Friday, February 15, 2013

Some of Lake Tanganyika’s Finest: Relaxing at Lake Shore Lodge, Traveling on the MV Liemba and Snorkelling near Kigoma

Since ending my paddling trip my plans were a bit up in the air (and if you haven’t read my previous post about it, check it out here, it is worth a few minutes of your time I promise).  I knew what I needed most was a few days to relax, regroup and rethink the next move.  As usual, it seemed everything fell into place almost perfectly and my time in the village of Kipili gave me just what I needed, I feel good, I feel confident and I’m ready to hit the road again.  By now I’ve spent nearly a month and a half on the shores and on Lake Tanganyika itself and while I truly enjoyed my time visiting the east coast of Tanzania: Zanzibar, Pangani, and Tanga, and the north; the Usambara mountains the base of Kilimanjaro and even the Serengeti, I think I have a new favorite part of the country.  Lake Tang has surprised and impressed me every step of the way, every stroke of the paddle and every turn of the propeller.  In a trip with unlimited time I would have easily spent 3-4 months on the lake but with my time restrictions (returning home in July) compromise was necessary.  Despite not going exactly to plan I’ve still seen and done more than I could have imagined while on and around this lake, so grab a coffee, grab a beer, sit back, relax and let me tell you all about it.

On Saturday I awoke in Kipili, after what was a very poor night of sleep.  Despite a long paddle the previous day and what felt like a desperate need for rest, I was having trouble sleeping.  I don’t know why this has been the case, but I’ve been having trouble falling asleep for a while now, often failing to sleep until 2am or even beyond.  Oh well, push through.

My goal for the day was cleaning, organizing and sorting.  After two weeks paddling up the lake many of my things were wet and dirty so it was time to take care of that.  In addition to simply cleaning up, because I was ending the boat trip and would be operating out of a single backpack from now on, I had to dig through everything, deciding what to keep and what to leave behind.  My trip over the past year+ has been so varied; between traveling in cars and vans for weeks and months at a time, to living in various homes for as much as 6 weeks straight, to traveling by bike through a desert and finally paddling up a lake in a boat, that I’ve needed to add or remove gear multiple times along the way and this time I was due for serious weight/space/equipment reductions. 

I set my tent out to dry, did laundry, bathed, made a few minor repairs and made piles of yes or no.  Most of the sorting was easy, I was happy to be rid of things that would otherwise weigh me down and none of it was very valuable, so I didn’t take too much of a hit.  I ended up selling a few things to the Mission (petrol, fuel/water jugs, some silicone sealant), putting a few things together that would go with the boat when it sold and deciding to figure what to do with the rest later on.  It was a productive day and by the early afternoon I was able to walk into ‘downtown Kipili’ to have a look around.  The town doesn’t offer much; a dirt road, a handful of shops selling the same 20 or 30 items as you find in every village (cookies, soap, oil, soda, pens, candy, batteries, etc) a few men idly sitting around talking with each other, and a few children playing with toys made of discarded plastic.  The usual.  A rather shocking number of people spoke English however and I stopped to chat with a few boys and a few shopkeepers before turning and walking back where I’d come from.

According to my map (a map that consisted of photos Stefan took of his map, emailed to me, and I printed out in one of the towns; since it is nearly impossible to find good maps in most of Africa) there was a place called ‘Lake Shore Lodge’ around Kipili.  I’d originally intended on staying there, but when I’d arrived in town frustrated and tired the previous day, I took the first place I found, the Mission. 

I walked up the rock strewn road over the hillside behind town, down the other side, and about 10 minutes later found myself looking at Lake Shore Lodge and its beautiful piece of property.  I quickly met Chris and Louise, exceptionally friendly and helpful people, and the owners who built and have run the lodge for the last 8 years. I shared a bit of my story, sat down and ordered a much deserved and much needed cold beer.  After all, “It’s Killi time” (the slogan of Kilimanjaro Beer).  Despite the fact much of what the lodge has is to offer, from SCUBA diving to quad bikes, water skiing to honeymoon suites happens to be miles beyond my budget, and the fact I was only coming as a day visitor, I was treated like the most important person around.  Then again some of the time I was the only guest, so I guess I was!  That said, they offer camping for $12 a night and while it’s in a fairly remote location, it makes for a worthwhile stop for travelers of almost any budget who are in the area.  I enjoyed another Kili or two, took advantage of their well-stocked book exchange, watched the sunset and walked back to town to where I was actually sleeping.  On the way back my flip flop broke and I had to tie it back together with some grass.  Haha.

