Horror on the water

After having completed my mission at Kalambo Falls Lodge, my wish was to set over to the other side of the lake and visit Ndole Bay which borders Nsumbu National Park. I’ve heard of a beautiful underwater world there and was keen to explore it. The cheapest way of getting there is the ferry from Mpulungu. I had a bad feeling about it (is it safe? Are we going to survive this?) but was told by several people that it’s not too bad



“Be at the Harbour at 8am and get the front seats. Bring alcohol but hide it cause you’re not allowed to have it. Take a big coke bottle and mix it with brandy.” Wise advices that I all followed. Usually, the ferry takes off about 10, latest 11am. But past eleven, people were still busy with loading tons of Nshima bags, crates of different drinks (mostly energy drinks), cabbage, solar panels, chickens (alive of course!), tyres etc. I saw the mark on the boat go down and down until it was underwater (that’s when the boat is overloaded). Stay positive. They don’t do this for the first time. At twelve, the passengers started to get nervous and waited just in front of the entrance area. When the ferry manager finally gave the hand sign of “you can now enter the ferry”, everybody just started running mad! Our hand luggage was already on the front seats but the seats were covered with all sorts of vegetables, plastic bowls, and sacks of unknown content. Finally, the workers made a bit of space for us but in front of us there was a huge untied pile of all kinds of stuff including rusty metal door frames. One wave and this shit will stab me…stay positive. But it was already late and the wind usually picks up in the afternoon. Never underestimate Lake Tanganyika. It is so huge that it behaves like the sea.

Not even three minutes after departure, the marine police caught the ferry and dictated us back to the harbour. The manager Gilbert gave an emotional speech to calm down the people. He started with: “We are not overloaded”, while I clearly saw three workers unloading about three tons (about 60 bags) of Nshima bags. Gilbert went on: “We don’t want to lose you because if we lose you, we need to close our company.” I’ve heard more engaging speeches in my life. After the police gave the okay, we finally took off.

This was our view.

The first half an hour was still okay but the wind picked up soon and the waves started to reach one meter. One wave hit us from the side and I was soaked within a second. From there on it would be 6 hours of suffering and shivering was not the worst.

After one liter of brandy coke to calm down my nerves, I needed to go to the toilet in the very back of the ferry. First, I climbed over a huge tyre that completely blocked my way, then jump over baskets full of horrified chicken and sleeping babies to finally reach the “toilet”. That was during the first two hours when I was still in the condition to go to the toilet. It would get much worse.

Before we were half way to Nsumbu, the final destination, the waves became about three meters and our heavy boat was flooded with water and drifted like a nutshell on the water. To protect us a little bit from the water, they tied down heavy plastic sheeting so I could not see anything outside. With my right arm, I tried to hold the sheeting up a tiny bit to see what is out there and when the next wave was going to hit us.

The waves became so high that we constantly had the feeling of a free fall when the boat went down from the wave. I started vomiting and would not stop for a long time. I haven’t felt so miserable in a long time. Maybe since Malaria. I was busy with thinking about if and how we are going to die, preventing my stomach from collapsing and falling asleep from puking and shaking. When I thought it couldn’t get worse, the guy in front of me said that it would “only” take three more hours. Children screamed, the ferry stank of all sort of body liquids and the waves crashed against the boat with a terrifying noise. My field assistant started to pray.

Eventually, we survived and reached the harbour of Nsumbu when it was already dark. My recommendation: if you cling to life, invest some money and take an expensive transport boat!!!! Amen

Published by caribiologist

Postdoc at the University of Basel, Switzerland

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