Words and pictures by Jannes Buys.
Palm trees danced lazily in the afternoon breeze; coarse sand scrunched underneath my feet as shallow waves broke around my ankles. A drop of moisture languidly traced the outlines of the bottle of ginger ale I was holding. I took a sip of the ice cold drink and couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop the satisfied hum coming from my throat. The sun warmed my upturned face and I couldn’t help smiling at the immense feeling of satisfaction I was experiencing at that very moment. Welcome to Paradise.
Granted, this piece of paradise was called prison beach. No, I was not in prison. Neither was I on the island of Zanzibar. Or any other island, for that matter. I was standing on a spot that could easily be called one of the most dangerous places on earth – just to my west was the rebel-controlled eastern boundary of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the southern boundary of the war-torn Burundi was but a few miles north, and the untamed wilderness of western Tanzania lay outstretched behind me.
I was standing on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Of all the great lakes of Africa, Tanganyika has the most allure. With its storming winds, sudden thunderstorms, and dramatic surrounds landscapes – it’s as inhospitable as it is beautiful.
On both its eastern and western shores, mountains stand tall, proud guardians of the lake’s secrets. Travel across these mountains is all but impossible, and the local fishermen’s only connection with the outside world is the fortnightly steam ferry which calls on most villages during its north-south journey.
The waters of the lake are infested with mythical monsters ranging from the absurd to the downright scary. The Goliath Tigerfish (the much bigger, and a whole lot scarier, cousin of the tigerfish found farther south) roams these waters with terrifying purpose: reports of bites that rival that of the ocean’s deadliest predators aren’t uncommon, children and livestock that have wandered into the shallows have reportedly been taken.
Crocodiles are another threat of mythical status to the fishermen and their families. Stories of grown men taken from their fishing dhows at night are told to any that will listen.
Then of course, there are the myths that scare even the storytellers so much that they would rather not tell you about these magnificent man-eaters at all. To the fishermen and their families surviving on these beautiful shores, the lake is both the source of their survival, as well as a threat to the very survival it provides, always waiting for the opportune moment to pull yet another careless victim into its dark maul…
All these thoughts ran through my mind as I sat in the glorious sunlight absorbed in the wonderful scenery around me. I was, as I’ve said, at prison beach, where there is a bar of the same name, on the outskirts of Kigoma. The name came from the old prison that was right next to this particular beach, and apparently it still housed some wrongdoers.
I was booked into the cheapest accommodation I could find, my room consisted of a cement cell with a bare mattress and a torn mosquito net. The communal bathrooms were clean; although, when showering, you had to stand over the squatting toilet. I’m not sure about the hygiene, but, at US$3 per night, what could you expect?
However, the food in the town was good and very cheap, and at this late stage of my journey I didn’t mind. I was already 30 pounds lighter than when I’d started, and I didn’t ask questions about the food anymore; just accepted whatever came my way. In my pocket I also had a first class ticket for the legendary MV Liemba, the 100-year-old steam ferry that initially came to the lake as a German warship, was then sunk, and then recovered by the British – who turned it into a cargo ship. It later sank again due to neglect, before being recovered for the second time – this time to fulfil a role as passenger and cargo ferry for the fishermen along the lake shores which are unreachable by land.
The journey south to Zambia would be roughly 600 kilometres; and, if all went as planned, which is a rare thing in Africa, would take 48 hours. However, time was not the worry on my mind. Over the last day or so, the ferry had been packed to the rafters with anything from 100 kg bags of cichlids – the local fish caught by most fishermen – to a motor vehicle complete with a trailer packed with whatever the owners had thought to bring along. There were also 12 first class cabins situated on the upper deck, sleeping two people; double that number of second class cabins, which sleep four people on the first deck; and innumerable third-class tickets, which tickets were for seating room only. Along the way, we would ’dock’ at 18 different towns before reaching Mpulungu, the town on the Zambian lakeshores.