Botswana is a land-locked country in Southern Africa, famous for the big game animals that roam large fenced reserves. The population of about 1.5 million is spread around the edges of the Kalahari Desert. In a land of little rain, the currency is called pula , which means rain. Karen Ross wrote Okavango, Jewel of the Kalahari in the 1980s. If you are planning to visit Botswana, I recommend reading her book about our ecosystem. Ross describes the Okavango River Delta as a "clear, unspoiled, sparkling diamond." My friend Tom is visiting from Nova Scotia, Canada, and three of us are taking him for a day trip on the Okavango River to fish for tiger. The tiger fish is well known by fishermen for its fighting skills; hooking one is no guarantee of catching one. The sound of the reel whining, as the line runs out, is thrilling to a fisherman.
Rains in the highlands of Angola feed the delta annually. We are in Shakawe, a village 400 km north of Maun — the tourist gateway to the Delta. Shakawe has water year-round. In Maun the river often dries up for three to four months a year. We have an 18-foot boat stocked with petrol, fishing rods and tackle, sandwiches, fruit, and cold drinks. It is eight o'clock in the morning, and we are all eager to get going.
Travelers know that it is not the destination but the journey that is important. We make sure that the engine is running smoothly before we push off into the river. Our journey is delayed as we watch Carmine Bee Eaters go in and out of their nests along the riverbank. The river has carved a flat two- to three-meter bank, and the Bee Eaters have burrowed out their nests there.
After a few minutes we make way and head up stream toward the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. Our day is off to a good start. Coming up to the first river bend, the captain cuts the engine and we glide toward a sand bar. A three-meter crocodile has been spotted sunning itself and resting after a busy night of hunting. We get to within 20 meters before it notices us and starts to move. Watching the crocodile move into the water and pass under the boat, someone exclaims, "What a size. Look how fast it moves. It's all muscle." We watch the crocodile disappear into the river's depth. It is clear to all on board that we are on more than a fishing trip. Just as quickly as the crocodile escaped, we have moved into the wilderness.
The captain moves to full steam ahead, and the crew settles back and enjoys the boat as it swings around the bends of the meandering Okavango River. It is not long before we spot hippos. Slowing down and getting closer there appear to be about eight. It is difficult to get an exact count, as they submerge for five minutes and reappear more than 100 meters away or, worse, closer!
The hippopotamus is the most dangerous animal in Africa. Looking fat and seeming to have a smile on its face, it can fool you into venturing too close. These hippos are giving clear signs of not being happy with us in their territory. The dominant male, in particular, seems unhappy. His ears are flicking and twitching. He is snorting, and when he surfaces, he throws out a big spume. He has come dangerously close to the boat. Jon, our captain, decides on the safest route of evasion, and we continue toward the three-kilogram tiger that all local fishermen dream about. Enough sightseeing, it is time to cut bait and fish.
Tom heard some of our fishing stories the night before, though he knows fishing stories are sometimes exaggerated. Using our local knowledge, we take him to a place we now refer to as Cooper's Corner. It is decided Tom should show us how people from Nova Scotia fish.
This is a true story: within 30 seconds of his first cast, his reel begins to whine. Tom says, "Jeez, what's that!" and the tiger comes straight up out of the water, twisting and fighting all the way. Tom keeps reeling in and things settle down, somewhat. Two more jumps by the tiger and five minutes later, it is netted.
Everyone looks handsome when posing next to a tiger for a picture. Tigers have very powerful jaws and teeth that go every which way. You have to get the hook out with a pair of pliers, so you don't loose a finger. After some picture taking and guessing the weight (about one kilogram), the fish is released back into the river. Tom sits back to take in the scenery and enjoy the moment.
I fish almost exclusively with a Mepps No. 3. Ernest, a far more experienced river fisherman than myself, has a tackle box that brims over with lures of all sizes and shapes. He wants to show Tom what grown-up tiger looks like. It takes five or six casts before Ernest gets a strike. When we see the tiger come out of the water, it looks three kilograms in weight. With one mighty sweep of its head, those ugly jaws get the back of the leader and snap the line. There are some mixed emotions and comments as Ernest grabs a second rod and casts again -- right where that fish had jumped.
At that moment we hear the plaintive call of a Fish Eagle, watching from a tree on the far bank. Who knows, maybe he has seen this scene many times. Seconds later, the tiger comes straight up about ten meters from the boat with the lure and leader hanging from its mouth. In full sunlight, this is a brilliant, movie-caliber scene. Ernest quickly reels in the line and casts to the new location. Nobody knows what to expect. This is a story you often hear about, but never see. We are all staring at the water, unblinking. You could hear a pin drop. Now the tiger comes up two meters from the boat, spits out the lure and leader, and falls back into the river, never to be seen again. We all watch the lure slowly spiral to the river bottom.
It is time for lunch. Jon finds a good tree hanging out over the river and we tie-up. The boat swings gently back and forth over the current of the river. Everyone needs to eat and rest from the midday heat. The boat has an upper deck for a tent, which provides needed shade. Everyone gets comfortable for an hour-long rest. Quips and cajoles are circulated about the one that got away.
In the afternoon, we do more touring than fishing. Downstream, we pass Nxamasere Fishing Camp and eventually stop at Drotsky's. There we refresh with a couple of cold drinks and retell our fishing stories. The sun is setting low on the horizon -- time to head home.
With twilight approaching, the African sky begins to look more immense than it appeared all day. The few clouds in the sky show tinges of red, turquoise, and purple. Before we reach home it is dark, and we have to use a floodlight for guidance. The light picks up a pair of crocodile eyes, lurking close to the riverbank.
Ten hours have passed, and it has been quite a journey. Tom tries to put into words what the day has meant to him and thanks the crew. We unpack the boat a little slower than we packed in the morning. Everyone looks forward to a pasta dinner and fine South African red wines. Over dinner, we make plans for another trip into the pristine beauty of the Okavango Delta.
Sleep is not far away, and I am sure more than one of us dreams of the tiger who spit out the lure. Until you see it, it is hard to believe. But I assure you, almost every word is true.