Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Americans, Tigers, and the Mighty Zambezi

Been waayy too long, I know... but this story is a biggie, so prop up your feet, pour a hot cup of tea, and enjoy the ride…

When I have more down-time I'll tell the whole story of how I ended up meeting this man I call the love of my life. But for now I'll just give the necessary details...

Cuan lived in Baton Rouge for a few months about 5 years ago and worked for a company called Lipsey's, a local whole-sale gun distributor (right up his alley, right?). During his time there he met some great life-long friends. After months (…years now) of hearing stories about the mysterious and amazing Africa, one friend in particular took the bait! We spent an evening with Adam and his girlfriend Megan while we were State-side last Christmas 2012 and got to discussing how they HAVE to come visit Africa to even get the slightest idea of what Cuan has been talking about all these years. It didn't take much convincing! After waiting for passports to be issued and a million emails back and forth, their flights were booked! Adam and Megan, the first of our American friends, were coming to visit.
**side note to all, my friends/family back home.. get on the ball! Although we are close friends now, these guys are connected to CUAN. I think we need to make it even now, I've got an empty bedroom waiting for you...**;)

So with a few weeks to plan, Cu and I started thinking of the ideal way to make the best of their 10 days with us. And I think we did a pretty good job!

Adam and Meg landed in Harare on the 8th of August after what I'm sure was a looong trip in (been there once or twice..). But we didn't give them any time to get their bearings or even a bit of shut eye. We loaded up their bags and got on the road straight for Masau Lodge!

I still can't believe that I haven't posted anything about this place yet. But as this was my first time back in 3 years I guess I wouldn't have had a reason! Masau is a fishing/game viewing/photographic camp located directly on the Zambezi River (this river separates Zimbabwe from Zambia) and is owned by none other than Mr. and Mrs. Squirrel Meredith! ("Dad" to Cuan). The first time I went to Masau was my first ever trip to Zim, and I will never forget it. Maybe it was the Christmas holiday spirit in the air, or the awe of seeing this incredible place for the first time, but when I got there it just felt like paradise. It’s nothing flashy or fancy, just beautiful chalets and tents in an absolutely stunning part of the country, with excellent service, food, and of course fishing! Now every time I go back there I get that same feeling. Where you just know you have nothing to worry about for the next few days but where your fishing line is, who is going to catch the biggest Tiger Fish, and who is pouring the next drink. It’s a good feeling.

Anyway, I digress...

So A&M arrive safely in Harare, and we get loaded up for the road. That wasn't without its first little hiccup of the trip. When we parked at the airport, Cuan very lazily took up 4 parking spots... whoops. But there were so many open spots we didn't think too much about it. Well come to find out the parking lot rent-a-cops thought otherwise. We get back to the car to find a boot on the tire..

However annoying that was, Mr. Suave managed to talk the guy down from 100 bucks to a mere $10 fine. AND the cop helped us load all of our luggage in the truck! Welcome to Africa, my friends.

Settled in and ready to go we hit the road for the long haul to the Zambezi. It was a cozy drive in Cu’s cab and a half, so it didn’t take long to break the ice. Before we knew it we were goofing off and laughing like old friends. The ride out to Masau is long but takes you through some amazing landscape.

On either side of the river (both the Zim and Zambian sides) there is what everyone refers to as the “Escarpment,” two huge mountain ranges that were carved out of the land by the mighty Zambezi. It is at this point in the journey, when you reach the top of the mountains, that the holiday really begins. As per tradition, we stopped at a stunning lookout and cracked open the first beer of the trip. We took some time to sip on our cold drinks while we looked down on the valley that leads to the river. This is always a good way to get ready for the next 4 or so hours of the journey.

Right at the bottom of the mountain range the nice paved road turns into dirt as you go deeper and deeper into the true bush, where only tiny villages lie, and the bravest of the native Zimbabwean’s call their home.  

This is where our next little hiccup came. So we are driving in the middle of NOWHERE right? Nothing around but a few villages, small “towns” if you must.. and wouldn’t you know there were cops on the road! Cuan gets pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt.

At this point Meg and I are on the “hunting bench” Cu installed in the bed of the truck, sipping on delicious Savannah’s (cider drinks), obviously not wearing seatbelts. But the cop insists on giving the two gentlemen in the front seatbelt fines. Of course Cuan’s smooth tongue managed to get it to only a ticket for one person.. So as Cu is out of the truck giving the cop all of “his” details as he’s writing up the ticket, Meg and I were falling out of our chairs laughing as Cuan is spelling out “his” name for the guy: A-D-A-M   L-A-T-O, 78 Bushpig drive, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Ha! Only in the country 4 hours and he’s already received a ticket. 

