July 23 2010
Sharks, shallow water and bare feet should never mix outside the cinema. At least, that’s what I’ve thought ever since those opening scenes of Jaws traumatised me as indelibly as they did almost every other child of the 1970s. But what if said predator was on the end of my fishing line, and the shallow water was along the severe coastline of Namibia, one of the earth’s most desolate, intriguing places? That’s the allure of shark fishing: it’s incredibly tough work, but potentially attached to massive payoff – even the bait you fish for is larger than most things you catch in the UK. When the chance comes to jump hemispheres for a mere two days to test my mettle against some of the world’s most magnificent sea creatures, I leap at it.
Friday 1600 It’s a quick shot on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, where I meet my friend and fishing partner, Adam. I packed late, and haphazardly, but at least my bag is light, so it’s straight through customs. Instead of connecting to Namibia via Cape Town or Johannesburg, we’re hopping to Frankfurt and flying direct from there to Windhoek – an easy overnighter.
Friday 2000 Namibia is mineral country; all the other passengers on the plane seem to be burly miners or mercenaries. My cashmere jumper garners some sidelong looks as we board; I find myself wishing I’d bought more camouflage gear. And bigger boots.
Saturday 0700 After a smooth landing at Windhoek, we board a little Cessna to Swakopmund, on the coast. It’s a fascinating, if bumpy, trip: we skirt the gigantic red dunes of the Namib desert, otherworldly and bleak. We fly over seal colonies and the odd oryx, skimming abandoned diamond camps and wrecked ships before touching down on a tiny red-earth strip. Far in the distance, a plume of dust announces the arrival of our taxi – we are the only passengers on the day’s only flight.
Saturday 0800 After a bite and a quick shower, we meet our guide, Shane Milne. Tall and rangy, with a sunburnt nose and a battered Land Rover bristling with fishing rods, he’s keen to get going. We head north up the coastal road for about 10 miles, chipping past small, deserted holiday villages. The plan is to first fish for bait, then head back towards town for the bigger quarry. We swerve off the road and bounce over the sand to the sea. There’s a desalination plant being built here; it’s not exactly the Côte d’Azur, but the bait fish love the hollows created by the construction. We cast and, sure enough, within 20 minutes have brought in more than I’d usually see in a whole day back in Blighty.
Saturday 0900 As we drive south along the shoreline, swerving around the odd dozy seal, Shane has his head out of the car window. He’s looking for the spots on the other side of the reef – dark water – where the “bronzies” hang out. The bronzy, also known as the bronze whaler or copper shark, is vulnerable to overexploitation, but prized by shore anglers for its legendary fighting ability. “This is our game fish,” explains Shane. “For people like me, it’s in our interests to look after the species. We always catch and release.”
He pulls up at a promising-looking stretch. Shane casts the first line for us. The rods are about four metres long; we have belts with a low-slung cup for the rod’s foot. Shane says, “When it bites, let it take the rod down flat, and then strike it – whack the rod up twice. But let it run – and don’t, whatever you do, touch the clutch.” Standing with the sea washing around my feet, I can’t help but grin. Then we wait.
Up the beach, another bunch of fishermen are struggling to land a shark, so Shane jogs over to help. Just as he reaches them, I feel a sudden, consistent, alarming tension on the line – like a surprise arm-wrestling match with someone much stronger. I lean back but the rod drags down; the cup and harness dig into my bladder. The line spins alarmingly fast, whining as it’s dragged out. I twist the clutch, trying to slow the shark’s flight. It works for a second, the rod bows, but the tension is too much: the line snaps. Shane’s words – “don’t touch the clutch” – ring in my ears. I’ve lost what felt like a car-sized shark.
Saturday 1030 We move a few hundred metres down the beach, me shamefaced at my inability to follow simple instructions. I can feel the windburn and sun on my cheeks; just as I’m wondering whether I should put on some sunblock, the line jerks in my hand. This time I do it right; after 10 tense minutes of letting it run and winding it in, I have it on the ropes. It’s not enormous – just four feet – but it’s my first shark.
