Tanzania: Sailing Lake Tanganyika
1st March - 5th April 2002
After Gerald flew back to London on Sunday I decided to take a week off and relax in Dar es Salaam and have a break from the road. It had been a busy nine weeks since I had arrived in Kampala back in January. I stayed on at the Holiday Hotel and kept the double room as it had a balcony, an ideal vantage point to watch the street life below. The following week slipped by, I spent a lot of my time catching up with this travelogue, eating at Chef's Pride and hanging out with the locals at street level. I went off to the Zambian embassy to arrange a visa for the next leg of my journey, the woman at the reception was very friendly and wouldn't stop chatting. The best line she came out with was when her stapler broke, 'Everything here is buggered, it's all Chinese rubbish, none of it ever works.' I thought that was a good advertisement for Zambia. The British Council library was just a block away from the Zambian embassy and let me in to read the newspapers for a couple of hours, an opportunity that is becoming rare as the British Council is increasingly restricting entry to the library to members only.
I planned to take a more unusual and less travelled route to Zambia, via Lake Tanganyika. From my research I found that there was a boat sailing the length of the lake from Bujumbura in Burundi to Mpulungu in Zambia, the countries only port, once a week. The ship, the MV Liemba docked in Kigoma, Tanzania's major port on the lake, on a Wednesday on her way south to Mpulungu. I also thought that arriving in a landlocked country by ship would be quite ingenious. The Central Line train departs from Dar es Salaam four times a week to Kigoma, the Sunday departure would get me into Kigoma forty hours later on Tuesday morning. I would then spend one night in Kigoma before boarding the ship on Wednesday evening. I booked a first class train ticket to Kigoma for TSH45,200 at the railway station. I didn't want to run the risk of being stuck in Kigoma for a week if the ship was fully booked by the time I arrived on Tuesday, so I searched around Dar es Salaam for an office for the shipping company so that I could at least make a reservation.
It was when I was sitting by the side of the road outside the Holiday Inn with some local lads, which was part of my daily routine for a few hours each day, that one of them told me that the rail company that owns the Central Line, also owned and operated the MV Liemba. He told me that I could make a reservation at the train station in town. I walked again to the train station and stepped into the customer enquiries office. They promptly phoned the shipping office in Kigoma for me (after many attempts we finally got through) and I made a reservation for a first class cabin. Everything was sorted for the next section of my journey and all I now had to do was just wait until 16.00 hours on Sunday when I was due to report at the station.
I was sad to leave Dar es Salaam, I would miss the new friends I had made but looked forward to the prospect of once again travelling to new places. My weeks break in the city seemed to have worked and I was eager again to be back on the road. I arrived at the Central Line station on Sokoine Drive at 16.15. The train was due to depart at 17.00 and the platform was already a sea of people laden down with luggage searching for their seats. Hawkers mingled with the crowd selling the essentials like bread, fruit, water, watches and sunglasses. This afternoon was also the final of the Tusker Cup, between two of Tanzania's leading football teams, Simba and Yanga. A lot of the men were listening to the match intently on their radios and whenever Simba (the local team) scored a huge cheer would go up and everyone would rush to the nearest radio to find out who had scored. Simba won the match four, one, much to the delight of the Dar es Salaam crowd.
The train was eighteen coaches long and the first class section was about fourteen coaches up the platform, a long walk. The first class berths were excellent, especially for this continent, each compartment had two comfortable sleeping berths and a small basin with a tap that worked; this would be my home for the next couple of days. About ten minutes late at 17.10, the train gently pulled out of the station to begin the 1,251km journey to Kigoma, slowly passing through the suburbs of Dar es Salaam. All along the railway line kids had cleared patches of wasteland to create makeshift football pitches with goalposts consisting of a couple of wooden poles, a few with a crossbar attached with some rope. As the train passed by, kids would come running out of their huts waving and screaming; football too took an impromptu break and everyone else walking along the side of the tracks just stopped and stared as the train slowly rattled past. In the compartment next door to me were two girls from Brighton in Sussex, close to where I used to live before moving west along the coast to Dorset. Once the sun had set and we were steadily rolling through the dark African bush I went next door to join them for a few beers, which took a long time in coming, and to see what their plans were and where they were heading.