The next morning walked back to Lake Shore Lodge for an early morning kayak with Chris.  After having spent two weeks paddling a traditional wooden boat sitting down and using a modern kayak felt like going from an overloaded tractor to a formula one race car!  Movement felt almost effortless, I could easily track straight thanks to the movable rudder  and I knew had I been using a boat such as this one I could have paddled the entire length of the lake in only 3-4 weeks.  That said, it wouldn't have been as interesting, but I’ll let you weigh the pros and cons for yourself.

We headed north towards the mouth of the river that enters the lake hoping to see a hippo or a crocodile.  Luck wasn't on our side to see one of those, but the water was perfectly calm, the grass was a lush green and beautiful birds seemed to be flying and singing in every direction we looked or listened.  Within a few minutes we saw herons, kingfishers, hawks and some spectacular looking red bird that Chris got very excited about (but I forgot the name of). 

Despite the hundreds of kilometers of lake shore Tanzania has and the many stops the MV Liemba makes on the way, there are only two docks the entire way, the first at the far south end of the country in Kasanga (where I first got off the boat) and the second at the opposite end of the country in Kigoma where I am now.  North of the lodge sits what was supposed to be the new Kipil Port.  Naturally there are problems.  First of all the location is all wrong, it’s a half an hour walk from the actual town of Kipili, which would be the obvious place to put the port.  Second, road access to the site is poor given that it is well outside of town.  Third, it is near the mouth of the river meaning silt will come down into the harbor and require regular dredging to keep open.  Fourth and worst of all is what seems to happen to so many projects out here in Africa, the contractor got as far as you see in the photo (and it looks better and more complete than it actually is, the buildings are unfinished shells, the ground is just torn up dirt and there is no dock) then supposedly took the rest of the money and ran.  So the project sits with an uncertain future and may never be finished, leaving behind another reminder of greed and failed promises, an all too common sight here.

As we paddled back to the lodge we ran into Gavin, one of the lodges regulars and bobbed around in the water telling stories for a few minutes before heading in.  Just look at that lake, talk about a perfect day for a paddle!

Having spent the past few weeks eating nothing but cereal and powered milk, I decided it was time to splurge on a nice breakfast at the lodge ($10).  I had some of their homemade granola, a pot of tea, bread with butter and honey and a frittata. Everything was excellent, and so began a routine of coming to Lake Shore Lodge each morning for breakfast, then spending the day on the couch relaxing, reading books (I read three books in six days), doing some writing and using the internet before returning to town to have dinner and sleep at my place. 

Main street Kipili.

Back at Lake Shore the next day for breakfast, books and beers.

Just a ten minute walk past the lodge (and up the hill from the unfinished port) is the ruins of a beautiful old church.  The Kipili Monetary was built in the 1880s or 1890s by a group called the White Fathers (White Brothers?) and was a sort of outpost of Christianity, intended to counteract the Muslim slave traders who were active in the region. 

The building is in poor shape and has little chance of being restored; meaning this wonderful piece of history will soon be lost.  The church still owns the property but has done nothing with it for many decades and I’m sure they don’t have the money required for such a project.  The walls are leaning outward to the point where in a few years they are likely to collapse, tree roots that are prying the bricks apart and weakening the already precarious building, the grass and brush are high in and outside the building and most of the roof rotted and collapsed a lifetime ago. 

Next to the church sits another series of smaller buildings and a large courtyard, which unfortunately in the same condition as the church is.  Get out and see this place while you can, it’s a great piece of history along the lake.

After exploring the church for a while, I walked back to town where I had dinner at the mission (rice and fish five nights in a row, although two nights we had beans as well!) and read my book until eventually falling asleep.

Another laid back day at Lake Shore Lodge. 

When I arrived though I was hit with some troubling news; a 16 year old boy was killed by a crocodile just a few hundred meters down the shore from my room the around 5pm the previous day, right in town.  Here is the story I got:  A whole group of boys were bathing in town on the shore when they saw something in the water.  It was so big at first they thought it was a hippo, then it quickly grabbed the boy, pulled him underwater and disappeared.  The villagers went out in boats to try and scare the croc away and find the boy, but were unsuccessful.  The body turned up the next morning, uneaten.  Chris told me in the 8 years they have lived in Kipili they had never heard about this happening before, and he was working on finding a way to find the croc and either capture or kill it.  He hypothesized it may have been washed downstream from the river (where we had kayaked the previous day) where they are more commonly found a few days earlier in a storm, but no one knew for sure.  Sad, but a freak incident really, something totally unexpected in the area.

That evening I was able to arrange a little outing through the Mission to the middle of the lake where I could see the fisherman and how they do night-fishing.  As the sun was going down I climbed in a canoe with two local guys and we set off.

