We made the executive decision that things were not meant to be between us and Lake Malawi (or maybe just between us and boat departures?), and with mixed feelings, we left Malawi for Tanzania the day after leaving Nkhata Bay. The journey was long and trying--we'll spare you the details of the many buses we took--and it took a full day to reach Mbeya, the first city of any size in Tanzania. We had 15 days until we needed to be in Moshi (in the northeastern part of the country) to meet our friends, so we decided to take the very long route and visit Lake Tanganyika, which forms the western border between Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and is the world's longest (670 km) and second deepest (1470 m) lake, holding 17% of the world's freshwater!
Tanzania is a large and generally peaceful nation. Tanzanians are about 40% Muslim and 40% Christian, and speak Swahili. Many men wear a kofia, an embroidered linen cap, and women wear kangas, brightly-printed cotton wraparounds, often with a Swahili proverb. There is a heavy Arab and Indian influence, especially along the coast. The northern part of the country, which includes the famous Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Mt Kilimanjaro, along with Zanzibar Island, see a ton of tourists, but it seems that most of the rest of the country is pretty far off the tourist track.
We entered the country from the south, and we knew the going would be rough in this part of the country -- in fact, other travelers had said don't bother unless you have your own 4x4 vehicle -- but much like northern Mozambique, we gave it a shot anyway. I guess we're gluttons for punishment, but it turned out to be more than worth it. It took us two full days of cramped buses on dirt roads from Mbeya through Sumbawanga and to our first stop on the lake, a lodge in the southern section close to the small fishing village of Kipili. We can honestly say that western Tanzania is by far the most off-the-beaten-path destination we've been to yet. We did not see another foreigner from the time we left Malawi until the time we got to the Lake Shore Lodge and Campsite. Tanzanians stared at us, probably wondering what these mzungus (literally meaning 'European' but it's used more like 'whitey', and a word we've been called a lot here) were doing all the way out in this part of the country. Almost no one spoke any English, and finding the right buses and food to eat were always interesting experiences. We were not expecting Tanzanians to be as friendly as Malawians (it's a high bar), but were pleasantly surprised that in every little town, there were always one or two guys who offered to help us along the way, whether it was to buy our onward bus tickets, find a place to sleep, or find a place to get some grub. These towns have nothing close to resembling a backpackers', grocery store, or even a restaurant; they are small hubs for the region with very basic services and are certainly not set up for any kind of tourism. Showers are of the bucket variety, toilets are holes in the bathroom floor, and meals consisted of corn-on-the-cob, chips, crackers, and bananas we bought from out the bus windows.
However, upon arriving at the Lake Shore Lodge, we knew we had made the right decision. For a few weeks we had been talking about finding a spot to recharge, a place with a comfortable bed, electricty, and running--maybe even hot--water, where we could treat ourselves to a few relaxing days, but we never quite found that place in either Mozambique or Malawi. It turns out good things come to those who wait: the Lodge was by far the nicest place we've stayed in our 5+ months of travel. We slept in a lovely banda (cottage) with a huge comfy bed. From our door we could see the tranquil lake, dotted with small islands, and the DRC mountains in the distance. At night, local fisherman take their boats out and use kerosene lamps to attact the fish to their nets, so you can see several white lights out on the water. Coupled with the full moon, it makes for a pretty special sight.
The lodge's restaurant/bar area was open and airy, with comfy sofas and lots of books and games. Meals were cooked fresh, and many of the ingredients were from the owners' garden. We ate our dinners by the water, and a bonfire was lit each evening. The bar was well stocked, and they even had wine and Pimm's, a real treat considering how far from anywhere the lodge is located! There was only one other guest when we arrived, and when he left, we were the only people there, so we had the entire property to ourselves. The staff were incredibly attentive, the food was tasty, and we spent our days reading, swimming, and gazing out onto the lake. We paddled kayaks out to snorkel off one of the islands, we walked to a nearby abandoned, crumbling-but-beautiful Benedictine mission, and we took a sunset cruise with the owners our last evening. It was pure heaven, and was exactly the "vacation from our vacation" we needed; I like to think of it as a honeymoon of sorts. The owners, Chris and Louise, even upgraded us to a huge, luxurious chalet (that goes for upwards of $500/night) right on the water for our last night! We stayed for four nights in total, and when we departed to make our way further north toward Gombe Stream National Park, we were in great spirits and ready to tackle our journey once again.