Looking down at the squirming chambo clasped tightly in my hand, I'm not sure whether to liberate it or eat it for dinner. After a paltry five-minute pull on the net that landed this plump and shiny fish, I certainly haven't earned it. Returning my prize to the waters of Lake Niassa, however, might just be the best way to transform a village full of happy, smiling Mozambicans into a raging mob.
It seems as though most of Messumba has turned out on the lakeside beach to rein in a trio of submerged mosquito nets. For the past few hours, six lines of well-muscled fishermen and gleeful kids have sweated, strained and cavorted on the sand as each parachute of ultrafine meshwork has inched its way towards the shore. By the time the aquatic spoils are being meted out, a fiery sun is low on the horizon.
Lake Niassa, also known as Lake Malawi, is an African Great Lake shared between Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. It was David Livingstone, searching for the source of the River Nile, who "discovered" Lake Niassa in 1859, naming it the Lake of Stars for its nocturnal, lantern-wielding fishermen. Today, it still offers the intrepid some stellar attractions.
The eighth-largest body of fresh water in the world, Niassa is home to more than 1,000 species of fish - 95 per cent of them endemic. Despite this record-breaking biodiversity, many fishing communities along its edge live well below the poverty line.
Much of the lake is under threat from overfishing. Mosquito nets, such as those in use at Messumba, may double up as bargain-basement fishing nets, but they effectively strip the lake of every sizeable life form. It seems a bit soon to be lecturing the locals on the error of their ways, especially when they have been generous enough to share their catch. After two days of steady canoeing from the idyllic Nkwichi Lodge, the only luxury retreat on Niassa's Mozambican shores, my aching body is ready for dinner and a couple of chilled 2M beers, not an argument.
"Things are actually starting to change round here," says Malcolm Turner, the Nkwichi Lodge manager, as we tuck into a mouthwatering chambo curry straight from the camp kitchen. "The World Wildlife Fund and USAID have helped set up a reserve in the Mozambican part of the lake. Mosquito net fishing has been banned and fishermen are being encouraged to use proper nets."
Turner makes the perfect expedition leader. The laid-back and personable Scot knows the 55km stretch of shoreline from Nkwichi Lodge to the town of Metangula, our ultimate objective, like the back of his hand. Accompanied by Miss Nkwichi, the lodge dhow, which carries camping and cooking gear, our flotilla of three canoes is making steady progress. Each time we fall behind to take photos, the two lodge staff sharing my canoe delight in powering back in front with flamboyant displays of muscular oarsmanship.
Apart from some majestic scenery, the highlight of canoeing Lake Niassa has been the periodic stops at small villages. Turner has been greeted like a long-lost son by every chief, and the welcome in Messumba is especially cordial. The following day, after an invigorating dip in the lake, I decide to take up the headman's invitation to attend a church service. As we traipse between squat baobabs (bottle trees) and cassava fields, our motley crew of would-be pilgrims paints a bizarre picture. Francis, a lodge employee, seems to have packed for every eventuality, unearthing a crisp shirt and tie from his rucksack. I have just about managed to repair an ageing left Havianas (shoe). My shorts have a well-delineated tide mark from hours of soggy canoeing.
Approaching Messumba, we pass shrieking children clutching handfuls of small chambo, while rank upon rank of larger fish are laid out on drying racks next to the path. Wooden poles strung between mud brick houses support yet more fish, each neatly bisected to create mirror images of skin and desiccated flesh. Despite the mosquito nets, Lake Niassa can still, it seems, offer a sizeable harvest. As luck would have it, Messumba church doesn't employ a strict dress code. The service has already begun, so our cosmopolitan crew is ushered to the front as the choir continues to belt out their latest uplifting anthem. We're soon called to give speeches to the congregation in Portuguese, Nyanja and English, and then file out again as pungent smoke from the priest's swinging censer drifts into the eaves.
After the service, I talk to Thosten Banda, a young fisherman relaxing in the market. He tells me he has just spent 12,000 Malawian kwacha (about HK$550) on a new fishing net. "I will have to look after this net for a long, long time," he tells me. "If I use a mosquito net, it will be confiscated. But I can catch big fish like kampango [catfish] now, so the net will bring me and my family more money."
I pick up a pair of fine Chinese-made sandals in the market for about HK$38, and we head back to the beach. The weather seems to be deteriorating as massive thunderheads drift across the horizon. Canoes are lashed to the roof of the Miss Nkwichi, which is now wallowing in the surf, already laden with our camp equipment.
"You know Livingstone renamed Niassa the Lake of Storms," laughs Turner, as he hands over a waterproof poncho. A decision is made to abort the last leg of the journey and head back to the lodge. We hug the coastline, outboard motor straining against increasingly menacing waves, as lone fishermen in dugouts paddle furiously for the shore in a deluge of driving rain. It's probably not the best time to be reading about the MS Vipya, a 400-tonne ship that rolled over and sank in a violent Niassa storm in 1946. I put the book away, don a lifejacket and find solace in a packet of delightfully named Have-Sum-Mor biscuits.
Some skilled crewmanship brings us safely back home by late afternoon. The weather has abated and a couple of newly acquired kampango are dispatched to the kitchen for our beachside dinner. Niassa has certainly revealed her changeable character, but also a touching human side.
With mosquito nets on the decline, I hope that Niassa's bountiful waters continue to be as generous as the people of Messumba.
How to get there
The nearest international airport to Nkwichi Lodge is Lilongwe, capital of Malawi. From there it's a 60-minute flight to Likoma, where lodge staff meet the plane and help guests cross the border into Mozambique (visa US$30).
Where to stay/how to get around
More information on Nkwichi Lodge and Lake Niassa canoe trips at www.mandawilderness.org . Costs for two people sharing for one week are approximately HK$20,000, which includes all meals, flights to and from Lilongwe, and boat transfer.