I first heard about the Lake Tanganyika ferry from Michael back in Buenos Aires. Michael was a Brit busy spending his pension checks from Her Majesty’s Navy on beer and petrol while traveling around the world in stages on his GS 1200. A year prior he had been in southern Africa and had taken the ferry.
Lake Tanganyika is the longest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world and is shared by four countries- DR Congo, Tanzania, Zambia and Burundi. I would be catching it at its most southern point in Zambia and then taking it up to the chimpanzee country of northwestern Tanzania and just a hair south of the halfway mark between Cape Town and Cairo. A big attraction to the trip is the vessel itself, the MV Liemba, an old German warship from WWI. I have not seen a photo of the ship yet and do not really know that much about it, but do know that the Germans once deliberately sunk the ship at some point to avoid it getting into enemy hands, and later raised it. The ship makes stops along the Tanzanian coast to small remote mostly inaccessible villages carrying passengers and goods. It is a working ferry for the lake with very few travelers on board. From its final destination in Kigoma, Tanzania I will try and secure passage on a cargo ship going to Burundi at the top of the lake. Otherwise, I would have 150-miles on dirt roads into the interior of Tanzania in order to catch the paved road to Rwanda.
In addition to these more obvious reasons, the idea of traveling through at least part of Africa by boat intrigues me, in the spirit of Joseph Conrad I suppose. It may not be a steamship going down the Congo River or in search of the ivory trading post of the deranged Mr. Kurtz, but I am looking forward to seeing how the experience unfolds.
Besides Michael’s personal account of the trip, it has been nearly impossible to find any current or reliable information about the trip. My Lonely Planet book has a meager 1”x1” box about it, stating it leaves every Friday. In Malawi, I heard from another traveler interested in making the trip that she heard it left every-other Friday, not weekly. There is no website or phone number to call, and not much mentioned on the online forums for overlanders, just more questions. My plan, or lack thereof, was to roll the dice and show up at the dock early in the week hoping that it was leaving on that particular Friday.
However, first I had to get to the lake. The logical route is to come up on paved roads from the south of Zambia. But because I went to Malawi and was now well north of any junction to the paved roads, I had two options: I could cut across the most northern part of Zambia on a dirt road or to ride into Tanzania cross over and then drop back down into Zambia also on dirt roads. Problem was, nobody could tell me anything about either of these roads and the rains were coming more frequently now. As my friend Adam would say, “good intel is hard to come by there”. Several times I had mentioned to Peter that I did not have a very good feeling about all this and was more anxious about the crossing than usual. For one thing, I did not like that the Zambian road paralleled so closely to the border (with Tanzania). Border areas can be bad news.
As Peter and I reached Karonga in northern Malawi, we stopped to get some more black market gas, using up what Malawian Kwacha we had before leaving the country, as it is has almost no value anywhere else. I stopped a couple of mature looking local businessmen walking by and asked if they knew anything about the road across Zambia. They said “no”, but did say that road west from the town of Chitipa in Malawi to the border was very bad and very dangerous. “You must not take that road. Promise me.” He apparently just had a friend killed by bandits on that road a week prior. I did not see any reason for him to lie, and he was pretty adamant about me not going that way. “Don’t worry, you only have to tell me once!” Peter and I crossed into Tanzania together and checked into the Landmark Hotel in Tukuyu.
After two nights, Peter and I said good-bye and he took the main road to Dar Es Salaam/Zanzibar and I went only about an hour west to the province capital of Mbeya. I checked into the Mt Livingstone Hotel so that I could get a decent map of Tanzania and some better “intel” on the road conditions going west. I still did not have a good feeling about this, and that in it self was bothering me. With all the recent rains my chief concern was getting stranded somewhere, unable to move forward and unable to turn back due to washed-out or impassable roads. I would also be incredibly vulnerable out there if the roads were bad or wet. Lastly, I did not have any real experience with the Tanzanian people, “how helpful would they be?”
The “bellboy” at the hotel took me to find a map and to a Bureau of Exchange office to change about $100 worth of Malawi Kwacha that I found hidden in one of my bags (what a bonehead!). The hotel manager later confirmed that the road west to Sumbawanga was in fact well traveled and was currently under construction. The Chinese were building a new paved road all the way and the detour road should be passable if it wasn’t raining. He did not know much about the road south to Zambia.
(China’s involvement in Africa has been coined as the re-colonization of Africa. China has been improving Africa’s infrastructure in exchange for access to individual countries’ natural resources.)
I set out the next morning on the paved road that took me down to Tunduma and the main border crossing with Zambia. I would be staying on the Tanzania side and catching the road west that skirted the border for 40-miles or so. It was the most chaotic border scene that I had seen for quite some time, and was very thankful that I was not crossing there.