So after the fine was paid (yes, tickets are paid for on the spot in cash...) and all that dust was settled we carried on! Continued the bumpy drive through the bush and eventually made it to camp. It was dark and late by this point. And although they were excited, our overseas friends were starting to feel the 36+ hours of traveling. So we introduced ourselves to the rest of the guests at the lodge, including Cat and Squirrel Meredith our fine hosts for the weekend, had a quick supper and headed to bed. Because the next day was going to be a busy one!

We woke up before dawn the next morning to get on the boat and out in the water for some ideal Tiger fishing. I was really excited to get Adam and Meg to Masau when we did. Because they arrived at night, they didn’t really have any idea what the camp looked like or exactly how close our chalet was from the water. (about 3 feet)

As we were getting ready, all I could hear coming from the other room were a bunch of “Wooows” and “Woaahs.” I think our guests were a little speechless at their first look at where we were. The location of Masau is unique in itself. Its located right on the Northeast corner of Zimbabwe. Looking out onto the river you can see Zambia right across from you, and Mozambique mountains over in the distance to the east. Quite a sight to wake up to on your first morning in Africa.

Masau Lodge

 A nice warm breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast was already prepared for us when we made it to the dining room. We dined on the delicious meal while watching the sun rise over that amazing river.
Full of food and energy, it was game time. I know I said that going to Masau, you have nothing to worry about, just chill and fish and get some sun. I failed to mention, however, the competition. All together, there were 8 adults at camp. And the teams were already decided. Of course Cuan, Adam, Megan, and I were on a team and we came out with guns firing.

Day One of fishing trip: catch the most kilograms of tiger per team. With two rookies, a medium experienced tiger fisherman (myself), and an expert guide (if you will..), we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but were ready for the challenge.

Its difficult to describe the things that you see while cruising down the Zambezi to the first fishing spot, but I’ll do my best. Because we our downstream from the Mupata gorge and the best fishing spots, it takes about an hour of driving before rods are put in the water. Which allows for plenty of game viewing and photographic opportunities. The scene around us as we drove is one of the main reasons I love this place. Nearly untouched by any other commercial business, this stretch of the river is so remote and private. Aside from the hippos and crocs of course..

Along that first morning drive we saw countless pods of hippo, a few lurking crocodile, which even at a safe distance give me the heeby-jeebies, and what we were told (by our experienced fishing guide Cuan..) a very rare sighing of a Samango (sp?) monkey. We didn’t realize at the time that this would not be the last time the words “this is extremely rare” would escape Cu’s mouth during our trip.

After a brief tutorial on how to fish for Tiger (a biiit different than bass fishing). We had our rods in and were ready to conquer the day. As Adam pointed out, Tiger fishing is a lot like deep sea fishing. Bait goes in, motor goes off, and as you drift you just wait for the ZZzzzzzz! sound to come from your real. Every time I hear that sound my heart races because that means there is something enjoying your bait at the other end.
 There is the chance that you could have caught some of Mother Earth (sticks, grass, etc.) but 8 times out of ten there is a living, breathing specimen on the line!

Adam was the first one to catch a Tiger weighing in at 2.5kgs, well done Adam! But unfortunately for us that first day, we came up a little short. Megan had another CLOSE catch, we could see him right at our boat! But he eventually dropped the hook and got a free lunch.

Speaking of lunch… As I said our challenge that day was to get the most tiger into the boat. And the competition finished at lunchtime. Seeing as we only had 2.5 kgs to claim, our odds weren’t looking too great.

We stopped at a beautiful place on the river called Bonsai rock to set up the tents for lunch. Got the grill going and the conversations of the morning’s activities in full swing. And as the rest of the crew started to arrive, our fears of losing the challenge of the day were more than confirmed. To add salt to our wounds, Mr. Squirrel Meredith, with a rod in the water at our lunch spot caught himself ANOTHER tiger. So that squashed any hope of even tying with the other teams.

Before lunch was served, it was punishment time.

Tradition here, if there is any bet made, challenge accepted, silly mistake caused for whatever reason, the loser must get on his or her knees and down a drink. And this isn’t just on the river. I’ve witnessed “down-downs” on boats, at weddings, simple house parties, etc. These guys take their competitions very seriously.
So the four losers made their way to a nice hot sandy spot on the sandbank and assumed the position. We were forced to apologize to the rest of the guests for be such sorry fishermen by repeating words given by none other than Squirrel. Then of course, we had take down an ICE COLD beer at one go. It wasn’t easy, but we play fair, so each of us finished our beers and carried on with the lunchtime activities.

