Nothing Ever Goes to Plan

13th July 2016 – Lake Shore Lodge, Tanganyika

We’re at the tranquil little piece of paradise that is Lake Shore Lodge, near Kipili on Lake Tanganyika. Three years ago, I had driven through Tanzania on my way down to Cape Town and had stopped by to see South African owners Chris and Louise Horsfall. I had the most wonderful few days there, and knew I’d be back.

Lake Shore Lodge just happens to be a place where I feel completely and utterly relaxed. Chris and Lou are the most incredible hosts and can’t do enough to make my stay a pleasure every time. What’s not to love about this…

Chris is also my main source of information for the expedition as he has lived on the lake for seven years and has paddled from the south up to Kigoma himself. He is also my emergency contact if anything goes wrong…

After transporting the blue and green kayaks down from Nairobi atop my trusted Land Cruiser, I had planned to leave the vehicle at Lake Shore but we still needed to get the kayaks to the very bottom of the lake, 200km south. I had timed this to coincide with the schedule of the MV Liemba ferry; an old WWI gunship that is still in service and runs up and down the lake between Kigoma in the north of Tanzania, and Mpulungu in Zambia at the southern most point. The ferry only goes every two weeks and timing was essential.

“You guys are going to have to paddle out at about midnight and wait. She could be early, she could be late. I’m guessing you might be on your way at about 3am,” Chris informs us. I’m not looking forward to the mozzies…

As we’d received the kayaks a day before leaving Nairobi, Lake Shore was the first opportunity we would have to experience a little paddle before departure. We had one day to get everything together and haul ourselves onto the MV Liemba.

I’m not a paddler. Sitting in London in the months leading up to the expedition, I had no idea what kind of boat I should be looking for, and had no idea how far I would be able to paddle daily. It was all guess work really. But here is my rationale for my boat of choice.

I used a company called Fluid Kayaks – they were the only outfit I could find with a dealer in East Africa (Kris Collyer) who could arrange to get them to Kenya from South Africa for us. My choice… a flat bottom, plastic, sit-on-top kayak.

Most paddlers recoil in horror when I mention these three keywords in succession. In their minds, for long distance paddling, it just doesn’t make sense. But this was no ordinary paddling expedition.

  1. Flat bottom vs sleek hull – Lake Tanganyika is notorious for it’s fierce storms and waves which measure up to 20ft or 6m in height. I had chosen my season carefully and we weren’t due to meet any storms in the months of July and August. But one can never be too careful. I was also slightly concerned about hippo coming up from under the boat. Stability won over speed…
  2. Plastic vs fiberglass – you can just imagine the state of the kayaks after four days of corrugations on back country Tanzanian roads, and pulling them up onto rocky bays and beaches daily. Durability won over weight…
  3. Sit-on-top vs sit-in – if one capsizes in a sit-in kayak, you kick free and the kayak fills with water. I’d assumed we would be crossing bays that may be kilometres from shore at times, which would mean a rather long swim to shore, towing the boat. With a sit-on-top, you fall over the side, right the boat and climb back on top. Dorky won over cool…

Simon and I set about getting supplies packed into the boats, ready for our paddle out that same evening when Chris comes around the corner, looking slightly distressed.

“I have some bad news for you.” he says, hand on hip, “The Liemba is undergoing repairs in Kigoma and hasn’t left yet. They’re skipping this cycle and will resume in 2 weeks time.”

If you’ve ever met Chris Horsfall, you will undoubtably know that he is the biggest joker south of the equator and so my natural reaction was to tell him to bugger off.

Sadly, it was the truth and our transport to the bottom of the lake was no longer.

After much debating about what to do, we put aside the idea of Chris taking us down in his boat (fuel costs would have been horrendous) or driving us down (long round trip for him), we settled on finding a local fishing boat that could carry us and the kayaks down to the starting point, almost 200kms south.

It’s a squash, there’s barely enough space for the kayaks. Simon and I are perched on top of our kayak seats, and three local guys hop on – the driver, the bailer and one more for the ride…

What should have taken the better part of a day turns into a two day ordeal. We’re going at 10km/h. Saving fuel I’m guessing. We’re fortunate the waves aren’t too bad. Psychologically though, we’re undoing the entire first quarter of our trip. Watching the shore pass by without having to lift a finger, time seems to drag on forever and I a feeling of dread sweeps over me. Have I bitten off more than I can chew here.

This is a VERY long way, and it’s only a quarter of the lake…

After two cramped and lethargic days aboard, we reach Mpulungu in Zambia and pull into the port market get some last minute supplies before setting off for a further hour to the very southern most tip of the lake.

We’re finally here. The GPS confirms it. We’re greeted by the few villagers who live here. As we’ll come to discover, very few local Africans have seen a coloured plastic boat and so we’re swamped from the word go which makes the final pack fairly difficult.

It’s with an equal mix of wild anticipation, nerves and dread that I get into my kayak for the first leg. Simon isn’t far behind. “Asante sana,” I call back to our crew of three.

Let the expedition commence!