The art of doggy paddle


Johannes and dog on board. Photo by Runar Larsen, Magasinet Reiselyst

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Phil Clisby breaks new ground.

There’s something about travel that encourages me to try new activities – the sort I’d never contemplate having a crack at stuck at home.

Having exhausted snorkelling and kayaking and general lazing about in the relaxed atmosphere of Kaya Mawa, on the picturesque Likoma Island in Lake Malawi, my attention turns to the paddleboards that lie invitingly on the sand, next to the still, aquamarine water. “How hard can it be?” I think.

My friend Johannes is already out there, paddling away with ease. Even the resort’s resident dog has joined the party, jumping on his board as he pushed off from the shore.

The dog looks completely at home. If he could have, I’m sure he would have put his shades on, wrapped a paw behind his head and laid back, sipping on a pina colada through a straw while Johannes paddled him around the bay. This is doggy paddle at its finest.

And what a fine setting to be trying this activity for the first time: huge blue skies, a beating African sun, crystal-clear waters, fish swimming around me, an idyllic stretch of sand behind, a rocky island outpost just off shore, a fish eagle soaring above, local fishermen plying their trade.

Well, if a dog can do it, then so can I. (I forget to consider he has four legs, making balancing on an unstable piece of fibreglass somewhat easier.)

I stride purposefully forward, drag a board into the shallows and clamber, somewhat ungainly, aboard. There are no waves to speak of, but I am wobbling like a good ’un. Right, here we go: push up onto the knees and then again into a standing position, plant the feet firmly, facing forwards, bend the knees to maintain balance and paddle. Well, that’s the theory.

Yet I am already underwater, coughing and spluttering, after flying off the side of the board before I’d even had a chance to dip my paddle in the water. My sunglasses, which I’d optimistically kept on, submerged somewhere in the deep.

After five minutes of swimming around in a panic, I locate my shades resting on the lakebed and sensibly place them on a sunbed on the safety of dry land. I return to the water and scramble onto my board once more, get up onto my knees this time, and paddle out to sea… or should that be out to lake?

OK, let’s try again. I push up. I’m standing. I’m paddling. I’m wobbling like a drunk trying to stagger home. I’m underwater.

I regain my composure, reunite with my board and haul myself on again – like a seal coming ashore, only with less grace. Hmm, this isn’t right – I’m now lying across the board rather than along it. This is a bit harder than I thought.

A few more aborted attempts follow, before I’m up and properly paddling – I cover 1m, 2m, 3m… 5m, I’m doing it! Splash! I’m not doing it.

Holding onto the board, I contemplate my next move. A lightbulb goes off in my head. Kneeboard, instead. Like a Native American in a dugout canoe, I’m soon ploughing through the water at speed. This is fun… until cramp sets in in my leg.

A second lightbulb moment occurs. I jump off and swim to shore, pushing the board in front of me. I drag it up the sand, dump it and grab a kayak. Now, that’s much easier. My paddleboarding days are over.

Not deterred by my paddleboard (in)experience, I soon found myself attempting another previously untried sport – this time in Nyika.

The Nyika Plateau is blessed with three lakes stocked with trout. Rich pickings for the fly fisherman – unless, of course, like me, you’ve never attempted any sort of fishing other than with a net in rock pools at age five.

Four of us head to the water’s edge to receive instruction from the camp fishing guide. By that I don’t mean he was effeminate, I mean he worked at Chelinda Camp. He ties a rather attractive black-and-blue fly to my line and demonstrates, with consummate ease, the technique I need to employ: let out some slack on the line, waggle the rod vigorously in a sideways motion and watch the hook fly out into the water. Repeat until the fly is dangling sufficiently far out into the lake. Allow it to sit for a few minutes before winding in slowly in the hope that the hungry trout will bite. Then repeat the process.

How hard can that be? Again, I soon realise it’s bloody difficult. I let out some slack, wave my rod from side to side as fast as I can and watch the hook drop about one metre in front of me. I let out some more slack, waggle the rod again. Hey, that’s OK. So far, so good. Then I get a bit carried away going for a big cast. The line loops the loop and somehow entangles itself into several knots along the length of my rod.

Fifteen minutes of frustration and swearing later, I’m ready to cast again. By now my fly is looking somewhat bedraggled. If I were a fish I wouldn’t be snapping at this one.

All around us in the water we can see trout jumping – bubbles and ripples breaking the surface. But can we cast anywhere near them? Nope. Still, perseverance is the key. I fling my line in once more. I’ve got something. Hang on, what’s this… oh, I’ve caught a bush.

Nevertheless, there are worse places to realise that you’re not very good at something. This beautiful expanse of water glistens in the sunshine, the towering forest of pine trees that line the opposite bank reflect perfectly in the glass-like lake. To my right, the rolling hills of the plateau meander into the horizon; to the left is bush. Bushbuck feed on the grassy bank behind us. A group of lads carry firewood on their shoulders as they traipse along the forest trail.

Over the course of the day, seven of us give this fly fishing lark a go… and the sum total of our efforts is one measly tiddler. Not caught by me, obviously. But our excited response to the catch is beyond reason. It’s like winning the World Cup. Well, almost.

Phil travelled to Malawi on Ethiopian Airlines and stayed at Kaya Mawa and Chelinda Camp.

Phil fishing. Photo by Johannes Soeder