Days and Nights of Freetown – The villagers join us on the beach

An impromptu market spring up on the shore as several of the big mammas who were catching the fish in their bowls were passing them on to others on the shore lines.  It was not clear but it looked like several of these women were managing the sales of the fishermen and ensuring that they got their cut even though many were still out in their boats.  But there was the odd opportunistic guy who dipped a single bucket into the water to get enough food for his week.

The concentration of fish in this little area had caught the attention of much of the bird life in the environs and they were swooping in on the catch, or  stealing the odd fish from the periphery of the market place.  Some of the fish were being cleaned right on the beach there and the entrails were picked up by birds and by the lucky crabs who lived just where we were standing.

We watched for a while as the final stragglers of the catch were brought up and the remaining net tidied up into one huge pile ready to be loaded on to a cart and taken back to the village to be repaired and prepared for the next haul.

We bade our farewells to this village, privileged to have been included in a huge community ritual and started to walk back to our resort.  At this point I realised just how far we had travelled and it took over 30 minutes to get back.  We’d been away a couple of hours but it did not seem to bother the rest of the group who had been reading, drinking and doing a bit of pottering of their own.

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The tide was completely out now and only a trickle came from the lagoons and the river.  Laziness had taken over the whole world, whether it was the sun, the beer or the palm wine.  Kids who had been playing now leant on a nearby wall and said a seldom word to each other.  Dogs had half buried themselves in the sand to cool down and probably relieve the tics or fleas.  The sun was setting over the ocean and turned the bay a distinct purple grey hue.  Reluctantly we packed up our belongings and headed back to Freetown and work.

Days and Nights of Freetown – Working on the beach

It was tiring work – and my soft hands blistered easily on the rough rope.  I got a mixture of encouragement and jibes from my effort, but most of the people there were pleased a white guy had come along to help them get the catch.  Most of the hauling was achieved by a few strong heavy set guys, but even a few little children were joining in as were a couple of women who could have easily put me over their shoulder and taken me off to their village if they so thought about it.  Someone at the back started to chant a deep slow song which helped to pace the hauling hand over hand.

At this time the beach was dominated by men.  I then saw a load of people, mainly women, come through a gap in the dunes, no doubt from the village that was just behind, carrying an assortment of plastic bowls and buckets.  They took up positions in the shallow water and waited as the net came closer to the shore.  I noticed the boats which had been spread out in the water when we first approached had now come in close to the net and their occupants were reaching down inside the net to scoop up the first of the catch.  On went the hauling.  Now I could see the water surface was boiling away as the fish became more tightly grouped and began to panic.

Jan and I had given up hauling in and watched the scene, Jan trying to get in with his camera to get some close ups.  A couple of people started to introduce themselves to me and ask where I came from.  Some were friendly, some inquisitive, others just drunk on palm wine and after money to feed their habit.

The final push to bring the net in commenced – it was barely 100m round the water and the fish took up almost the whole volume.  The fishermen had obviously carefully chosen this late part of the afternoon when the sun was beginning to get low in the sky to spread their net, as it is when fish tend to congregate in the shallows, and they could maximize the haul.  Buckets and bowls were now being dipped into the melee and up came a full catch of silvery slithering creatures.  I was disappointed to see how small most of the catch was; mostly juveniles.  Was it a case that overfishing had depleted the bigger sized fish as elsewhere in the world or were these the ones which hung around the shallows at this time.  Whatever, two things were clear; in quantity terms this was a huge source of protein to an entire village, but also the practice of taking out such big amounts of small fish did not bode well for the long term sustainability of the fishery.

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On the beach

A tale of two swamps – Frenzy at the bridge

This hive of activity was centred on fishing in the river itself.  The flow was rapid here, thick brown water laden with sediment was toppling down off various rocks, under the bridge and into a slightly quieter pool below.  Down each bank of the pool, and in a couple of places upstream, women were waist high in the water, or reaching in from the bank; still wearing their highly coloured wraps, blouses and headscarves, although a couple were happy to be topless in the water.  They carried specialist woven conical baskets.  They would sweep them upstream through the water in one strong easy movement, the water squeezing out of the mesh of the basket leaving a rich catch of fish that they would toss onto the bank or wait for other women to come with plastic tubs to collect the fish.

There were men here too, some young boys were fishing with smaller baskets or lines, hanging nets on the end of long poles from the bridge, older men were trading with the women on the roadside; one old guy was snoozing off an early Katata home brew drinking session .  Several people regarded him closely as they passed by, ensuring that he was still snoring and had not expired.

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Just snoozing?

Away from the river fish had been laid out on wraps on the ground to dry.   The women here were also selling to passing trade – walkers, cyclist and the odd vehicle that passed by.  Ian, as was his way, analysed the species and the sizes – it was not encouraging.  Most of the baskets had a very fine weave and all but the smallest fish would be entrapped.  We looked at piles of what were almost fry on display.

