Well hello again!
I know it’s been ages since my last travel log and I apologize. But let me try to right the wrong with an update here about my trip to the Tanzanian coastline of Lake Tanganyika. I’ll save some of the details as I’m hoping my travels will ultimately find their way as printed words on a published page… But here’s an overview.
Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world, the second deepest, and the oldest in Africa. It is so big, about 420 miles long, that four countries surround it — Tanzania on the east coast, Zambia in the south, the DR Congo in the west and Burundi in the north. I’ve been once before, two years ago I was on the Congo side for a story (found here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/03/02/meet-amy-lehman-the-woman-behind-congos-floating-hospital.html?cid=topic:originals2), and the lake took my breath away. I’ve been aching to go back ever since. Finally got my chance.
I left NYC on Oct. 13th and got to the Tanzanian side of the lakeshore on the 15th. Three full tiring days of travel – a long trip. But this is not an easy place to get to. I traveled through Amsterdam into Dar es Salaam, where I landed late at night, spent about 45 min in a taxi to my hotel, and got about four hours of sleep. Before the sun even rose, it was onto Mwanza, the country’s second largest city, apparently, sitting on the edge of Lake Victoria. A few sleepy hours later I flew into Kigoma, the largest Tanzanian town on the lakeshore. This is where I would start and end my trip and where the real adventure began. The fact that the journey is not exactly direct comes as no real surprise. In spots, especially along the Congolese and Tanzanian shorelines, Lake Tanganyika happens to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been lucky enough to see.
And with that isolation comes some intensely beautiful landscapes: utterly empty beaches, graceful formations of volcanic rock, acacia tree-filled hillsides and some imposing mountain peaks. The highest of these in Tanzanian is Mount Nkungwe, in Mahale Mountains National Park, at 8,077 feet above sea level. I saw it from afar, nestled among thick, low-hanging clouds. I am pondering a climb one day… Would definitely not be easy – I’m told that you have to ascend and descend two other peaks before the final uphill push. But after the 11 or 12 hours it would take to reach the top, this would probably be an adventure rewarding as hell.
Mountain peaks not withstanding, there are plenty of other enticements in and around Lake Tanganyika. The biodiversity is spectacular: more than 250 species of Cichlid fish swimming under water, many found nowhere else in the world. I saw a wide variety on a few snorkeling outings. There is no corral here, it’s all rock, which makes for lovely, easy swimming and viewing. Next time, maybe a dive is in order? The water is reliably the same refreshing, never-too-cold, temperature year-round. It is comfortable, crisply clean, and wonderfully clear. I LOVE dipping into this lake!
If the aqueous life is not enough for you, in the jungles along the coast and at nearby national parks there are a bevy of other animals on view: chimpanzees, hippos, crocodiles, lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hyenas, buffalo, warthogs, vultures, eagles and more! It’s a wildlife cornucopia and I saw it all at Gombe, Katavi and Mahale National Parks. The lions and chimps came so near I could have scratched between their ears. Alas, I decided to keep my hand instead… These parks are among the most remote in Tanzania and I usually had the animals to myself – an uncommon treat.
The villages along the shoreline are mostly poor, some profoundly so. Many villages have no electricity, running water, cell phone service or even vehicle accessible roads. If you want to know what isolation looks like, this is it. Still, the settings are often stunning. The homes here are built of mud and brick and covered in thatched roofs made of local grasses. Some are upgraded to corrugated tin. They are all rectangular. The story behind this, I heard, is that the nation’s first post-independence president, Julius Nyerere, instructed people to build them thus because, apparently, only poor people lived in round dwellings! I haven’t been able to verify this yet, so who knows if it’s true, but nonetheless it’s a strange and colorful tale!
Most people in coastal villages make their living as fisherman. Many work late into the night and through the early morning plying the waters by lantern light on the hunt for local sardines. Called dagaa in Swahili, the sardines from Lake Tanganyika, and especially Kigoma, are coveted as a national specialty. Fishermen dry them in the sun laid flat on the nets in which they were caught. Shimmering silver, the dried fish are then bagged and sold on the side of the road in town, if not shipped around the country. The fishermen use a local technique to catch them: two big boats string a net between them and smaller boats with the lanterns move in concentric circles around their bigger partners. The glow draws the fish into the nets, except when the moon shines too brightly. As the night darkens, the view from shore is one of distant golden hues bobbing on the horizon. A beautiful, romantic, montage.
I think I’ll leave it here for now. There is so much more to tell about my journey: a grimy, wonderful 32-hour voyage on a 100-year-old colonial era cargo and passenger ferry; wild animal encounters; deep jungle hikes; sensational sunsets; lots of enchanting bird song; an amazing, luxurious, nearly secret, lodge and more! But this should give you a taste of the place, I hope…!
More to come!