The road was soon dirt and turned to shit pretty fast with potholes everywhere. The day was cloudy, but no rain in sight. It was Friday, so I still had a full week to get to the ferry dock at Mpulungu, on the south shore of the lake. I passed many villages along the route. There were sections of mud, but manageable.
For lunch, I bought some mangoes from some kids standing by the road and ate them under a tree with an ominous exclamation mark nailed to it. I should have heeded the warning!
The jaw-chattering 140-mile trip took seven-hours and landed me in Sumbawanga and the less than glorious Mbiza Forest Lodge. Not much of a lodge, and with terrible food, but they did serve me grilled bananas. I had seen people grilling them on the street, dry over hot coals, but had yet to try them. Not exactly sure what variety the banana is, but the grilling takes out some of the sweetness and toughens up the texture. The coarse salt you sprinkle on them makes them a savory little snack, great when accompanied with a cold Safari lager.
Under mosquito netting, I woke to the sound of rain falling on the metal roof at about 3-am, and could not go back to sleep again until it stopped about 90-minutes later. I kept telling myself that I only have 64-miles to get to the border. After breakfast I packed up the bike. I guess I could have waited a day to see if things dried up, but this was not a very interesting place to be and it could just as easily rained more. I desperately wanted this day to be over.
I found my turn off outside of town and saw that this road was also under construction. It was Sunday and nobody was working on it so I took the smooth dirt road for as long as I could, but soon enough was forced to use the detour road that paralleled. There were many patches of mud that forced me to stop, pick a line and plow through in first gear. A few people were out walking or on bicycles, but no other vehicles to speak of were out. The sky was now battleship grey and threatened of rain. The air was cool.
As the morning progressed, the one, and really only bright spot was passing through the various villages as church was letting out. Against a dark sky, and their dark skin, the women looked especially nice wrapped in their bold colorful fabrics. On this "day of rest" they clearly wore their best and brightest with matching cotton fabric for their skirt, top and head wrap. I love seeing the women wrap their hair up into the small tower of fabric. For me it is “classic Africa” and adds a sense of elegance to their outfit. On any other day, these are the same women that carry large loads balanced on their heads; large containers of cooking oil, bundles of firewood six feet long, or almost anything else you can imagine, but today, without the usual burden weighing them down, they seemed to gracefully float above the red dirt.
Then I got stuck. I tried to pick a line where there was none and the rear wheel was soon buried. I quickly waved down a man walking up the road with a hoe over his shoulder. He came over to help while I tried digging out. Useless. Not five minutes had gone by before a large truck carrying passengers came up the road behind me, the first other vehicle I had seen since starting out 22-miles ago. They too got stuck on their first attempt, but came over to help me first. We tried several things but ultimately, they just lifted the rear of the loaded bike up over the mud and pushed it out. I wanted to kiss them, but thought better of it. I then went over to help them out. After about 15-minutes of standing there I proved to be completely useless and they said I should get back on the road as it was now starting to rain.
(one long Slip-n-Slide)
I dropped the bike yet again, this time out of fatigue. My already makeshift right mirror broke again and my right pannier was bent out of shape - again. Once more, there was a man walking his bicycle along with his wife that was nearby and came to help. Tanzanians were proving to be very helpful and always at the right place and right time.It rained for the next 15-miles with more and more mud bogs to pass through. Now every pothole was filled with water and at places, water threatened to overtake the road completely. Keeping the bike from sliding sideways or any other direction took concentration and intense focus. It was exhausting. I first dropped the bike after the tires slid out from under me. I was thrown off and laid flat on my back vowing never to leave paved roads again. I wanted to scream and did. A man heard me wailing and came over to help me pick up the bike. At this point, every mile was counted and celebrated: “Half way there!” “Only 25 more miles!” “Now only 23 more miles”, and so on.
Finally, after an incredibly long four-hours, I got to the small and empty immigration office and found the lone officer on duty. Surprised, he asked how I had made it through the rains. I could only shrugged my shoulders.
Upon being greeted at the Nkupi Lodge near the shore of Lake Tanganyika I immediately asked, “When does the ferry come next?” “You are in luck, it comes this Friday” “YES!”
The next day I went to the port office to find out how much my passage would cost and to secure a cabin. Even here at the dock, information was hard to come by and someone had to text the actual captain of the boat. The man showed me the screen of his phone so I could read his reply, “Due to Christmas, the ferry will not be arriving until December 30th" . . . . a ten-day wait!
As the saying goes here, “TIA!” This is Africa!