Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Preparations for the Lake Tanganyika Paddle Adventure & a Robbery in Mpulungu


Hi everyone and welcome back to my journey through Africa.  As I explained in my last post, after finishing my single-speed bike ride though Zambia the next step, the boat trip, is on.  The idea is to paddle from one end of Lake Tanganyika to the other, the longest lake in the world, using a traditional wooden boat, in the rainy season, solo.  I am currently in Tanzania right now, having crossed over the border from Zambia on the MV Liemba, an ex-German warship used against the British in WWI and now used as a passenger ferry and cargo ship along the lake.  My entire trip was almost ruined on Thursday night, just before I was supposed to catch the ship.  I left my room open for 2 minutes while I went to the bathroom and when I came back, most of my gear had been stolen.  I was incredibly lucky, because nearly everything was recovered the next day, but I still lost a few hundred dollars of gear...  Bummer.  Anyways that’s behind me, I’m in Tanzania now, I’ve got a boat and what nearly everyone keeps telling me is a crazy plan!


The first few days back in Mpulungu were rain, rain, rain.  Given the good luck I’ve had over the past 9 months almost never paying for a place to sleep, I decided to splurge a bit and get myself a bed.  I had plenty of time and a comfortable place to relax, so I did a lot of reading and watching movies in bed on my netbook.  Not a bad way to spend a rainy day, eh?


My first day back Ghram (left) and I basically formed a routine.  It began with a lazy morning drinking a coffee on the steps of either my room or his, and then we would walk into town, stopping at Corner Bar & Restaurant for a bite to eat, and at Maps Grocery Store to drink a ginger beer and watch the world go by for a while.  The afternoon was more lounging around, cook dinner, than Ghram would make some awesome chai tea before bed.  It’s a hard life, isn’t it? Haha… Marino (right) is the son of Charity, one of the owners of Nkupi Lodge and helps run the place during breaks from school.  He’s a great guy and we had a good time talking and eating together during my stay.

Oh, also Ghram says his brother somehow stumbled upon my blog while reading about Zambia, so if you are out there, hi!


The next day and day after were more of the same.  I saw this product at Maps Grocery Store, I guess it’s some kind of frosting dip?  Either way, it’s funny to see what Obama’s name and face are used to sell out here in Africa.  I briefly mentioned it to one of the local guys out here and he said to me “Don’t some people not like him because he’s black?”  I gave a very brief summary of race relations in America and said that while that may be true for some people in America, that enough people like him to have elected and now re-elected Obama, so obviously plenty of Americans do like him.  In my experience, everyone in Africa I have talked to likes Obama, but to be fair I don’t think most people know anything other than the fact he is the president of the USA and that he is black.  For many, that is enough.


I went to the only internet café in town that was not cheap (300ZMK/minute before the currency rebasing) but surprisingly fast and even worked the whole 2+ hours I was there!  On a bit of a whim, as I walked home I took a stroll through the used clothing market near the lake.  You may recall I’d returned to Lusaka after the bike trip ended, in part to find some good synthetic outdoor clothing and returned empty handed.  I found one stand in particular that had nearly all synthetic clothing, and managed to find a Patagonia long sleeve shirt and Columbia rain pants!  I had to pay $10 for both, but was thrilled to find such quality gear when I needed it and immediately felt more confident about my journey ahead. 


The next morning Ghram and I mixed up our normal routine and walked to Niamkolo Church.  This church was built in 1895 by the London Missionary Society but was abandoned in 1908 due to high rates of sleeping sickness in the area.  It is the oldest stone church in Zambia and while entrance is currently free, I was told they are going to begin charging $7 for entrance.  My guess is that most people won’t be willing to pay that much to see an empty shell (I certainly wouldn’t) and will stop coming, but that’s how tourism works (or rather doesn’t work?) here in Africa…


We kept walking beyond the church and into the village just outside of town.  I was going simply to look at boats and maybe get a lead on one to buy, and it’s amazing how all it takes is a five minute walk outside of town to be in ‘proper Africa,’ where the almost no foreigner ever ventures.  No one in the village spoke English so we only had a few greetings to get by on, but played with the kids a bit, skipping stones, making silly noises and laughing together. 


From what we could gather, one guy seemed willing to sell a boat for 250,000ZMK, just under $50, but it was a bit of a clunker so we said we might come back with Marino (who can speak the language) and talk more. 