There were bigger fish all round as well – catfish.  These grotesque, long slippery creatures were draped over chairs, hanging in bunches from a string proudly held aloft by boys hardly larger than the catch, or in amongst the other fish left out to dry.  I say grotesque, but once able to look at these creatures up close, they had a rather becoming charm; their mottled bodies covered a myriad of earthy shades, their red tentacles pointing down from their faces; their thick muscular bodies; everything suited to life in a muddy fast flowing river where sight was not important.  I wondered how they survived the dry season – did they instinctively migrate to the permanent waterbodies in the swamp, did they find muddy pools deep in the undergrowth to eke out the dry months.  Or did they die and hope that enough spawn from the previous season would survive underground, to be triggered into development at commencement of the next rains?

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A Tale of Two Swamps – Back at the landing site

Undeterred, the following day we had another meeting scheduled not far from Lochinvar.  We headed back down the same route, swiftly collected the local fisheries officers and went on to the same wooded island.  The guys were there, but so were about 100 other people.  The hard gravelly area next to the lake that had been so deserted on the Sunday was now thronging with activity.  As we approached from the road side, we saw many women in their multicoloured wraps dealing with bags tightly packed and sealed.  Four trucks were fully loaded, and there was also a small minibus waiting at the site.  While we were there more trucks arrived.  They came filled with items such as washing up bowls, clothes, utensils, gear for fishing.  These were offloaded and transported to a wide array of boats, small dugout canoes, larger pirogues and other craft to be sold and carried off to the villages in the middle of the swamp inaccessible by road.  In turn those boats had carried a wide array of fish, some already packed up in the huge bags we had seen the women haggling over, others still in open bags and some just grouped together and held with wire or string.

The fish bags came in two sorts, one was filled to the brim with sundried fish, but tightly packed to prevent flies getting in and some of the smell getting out!  The others were crates that were even more substantial.  Ice had been carried down from the towns on the trucks and fresh fish were packed in to the ice crates.  They were often surrounded by insulating cardboard and pressed between wooden grills lashed together by ropes.  It gave the impression more of cotton bales than fish, but the quantities were immense.

Walking the Beaches – Fishing and Surfin

The spit of land extended about half a kilometre into the lagoon, and we had to double back a long distance to traverse the muddy inlet behind.  The water at this time of day was just too deep to walk across, although as we walked around several branches of the lagoon, the tide fell away to reveal large sandy banks.

We heard some splashing and giggling nearby.  Five teenage girls and one slightly younger boy with two dogs emerged from the wood.  One was carrying a white bucket (which probably held paint at some point in its history) and two more were carrying a large green net.  They waded straight into the water then spread out, unravelling the net between them as they went.  We watched them trawl through this shallow inlet, heading upstream to the shallowest part.  As they reached the exposed sand at the end, the net was alive with silvery fish battling to escape its clutches.  Still laughing and chatting, the girls set about picking away at the net and dropping the fish into the bucket.  They then reversed their walk and trawled out to a sandy bank and out of our view.

As we took the next headland the Morne revealed itself in all its glory.  We could see ahead for the next five kilometres of our walk – the kite surfers in the far distance looking like little sand flies biting at the ankles of the World Heritage Site.  We noticed that despite the lagoon being expansive here, wave energy across the shallow rubble platform must at some times be very high as here and there along the high water mark was evidence of erosion, or of trees being brought down and ripping up the sand as their roots disengage.  These events must be short in duration but severe and targetted as most of the beach was accreting sand.

 As we approached the first of the resorts that day, the kite surfers were racing up and down close to the beach.  Kite surfing at that time had just reached IN status.  Users were revelling in the flexibility in the water of being on a surf board, not at the total mercy of the rollers that an ordinary board would be, nor weighed down by a sail, but still plenty of control to move around on the water and perform tricks.  I’d once taken a lesson in windsurfing in BVI and completely exhausted myself hauling myself out of the water every time I tried to turn a corner.  I’ve never had the upper body strength to lift my own soggy weight.  Kite surfing looked similarly difficult to one who had had very little sporting coordination since the days of tripping over his football boot laces in primary school.

On various windy beaches around Mauritius, it was the South Africans who seemed to be the most experienced kite surfers.  Some tourists giving it a go for the first time at best looked nervous and hesitant to build up speed, at worst they were gung ho and I saw several examples of people being blown by the wind up on to the beach and into the nearest coconut tree.  In the hands of an expert, though,  the artistry as superb.  As Jeremy and I walked along the Morne’s beaches, a teenager passed us, kicked his board high in the air, looped himself round, turned his kite 180 degrees and forge ahead at exactly the same speed, all in one smooth and impeccable movement.  “Show off” we said simultaneously but in fact we were just plain jealous.