They too were travelling all the way to Kigoma to visit Gombe Stream National Park, which has a troop of chimpanzees that have been habituated to human contact. Rosie had been doing volunteer work on the island of Pemba for a conservation organisation and her friend, Esther had just flown into the country two days earlier for a three-week holiday. A steward soon came round taking orders for dinner; on the menu there was a choice of beef, chicken or fish with rice. Before leaving Dar es Salaam I had taken a detour in a taxi to the Subway restaurant on Ohio Street and purchased a foot long tuna sub to takeaway. This was my first splurge in a western fast food restaurant and also the first fast food chain I had found so far on my trip. It made an excellent dinner on the train, I was sure there would be plenty of opportunities to dine on fish and rice once I reached Lake Tanganyika.
The first nights sleep on the train was fairly comfortable, the track was smooth and the train didn't lurch about much, although having the top bunk it did get hot during the night with the door locked and the window jammed shut (to stop people climbing in during the night while we slept). Also the fan didn't work. I was awake early, just as the sun was rising, I had been sweating through the night and left the compartment to go and hang out of a window in the corridor and watch the world turn from black and grey to blue and green. Since leaving the previous evening we had travelled 412km by daybreak and soon arrived in Dodoma. Dodoma has been the capital of Tanzania since 1973 and is the headquarters of the ruling political party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi. It will never replace Dar es Salaam as the economic centre and from the station looked more like a large village than a capital city.
It was surprising how quickly the day slipped by as we continued to steadily roll across the endless plains in the centre of the country. The scenery became monotonous after a while, just continuous grass, scrub and trees. Nearer a village, small fields with maize and millet grew and bananas surrounded the huts providing shade from the intense sun. Kids would run out of the huts screaming and waving and run down to the railway line to watch us pass by. Every now and then we would pass a field of sunflowers, their huge yellow flowers drooping and gently swaying in the warm breeze. By 20.00 we arrived in Tabora the main junction town along the Central Line where the line branches in two, one branch going north to Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria and the other line continuing west to Kigoma. The sidings were full of old broken rolling stock and the rusting hulks of many old steam engines from a previous era. All confusion broke out once we arrived in Tabora, train crews changed trains, coaches from one train were shunted to another and hundreds of passengers wandered under the glare of the floodlights around the sidings trying to find their correct train. It seemed amid this chaos that three trains had arrived, one from Mwanza, another from Kigoma and our train from Dar es Salaam. It took two hours to sort this commotion out and for everyone to finally find their correct coaches. I did not have to change trains but during the course of the two hours was shunted around the sidings.
After a cooler and far better nights sleep on the second night I awoke to the sight of the sun rising through the mist on the plains. I was almost in Kigoma, the end of the line. Soon I saw my first glimpse of Lake Tanganyika in the distance, the second deepest lake in the world, glittering in the morning sunshine. I finally arrived at 09.30, only half an hour late, which I thought, considering the distance I had travelled, fairly impressive. Kigoma, as well as being Tanzania's major port on the lake, is also the regional capital, but it did not gain this prominence until the completion of the railway line during the early 20th century. Before this Ujiji, a few kilometres to the south, was the regions main settlement with one of the oldest markets in Africa. It is also the place where the famous words were spoken by Henry Morton Stanley in 1871, 'Dr Livingstone I presume', when the journalist found Dr Livingstone, after various reports that he was missing or dead on his latest expedition to find the source of the Nile.
I took a taxi up to the Zanzibar Lodge, a couple of kilometres along the main street, Lumumba Street and quickly checked in for a night and dropped off my luggage before rushing down to the port. At the small ticket office at the port I explained to the clerk that I had phoned the previous week to reserve a cabin. To my surprise, after a bit of shuffling around with some papers on his desk, he found a scrap with my name and details written down. The non-resident fare for a first class cabin was US$55, only fifteen dollars more than the third class fare. I paid, collected my ticket and walked back into town happy that the next stage of my journey was successfully arranged and that I wouldn't be stuck in Kigoma for a week.
