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PASSAGE TO THE PAST
Robert F. Jones
February 08, 1982
From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway
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February 08, 1982

Passage To The Past

From Shimoni to Lamu (shown here), the author travels up the Coral Coast of Kenya, and evokes the ancient Arabs, Vasco da Gama and Papa Hemingway

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Our first day out in the Pemba Channel we had neither Pat nor Simon to contend with, but rather one of Hemphill's African skippers, a chatty young Vumba, the son of a fisherman, from nearby Wasini Island named Saidi Ahmed. Within minutes we were into fish, sharp-spined five-fingered jacks, mainly, which we would use for marlin bait. The sea was calm, with a greasy swell rolling down from India on the gentle push of the kaskazi (the northeast monsoon), and the sun had an equatorial weight to it that should have pushed the big billfish down into the cooler depths. Yet, at straight-up noon we got into marlin.

"Samaki!" yelled Saidi from the flying bridge. "Fish!" He clapped his hands to alert us. Two of our five trolling rods bent and our reels squealed to the strikes. I dropped my bait back with the fish, the reel in free-spool, thumbing the spool to maintain tension, and when Saidi reckoned the marlin had turned the bait to swallow it, I locked up the drag even as Saidi two-blocked the throttles. Winter, on the other working rod, did the same. Simultaneously, the two marlin jumped, far out and heading in opposite directions. It's one of the most thrilling sights in fishing: that great silver, black and electric blue spearhead powering up out of the sea, the maniacal scream of the drag, and then the fish pounding back into the water—"like a horse thrown from a cliff," as Hemingway described it. I counted a dozen jumps before my fish settled down for the fight. Though I would have preferred to fight the fish California style—i.e., standing up the whole way, from a dead boat, using only a rod belt to socket the tackle—Saidi insisted I take the fighting chair. With the weight of the sun in those latitudes, a sun far hotter than that off Baja or even Hawaii, he was probably right. I would never know. After 10 minutes, and still running deep with no slack on the line, my fish pulled out.

But Winter's marlin, the first of his life, was still on. Winter, 50, is a hunter, not an angler. Since 1971 I've made many safaris with him, all upcountry, with gun and camera, and in either situation he's as fine a guide as you can hope to find in Kenya. At deep-sea fishing, though, he's a rank neophyte. Still, he proved a quick study. The fish, we could see, was foul-hooked just above its left pectoral fin, and Bill had it on 50-pound test line, which made for a dangerous fight. Hooked as it was in the side, the fish could go virtually wherever it wanted. Bill had to keep the line taut and yet not pump so hard as to pull the hook through the thin layer of skin that held it. Five times he brought the marlin in close enough for us to count its stripes, and five times it sounded again, stripping off all the hard-gained line Bill had reeled in. It struck me, as I coached him, that our usual safari situation was reversed. Hunting dangerous big game, he backed me up with his skill and his big rifle. As the marlin came in the sixth time, I asked him the question: "Do you want me to go in after him with the .458?"

He laughed through the rolling sweat.

Moments later Saidi gaffed the fish and brought it in. A 133½-pound striped marlin on light line, not bad for a first effort.

We fished another day, with Surly Simon, but caught only three bonito. Of far more interest was the snorkeling at Kisiti Island's Marine National Park, 10 miles off Shimoni. Visibility wasn't as good as it might have been—the monsoon rains had clouded the water a bit—but the reef itself was vast and variegated. Squirrelfish, damsels, sergeants major and rock lobsters abounded. Spear-fishing isn't permitted in the Marine Park waters, but the fish were so wary that I suspect poachers must come in anyway. Toward noon a junk pulled up and disgorged a horde of German tourists and soon the water was full of bulbous pink bodies in scanty bikinis. So we cleared out to avoid the suntan-oil slick.

We lunched that same day at the Wasini Restaurant, an open-air, thatched-roof establishment on the island of the same name. It has a fine view of nearby Tanzania, and we ate excellent mangrove crabs (Squilla serrata), which are every bit as good as Florida stone crab, but bigger. One monster had a carapace the size of a serving platter and a dominant claw that must have weighed three pounds. After lunch we visited Wasini village, an Arab town with the oldest still-functioning mosque in the area. The town is coastal Arab—the thick-walled buildings have arched windows that encourage a venturi effect on the air and provide a form of rudimentary air conditioning; there are ancient graves beneath the baobabs, some marked with the typical Arab phallic monuments. In a vast tidal flat beyond the village birika (water catchment), strange coral heads stood like an oddly eroded Stonehenge.

From Shimoni we pushed along the Coast Road to Mombasa. The coastal strip, about 10 miles deep, is a different world from the rest of Kenya. At least a thousand years of Arab influence shows in everything from agriculture to architecture—even in the faces of the people. Members of the dominant Swahili tribe are paler than their inland Bantu cousins, with the hawk noses and high cheekbones of their Semitic ancestors commonplace. The word Swahili derives from the Arabic sawahil, meaning coasts or shorelines. Swahili is a coastal language made up predominantly of Bantu, with strong Arabic influence. Ethnographers believe that traders from Persia and the Arabian peninsula have been visiting the East African coast for 2,000 years. The first reference to the region in classical literature comes in a book called Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written by an Alexandrian Greek in the second century A.D.

"There is evidence that the Egyptians were here as well," says Edward Rodwell, 74, a Kenyan journalist and an enthusiastic amateur historian whose column, "Coastal Causerie," has been appearing in the African paper The Standard since 1940. "A painting dating from about the 23rd century B.C. depicting the Land of Punt in one of the tombs along the Nile shows Egyptians catching sailfish. 'Punt' may come from pwani, a Swahili word for this coast, and certainly sailfish do not occur north of present-day Somalia."

The first European to visit these shores, in 1498, was Vasco da Gama. Meeting a hostile reception from the Sultan of Mombasa, the Portuguese established their first East African "factory" at Malindi, some 75 miles north. Not until the late 16th century did the Portuguese capture Mombasa from the sultan and begin building their great red edifice, Fort Jesus.

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