Shane helps me haul it out of the water, saying, “Ah, it’s a baby – probably a shade over 30 kilos. Watch out putting it back; they like to bite. But you’ll want a picture of it first. Go on, lift her up.”
I pick it up under its fins like a toddler, affecting what I hope is a pose of insouciant cool. A split second after Adam takes the picture, the shark jack-knifes in my hands. I yelp and half put it down, half drop it. It grazes my shin on its fall, its skin rough enough to take some of my own with it. Adam and Shane roar with laughter as I gingerly drag it to the ocean; it keeps turning on me as Shane bellows to take it into deeper water.
Saturday 1110 Shane promptly whacks the rod back in my hands. “Right, let’s get another – a big one this time!” I tell him that sitting by a pond in England with a tiny reel will never be the same. “You have no idea how many people say I’ve stuffed up their fishing,” he says. “But here’s a fact: everyone wants to come back.”
It doesn’t take long before I get another bite, the end of my rod bending suddenly almost in half. “Strike it!” yells Shane. I haul up sharply, once, twice, setting the hook just in time, as with a mammoth surge whatever is on the other end of the line steams toward the horizon and I’m nearly tugged off my feet. Each time the shark changes direction, I reel in, taking back a bit of slack. But it fights me, swimming left to right up the shoreline before pulling away, sometimes so hard I have to walk backwards, hauling on the line rather than reeling – a technique that feels a bit of a cop-out until I glimpse Adam lying flat on his back, hanging onto his rod for all he’s worth.
Saturday 1210 I’m absolutely knackered. My feet are numb from the cold water; I’ve worn a trail in the sand between the high tide mark and the waterline. But turn by turn, my quarry gets closer. The shark’s body finally becomes visible 10 metres off shore; seen side-on, through the sheen of the milky green wave, struggling against the high-tensile fishing line I’m at the other end of, it looks, well, worryingly shark-like.
Then Adam yells to me: “Jack! You’re about to catch a shark! And it’s a monster!” Suddenly, the worry is gone, replaced with fierce excitement. I grin and haul on the rod. There have been 40 minutes of this; it’s time to get the shark out of the water.
The final bit is easy; the force of the waves does more to bring it in than my by-now utterly feeble reeling, and the shark tumbles onto the shore. Shane carefully unhooks the fish – I’m not going anywhere near its mouth after my last near miss. We take a few pictures; it’s beautiful, the skin surprisingly smooth when stroked along the grain. It’s probably 80kg to 100kg. Apparently, I could have caught one twice this size with more time. But I’m pleased as pie, considering it’s roughly 80 times heavier than the biggest fish I’ve ever caught.
I drag it back to the water, doing a mildly absurd, keep-the-toes-clear walk. Eventually, we’re in deep enough, and the shark swims off, stronger with each swing of its tail. Shane hands me a beer; I’m so exhausted I can hardly hold it.
Saturday 1400 We head back to the airstrip just in time for the Cessna to zip us up the coast and east to the Ongava Concession, a private game reserve on the edge of the Etosha National Park. We’re staying at Little Ongava, which only has three luxurious suites. I hop into an open-sided Land Rover with some other guests for a drive and sundowners. We drink gin and tonics as the guide tells us about the birdlife; then, just as the red sun is disappearing, there’s a rush of wind and noise and two giraffes gallop across the clearing, full tilt, 20 yards from us. I’ve never seen anything so bizarrely graceful.
Saturday 2130 Full from the delicious dinner of kudu steak, I head to bed to sleep the sleep of the dead. In the morning we’ll have time for one more game drive before catching our Cessna to Windhoek.
Sunday 2100 I’m on the plane to Frankfurt for all of 10 minutes before I crash out completely. After a bleary-eyed 6am connection, I’m at Heathrow for 8am, work in Mayfair for 9am. Namibia seems a very long way away.
Wednesday 1015 My mind is wandering as a presentation drags on. I’m pulled back by a nagging ache in my hand, and I can’t work out why my shin feels like I scratched it. Oh yes – that’ll be where I dropped the shark on it last weekend.