Adventure. Noun. : An unusual and exciting or daring experience
Fera was started with adventure front and centre. Starting a new business has been exciting and daring in itself and what a journey the last year has been. Whilst we can find adventure in many things we do, for us a genuine expedition will always be required from time to time. Before we founded Fera it was this very need that brought us together over and over again.
Although a pandemic has made adventures difficult until recently, last month we got the chance to scratch the itch and struck out for the River Faro in Cameroon to spend some time with African Waters at their latest camp and conservation project. Through sustainable fly fishing African Waters’ mission is to create meaningful and positive change to the people, fauna and flora in the areas they operate. With some wonderful success stories the length and breadth of Africa, we were excited to see their work in Cameroon. For a decade they had been searching for an untouched river system holding Nile Perch and in 2019 they found it - we would be lying if we said that we were not also damn excited to cast a fly at some of the continent’s most iconic fish.
The "mercenaries" in their locally tailored lucky shirts
The journey to Gassa camp was long. A good sign. Getting to truly wild places tends to require effort, whether on home soil or further afield. Our excitement began the moment we stepped off the plane in Douala as two of our group were accused of being mercenaries and were frogmarched to a low-lit room where fraught negotiations over harmless pieces of kit, including a Ranger Bag, took place and the boys were released. This minor bump out the way we stepped into Cameroonian heat for the first time. You will hear more about the heat, that’s a promise, but when we stepped out of the airport at 10pm that night, Douala was rocking 29 degrees celsius on the thermometer.
An internal flight north to Garoua and a night in a hotel voted Cameroon’s third worst and we were ready for the long drive to camp, but not before a short visit to the local tailor to have some lucky fishing shirts made with a vibrant local fabric. Located on the banks of the River Faro and just 30 miles from the Nigerian border the camp felt as far from home as could be. The final six hour drive in 40 degree heat, in a Nissan Patrol (with 480,000 km on the clock) certainly emphasised this remoteness and all thoughts of home vanished. We had arrived.
Camp overlooking the River Faro
We were surrounded by wilderness and adventure everyday in camp. The mix of new sights, adrenaline and at times discomfort only added to the feeling of being alive. Discomfort is at times impossible to avoid, but it is embraced with enthusiasm, like when stalking the notoriously spooky Niger barb (a species of yellowfish) which meant crawling over rocks that scalded one’s hands and knees for any chance of a good cast. Each day, we would fish from 6am until midday when even the hardiest of animals had retreated to the shade. Back in camp a lunchtime swim, fully clothed, was obligatory for any chance of a siesta. Especially when escaping to the shade was to enter the kingdom of the savage tsetse fly, a furious biter who takes no prisoners and cares little for trousers, socks or shirt sleeves. The Faro River is a challenging habitat and we wouldn’t have changed it for anything.
Encounters in the bush can be beautiful, exciting and downright frightening. We enjoyed a good mix of all three and the nights were perhaps the most action packed. African Waters had discovered that it was best to fish for the Nile perch at night, when they became most active feeding. These nights were a raw experience and standing on the river in total darkness waiting for that telltale pull on your fishing line does interesting things to the senses. With limited vision, the sounds of the bush are amplified and whilst we soon got used to the hippos snorting, arguing and splashing, often 15 yards in front of us, other sounds had more impact.
One evening as we fished into the night, the silence was broken by the unmistakable call of the leopard, so often heard and not seen. The long, hoarse, sawing cry felt almost on top of us and the leopard must have been no more than 40 yards away, across the small channel we were fishing. It didn’t make another sound but it was clear we were all separately wondering whether leopards could swim. The following day our feline friend was calling just south of camp and within twenty minutes the call came from just north. Had it passed silently between us as we dozed through the midday heat?
Waiting for nightfall
To be so in tune with one’s surroundings during these night sessions was a privilege. The night sky was a tapestry of stars and constellations, and a shooting star could be spotted every few minutes. It was almost peaceful but for that expectant feeling that something could break the serenity at any moment. We fished in darkness until someone hooked a fish and then the white lights of head torches and the cries of ‘yes, yes, fiiissh’ would break the calm and if it was your own head torch and shouting, the adrenaline was coursing.
