Are River Monsters Vundu? Follow this writer to Africa and learn how to fish for Vundu, and maybe more…
If you are a fan of the show River Monsters, you might recall an episode targeting a species of catfish called Vundu. River Monsters is hosted by a guy named Jeremy Wade. The premise of the show is Wade traveling the globe looking to catch freshwater fish that have developed a bit of folklore to their name over the centuries.
The Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) is a large species of freshwater catfish native to sub-Saharan Africa. They are an air breathing species of catfish and can survive outside of water for very long periods of time. They are known for their large second dorsal fins and very long barbels or whiskers.
My father is from Zimbabwe, a landlocked country directly above South Africa. I spent a lot of my childhood and vacations there over the years. I have known the word Vundu long before the popularity of River Monsters took hold.
Fishing aboard the houseboat on Lake Kariba
For me, Vundu were the fun fish. As kids, while staying on our rental houseboat on Lake Kariba with my dad, we would try and catch Vundu overnight. We would throw out thick “night” lines with a steel leader and giant hook baited with fatty biltong (beef jerky), rancid meat or blue soap and wake up early hoping to have one on the line. Sometimes we’d hook one, but it would get eaten by a crocodile by the morning. Sometimes we would hook a crocodile and it would bite through or rip the steel cable apart! It gave us kids a little added element of suspense and surprise!
Kariba Dam is a very popular family holiday destination in Zimbabwe. I’ve been going to Lake Kariba since I was in the womb. It’s a very special place to many Zimbabweans. Lake Kariba is what became of the Zambezi River where it was dammed between 1955 and 1959 back when Zimbabwe was still a British protectorate named Rhodesia. The story and history of Kariba Dam is a whole story in itself. If you're interested, try Googling “Operation Noah” to learn how thousands of animals were saved from drowning. Kariba is the largest man-made lake in the world and is dotted with a lot of islands in between the mountains of Matusadona, the place of the elephants. The soil is red from iron and the sun is hotter than anything I have experienced.
The Tonga people used to live in the area now hidden under the water of the dam. They were very upset at being displaced from their ancestral homes and to this day they believe a massive snake-like river god called Nyami Nyami will destroy the dam wall. They believed Nyami Nyami supposedly used to live under a rock near the dam wall called "Kariwa" or "trap" where he would create a vortex to catch his victims. This place is how Kariba got its name. He is said to be serpentine and huge with a head that is three yards wide… and indeed there have been sightings of a Loch Ness-like monster at the lake. So far, the only verifiable monsters have been crocs weighing over 2000 pounds and measuring almost 20 feet in length. Those, and the massive Vundu at the dam wall that have terrified divers because they were so large! It is said that Nyami Nyami was separated from his wife when the dam wall was built and that one day he would break down the dam to finally be reunited with his lost love. Interestingly, the architect that built Kariba dam built several more dams, all which have broken, except Kariba. This is the setting of my fishing story today.
In 2018 I had finally graduated from the College of Charleston. I had been planning a big trip overseas. So, of course, that trip had to include a month in Zimbabwe visiting my grandmother, or my Nana, as I call her affectionately. I had not caught a Vundu since I was 14 years-old, so my Nana arranged a fishing trip up to Kariba for me with her friends Mike and Mike. My trip with the Mikes is one I will surely never forget.
Mike number one picked me up from my Nana’s house in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and we drove the four hours to lake Kariba. It was mid-September and the Jacaranda Trees were in full bloom with their beautiful purple blossoms. They line the streets on certain parts of the drive. They were planted long ago by the first European settlers.
Your imagination can run wild on these African roads
The road is long and goes through farmland and then begins to wind up, down, and around the mountains. We stopped from time to time for baboons and vervet monkeys as they darted across the road. Just before you get to the Lake, you must drive through, Urungwe, which is filled with huge, old, baobab trees, many well over 500 years old. The locals believe they made a god angry at one point and he retaliated by turning the baobabs upside down, which is why they look like their roots are on top. Interestingly enough, you can technically eat the whole tree. Baobab bark can be cut into small squares and eaten, its root pulp can be crushed and made into a porridge, the leaves can be boiled to make tea and the fruit is used to make cream of tartar. It is really a magical place to stop and behold.
Here I am beneath an ancient baobab tree
On the way to Kariba we stopped at a local butcher. We purchased four huge vats of pig's blood. I was told it was going to be used to attract the Vundu. I had definitely never gone fishing for Vundu like this before!
