Lake Victoria

146 Kilograms of luggage "I am sorry gentlemen, we will have to charge you for excess luggage". 6:30am in the morning, Paul and myself dig deep into our charm reserves and after 20 minutes are oh so close to the desk clerks turning a blind eye on our excess, they were fascinated by two blokes trying to get on a plane with an inflatable canoe (Croc), paddles and accessories but then senior management arrives and no way we are getting away with anything ( unless we pay a generous spot fine that is ). Thanks to Paul Wimberley who drove out to the airport and helped us take the boat, motor and spares to cargo and financed their cargo flight to Kampala. Whilst Paul and Paul were busy with this I did some swift repacking of our hand luggage and managed to book us on the flight with no excess costs.

Fast forward a few days and we finally clear our cargo from Entebbe customs. Paul spent a day in the customs hall collecting paper, pages in all, each requiring a little enticing, a little joking, some enchanting and finally 15 minutes before closing a little dash to get our file shifted back to the top of the pile and so we get our boat. Early the next morning we are seated in the Uganda Rail secretaries office writing a letter to the director requesting permission to travel on the rail ferry southwards across the lake on the afternoon ferry. Arrive at the M.V. Umoja (Unity) surrounded by porters who almost demand 10 000 shillings to load our kit. Dillop a Tanzania trader greets us on the steps and generously shows us a cabin and watches our numerous kit bags as we unload the taxi. Proposed departure of 5:00pm already shifted to 7:00pm and so evening is whiled away as we wait for departure. Take a walk into Port Bell to buy some last minute supplies. Later we sit on the upper deck enjoying cold beers as darkness crept across the lake and the last of the fishing boats made their way home.

The MV Umoja is a ferry boat with the main deck being built to allows 22 rail carriages to be directly rolled onto it through a complex shunting process. First officer Ormonde told us it could take twenty-five minutes if done correctly. Tonight it took 7 hours. Finally at midnight we slip our moorings, the stern panels are lifted as we steam out through Murchinson Bay heading due south at 11 knots. A dark night, with the moon occasionally winking at us through theclouds. The trip across the lake to Mwanza in Tanzania is 16 hours so we are scheduled to arrive late the following afternoon. Awaking to a gray wet day with western horizon filled with brooding thunderclouds, we enjoy breakfast with the ships crew. Ugali (maize porridge) and chilli omlettes. Hot, raisin sized yellow peppers wake one with a kick. Morning pleasantly spent sitting on the deck brewing up the occasional cup of tea and catching up on the journal. Content to be finally heading to Mwanza and the start of our trip.