As we were leaving, followed by a group of probably 15 or 20 kids, we passed a woman and her little girl sitting on one of the many boats lying about.  Ghram and I stopped to say hi, and the girl was absolutely terrified of me and my white skin.  She began crying loudly and her mother thought it was hilarious!  To try and make the child more comfortable, I got the other children to touch me and shake my hand, so she could see me and my pale skin was no threat.  After doing this a few times with the other children, she seemed to understand I wasn’t so scary and put out her hand for me to shake as well.  See? I’m out here breaking down barriers and involved in important cultural exchange, haha!


Sitting in town, drinking a made in Zambia (but Chinese owned) ginger beer and people watching.  I could do this all day. 

In the afternoon we sat around and watched the movie Up on my netbook, and that night we went to Waterfront bar for sunset and drank a real beer.  Being so close to Tanzania you can find all their beers, Safari, Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and more, a nice change from the Mosi and Castle, about the only choices in Zambia. 


Forget the Toyota Land Cruiser (though the African version is awesome), the hardest working vehicle in Africa is the Toyota Hi-Ace, the standard mini-bus.  This one is about typical, loaded with 20+ people, reed baskets full of food for market on the roof, and a few fish and chickens for good measure. 


“STOP IT. IT’S SATANIC”  A sign at the Mpulungu Harbour. 


In the evening it was back to Waterfront Bar, this time with PCVs Chandra and Lee, who I’d met and hung out with earlier. 


Due to the 10 or so hour difference between Zambia and Seattle, I woke early and arrived at the internet café right at 7am to make some calls to friends and family using Skype before it would be too late to call.  It’s not always easy to connect with my friends and family, but it’s a nice thing to be able to do from time to time.  After that, it was back to Corner Bar & Restaurant, the best place in town to grab a bite to eat. 


For two days now, I’d been looking for a PFD (personal flotation device, aka a ‘life jacket’).  Being a fishing town and the only port in Zambia, to the western mind it seems like it should be an easy place to find a PFD.  However, this is still Africa and it’s not actually so easy.  I asked at the harbour, I asked at the national fisheries office, I asked at a few shops in town and a I asked at a handful of the private (and usually foreign owned) fisheries.  The answer I always got was “No, I’ve never seen a fisherman with a life jacket.”  Sometimes it’s no surprise people die on this lake… Anyways I finally managed to find one, it isn’t a great one and it cost me nearly $40, but it’s better than nothing and was my only option.  It will do.


In the market the next day.

That night, I was doing some writing and when I’d finished at 11:20pm, I walked about 100 feet away to brush my teeth and use the toilet.  I returned to my room literally 2 minutes later and immediately noticed my big backpack was gone!  Shit.  So was my day backpack!  Shit! So was my toiletries bag and gadget bag!  SHIT!  With those bags went literally every piece of clothing I owned, my dry bags, all my medications, paperwork, my external HDD, some cash and countless little tools and gadgets.  THIS IS A BIG PROBLEM, MY TRIP MIGHT BE OVER WITHOUT THESE THINGS, THEY ARE NOT REPLACEABLE HERE IN ZAMBIA, MY VISA EXPIRES IN TWO DAYS AND THE BOAT COMES TOMORROW!  I put fresh batteries in my light, found the night watchman and we walked outside the walls of Nkupi and down one of the nearby streets.  We only looked for a few minutes before returning, but honestly I figured whoever took my things was long gone and I’d never see any of it again. 

Amazingly, all the most important, valuable and resalable items were left in the room.  They grabbed the biggest things that must have looked like they had all the good stuff.  My computer, sitting on the floor and on, was left behind.  My camera was sitting on the bed and not seen because it was in a small black bag.  My ‘important’ bag with passport, Visa card, and about $250 was left behind.  Ok, so I had the critical things, but what next?  If I want to buy everything again I either have to return to South Africa, or go home to America. 

I sat in bed pissed off, thinking of what to do next and making a list of everything that had been taken.  It was a LONG list.  At about 3:30am I finally got some sleep.


At 6am I woke up and cooked some breakfast, surprisingly calm but mostly just feeling beaten down.  I might be going home.  I went into town to use the internet café and cancel my credit card since it was take, but the internet wasn’t working.  As I was walking home, Marino found me and said people had found some of my things!

We walked back to where they were, which was literally 30m outside the wall of Nkupi Lodge, and what I found was my gadget bag ripped open with my things strewn everywhere.  They were probably digging through my things when we came out with lights, and ran off.  They were looking for the good stuff.  I gathered everything up, and local guy said he found another bag.  It turned out to be nearly all my clothes, backpack and dry bags.  Oh thank you!  It seemed they had been stashed for someone to come back for.  We searched through the tall grass for a while, looking for anything else and when I figured we had found what there was to find, we returned to the lodge to make an inventory.  After finding that amazingly I had recovered most of my items, Ghram and I went back for a second look and found a few more things. 

