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Slowly, slowly getting hassled by cops before relaxing at a beautiful lake lodge in Tanzania

Slowly, slowly getting hassled by cops before relaxing at a beautiful lake lodge in Tanzania
Hugh watches the sunset over Lake Tanganyika. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

After getting a ridiculous fine in Zambia, Hugh Fraser and Bridget Hilton-Barber experience an excruciating border crossing on their Epic Road Trip. But then, luckily, they find the best place to stay on Lake Tanganyika.

“Welcome to Tanzania,” said a woman called Happy from Kasesya border post immigration as we crossed over from Zambia. She led us into a small, dark room, took our temperature, inspected our yellow fever certificates, and painstakingly wrote down our passport details in a big dusty book.

“I love you, Happy,” shouted someone from another office. “I love you more,” replied Happy. But that’s where the happiness ended, alas.

Kasesya is a small, quiet border post that offers quick and painless border proceedings, said overland website tracks4Africa. Unless one has to wait for the officials to be called from the nearby village; we picked that exact day. 

It was like an Afro-Charlie Chaplin comedy about the smallest, most remote border post taking the longest to cross. The customs office was mysteriously empty apart from a big, shiny BMW motorbike with GP plates, and a huge pile of boxes of biscuits and cartons of custard.

customs office in Tanzania

The bike parked inside the customs office in Tanzania. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

The entry-exit record book on the counter showed that we would be the first people to cross here in three days. Outside was the Tanzanian flag, a palm tree, a big truck and a lone rooster. 

The customs official, adjusting the belt of his trousers, finally arrived with a bunch of keys to open his office just as the power went off. So off he went too, with a security guard, to investigate starting up the generator. Hugh sent me to sit in the car while he sat in a small side office for jaw-grinding custom clearance procedures.

He then trudged off in the hot sun with a surly Rasta, the money handler, to a spaza shop up the road, paid over the money he’d just had to buy, and then returned for another round of humiliation. 

Bus in Tanzania

The bus on which the biscuits and custard were loaded. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Meanwhile, a decoratively painted bus arrived. Some young men got out and loaded all the boxes of biscuits and cartons of custard on the roof. The other passengers got out and took their suitcases to be opened and inspected by a ferocious young female customs official with a baton.

Life is a tragedy in close-up, said Charlie Chaplin, and a comedy in long shot. It took us nearly two hours to cross this little border. Pole, pole, as they say in Swahili, slowly, slowly.

'Go slowly' sign

‘Go slowly’ warns the sign. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Tanzania road sign

Kilometres to travel through roadworks in Tanzania. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Finally, the lake

There were roadworks almost as soon as we started driving (being done by Chinese companies, which was pretty much the case in all nine countries we visited) and the speed limit changed from 80km/h to 60 to 40 as we entered villages, and then back up as we left them.

There were plenty of traffic cops and police, mostly very friendly and polite.

The style of the buildings and roofs in Tanzania was distinctly different. The road and shopfront signs were all in Swahili, and we started seeing many more mosques.

The first big town was Sumbawanga, where we managed to get fuel, cash, a Tanzanian SIM card for Hugh (to which I tethered like a local goat), cashew nuts, deliciously spicy potato samoosas and whisky.

Tanzania oldest church

This old monastery near Lake Shore is Tanzania’s oldest church. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

An advisory from the whisky department: the most readily available brand in Tanzania was Grant’s 750ml which came with a free glass, very useful for happy campers.  

It was a long, sweaty stretch, but by late afternoon on the 16th day of our Epic Road Trip we’d completely forgotten about the annoying tragicomic little border post, and sat spellbound as the sun set over the ancient Lake Tanganyika.

One of only 20 lakes that are more than a million years old, Tanganyika is the longest freshwater lake in the world and the second deepest after Lake Baikal in Siberia. Tanganyika is so deep because it lies in the Great Rift Valley and reaches a depth of more than 600m below sea level. 

We had our happy moment as the G&Ts came out and the sun turned the skies a wild orange and pink. Across the lake, we could see the faint outline of mountains in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lake is shared by it and Tanzania, Burundi and Zambia, and now it was sharing with us, big time.

frangipani in flower

A frangipani in flower at Lake Shore Lodge. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Dreamy days and interesting people

Lake Shore Lodge was utterly dreamy. The Funky Mango Bar and Restaurant is the heart of the place, a glass-walled open-plan building on the lake’s edge, where guests gather for drinks, meals and travel chats. Then there are a series of luxury villas set under mango trees, with bouganvilleas and frangipanis that add splashes of colour.

We stayed in a glorious villa decorated in blues, with an open front that looked out across the water. This was the 99th country in the world that Hugh had visited, and he said it was one of the nicest places in which he’d ever stayed.

The interior of the villa

The interior of the villa at Lake Shore Lodge, right on the water at Lake Tanganyika. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Lake Shore is owned and run by ex-South Africans Chris and Louise Horsfall. Louise was away, but Chris regaled us with colourful tales of what it took to build and run a lodge on the lake in remote Tanzania.

Lake lodge

A picture of tranquillity. (Photo: Hugh Fraser)

Lake Shore was filled with interesting guests. There was a Dutch family who we’d bump into again in Burundi, two South African lawyers on honeymoon, a couple of Belgian friends, and Frank, the German pilot who had custom-built a small plane to fly guests to nearby Mahale Mountains National Park, famed for its equatorial forests and wild chimps. The plane had crashed, he and his girlfriend were lucky to survive, and soon he was heading back to Frankfurt to start a new life. Chris presented the table with a bottle of whisky and the nose cone of the unfortunate plane. 

The tropical garden at Lake Shore Lodge

The tropical garden at Lake Shore Lodge. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

Hugh entertained the assembled throng with the sad story of our being fleeced by Zambian cops the day before. We got stopped at a roadblock near Kasama by armed cops who were determined to fine us for something.

They started with the bicycle attached to the back of the car, then the luggage on the back seat, then our car paperwork, all perfectly legal, and then it was obvious that money simply had to change hands. We left with a splendid Soviet-style fine for 400 Zambian kwacha for “contravening road traffic regulations”. It was worth the money just for the document, said Hugh, finally recovering from his frothy indignation. 

Hugh’s fine, a keepsake. (Photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber)

What a glorious few lakeside days we had. We visited the ruins of an old monastery nearby — Tanzania’s oldest inland church — and we moseyed over to Kipili village for a cold beer (Serengeti and Kilimanjaro are two great local brews) and sat at the interestingly named Flo­­tilla Home of Discipline Pub as the local kids stared at us.

We swam in the lake, lay on the beach, watched guests go off for scuba diving and kayaking, and watched them return for massages and cocktails. Pole, pole, as they say in Swahili, slowly slowly. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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