Since returning to England some five years ago, I have often been asked what it was like to spend several days in the African bush in search of big fish?How did I cope with the seemingly obvious hazards such as wild animals, snakes, spiders and other such fauna?Many of you will be thinking that bivvying up in the Dark Continent is a bit like returning to the times of Stanley and Livingstone, when the first white men hacked their tortuous way through steaming jungles, fought off hostile native tribes, contended with malaria, sleeping sickness as well as venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders, lions and other dangerous beasts. Certainly the writings of Kipling, Rider-Haggard and others contributed to the great African Myth. And it’s true. After over a quarter of a century of coping out, often alone in the wilds of Africa, I can tell you that most of the stuff written by the classical African writers IS complete myth. The vast majority of African big game these days is located in fenced-off game reserves where the general public are only allowed access in vehicles. Most African snakes are harmless, timid creatures; they fear you more than you fear them. There are only three types of some three thousand species of African spider and about four of some twenty species of scorpion that are dangerous to man. There are millions of people who have lived in South Africa all their lives and have never seen a snake outside of a zoo. As to hostile African tribes? They only ever became hostile as a result of the white man’s greed and other mischief. The arrogant desire to rule this continent by the first European settlers is one of the main reasons why Africa today is in such a mess. As to these primitive peoples being classed as savages – you only have to read the history of the white races in Europe to conclude that the Zulu, Tswana, Masai and other races of Africa were a better class of person with far higher standards of morality and respect for the environment – but I am digressing.I have, however, had a few interesting, sometimes mystifying and occasionally terrifying experiences whilst out camping and fishing in Africa.On one occasion, I was carp fishing by the Vaal River near Kimberley – a town famous for its diamonds. One evening when the carp weren’t biting – a rare occurrence on that stretch of water – I wound in my lines and made my way through the undergrowth back to camp. There, Margaret my wife and Andre, the owner of the land on which we were staying, were sitting under the stars by the campfire sharing a brandy and coke. I grabbed a can of Castle Lager from the cool box and joined them. Andre Meyer – a powerfully built Afrikaner in his early thirties, who played lock in the local rugby team, was talking about the local legends that surrounded his 8000 acre farm. He spoke of the strange and mysterious happenings he had experienced since he had moved there from Cape Town some six years ago, after his father died. Andre described the fear the local black farm workers had for the river with its many ‘Tokaloshes” (ghosts). Of the gigantic snake with two heads which rises out of the river to chase and bite a man in the neck. Of the long dead warrior regiment who where drowned many years ago in a great flood. Their ghosts can still be seen, marching proudly with spears held aloft, shrieking and ululating; whilst being led by a fearsome “Sangoma’ (witchdoctor) who’s ghoulish remains shine a skeletal livid white under a fitful moon.Andre also mentioned the strange force that is often experienced by anyone who ventures alone by the river – a force that beckons inexorably, causing one to walk into the water – lemming like -to a certain death by drowning.I must confess to feeling somewhat apprehensive after listening to our host and his macabre discourse; yet at midnight I decided to get back to my rods for a spell of fishing before I finally turned in for the night. The river looked still and oily under the waning moon and the strident chorus of frogs, crickets and other beings of the night, almost deafened me.I baited my hooks with a couple of grains of sweetcorn, cast out about 20 yards or so and settled back in my folding chair to watch my monkey-climbers, to which I had fixed a couple of betalights.About ten minutes later, the left hand monkey-climber shot upwards and the clutch of the Mitchell 410 screamed as a fish hooked itself. I grabbed the rod and pumped the carp back to shore; it felt to be a fish of about 12 or 15 pounds. I sank the landing net, drew the carp towards the meshes and lifted – Got him! Then all hell broke loose!A powerful force pulled hard on the landing net handle and the water was churned to a white foam in the moonlight. I dropped the rod, got both hands to the net and hung on grimly. What on earth had grabbed the meshes of my net and the carp within? As I fought the relentless pull, all manner of frightful notions swept through my consciousness. Was it the spectral sangoma? The terrifying two headed snake? Or maybe the mysterious force?I fell over something, instinctively grabbing it – it was my powerful torch. I switched it on and pointed the beam towards the tumult in the water.Two pairs of luminous eyes appeared in the beam of light! ‘Twas the two headed serpent Bejabus! No, it was nothing like that at all.Just a pair of Cape otters who fancied my carp for supper. The beam of light scared them off and I was left with a torn landing net and the bloodied remains of what was once