This past September I had the opportunity to visit Tanzania and Lake Tanganyika. Although I am a well known Central American cichlids freak, I have to make clear that I enjoy all kind of fish and particularly all kind of cichlids, from any area they may come on earth I find a great personal fascination for them. In this context a visit to the old and enigmatic lake Tanganyika, the fifth largest lake in the world (32,893 km2) and the second deepest (1,470 m) just after Lake Baikal, was one of my more caressed dreams. Lake Tanganyika harbors an almost endemic cichlid fauna of around 250 species, plus many species from other fish families as well. That dream finally met its fulfillment with this wonderful opportunity, that I overall owe to my good friend Ad Konings, for allowing me in his team and let me enjoy of all his expertise with African travels and Tanganyikan cichlids. It was quite an unique chance I could not let go.
Arriving to the Tanzanian location in Lake Tanganyika we aimed to was however not easy, or to be more precise, no quick. For me living in central México, it was an almost five day journey with just an afternoon to relax in Lilongwe (Capitol of Malawi) and a night to sleep in a nice comfortable bed. The rest was travelling, airports and borders. I never thought I would experience a travel of such magnitude, and I am quite a traveler. The last stretch of the trip was a 31 hours drive in a rented van not suitable for the road, experience that one of my travel mates accurately described as being in a sardine can inside a running washing machine. I realize however, in spite of this, that arriving to such a remote locality in the world in such a short time can just be described as a wonder of modern times (I know people one hundred years from now will laugh at me if they get to read this!). I just can think about the difficulties that people like David Livingstone had to experience in their legendary trips to Africa back in the 19th century.
More shocking after arriving to what I consider a very remote place, was to find the incredible hospitality of Chris and Louise, owners of a small but incredibly neat and comfortable resort at the lake shore near Kipili, namely Lake Tanganyika Adventure Safaris (www.laketanganyikaadventuresafaris.com). I regularly don’t give praise to any lodge, but in this case it is well deserved, as Louise and Chris went out of their way (I literally mean it, out of their way) to make us feel at home, and they just did that. At the beginning I was surprised that a lodge in such a remote location could make any business at all, but after enjoying their hospitality I had to rethink it, as I realized after talking to some guests that people takes the effort to go there and enjoy the lake and the lodge. The sign you encounter when arriving at site and being received personally by Chris says “arrive as guest and leave as friend”. It cannot be truer. I have to say it is probably the most comfortable lodge I have ever stayed in my life regardless of the lack of luxury amenities. I wasn’t expecting to find this experience in a remote place in Tanzania. After this deserved retribution to Louise and Chris kindness, I will focus on the object of this editorial.
It turned out to me that Lake Tanganyika can be a lot less dangerous than the usual gossip suggests, water can be a lot clearer (although less clear than Lake Malawi I accept) and the aquatic life a lot more fascinating that you could ever think. The incredible old lake (9-12 million years old), is dwelled by cichlid species older than the human being, like the majestic and slow moving inhabitant of deeper reefs Cyphotilapia frontosa, believed to trace back its lineage to ten million years ago (homo sapiens is believed to have separated from Chimpanzees about seven million years ago). After the first plunge into the lake, I got fascinated by the defined shapes and unique behavior of its inhabitants, more so than I was fascinated two years before by the incredible number of species and colors in Lake Malawi.
Sights I will never forget were the incredibly beautiful active males of Enantiopus melanogenys, with their large flat crater nests decorated in the center, courting passing females and keeping away other males. The packed groups of Tropheus brichardi grazing on the rocks. The clouds of thousands Cyprichromis over big boulders, with the shinning blue and orange of the males as they court females in their three dimensional territories. The elegant Goby cichlids Eretmodus cyanostictus, jumping from rock to rock in the surge area. The sneaky Neolamprologus furcifer, upside-down lurking for the eggs of the beautiful Tanganyikan killifish Lamprichthys tanganicanus as they spawn. The majestic shape of the dweller of the depths Bentochromis tricoti. The incredible sexual dimorphism of Neolamprologus callipterus, whose relative huge males defend a shell camp where most of them are occupied by a courting female, in an incredible sight of nature design. The wonderful finnage and courting of the Tanganyikan featherfins, among them Ohthalmotilapia nasuta, O. ventralis, Cyatopharynx foae and C. furcifer. Pairs of the largest cichlids in the world (presumably), Boulengerochromis microlepis, as they guard a cloud of fry composed by thousands of 15 cm juveniles! And on and on I could go to what I experienced in my eight days of pure diving and enjoying.
But this pristine beauty is not without risk of human destructive activities, which nowadays reach the farther corners on earth. As we were at the Tanzanian camp, we shared the lodge with an international group of multidisciplinary scientists, who work for an Australian company in a multimillion dollars project to find the way to extract the oil lying below the bottom of Lake Tanganyika. Highways are being constructed presumably with this end in mind. Will the wonderful fauna and beauty of Lake Tanganyika be soon another victim of our greed?
No trip can be totally successful without a group of soul mates to share it with, and this was not exception in the perfect happenings of this trip. Companions couldn’t have been better. I thank to Ad, Claudia, Ed, John, Melo, Troy and Pam for making this trip so delightfully memorable for me. I am sure the trip would not have been so enjoyable without them. I also thank our Tanzanian boat pilot Gaspar, a wonderfully professional, hard working and knowledgeable companion, who took care of even the smallest detail of the dive rides, making things look so easy and smooth.
In closing, I would like to bring up the fact that experiences like this trip can just be the result of a passionate involvement in a personal interest, in this case the love for cichlids and nature, and the curiosity to understand their wonderful evolution. Without this interest, I would probably never have been to Lake Tanganyika. We are part of a great common interest with an incredible potential to make you live life to its fullest. Thanks again to Ad Konings for making this trip possible.
See you next month!