Tanzania: No sailing in the wilderness

What is Tanganyika plus Zanzibar? The answer, Tanzania, is quite logical, especially if you consider that the country was created when the two states unified in 1964. You might find it slightly trickier to guess what the name Tanganyika means in Swahili. It is composed by tanga (=”sail”) and nyika (=”wilderness”, ”uninhabited plains”), forming the phrase ”sail in the wilderness”.

Tanzania was indeed pretty wild and remote. But obviously, we didn’t sail in the wilderness. We cycled, although we were ready to give up a great stretch in favour of what could have been an unforgettable ferry ride. I’m soon going to tell you why it didn’t, but let me first start where I ended the story last time: in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.

Sam changing his old, cracked rim towards a fancier one.

After spending three well needed days off in Kigali it was time for us to leave Mike and Jenna’s lovely house and head towards Tanzania. Sam’s bike was ready to rock the road again, with a brand new 9-speed chain (amazingly brought from Canada by Mike’s dad) and a ”new” (second-hand) rim that replaced his previous cracked one. My bike, for those who wonder, is still going strong without any real issues (good job, Small Change). So, on Jan 27th, after a lazy morning with banana pancake breakfast we set off again. Rwanda might be a small country, but its hills are everything but tiny. After cycling through a part of the country you easily understand why Rwanda is sometimes called ”the country of a thousand hills”. Additionally, I would like to call it ”the country of a million cyclists”. Well, with one remark: that cycling seems to be exclusively for 50 percent of the people. We didn’t see one single woman on a bicycle during our week in Rwanda.

A well needed break from the hills.

With our gentle pace it took us nearly two days to to reach the border post at the town Rusuma. To get the Tanzanian visa at the immigration office was ridiculously easy. All we had to do was handing over our passports and 50 USD each to the officer, wait for five minutes and then we were ready to enter Tanzania.

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The first morning in Tanzania, rolling slow and steady on the tarmac.

The first day in Tanzania we started off as real sportsmen: with a long, steep climb. Coming from Rwanda, where every square meter of land seemed to be either populated or cultivated, the contrast was clear. As I’ve already stated, the surroundings were now wild and remote, which we enjoyed a lot. Most of the people that we meet are really lovely and encouraging, and even if many locals (understandably) laugh at us and shout ”muzungu, muzungu”! they do it in a friendly way. Still, I think you all understand that sometimes just being alone with your sweat and the scenic views is unbeatable.

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One of the villages on the way to Kigoma.


And there was not much going on on our road. For the first 100 km or so we rolled on a paved ”highway”, but then the tarmac and us went separate ways. The highway continued southeast to Dar Es Salaam and we took a turnoff direction southwest towards the world’s longest freshwater lake, Lake Tanganyika. Yes, besides referring to the Tanzanian mainland, Tanganyika is the name of this huge lake located in between Tanzania and The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Our road was a 700 km long dirt track going parallel to the lake, but about 60-90 km inland. This road had it all: national parks, hills, mud, sand and big rocks. I would have nothing to say about the road condition if it was not for the rain. As long as it’s dry everything is perfectly fine, but after a couple of wet hours the road can easily turn into a muddy mess. Or a shallow river.

Slightly muddy.


After a few days on the dirt track we started to get a bit tired and impatient to move on faster. We had read about this old ferry running across the lake Tanyanika, going from the town Kigoma in northwestern Tanzania and all the way down to Mpulungu in Zambia. Knowing that this is the oldest passenger ferry still in use, we found that being an excuse good enough to allow ourselves to exchange cycling for a ferry ride for a while. I mean, we’re not doing this to try breaking any record anyway – if that was the case we would probably have failed even before we had started.

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At least we were better off than the poor truck drivers.


There was only one problem with this ferry: we didn’t know when it was leaving. And nobody else seemed to have any clue either – not in the coach booking offices nor the hotels in the neighbouring town Kasulu. We even met an Austrian couple travelling in a land rover, who had been at the ferry port in Kigoma and asked the staff there without getting any clear answer. According to an rarely updated website it was supposed to leave every second Wednesday, but it didn’t say what week. Since we really wanted to get on that ferry we simply decided to cycle to Kigoma and hope for the best. We arrived there in the morning on Wednesday the 2nd. Obviously, there was no ferry this week. But we got a swim in the lake instead, which was not too bad since the water was all clear and almost turquoise. Lake Tanganyika is actually the world’s second deepest freshwater lake, so it’s cleanness is quite natural.

After the swim we went to the train station and got tickets for the town Uvinza the following morning. Going to Kigoma had been a 90 km detour (direction south-southwest), so we took the train back to the mainroad (direction south-southeast) without feeling like we had been cheating too much. And the train ride was a quite interesting experience in itself as well.

The train station in Kigoma.

When leaving Uvinza we had about one more week of cycling before reaching the Zambian border. We crossed some lovely and peaceful forest areas where we had to climb up to around 2000 m above sea level again. On our way was the Katavi National Park, which we had been looking forward to a lot. Well there, we ended up rushing  through without seeing any biggies at all. We had been told by a ranger that the road is a hippo highway and that there are lions walking close to the road nighttime. He also warned us for elephants and said that we had to get out of the park before nighttime. Besides, we had problems focusing on anything else than the horrible black flies that kept biting us. Despite the pretty and lush surroundings, we found the park quite hostile.

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No idea of what these yellow flowered trees are called, but they smell lovely (remarkably better than dead animals at the side of the road).

When writing this, we have just arrived in Mbala in Zambia. We stopped early yesterday to have a little rest and wash the mud off our bikes. Now we are namely happily reunited with the tarmac that will be with us the whole way to Lusaka and probably to Botswana as well. Well, I guess it’s time to hit the road again!

Take care!