I’m currently in Kenya with my wife and four children and have just returned from the coast where we spent four nights at the Serena Hotel in Mombasa. My only complaint is that all the DVDs in the Kids’ Club were pirate copies — a bit off, considering the hotel is owned by the Aga Khan.
Every morning I was approached by an employee of the hotel’s aquatic centre who asked if I wanted to go deep-sea fishing. I said no because the cost of renting the boat was £220, but on the last day he told me that someone else was interested and willing to stump up half the money. It was too good an opportunity to miss, particularly as there’d be room on the boat for my three boys. I’ve been reading Ernest Hemingway’s East African short stories and, according to Papa, nothing is more guaranteed to transform a boy into a man than hunting big game. It’s no longer legal to kill the ‘Big Five’ — elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo — but sailfish, tuna and bonito are all on the menu. So what if my boys are only four, five and seven? This would be something they’d remember the rest of their lives.
My fellow passenger was a short, fat Swiss man who clearly didn’t like children. Either that, or he resented the fact that he was subsidising our family excursion.
‘Are they coming on the boat?’ he asked.
‘Don’t worry, they won’t whinge,’ I replied, trying to make light of their presence.
‘The sea is quite rough today, I think. They will get sick.’
‘They’ll be fine.’
The boat turned out to be a bog-standard fishing vessel, smaller than I’d been led to believe by the fast-talking salesman, and there were no life jackets. Just two wild-eyed Kenyans. I decided to let that go. After all, the whole point of bringing my children to Africa was so they could have some real adventures, free of the ’elf-and-safety nonsense that bedevils their lives in London.
Sure enough, the sea was rough — very rough. The combination of lurching first one way, then the other, while simultaneously going up and down like a yo-yo, was profoundly disorientating. I could see my boys becoming pale and I tried to cheer them up by comparing the experience to a funfair ride, but they weren’t having it. Within minutes, all three were in tears and begging to go back to shore.
‘There’s no turning back now,’ I said. ‘You’ll just have to tough it out.’
‘I told you,’ said the Swiss gentleman, smirking with pleasure.
I hoped the conditions would improve as we got further out, but no dice. Luckily, my children had all fallen asleep at this point and — to my immense satisfaction — the other passenger was looking a bit green. Not such an experienced sailor after all! Suddenly, he hurled himself to the side of the boat and made a terrible retching sound. Then another. On and on it went. He brought his head up after 20 minutes, announced he was feeling better, then started retching again.
When he eventually recovered I made a great show of tucking into some cold pizza, washed down with some warm beer. I was feeling distinctly queasy myself, but I wasn’t about to show it. Throwing up on a big-game fishing trip is surely the equivalent of turning on your heels and running when charged by one of the Big Five — the ultimate act of cowardice in Hemingway’s eyes. The British contingent hadn’t exactly covered themselves in glory, but at least we hadn’t disgraced ourselves. Unlike Fatty Arbuckle.
‘I thought we would stop, put down the anchor and start fishing,’ he said, gesturing at the lines trailing behind the boat. ‘We’re never going to catch anything like this. This is stupid, stupid, stupid.’
‘First time?’ I inquired.
‘First and last,’ he said.
Over the course of three-and-a-half hours we only had one bite and I let Mr Grumpy reel it in. It seemed the least I could do after all he’d been through. It was a mahi-mahi, nothing to write home about. All in all, it was a disastrous trip and has probably put my boys off deep-sea fishing for life. But as we headed back to the hotel in the minibus I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of triumph.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 12 January 2013