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.
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.
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?"
through the rolling sweat.
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.
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."
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.