|(sorry, this is the best map I could find!)|
Not everything in life goes as planned. On the road and certainly in Africa this is even more true. My plan was to paddle the length of Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest lake, in a local wooden boat. The original idea was just a whim really, but I had been thinking about it, preparing for it and telling people about it for weeks leading up to actually setting off. I’m still a little embarrassed to say it, but after just two weeks (and what I’m told was about 150 out of about 650km) I’m calling the trip off. I made it from Kasanga to Kipili. It had some amazing moments while it lasted, and the trip seemed to have everything I could want in adventure travel; bush camping, amazing local culture, a physical endurance challenge, an element of danger, a world longest/tallest/biggest, and the chance to do something that has probably never been done before (at least by a white man). I hiked to a waterfall probably seen by almost no other white people, I stayed in the home of a village headman and later with a school teacher, I battled wind and waves, I bought fish from locals while floating in the lake (and paid for it by laying semi-conscious and shitting blood for two days, suffering from the worse food poising of my life), I camped in some of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, I watched birds, fish, otters and monkeys and I spent time on one of the world’s most fantastic and unique bodies of water. Yet I’m calling the whole thing off.
Why? To be honest I still don’t feel like I have the full answer myself, a big part of me still wants to do it, to finish. Or at the least, make it farther than I have before quitting… So let me tell you what I do know. The reason that stands in the forefront of my mind is simply that of time, I don’t have enough. It is February 3rd as I write this and I have a flight out of Cairo, Egypt of June 20th. My ideal overland route to Cairo still involves the rest of Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt. That is a lot of Africa to cover in what really is a small amount of time. I knew my local wooden boat would be a slow method of travel, but I hadn’t anticipated just how slow. When conditions were ideal, I could make good progress and feel like I was accomplishing things, but with a small amount of waves and wind my progress would become maddeningly slow and I became far more frustrated than I could put up with and still pretend to be having fun. Combine this with the fact I was having serious battles keeping my boat afloat, on two occasions (out of just 11 days of paddling) I had to spend half the day repairing my boat, along with an hour or two on numerous other days. I thought about lighting my boat on fire on more than on occasion. All factors combined, it seemed like I was looking at somewhere between two and three months to make this journey. With less than 5 months to go between the 8 countries I still want to see, I simply wasn’t willing to make that time commitment. As I watched my progress on the map barely moving I knew I didn’t have enough time to make it to the end of the lake given what I still wanted to see and do with my time here in Africa, and with that in mind my heart was just no longer in the journey.
After my time and experience on the lake I am still convinced this trip is possible. I know for a FACT that I could do it given enough time. In a way this is a comfort knowing I could have done it and that it wasn’t a failure of ability or preparation, but at the same time that makes it worse because it is a whole different kind of failure, in a way a more personal one, a failure of will and resolve in a way. Or maybe just a failure in scheduling. When I’d initially envisioned this trip I’d planned on starting more than a month sooner and I know that would have made a big difference in my experience and chances of finishing. At the same time, my boat was a real troublemaker and I’m unsure if I’d have been able to put up with it for such a long period of time. In the end, for all its troubles, I had am amazing, unique and unforgettable experience and don’t regret attempting this adventure for one second. I guess I just need to enjoy it for what it was; a two-week mini-journey through a stunning part of the world. Knowing I have plenty of amazing experiences ahead of me will keep me from dwelling on my ‘failure’ to complete this lake using my chosen transport and hey, as always life out here is good so really I can’t complain about anything. Sorry that was such a long explanation, maybe I rambled a bit, but I always say this blog is as much to reflect and analyse my experiences for myself as it is to share those experiences with others. Anyways, thanks for listening and reading; with that out of the way let me share with you this amazing paddle trip!
Because the town of Kasanga was such a small place and because my previous trip to Sumbawanga for supplies had been such a failure due to my debit card not working (apparently Tanzania is a ‘high fraud area’ and I had to call my bank and tell them I was in Tanzania and that the charges were legitimate to get the ATM card to work), once again I woke myself at 4-something AM and climbed on board the bus for the 5+ hour ride. I’d bought my ticket the day before and had an assigned seat but the bus was so packed getting to it near the back of the bus was like climbing through a mosh-pit at a heavy-metal concert, minus the head banging. The BO was just as bad, if not worse however.
I arrived in Sumbawanga tired and uncomfortable but determined to get what I needed to do sorted out so I could be on my way the next day. The first internet café I tried, Posta Internet Café, was so slow it was all but unusable (opening my inbox took 15 minutes) and the second one I tried simply didn’t work at all. In my case third time was a charm, and I found one called City Internet Café that had surprisingly fast internet for the cheapest price I’ve found in all of Africa, 1000 shillings/hour, or about 60 cents.
After the internet, I got lunch at a local shop for about $1.50, met some guys with a whole building stacked to the celling with dried goat skins for leather and headed off to Datoo Guest House, a friend of Oscars. The place cost 10,000 shillings a night, about $8.40 and was surprisingly nice. There were paintings and plants in the hallways, the room had a decent bed, mosquito net, squat toilet and (cold) shower and even a TV where on Al Jazeera News I managed to catch a news segment about bicycle commuters in Seattle and an interview with our Mayor! Seeing downtown Seattle, the Fremont Bridge and the Burke-Guilman Trail on TV made me more homesick than I think I’ve felt since coming to Africa but home is still months away and I set out back into town for more supplies.
Dinner of beef bits, fries and beer. I was hoping for something more substantial (and healthy) but it was close, the price was right and the people-watching was good, even if I did have one guy come up asking me to buy him a beers, as well as begging kids. So goes Africa.
The next morning, through my own wanderings and the help of Datoo (the owner of Datoo Guest House) I managed to find everything I needed in town, from a new hat and food to rope, a USB memory stick and medication for intestinal worms. Always good to be prepared.