Our goal was to paddle out between the two islands towards the middle of the lake where the fisherman were already beginning to setup their lines and lanterns.  They only do this fishing a few days a month when there is no moon, so my timing was good. 

After a little over an hour of paddling we reached the first of the group of fisherman and I stopped to take in the scene.  By now it was almost pitch black and with no moon you could hardly see the land a few km away and instead were rewarded with a sky filled with stars and a clearly visible milky way.  Combined with the dozens of kerosene/paraffin lanterns bobbing around on the calm lake in every direction and the only sounds that of the occasional canoe paddle dipping into the water and the low his of the lanterns it was truly like a scene out of the most peaceful dream I’ve ever had. 

The local guys surely thought I was crazy, especially after the crocodile incident the previous day (though to be fair there is almost no way a croc would go that far off shore) but I stripped off my cloths and dove off the bow of the boat into the black night and calm water.  I tried to relax and take in the scene, but despite the calm and the quiet and the peace of it all, there was something so incredible and overwhelming about the whole thing all I could do was smile like an idiot and laugh to myself.  I took a deep breath, held it in and dove down, swimming as deep into the lake I could and disappearing completely into the blackness for a brief time.  I only wish I had some goggles so I could have seen the lamplight from below…

Let me explain how the fishing works before I move on to the next day.  Each boat has a few boards nailed together with (usually) two lanterns hanging over the bow.  From these boards maybe two or three weighted fishing lines hang and go into the water with a series of hooks.  The light attracts the fish, who then go for the bait on the hook and are pulled up and put into the boat.  It is an amazingly long and slow process actually, spent mostly just waiting and pumping the lanterns again when the start to grow dim.  To increase their catch, many of the boats had floating lanterns built using a wood frame and empty water jugs as well, which you see on the left of the photo.  The principal is the same, and in this case the man in the boat has two lanterns tied on opposite ends of a rope, meaning they are far enough apart not to tangle the lines but close enough to be easy to tend to and that they won’t float far apart. 

There are also much larger wooden fishing boats with whole crews.  These boats use a gas generator to power bright electric lights that hang over the water, and then using canoes that are brought out into the lake, either towed behind or lifted on to the bigger boat itself, nets on long wooden booms are used for gathering up whole groups of fish at a time.  

What a night, one of the highlights of my time on the lake without question.

The previous day Lameck one of the staff at Lake Shore Lodge who I’d become friendly with, invited me to come visit his family on the island that day, as it was his day off of work.  Naturally I said yes and we hopped in a canoe and set off.

After a short paddle we pulled the boat ashore and walked into town.  After a few minutes and a lot of attention from the villagers, we arrived at Lameck’s families’ house where I found his father working to gut and clean the fish from the previous night’s catch.  On the way, one thing I noticed that was different about this village from every other I’d seen on the lake thus far.  Instead of simply being a collection of small buildings in a loose cluster, homes were organized into ‘family compounds’ with walls, either made of mud-brick or palm fronds, separating them from neighbors compound.  I asked Lameck about this, but he didn't have an explanation. 

With the typical Tanzanian hospitality, I was invited to sit down on the reed-mat for tea and bread.  I wasn’t hungry as I’d just eaten a big breakfast back at the lodge, but I certainly wasn’t going to say no.  I ended up having two cups of tea out of a mug with a billion dollar bill on it and two mandazis 

After tea, Lameck and I walked north on the island through the heart of what was originally two or three different villages, but have since morphed into one large mass of huts.  Despite this, Lameck made a point of telling me when we crossed an imaginary line that we had just left the one village and entered another.  We walked on for another twenty minutes or so until the village finally ended in a series of fields growing cassava, found a nice beach to have a swim at, then walked back towards his family’s house.

Back home and separated by gender, we sat down for a meal.  It was typical Tanzanian fare, a big lump of ugalli then fish in a salty broth, eaten with ones hands.  It was delicious. 

After eating, as a small thank you I bought Lameck (and myself) a soda at a neighbors house that she also ran a shop out of, and we paddled back to the mainland after what was another excellent little outing.

Back at the lodge I met up with Louise to do some planning.  I was no longer paddling the lake but I still wanted to take local motorboats all the way up the lake, water taxis between villages really, and I still wanted to make a little adventure of it.  With the help of one of the staff who knew how the boats between Kipili and Kigoma operated (he regularly made the trip I believe) once again I was hit with the reality of what I was planning was not very feasible.  The problem at this point was time, as my Tanzanian visa was expiring in 13 days.  At minimum the trip taking local water transport was going to take 5 days and cost about 50,000 shillings.  A few points on the route are notorious for bad weather and at one or two of the stops, if you miss the boat you have to wait another 3-4 days for the next one.  This meant that unless everything worked perfectly (which you can never count on here in Africa) the five-day trip could easily balloon into a 10+ day trip.  I still had to get my visa for Burundi when I arrived in Kigoma and was worried that could take a few days, as well as figure out how to get into Burundi by boat. 

