Malawi Sling

In early December 2013 my family was invited by friends to stay at a company cottage on Lake Malawi. It would be a fantastic break away from the coast after a tough year in Mozambique. Prior to this trip, I had spent a lot of time in the water with Chris Coates and Trevor Hutton who had visited for an attempt at a spearfishing at depth world record.

We left for our trek inland from our base at Kwalala Lodge in Nacala, Northern Mozambique. I had heard much about Lake Malawi and envisioned it to be similar to Lake Kariba in my home country Zimbabwe. My spearfishing hobby had started off at Kariba and messing about in dams and rivers in Zimbabwe, and then progressed to the sea where I now live. However, for this Malawi trip, I saw myself doing a bit of line fishing so I packed away my spearing gear for the time being. The thought of bringing along a gun had crossed my mind, but the thought of crocs (and the glare I got from my wife at the mention of spearing) dissuaded me from even thinking about it. I was also not sure about permits and the logistics of getting a gun through the border post.

We had been advised by our hosts to still bring along basic mask and fins, as there was a protected reserve free of crocs, a beautiful spot called the ‘Aquarium’ where you could enjoy diving with a multitude of Malawi Cichlids. Other than these small and beautiful fish, I was under the impression that the lake had been fished out of its famous Malawi Chambo, which is similar to the Tilapia or Bream we used to spear in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately over- netting and the use of Mosquito nets for fishing is taking its toll in all African waters.

I was privileged to grow up in true colonial style in Zimbabwe, but Malawi takes this to a new level. The locals are extremely pleasant and helpful which was a great change from the harshness of Mozambique. After stopping off in Blantyre for a few days, we packed up and made our way to the lake. Our base was the Illovo Sugar cottage at Cape McClear. The lake was totally different to what I had imagined. I can only describe it as a flat, clear inland sea… truly remarkable. There were a couple of islands in view of the cottage, which had an immaculately cut green lawn and a clear white sandy beach that was raked smooth every single evening. We arrived at the lake just in time for sunset and I could feel myself starting to slip into chill mode.

With no rush to do anything, we kitted up a couple of fishing rods in preparation to go hunting for a fish species called Liani (Blue looking Tilapia of up to 1.5kg), which are caught on shiny spoons. Just like at sea, you look out for and follow the birds, who feed on the bait fish

that the Liani bring to the surface. By the time we got out onto the water it was getting quite hot and we simply were not getting any bites. We tried an early start the next morning and again came back empty handed. We prepared for a trip across the bay to visit the ‘Aquarium’ for a bit of snorkelling. Seeing all those small colourful fish in fresh water was truly spectacular as well as the many other types of fish species I had never seen before. 

The area around the Aquarium is full of granite boulders and I can best describe it as an underwater granite kopje with boulders stacked on top of each other. The water was clear enough with 5 to 10m viz despite the rains at the time of the year. I eventually wandered off into deeper water where I found a ledge dropping down from 10m to a 15m platform of solid rock. I was not expecting much with lots of colourful Cichlids around, but wanted to at least stretch my lungs a bit and see what was down there.

Well… out of the eerie gloom I got my first sighting of a nice sized (1kg+) male Chambo. The fish came right in close for a look at me, followed by another shoal of smaller females. They apparently don’t grow more than 2kg and I’m not sure what the angling record is. The males are distinctly black in the water and the females a blotchy brown colour. I was totally amazed at how tame these fish were. There were lots of them, all between 12 and 15 metres. All sitting ducks… and here I was with no speargun!

I did quite a few dives around the area to see what these fish were all about and on each dive they quite happily swam in for a close look. Now, bear in mind that I was diving in a protected area so even if I had the right equipment there was no way of catching anything. They are also not like Bream who take worm off a hook, but either way here was supper… It was hard to contain my excitement when I went for another dip on another underwater kopje outside of the reserve, which was just as full of fish.

The temptation was just too great and I had to find a way to catch these fish. How was I going to get my hands on a speargun? Even after a couple of calls and visiting the local dive operators no one had anything remotely like a gun so I simply gave up my search as a lost cause.

We took it easy the next morning and were visited by some locals in a canoe carrying a string of Chambo for sale. Each of their fish had a hole in it so I asked how they had been caught. With a speargun of course! However, I wasn’t quite prepared for the homemade spearguns they were using. It consisted of a 50cm length of 20mm PVC pipe with a rubber catapult sling, which had been fastened to the end of it with inner tube rubber. The spear was a straightened (well sort of straight) piece of 3mm fencing wire approximately 1m in length, that had been sharpened at one end, with no barb. To shoot, you had to hold onto the blunt end of the spear with the leather sling attached to the rubbers and with the other hand holding onto the tube, point at your target and let things fly… no strings attached.

I described this to a friend of mine who said it was a similar but very rustic version of the ‘Hawaiian Sling’. This was the local Malawi version, and from what I had seen of the catch from the locals this was doable – especially as I had already seen the friendly Chambo move around me. In the end I not only negotiated to buy the locals’ catch, but also to hire out a ‘Malawi Sling’ for a day. The local spearo ended up giving me 2 of his spears and when I questioned him, he mentioned that I would need both. I could barely contain myself and could not wait to get into the water, but had to remind myself that this was a family trip and not for my selfish enjoyment… so there would be limitations.

Early the next morning, I set out on a plastic canoe and headed for the spot I had surveyed on our previous boat trip. Ever mindful of crocs but with reassurance that they were mostly in other parts of the lake, I set out on my mission to put supper on the table. I had already sampled some of the Chambo purchased on the previous day so I was determined to make this a success.

First dive down and sure enough the Chambo swam in. Ever so calmly I lined up and let the spear go… believe it or not my first shot was a success as I impaled the fish at close range and quickly retrieved it before it slid off the spear. Too easy, I thought ! Thereafter I learnt a few lessons on being humble as this really was not that easy, but oh what a challenge. One gets too cocky and confident and the trick was to not pull back the rubbers for power, but rather let the spear fly off from mid way if you wanted to be anywhere near accurate.

There certainly was a skill to develop and I had to be mindful of the fact that if I missed a fish I would be retrieving the spear some distance away. Either way you had to follow your spear to retrieve it and hopefully keep the fish on the other end if the shot was good. I had to position myself in a way that if I did miss, the spear would hit a rock behind or be shot into shallower depths rather than over the cliff – so to speak. I had a couple of misses and had to chase the spear into 20+ metres. I began to understand why I had been given 2 spears. I also had to keep sharpening the spears on the rocks and bending them back to shape as the bigger fish simply bent them. Most of the fish were found at a depth of 12m to 15m above a strong thermocline, and I believe this was deeper than the average local spearo diving without fins and locally made masks. It really was a challenge and the fish did get a bit skittish after they realised I was not being so friendly, but I got some good shots in and stoned a couple as well. After shooting 11 fish, enough for us all for super that evening, I called it a day. What a fantastic challenge and experience. I really don’t think it would have been that much sport to have had a modern outfit at my disposal, and was thankful for the opportunity to get back to basics.

At the end of the day though, there was a price to pay for the fun, as myself and the family all tested positive for Bilharzia. It is a given fact that if you swim in the lake, you will certainly catch this if nothing else. The good thing is that it is easily curable with the right medication, so don’t let this put you off if you ever get the chance to visit that part of the world. If you do, don’t be tempted to take your gear, as you will have a lot more fun with the local equipment, aka the Malawi Sling


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