The bus ride back to the lake seemed to take longer than the other three times I’d already made the 5+ hour journey but I felt like I’d accomplished everything I’d set out to do and was in a good mood.
Back at Liemba Beach Lodge I met with Oscar (the owner). I’d previously told him I was hoping to trade my bike for whatever boat I ended up with and because he was interested in my bike, he ended up taking it from me in exchange for paying the remaining balance of the boat. The agreed upon price for the boat as I said last time was 207,500 shillings (~$130). I’d given the fisherman 30,000 up front for them to buy cotton and wood for repairs, meaning that and the bike is what I paid for the boat. I’d long ago gotten my money worth out of the $124 I paid for the bike by riding across Botswana and half of Zambia having the time of my life, and had no problem passing it on as I was done with it, so in the end I paid just under $19 in cash for the boat. I probably shouldn’t dwell on it, but while two people told me I got a good price on the boat (the roughly 200,000 shillings), others have told me I was cheated and I’m only getting offers of about 60,000 now that I’m trying to sell it. I’m not sure who cheated me at this point and to be honest not knowing which local you can trust is always an issue when you travel, but again, I’m trying not to dwell on it.
Day 1: On the morning of the 19th, I loaded my boat for the first time, Oscar sending me off with some chapatti for lunch and waterproof canvas to keep my bags out of the rain (though all the important things were already in dry-bags). This was it; I was heading out for what I was expecting to be a long, challenging and rewarding journey up the world’s longest lake in a leaky wooden boat. I didn’t really know what to expect, what lay ahead or how things would turn out but I felt calm and confident, planning on a relaxed first day to get the feel of things.
It was 1pm by the time I’d finally started my paddle and everything seemed to be going well. The lake was calm, the boat felt slow but sturdy and I was in good spirits as I rowed northwards, passing the first village immediately beyond the lodge and watching how some of the locals had put up their plastic-sack sails and were already heading in for the day.
Around 3pm, the wind and waves began to pick up, as they tend to do in the early afternoon this time of year (or so I’m told) and I was really starting to struggle. I saw a rocky beach and headed for it in order to wait out the weather there, but trying to land quickly became a disaster. I was quickly hit by a few waves, putting a substantial amount of water in my boat and knocking loose a rather large piece of cotton plugging a gap in the boards. I quickly realized getting to shore there in any reasonable manor was going to be impossible but could see I was not far from a town, (which turned out to be Molwe) and fought for every inch of progress towards it. Keep in mind this was my first day on the lake paddling my loaded boat, and here I am fighting parallel waves, against a strong headwind, with a boat that has taken on a few waves worth of water and with a hole in the bottom that is creating a cartoon-like fountain of gushing water filling my boat even more. I was suddenly questioning the whole trip, only two hours in. (It’s amazing how photos can never capture what waves look like and how difficult they can be, this photo looks almost calm…trust me it wasn’t.) I tried to plug the hole in my boat by putting my foot over it and struggled towards Molewe. As I was arriving, a group of locals showed up to help me pull my boat ashore, with one of them saying to me “Your boat very bad, you sleep here tonight.” Ok, not going to argue. He immediately began patching the hole in my boat using my spare cotton, and people helped pick up my bags and walk into the village with me to the headman’s house.
The headman, who went by the name ‘Friday’ spoke no English and I was trying to get by on my handful of Swahili words and phrases but luckily there was a young buy, Manuel (right) who spoke a bit of English and helped translate to the rest of the men in the village who were all around and very curious about this strange white man who had arrived in their village.
Manuel and I took a walk around town and he gave me the tour (this took about 5 minutes) before ending up at the ‘restaurant’ that served sugar saturated tea and fried dough. I enjoyed some of both and when I asked how much to pay was told it was on the house. Lovely.
Back at the headmans house, he asked to see my passport and sign his book/register. I got a good laugh out of that and I think he just wanted to look important and official in front of the other villagers. I was the first and only name in the book. I carry some Seattle postcards from home to give as little thank-yours, and wrote a little note on the back and presented it to him. The gesture was clearly appreciated, because I saw him showing it off to a few people at various points through the rest of the evening and I was glad to be well prepared with such things.
I was then presented with two eggs in a glass dish. I thought they were cooked and ready to eat and started to break the first one open when I was stopped. Turns out they were raw and I’d almost smashed a raw chicken egg in my hands, in the headman’s house, haha! They cooked them and gave them back, and I was offered to bathe with a bucket of lake water, an offer I accepted as well. The whole time a group of 15-20 kids looked on through the window.
Later in the evening Friday and I ate dinner together, ugalli and some greens, than sat in the room listening to a mix of reggae music and gospel on his battery powered radio. The hospitality and kindness really was wonderful, but at the same time I find this kind of thing extremely draining. For one, being the center of attention with 30 people staring, watching your every move is a little uncomfortable. Two, it was a pretty small amount of food and while I was still very hungry, it would of course be extremely rude to then set out and cook my own dinner after eating with the headman. And three, sleeping on his floor not only gave me a sore back but meant I was being simply devoured by mosquitos and was unable to get much sleep at all. Experiences like this are great once in a while, but yah, I prefer sleeping in the bush alone…
Day 2: When Manuel had shown me around town the previous day he showed me a beautiful waterfall in the distance. I’d said I wanted to hike to it the next morning and he and the headman agreed to go with me. I woke early and we started out at first light. There were some communication problems but from what I gathered there may have been a lodge at that falls and I’d have to pay to see it? I told them I wasn’t interested in paying to see a waterfall, but was then told there was another falls farther up the valley we could to go. I agreed, and we set off, walking through a path and getting soaked by the wet grass.