With this new information, I realized it would probably be a mistake to try and make it by local water taxis.  But once again luck was on my side.  The MV Liemba would be passing through Kipili and heading north to Kigoma in two days’ time.  Considering this is a once or twice a month occurrence, things could hardly have worked out better if I’d actually planned it. 

This whole week I’d been in Kipili I’d been trying to sell my boat to someone, anyone, because I needed to get it off my hands before moving on or I’d have to either just give it away or abandon it.  Personally due to my frustrations with the boat I was dreaming about scuttling it if I couldn't get a decent price, filling it with rocks, paddling out into the lake, and pulling out the cotton to sink it out of spite.  Then again the thing was leaking so damn bad at this point it would have probably sank on its own, without my help… (though was repairable with some new wood and a bit of work)

I’d turned down an offer of 60,000 shillings earlier, and when I called the guy back he said he had no money, even to buy it at a lower price, and eventually ended up with this guy in the blue hat.  At first he shot as low as 30-40,000. I asked for 50,000 and he said no.  But by now I just wanted the thing out of my life, and accepted his offer for 40,000 shillings, about $25.  I’d gotten it for 30,000 and the trade of my bike (which I bought for $124 and rode across Botswana and half of Zambia, having an awesome time), so while I know I got pretty hosed in the original deal, I can think of it as the rental price of the boat was my bike, which I was done with anyway.  All things considered, I did pretty well.  I wrote up a bill of sale which we had signed by four or five witnesses, he handed over the cash and I walked away happy to have that boat out of my life.

I ran into Lameck while I was selling the boat, and not satisfied with the hospitality he had already shown me this morning he and his friend Dismis, who works in the kitchen at Lake Shore Lodge, invited me to his place for dinner. 

Lameck lived in one room of a compound in Kipili.  As the sun went down a generator was fired up to power a few lights, but the real purpose was for the tunes.  Suddenly a DVD of music videos was playing and he house was shaking to the bass of American rap and R&B music.  I was given a huge bowl of rice, half of a large fish and a bowl of tomato/onion mix for dinner and once again was amazed to receive such warm hospitality. 

We walked a dark, narrow and rocky path back to the lodge, as I’d moved out of the mission that afternoon.  I was intending on sleeping in the bush to save a few bucks, but Louise insisted I put my tent up at the lodge, free of charge.  I didn’t turn it down. 

Once I’d arrived back at Lake Shore Lodge, I removed my backpack and felt a sudden pain in my hand.  I looked down to see what looked like an old man’s grey mustache crawling across the umbrella handle that was on my backpack.  Naturally my first instinct was to take pictures rather than deal with the pain, so I snapped a few then knocked the insect off outside.  Grabbing my headlamp for better light, I looked at my hand and found I had hundreds of short brown hairs stuck into my skin, causing a strange itching, numbing, mild pain.  I went to the bathroom where using my fingernails I was able to pull nearly all of them out and wash them down the drain, but I felt the effects for a few hours still. 

It started as just another peaceful day at the lodge filled with delicious breakfast, reading and web surfing, but around 6:30pm I heard the unmistakable noise of a low flying bush plane (I believe these are Super Cubs?) and quickly closed my book to look out the window.  What I saw was a plane, only a few meters off the ground, heading straight for the lodge.  He buzzed us on a low pass and two more followed.  I quickly realized they must be friends of Chris and grabbed my camera and ran to the beach, where Chris was already standing with a camera.  After a few minutes they returned, flying even lower this time then heading off to the dirt airstrip just outside Kipili, used by wealthy clients to fly out to this and another (very expensive and exclusive) lodge on one of the islands just out of town. 

Chris hopped in the Land Cruiser with a cooler of beers, picked them up and brought them back to the lodge where I joined them at the bar.  They were doing a sort of ‘flying safari’, and have been on a four or five week trip flying from Nairobi, Kenya down to Namibia and back.  As we talked and told stories and enjoyed a few drinks, something came up that got me very excited.  One of the guys was going to try and water ski behind one of the airplanes the next morning!  Apparently one of the guys has done it before on a wake board  so it’s certainly possible and it has been done before, but it’s still pretty damn cool.  I love action sports, extreme stunts and generally crazy things like this so I was ready to do whatever I could.  I wanted to be part of it, and was asked to film from the chase boat.  Naturally I said yes to filming, but I was hoping to get in on the real action and give it a try myself, or to try some other stunt involving the plane.  I went to bed dreaming of YouTube glory.

