Goodbye Asia, Hello Again Africa by Dave Stewart

Stunning tropical islands such as Phuket and the ‘Full Moon Party’ paradises of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan have been drawing in sun seekers and party animals alike for years, and the infamous and massive Bangkok remains one of the most visited cities in the world because of its shopping, nightlife and central location. These are generally the places one would think of visiting when travelling to Thailand, South-East Asia. My travels turned out to be a little different.

700km due north of the capital Bangkok lies the charming not-so-little city of Chiang Mai. The capital of the north offers thrills of a different kind to the traveler less inclined to sunny beaches and roaring cities. And that’s where my story begins.

I left my hometown of Johannesburg early in 2010 in pursuit of adventure and something different, and found myself working as an English teacher in the city labelled the ‘Rose of the North’. Alongside myself were two of my closest childhood friends, Claudio and Jay. ‘The Triangle’, as we called ourselves, spent three years bashing about Thailand experiencing the culture, food and magnificent natural beauty of the Kingdom.

We had the time of our lives (and those stories are for another time), but we eventually realised that all good things must come to an end – and that a man can only live for so long without biltong and Nik Naks. We decided that it was time to return to our homeland and wanted to go out with a splash, and for us that meant fishing. And so it was decided – back to Sunny South Africa within a month and one hell of a fishing trip to end it all off with.

Within minutes our itinerary was decided:  Bor Sarng Fishing Park and Dreamlake challenging water reserve in Chiang Mai, and Pai Piranha Fishing Park in Pai, Mae Hong Son province. With everything in order at home and our rods and tackle packed, we set off on fully-loaded motorbikes to stop number one on our trip.

Bor Sarng lies just 20kms east of Chiang Mai, and we made it there in no time at all. Our target for the day: Mekong giant catfish, one of the largest fresh-water fish species in the world. At Bor Sarng the average giant ranges from 7 to 35 kg (with a 53 kg beast apparently lurking in their midst), but in the Mekong river monsters in the vicinity of 300 kg have reportedly been caught. As Bor Sarng doesn’t offer overnight accommodation and we only had the day, we wanted an early start. So after a quick breakfast of Thai rice-soup ‘Jok’, we hurried to get our lines in the water.

Within minutes I heard the sweet scream of my reel, and I knew it had begun. “It’s big, of course!” I joked, battling away with a big smile on my face. A few minutes later the first catch of the day was out of the water, a ‘baby’ at around 9 kg. The simple rig of mielie-bomb (comprising mostly of bread shavings there) and bread on the hook was working its magic, and as the day went on we landed many more with an estimated combined weight of approximately 190 kg.

Later on we bumped into our Korean buddy Joon. He had never fished a day in his life until we dragged him along to one of our ‘hot, boring, and generally unpleasant’ afternoons, as he at first predicted it would be. He was stubborn and proud, and remained steadfast in his general dislike for fishing the whole day, but a mole-rat couldn’t have missed the smile on his face when the reel sang to him. Spotting him this day, he admitted he’d been back nearly every weekend since, and had just bought his own gear.

As the day was coming to an end, Claudio hooked into something huge. It was all he could do to keep hands grasping the rod and his feet on dry land. There were a few tense moments when we all thought that the line or rod (or perhaps Claudio’s spine) would give in to the ferocity of the fight, but after about half an hour of muscle ripping angling, the fish succumbed. At an estimated 27 kg the Mekong giant was the catch of the day and a personal best for Claudio. Pleased with a great day’s fishing and thoroughly exhausted (not a single forearm wasn’t in agony), we decided to call it quits and head out for some icy Thai beers and spicy Thai food. Then it was back home for some well-deserved rest.

We awoke early the next morning and got ready to head out, excited yet apprehensive.  We knew we were in for a far more challenging day. At 12 meters deep in most parts (compared to Bor Sarng’s five meters) and dominated by notoriously skittish fish, Dreamlake is a different ball game. The fish in this barrel are not so easily shot. The challenge was certainly alluring, but what really drew us to this lake was its extensive variety.

With a range boasting arapaima, redtail catfish, pacu and peacock bass from South America; rohu, small scale mud carp, spotted featherback, giant gourami, Mekong giant catfish, giant snakehead, giant freshwater stingray, and giant Siamese carp (quite a few giants!) indigenous to Asia, alligator gar from North America and African Nile tilapia, it’s no wonder this lake is popular with international anglers looking for something different.

Heading south on our motorbikes, we arrived at Dreamlake about an hour after leaving home and were welcomed by the stoic German owner, Reiner. While he clearly wanted us to catch and have a good time, he was quite blunt when it came to the rules: ‘the rods are imported so don’t forget your bait runner. And there are imported fish in here worth more than a downtown Bangkok apartment, so be quick with your pictures and get my children back in the water before they hurt themselves’. With that said, he wished us luck and showed us to our accommodation.

The morning started off quite well, with some small scale mud carp and even a baby Mekong catfish being pulled in early. But by midday (and quite a dead previous hour) we decided to pull in our lines and head over to Reiner’s clubhouse for lunch. The stand-out feature of the restaurant-come-chill-out-area is the deck – which is built right out over the water. Tilapia and gourami can be spotted in abundance, and we even caught a glimpse of the prehistoric looking gars. But the real treat (excluding of course Reiner’s wife’s bratwurst and sauerkraut special) was to see a giant snakehead in action. These fearsome and little-loved predators force their young to the surface to teach them to breathe air, and the sun hitting the mother’s beautiful black and green scales when she surfaces is enough to bring a tear to a biologist’s eye.