After about an hour and a half of walking, the path simply ended and I found myself crashing through the bush following these two guys to…. honestly I had no idea where we were actually going or what I should expect, so I just kept walking.
Shortly after wading through the stream, we arrived at a literally the end of the valley and what was a simply stunning waterfall, flanked by mossy vertical stone cliffs. I didn’t expect something so beautiful, and given its location, lack of roads and lack of any actual path to reach it, I had to assume this is a very seldom seen place, and that I’m probably one of the few travelers who has ever seen it. It’s a truly thrilling feeling, like being the first explorer witnessing the local secrets of a far-off land.
As we walked back to the village Friday and Manuel kept stopping to show me plants or to pick things to bring back. By the time we had returned to the village, we had collected some plant that was ‘medicine for the blood’, a root that must have some sexual purpose (that’s what I assume from the gestures Friday made, with a laugh), grass to use as straws, sugar cane, chilies berries, coconuts, and finally some raw cassava given to us by some other villagers who were walking back to the village as well. I ate the whole piece, thought it was chalky and unpleasant.
It was nearly 11am by the time we had returned from our hike and I’d loaded my boat to set off. I’d have liked to get an earlier start to take advantage of the calm mornings, but I certainly couldn’t complain about the amazing day I’d had hiking to a hidden waterfall with a village headman in rural Tanzania. These are the kinds of pure and authentic experiences travellers like myself dream about.
With the usual audience watching, I paddled away from Molwe and the first thing I did once I was out of sight was eat something. I was starving from both the tiny dinner and the lack of breakfast the next morning and I had some distance I was hoping to cover. I needed fuel and honestly I don’t understand how people out here function (and appear so strong) with the small amount of food they seem to consume.
This photo says a lot about the eastern Tanganyika shoreline, stone right up to the water backed by lush green bush. It also says a lot about the challenges of travel on the lake, because it is often impossible to make it ashore, let alone find a place to camp. This was always my biggest safety issue and worry on the trip, what to do when the wind and wave kick up and you can’t safely get ashore. If I had to estimate, I’d say only 25% of the shore I saw is accessible, should a storm blow in when you are far from a village or sandy beach, you will literally have your boat pounded and smashed against the rocks, because it’s simply not possible to get the boat out of the water to ‘safety’ alone. Maybe one person could pull a modern kayak out of the water and up onto the rocks alone, but these wooden boats weigh a few hundred pounds and alone, you really are at the mercy of the weather.
Rowing. I’ve only seen two ways the locals use these boats: paddling canoe style (with between one and four people paddling) and sailing with triangular sails made out of sewn together sacks. In the two weeks I paddled the lake and the more than four I’ve spent on the lake, I was the only person rowing these boats.
To be honest, I’m not 100% sure this is always the fastest and most efficient way to paddle, but I’m pretty sure it is. Moving these boats alone canoe-style takes considerable effort, and switching paddling sides every stroke or two is required to go in a straight line. I know going in a straight line was a challenge for me (facing backwards and reference points were not always easy to use) and from the second day I was dreaming about building a rudder to help straighten my course, but I think the row-boat solution is probably best when using these boats solo. My little plastic-rope oar-locks only had a life of about two days each before they broke and I’d need to replace them, so I’d recommend bigger holes and a larger diameter rope. I bought the gloves originally for cycling and never used them, but WOW I’m glad I had them for rowing. When I was first testing the boat I didn’t use gloves, and within an hour my hands were covered in blisters, without the gloves I don’t think I’d have been to paddle any reasonable distance without fist spending weeks toughening up my hands.
I paddled on and was amazed at the birds I saw as I slowly made my way up the shoreline. I’m no birder, but it was wonderful to see fish eagles, horn-bills, kingfishers, herons and more as I made my way.
I was nearing a village, Samazi and heard a great deal of shouting and excitement. Curious to see what was going on, I paddled towards the commotion and what I found was a huge group of men and boys (the only women I saw were farther down the shore doing laundry) working together to pull up a net filled with fish. As usual, I caused a bit of a stir by arriving and became the new center of attention for a few minutes, diving off my boat into the water before climbing back in and rowing away.
A fairly typical village on the shore. People from all the neighboring countries have converged on Tanzania. There are Zambians, Burundians and Congolese all living and fishing on the Tanzanian shore and I’m told some villages are completely immigrants, frequently made up of people who have fled war in their home countries.
Beautiful stone and vegetation, but yet another place and reason where it isn’t possible to get a boat out of the water or find a place to set a tent.
I’d been hoping to make it a good distance on this day after such a short first day but once again it was not meant to be. In the early afternoon the wind and waves began to pick up again and I was afraid of repeating the previous days mistakes. Looking ahead up the shore I saw what appeared to be a lot of cliffs and boulders, meaning I ought to find a campsite now rather than count on being able to find one later should the wind get stronger. I was playing it very cautious.
With lots of time to kill I made camp, using dead grass as some padding on the rocks before setting my tent, then spent the afternoon trying to stay in the shade and reading my book. I’d hardly eaten as a result of staying in the village and what I was most looking forward to was cooking and eating dinner in privacy.
Day 3: I set my alarm for 6am but it was still totally dark when it woke me. At about 6:30 the light was enough to be useful and I made my breakfast of cereal and powered milk before slowly packing up camp to set out. It always takes a while to get systems worked out when you first start something like this and as a result I didn’t move quickly. Some villagers saw me in the bush and slowly began converging to have a look at the strange white man sleeping in the bush. I’d realized in the last village someone had taken my cotton tool and that was something I certainly needed to have. I managed to get a rusty table knife off one of these guys and gave him a few shillings before paddling off.
It seems like anywhere with a sandy beach where it’s easy to get boats in and out, there are people. On the south end of the lake at least, you are almost never alone.