We all woke early to have a quick coffee and make the best of the usually calm mornings (the weather almost always picks up in the afternoon) but one look outside told us it wasn’t going to happen.  Dark clouds, lightening in the distance and shortly after, heavy rain meant it wouldn’t be possible and they would have to hope for better weather the next day.  I was pretty disappointed because I’d be catching the MV Liemba today and was going to miss it.  Major bummer.

I began packing up my things in preparation for the boat arriving and at just 8:30am or something was told the boat had arrived already!  The stops are never long, so I crammed everything in my backpack quickly, left a few things for Lameck and Dismis that I didn’t need any more and hopped on the boat with Chris to blast out to the Liemba.

I’ll probably sound like a paid shill at this point, but I’ve been a LOT of places in the 13+ months I’ve been traveling Africa.  Lake Shore Lodge stands out as one of the best lodges I’ve found so far.  The place is beautiful; there are tons of great activities through the lodge and in the area, the atmosphere is just right and most importantly Chris and Louise, the owners and very hands-on managers are great people.  If you are in the area, do yourself a favor and stop by. 

I talked about the MV Liemba the last time I rode it a few weeks from Mpulungu, Zambia to Kasanga, Tanzania, but to recap, it was a German warship used during WWI on the lake, was sunk, pulled back up, taken by the British, and later turned into a passenger ferry and cargo ship that has been traveling up and down the lake ever since.  It is one of the oldest and longest operating boats in the world and a fascinating piece of history.  I climbed from the lodge’s boat onto the Liemba, bought my ticket and was led to my room.

The trip from Kipili to Kigoma was going to be nearly a day and a half, so I decided to get a room (rather than sleep somewhere on the deck, as many/most of the locals do) and not only that but I decided to splurge a bit and get a first-class room.  The ticket cost $70 which yes, was a little steep for my budget (especially after staying/eating at lodges all week in town) but oh well, I don’t know that I’ll ever find myself on this boat again so I figured I’d enjoy it. 

The ‘common area’ of sorts, during the day it’s full of people sitting and talking, during the night people lay out blankets and sleep on the benches and floor.

Looking back from the bow of the ship.

And finally the top deck.  My room was up here, the door to the right of the hanging clothes.  When I got on, I was surprised how many foreign travelers (aka white people) were aboard.  There was a South African guy, a group of three Spaniards, an Irish couple and a Dutch couple traveling by bicycle.  When I sat down at the table with them to chat, they asked me if I was the guy who had been robbed in Mpulungu a few weeks back.  Surprised, I said yes and it turned out they had googled for information on the Liemba and found my blog, so they already knew a bit about me and about my story! 

Anyways, the top deck is where I spent much of my time, it was the best space for enjoying the view, the least crowded and close to my room.  For some reason, it was the hangout for the rest of the muzungus as well, and we would often congregate to talk, play cards or read books.  It’s funny (though understandable I suppose) how foreigners tend clump together, even me at times.  When I was on the ship the last time there were two other foreigners and I talked with them briefly and had dinner with them, but spent most of my time talking with the locals, some of who even on the boat this time as well and recognized me!  I guess part of it was that I got along very well with the Dutch couple, as they were in my age range (something I hadn’t had for a month) and were doing more adventurous travel like me so we had a lot to talk about, but at the same time I know it was just the desire to talk to someone with a similar background who I could easily relate to. 

Every few hours we would stop at one village or another, with wooden boats of all shapes and sizes rushing out to load or unload passengers or goods.  I liked the paint job on this one.

Here you can see a guy climbing on the outside of the Liemba to buy some fish from a fisherman in a wooden canoe.  You’d never see that kind of thing in America, that’s for sure!

Using the crane to load sacks of rice into the ships hold.

The weather was perfect for sailing, and many of the small boats on the lake had their sails up (made of sewn together sacks) to take advantage of it. 

I’m embarrassed to say this (especially because you two found my blog before and are likely reading this post as well!) but I’ve forgotten your names!  I meant to write it down on the ship and forgot… Anyways, to everyone else, this is the couple from Amsterdam and they are on a 5 month cycling trip.  They made a lovely avocado salad and shared it with me.  Thanks!

Sunset from the ship.