a common carp of about 12 or 13 pounds.The Eastern Transvaal Drakensberg and escarpment must surely be one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Certainly there are many good fishing waters in the area, none more attractive or productive than Morgenstond Dam, about 40 miles from the town of Ermelo. Largemouth Bass were the quarry and we had many of them to over 6 pounds from this 3 mile stretch of crystal clear water. One particular weekend we camped at “The Pines”, a spot on the shores of Morgenstond, beneath some very old pine trees. My son Sean, aged about 5 at the time, came with us and very active and inquisitive he was too. At lunchtime, whilst I was cooking steaks and sausages on the braai (barbecue), Sean came running back to camp with the story that he and a friend had found a nest of “little shrimps” under some old bark and wondered if they could be used for bait. I told him to bring one back so that I could have a look at it. Sean and his friend bounded happily away into the trees. About a minute later it suddenly dawned on me. I froze!! Nest of “little shrimps?” Under some old bark? “SEAN” I screamed. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I ran into the dense pine trees yelling his name. He didn’t answer and I could feel panic beginning to take over my very being. Suddenly, thankfully, Sean materialised from behind a tree, holding something in his hand. The tiny claws and curved tail met my gaze, as did the evil scimitar shaped stinger.It was a Butid Scorpion of about 3 inches long! I breathed out, looked Sean square in the eyes and quietly told him to put it down. Sean did as he was told and we watched as the deadly creature scurried off beneath a fallen branch. “But Dad, is it no good for bait?” “And why have you gone all white and funny?” For many years I have believed that wild creatures can sense fear in another living being. It’s well known that even fierce dogs will not bother you if you show no fear. Since that day at Morgenstond, I am also firmly convinced that this sense of fear is not just confined to the higher orders of life. Lower orders such as scorpions and spiders can sense it too. Because Sean had never seen a scorpion before and did not show any fear, he was able to pick one of them up without it trying to defend itself; otherwise I might not have a son today. And talking of fear – about 17 years ago I was camping in Natal – that most lovely of South Africa’s provinces – near to Albert Falls Dam. I had come for the record breaking large mouth bass it contains and for three days we had superlative fishing. On the last night of my stay, I settled down in my little tent, sleeping as I always did, on the sewn-in groundsheet – I never used a camp bed in those days. There had been a shower of rain and the sub-tropical air, heavy with the scent of hibiscus and frangipani blossoms together with the acrid reek of the dying campfire embers, smelt marvelous. I listened to the distant chorus of a thousand bullfrogs by the lakeside and looked out of the tent doorway I had not bothered to close on a sky full of the twinkling glitter of a trillion stars. All was right with the world; this truly was like life on the Isle of the Lotus. I must have dozed off for a while. Then I was awakened by a strange sound. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but there it was – like the faint clatter of a clockwork toy. The sound became louder and louder, closer and closer, until it seemed to centre around my head.
The next thing I noticed was that the hair at the back of my neck was standing out and then came the dull sickly feeling of blind fear and panic deep in my stomach.Something horrible was in the tent! As the clatter became even louder, I instinctively reached for the revolver in my belt. The cold steel somehow did not feel reassuring. I lifted myself slowly from the sleeping bag and groped for my torch. I switched it on and flashed it around the tent. The beam stopped at the spot I had been resting my head. And then I saw it. six inches of shiny brown multi-legged horror! A rare tropical centipede had invaded my tent. As the terrifying creature met the torch beam it became agitated and started running at incredible speed, first in circles, then up and down the sides of the tent and finally, along the groundsheet towards me! Amidst the panic and drama of situations like this, strange strange scenes seem to flash before your eyes. Remember the Ian Fleming story of Doctor No, when James Bond had a similar encounter? That’s what was going through my mind at the time. Large tropical centipedes are indeed venomous and extremely aggressive. The monstrosity of the film “Alien” has got nothing on one of these things. This was real! This was the ultimate terror! I’ve forgotten what happened next. My recollections are but a blur, but thankfully the frightful thing somehow found a way out of the tent and I came partly to my senses looking totally ridiculous. One of my fishing friends came over and found me sitting on my folding chair, gun in one hand and torch in the other. I was a gibbering wreck, so he told me and, I had vomited several times. Other than those experiences, I have never had much of a problem with African Wildlife. It truly is one of the most placid of continents….? Footnote: This article is dedicated to the memory of Angler, Angling Historian, Writer, Collector of Antique Fishing Tackle, Artist and fellow African sojourner Leigh Moffat, who also did the artwork.