Beautiful cliffs along the way. There was a group of cliff swallows living on part of it, and I floated below it for a few minutes, watching the birds going in and out of their mud nests.
I stopped here for a little lunch break before moving on again, but once again wind came up to hamper my efforts to get very far. I always want to see what’s around the next bend, and after battling headwinds only to see another long band of boulders, I turned back to a spot I’d seen where it was possible to tie up the boat and camp. I waited for about an hour and the wind died down again so I jumped in the boat and started off again. I only got another hour of slow progress in that afternoon before having to make camp, but any progress was better than none. The spot was just a strip of stones between some brush on the water’s edge and a thick forest, but I was able to make a flat-ish spot in the rocks and hide from the sun until it was time to cook dinner and go to bed. What concerned me was that all I could do with my boat was pull it into the bush a bit and try and ‘lock’ it in place by placing rocks around it, but the waves could still knock it around a bit and I spent much of the night worrying about my boat and what condition it would be like in the morning. It was a hot and uncomfortable night and I didn’t get much sleep.
Day 4: After breakfast I examined the boat and after stuffing in a little bit of cotton in some cracks determined it was in fine shape and set off for what I’d hoped would finally be a decent day of northward progress. Conditions turned out to be very good and despite the poor sleep I felt great and was really moving.
A short while later a ‘water taxi’ of sorts stopped me to chat and even offered to give me a tow north. I told them I was enjoying the paddle and declined their offer but as always appreciated how helpful and friendly everyone I’ve met out here has been to me.
Bailing out the boat. At this point it was holding together pretty well, and I was only taking out a few gallons maybe once an hour. The thing is all the boats out here leak and everyone has to bail, it’s just a question of how often.
Calm waters made for good progress.
More fantastic scenery.
A short while later I was paddling between the shore and a group of islands when a few fishermen called me over to their boats. I rowed over to them and they showed me how they fish. On the end of a long (maybe 20m?) thin plastic string (the yellow you see below the bucket), they tie the fishing line on that has maybe 6 hooks and rubber worms as bait. The whole thing is pulled down by a weight, in most cases it appears to be the hub from a bicycle wheel. They leave the line down for a while, then pull it up to see if anything has bit. Not very efficient, but it seems to work well enough.
Being that I was on the lake, obviously I had to eat some fish and what better way than to buy them boat-to-boat from the fisherman floating in the lake himself? I gave 2000 shillings and in return got about 8 small fish tied through the mouth with string. I said thank you and paddled away through the mirror-smooth water, almost feeling bad for ruining such a perfect reflection of the sky with my boat.
It was a very hot day, so I took my clothes off and dove off my boat for a quick swim. (Don’t worry, my camera is waterproof!)
At this point I was near Kala, an MV Liemba stop, which was inside a rather large bay. The weather was good, the boat was holding water well and being near villages I certainly wasn’t alone on the water so I decided to make a crossing rather than hugging the shore, a move that probably saved me more than two hours paddling. As I was nearing the other side the wind began to pick up a bit and onshore I saw dark clouds building and ropes of lightening reaching down to the forest below. I wanted to get to shore, and quick.
I saw a sandy patch between some rocks in the distance and headed for it. As I got closer I realized just how lucky I was, entering a small picturesque bay, boulders on either side, up against the lush bush, with a perfect flat spot for a tent and the place to myself. With the birds flying overhead, fish swimming between the stones, butterflies sitting in groups in the sand and the monkeys in the trees it felt like something out of movie. I almost had to remind myself that no, this is real life and more than that, this is my life. Pretty nice huh?
I spent the afternoon waiting for ‘the storm that never came’, an experience I seemed to have every day, and swimming in the clear and comfortable water. I made camp, tied my boat up, set the little ‘protector skull’ I found on it and laid in the shade to enjoy this fantastic part of the world.
That evening I cooked rice and fish for dinner. The fish were small and full of bones, but after I’d made a mess of them and of myself by digging the bones out with my fingers and piling the resulting meat on top of my rice I found I had a pretty tasty and satisfying dinner. I ate by candle light and watched the stars come out in the sky above me.
That night it happened (this is going to be a bit nasty, but hey, I gotta tell the truth), the worst food poisoning of my life and actually the first time I’ve even gotten sick in Africa. I’d been struggling to get to sleep and feeling uncomfortable when I began to alternate between shaking and shivering, and sweating and feeling like I was on fire. Waves of pain were rolling through my body from head to toe and I knew I was in a bad state. Really bad. My head was pounding, my mouth was dry, it felt like I was being kicked in the stomach and that I had razor blades in my intestines. I knew my body was going to evacuate itself shortly; I just didn’t know which end it would be coming from and tried to mentally prepare myself to experience the fury from both. Eventually the knots and pain in my stomach told me it was time to force myself to crawl on hands and knees out of my tent and let it rip. I got about 30 feet away before unleashing the most horrid diarrhoea I have ever experienced. I waited, squatting in the sand under the stars, trying to keep myself from falling over due to the pain and let the demons flow out of me in their unholy river. A few hours ago I felt like I was on top of the world, now I was headed somewhere very, very low.
When round-one finished, I dragged myself back to my tent, laying out tarps inside in case I couldn’t make it out in time during the next round and shit myself then and there. I was in such a bad state that even turning over in my tent from one side to the other was a ten minute mental struggle to force myself to move, followed by intense pain of actually moving, then trying to recover from that slight movement. All this to simply turnover, and I was still crawling out of the tent frequently relieve myself all night, a distance that got closer and closer as the night wore on and I was unable to get any rest. It was going to be a long night.
