He lay on the mud bank, a good thirteen feet in length, jaw opened wide open, we called him "grandfather". His skin, a dull grey colour glinted in the sunlight. He was the largest of the crocodiles that we saw on lake Chamo, that is when my father had the time to allow us the luxury of a boat ride on the lake. It was an amazing site to see all those crocs basking in the sun, with him in the centre. The crocs on lake Chamo were known to be the most ferocious lot of the two lakes, lake Abaya and lake Chamo. The crocs vied for space and hegemony with the Hippopotamuses and the huge Nile Perches that grew to amazing sizes, weighing up to a hundred kilos.
The wind picked up speed and whipped up the waves into swells. My dad commented, “ I feel like shooting into the maw of that fellow with the mouth opened wide!” My brother and I, must have looked incredulous, what could a Beretta pistol do to a beast that could do short service with its jaws and powerful tail! I remember that one of the boats, made of fibreglass was missing one side window. When I asked the boat-man, he told me that the prison chief of Arbaminch had let loose a bullet from his service revolver, and the bullet had ricocheted and hit the glass window shattering it to pieces.
At the landing place, crocodiles often floated on to the place, deceptive logs submerged in the water, only snouts and eyes sticking out of the water ranging for victims to swallow! My brother and I fished for smaller fish standing on the promontory while my dad and his Russian friend Mr. Pustukh fished for the much valued Nile-Perch. Once, I remember hooking a carnivorous fish called the “bale bandera” or the fish with the stripes. This was a fish that bit off half of the fish that we threaded on to the hook leaving the hook untouched. We invariably used tilapia as bait. The nylon line sang through my hands, the fish, snaking left and right as it tried to escape. When I landed it, it surprised us when we saw that it was a “bale bandera” a good one kilo in weight, snapping its jaws, sharp teeth snapping at what came into contact!
Back at the mud bank, the wind increased in speed and the waves grew deeper. The boat began pitching, and water began to wash over the front. The boatman told us that we would have to turn back, and then the rather violent journey commenced. My brother and I were filled with fear, what would happen if we capsized? We felt sure that we would be eaten alive by the crocs! Pitching inexorably in the swell, we edged on to the quay. That day my father and Mr. Pustukh had landed three Nile Perches weighing ten, eight and fifteen kilos each. Most of the fish would be sent to the Russian Embassy in Addis Ababa in return for the vodka and the Russian cigarettes they would send.
Once in, we landed at the promontory, and my mother and aunty Vera, our Russian Aunt sighed in relief. The evening would be spent skinning the Nile Perch carving it into sizable pieces and packed into freezers for the onward journey to Addis Ababa. Evenings were often spent at Aunty Vera’s and Uncle Pustukh’s home and we enjoyed supping on the blineys ,jellied fish, Saur-kraut and the potatoes that were eaten with an accompaniment of cloves of garlic! While the the elders guzzled on copious amounts of vodka, my brother and I talked about the day gone by. We both competed with each other in terms of the largest fish we could catch, and the elders often gave us the liberty to catch whatever we wanted.
Those were days that passed in a blur. Our only entertainment was based on the visits that we made to Lake Chamo at the end of the week. For my brother and I, the best time of our lives constituted fishing in Lake Chamo, and sure we looked forward to this trip. In those days we did not have T.V., nor did we have movies, except for the 18 mm movies that the Russians showed us at home or in the school. These movies were invariably based on the second world war.
The evening following a big catch of Nile Perch was followed by the cutting and carving of these large fish. They were often hung from the rafters in the kitchen of our home, the carcasses swaying from the rafters would be carved into sizeable portions conducive to transport to the capital. The skeleton of the fish would often be thrown outside the boundary of the house to an accompaniment of the howling of hyenas that fought amongst themselves for a morsel or a piece of the goodies.
Our visits to Lake Chamo often were not about fishing, as the gentlemen often remembered the women and planned extensive boating trips. More often than not we took the boats for a trip across the lake. We often saw locals sailing boats made of Papyrus and grass that were so waterlogged that the boats were often submerged. My brother and I wondered what would happen if a crocodile took interest in the fisherman on board the papyrus boat. There was a story in those times about a crocodile that took seemed to take more than natural interest in the man manning the papyrus boat. The Croc came close and flipped its tail, knocking the man into the water. What happened next was food for imagination. But then those were surely good days, days which will never return, days of adventure fraught with danger.
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