Kigoma has also been a centre for refugees for the past decade or more from the wars in the neighbouring countries of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. The town is full of offices of the worlds major aid organisations and nearly half the traffic driving along the main street were aid vehicles, lots of new four wheel drives and heavy trucks for the UNHCR carrying supplies out to the surrounding refugee camps. Apparently I was told that due to the huge influx of refugees to the area that the town is classed as a war zone, I hoped my insurance company hadn't heard about this. I met up with Rosie and Esther at Ally's restaurant for lunch to see how their plans were going arranging a visit to Gombe Stream National Park. Things were not going well, the only way to reach the park is by boat and the public ferry only goes once a day. It would mean that they would have to spend two days at the park until they could take the public ferry back to Kigoma. They would therefore unnecessarily have to pay two days parks fees, which are US$100 a day. The alternative of chartering a boat was not much better and came out at US$150 for the return trip. In the end they decided to abandon their plans of visiting this national park and instead visit a chimpanzee sanctuary just outside town by the village of Katonga. I joined the girls on this trip but the plan failed on its first attempt. We took a taxi out to Katonga but no one knew of any chimpanzee sanctuary, which is run by the Jane Goodall Institute. The institute is also involved in doing research work at Gombe Stream national park and other conservation work in the area.
The next day, Wednesday, after a very stormy night we once again set off for Katonga, this time with fresh directions from the staff at the Zanzibar Lodge. Again we failed and returned back to town and on our way saw a Jane Goodall Institute vehicle, they stopped and gave us a lift back to their office. They explained to us that the chimp sanctuary had been closed because the three male chimps that lived there had become very aggressive and out of control. They had frequently attacked both keepers and visitors and were now waiting to be shipped to a sanctuary in South Africa. They were originally caught by poachers in the Congo and were confiscated when they were discovered being smuggled across the lake. They were given to the Institute to look after because they have been doing research work on chimps at the Gombe Stream National Park for many years now.
While we were at the office we were introduced to the project manager, Mr Emanual Mtiti who sat down with us and explained the objectives of the Institute. Dr Jane Goodall, who began studying the chimpanzees at Gombe in 1960, founded the Institute. The original objective of the Institute was to provide ongoing support for field research at Gombe but soon other problems became more apparent in the area. These problems included population growth, forest exploitation, soil erosion and the influx of refugees, poaching, bush fires and the lack of good agricultural knowledge. In response to these problems the Institute broadened it's objectives to include wildlife research, education and conservation. The Institute now strives to increase the power of individuals to take informed and compassionate action to improve the environment for all living things.
One of the major problems in the area is the felling, burning and general destruction of the forests. The most important tree locally is the Mninga, which is a hardwood that grows very straight. It is used for everything from boat building to construction and furniture making. Demand for the timber is always high but the trees are now being depleted at an alarming rate and no-one has thought about what to do when the timber runs out. The Institute is pioneering a tree-planting programme, but the Mninga has proved to be a very difficult tree to cultivate from seed in a nursery. They are also planting the African Blackwood, which is used heavily across East Africa for carving and is commonly passed off as ebony, once it has been polished up with black Kiwi boot polish on the local craft markets. After our meeting we were taken by Mr Aristides Kashula, the forestry manager, on a tour of the local forests they are planting and conserving.
After our tour we were dropped back at the Zanzibar Lodge where I quickly picked up my luggage and made my way to the port stopping in town along the way for lunch and to buy supplies for the upcoming voyage down the lake. I had been told to report at the dock at 16.00 for what I presumed was a 17.00 departure, although no one had told me exactly when the ship was due to sail. While I was waiting with a large crowd of expectant passengers at the port I met two other travellers, Daniel from Munich in Germany and Paul who was from Bournemouth in Dorset, which in global terms almost made us next-door neighbours; we concluded that it is certainly a small world. We boarded at 17.00 and made our way to the first class cabins at the front of the main deck. Each cabin had two berths and had a wardrobe, table and chair, a small basin (although mine had no water) two windows that opened and a door opening directly out onto the main deck. On the main deck to the aft was the galley, restaurant and bar; the lower deck housed the second-class cabins and third class saloons, on the bottom deck were more third class saloons and the engine room. Forward of the bridge was the cargo hold and in the bows were two decks of third class saloons. After seeing the third class saloon, which was only US$15 cheaper (for a non-resident) than a first class cabin, I decided that it was probably the best fifteen dollars I had spent so far on this trip. Finally at 18.30 we slowly slipped away from the quay in Kigoma and began our voyage down the lake as the sun set over the Congo and flashes of lightening lighted up the distant horizons to the east.