Half an hour before we arrive in Mwaza the captain sends a message telling all ten passengers to hide in their cabins, as the ferry is not actually licensed to carry passengers. Docking at the South pier, Dillop and Mr. Issa kindly offer to watch our belongings as we carry our many bags down steep flights, between a jumble of rail carriages and ashore. First we are directed to Immigration. Where do officials think we have come from if boat is not allowed to carry passengers ? Then on to customs. First our import permits are asked for. We explain our trip and the official say no problem Gentlemen the forms you have are complete. Enjoy your trip. Go ahead load your boat and when you are ready to go, come and we will give you stamps. Begin the process of inflating the boat and installing the wooden floor panels and stuffing bags. A crowd quickly gathers. Officials and elders bring chairs out of offices and seat themselves around us, a continual flow of conversation around us filled with busts of laughter, shaking of heads and the word Mzungu, feel like unpaid actors in a pantomime. When we are complete we turn to the customs officials and ask for clearance stamps. To our amazement they say no, first they must check the contents of each bag. Paul and I just look at each other and go what the. These are the same men who 40 minutes ago said it was unnecessary for them to look in each bag and then sat watching us load them on the boat and carefully strap them down. We shrug and ask if there is not perhaps a slightly more private space to do this search as we are worried about the crowd of 200 or so standing shoulder to shoulder with us and our boat. With help we carry our boat around the corner into a small courtyard. At this stage we are not sure if officials are hoping for a bribe to be offered to avoid this exercise or just curious and exerting their power. Slowly we unpack. The sun is low on the horizon and we desperately want to leave the harbor and the pressing crowds, so we have some timeto find a campsite before it is completely dark. With exaggerated patience we carry one bag at a time over to the five officials and unpack, explaining each object. Whilst I do this Paul waits watching our boat and other bags. Then Paul brings in a bag and I wait outside. I bring in my personal kit bag. It is always a good thing to leave one's foulest smelly underwear at the top for just these occasions. As you take them out politely ask an official to hold them while you dig deeper into your bag. This does stifle their curiosity to some extent. After about 45 minutes everyone gets a bit bored and we are told we can go. Think it was a combination of no bribes being offered and their knock off time fast approaching. We take all 28 pages of import documentation from Entebbe airport into their offices and get each page stamped hoping it will help upon re-entry to Uganda. Then are told we may not launch from the harbor as we do not have the necessary authorization forms. So we with willing help from crowd we carry boat 20 metres across the railway line which demarcates harbor boundary. As we launch one of the helpers suddenly turns completely nasty and demands he and his friends are paid for the boat carrying, that's what's so scary about crowds - from well-wishes to screams of "fuck you" in seconds.

Luckily we manage just to push off bank and paddle disorganizely away into now set sun. As we cross the bay we see what looks like a yatch club decided to land and suddenly we are in the midst of a warm reception from a group of Danish expiates sitting on the lawn enjoying sundowners of Tuskers or G' and T's. Completely colonial, with most important point of discussion being that one of the women in the group had brought her dogs with her and club rules are very clear on this being unacceptable. She was sitting happily amongst them telling them all not to be so petty. But the cold tuskers were oh so tasty. Mrs "Dog" turns out to be friendliest of all and arranges with Jurgen, the club manager for us to camp and then provides Askari to watch our kit. Later that night feeling sense of sanctuary after days events hear the Askari's still touching and pressing our inflatable canoe amazed at all the air captured in it. In the morning I show them the pump and how it works. Much shaking of heads.

After morning of packing we are finally on our way - paddling across the Mwanza Gulf. Boat is heavy and sluggish but good to be away - we have yet to master kite flying. In the late afternoon having had a taste of the short choppy waves that build up during the day we pull up in a small cove. There 3 fishing boats plus a few papyrus and polystyrene triangular rafts maybe 1metre long are pulled up. Fishermen paddle out on these rafts bobbing in swells holding blue 3 or 4 rods each with a baited line. In the middle of the night am awakened by soft crunching, get up and I brush against fly sheet am covered in ants which then swarm all over, Paul also awakes and suddenly we are both slapping furiously as hundreds of ants start biting, a huge ant nest has awakened and are on the move. Crawl back into tent and spend an hour killing ants, each pincer has to be pulled out of skin, finally fall asleep with tent still quivering as ants marching resolutely over it.

Get going about 10:00 am. A perfect breeze and have first sail of kite, lines take a bit of sorting out. Paul getting better, tries to stand on Croc to rearrange things and then sudden gust flicks him into lake. Try and catch him and unexpectedly we are both in water and has capsized, a shock. Swim around and grab far line of Croc and flip=20 like a raft - did take extra care from then on to ensure kit tied on well. After another long day we arrive at a small village, quickly have crowd of hundreds gathered watching us unpack and making afternoon coffee. Many stand around talking about the Mzungus, a few step forward and touch the Croc, that it is full of air is cause for much speculation together with the fact that it is so much smaller than their boats -why are we not swamped by waves? In the morning when we pack we again are surrounded by lots of kids standing in the water around us some touching our arms. As we leave Paul gives them a playful splash - a sudden rush of kids away and all that is left is a multitude of slops floating in the shallows reds, greens, blues, pinks and oranges. Paddle down the coast till wind picks up and on an open beach we launch the kite incredible to see it 30m up in the sky, jump on boat and sail away. Oh if all our kite launches were so easy.

