At 676 km, Lake Tanganyika is the longest fresh water lake in the world, and the second biggest by volume. It contains 1/6 of the worlds fresh water. It is 1470m deep in places and is bordered by 4 countries, Zambia,Tanzania, Congo and Burundi.
At 25 km an hour the road was excruciating and never ending, the day hot and dusty. We began to seriously reconsider if it was worth the journey to visit a small town on Lake Tanganyika. We would have another excruciating trip back again.
As the shadows grew long we passed a barbed wire compound with warning signs, a UN refugee camp for Congelese. We had clearly arrived close to the border. Groups of sullen people sat around. The signs firmly warned off photography or stopping. Not a good omen. Just as it seemed this was going to be a bad decision, we crested the rise of a boulder strewn road and there it was, the vastness of Lake Tanganyika shimmering to the horizon. It was beautiful and mesmeric. We picked our way around the lake, through communities of fishermen and saw our destination, Ndole Bay. A sandy beach fringed with palm trees bordering the blue waters.
Truly an oasis. How it comes to be here, in the middle of nowhere with appalling roads and surrounded by refugees and poverty, I will never know. Apparently the fishermen have had something to do with it. If the fishing is good the fishing enthusiasts will walk barefoot over hot coals to get there. At Ndole Bay they may just have to.
The lodge is small and intimate with camping right on the beach and chalets overlooking the lake. There is a private beach with a thatched lapa from where you can go and swim and snorkel in the lake or laze on a hammock and watch the kingfishers fishing. Local fishing boats ply up and down, especially at dusk and in the dark, lit by lanterns. The camp site was perfectly situated to watch the lake from your bed. Even though we had some rain we made a plan! There is a thatched bar and restaurant if you are in the mood to be spoiled.
The water glints blue and clear. The fish life is confined to the surface waters. Below 100m there is no oxygen and the lake is essentially lifeless. It also contains high levels of toxic Hydrogen Sulphide. It contains 250 species of cichlids of which 98% are endemic.
It is estimated that 25-40% of the protein in the diet of the more than 1,000,000 people living around the lake is from lake fish and the fish are important in the diet of the more than 10,000,000 people in the greater basin. That said, the locals tell us that there is declining catches and definite evidence of over fishing on the size and density of the fish being caught. When driving through the community big piles of tiny fish are seen drying outside the houses.
In Zambia the government have limited fishing to a period between May and November. A temporary village is built on the lake shore for the fishermen and the parks authority comes and burns the village at the end of November.
Unfortunately more and more fishermen come every year and the fishing is hard to police. They seem to be under resourced and under staffed to manage this properly and there is also the fact that 4 countries are involved. On the Zambian side the Congolese refugees seem to constitute a particularly bad bunch and are often armed.
The fishing is still done by traditional methods of canoes and nets and they fish at night by lantern. We would often see the lights bobbing about on the water. One early morning, as the boats returned to the village, the men were singing. It was intensely moving in a way that it is difficult to explain. The music was tuneful and joyful but also melancholic. Perhaps it was a celebratory song for a good catch that night or perhaps it was the realisation that their time of fishing for this year was drawing to a close. Certainly, as we watched storms over the lake, it was easy to see that it was not always an easy or idyllic life.
From Ndole Bay you can take a number of excursions to different areas around the lake for walks and waterfalls. (And fishing of course!) We decided to take a trip and see the lake from the water and we were taken to a national park on the edge of the lake, about 20 km away, called Nsubu National Park. There are roads here but they are so bad that most come via the lake if they come at all. The landing point is in a small bay called Nkombe Bay and there are hippos and crocs on the banks. Warthog and a few startled waterbuck were grazing as we arrived.
There is the remains of an old lodge here which used to provide accommodation in the park but it is now so run down it is not functioning. The boats are rotten and the chalets have holes in the roofs and bats in the ceilings.
A lot of money was poured into the lodge including the building of an air strip but it was never finished. Famous African story I fear. A couple of rangers are stationed here but I am not sure what they can do.
The game was nervous and skittish, even the hippo, and we are told there is a lot of poaching. As the fish stocks go down the poaching goes up. Still the views from the sand dunes across the lake were beautiful.
As we sped across the lake back to camp with the sunset casting golden light across the water, and a cold beer in hand, we decided there were worse places to be in the world. Much much worse!