The MV Liemba (MV stands for motor vessel) has a long and intriguing history. It was in 1910, while Tanganyika was a German colony known as German East Africa, that the East African Railways company who were building the Central Line began to consider further extensions of their lines of communications. It was then that the idea of having a steamer on the lake was first suggested. The Government Surveyor requested the railways commissioner at Tabora to ascertain the dimensions of the British steamer on Lake Victoria, which would be the model for the ship to sail on Lake Tanganyika. It was recommended that a ship of 1,000 tonnes be built with a draught of four metres so as to enable her to anchor about 400m off the shore. Construction began at the Messrs. Hos L Meyer shipyard at Papenburg, near Hamburg in Germany during 1913; she would be named the Graf Von Gotzen after the Governor of German East Africa between 1900-1906. While the ship was being built it became necessary to quickly complete the railway line between Tabora and Kigoma and construct a quay in Kigoma in preparation of the ships arrival. In 1914 the Graf Von Gotzen was shipped in parts to Dar es Salaam from where she was transported by rail to Kigoma; it took most of the year and twenty skilled shipbuilders to reconstruct the ship during which time the first world war broke out.
The war also spread to the colonies and the Gotzen was first launched in January 1915 and was handed over to the Naval Expeditionary Corps in May of that year. She underwent her first 'sea' trials in June, a month late due to a twist in the propeller shaft and using fresh unbarked wood she attained an average speed of seven knots, this increased to eight and a quarter knots with dry barked wood. The ships function was changed from being a cargo ship to a military expedition ship and she was fitted with one 8.8cm gun and two 3.7cm guns as well as armoured shields. She went into battle against the Belgian forces in the Congo and the British forces in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. In July 1916 the German forces decided to hide the ship so that the British would not capture it. They removed the engines and equipment and hid them in the hills surrounding Kigoma. The shell of the superstructure was towed to a nearby mouth of a river estuary, where the water visibility was very poor due to all the silt flowing into the lake from the river, and she was deliberately sunk. The German forces surrendered to the British at Abercorn, now Mbala in northern Zambia on the 25th November 1918.
Tanganyika, the former German colony of East Africa became a British protectorate in 1921. The Gotzen was found and the British authorities proposed a budget of £7,500 from colonial revenues to salvage her. The salvage exercise proved to be a much longer and expensive operation than originally envisaged and the total cost trebled, but in 1924 she was successfully refloated and refitted. The colonial government renamed the Graf Von Gotzen the SS Liemba (SS standing for Steam Ship}. When David Livingstone first came to Lake Tanganyika, Liemba was the name given to the people he found living on the shores of the lake. A regular service commenced in July 1927 and a new quay and customs station was built at Mpulungu in Zambia. It is said that the original steam engines lasted until 1979 when they were replaced by two diesel engines and she became the MV Liemba. In 1993 she had a complete refit carried out by a Danish ship company, although today you would never have guessed.
The MV Liemba has a carrying capacity of 500 passengers and also transports cargo up and down the lake. We stopped fifteen times on the way to Mpulungu the ship dropping anchor about half a kilometre from shore and the villagers sailing out in a collection of wooden boats from dug out canoes to large motorised vessels capable of carrying around fifty passengers plus cargo. When we first stopped it was dark and suddenly all these boats appeared out of the night, at first I thought they were refugees from Congo. They fought and jostled for position to tie up along side the ship and passengers clambered between our ship and the wooden boats; this scene was repeated every time we dropped anchor. The hours drifted by between breakfast, lunch and dinner, which I took at the restaurant as we slowly drifted down the lake. The lunch and dinner menu was the same each day, beef, chicken or fish with rice, ugali or matoke. I opted for the fish, which was delicious and always fresh as the cooks would buy fish from the local fishermen when we dropped anchor.
In the afternoon I would drink a couple of beers and would have the tough decision of which side of the ship I should stand on, the Tanzania side or the Congo side. At night the lake appeared like a sea of bright stars as fisherman from all along the shores of Congo set off in their boats to night fish. They shone their lanterns on the surface of the lake to attract the fish into their nets. In the early hours of Friday morning the ship anchored at Kasanga, the last port in Tanzania where the majority of the passengers disembarked and most of the cargo was unloaded. At 06.00 we sailed the last leg to Mpulungu as the sun was rising and finally arrived at 08.00, thirty seven and a half hours after leaving Kigoma.
This journey continued in Zambia.
Continue reading this journey: Cycling in Mbala, Northern Province