A later journal entry describes a launch. Paul and I clamber up house size boulders surrounding a narrow cove to get clean wind, in a flurry kite is up and Paul skids across boulders wearing out his socks. Walk kite back to boat and Paul slides into front of Croc and lets kite rise up to almost vertically above the boat where it has the least pull. To get out of the cove we need to go at right angels to the wind so I first try in pushing us out but keep being pushed up against rocks so start motor and standing chest deep in water driving and pushing slip out of cove and into open waters. Leap on to boat and suddenly we are rushing forward at 8 or 9 Km's an hour - makes Croc feel like a speed boat. Next few days become routine of sailing or motoring for 7 or so hours a day. In late afternoon we would begin to look for a beach to camp on. Landing on beach we would ask the already gathering crowd Tuna Taka Kwa Lala Hapa Kwasika Mojo? - Can we camp here tonight ? We would normally just assume the answer to be yes. Sharing a bag of peanuts with the onlookers eventually an English speaker would emerge from crowd and we would explain where we had come from and our destination, this translated to gathered crowd would draw long gasps of amazement, kids would often touch us in wonder. Normally the village headman would arrive and we would take out maps and discuss our journey through a translator. Always welcomed with a generosity of spirit. We would then often negotiate for bowl of ugali (pap) and fish stew from villagers. Sometime delicious fillets of Nile Perch, sometimes just boiled fish heads which we would then supplement with toppers. So so tasty.

About a third of the way into our journey we beached on a rugby field sized island to relaunch the kite after it had gone down while sailing through the Irumu channel. Having sat on the Croc for the last 6 hours we both gladly jumped onto the beach. In next millisecond not sure who gets the bigger fright as the hugest crocodile, bigger than our boat, launches itself into the water from reeds just metres from us - so much for no crocodiles in the lake. To launch the kite Paul would walk upwind and I downwind, spreading the kite sail across my arms and as lines tightened the kite would explode open and Paul flying the kite from a waist harness would let the kite rise up to vertical. Well that was if all went well, this time Paul nearly stood on another croc, his size, the beach was not long enough, here were thorn trees to catch kite and after kite launched there are 1m waves breaking on beach to push through - where is that Crocodile?

But once sailing it was the most wonderful sensation to be pulled across the water on this huge lake. Later nearing Ribonde Island, the only national park on the lake, we saw a small beach and decide to head to it to camp for the night. The bay edge was a massive palm forest stretching 100 of metres back. As we close on the beach two bull elephants step out to drink - sailing past hey do not notice us and five minutes later they slide away - what a sight. We land 500m away and can hear them crashing through the palms feeding on the fruits. Our camp under palms has a real Robinson Cruiso feel about it and for the first time in two weeks no spectators surround us. Shocking to be alone except for a few Vervet monkey swinging in vines and Egrets fishing for Kapenta in lapping waves. Cook a dinner of rice and slosh but tonight we also feast on salad of tomatoes, onions and garlic bought in a village a few days back, wolf it down both realizing how tired and hungry we are. A long day in the sun sailing.

