A Plan to Laugh at Later

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | Mwanza, Tanzania (map)

Above, a signpost in Mwanza. I've got three weeks to see as much of East Africa as I can.
When I purchased my tickets for this summer in Tanzania exactly a week before my departure, the only return flight available was for August 15, two weeks after the program end date. "I'll travel or something," I assumed, and so I booked it, then spent the past six weeks turning plans over in my mind about how I would spend those last precious days in Africa.

Plan One was an overland extravaganza, leaving from Dar es Salaam by perhaps one of the world's longest trains, a three-day marathon to Zambia whose length is likely only bested by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Ultimately, after a few more bus rides, I would arrive in the town of Livingstone, in southern Zambia, at the most famous section of the thundering Zambezi River, Victoria Falls. A slower, more circuitous return to Dar with stops in Zambia would round out the remaining days.

Plan Two was a coastal adventure, heading south from Dar to the ancient Arab ruins of Kilwa
Kisiwani and the tropical island of Mafia. Before returning I would swing further south to the picturesque shores of northern Mozambique, whose many atolls and reefs place it among the world's greatest snorkeling and diving sites.

A recent article in National Geographic Adventure magazine, with typically stunning pictures, helped lend this second option some extra appeal. But pass up Victoria Falls, how could I? After hemming and hawing for four weeks in Dar, here in Mwanza I've done more of the same, ordering new guide books and puzzling endlessly over the large-scale map of southern Africa which I've pinned to my dorm room wall.

Then an announcement came: our Ecology course hours would be packed into three weeks, leaving us free to travel the fourth. Suddenly, with perhaps a little tweaking, both options had become possible.

First, though, this weekend Professor Dino has scheduled a trip to Rubondo Island, an animal sanctuary in Lake Victoria which contains populations of elephants, African grey parrots, and chimpanzees. This camping and hiking trip promises to be a mad mix of the exhausting and the exhilarating, and the morning after this grand finale of our course I will head right back out, alone. Here's the plan:

First, a 5:00 AM bus to Tabora, then another bus or a train to Kigoma, a city on the northern edge of Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania's western border. I will purchase a ferry ticket on arrival there, then visit the nearby town of Ujiji, the site where the eager young Stanley finally and famously found Livingstone. The ferry, leaving Kigoma on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 26 (Happy Birthday, Maggie!), will skirt down the Tanzanian coast of the lake en route to the Zambian town of Umpulungu. Along the way, stops will include Mahale Mountains National Park, the site of Jane Goodall's famous chimpanzee research projects.

From the Zambian coast, a series of long bus rides to the capital, Lusaka, and then on to Livingstone will take me to the Falls, where I will spend a day or two before heading out again, overland to the Mozambique coast by way of either Zimbabwe or Malawi—not nearly as easy as it sounds.

In Mozambique I hope to visit the Ilha de Mocambique, a coastal island famous for its Zanzibar-esque historical feel, as well as snorkeling in nearby reefs. From there northward, the coast holds more tropical islands and beachside towns all the way up to the Tanzanian border. Assuming there are ferries (likely a few men with canoes) or that they've built a bridge since my guide book was written, I will cross the Ruvuma River into Tanzania and, time permitting, visit Kilwa Kisiwani and Mafia Island on the way back to Dar.

Knowing what I know about the inefficiencies of overland travel in Africa and the unforeseeable obstacles that are likely to crop up (from closed borders to broken engines, denied visas to hotels that only exist on a map), the only certainty to which I may cling for the next three weeks is that those three weeks will absolutely, definitely, positively NOT go according to plan.

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