About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Monday, August 16, 2010

Time Travel on the Lake Tanganyika Ferry

It seemed like a good plan. Take a 12-hour bus ride from Nairobi in Kenya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and then ride a train for three days to Kigoma on the shore of Lake Tanganyika where we would catch the twice-monthly ferry to Zambia.
The first part of the plan worked like a charm. The bus ride was long (15 hours instead of 12), bumpy, and dusty but we arrived in Dar in one piece - always something to celebrate when traveling by public transport in the developing world. The next morning found us at the train station to book a sleeper only to find that the train would not be running any time soon due to a very specific reason, “many problems.” We had to be in Kigoma by the 27th to catch the ferry so we were suddenly scrambling to find another way to get there on time. Days and days on buses on horrible roads driven by sleep deprived men intent on passing on blind curves at unsafe speeds would be our least favorite option. Luckily, Air Tanzania, the only airline flying to Kigoma, had two seats left on the only flight with availability that week. We had a few days to kill in Dar but that was fine by us because Dar es Salaam is one of our favorite African cities. Even though it’s big, it manages to retain a friendly vibe. We even felt comfortable walking around at night.

The best part about Dar (besides Sunday Brunch at the Movenpick Hotel) was that we ran into Jo and Will whom we last saw two years ago in Cape Town. Scott was on his way to the Angola embassy to inquire about visas in case we had time to travel there before our trip ended. For whatever reason he decided to stop in at the City Supermarket shopping center on the way.

Walking through the arcade he heard, “Scott!” It was Jo, the awesome, bubbly, enthusiastic photographer who ran the photo safari we did two years ago and Will the driver was with her. “What a small world!” we said later to Will after hugs all around. (Weeks later in the garden of a small hotel in Petauke, Zambia we would meet and share a few beers with a Peace Corps volunteer who had taught my nephew Colin at Mitty High School in San Jose. “What a small world!” we all said. I love it when we connect with friends –Anne Marie, Alex, Maria, Conner…– at the oddest times in the oddest places- and it happens more often than I ever thought it would.)

The flight to Kigoma was wonderful. We had seats 1 and 2 on a 20-seat propeller plane - and a small plane is the only way to fly in Africa. You can make out people in the bomas below and sometimes, even spot animals. And, just like in the good old days, some kids on board got to meet the captain and co pilot in the cockpit during flight. We landed on a gravel runway and waited for our luggage in a baggage claim area that consisted of one bench and a plywood shelf. One by one, baggage was placed on the shelf while an airline worker called out the person’s name on the baggage claim.

After collecting our backpacks we walked outside to find a taxi so we could get to the ferry office in time to pay for our cabin and find a place to stay for the night. But, for the first time ever in all our travels, there were no taxis and no touts clamoring for our business. We contemplated walking to town when a well-dressed man, the manager of the Lake Tanganyika Lodge, walked up to us and asked if we needed help. Sam was picking up an American couple on tour and, after we explained that we needed to get to the ferry office as soon as possible, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. “Allow me to drive you to my hotel via the ferry office. If you like my hotel, please stay. If not, you will have a free ride into town.” He nodded towards the couple waiting in the hotel van. “On the way, we will stop at the place where Stanley met Livingston on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.” That was fine by us!

The spot where Stanley first encountered Livingston is marked with a plaque under a mango tree, though the lake has receded considerably from the spot where first they made contact. Global warming, I presume? There is also a small museum with photos and drawings depicting Livingston’s life in Africa. We sat in the shade under the mango tree while a young man told us the story of Livingston; how he came to Africa to explore, fight slavery, bring Christianity, how he died in Africa and how it took his two faithful servants over a year to carry his body back to England.

It was an interesting lecture but it was being told almost in real time, and we were very anxious to get to town to secure our cabin on the ferry. Since the ferry operates only twice a month we either had to secure passage on the ferry leaving the next day or we would be forced to face four grueling days on trucks and bush taxis to get where we needed to be in Zambia.
Scott stood up and with a big smile said, “Livingston, what a guy!” putting a period on the lecture and heading to the mini van.

When we arrived at the ferry office, we were told that they had given away our cabin. After much discussion, they decided to put us in the family cabin, which is the only cabin on board with it’s own toilet, so that was fine by us! Then Sam said that if we stayed at his hotel he would not only grant us a late check out, he would transport us back to the ferry the next afternoon in time for the scheduled 3pm departure. He drove us to his hotel, which was just a short distance from where the MV Liemba was docked and the Lake Tanganyika Lodge hotel was beautiful so that was fine by us. We changed into swimsuits, ordered beers, and dove into the sparkling clean pool fronting the lake. The American couple, it turned out, was on their first trip to Africa and on their honeymoon. We toasted both their decisions and watched the sun go down over the lake together.