A week later we are in Kashenye Bay an idyllic cove of white beaches behind 2 headlands of the steep Rift valley escarpment that plunges down into lake along its western shore. Here we meet Jaosim, a boat builder. In the course of a week with only a plane, panga and saw he fashions a joy to behold. A 4m skiff, high up turned bow and stern widening in the middle with benches for 3 fishermen each plank bent and carved to slide tightly against its neighbor. We spend 6 days mesmerized by this craftsman. Incredibly generous the way he just lets us sit in his work shop space under old coffee trees that give speckled shade for most of the day. Enjoying the beauty of his measured work each line is considered and works at a comfortable pace. No project manager phoning for progress reports, pushing deadline forward or haggling price down over unforeseen circumstances. For Jaosim there is time to step back and survey lines of boat, little tap here, plane an edge off there and then shaping processes for next plank begins. On last morning we are visited by Erasto, a retired village elder -Erasto presents us with a gift of cabbage. The head beautifully wrapped, first in a fresh banana leaf and then six straps of dried banana leaves joined at the top forming a carrying loop (kept cabbage fresh for days as we continued our travels ). After presenting us with the cabbage he took his bible from an old leather briefcase, both worn by years of travel. Reading a passage from book of Hebrews, Erasto reminds us to entertain strangers for as doing so we maybe entertaining angels.

Few days later we revel in a record sailing day covering 32 Km getting up to speeds of 14 Km's per hour out in lake in 5m waves, wind pumping northwards up edge of lake. Sitting on a Croc, a 5 metre high crest seems a long way away and it takes awhile to climb out of trough before racing down next wave face. One wave so big and steep that as we rush down the whole front of the boat digs deep into the wave trough. Looking up I see Paul flying away, airborne under the kite, a beautiful sight till he crashes into the waves about 30m in front of me. Getting the motor started I realize I have no idea where Paul is in these huge waves, spend a few anxious moments till luckily as I crest a wave I see Paul in his red life jacket bobbing on another wave crest of course still trying to fly the kite. A few days at Bukoba where we see a magnificent cathederal under construction and send this missive

Here’s the latest from their satellite communications thwart sent from Bukoba

Have had a fantastic trip so far, having an adventure every day!.. From Mwanza we have paddled, sailed and motored through some of the wildest and friendliest parts of Africa I or Chris have been to. The Tanzanian people are the most welcoming, curious and warm I have encountered.

We spent a week watching a banana boat being built without any mechanical, or electrical aid, all hand tools, sweat and skill.

Our kite works reall well except launching it, on the land the wind is less and often short of nice sandy beaches (weve had a lot of those) I tried a launch off some rocks; after being dragged 6m over the rocks have abondoned that idea. Yesterday the wind was really strong and lifted me right out the boat and I flew about 5m landing way ahead of the boat. The kite has a safety line which detaches one line and after deciding that I wasjust not to happy in the 3m swells at 10km/hr I pulled it.

Ribondo island is a real paradise and we saw our first crocs (4 of them 3 small and 1 huge on a small island where we went to kite launch. I stood on a 4m leguaan (I never knew they got so big)

Food is not great. We eat sangara (Nile Perch) Daggar (kapenta) or other fish sometimes, otherwise ugali (pap) rice (rice) matoko (plantain) sometimes we are lucky to get tamatie (tomatoe) or cabbage and lots of beans. but we are enjying ourselves.

Its really hard to describe further, look forward to the Sesse islands.

Each night as we sit on the lake edge Paul and I sit amazed at beauty of lake, what a wild time we are having and how this West side of the lake is still so remote. No one seems to mind, as one day we casually sail from Tanzania back into Uganda. After 5 weeks we get to the Sesse Island. An archipelago of islands an hours boat trip south of Kampala. Remote beaches, forests of trees and the occasional pair of Narina Trogans flitting through ones camp. Definitely a place to revisit. On the northern side we come across Hornbill camp, a laid back backpackers run by Luke who has decided to stay for a while in Uganda after a long stint with MSF. For the first time since leaving Kampala we enjoy cold beers and hot showers, both a true pleasure. At night we see the lights of Kampala blinking across the bay. Spending a day at the camp we both realize how weak we are (turns out to be first round of bilharzia ) and with a plane to catch, we gratefully accept a lift from Luke the camp owner to Kampala and fly home.

 

Dates

Date: 

Thursday, August 1, 2002 (All day)

activity: 

Rafting

Participants: 

Paul Marais
Chris Kirchhoff

Destination: 

lake Victoria

Country: 

Tanzania