Day 5: After a sleepless night, probably what was the worst night of my life, the sun eventually made my tent too hot to stay in and I managed to drag myself into the shade of some bushes along with a piece of canvas to lay on. The pain in my stomach and in my gut was terrible radiating through my whole body. I was for large parts of the day, nearly unconscious, so weak I could hardly move and even so weak I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open. At one point I even fell over simply trying to stand up. Despite the pain and exhaustion, I was able to make it to the bush every time to relieve myself (though I never got far) and became a bit horrified when I began to see I was expelling blood along with the horrible bile that was inside me. I felt like I was dying.
Around 6pm a group of fisherman showed up, mostly just to have a look at the white man on the beach. I was feeling a bit better at this point, but still I wasn’t in much of a condition to be social. I couldn’t ignore their friendliness however, as they quickly pulled my boat up onto the beach and began doing some repairs (cotton stuffing) without my even asking. They then offered to take me out on the lake to go fishing in their boat but again due to my condition had to decline, though I wish I could have said yes. After they had left, the 10 minutes of sitting upright, walking a few meters here and there and forcing a smile left me so exhausted again I collapsed to the ground, happy to have my peace and solitude back.
Once again I spent the night unable to sleep for a single second, going between lying on the ground in pain and forcing myself to get up and shit my guts out in the sand as I stared at the stars, wishing this would all end.
Day 6: Two nights in a row without sleep, in addition to the pain and absolute inability to even think about eating. This has never happened to me before and it’s taking a heavy toll. Getting up to relieve myself is such an exhausting experience that the few meter walk leaves me sweating and out of breath for about 10 minutes. All food in my system was expelled long ago and at this point I’m not sure what’s coming out of me at this point, other than to say it’s green, yellow and filled with blood.
In the early afternoon a young boy and his brother, fishermen, come up to say hello. Again I force myself to be social, hell; I force myself to just stand up. The older of them speaks a little English and we talk for a few minutes. He then gives me a fish he caught as ‘a gift.’ I’m so grateful for the kindness the locals have shown me on my journey thus far I don’t have the heart to tell him I’m far too sick to even think about eating it, but I can’t refuse the fish and he and his brother paddle off.
That afternoon my spirits were very low, but I could feel myself getting better. I knew the worst was over. At this point I finally decided to take some antibiotics, something I generally try to avoid unless absolutely necessary but it was pretty clear it was necessary. That night I even got a few hours of sleep between getting up to empty my guts, but still probably only clocking about 5 hours. Still, better than 0 the last two nights.
Day 7: My third day lying sick on the beach was a vast improvement. I was still weak and spent the whole day laying in the shade, but for the first time since this all began, my mind was clear and I could think like a normal person again. On top of that, I could keep my eyes open and was able to read my book, and best of all, after two and a half days without food; I was able to eat some cereal. At first eating felt good, then it felt horrible and I thought I’d made a mistake, and then I began to feel better again.
As I was lying in the bush, hiding from the sun and from the prying eyes of any other fisherman, I heard the low rumble of an ancient diesel engine in the distance. I knew it must be the MV Liemba heading to Kala, so I forced myself up in order to catch a look and a photograph.
By the afternoon I was feeling better to the point of being able to move a bit and made some grips for my paddles, carved my initials in them and in my boat and even cooked and ate a decent dinner. By the next morning I knew I could set off again but would have to take it easy.
Day 8: In the morning after 4 nights sleeping in the same spot I had to send some ‘quality time’ repairing my boat, as plenty of cotton had come out of the cracks during the previous few days. I set off at a slow pace around 10am, and after just an hour and a half had to get to shore due to wind and waves. The place I’d pulled off at was not a good spot in any way, so when I decided the wind and waves weren’t going to die down anytime soon, I got back in the boat and backtracked to a better pull-out I’d seen a little ways to the south. Again, I know this photo doesn’t look like much, but the waves were probably three feet from top to bottom and the wind was blowing to the point where forward travel was simply not worth the effort in this boat, especially in my weakened state. My boat was seriously leaking at this point, but all I could do for the moment was bail frequently.
The spot I ended up at appeared to be a sort of outpost for drying fish. There was a hut, piles of wood and fire areas but no one in sight. Of most use was a sort of ‘boat slip’ and although as always I wasn’t able to pull my boat out of the water alone (which would do a lot of good for not losing cotton) it was protected from the worst of the waves. The funny thing about Africa is because everything always looks so run down, you simply never know if something has been empty for just 5 minutes or 20 years…
I made camp, read my book and expected villagers to arrive at any moment, though no one ever came. I’m not sure I even moved 2km on this day. This trip was going excruciatingly slow and I was quickly realizing I didn’t really have the time to complete it, a difficult realization and one that really dampened my spirits the rest of the way.
Day 9: I woke and got out of camp early, feeling a little uncomfortable with my site, although I didn't have any other options at the time. My boat was leaking in a big way, with cotton simply popping out creating fountains of water that filled my boat. Each time I’d grab my pile of extra cotton, my table knife and my rock, twisting and pushing cotton back in the gap and was able to stop the worst of the problems to my satisfaction, though I still had to bail frequently.
The giant boulders along the shore are easily my favorite feature of the landscape out here, and when I saw a particularly large and stunning collection of stone I tied off my boat and decided to climb around a bit. I think climbing through boulders is one of my favorite things in the world, exploring the overhangs and caves they form, finding maze-like passages from one side to the other and in the case of the boulders here, finding long, tough tree roots reaching into the lake to drink, despite originating in some faraway place many boulders away.
After passing what I think was the town of Izinga (there were times the locals would give me two or three different names for a single village…) I came across another group of fisherman who wanted to show me their catch. Once again using my few Swahili words and phrases, I explained what I was doing and where I was going and asked if I could take a photo of them. They immediately lit up with excitement, with this guy putting a fish in his mouth and doing a headstand in the boat! As I’ve said, awesome and friendly people out here.