The mighty Nile perch has one thing in mind and that is escape. It is a battle of strength and wits, and certainly a team effort as your fellow fishermen try to guide you and the fish out of trouble. Trouble being the deep caves and sharp oyster beds that are frequent throughout the Faro system. As line tears from your reel, all thoughts of hippo and leopard disappear, although the crocs are harder to rid from one’s mind but more on that shortly.
Fera Founder Declan with a monster Nile Perch
Many fish defeated us, some in the agonising final seconds of fight but the sight of one of these giant, brutish torpedoes emerging from the depths will take some forgetting. Their enormous mouths built for engulfing prey, large eyes for night time advantage and magnificent spiny dorsal fins represent a true apex predator. Landing one and having the opportunity to get into the water and see it up close was a privilege, sending it slowly back to its lair was the cherry on top. Until, of course, the calls to exit the water began - the fighting fish would have alerted the local crocodiles. Best return to dry land.
A sneak preview of an upcoming Fera t-shirt
The Faro’s wildlife is staggering, and beyond the fish and night-time encounters we were spoiled for choice with lions roaring, sightings of roan and West African savannah buffalo and the haunting yips and cackles of hyena. The place abounds with birdlife and whilst the multiple species of kingfisher, diving and fishing in front of us provided daily entertainment, the flocks of carmine bee-eaters crossing the river each evening were the highlight. The river itself is something to marvel at. With the dry season in full swing we were wading and crossing a braided river.
As the levels drop, the water retreats to the deep gorges and canyons creating many small streams, deep pools, fast rapids and even waterfalls which in turn reveal the extraordinary volcanic rock forms, beaten, worn and carved through the wet season. To see the river in full flow would be like looking upon a completely different landscape. The water’s clarity is of the gin variety and looking in reveals aquarium-like scenes with myriad fish, crocodiles, hippo and terrapin turtles sharing the same space. Watching a pack of five Tigerfish charging baitfish in the shallows in one pool made us wonder if our own fishing techniques were at all appropriate.
Everywhere we went we were accompanied by at least two of the anti-poaching team who leapt from the Land Cruiser armed with pump action shotguns and machetes, sprinting to the river with the aim of surprising anyone who might be misbehaving. We did not experience any confrontations but a couple of weeks before they did, finding a hastily abandoned poachers camp on the edge of the river which was swiftly dismantled. All incidents are quickly reported to the government authorities and since African Waters have been present on the stretch of the river, encounters like these have become more and more rare and the wildlife has thrived and thrived.
It might seem a paradox that fishing can protect fish but there are clear examples the world over and the Faro is as good an example as you might find. With an increasing majority of sport fishers well educated in the importance of careful catch and release (nowhere had we seen such care and professionalism as shown by the African Waters guides), fishing has become a force for conservation. As well as the money it brings to these areas, the opportunity to study a wild animal, appreciate it and understand its habitat only hardens one’s resolve to look after them. African Waters only fish this area for three months, with a small number of fishermen passing through. Then they dismantle their camp and return the next year. This was a habitat being looked after properly.
We feel truly lucky to have been able to experience this place, only about 40 fishermen have so far, but it has only made it clearer to us that adventure is something to be shared. The encounters with various beasts, fish landed and lost and of course the heat and bugs will not be forgotten but it is the moments enjoyed together that the mind so often returns to. Whether the celebration of a fish caught or the return drive to camp each night, sat in the back of the truck with some cold (as cold as they could be) beers, high on adrenaline and giddy, chatting and laughing away like school boys. For us at Fera, a shared experience is infinitely greater and to sit around a campfire telling tales with the obligatory beer, no matter where you are in the world, is pretty hard to beat.
The River Faro is a special place and we are so grateful to have seen it in all its glory, accompanied by such fine guides. We hope very much that the magic is there to stay and under African Waters’ watch we have little doubt. It is really such a joy to take that step away, to be relieved of worries and to-do lists, to be present in nature and focus totally on the world immediately around you. We are now back to work, refreshed and having scratched the itch of adventure but we are no fools and know quite well that it will soon start creeping back. The question then will be: where?