Words and pictures by Sheelah Turner and Oyvind Helgerud.
It frequently amazes me how crossing an imaginary line in the sand – a border – can lead to such change. Tanzania, even in this far-flung south-western corner, starts offering the grasslands, plains and wildlife depicted in numerous documentaries of the region. The locals are also noticeably more friendly than we experienced in Zambia – there are enthusiastic waves accompanied by wide grins and very few hands outstretched for money or sweets. But then again, this is not the touristy part of Tanzania. We’re heading up the western side of the country, far from the island paradise of Zanzibar, or the wildlife of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.
It is already lunch time when we finish the border crossing formalities at Kasesya; we have encountered a time change we hadn’t anticipated – clocks going forwards an hour from Zambia. Our original plan was to head straight to Sumbawanga, the first major town on the national road running north along this western side of the country, but we have been told about a lodge on the shore of Lake Tanganyika at a small port called Kasanga. There is no accommodation shown on our paper map or GPS, but, feeling adventurous, we adjust our course for a night at the lake.
The roads on this side of Tanzania are most commonly gravel, dust and dirt, in varying degrees of repair. As we drive through in the dry season, they are tolerable to drive, but I am sure that with a few heavy rainfalls, they’d be more challenging. However, the Chinese are laying tar at a rapid rate, so travel in this area might very soon be smoother and easier. On our way to Kasanga, we pass a Cruiser parked on the roadside – packed with six German tourists and their Tanzanian driver. When we stop, they helpfully tell us that there is indeed camping in Kasanga, at Liembe Beach Lodge – and also that they are going to Kalambo Falls. We decide to join them.
At the last village before the falls, we stop at the ‘control post’ where we need to make a contribution (receipted) to the community. The impressive Kalambo Falls, technically in Tanzania, is very close to the Zambian border. The water tumbles 235 m in a single drop, making these falls amongst the highest (uninterrupted) in Africa. The river, which has carved a deep gorge, is narrow as it approaches the falls, and surprisingly gentle. The locals – from both Zambia and Tanzania – use this point to cross both ways, under the pretext of bathing in the river.
We are tired from a long day on the road and the Germans are also fatigued, so together we set off back to the lake. We weave our way on the dusty roads through a few small villages where the locals are surprised to see us: cries of mlungu ring out at regular intervals. As we head down the last hill towards the lake, we watch the sun set into Lake Tanganyika –a spectacular end to the day.
Liembe Beach Lodge does offer camping, in addition to small chalets and permanent tents. The campsite is extremely sandy, an indication that very few 4×4 vehicles visit here. We elect to set up our camping spot on the edge of the lake, beside the shore path the locals use to walk to Kasanga. Occasionally during the night we hear the quiet flip-flop-flip-flop of people walking the path. At some point during the night, the gentle lap-lap of the small waves on the shore disappears, and we wake to an almost completely still lake.
We return to the main road the same way we came in, passing through the same villages, on the same dusty gravel roads. However, this time around we are in a mood to appreciate the pretty scenery – sections of grasslands and hills. This road from the coast is also due to be upgraded – the Chinese providing the expertise, the Americans the funding. The plan is to have a tar road from the port town of Kasanga to Sumbawanga, which will ultimately link up to the existing tar road to Dar es Salaam.
After four hours of bumping along the dirt roads, we reach Sumbawanga, one of the main towns in the region. Unfortunately it is a public holiday – the end of Ramadan– so most places are closed. We manage to draw money and refuel before reaching our accommodation for the night at the Moravian Church Conference Centre. A popular stop for travellers, it’s clean, functional, and has a restaurant. As we’ve already discovered, in Tanzania you need to keep asking and confirming to ensure that you get what you want at a price you’re happy with. We are offered a double room with en-suite bathroom, but end up with a twin room and shared bathroom (we are the only people on the floor) for half the price! And, surprisingly, it is also half the price we paid for camping the night before.
That afternoon, for the first time in a month, we enjoy the luxury of a real bed and walls. We relax and read our books and snooze until dinner time, after which we collapse into bed for an early night.
We leave Sumbawanga after a good night’s sleep. It promises to be another rough day on the road: dust, dust and more dust. The road we use, while the new road is being built, is the ox track on the side of the old road. It’s only slightly improved to ensure that trucks and buses can use it too. Don’t forget that this is a national road and the main artery on this western side of the country…
The track is bumpy, corrugated, and – in places – covered with a fine talcum-like powder. Very tiring driving. The buses and trucks using it hurtle towards us at 80 – 90 km/h; all we can do is pull off the road and stop, then wait for the big plume of dust enveloping us to settle before we can continue. About two hours later, we reach the turn-off towards Kipili; we can almost smell the lake. The first stretch of road is the same as the national road – without the kamikaze buses and trucks – but after the turn-off, we start down the best road we’ve driven so far in Tanzania. Hard gravel, almost as good as Namibia’s. A little corrugation here and there, but all-in-all a very pleasant 90-minute cruise down to the lake. We’re met at Kipili by Chris and Louise. The lodge and chalets are white with perfect thatched roofs, and there’s a carport covered in pink and white bougainvillea flowers. Settled in at the campsite, we do laundry, wipe down the outside of the Cruiser, and relax a little before heading down to the beach for our first swim in a long time. The water is cold at first, but comfortable once we’ve adjusted. Our day ends with sundowners on the terrace. The next day we relax, reading our books and enjoying another swim in the lake, between doing more laundry and cleaning the inside of the Cruiser.