The afternoon was much more relaxing if you can believe it. The fishing wasn’t ideal so we spent more time enjoying more cold beverages (by choice this time) and taking in the scenery. There is a stunning landmark just before you reach the lodge called “The Red Cliffs” and it is such an incredible sight we decided to make it a tradition to shut off the motor and slowly drift past the cliffs every day we head back to camp.

Made it back to Masau just before sunset and spent the evening playing games around the fire and devouring yet another delicious meal prepared by the cooks at the lodge. As the crowds started to thin after supper, the four of us headed back to the fire for a night-cap with an unexpected twist…

As we are sitting there, with nothing more than the glow of the fire and the white moonlight above us, we heard a rustling in the bushes that run along the river RIGHT next to us. I mean like less than 10 feet. Silence fell over us as we waited to see what, if anything, was going to walk or crawl or fly out of the other side of those bushes. And sure enough,  a HUGE silhouette poked its head out of the leaves to scope out the area. Keeping as still and quiet as we possibly could, we watched at this thing made its way further out of the foliage.

It was our friend Mr. Hippo, coming out of the water for the evening to say hi. Needless to say we didn’t say hi back. Just watched in awe as the gigantic creature stood frozen in front of us. We had a stare-down for a good 3 or 4 minutes before he made his way back into the safety of the thick bushes. "This-is-extremely-rare" moment No. 2...

Now I have seen hippo out of water before, but it doesn’t happen often as they spend most of their time in the shallows of the river. So this was quite an experience even for myself and Cuan. They are such funny looking things out of water, tiny little chicken legs with the body of a beluga whale. No pictures to capture the moment as it was too dark, some images you just have to remember in your head.
Don’t you worry though, with my camera, Meg’s TWO cameras, and Adam’s iPad, we were NOT short of pictures of this trip. Over 2,000 if I remember correctly, so that's my excuse for taking so long to post!

Adam and Meg found out the next morning at breakfast that there are quite a few resident hippos that like to come out of the water at night once it’s nice and cool to feed on the grass. As Catherine explained, the giant footprints they leave all over camp are kind of a pain, but they are a great free lawn trimming service.

Day 2 on the Zambezi: Competition of the day: Guys against Girls.

Bring it on.

After another beautiful morning drive out to the fishing spots, Meg and I put our game faces on for this male-female challenge.  It was a little slow-going that morning, but we weren’t getting distraught. And sure enough after a few hours of quiet drifting, while we were banked at a good spot I heard that ZZZzzzzzZzz sound coming from Megan’s reel! It was a TIGER! We all jumped up to help her land this one in the boat. This guy was a fighter for sure, and when he leaped out of the water at the end of the line, we knew this was a big one. And she landed him with perfection! Massive Tiger that came in at 5kgs! Your average decent tiger is between 4 & 6 kgs but catching a Tiger that big at this time of year is a huge accomplishment. Go Meg!

The boys tried their best to try and catch up to us, but were unsuccessful. At lunch that day we discovered Megan wasn’t the only female to catch. Catherine caught a few herself, so we were way above water.
So for this lunch break I got to be on the other side of the punishment-giving ceremony as all the men were on their knees reciting their apology speech given by Catherine.
Had a nice time chilling in the shade and playing more games as the boys refilled our cups all afternoon..

On our slow cruise back to the lodge we saw our second Zambezi elephant of the trip!  I will never get tired of seeing those colossal beasts, but this one left us with a disheartening feeling..

This elephant sighting was our third “this is extremely rare” moment so we began taking pics like the paparazzi, but we didn’t know until a few minutes later exactly how rare it was… or a little too common, I should say.

He was immersed completely in the river, with just his head and trunk visible. As Cu noted, elephants rarely go all the way into the water unless they are crossing the river. We were busy taking our photos when he began to emerge out of the water. It was at that point, that we realized why he was spending so much time there. Adam pointed to a strange white ring at the bottom of one of his legs, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that this poor creature had a snare tangled around his leg. The sharp razor-wire type metal had gone deep into the elephants tissue, not leaving him with much hope for survival. Cu explained that either the wound would cause too much damage and take his life, or the poachers who set the trap would take his weakness as their advantage and kill him, or National Parks would have to shoot him to end his suffering.

The unfortunate reality of it all hit us pretty hard. Especially Meg. We felt so helpless. The only thing we could do was to inform National Parks on what we had seen in hopes that they would be able to get there in time to save his life.  It is amazing that among so much beauty, there can be so much destruction. To both the wildlife and this incredible land. It is something that everyone in the country is aware of, and only few are able to do anything about.

