eastward forming the border between Namibia and Angola, as well as the famous Okavango swamps. Gondwana’s Hakusebe Lodge is situated just west of Rundu and Namushasha, a lot closer to the Botswana border. Just east of Katima Mulilo are two Gondwana Collection Lodges — the Mubala Fishing Camp and, approximately six kilometres east, the new Gondwana Mubala Lodge. Further towards the Botswana border on the banks of the Chobe River is the Tented Gondwana Choba Lodge that overlooks the expansive flood plains that traditionally attract the huge herds of elephants, buffalo and plains game of the Chobe National Park. It’s a spectacular sight when the waters of the Zambezi push back into the Chobe River system, filling to capacity all the small waterways and providing the much needed water to perpetuate the cycle of life of that region.
For me, however, the draw of the tigerfish took centre stage and Gondwana Holdings’ Financial Director, Jaco Visser, and his high performance river craft had me more than excited for the dawn of the following morning.
River fishing, especially in Namibia’s Kavango and Zambezi rivers, has expanded exponentially over the last decade. It has also developed into a specialised art form of angling where fishing with ultra light fishing gear and artificial lures is the norm. A number of highly competitive competitions such as the Crockango Bonanza on the Kavango River, the Zambezi Classic on the Zambezi and a Bream Classic in the Okavango swamps has brought about a revelation of tackle and specialised boats that are capable of high speed navigation along extensive stretches of all these rivers.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE IS KING
I was in very accomplished company, accompanied as I was by Jaco and Lappies Loubser, Gondwana’s Northern Regional General Manager, who won the Zambezi Classic in late August 2019.
Although tigerfish were uppermost in my mind, they were determined to expose me to the art lure side of the sport, targeting the large bream that are found in these waters and which play a very important part in these angling competition. I soon learned that the equipment and efficient use of it is not easy and immense skill and local knowledge is extremely important.
Drifting down a fast flowing river with reasonably strong upstream winds, a mere 2- to 4 metres from the reeds and bush-strewn banks is an art in itself. Add to that flicking a quarter-ounce jig into pockets, holes and undercuts that hold these big bream — especially nembwe — was nigh impossible for a novice like me.
Initially it was highly embarrassing as eight out of ten of my casts ended with me snagging on seen and unseen structures. However, seeing my companions hooking and tussling with some good sized bream made me more and more determined to get the lure in the right area. In the end I caught two respectable nembwe, quite a few three spot and even more “humpies” — humpback bream.
As a sport it is highly addictive, and I soon became obsessed with placing the lure into the right hole and getting these bream to eat. Once one gets these 2- to 3kg fish out of the “hole” and into the strong current of the Zambezi, they put up a tremendous fight on the light tackle we used. Very exciting indeed!
TIGERS AT DUSK
We tended to leave the targeting of tigerfish till the last few hours before darkness, which resulted in a few very big tigers being caught. I personally still get an incredible thrill from the tigers’ ferocious take, aerial display and the tenacious fight next to the boat; and then there’s the relief of the netting. Finally you get a few minutes of close-at-hand adrenaline-fueled photography and then the thrill of holding the tiger in the water until it kicks and powers its way back into the green water of the Zambezi River.
One of the methods used to target tigers is to suspend a live baitfish (bream) beneath a balloon. On one of the days a pink floating balloon attached to a live bream was attacked by a two metre long crocodile that made a surface charge across the last ten metres to engulf the balloon and get entangled in my line. The fight was on, and it was a lot more visible than those against the sharks that take our tuna or ’cuda at sea. Needless to say, on light tiger tackle the attachment didn’t last long, but it was very exciting until the croc rolled me up and smashed the line.
Fishing the Zambezi is an almost calming experience. There’s no swell, big seas, strong wind and violent rocking like one experiences on the ocean, but rather a calm, hushed atmosphere as one drifts downstream. The beautiful views along both banks and the cool off-water breeze keeping one reasonably cool adds to the overall enjoyment.
Whilst our fish expeditions took us up to 30km downstream of the lodge, most of the fish, especially the tigerfish, were caught in the eight kilometre stretch between the Mubala Camp and the Mubala Lodge. Clients that fish on the lodge’s charter boats have access to arguably the best fishing areas in that region, and each evening they shared stories in the bar of their experience fishing the mighty Zambezi.
The Zambezi Mubala Camp Lodge is accessible by road some 30km east of Katima Mulilo and provides bush-style tented accommodation with self-catering facilities sited above the river in park-like surroundings. Excellent food is available in the bar area although the menu is very limited. For two nights of my stay I was accommodated in the camp and enjoyed the meals. The tented accommodation is very comfortable with an en-suite bathroom, a double bed and two single beds, and a verandah that doubles as the cooking and socialising area.
