East Africa

Summer 2007

Part 6: Western Tanzania

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Sunday August 26th (day 11): Kigoma

We arrived on Saturday evening and found that the hotel we were aiming for was being reconstructed. A very long walk took us to another hotel out of town but right by the beach.

Finding a way out

We'd only come to Kigoma to take a train to Dodoma in central Tanzania, a 22 hour ride that would give us an occasion to see much of the Tanzanian landscape. From there we'd take a long bus ride to Arusha to start our safari. A very long stage of our trip, but that was the price we'd decided to pay for the kick pleasure of traveling counter-clockwise around Lake Victoria through Burundi.

So in the early morning we headed to Kigoma's train station to get us some tickets. As it turned out, the online schedule I'd found before the trip was completely wrong and the next train was two days later. Worse than that, they wouldn't sell us tickets for that train but only for a train more than a week later. Waiting that long was not an option, so we did a lot of arguing, but to no avail. It seemed like we were stuck in Kigoma.

The train station lies in the center of Kigoma, by an arm of lake Tanganyika. It was built by the Germans during colonial times. View along the tracks from Kigoma's train station.

So we had to look for an alternative. The only other way to get from Kigoma to Arusha is by air, so we headed to the office of Precision air, the only company that flies on Kigoma. They had flights to Arusha through Dar-es-Salaam but they were expensive and the first available seats would be several days later, so this was still very bad.

Having a self-made breakfast on a street in Kigoma while considering our options.

We knew there were sometimes chartered flight out of Kigoma straight to Arusha. It was a long shot, but we took a taxi to the luxurious Kigoma Hilltop Hotel outside of town to find out more about these chartered flights. An Indian guy runs a travel agency there and told us there was a plane doing a continuous circular city-to-city tour around the region. He'd call to find out where the plane was right now and if and when it could take us from Kigoma to Arusha. Meanwhile we admired the hotel's swimming pools and had a snack.

Having a fruit salad in the Kigoma Hilltop Hotel while waiting for information on the plane.

It turned out we'd have to basically charter the whole plane ourselves and pay some 450$ each. We might have considered it to save us from losing almost a week in this place, but we'd have to wait a while for this plane as well.

The Indian guy then asked us why we didn't just take a bus to Mwanza and continue to Arusha from there. The LP said a bus ride to Mwanza would take at least 20 hours, but he said there was a new road and it only took 12 hours now. From Mwanza it would still be a long way to Arusha, but at least we'd be on the move. So we took a taxi to the bus company's office and bought a ticket for the 5:30am bus next morning.

In a street near the bus station we ran into a political rally, which featured two guys rapping, very strange.

Political manifestation on the street.


With our escape route finally arranged we headed to the fishing village of Kibirizi, just north of Kigoma. The boats pull in in the morning so we didn't see much action, but it was still a nice place to wander around.

Kibirizi Kibirizi Kibirizi
Kibirizi Loading a boat Boat repair

While we saw no fishing, we did see lots of tiny little scrawny fish drying in the sun, a glittering sight.

Fish drying in the sun Whiping dead fish around
Fresh fish on the ground Danny wandering among the fish

Some more sights around the village...

The market was closed already Kids Pool table


In the late afternoon we relaxed on the beach behind our hotel until sunset and got to swim in lake Tanganyika for a second time (after Bujumbura).

Playa Kigoma Locals enjoying the beach in Kigoma The setting sun in Kigoma

Since our bus was leaving on the other side of Kigoma next morning at 5:30am, we'd booked another hotel room there so after dinner we went there.

Monday August 27th (day 12): Kigoma to Mwanza

We woke up at 4am to be at the bus at 5am. Danny discovered his whole back was full of flee bites from the mattress, it looked very nasty (can't find the pic right now).

The shabby old bus left in the dark at 6am. Instead of 12 hours it would take 17 hours to get to Mwanza, and the ride was gruesome. The bus was packed, with three people on every bench (where you'd have two people normally) and as many people standing up in the middle as could be squeezed inside. If the ride was hell for us, it must have been a lot worse still for those people, though most of them didn't make the whole trip.

Our bus to Mwanza Inside the bus

Half of the time we were driving over dirt roads that made the bus vibrate violently, and every few minutes a hole in the road made us jump out of our seats - I literally hit the luggage rack above with my head several times and started holding one hand up to protect myself. Meanwhile I was still protecting the fragile dream catcher from Rwanda on my lap.

An even stretch of the dirt road We were sitting near the back which probably didn't help when we hit holes in the road. Danny posing on his seat in the bus during a stop. The back of his seat fell out every time we hit a hole in the ground, so he was cursing half the way to Mwanza.

Contrary to what you'd expect the bus was going full speed all the time. Most vehicles that we drive in Europe would have been torn apart during a ride like this, but this old bus had no problem with it. Here's a movie of what it was like...

These pictures made during the ride show some Tanzanian roadside scenery.

Tanzanian village A lovely tree Guys sitting in the remains of a deceased truck

Near noon we drove through a town and at a bus station made one of only a very few stops. Since we had no idea how long these stops would last, only one of us got out of the bus each time for a toilet break so the other could try to stop the bus if it drove away. Which would be hard considering it took minutes just to squeeze through all the people to get to the front of the bus.

Driving into a town Some repair going on at the bus stop
A Tanzanian boy pulling a toy car Here's me paying to use a toilet

Getting back on the bus proved quite hard as well since a small crowd of people were trying to get on it, trying to make some extra place by pulling and pushing. I just waved my ticket over my head with one hand and fought my way through the people with the other.