This particular story does have a happy ending however! A week after leaving the river we got word that National Parks was informed of the injury. Two specialist were flown in to the area, and they, along with a few of our fellow Masau guests, were able to track down the elephant and sedate him long enough to get the snare off and clean the wound. A couple of minutes later this amazing creature stood up and limped away!
It turns out that staying in the river like he did probably saved his life. His gash was remarkably clean considering the circumstances and it was because he spent so much time in the water, the fish were actually eating all the bacteria, keeping the wound from getting infected!

That was the one huge damper of the whole trip for Adam and Megan and it turned out to be an incredible miracle story.

Back at camp again for an evening of more fun and games... and a show!

Some of the guests staying at the lodge had brought fire poi with them. It is a pretty dangerous “sport” if you will, which Cuan actually taught himself how to do while working at Masau. Its basically burlap balls dipped in kerosene tied to the end of wire. The items are held in the lucky talented person’s hands while they spin and twist the fire balls all around their body. The very impressive Rashe and Sarah showed us how it’s done. Although he was a little out of practice, Cu got up there and made it look easy. A pretty amazing thing to watch. Even Adam and Meg gave it a shot (unlit ones of course) and did surprisingly well for their first time! I have yet to try it out. Not a big fan of fire flying inches from my face. And the scars on Cuan’s back from a few nicks from the fire don’t exactly encourage me either.

Spent the rest of the night chatting with the other guests and listening to great music before we headed off to bed to prepare ourselves for our last day of fishing.

Day 3: The “All-species” challenge                                                   

Another perfect day on the Mighty Zambezi. The competition today was to see which boat could catch the most fish of a variety of different species: Tiger, Barbels, Cornish jack, eel, Chesa, Mimbri, brim, and squeaker. Can’t give you any description on those as I don’t really remember what they all look like!

 It’s a fun challenge because there is all different types of fishing involved. We gave brim fishing a shot, but our bad luck for catching this tiger bait the last few days didn’t elude us this day. So we moved on to catching squeakers (tiiiny little catfish-type) and barbels, even got a few Tiger in the boat. 

Unfortunately for Adam, early in the day, he dropped his rod in the water.. We’re still not quite sure how it happened but one minute he was fishing and the next he was hanging over the boat trying to grab his rod! Did I mention these are croc infested waters?? We were on a bank where we could see most of the bottom of the river, but I still don’t think it was a good idea for Cu to go in waist deep looking for it like he did. And to no avail...  A sacrifice to the river gods.

So one rod short, our odds weren’t looking too great. Then we found a great spot for catching squeaker and other species. Our numbers were back up, but we ran into another little problem…

The spot we were stopped was Bonsai rock where we had been having lunch.(pic in above photos). And we were tied onto a small tree on the rock. Occasionally the current would move the boat back and forth, but not far from the rock itself. At one point, Cu was sitting on the rock with his feet on the boat when the current started moving the boat around to the other side of the structure.. It happened so fast Cuan didn’t have enough time to hop in the boat so he was stuck on the rock! And I must add, it wasn’t the largest of sitting spots for a grown man. He looked like a giant lizard in distress! (sorry love) With his fingers barely grabbing on to the slick rock, and still managing to hold onto his rod.. we weren’t going to lose two in one day. The water there was extremely deep and the current could have taken him right to the middle of the river! As scary as it was, we couldn’t help but see the humor in the whole thing and were able to snap a few photos while we did our best to get the boat back over to him. After what seemed like ages, the boat made its way back towards Cu and he stepped safely back on board.

We all managed to escape a punishment that day, so we enjoyed a nice lunch on the banks of the river and again made our slow drift back to camp. That evening before sunset the four of us took a drive up the mountain behind camp to get a different and absolutely stunning view of the Zambezi. From there you could really see just how remote this location was. No another person or lodge in sight, you couldn't even see Masau with all the trees down below us! 

We had a nice quiet evening that night because we were getting on the road early the next day for the even and even longer drive out of camp to Bulawayo. 

Another successful trip to Masau, and Adam and Megan's trip was just getting started! As I said before, that place is one of my most favorite in the whole world and I hope in their short 3 days there Adam and Megs were able to see just how special it is. We shared a LOT of laughs, started what I believe will be friendships that last forever, and managed to catch a few fish...

Big Big thank you to Catherine and Squirrel Meredith for organizing our stay at Masau and providing much of the fun and entertainment! Each time I go to Masau I make new friends and a lifetime of memories. And this trip wasn't any different. Farewell Zambezi River! We'll meet again soon...

Check back for the 2nd half of Adam & Megan's trip! LOTS more fun and adventure to come!