Here is the list of what I lost, in rough order of value:  My retainer (why they took this I can’t say, it’s useless to them and expensive for me to replace), a 1TB external HDD (although they didn’t take the USB3 cable, which I’m sure you can’t find outside of Lusaka, so that is also useless to them), about $31 USD cash, my rain jacket, my beanie, MSR stove tools, swim goggles, headphones, SD memory cards, USB card reader, phone charger, a bar of soap, q-tips, tooth paste, deodorant, and a few other bits and pieces.  All things considered, I’ve lost a few hundred dollars of things, but it could have been about a million times worse.  The worse things to lose are the retainer because I care about my teeth, and the hard drive, because I lost the ability to back-up my photos, as well as losing the 400+ movies I had…

So, I still have a boat to catch in a few hours and have to move to another country.  What to do…


I decided that it was a lost cause, time to go.  No reason to file a police report (as I don’t have insurance so don’t need any paperwork to make a claim), no reason to hang around.  I’m not going to get anything back.  I didn’t feel ready to cross into Tanzania after such a shitty day.  I was exhausted and mad but due to my visa expiring and the boat arriving, I had little choice but to leave.  I packed my things and set off.

Ghram and Marino walked with me to the port, and after speaking to customs and getting my exit stamp for Zambia, I walked toward the MV Liemba as children used the goods ramps as slides. 


The port was a bit chaotic, but eventually things got sorted out and after loading my things, I said goodbye to Ghram and Marino, two great guys who have been fantastic to spend the last week or so hanging out with. 


The mess hall onboard the ship, serving the usual ugali/rice, chicken/fish meals for about $3. 


Last minute loading.


Shortly after 5:30pm the engines roared to life, black smoke belched from the stacks and we set off into the setting sun. 


3rd class.  Not so nice is it?  Most people who take the boat seem to take it from one end to the other.  To be honest, between Mpulungu and Kigoma, there isn’t much but small fishing villages and no one could really understand why I was getting off at Kasanga, the very first stop across the Tanzanian border.  When I told them what I was hoping to do, they all thought I was crazy.  They might be right.


The sun was setting but the lake was still so new to me I wanted to see everything I could.  This is a recon/intel mission.  If I’m going to paddle this thing I need to know as much about it as possible.  I leaned on the rail staring at the shore, the waves, feeling the wind and analyzing the other boats on the water.  All this information is going to be critical in the coming weeks. 

There were two other travelers on the boat, a friendly Scottish couple who let me stash my bags in their room and we talked a fair bit during the journey. 


Because the ship crosses from Mpulungu, Zambia into Tanzania a Tanzania customs officer comes on board the ship to take care of everyone’s passports.  I asked about an extension and was told it would be $100 for even one more month, ouch.  I may have to do it depending on how fast I’m able to move, but there are other immigration offices along the lake and I’ll see how things go first.


Around 9pm ad under a beautiful star filled sky, we docket at Kasanga and due to a man I’d talked to on the boat, I already had a lodge lined up to stay at here in town.  I was picked up by Oscar, owner of Liemba Beach Lodge in a motor boat and we set off to his place.  I unpacked into the large cabin tent on the beach, and collapsed into bed. 


In the daylight I could actually see where I was and where I was staying.  Seemed like a pretty nice place.


The main area of the Liemba Beach Lodge.  Being that I was the only guest around (and Oscar said he only gets a handful a month) I got plenty of personal attention.  I told Oscar my plans, what I needed and how soon I wanted it and he said “No problem, I’ll make some calls.”  Honestly, this must be what staying at a 5-star hotel is like, people running around taking care of everything for you, no matter the request.  Oscar has been awesome this whole time, he knows all the right people, made calls, put out feelers for a boat, and said everything was taken care of.  I’ve obviously come to the right place.


Curious to see the area I took an afternoon walk to the closest town, Muzi and was greeted by some beautiful green fields.


Muzi is a very small town and as always I stood out as a real oddity.  No problem, people were friendly and at the few shops in town I was able to replace a few of the items that had been stolen from me; soap, a lighter, pens and so on.  On the way back I stopped to watch these guys playing a game, though I still can’t figure out how it actually works…


Some crazy looking bug at night.  I love the insects here in Africa; there are so many strange ones to see!  Just look at those claws on the front and those giant antennae! 