Every time we came into a new port I’d come on deck and watch the action, without a doubt some of the best people watching around!  Most times it was civilized and seemed to have some form of chaotic organization to it all, but other times (like this one pictured) boats were literally crashing into each other fighting for space along the Liemba and access to the passenger door.  Given the questionable construction and condition of many of these boats I had to wonder if getting the fares was really worth the wear and tear they were putting on the boats with that kind of behavior.  Then again, something I have noticed with shocking regularity out here is that despite the fact people may be poor and things are difficult to replace; it often seems there is an almost intentional and willful neglect of peoples own things.  I really don’t understand it… On a side note, that boat on the bottom right was the first and only modern/fiberglass boat I saw other than the boats at Liemba Beach Lodge and Lake Shore Lodge. 

Loading under the lights. 

Dinner on the boat, a big heap of ugalli, a few pieces of beef, coleslaw, sauce and a slice of pineapple for 3500 shillings.  (The Killi’s are 2500).  They also have rice instead of ugalli, or fish and chicken instead of beef, chips/French fries and if you are lucky a few other little things like samosas.  It’s not like a restaurant where you can order anything at any time though, you can eat during the meal periods and you can order what they happen to have at the time, haha. 

In the morning I lay in my cabin reading for a little while and around 9am went to the cafeteria for breakfast.  For 2500 (or maybe it was 3000?) shillings you get tea with refills, eggs, two pieces of mandazi (fried bread) and a bowl of beans, not bad.  

After breakfast it was more reading and watching the action as we stopped in villages along the way.  I’m not sure what town this was, but towards the north end of Tanzania I began to see something new: rowing.  In the whole time I’ve been on the lake, and in the two weeks I spent paddling up the lake (using a two paddle rowing configuration) this was the first time I’d seen anyone else rowing.  They were only doing it on the slightly larger boats, with one man per paddle and using paddles that were truly giant.  This boat in particular, with four men paddling and one acting as a rudder, was moving very quickly compared to the other boats.  Very interesting to see. 

More local venders, these ones were selling fruit and fish.  This one stood out to me because the boat had two women in it, a somewhat uncommon sight.  You would frequently see women as passengers getting on and off the Liemba, but to see women who were paddling out to the ship to so some business was somewhat rare.  (the boat below had chickens running around in it)

As the boat came closer to Kigoma I was surprised and impressed to see so many big, modern buildings, a few nice looking lodges on the water and a huge number of cell towers on the hills above.  After my time in the villages, I felt like I was entering the big city!  By 3pm the MV Liemba had arrived in port and there was a mad scramble to get off.  I’m not sure what the hurry was honestly because most of the time Africans are never in a hurry (‘pole pole’, ‘slowly, slowly,’ they say in Swahili).  I stood back and waited for the crush to end, and disembarked.

Traveling on the MV Liemba was a fantastic experience and one I am extremely glad I was able to do.  I was talking with the other feigners about it and we were all enjoying it so much both myself and a few others actually said “I wish it were longer, it is just so nice!”  So much tourism here in Tanzania is focused on the east (Zanzibar), and the north, (Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater), and I did all of those things myself, but heading west to Lake Tanganyika and experiencing the Liemba is as good or better than any of those things, and really deserves more attention than it gets.  (Then again, too many tourists would ruin it… it’s a fine line.)

I helped the Dutch couple carry their bags off the boat, and we planned on meeting up that evening because it was the Africa Cup football(soccer) final, a huge deal out here.  Last year I watched the final from a local sports bar with 150 screaming fans in Malawi, so I wanted to catch this years as well.  I got their number and said I’d call them, but somehow when I tried to call it wouldn’t go through and we didn’t end up meeting up to watch the match.  Bummer.

From Lake Shore Lodge in Kipili I’d sent out a few messages through and found a host in Kigoma!  My host was Insun, a volunteer from Korea who has been living in town and is a year and nine months into a two year volunteer program called KOICA, Korea International Cooperation Agency (“like Korean Peace Corps,” he said) where he is teaching physics at a local school and teaching Taekwondo in his front yard.  Insun has a big house and loves to have visitors, as he is very interested in world travel and an all-around friendly guy.  Not only does he have a big guest room, but he has a decently fast and unlimited (rare for Africa) internet connection! 

After I’d unpacked my things and relaxed for a bit, we walked a two or three minutes away to the Coast View Resort, a hotel and restaurant that sits atop the hill Insun lives on and as the name implies has a pretty good view of the lake, the Congo and the town below.  We had a Kili as we watched the sun go down, and then headed home for dinner. 

When I was first getting off the MV Liemba, by text Insun asked me “Do you like Korean food?”  When I read that I tried to remember the last time I’d even had Korean food and suddenly remembered it was actually at a restaurant in the Indian Himalayas!  I said yes, and for dinner he whipped up an awesome traditional dinner of rice, soup, kimchi  and pork.  I’m proud to say he was impressed with my chop-stick skills, and explained to me that Korea is the only country that uses metal chopsticks.  Happy to have such a great host and a great place to stay I stayed up late into the night using the wifi from my queen-size bed before finally going to sleep.