The MV Liemba is the world’s oldest continuously operating passenger ferry ship in the world and, Lake Tanganyika, bordered by Tanzania, The Congo, Burundi, and Zambia, is the longest lake in the world. Those two facts alone were enough to make us want to make the 3-day, 2-night trip south to the shores of Zambia. But the Liemba has an interesting and complicated history making it all the more enticing. It was built in Germany in 1912 and, in parts, was brought to Africa to be used as a cargo ship. During WWII it was enlisted into service as a German military expedition ship against the Belgians in the Congo, and the British in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Belgians sunk it. Later the Germans raised it, took it to Kigoma and, after greasing the engine, deliberately sunk it again. (The story of the MV Liemba was the inspiration for the movie The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn sink the German cargo ship.) After the war, the British raised it and began using it as a cargo and passenger ferry, and that is still what it is being used for today. The captain, crew, and many of the passengers appreciate the age of the ship and treat her with the respect she deserves.

But, really, a hundred-year-old ship? It couldn’t have been that great. It was! In 1970, the Danes provided a grant to refurbish it, the engine was changed from coal to diesel and the rotted out berths and benches were replaced. But the best part of being on the Lake Tanganyika ferry was the feeling of traveling back in time.

All along the shores of Lake Tanganyika are villages so remote there isn’t a single road leading to them. Just as it was hundreds of years ago, the lake is their lifeline to the outside world. We discovered this firsthand at 10 pm the first night when incredible shouting coupled with a slowing of the engine woke us. Outside our cabin we looked into the darkness to see ten leaky wooden boats powered by Yamaha outboards and a few dug out canoes (powered by oar) jam-packed with humanity and cargo all clamoring to get on board at once. At the same time from third class two decks below, an equivalent number of people and cargo were trying to get off the ferry and onto the little boats. Bananas, pineapples, sacks of cotton and rice, and mattresses, a lot of mattresses, were being thrown either up onto the ferry cargo deck or down into the wooden boats. Those who carried only a suitcase or sack frantically climbed up the sides of the ferry to our deck and made their way quickly downstairs before the crew could catch them. That sight and the fact that there was so much screaming had me worried at first that we were being hijacked (boat jacked?). You know how much I like pirates but this was a little unsettling. “Holy Crap!” I said to Scott as we watched organized chaos in action. It was like that for about half an hour. Then the wooden boats and dug out canoes laden with new passengers and cargo headed for shore and all was instantly quiet on the ship. Mothers on the cargo deck went back to breast-feeding their babies, passengers who had cabins retired to their bunks and everyone else (most of the 500 on board) found a little space between pineapples and bananas and 5-gallon jerry cans of palm oil on deck to sleep.

This same scenario was repeated every two or four hours over the three-day passage whenever we neared a village. If we were asleep, we got up to watch the spectacle. If it was during the day we walked around the top deck taking photos. It gave new meaning to the term ‘on board entertainment’. Most of the shouting came from the wooden transport boats as they approached the ferry at ramming speed. They get paid not only per passenger but also per piece of cargo so they raced to get alongside the ferry to be first because he who gets there first and shouts the loudest gets the most. We watched quite a tug of war between two boatmen over 3 plastic chairs. Unbelievably, bobbing amongst the transport boats were women in smaller boats calmly selling fish and fried bread to passengers on the ferry, even in the middle of the night. We didn’t get much sleep those two nights on the Liemba due to all the commotion but it was a window into the past. The people who live along Lake Tanganyika rely on the twice monthly visits of the cargo ferry ship for food and for transport just the way they have for a hundred years.

There were a handful of other western travelers on board most, as we were, in first class cabins. The beer was cold and the food in the dining lounge was good. Yes, there were cockroaches and probably a rat or two but there was plenty of interesting conversation. If you are meeting a westerner for the first time on the Lake Tanganyika ferry chances are they are well traveled and have a story to tell and our fellow passengers did not disappoint. A Dutch doctor had just finished his internship at a clinic in a small village in Tanzania. He was visibly shaken by what he had seen in the village, especially the deaths and suffering and amputations that could have avoided with proper medical care. He said the most upsetting thing was that people waited too long to see a doctor, choosing first to use the witch doctor or use herbs that often made things worse. What most upset him was watching the labor of girls too physically young to even be having children suffer horribly because of herbs they had taken to make the baby come faster. He could barely talk about his experience. He even had to leave the village a little earlier than planned, “I just had to get out of there”, he said emphatically.

Then there was the uber enthusiastic German geography teacher who had to pay a $50 fine for taking photos of the harbor in Kigoma and told us the story of the time he was nearly arrested for the photos he took in Cuba. But his students are sure learning a lot! An English couple in Africa for a year, and a well-traveled French-Chinese couple rounded out the table nicely. They all got off in Tanzania, one stop before we did to see the second highest waterfall in Africa, a four-hour hike in and out. We wished we could have fit it in to our itinerary. “Next time”, Scott said. We watched them disembark and leave the dock on the only transport around. In the back of a huge lumbering lorry they were packed like sardines with, again, pineapples, bananas, and mattresses but also bicycles and sacks and sacks of something. Suddenly we were the only two mzungus (white foreigners) left on the ferry, which is why my next update is titled, Avoiding Arrest on Drug Trafficking Charges at the Zambian Border.

Petauke, Zambia

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