Fishing Lines: Bitten by the land of Knud

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The Independent Online
WHENEVER I am seasick, I think of Knud Holst. It was on his boat in Ecuador that I enjoyed eight merry hours of seasickness. It was like dying, only worse. Knud was very sympathetic. He offered me a bloodstained, fish-smelling towel to rest my head on as I lay inert. A nice gesture, though it didn't do a lot for my seasickness.

I read this week that Knud had died of a heart attack. It brought back fond memories of mosquitoes, cannibals, arapaima and the day I almost saw a blue whale - and it all happened eight years ago this week.

I had read about arapaima in David Attenborough's Zoo Quest to Guiana and resolved one day to fish for them. You say things like that and they get forgotten. But this one stayed with me. And so it came to pass that I found myself in a canoe heading up the Rio Napo in Ecuador. With me were five arapaima enthusiasts and a couple of native guides. It was trail- breaking stuff. We travelled three days from the nearest road, sleeping in hammocks in the jungle. At that stage, it wasn't really dangerous, unless you count the mosquitoes. One of the party failed to cover his body properly one night. He counted 169 bites on one leg.

Because the guide's brother was in the army, we got past a checkpoint, the usual limit for tourists. We travelled to a tributary called the Tiputini, which is part of a national park. Suddenly, the nature we had expected turned out to greet us. Giant blue morpho butterflies, howler monkeys, freshwater dolphins, anacondas, turtles, vampire bats, multi- coloured macaws. And mosquitoes.

It could have been an epic trip. We had planned our expedition to coincide with the dry season, so we could fish for arapaima in small pools. The weather had other ideas. The Tiputini was a dozen feet above normal level.

So we didn't catch any arapaima. In a lagoon straight out of The Lost World, we saw a couple, huge things several feet long (they are said to grow to 14ft or more). Around that same lagoon we saw the dinosaur-like hoatzin, birds that still have claws on their wings. But we didn't catch any arapaima. We tried, goodness knows, fishing all day and often all night. During the day, the ants (vicious things two inches long with jaws like piranha) bit us. At night, the mosquitoes bit us. With food, water, antihistamine and patience all running out, we gave up.

But serious fishers do not let little things like tarantulas and a 10- foot bushmaster (our guide told us it is the only snake he knows that chases people) put them off. Instead of heading back to Quito to lick our wounds, we headed on to the coast. We had little money or enthusiasm, and we needed to catch some fish. That's where Knud came in.

In Salinas, the Blackpool of Ecuador, Knud ran a couple of big-game fishing boats. Unfortunately, the weather had not quite finished with us. Knud warned us it could be a bit bumpy. Yes, force 8 is quite rough. Being seasick is no fun, but it is infinitely worse when you roll around the bottom of a boat like a marble in a container lorry.

That's why I missed the blue whale. I'm told it was awesome. Knud tried to rouse me, but I said something like: "I'm only interested if it will swallow me whole." I missed the giant turtle and the blue marlin that ran off 300 yards of line and got away. Eventually (I think it was about three days later) we returned to shore. A few hundred yards off the beach, I was feeling humanoid enough to raise my head above the deck. And at last God took pity on me. One of the reels screamed as line poured off it.

"Do you feel up to taking this fish?" Knud asked. No, I did not. But I had a go anyway. It proved to be a rooster fish, a strange, rare creature that hunts close inshore and is named after its huge dorsal fin, like a rooster's comb. It weighed about 30lb - and was the only catch of the day.

So thanks, Knud. Without you, I would just have eight hours of seasickness to remember.