Around lunch time the wind and waves picked up and I headed to a small island to try and wait it out. I had a bite to eat and managed to fall asleep for an hour or so, which was nice. As I was loading up the boat to start off again, I noticed what appeared to be fairly uniform bumps in the ground and wondered if I’d accidentally stopped at a cemetery…
Just before 4pm I saw a good campsite and decided to call it a day. Once again, unable to move my boat alone I had to leave it tied up and half way in the waves. By now I was well aware this was going to cause problems for me by morning time and I had hoped some locals would turn up and could help me pull it up out of the water but it never happened. I’d finally had a day of good progress north after being sick and fighting the weather, so at least I felt good about that.
As the sun was going down that night the wind and waves picked up and it began to rain. My boat was getting hammered, and I wondered if it was going to break loose and disappear during the night. I knew at best I’d have lots of repair work to do on the gaps come morning time. It was a long night and I didn’t get much sleep, worrying about the boat and realizing my trip was probably about over…
Day 10: Once it was light enough, I went down to the shore to inspect my boat. It was a mess, but at least it was still there. The big waves during the night had pushed it ashore, knocked out a tremendous amount of cotton and filled the bottom with sand which came in through the gaps. I had a lot of work ahead of me.
Here you can see just how bad it was and the cost of not being able to get your boat of the waves during the night. The boat looked like a colander and would probably work about as well as one. I grabbed my cotton, my rock and my table knife (which I’ve been carrying with my cook set for months, I think this is the only time I’ve used it!) and set to work. With such a job ahead of me I was hoping some locals would show up and I could give them a few shillings to help out, but the only people who appeared was a group of children. I spent four and a half hours working on the boat and thought I’d done a pretty good job, but when I finally put it in the water if was clear I was no pro. I didn’t have any gushing fountains of water coming in, but I was still taking on a few gallons every ten or fifteen minutes and had to bail frequently. I was really getting tired of this damn boat.
Not far from where I’d camped there was a village I could see and I headed for it to see what it might have to offer. It appeared quite small, but once I got ashore and was greeted by the usual throngs of villagers, walking up the hill I saw just how big it was. As I’d hoped, it was Wampembe. Ok, maybe ‘big’ is the wrong term here, but compared to everything else around here it is big. There were dozens of the larger wood fishing boats, lots of metal roofs, a dirt road with a truck or two and I even saw a shop with a computer in it, for putting music on people’s cell phones.
I walked down the main drag and was led by a local boy to a shop where I could get a Fanta. It was 800 shillings, about 50 cents, and I was both shocked and thrilled to find out it was cold. A rare treat I needed.
On the way back to my boat, I bought some fried dough, some bananas, tomatoes, onions and some cookies, all things I hadn’t seen since leaving Kasanga 10 days before. It was especially exciting to get some fruit finally and once again I thought about the poor diets the locals out here subsist on.
I was heading towards the village of Kizumbi and the wind and waves again decided to come out in force quite suddenly. I saw the town and headed straight for it, coming across these fishermen on my way. With their sail up they were really cruising and were happy to show off some of their fish as I pulled out my camera. The next boat behind them wasn’t so lucky though because I saw it capsize just 100 meters from shore as it too attempted to manage to get ashore in the strong winds.
I fought my way to shore as well against wind and wave, arriving wet and tried to another large audience of curious villagers. The men helped me pull my boat ashore and much to my surprise (because they usually love it) when I pulled out my camera many of the kids began to run away in fear. No one around spoke English so again I tried to use my little bit of Swahili to explain myself and seemed to get the message across. I was lead to a house and told to wait. On one side of me I had about 35 kids staring at me, on the other side I had about 20 men staring at me. It was uncomfortable, so to ignore it and be as uninteresting as possible I pulled out my book and began to read, hoping some of them would get bored and go away.
After a few minutes of this I was greeted in excellent English by Alphonce (left) a large man with such massive hands I felt like a small child in comparison as we shook hands and introduced ourselves. It turned out he was the head teacher of the primary school and quickly organized a group of children to carry my things to his house. He then brought me to the village headman (right) to share my story and ask to stay (again, it’s really just a formality, I think they will always say yes). From there I bought Alphonce a soda at the little shop in town as a thank you and we later walked back to his home for the evening.
After bathing and setting up my things in the spare room in his house, we ate a typical Tanzanian dinner of ugalli and beans by lamplight and had a nice conversation before I called it an early night and went to bed. Once again, the fantastic Tanzanian hospitality shows itself and I was happy to have arrived in this town and met this man. I have had bad days out here (obviously…) but when I have a great day like this it makes it all worthwhile. Then again, I still knew I’d be ending my trip early and this internal conflict kept me up at night…
Day 11: Before leaving the room, I quickly ate some cereal and milk and packed my things, as Alphonce was outside with his students. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were doing here and I’d forgotten to ask, but some kind of exercise before the students cleaned the school yard of sticks and leafs from the nights wind, then they had class. I loaded my boat and set off despite the ominous clouds in distance.
Shortly after leaving town I realized I’d left my spare cotton in my boat (the bow had a sort of compartment for keeping it) overnight and someone had stolen it. Great. This was actually a big problem given how much I was having to do repairs, so I decided next village I’d have to pull in and buy another bundle.
The dark clouds to my north were getting closer and I knew it was only a matter of time. Then I heard the rain coming and suddenly found myself soaked to the core in about two minutes. The water was so still that when the fat African raindrops hit it looked like millions of clear marbles bouncing on a mirror, and surprisingly was one of the most beautiful scenes of the whole trip. I was soaked, but oh well, it wasn’t cold and there was no wind with it. I happened to be near some rocks that were a ways offshore and paddled to them to wait out the rain, as curious otters popped their little heads out of the water to check me out.