As usual when you show up to the amenities and convenience of a modern(ish) house, it’s time to do laundry, clean my tent, sort through my things and of course spend more time on the internet!  (I swear it was work!)

By about 1pm I figured it was time to take a walk into town and have a look around.  I set out into what was a grey and threatening looking sky, and by the time I’d gotten to the bottom of the hill by the shore it made good on that threat.  To escape the heavy rains I ducked into a local restaurant/bar where I sat down with my book and ordered a beer and lunch.  A short while later I saw another traveler walk into the place and because I have a bit of a rule to say hello to any other traveler I see alone, I did just that.  This is how I met Lukas from Germany; he is spending a few weeks traveling east Africa and has a sister working in Uganda who he will be visiting while out here.  We spent awhile chatting and got along very well.  Once the weather had cleared up and we paid our bill, we walked into town together.

Main street Kigoma consists of a big roundabout on one end, plenty of small shops telling the usual, a few banks, restaurants and bars, and most importantly an excellent market.  To be back in the ‘big city’ (haha) and see so many excellent fruits and vegetables was actually really exciting after how deprived I’d been of both of these things over the past month.  I filled my backpack with eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, bananas, peppers, carrots, bread, cookies and more before setting off for Insun’s house.

Lukas arrived in Kigoma without any real plans, but was interested in going snorkeling.  I’d asked Insun about this already was curious myself, so I said I’d speak with Insun figure something out. 

Because Insun lived on the top of a large hill (which is a walk, a dalla-dalla ride and another walk away from where he actually teaches in Ujiji, but he said he likes the view too much to live closer to work) and because my backpack was so full, I decided to take a pika-pika, or a motorcycle taxi.  It is a fairly short trip so it only costs 1000 shillings, or about 60 cents, so why not?  I was surprised to see that they actually had helmets, a rarity in most of Africa but I think Tanzania must actually be enforcing helmet laws because people seem good about using them here in Kigoma at least.

That night I met with George, a guy who does diving and snorkeling out of Kigoma through a place called Aqua Lodge, and we agreed on a trip for the next morning.

After a breakfast of 6 eggs, two slices of buttered toast and two bananas I walked down the hill to find Aqua Lodge.  It turned out to be right at the bottom of the hill and had a group of 10 or 15 Belgian nursing students staying there.  We talked briefly, then loaded up the boat and set off.

Before putting on the snorkeling gear (that was pretty good), we climbed up some of the rocks below Hilltop Hotel (the structure you see above) for a little cliff jumping.  And I think you can tell by our skin color who has been in Africa longer, me or Lukas, haha!

After jumping we put our gear on and George showed us a pretty cool swim-through (an underwater cave/tunnel) in the rocks and after doing that a few times started exploring the marine life. 

Right away I was impressed with the numbers and diversity of fish I was able to see.  I spent a month around Lake Malawi where I did a few dives and a fair bit of snorkeling and really just felt disappointed by the experience.  I’m sure part of it was that it was my first time doing lake diving instead of diving on a reef, which isn’t really a fair comparison, so maybe I had more realistic expectations here on Tanganyika.  That said, what I saw in Lake Tang was so much better than what I saw in Malawi, but that was just my experience, other people keep telling me how Malawi is supposed to be so much better, so I don’t know. 

Tanganyika is famous for having over 250 different species of cichlids, many of which are endemic and over 150 other fish species.  While I felt like I was seeing the same 5 fish over and over again in Malawi, here I felt like I was seeing more like 20 or more in one place.  The water was generally very clear and visibility was good. 

What I enjoyed the most about the snorkeling here was swimming through big schools of fish.  This is one of my favorite thing about SCUBA diving and something I simply never saw in Malawi.  Here not only was I able to see large schools of fish but because they were not timid, I was able to swim through them.  It felt like I was on a reef at times!

A small crab.  There are also many different snails in the lake, but they all seem to be covered in algae and don’t look very impressive. 

A typical scene; clear water, beautiful stone and numerous fish.

It had been a long time since I’ve had a chance to snorkel or dive, so I was having a blast playing in the water. 

Yep, told you there were lots of fish!

After a while we all climbed up on some rocks to lie in the sun and relax.  Talk about perfect conditions huh?

I’m still trying to learn to fly, and I’m still failing.  They say you just have to aim for the ground (or water) and miss but I just keep on hitting it.  Maybe next time.