At 7pm we arrived at Lake Victoria, very near Mwanza. We still had to cross an arm of the lake by a ferry but we thought we were almost there.

At lake Victoria near Mwanza The moon over lake Victoria

Unfortunately it took an hour before the ferry arrived, and another hour before it departed again, so by then it was 9pm.

Insects swarming around a light on the ferry

Crossing the water took another hour, and then we had to drive yet another hour, so it was past 11pm by the time we finally arrived in Mwanza, 5 hours later than expected.

Bus to Arusha

When we got off the bus in Mwanza we were immediately approached by touts trying to sell us bus tickets to Arusha. Normally we'd ignore touts but we'd been hoping to continue to Arusha asap and it was too late already to arrange transport ourselves. We still doubted a lot and knew we might be ripped off, but they showed us the actual bus which would leave at 6am next morning, which gave us a chance to save a whole day.

So we decided to risk it and bought the tickets, for which we had to follow the touts to a sort of brothel. It was past midnight by now and our bus was leaving at 6am, so we asked the touts to show us the nearest hotel. Surprisingly, they showed us to an excellent yet very affordable place (Hotel Isamo on Rwagasore street, south of the bus station). We went out on the street to find something to eat - we were starving - and then went to bed at 1am after a very long and tough day.

Tuesday August 28th (day 13): Mwanza

To Arusha or not to Arusha

We woke at 5am and got on the bus - another old-timer - at 6am. When the sun rose an hour later I gradually started suspecting that this bus was not going to take the short (15 hours) but expensive route to Arusha through the Serengeti, as we had been told, as it was driving south instead of south east.

When asking the driver in sign language how long it would take to get to Arusha he said "two", which puzzled us a little until we realised he meant two days. This bus was going to make a huge detour all around the Serengeti over dirt roads, which would take no less than 48 hours of non-stop driving. All the time we'd been worried that the touts would sell us fake tickets, but we never suspected this much more obvious scheme: they sold us the cheap tickets for the long route. Silly us.

After we let this sink in for a few minutes we just got off the bus in the next village and asked for our backpacks, which totally puzzled the driver and the other passengers. In the village we soon found a minibus to take us back to Mwanza. At 9am we were back where we'd started. We headed back to our hotel and got the breakfast that came with our room though we had checked out 4 hours earlier.

View on lake Victoria from our hotel in Mwanza

Arranging a safari

So, time for plan B. Before this trip I had looked for information on how to arrange a Serengeti safari that starts in Mwanza and ends in Arusha, because we were coming from the west (Rwanda and Burundi) and this would save us one big bus ride. I knew some package tours did safaris this way, but didn't find any reassuring information on arranging it independently, so I figured it would be too hard.

Since we were stuck in Mwanza for the day we were gonna give it a try anyway and started touring the three safari agencies in Mwanza, all controlled by Indians. It turned out not to be a problem at all as long as you found other people to share a jeep with. A jeep cost about 1200-1500 USD, so for just the two of us it was too expensive. The problem is, almost noone starts a safari from Mwanza, so it's hard to form a group.

While going back and forth between the agencies we ran into two couples who were also trying to arrange a safari: an Italian couple and a British/American couple. We met them both several times but never at the same time. Now these two couples had actually arranged a safari together which was supposed to have started the day before, but it hadn't started because the Italians' credit card had been blocked and they couldn't pay - so the other couple were very pissed off with them. The Italians said they had contacted their bank and were sure they would get money by that evening, but the other couple was reluctant to risk it again.

After a while it was clear that there were only the 6 of us trying to arrange a safari in Mwanza that day. It was also clear that 4 of us would end up in 1 jeep for an affordable safari while the other 2 would either have to wait for new people to arrive or pay some 700$ each.

Of course we really wanted to share a jeep, but the Italians still had no money which was a risk, while the other couple wanted to end their safari in Mwanza which meant we'd still have to take a bus to Arusha (from some place in the Serengeti) if we went with them. Also, both couples wanted a 3-day safari since they'd already lost time, while we'd wanted at least 4 days. We'd also hoped to include a detour to the active volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai but soon gave up on that.

After much wandering around and many discussions we teamed up with the Italians, hoping their bank would come through with the money. We arranged a 3 day safari directly with a jeep owner in his garage rather than with an agency (which was a bit cheaper) and then started touring Mwanza's banks. Each of us needed to pay half a million Tanzanian shilling or so, far more than the maximum you could withdraw from one bank with one card in one day. Luckily there were no problems; we collected all the money and went back to the garage to pay.

My wallet full of the largest bills of Tanzanian shillings - I've never felt so rich! This was just a few 100 USD though.

Meanwhile we'd booked our room for another night. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around Mwanza, internetting and eating at the Kuleana Pizzeria where the few tourists in town gather.

A huge satellite dish in Mwanza People sitting on their balcony in Mwanza
Rocks by the shore in Mwanza

In the evening I started feeling sick and couldn't eat anymore. When it was bed-time I started throwing up and did so again and again throughout the night, making a lot of noise each time. It was just like in Nepal during my previous journey with Danny, so he was already used to this. In between the vomitting I had diarrhea so I spent most of the night in the bathroom. Still, I considered myself very lucky that we had gotten off that bus, otherwise we'd now be somewhere in the middle of Tanzania, not even halfway to Arusha yet. Also, unlike in Nepal I had basic medicines with me and they helped; in the early morning I started feeling much better, just in time to start our safari.

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