In desperate need of cotton (and with a very wet camera lens from the rains), I pulled into the very next town which happened to be the tiny village of Kisenga, consisting of a sandy beach about 100m wide between huge boulders. There were large numbers of boats both on the water and onshore, and hearing the pounding of work I knew I’d arrived in the perfect place.
Right away I was met by Daniel Assani Shabani, who was obviously not your average villager. I told him what I was doing out here and he in turn told me his own incredible story. He is from Burundi and his parents are Burundi and Tanzania, but fled the country when he was young during the war, ending up at a refugee camp all the way in Zambia where he completed secondary school. Once Burundi had calmed down he returned in search of his family and was able to reconnect with his father. He is currently studying engineering in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi and is focusing in telecommunications while at the same time owning two fishing boats here in Tanzania.
He acted as translator for me, bringing me to the headman where I left my bags for the time and quickly I had a group of men swarming my boat pounding in new cotton, of which I bought 1KG of (9,000 shillings for the ‘top quality’, 7,000 for the step below) and two bottles of oil (1,000 shillings a bottle) to soak the cotton in and improve its water-sealing abilities. It was then discovered I needed a board replaced on my boat and we found the local boat builder to do the work. He removed the bad section, and while working up a furious sweat that drenched his whole shirt, cut and installed the new section. As always, using no power tools or measurements. For this work, he charged me 5,000 shillings, or about $3.12. During this work, Daniel and I had tea and fried dough (which he even paid for, 600 shillings) and had a very interesting and educational conversation about life here on the lake, about Burundi, about marriage, education and many other subjects. Once the cotton work was finished on the boat the men asked for 15,000 but Daniel told me 10,000 was a fair price and so that’s what I paid. I thanked him for being so helpful and kind, and got his contact details with hopes to meet him in Bunrudi later in the month.
I thought after having a whole gang of boat guys ‘fixing’ my boat it would finally be somewhat watertight, but it was hardly better than when they had started, with water coming through at a fairly rapid rate. I don’t necessarily think they did a poor job, I really just thing the boat is a piece of junk… I paddled on for a while, stopping at some boulders to rest and have a swim, and then set off again.
At about 5pm, I decided to make camp and paddled into another group of massive boulders. Unsure if I’d actually be able to find a tent site I set off exploring and what I found was one of the most awesome places I’ve ever camped. I ended up setting my tent in the protected overhang of a boulder that was probably the size of a three-story apartment building and spent the evening climbing and exploring the caves and passages formed by the many other huge stones piled about the area.
Enjoying the fantastic campsite, I put on some music and cooked a delicious dinner of pasta and the tomato and onion I’d picked up in Wampembe. As I watched the fireflies and listened to the waves crash against the boulders around me once again thought about how for all the difficulties and frustrations I’ve experienced, this trip really has had some incredible moments. Once again, the battle in my head to keep going or end the trip raged on.
Day 12: Deciding to enjoy this special campsite, I slept in and had a particularly large breakfast before slowly packing up and walking to my boat. What I found was this, my boat completely submerged in water. Even after paying for the whole boat to be redone with cotton, replacing a board, buying the ‘good’ cotton and buying the oil to soak it in, I still didn’t have a decent boat. Although I can’t say I was terribly surprised, I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I bailed the boat out, tried to plug some of the bigger leaks and set off.
It must have been a particularly good day for sailing, because I saw more sails up on this day out in the middle of the lake than I’d seen on any previous day. The wind was having the opposite effect on me however, because it made it a particularly bad day for paddling. Wind and wave seemed to be going in every direction at once where I was, leading me to move in every direction except for forward. At times I basically just sat there, giving up any hope of forward progress as I bounced up and down, left and right, forwards and backwards in uncomfortable and awkward motions, nearly unable to move where I was trying to go. At this point I reached beyond ‘frustrated’ and honestly got just plain mad (something that almost never happens to me) until conditions improved a while later.
I saw a town in the distance, Ninde, one that seemed to have lots of metal roofs which is usually a good sign, and thought maybe I’d be able to sell my boat to someone there and move on my motor boat. I was done. Then and there I decided I’d had enough of this trip. It was just going too slowly to be able to finish and I’d been having far too much trouble with this damn boat of mine.
Ninde turned out to be a big disappointment, but I probably should have expected that. I did find a Fanta to drink which raised my spirits a bit, but the town had nothing else to offer other than some dried fish laying in the dirt and a few bars of soap. I wasn’t going to find any buyers here, that much was obvious. Oh well, I’d decided that Kipili would be the final end of the trip, and looking at the map knew baring any boat disasters or bad weather (then again, both of those had high chances of happening…) I could be in Kipili in two days. I climbed back in my horribly leaky boat and continued to paddle north.
Again, I paddled until about 5pm and found a small beach to make camp. My hands and wrists were very sore from the days paddle and they needed a rest as much or more than anything. I found myself in another beautiful little spot on the shore of this amazing lake and after setting up my tent and having a swim, I laid down with my book for a while before cooking dinner and going to sleep.
Day 13: I awoke to a light rain, but stopped by around 7:15am. Hoping to let my tent dry out before packing it away I laid it out and waited a while, but eventually grew impatient and packed it up wet and set off. The rain picked up again as I was paddling, but just a light drizzle and not enough to affect me or slow me down in any way.
Eventually the rain stopped and despite a layer of clouds hanging low in the sky visibility was excellent. Out here you can see it nearly every day, but todays view across the lake at the Congo was particularly good (I only wish I had a better camera to really show it). For some reason while I was seldom rained on where I was (only twice in 14 days), I’d frequently see storms on the Congo side. It seemed like one more curse on the notoriously troubled African nation, and whenever I heard thunder from that side, I couldn’t help but imagine it as the exploding bombs of some horrible and on-going conflict.