Life on Mars – Fishing with Noddy

The other use for the Pier Head is as the focus of the island’s fishing industry.  On our first full day Edsel and I were looking around Georgetown and ended up at the Pier Head just as a couple of boats were bringing back their catches.  Trays of fish were being hauled up, and on a stone slab to one side of the quay, the fishermen were skinning, gutting and filleting the fish, mainly yellow fin tuna.  We watched them for several minutes; for me it was interesting to see the skill, but for Edsel it tugged at his heartstrings.  Like most West Indians, fishing is inbred into your culture, and he was obviously reminiscing about trips in boats, or dangling a rod off the rocks.

He made up his mind there and then that we needed to go out fishing.  After making a few inquiries, he found out that one old Saint, a guy called Noddy, was happy to take tourists out for an afternoon’s fishing.  We persuaded Anselmo, Tara’s husband, to come with us, and a young American guy from the base was keen on it too.  We turned up in our shorts and t shirts and met this old small wizened guy dressed in green overalls.  We were taken out in a small launch to his fishing boat just off from the pier and sat back and watched the preparations by him and his assistants  First we gathered up some bait from the inshore waters, and then chugged off under the stern of the US supply ship.  Immediately we headed out from the Pier Head we were targeted by a flock of frigate birds who circled overhead like vultures.  Noddy set up a few rods and handed them over to his four paying guests.  I had never fished in my life but had watched so many films and TV programmes which had fishing involved – how hard could it be?  We got to put on the support belts for the rod round our waist.   He showed me how to let the reel out gently, and simulated a fish being caught and showed me how to reel in and lock the wheel so once you pulled in it was not pulled out again. Nothing too it, the mechanism worked with ease and was no trouble.

Eventually Noddy decided this was the best place to hold position.  Nothing appeared to us as particularly favourable, but he must have known that at this time of the afternoon (about 4pm) the tuna were coming into the shallower waters to feed on the shoals of juvenile fish in the area.

Nothing happened for a while then Edsel got a bite.  I was watching from my limp rod position (no sniggers) as he pulled hard back into the boat to lift his rod upwards but he struggled to wind in the reel.  He repeated this several times but the strain was telling.  With a fag nonchalantly hanging out of his mouth, Noddy reached forward and tried to assist Edsel keep hold.  He motioned for me to take over and help Edsel and we pulled with all our might.  Our American friend had also got a fish and was similarly struggling.  After what seemed like ages the shimmering silver body of a yellow fin tuna broke the surface, but the fish was still not giving up.  He tried to head for the stern of the boat and we had to change angle to bring him back close to our side. Noddy reached for a boat hook and hauled the creature in.  I was amazed to see how easily he manipulated the huge fish, flinging it down into the boat,  but when his overalls were unbuttoned you saw the sinewy hard muscle that has come from 40 years fishing in these waters.

Once aboard I had a quick chance to assimilate the beauty of the creature we had brought aboard.  Forty pounds of sheer muscle, tightly packed into an aerodynamic sleek body.  Long thin tail and dorsal fins, couple of other fins, anal and pectoral, also sleek on the lower side.  and the perfect coloration for a ocean hunter – deep blue above to stop predators from the sky, silvery underneath to confuse the prey.  And little yellow features on the fins and along the centre of the trunk.  And at its head a huge pair of eyes to see in the gloom and the most vicious set of jaws for a creature this size.

There was little time to take this all in , as Noddy moved the fish around on the end of his fishhook then bashed it over the brains with a cosh.  In my naivety  I had always thought bringing a fish out of water was enough to kill it but when I saw these tuna bash around in the well of the boat with brutal force, I realised you had to take more affirmative action.

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With a bit of help from Noddy, we managed to haul out a few more fish.  It was all a bit of an act.  I posed for photos with the rod bent right over; the American guy asking me “Face the camera”, and “Where’s the flash” and all I can say is “Take the fucking photo” through gritted teeth.  In about an hour we had six heavyset tuna in the bottom of the boat.  Noddy was getting bored with us though, and flung a load of bait into the water.  The tuna started jumping immediately – we were slap bang in the middle of a school of them, Noddy waved a fishhook over the water like a lance, one tuna jumped up and Noddy speared it and with the tuna still moving forward, he used its momentum to bring it into the boat.  I was astonished.  He did it with one arm.  In the space of the next fifteen minutes he matched the catch that four of us had managed to achieve in two hours.  Bait in the air, tuna jump, fishhook in, tuna somersaulted into the boat.  He was not always so lucky; when he threw the bait in the air, it was a competition between the tuna and the frigate birds as to who got there first.

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Noddy’s simpler method

With twelve huge fish in our catch, we headed back to land.  It was nearly dark as the catch was hauled on to the hard.  While Noddy and his crew cleaned up the boat, we posed with our catches.  I could barely lift mine for more than a few seconds.  We weighed them, the heaviest was 55lbs. That is a lot of cans of tuna.  But we did not give them all up to Noddy.  We paid him to fillet one for us and Tara agreed to cook it up for us at her house.  An hour later we were sitting down to barely seared tuna steaks, so moist and fresh.  Edsel arranged to have some of his catch frozen.  Somehow he managed to get it back not just to the UK but also through US customs to his house in Nashville.

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Some of the catch