I was woken from my tent at about 8am by Oscar (right) telling me some fisherman had arrived with a boat to sell!  Both happy and amazed how quickly things were moving, I got dressed and went to check it out.  The boat pretty standard fare for Lake Tanganyika: old, heavy, wooden and full of leaks. 


Through Oscar, who acted as translator and negotiator for me, we discussed what needed to be done.  First, a number of boards will need to be replaced; second, all the cracks between the boards need to be stuffed with cotton so it doesn’t leak; third, it needs some kind of oar-lock system to be able to row it with two paddles from the middle seat and fourth, I’ll need a spare paddle.  The boat is actually setup to sail as well and they asked if I wanted the mast and sail system.  I thought about it, but I honestly like the idea of doing the trip all under my own power.  Plus a sail made of sewn together sacks and two long sticks seemed to me like a lot to learn how to use and deal with, an un-necessary complexity I didn’t want to deal with. 

Oscar said it took him two hours of negotiating, but they had agreed on a price of 207,250 Tanzanian shillings.  That works out to $129.36.  I gave them a 30,000TZS advance to buy supplies and they said they would get to work.  Everything seemed to be workout out and I was very excited about the prospects of this new adventure. 


After breakfast the next morning I walked into Muzi to buy a bus ticket and some vegetables, this is ‘down town.’ 


When I returned to the lodge, I found the guys were at work on my boat.  They had a handsaw, a hand drill, a plainer, one clamp, a sort of chisel thing and not a measuring tape or ruler in sight.  This is a proper African boat, haha!


Attaching new boards.  Happy that things seemed to be going so well, I went for walk into the bigger town, Kasanga.


I was told Kasanga was a fairly developed town, but this was clearly not the case.  I saw a few solar lights on the dirt paths between mud brick houses ,a motorcycle or two and no other signs of development.  I walked through, saying countless times the few Swahili words of greeting I know and walked to the port where I’d arrived earlier, in order to see it in the daytime.  There wasn’t much to see.  On the way back I stopped to talk to a farmer who spoke surprisingly good English, and wound up at a house with men, women and children running around for another chat while they drank homebrewed liquor. 


Cooking dinner and watching the moon over the lake.


Because I had very little cash and needed supplies for the boat trip ahead, I bought a bus ticket to Sumbawanga , the big town in the area 120km or so away.  I woke at 4am and by 4:30 was on the crowded bus, bouncing through the countryside towards ‘civilization.’


Nearly 4 hours later I arrived in Sumbawanga with Leticia, Oscar’s wife as my excellent guide.  The first thing I needed to do was get cash.  We ran around trying three different banks, only to find my bank had put a hold on my card and I couldn’t get any.  Great.  Not only do I need shillings to buy the boat, but also to pay for my stay and enough to hold me by for the month or so ahead until I reach Kigoma.  I would have to come back into town another day and call, ugh.  Then it was time to find a rain coat since mine got stolen.  Being Africa, this took about an hour of running around to different small shops but eventually we found a hardware shop that said they could get one.  They ran to another shop somewhere and brought back two different cheap raincoats for me to choose from.  I took the bright yellow one that came with pants, less than $20 and was fairly satisfied.  I also managed to get a Tanzanian SIM card so I can use my phone, but because I didn’t have a local ID to register, the lady at the office gave me someone else’s number to use.  On the Vodacom registration card she wrote my name as ‘James Muzungu’, or James (my middle name) ‘white man’.  Nice... 

I was a fool to think this trip would be enough time, because we arrived in town at 8:30am and the return bus was at noon.  I couldn’t get cash, I couldn’t contact my bank to fix that, I didn’t get any food shopping done, I didn’t get most of the other little odds and ends I needed and while getting the SIM and rain coat were small victories, I was stressed out and unhappy.  My own fault though, I should know better after a year in Africa…  I got back on the bus for the four and a half hour return trip, put on my headphones and tried to enjoy the ride. 


When I returned to Liemba Beach Lodge I was told the boat was ready!  Excited and pleased with the fast work I went out to examine it.  It was not ready.  Planks had been replaced, a sort of rack was built to keep my bags off the wet bottom and some of the cracks were filled with oil-soaked cotton, but there about half of the gaps were unfilled and so wide I could see right through them.  Not only that, but the back of the boat still had a substantial leak where water was coming in at a decent rate and the oar system had not been completed….

Still, I took the boat out for a quick paddle and was impressed with how easily it moved.  There is no keel, so it turns very easily and doesn’t track straight at all when using only one paddle, but using two on an oar-system will correct that, as well as allow for pretty fast movement.  I was pleased but more work needed to be done. 