At this point conditions were pretty good and I felt like I was making solid progress. I remember thinking if every day paddling was this good and productive, I’d actually be able to complete this trip and I’d even enjoy the whole thing! I began what was a nearly two hour crossing with a slight headwind but was still moving well. However, as I neared the shore again the wind picked up and picked up with a vengeance. I was probably only 500m from the shore, where once again as a credit to my good luck I saw a small beach that was protected from the worst of the wind and the waves where I’d be able to stop at. But first I actually had to make it that last 500m. Once again I found myself struggling to make any progress at all and wondered if I’d be able to make it to shore. If not, I’d be pushed and blown about 1km south, something I desperately wanted to avoid. I was working literally as hard as I could trying to reach shore, and when I only had 50m to go I still wasn’t sure I’d be able to reach it as the weather was still getting stronger. Then my plastic rope ‘oar lock’ broke under the strain, and I found myself battling the strongest weather I’d faced yet, single-paddle canoe style, with a leaky boat that probably had 15 or 20 gallons of water in it. I could only laugh and keep fighting.
Eventually I did make it to shore, tied off my boat and took a few minutes to rest before exploring my current location and evaluating my current situation. Where I found myself was at yet another stunning, fantasy-like, boulder-strewn yellow sand beach. Looking to the north where the weather tends to come from out here, and looking across the white-cap filled lake I knew this storm wasn’t stopping any time soon. It wasn’t even 1pm, but I knew my only option was to prepare for a storm and wait it out. I was starving and since it was lunch time and I’d already made camp, for the first time in two weeks I cooked myself a hot lunch, something very satisfying on a day such as this.
Even SPF 50 is no match for hours in the African sun.
It began to rain, so I spent the afternoon in my tent, finishing The Africa House, an excellent book by Christine Lamb about an English estate in northern Zambia I rode through on my bike trip through that country. It is a book that does a surprisingly good job I think of explaining aspects of both the black and the white perspective of life in Africa, provides a great history lesson on both Zambia and certain aspects of colonialism, and made all the more interesting by the fact I’d been there. With the last book I was carrying finished (I had a thick trilogy set and this one) I killed time cooking an especially good dinner with the last of my ‘good’ food and listening to the waves. Knowing now that I was going to be ending my paddle in the next day or two, I took out my Africa guidebook and realized that I may actually be able to do a full overland Cape-to-Cairo like I’d originally come here for. The only potential hang-ups right now are the security situation in Kenya with the upcoming elections, if I can actually get a visa for Sudan, and if Egypt will let me enter overland from Sudan rather than flying into Cairo. Ok, so there are some big issues still to contend with, haha, but I’m taking the optimistic perspective on the whole thing.
Day 14: I woke again to a light rain and laid in my tent a while hoping it would stop. It didn’t, so I said ‘Screw it, I’m almost to Kipili where I’m stopping anyways. I packed my things and examined my boat before loading my bags. It was a mess, with water coming in from nearly everywhere. I spent a few minutes trying to patch it up before just giving up and deciding to just bail continuously on my way to Kipili. I’d thought I was closer to Kipili than I actually was, so the day seemed to drag on forever as I passed yet more tiny fishing villages.
Around 2pm I saw cell phone towers in the distance and let out a sign of relief that I was in sight of the (new) finish line. The town lies behind a series of islands, so I turned in, away from the open lake to bring this trip to a close. The last few KM really dragged on and I was having to bail huge amounts of water constantly. It wasn’t until nearly 5pm that I arrived in Kipili and was surprised to see along with the cell towers, a handful of modern-ish buildings and a few modern fiberglass and metal boats, literally the first I’d seen in two weeks.
I paddled to a mostly submerged concrete dock that had a few boats tied to it and met Thomas (in the black shirt), who offered to help me out. First we walked into town (which was in fact very small and undeveloped, but still had more than everywhere else I’ve been thus far) and to his shop where I got a snack, and then we paddled a few minutes to a place in town where I could get a room.
The place I ended up at is on the edge of town, Avia (or something, there is no sign and I keep forgetting the name. People call it ‘the brothers’) and is some sort of religious mission, although you can buy beer and apparently they are willing to rent rooms by the hour…. yah. I’m paying 15,000 a night, a little more than $9, and for that I get a room with two beds, mosquito nets, a small table and a western-style toilet and cold shower. Most nights there is a few hours of electricity, provided by a car battery and an inverter which is sufficient for my needs.
I join the others for dinner each night, 3,500 shillings and each night it has been rice and fish, though the first night there was also ugalli and beans. It is simple but good food, a solid African meal. After dinner I retire to my room to read, write and relax, all things I need after my two week paddle journey.
So the eternal travelers question: what next? Well, I’m enjoying my time here in Kipili, bouncing between eating dinner and sleeping at…. that one place… and going to Lake Shore Lodge (an exceptionally nice place) for breakfast, electricity, internet and getting some writing done. I’m still trying to sell my boat and offload a few other supplies I no longer need, then I hope to take local motor boats the rest of the way up the lake. I will need to stop in Kigoma, the northwest corner of Tanzania, to get my visa for Burundi, then I hope to enter Burundi via the lake as well and do the entire distance by water, even if most of it is by motor. Burundi and Rwanda are both tiny countries and next on my list, they may not take long to travel through but they again maybe I’ll find something worth hanging around for. Bottom line is I’m itching to get moving again and cover some ground. I think Uganda and Ethiopia will be two exceptional countries to visit, as will be Sudan if I can actually get in. Big plans and a long ways to go still. Stick around.