Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fish, fishermen and fish eagles, all at Lake Malawi

You have to like fish if you visit Lake Malawi; there are 850 different kinds. Some people insist the number is nearer 1,000, but I tend to be more moderate in my claims. How different from Lake Victoria's boring old tilapia and Nile perch! Most of Malawi's fish are cichlids, which means that they care for their young. If you are a female Malawian cichlid, your maternal duties include carrying your eggs in your mouth.

Now that you are suitably fascinated or repelled, it is time for me to make the connection between fish and the Ritchies. No, it's not because we are fish-eaters: only one of us eats fish while the other one keeps going on about bones. Nor is it because we are anglers - far too easily bored and also far too squeamish. No, the connection is that we're quite good at watching other people do fishy things while we sit comfortably (well, reasonably so) on a plank at the bottom of a boat.

When we left the lodge, the air was already fragrant with the smell of usipa, little sardine-like fish which are dried and added to sauces. They were spread out on trestle tables on the beach, with the fishermen and wives turning each one over laboriously with forks to ensure they all get their fair share of sun.

However, usipa didn't interest us. We were making for Thumbi island, uninhabited and, probably uninhabitable, but just the place to find a few more of the 850 varieties.

If we were not such wimps, we would have been snorkelling. However, the water was so clear we could actually see the fish from the boat. Just to prove it, here I am in a white shirt hanging off the stern hoping I won't drop my camera.

And this is what we saw.

Actually, I have about 72 pictures of fish but thought your tolerance might run out if I insisted on showing them all - like with our parents' holiday slide shows. So believe me, there were yellow ones, black ones, black and yellow ones, blue ones, blue stripey ones. ('Enough!' says Stuart.)

Thumbi island might be uninhabited but it was clearly not deserted, as this helpful message about personal health and sanitation indicated.

The professional fishermen were also out and about, though more interested in the edible and sellable variety.

One dugout was drawn up on the shore, though I wasn't too sure about the twine which appeared to hold its cracked prow together.

Its owner had had some success catching chambo, well known as the tastiest fish in the lake, if rather small.

Other dugouts were dotted all over the lake, some with a plank across the prow, presumably for stability.

Actually, the Malawian way of using a dugout is quite distinctive. It involves sitting astride the breadth of the canoe: this man changed position once he'd reached where he wanted. Apparently, dugouts are notoriously easy to turn over and the astride position makes it easier to control. It's also quite a squeeze getting down inside a dugout.

However, the fishermen weren't the only creatures searching for fish.

Yes, the fish eagles were keeping a good look out.

Then one swooped down.

And then another.

And another.

They dipped and rose again, the fish clutched tightly in their claws.

But eventually even the fish eagles got weary and as for us, we needed our very late lunch. Time to go back for the wonderful fish soup made by Cape Mac Lodge.

Life was going on as usual along the shoreline.

Men were mending their nets..

...and mending their boats.

Further down the shore the boats had been slightly slicker.

Small boys called to us as we chugged past.

Their older brothers were lounging around, some diving, some throwing fishing lines.

It had been a wonderful day out, even if we hadn't caught any fish ourselves. As the sun began to set, the last fishermen pulled across the bay. Some would be out all night, their lights hovering across the lake.

However, it was sundowner time for us.

We took our drinks and sat in the garden, watching as the sun gradually sank towards the lake.

We might not have seen 850 different fish, but we had certainly seen a lot. Time, now, for bed.


  1. Lovely! I really want to visit this country.

  2. I imagine Lake Victoria must have had similar species of fish to Lake Malawi - shame our British predecessors introduced the Nile Perch that gobbled up the cichlids! Eh banange!