After some persuasion from an old flyfishing mate, Jim has taken a trip with a difference.
I think all anglers have some sort of ‘bucket list’ or fishing wish-list; trips to make the most of the precious time left. For older blokes like this writer, the reality is that we are not going to be here forever. With knees replaced and eyes that can’t quite see the way they used to, there seems to creep into the brain a sense of urgency about doing a few things extra, before it’s impossible or too late.
And so it was for me this last autumn. Years of procrastination came to a head, thanks in part to the worst Port Phillip whiting season in years (whiting fishing is a favourite off-season pursuit of mine), coupled with one too many speeding tickets and a driver’s license suspension that would leave me a bit stuck during the long Melbourne winter. I booked myself an around-the-world ticket sitting at the pointy end of the aircraft, and headed off on the trip of a lifetime.
For many years, old friend and compatriot in the tackle trade, Barry Unwin, had been encouraging me to go to Kenya and see the wildlife on the vast plains and savannahs of Africa. He had always wanted me to visit him in the high country of Kenya where he had fly-tying factories making the best trout flies for some of the more significant companies in the flyfishing world.
Each year, Barry joins me at my shack at Miena in Tasmania for wild trout fishing. Now retired and living in England, he’s regularly asked me over to fish his local chalk streams.
So, feeling out of sorts with a cold winter fast approaching, the decision was made. I called Barry regarding a trip to Kenya (and a chalk stream visit afterwards), then called a cousin in the USA about a longstanding offer to go and fish in upstate New York. They both replied with invitations in the affirmative, and away I went.
I think most flyfishers have very good powers of observation, brought on by being in natural surroundings more frequently than most. I also think they have a special affinity to simply being out in nature. I’ve written before about my thoughts on flyfishers being a ‘throwback’ to a hunter/gatherer past. Flyfishing is much more than just a sport or a results-based pursuit. It really is, as Isaac Walton wrote in 1653, the contemplative man’s recreation. I think that’s part of the reason I headed off to Kenya.
Back in the 1950s, my grandfather had all these den heads lining the wood-panelled staircase in his Edwardian home in Toorak. Zebra, gazelle, kopi and kudu looked dolefully downwards at this young teenager. My grandfather used to go to Kenya every year as head of East African Coffee Plantations. I wanted to be a big game hunter just like him.
As it turned out, when I was 24 I inherited enough money from my paternal grandfather’s trust, to travel to India’s northernmost state, Kashmir. I headed into the Himalayas via mountain pony, on a safari to shoot partridge, a Himalayan black bear, a snow leopard, and also to fish for trout and mahseer.
The snow leopard was the big deal. We purchased a goat from the local mountain village and tied it to a stake. The goat bleated pitifully, and finally, in the early hours of the morning, a snow leopard came into the clearing. However, many hours sitting contemplating what I was about to do, had destroyed all ambitions of wanting to be a big game hunter. I shot a foot above the leopard’s head and was in disgrace!
Today of course, the snow leopard is on the world’s most endangered species list and needless to say, I have no regrets about my deliberate miss. (I have killed many fish & fowl since without guilt, but all have been for the table.)
Big game hunting has all but died out in Africa, and in Kenya the last legal shots were fired in the 1970s. There is still the perennial problem of poaching, but generally, the game has become used to the camera-toting tourists as they wind their way through the plains and savannah in their Land Cruisers and Defenders on modern-day safaris, allowing some wonderful photos to be taken.
Barry had arranged for Henry Henley and Kerr Downey Safaris to look after me, and after a marathon flight from Melbourne, I was picked up at Nairobi airport. As it was morning, there was time for me to take a quick look at the amazing 117 square kilometre national park that virtually borders the city. I saw my first wild hippo, rhino, lion, Nile crocodile, and a multitude of antelopes I couldn’t name. Eventually, at dusk I arrived at an old African homestead now converted into the five-star Ololo Lodge, run by an Australian couple from Brisbane. We had dinner around a campfire and then finally, I could enjoy a long-awaited deep sleep.
Next morning, a short flight brought me to the Masai Mara – a vast plain of 1500 square kilometres that leads southward to the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania. Here I was met by Henry, and driven to his special camp amongst a large clump of trees on the plains.
Our American friends in Montana call their state ‘big sky country’ but when a visitor is introduced to the plains of Africa, that expression takes on a whole new meaning. For three days we were driven across the plains to see an amazing amount of wildlife. At night, lying in the tent listening to the call of hyenas and other animals tramping nearby, it was eerie to say the least.
After the Mara, we flew south across the giant Rift Valley to the massive 9000 square kilometre Tsavo National Park. Tsavo also neighbours Tanzania and lies under the shadows of Kilimanjaro. We arrived at the Finch Hatton camp, just in time for afternoon tea. We were watched by a monster Nile crocodile with its jaws wide open. Disconcerting, as we were only 60 metres away!
The next three days, searching for animals and birds was just as interesting in a volcanic and more mountainous savannah. It was a very different landscape to the plains; however just as picturesque and I snapped over a thousand photos!
While Henry Henley has lived in Africa all his life, his family originally came from the UK. He has fished for marlin and tuna, and flyfished in both saltwater and fresh for species unknown to me. It was wonderful to be with this old bushman and his Masai driver. He and his father before him had seen safari history change from killing to photography. He told amazing stories of times gone by in these great parks. He knows only too well the hardship and joys of living a life in Africa. He lost a teenage son to an altercation with hippos. He has seen the political changes over time, both good and bad. His knowledge of the animals, birdlife and plant life was nothing short of amazing and I count myself lucky to have spent six days with a very special gentleman.
Finally, I returned to Nairobi and another quick look at the magnificent adjacent park. I had dinner once again at Ololo lodge before heading out to the airport for the midnight flight to London to join Barry Unwin in England. As the 777 banked away from the vanishing lights of Nairobi, I reflected on the events of the past week and wondered whether the places I saw will always be the same. The Chinese have convinced the Kenyan government that it is okay to build a railway line through the middle of the Nairobi National Park to Mombasa. The ever-increasing population is making demands on the use of the vast lands that the migratory animals need to live. I suspect the almighty dollar might take precedence over long-term investment in protecting the precious wildlife and game. I hope I’m wrong.