Monday, January 16, 2012


The ferry eventually arrived and I secured a $100 first class passage heading north to Kigoma, on the northern Tanzanian shore.

During my 10-day wait I looked for a place to pass time. After a couple of failed attempts I found myself riding south in heavy rain to Kasama, Zambia and the Thorn Tree Guest House. I had read a favorable review somewhere and was hoping it was true. I rolled in on Christmas Eve soaking wet.

Hazel and Ewart moved from England to Zambia in the late ‘60s to teach in the public schools and to start a family. What they have accomplished since is quite impressive. They instantly treated me like part of the family and the following day I was welcomed into their home for Christmas dinner and festivities. Four generations came together for the day including plenty of grandkids, making it feel really like Christmas. The following week, I was included in on several other family activities including a trip to their coffee farm. I had lucked out once again.

Not as lucky, a day before I was to leave for the ferry I noticed the rear end of the bike was leaking oil. Apparently, some dirt had gotten into the final drive and compromised one of the seals. I scrambled a bit on the internet and finally decided to leave the bike at the guesthouse and order the appropriate parts from the US to be sent while I was on the ferry. I would now be taking a roundtrip voyage on the boat.

The 232-foot, 1,500-ton steel ship was originally named the Graf von Goetzen and had arrived in pieces at the German port town of Kigoma in 1914 – Tanzania being a German colony at the time. It was reassembled and launched in 1915, in time for the First World War. Though a 4-inch gun was mounted it never saw action and was scuttled (sunk) by its crew in 1916. After the Germans were chased out of the area the Belgians raised the ship only to sink it again. In 1924, the new tenants of Tanzania, the British, raised the boat and it has been floating ever since. In the 1970s the steam boilers were replaced with diesel engines and in the 90’s the ship was updated and remodeled. It has worked as a ferry for locals since.

The voyage would include 20 stops along to the shore of Lake Tanganyika picking up cargo and passengers from villages without any road access. The Liemba was their only contact with the outside world and its markets. I was to split my cabin with Geert, a Dutch writer living in Washington DC. We would share many Serengeti beers and plates of rice and beef together. (Geert's website)

It was the last day of the year when the old ship started chugging up the lake. After all the waiting and anticipation, it was an incredible feeling to finally get going. There was definitely a sense of history to the ship and a great energy between the 22-crew members and the people on board (there were only 14 tourists on board). At midnight, two emergency flares were shot into the sky welcoming 2012.

It was not long before our first stop in Kasanga, and a crew of young men quickly got started filling the empty cargo hull with 100-pound bags of corn meal. Twenty hours later they would still be loading, having to stop whenever a light rain would start. Later stops would bring more passengers and more cargo. The majority of the cargo was baskets of dried fish that would go to buyers in Burundi, DR Congo and northern Tanzania. The majority of the fish business was owned and operated by the villages older women who also accompanied their cargo, affectionately referred to by me as “Big Mamas” (mama is Swahili for madam, or lady).

Only Kasanga had a proper dock, the remaining stops consisted of us dropping anchor and watching the circus unfold from the upper decks. Overloaded wooden dhows, large and small, would charge the boat vying to be the first to unload their cargo or to collect the precious few passengers willing to pay a fare for a ride to shore. It was total chaos with yelling and screaming, boats crashing into each other, people climbing up the side of the boat, throwing their baggage up to others, children being handed over to others by an outstretched arm. When captain Titus Benjamin had seen enough, he would toot his horn twice and raise anchor. If some boats were still tied to the ship then so be it - it was off to the next village.

The scenery was beautiful, with green hills turning into mountains. Thatch roofed huts lined palm-lined beaches. We always remained within site of shore and at times were within view of the Congo side of the lake. Sunsets were magical.

The village stops continued throughout the night and each one filled the boat with more people and more cargo. The late night loading process was performed under the ship’s spotlights and cast a surreal aura on an already surreal drama. The 500-person capacity soon swelled to over a 1,000 and one got use to the smell of dried fish baking in the sun and stepping over sleeping bodies. Each stop was just as chaotic and unorganized as the last. It was though nobody had ever done this before, but in fact does it twice a month. This is one trait about Africa that I find very frustrating and hard to digest. Why nobody organizes a more efficient (and safer) way of approaching a problem. I know this is a broad generalization and is largely cultural, but I have seen it time and time again – the lack of solution-oriented thinking. For example, a traffic intersection where people pile into the center until nobody can move and then the honking begins and everybody looks to the other for a solution. Meanwhile, often times there is an oblivious traffic cop standing on the corner talking on his cell phone. Perhaps, I am too structured and rigid, but it really gets under my skin.

At lunch one day, a German woman asked me what the difference was between traveling in South American and Africa? At the time, I think I gave a pretty lame answer, but I continued to think about the question days later. I think what I would tell her now is this:

  • Much of South America seems to be living in antiquity, but is slowly making its way towards the modern age, at its own “muy tranquilo” pace.
  • Africa seems to exist in a post-apocalyptic world, rising up from the ashes after everything has been wiped out, oblivious to the way things once were and blindly and chaotically getting through the day – not necessarily moving towards modernity.

Perhaps a harsh assessment, but it is my perspective nonetheless. That said, it is not that I am not enjoying Africa, but she is a hard and complicated one to warm up to.

The voyage continued and the 42-hour trip turned into 68-hours due to delays. The “rice chicken”, “rice beef” diet got old, but thankfully, they never ran out of beer. It wasn’t exactly relaxing, but the trip up the lake was my favorite and most memorable African experience to date. The boat is supposed to be decommissioned in the next year or two as it is too expensive to operate for these purposes – just not efficient enough.

Map of route up Lake: Map
Video of images from the trip.
Here is a good read about the battle on Lake Tanganyika, and the history of the Liemba.