By about noon Lukas and I called it a (half) day and we motored back to shore where we ate some bananas, bread and avocado I’d brought with me.  It was a great little outing and both of us walked away satisfied.  It was a little expensive because it was just the two of us on the boat, $25 each (a bit of a splurge, again…) but it can get down to as low as $10 a person if you have a larger group so keep that in mind. 

With a little fun out of the way it was time to get down to business, first and foremost was getting my visa for Burundi. 

Now I know almost nothing about Burundi, I’ve yet to meet a person who has traveled through it and the guidebooks have almost no information.  All I keep hearing is that it went through two horrible periods of civil war and genocide similar to what happened in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsis, with somewhere between 80,000-210,000 killed in 1972 and up to 50,000 in 1993.  In addition to this, it still has an unstable and restrictive government today (no surprise…) and ranks as one of the five poorest countries on earth, with a GDP per capita of just $271 (only Congo is worse).  Should be interesting!  With all those factors to think about, I was under the impression it may be difficult to get a visa for the country.  

Turns out I was wrong.  I walked up a steep, washed-out dirt road, through the gate and into the front door of what was basically a house with a mostly empty front room for an office.  There were two tables piled high in papers, two mildly uncomfortable couches and a handful of outdated Africa maps on the walls.  I told the woman working at the desk I would like a 1-month tourist visa for the country and she said it would be no problem.  To make things even better, I’d been told it would cost a whopping $80, but to my surprise it was ‘only;’ $60.  I filled out two copies of the application because obviously they didn’t have a photo copier, handed over my $60 and then was told the person who actually issues the visas was not around and I’d have to wait.  Typical really.  I pulled out my book, sat down to read and half an hour later walked out with my brand new Burundi visa, totally hassle free. 

Wanting to see more of Kigoma, I picked a dirt road lined with shops and began walking.  It took me past a few local bars and a few homes as I climbed the hill, then I came upon this huge hotel.  I’d seen it from the Liemba when I was first arriving in Kigoma and once again was surprised by all the modern multi-story buildings that are here in town.  That said, despite the awesome view that you would have from this hotel, the rooms don’t actually have a balcony for you to sit out and enjoy it! 

I walked past another five-story hotel under construction, tried to go to the NBC bank which was already closed (9-3? Really?), bought a few things from the market and hopped on another pika-pika to ride home.

This was the scene I arrived at.  Insun has been doing Taekwondo or many years and in addition to teaching physics at the school he teaches a group of boys Taekwondo in his front yard!  Thank you CouchSurfing, for connecting me with such awesome people, haha. 

That evening, Lukas came over for dinner, bringing a few Kilis with him and Insun cooked up some veggie pasta with white sauce and an avocado salad.  We ate dinner and hung around for a while sharing photos and stories before calling it a night.  Lukas commented that he’d arrived here in town with no plans and not knowing what he was going to do, and found himself hanging out with me, going on a snorkeling trip and then having dinner at Insun’s house!  It was all great, and I told him that when you have an open mind and a smile on your face, that’s just how travel goes, things work out, you meet great people and wonderful things happen! 

So the plan next.  As I said, I’m headed to Burundi.  Just to make it more interesting though I’m trying to do it by boat, so I will have traveled the whole distance of Lake Tanganyika (world’s longest lake, blah blah blah) via boat, even if it’s not paddling like I’d originally hoped, haha.  I’ve been trying to organize that with a drunken local guy named David who today bought me beers, paid for two taxi rides and took me to his home for his wife to feed me ugalli and fish, and I think it is going to work out.  I’ll be taking a local wooden cargo ship overnight into and part way up the coast of Burundi, then I will have to find another boat to take me the rest of the way into Bujumbura, the capital city. 

Right now I have two different CouchSurfing hosts lined up to stay with and one more to meet for dinner, as well as a fourth guy I met while paddling up the lake, so I’ve got a number of good local connections already which should be fantastic.  I have no idea how long I’ll stay in country.  It’s small and I’m kind of itching to cover some ground, as Egypt is still a long ways off, but if I meet the right people and enjoy the place, I could stay for the full month.  It’s funny how that keeps happening though, because in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia, I thought it would be one, maybe two months, but in all three countries I ended up staying the full three months of the visas, and probably would have stayed longer if I could have done so.  Were it not for my (self-imposed) deadline to return home (beginning of July) it would be easy to spend two, or even three years doing my Cape-to-Cairo trip instead of the year and a half I’ve given myself. 

Anyways, things are going great out here as usual and as you can surly see.  My next post should be from Burundi, so check back for that one and with me, learn a bit about this small and intriguing country.