The chocolate challenge

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The Independent Online
JOHN EDWARDS is one of the very few people in the world to have eaten a chocolate mahseer. It tasted, he said, a little like carp, but with a delicate flavour of its own. Reason, you might think, for a serious complaint to Cadbury's. But the chocolate mahseer is not a gold-wrapped confectionery: it is one of the world's rarest and most prized game fish.

On my expedition to Arunachal Pradesh earlier this month, catching a chocolate mahseer would be the highlight of the trip, we agreed. In his seminal work The Rod in India, Henry Sullivan Thomas quotes from the Madras Times of 1878 about fishing in Assam: "The upper part of the body is almost a golden brown, the fins red, and the lower part bluish silver. The lips, especially the upper, are very thick and the upper can be uncurled. It is out and out the handsomest fish of the mahseer, and gives the most sport." Our research showed that the chocolate mahseer appeared to live in only in a few rivers in the north-east, with the Brahmaputra and its tributaries a promising bet - always assuming that the fish hadn't been trapped, dynamited or netted to extinction. Thomas, after all, wrote his first edition of the book in 1873, and nobody had been allowed into Arunachal Pradesh for a century.

But John Edwards claimed to have eaten one on an exploratory trip to the region, and Edwards is a pretty extraordinary man. Married to a Naga woman (in Nagaland, head-hunting battles still take place), he is deputy chairman of Tiger Mountain, a company that specialises in trips to the wilder parts of India and its neighbouring countries.

Born in Hampshire, he came out to India in 1971 as a fresh-faced 25-year- old to help his brother Jim take over Tigertops, a run-down hotel in the Chitwan National Park, Nepal. The company is now the leading adventure travel company in Asia, taking more than 5,000 people on tiger, leopard and rhino-spotting trips; up Everest, down whitewater rapids or on mahseer- fishing expeditions (fortunately, he is an avid fisherman).

A couple of years ago, Edwards was invited by the Arunachal Pradesh government to look at tourism possibilities. He has now made three visits and is hugely excited by the prospects. Sitting in a breathtaking gorge on the banks of the Yamne River, with exotic butterflies dancing round our heads and jungle all around, he said: "To me, this is the last great frontier. From here for 100 kilometres or more, it's undiscovered jungle."

It's still early days, but his plans are unlikely to include giant hotels, air-conditioned rooms, satellite dishes, tame animals and visitors by the busload. "Whatever we do must not affect the delicate balance of the area," he said. "The only way to develop this is in tune with the surroundings: a house in keeping with those in the area, and limited numbers of visitors." The problems of the world sorted out, we went fishing.

Edwards has caught golden mahseer up to 73lb, and takes his rod, a battered 30-year-old Hardy fibre-glass, wherever he goes. He's away from his family for up to a third of the year and he can put it all down as work. (My wife, please note after those unjustified ramblings in my absence.) After all, this was an exploratory trip and we had to determine the area's fishing potential.

The Yamne is fast, narrow and rocky; a 40-pounder would be exceptional, even if we could get it out of the wild rapids. Its parent, the Siang, looked as if it could hold huge fish but its size, wider than the Thames in London, was daunting. And what of the Brahmaputra, in places more than two miles wide? What monsters lurked in its depths? And would we catch a chocolate mahseer? You'll have to wait for next week's episode to find out.