Feeling refreshed and replenished after lunch, it was time to get serious. Other than a lovely 4 kg rohu (Indian carp) nabbed almost accidently by Claudio on the light gear, we had few bites and even fewer landings. But then, as it so often happens with angling, everything changed in a heartbeat.

Without warning my line started running into the water at a rate of knots, and the hysterical sound the reel was making told me instantly that this was a beast. Everyone was on their feet, and I had to literally dive for my pricey German rod before it headed to a watery grave. Whether it was luck or Jonty Rhodes-like reflexes (I’ll go with the latter, thank you very much), I caught it just in time and began the fight of my life. I had fought big fish before, but never anything like this. By the time I had my drag set and wits about me, I must have lost around 150ft of line. But it was on, and there was no way I was going to lose this fish. It took a solid 45 minutes for me to break her spirit, 45 agonizing minutes of wondering what the hell could be trying to pull my arms out of their sockets. When it was all over, 32 kgs of bad temper in the form of a giant Siamese carp emerged kicking (well, flopping) and screaming from the water and found its way onto dry land. To this day it is the catch of my life.

It was all that I could have hoped for to land a big, beautiful, hard fighting fish, but our trip wasn’t yet done. Last stop: Pai, Mae Hong Son province. Leaving our trusty little motorbikes (oh alright, mopeds) behind, we went on ahead by bus. The trip with its 762 practically hairpin bends is pure hell. Pai is a mere 140kms from Chiang Mai, yet usually takes around four hours to get there. If you are under the impression that you don’t suffer from motion sickness, you are wrong. You’ve just never experienced that trip before. Needless to say, we were all extremely glad when the wheels stopped turning and we could clamber out and breathe in the fresh mountain air.

Pai is charming in the way that only a small hippie backpacker town can be. Restaurants and bars line every street, arts and crafts abound and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a bedreadlocked vegan sporting a didgeridoo. As we were waiting for some friends this time, we milled around and politely declined the continuous advances by the locals trying to sell us ‘organic’ candles and little wooden frogs that made croaking sounds when you stroked their backs.

One by one they arrived, and eventually everyone was assembled and ready for one last night in Thailand. During our time living in Thailand we made many friends from all over the world. Paul and Richard the Capetonians, Paul the Irishman, Franny from England and Dave from the States decided to join Claudio, Jay and myself for one last spot of fishing and a beer or ‘two’ before we went on our merry way. Pai Piranha Fishing Park lies 7 km outside of Pai itself, so the owner English Dave (yup, three Daves) came to fetch us in his bakkie. We had booked out all of his accommodation for the night, so when we arrived about 20 minutes after leaving Pai we made ourselves right at home with the place all to ourselves.

That day we were targeting Pacu (of the piranha family), but everyone was on light tackle and we took whatever we could get. Messing around with the lighter gear was a lot of fun, and produced some interesting catches to boot. In addition to the plentiful small scale mud carp that gave non-stop action, we managed to pull out some pacu, rohu and Gunther’s walking catfish (a Thai delicacy, usually found in markets on a stick). Jay even snagged a half kilo Plecostomus, the tiny fish that sucks on the insides of fish tanks the world round. Quite naturally, they grow much larger in the wild. The last surprise of the day came when Irish Paul’s rod shot into the dam like a bullet. English Dave reckoned the only thing in his dam powerful enough for that sort of reaction was the resident 9 kg snapping turtle.

Lulled by the idyllic setting and properly tired out by three days of great fishing, we decided that was that and pulled our lines out of Thai water for the last time. We spent the rest of that evening with our friends enjoying some beers and a braai, reminiscing of all the good times past, and enthusiastically making plans for a return trip. At one point someone thought it would be a good idea to take a dip in the lake regardless of the piranha’s cousin lurking in the nearby depths. Within minutes we were all in, enjoying some respite from the insufferable Thai heat. Seeing this, and hearing some of our verbal misgivings about the pacu, English Dave took his sweet time in giving us his advice. “The pacu might nibble, but they are the least of your worries lads” he shouted out at us from the safety of the deck. “As for the snapping turtles with jaws big and strong enough to take off a finger or something else, I wouldn’t take my chances…” Needless to say, we were all back on land before you could say Expound.

Leaving the Kingdom of Thailand behind was one of the most heartbreaking decisions I ever had to make. That said, we can never move forward in life without change. It is now years later, I am stuck into the digital agency life in Jozi, and all is well. As I make my way through the Highveld spring and daydream of the Clarens’, Balitos and Ceres’ of this beautiful country I call home I come to a realisation: traveling is one of the most rewarding things a person can ever undertake to do, but there is a certain emphatic magic that can never be outdone by anything other than your own homeland. And while I will always have fond memories of my time abroad, my heart will forever belong to Africa.

 

 

 

 

 

Dave is a Social Media and YouTube expert (or so he says) and aspiring author who hopes to one day write like Neil Gaiman and Kurt Vonnegut combined. He spends his time reading, travelling, getting tattoos, watching Futurama, chilling with his peeps and being a slave to his miniature dachshund Groot. You can peruse some of his more existential scribblings on his blog here: daveblo9.wordpress.com/author/daveblo9