OUT&ABOUT: The town the Germans built

Friday November 17 2017

Kigoma Railway Station, built by the Germans

Kigoma Railway Station, built by the Germans before World War 1. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT 

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I dive into the dazzling blue, warm waters of Lake Tanganyika – Africa’s longest and deepest lake, located in the western arm of the Great Rift Valley. It is also the world’s longest freshwater lake, stretching 675 kilometres. It holds 18 per cent of the world’s fresh water.

In 1858, John Speke and Richard Burton reached its shores looking for the source of the Nile and from here, Speke continued to the lake he named Victoria, making an intelligent guess that it had to be the source of the Nile.

Tanganyika is picture-perfect – a gold beach laced with huge, grey boulders and hilly forest surrounding the lake, whose water is so clean and clear I can see the bottom. To my annoyance I haven’t carried goggles to look for the creatures that can only be found in this lake, like the little fish called cichlids and the fish-eating Storm’s water cobra.

We’re here in Kigoma for two reasons. One is to sail to Gombe National Park that’s three hours by motorboat, to look for chimpanzees, and two is to drive to Ujiji that’s six kilometres from Kigoma.

Kigoma is the town the Germans built as the last sleeper on the 1,252-kilometre Central Line railway that was hammered in just before the start of World War 1 in 1914.


The line started Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean and carved along the old caravan route. Kigoma Railway Station is the most impressive building in the quiet little town.

We’re also close to Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. We see local boats ferrying passengers to and fro, heavily laden with all sorts of ware. Had we planned it better, we would have sailed on the MV Liemba to Zambia.

MV Liemba is no ordinary ship. Built in 1913 in Germany and christened Graf Goetzen after the governor of the German colony, it was used to patrol the lake.

In 1916 when the Germans were forced to retreat from Kigoma, the ship’s captain had her scuttled in Katabe Bay in Kigoma. In 1924, the British Royal Navy salvaged her and she’s been in service since 1926 when she was restored. Liemba is also the only vessel from the German Imperial Navy still sailing in the world.

She’s been featured in many movies including The African Queen and though I don’t see her on the lake, I’ve seen the model at the Railway Museum in Nairobi.

After our water excursion we drive into the narrow-laned town where I meet Dr Anthony Collins of Jane Goodall Institute based in town who recommends a local eatery for the mgebuka – a delicacy of Lake Tanganyika.

It’s a subspecies of the Nile Perch, fried and so delicious that only the bones remain.

In the first light of the morning as the red-hot sun goes up, we’re on the motor boat to Gombe in search of the chimpanzees.