I pointed these issues out to Oscar, who basically said “Africans are lazy; if you don’t constantly supervise them they stop working.”  It’s funny to hear another African say this, but Oscar is much more westernized than the villagers out here and while it sounds bad to oversensitive outsiders and westerners quick to ignorantly decry everything negative said about Africa as racism, he has a point.  It’s a refrain I’ve heard from both black and white Africans, as well as nearly every foreign businessman I’ve spoken with.  It’s by no means a universal truth, but yah; there is something to it… By now I could probably write a whole book about this ‘feature’ of Africa and have countless examples to support it, but it’s just not worth my time or yours so let’s leave it at that. 

Now that I was back and pointed out these things, with Oscar translating again, they returned to work, pounding cotton in the gaps.  I hope this time they finish it…


Exhausted from nearly 9 hours on the bus, I had some well-deserved beers as I read my book and watched the sun go down, then cooked some rice, tomatoes and soya for dinner and went to bed.


Because a) I was very tired and b) I zipped up the windows and doors of the tent, I managed to sleep in until 9am or so which was nice.  After a good rest I woke up, ate breakfast and talked with Oscar about what I needed to do this day.  The prioroties were to get some power so I could do some writing (this blog post and some letters to friends and family) in preparation for the next day, and to buy a bus ticket into Sumbawanga to get done what I failed to accomplish the other day.  Oscar contacted a friend in Kasanga who had power and would let me charge my things, but when I first went to the customs office, they were happy to let me hook up to their power and get some work done.  I had a good chat with one of the guys, answering many questions including if I thought Jay-Z was a Freemason or whatever (probably the 5th time I’ve had this discussion with Africans….), if America has poor people and what I think of Africa, but no worries, I’m happy to share knowledge with people, no matter the subject.  From there one of the other employees lead me into town to show me where the ticket office for the bus was and she got a good laugh out of walking with me as nearly every kid I passed shouted ‘muzungu!’ (white man) and I told her ‘Welcome to my life, I get this every day.’

Upon returning to the lodge, I wanted to check out the boat again and put it through its paces.  I bailed out all the water and set off.  For some reason only one paddle was there, meaning I wasn’t able to use it row-boat style as I was intending on the journey, but my primary focus was to check for leaks so I set off, paddling it like a canoe.  It was a challenge and I was happy that this wasn’t going to be my method of travel.  Paddling it like a canoe solo meant switching sides every two or three strokes to keep in a somewhat straight line and lacking even power and consistent momentum, even small waves had the ability to frustrate me.  It will be a lot better row-boat style, at least it better be, haha.  After about an hour on the water putting it through its paces to took my clothes off and dove off the bow of the boat into the lake, for what amazingly was my first swim in Tanganyika.  It was very nice and I was impressed with the clarity of the water. 

There were still some small leaks in the boat, but as is, I think bailing once an our will be enough and really, that’s probably better than 90% of the boats out here.  The stern still leaks a bit and I’m going to have the guys work on that, but overall the boat is just about ready and I feel surprisingly confident in it. 


Back on shore I had a beer (or three…), finished the book I was reading, (number 32 of the trip), cooked dinner and took a nice shower.  Without western style hot/running water, I’ve gotten amazingly good at bathing with minimal water.  I can wash my whole body, including my rather substantial amount of hair, with less than 4 gallons of water.  Here at the lodge they do heat up water for me on charcoal, and bathing in the trees by lamplight is a very enjoyable experience. 

So the plan.  I’m in Sumbawanga again using the internet, trying to get my ATM card to work, update my blog, make some important contacts, buy supplies and generally get organized in a town big enough to have what I need.  I hope to return to Lake Tanganyika tomorrow and hopefully start the paddle the next day.  I don’t know how it’s going to go really, but I feel pretty confident after spending almost two weeks on its shores watching the water and the weather.  I was originally hoping to start this journey before Christmas and it’s well past that now.  I don’t know how fast I’ll be moving, but as it stands I have about a month on my visa.  I can extend, and if I’m having fun and need the time, I’ll pay the $50 or $100 for the extension so as to finish and not be in a potentially unsafe rush.  I’m stepping, or rather paddling, into he unknown, but I’m looking forward to it. 

This ought to be interesting ; )

2 comments:

  1. I was robbed in Belgium back in 2005 while staying in a hotel with a bathroom down the hall. Went to take a shower and came back to no money, camera, or cell phone. But I lived through it and learned some very valuable lessons from it. Best of luck on your journey!

    A friend from Reddit.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So, you found the real Africa........ Lake Tanganyika is a buz. I know, i live there. Hope you enjoyed it.

    ReplyDelete