MV Liemba: The Floating Circus

Saturday, July 29, 2006 | Sumbawanga, Tanzania (map)

The frenzied process of exchanging goods, animals, and people between the Liemba and local boats.
Overburdened from the start, the aged Liemba chugged away from the dock in Kigoma at 5:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The oldest passenger ferry in the world was hardly the "venerable craft" which Lonely Planet's guidebook has dubbed it, but it floated, and that was enough for me.

While waiting to board, I met Mike and Jenny, a delightful young couple from Colorado who have been on the road for a year, and in that time had traveled overland all the way from Southeast Asia. Extremely jealous, I shared several meals and many hours with them over the next two days, exchanging travel stories as we cruised down Lake Tanganyika (though the exchange was hardly even).

My next acquaintance on the Liemba, my roommate in our cramped first-class cabin, was less pleasant to get to know. A bizarre creature, Steven the Australian oil field engineer from New South
Wales was the kind of self-important character who talked right through you, without any regard for what you might have to say. "You in the Peace Corps?" was the first and only thing he asked about both me and Mike. (Apparently in Steven's world, this was the only reason an American would be in Africa.) Mostly, after smearing his sallow, skeletal figure in suntan lotion, Steven would scuttle around the ship's deck in his floppy hat, consulting his handheld GPS and annoying anyone who would listen to him whine about conditions on the ship. While he did, I spent two days avoiding him.

Mostly, I read novels on the boat's upper deck, surrounded by neat rows of fish laid out to dry in the sun. Below, the Tanzanian passengers slept in blankets laid out on the ship's lower decks, or sat and chatted amid piles of suitcases, fish and produce.

We skirted the mountainous Tanzanian shore on the left, and at times the Congo's dry coastal hills were visible on the right. When hungry, I devised meals from some supplies I had provisioned in Kigoma. Bread and avocado was standard fare, bananas and oranges made good snacks, and I also discovered a new favorite: cucumber slices with peanut butter. Haute cuisine it was not.

The monotony of the boat ride was broken by "port," an entertaining show that occurred each time we passed nearby a village along the Tanzanian coast. When the Liemba slowed to a halt offshore, the local fishing boats rowed or put-putted out to the ship's side. A flood of passengers and goods were hurriedly exchanged amid a raucous cacophony of yells, screams, and arguing. Babies, huge sacks of flour and fish, parcels of bananas, suitcases and strings of pineapple were all slung back and forth from the ship's deck to the wooden boats which tottered alongside it. Then with a few toots of its old-fashioned whistle, the Liemba was back on its way.

On Friday morning I said my goodbyes to Mike and Jenny, eluded Steven and scrambled ashore at Kasanga, in southwest Tanzania. Along with two vacationing Swiss school teachers, Sophie and Claudia, I hitched a ride to the mountain town of Sumbawanga, a few hours inland. We piled into the miniature SUV of a roving photography team, and I got scrunched in the foot-wide trunk along with all the baggage for the bumpy, dusty ride. The team made a living by traveling around Tanzania taking school pictures, a process we witnessed at several stops along our way. After one additional stop to fix a blown tire, we arrived, in the chilly mountain air, at the town of Sumbawanga, where I spent Friday night.

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