This camp is very popular among visiting Namibian fishermen as well as SA tourists driving through this area and the northern regions of Namibia.
Gondwana Lodges offers South African tourists a Gondwana Card that entitles them to a 40% discount on the rack rate accommodation charges and makes this camp very affordable. Add to this the twenty-odd permanent tents, swimming pool, lodge, tackle shop and other facilities and its clear why it’s such a popular venue.
It’s worth noting that the Zambezi Mubala Camp is sited on a backwater channel of the Zambezi with Kalimbeza Island on its opposite bank. The surrounding waters of this island are protected and policed by Sikunga Protection Area Guards to ensure that the prolific illegal commercial gill netting is virtually eliminated. As a result, the number of fish in this protected area has dramatically increased and all concerned believe this seeding will improve the overall fish population in this area and downstream towards Gondwana Mubala Lodge to perpetually sustain the fisheries in this area. A catch and release policy is rigorously promoted.
Gondwana’s Zambezi Mubala Lodge is, in my opinion, outstanding. Brilliant in design and even more exceptional when put to use by this fishing-weary fisherman. The cabins are very spacious and I am certain my wife, Annie, would have been thrilled to stay in Cabin no.8 with me. Fully air-conditioned, with magnificent views of the Zambezi whether you’re lying in bed, in the “rain” shower or on the secluded outdoor veranda, it feels as if you are right on the water. The cabins are stylishly decorated and have everything one would wish for on a trip to southern Africa.
The dining area is designed for comfort and is open to receive the cool upriver breeze. It also offers a magnificent view of the river.
The meals are superbly prepared and presented and cater for all tastes. The “table de hôte” menu varied substantially every evening I stayed there, with the superb-tasting food being beautifully presented and efficiently served.
A large firepit is situated between the bar and the dining area and it’s extremely pleasant to relax there while enjoying an after dinner drink.
Off necessity the entire lodge is built on pillars, ensuring that when the Zambezi reaches its peak during the high water season and overflows its banks, guests at Mubala Lodge will not be affected. It must be quite an experience to be able to park your boat almost next to the bar access!
This lodge is primarily aimed at the international tourist market, but it’s becoming incredibly popular among visiting anglers who appreciate the additional luxury this lodge offers, especially when they’re accompanied by their non-fishing partners.
Zambezi Mubala Lodge is not accessible by vehicle, so all guests are transported by river ferries from Mubala Camp to the lodge, a 6km boat meander downstream which in itself is a wonderful experience.
HORSES ON THE WATER
In conclusion I need to enthuse about Jaco’s new craft — Ruffnek Boats Namibia’s most recent design. This craft was designed especially for the big rivers of northern Namibia where exceptional stability is required. The ability to use huge outboard motors on these craft enables the highly competitive anglers to cover up to 100km of river during fishing competitions. This year this boat ran 90km downstream to Impala Island and back — all within the day’s fishing. I was astounded! At nearly full throttle, we recorded an S0G of 115kph. The 300hp Mercury motor was running at 6 000rpm and swinging a 25 pitch prop.
The boat’s lateral stability was most impressive, both at speed and more especially while fishing.
As a skipper on the Zambezi one can’t just run straight at high speed — sand bars, bends in the river, hippos and local makoros require one to make many sharp turns.
During the time I was aboard with Jaco this was all achieved, with him rarely reducing speed to avoid the obstacles. To prove his boat’s capabilities, in one wide and deep stretch of the river he submitted us to some full-lock turns at very high speed. It was thrilling but frightening for me as we felt the “G” effects as the craft turned with great style, hardly tilting into the turn and not requiring much if any reduction of speed. I studied with interest the planing surfaces of the craft’s hull that enable it to achieve the speeds it does and, more importantly, its stability while three large anglers plied their “trade” during a days fishing on the river.
Jurgen Geiger of Ruffnek Boats Namibia needs to be lauded for departing from the traditional hull design to produce a craft that can load a 400hp on its transom and achieve the stability that Jaco’s TomCat showed.
I travelled from Durban via Johannesburg to Kasane in Botswana, leaving Durban at 08:00 and arriving in Kansane at 13:30. Thereafter it was a two-hour (140km) road transfer through the Chobe National Park to the customs border between Botswana and Namibia and then on to Mubala Camp. Overall, a very interesting experience.
My fervent hope is that I don’t have to wait another 30 years to revisit this very special destination on the Zambezi River.