After a long drive we arrived in Charara. There is a fishing camp on the edge of the lake where one of the Mikes owned a chalet. That night and every night for the three days I spent there I slept under a mosquito net. I would read my book with a portable book light. I would turn it on and watch what mosquitos were caught inside the net with me, and smash them between the pages when they would fly past. Ah, memories. I would go to sleep when I knew I was finally alone inside my net with no more mozzies.
The first day we got up at sunrise and set out for Senyati Gorge. It is a location that is absolutely breathtaking with steep banks, lions and elephants and absolutely stuffed with huge crocodiles. If you fall into the water at Sanyati you literally have a fifty-fifty chance of making it to the nearest bank. Kariba is so vast it almost feels like the ocean; it was a long run out there. In the mornings as the first light hits, the sky and the water almost blend together in a way I can only describe as dreamlike. I am sure many fishermen and women know what I am talking about from many early mornings on the water.
A Hippo we passed on the way to Senyati Gorge
We drove past islands with hippos and waterbuck with their distinctive circle on their rump at the shoreline. Only the sick or old lions prey on them as they have subcutaneous glands under their thick oily hair that secrete an enzyme when they are afraid. It makes the meat taste terrible and so they are avoided by predators. Crocs of course don’t care.
This elephant decided it was time for a photo op with me
We saw elephants roaming all around. This is their home and they are the dominant species here. To make that point, 72 people were killed by elephants in Zimbabwe last year. It truly is a spectacular place, but you must respect the wildlife. We finally arrived at the gorge and dumped in two of the vats of blood. Then we went off and fished for bream, which is what the locals call tilapia.
The next day we drove back out and dumped more blood and waited for 20 minutes. We watched and started to see Vundu and barbel swimming up and taking gulps of air around where we had dumped the blood. I must say, it was quite a sight to see that much blood swirling around us and then finally dispersing and dissipating in the water.
Mike number two brought a bunch of aquatic frogs he called “plattys” that he breeds in his pool back home in Harare for the sole purpose of using them as bait. The two Mikes are very serious about their fishing. I was baited up with a platty and casted my line out to where they told me. We put out two other rods and then we waited.
One of the three Lake Kariba Vundu I caught that trip. They really gave me a workout!
It was so windy that day, and being in the gorge, it was like being in a wind tunnel. A funnel between two mountains with the wind howling in between. As I was thinking about the wind, we got our first bite! I grabbed the rod and proceeded to pull in a fish the same size as me, well over five foot - six inches in length. I caught three that afternoon. All the same size. The funny thing though is that each Vundu fought differently. The first one took off like a freight train and made so many runs I was beginning to wonder If I knew what I really signed up for. The second fish sat on the bottom like a log. I felt like I was literally pulling up the biggest tree from the bottom of the gorge. I will never forget the second Vundu, not because it nearly broke my back, but because it had a spine from a barbel stuck in its lip that I removed and kept as a souvenir. I often wonder what story he tells his other Vundi friends about the day he was pulled out of the water by strange creatures, who took the spine out of his lip and returned him to the water! The third fish did a combination of sitting on the bottom and running and definitely had me on my toes. By the time I was done, I was exhausted. Vundu is heavy duty work, with heavy fishing tackle and sturdy equipment. It’s not for the faint hearted! On the way back in I got the opportunity to catch a nice Tigerfish that crossed from left to right at blazing speed before jumping out the water and trying to throw the hook. Only one in ten Tigerfish are landed so it was my perfect end at sunset to complete an already amazing day.
Bass fishing in Africa with KastKing SuperPower Braid Fishing Line. KastKing is everywhere!
The Mikes have also taken me on multiple bass fishing trips on dams around Harare where I was surprised to see they had KastKing SuperPower braid fishing line on their boat and spooled on their reels!
I’ll never forget my fishing trip with the Mikes and will be forever grateful for the incredible experience of fishing for Vundu in Africa. Vundu have always been a special fish for me because they remind me of being a kid and how simple and magical it all felt to be in Kariba with my family surrounded by nature, and seeing every star and arms of the galaxy at night. They remind me of my youth and of the part of me that is always yearning for and missing Zimbabwe.
Christin Kruger is an avid naturalist and accomplished angler who has fished in ten countries spanning three continents. Christin is also a certified Advanced Open Water SCUBA diver. Her adventures include diving among sharks off South Africa and has snorkeled between the tectonic plates in Iceland. She lives in Charleston SC and is a full time marketing specialist at KastKing.