Tanzania’s Southern Tourist Circuit: Ernest Hemingway’s Missing Link

Two adventure seekers, Kai Hoffman and Kiang’i Samson brave rocks on the shoreline of Lake Nyasa between Matema and Ikombe in Kyela.

By Jaston Binala.

Legendary American novelist  Ernest Hemingway’s name should sound familiar to anyone who has read English novels focused on East Africa, Tanzania in particular.

Through his novel The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Hemingway has for years promoted Tanzania’s northern tourist circuit probably better than any marketing campaign could ever do;  but with some consequential collateral damage.

Unfortunately, Hemingway’s promotion of the northern tourist circuit has been at the expense of Tanzania’s southern tourist circuit which equally has abundant attractions– even when you exclude the world famous Selous Game Reserve and Mikumi National Park  in the south. It is less frequented.

Hemingway’s stories like one on the frozen leopard found in the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, and his description of hunting expeditions in Arusha are magical to read about. The stories in flamboyant prose form part of the major reasons torrents of tourists flock into Tanzania’s northern tourist circuit.

And, understandably, tour operators have perennially capitalized on Hemingway’s initial promo, adding flavors of their own.  Consequently, Tanzania is now arguably the best safari country in Africa and many consider it to be the ultimate safari country.

The northern safari circuit is the most often travelled, according to the website Culturetrip.com in one of its promo articles.  The circuit offers some of the world’s most diverse safari experiences, including the lush and abundant Ngorongoro Crater, the world famous Serengeti National Park, and the beautiful wilderness of Tarangire National Park. 

Ernest Hemingway relishes a hunting trophy in Arusha back in 1934

Ernest Hemingway stories have over popularized the northern tourist circuit at the expense of Tanzania’s southern tourist circuit which has plenty of tourist attractions too, but which did not get the free promo.

Fortunately, however, curious adventure seekers like this reporter and the German nature enthusiast Kai Hoffman are now choosing to try something different; to try the experience of unique adventures in the south like the recent excursion when the friends braved cliffs and cobra infested forests along  the Lake Nyasa shoreline on foot to reach sandy beaches about 45 kilometers away.

Hoffman traveled with three friends, including this reporter, to experience a bit of what is missing in all of Ernest Hemingway’s books on Tanzania—hiking the Mount Livingstone ranges in the south to reach the hidden unequaled sandy beaches on Lake Nyasa.

The walking adventure by three friends started at 3:00 PM from the village of Matema on the northern tip of Lake Nyasa after one plate of cooked rice, taken with chunks of fried bass fish per person, pushed with a bottle or mineral water or a coke.

The 45 kilometer trek these friends endured on the slopes of Mount Livingstone ranges on the Lake Nyansa shoreline required courage and stamina. Some cliff edges on the shoreline appeared 80 degrees steep from where the adventure seeker would see deep blue silent waters that signaled depth; depth which could swallow anyone who slipped off the cliffs.

The hikers moved south, meandering through a footpath which lost obvious visibility after the villages of Ikombe and Nkanda in the Kyela District of Mbeya region. There were trees and tall grass on either side of this footpath believed to have first been used by European explorers in search of savages and conquest. It doesn’t look like they found any savages here, though–and the situation hasn’t changed much.

Sunrise near Lumbila Village, Njombe region on the Lake Nyasa shoreline

The only sign of life on the shoreline was the fish in the silent waters, pretty chocolate faces of children and their parents in the sparsely inhabited areas at the beginning of the trek, and the birds– including fish eagles—rodents, monkeys and reported cobras in the stretch of bush where the footpath got lost. 

The three modern-day explorers traveled a portion of the uninhabited section of the trek in a moonless night with only mobile phone lights. In the dead of that darkness we got lost at one cliff where a mountain river pours waters into the lake. We lost the footpath. At this point Hoffman started asking for GPS. Unfortunately none of us had GPS. We had to estimate directions in that moonless night to continue the adventure.

Close to 9:00 PM the footpath opened again as we closed in on Lumbila village in the Ludewa district of Njombe region along the shoreline.

The power of guesswork and estimation got us out of the cliff. We eventually arrived at Lumbila Village where we found a semblance of civilization and even a guest house with solar power and rooms with tiles on its floors. Tiles in Lumbila? Well, yes…there is even a hospital there, a school, and a Roman Catholic Monastery. We learned in the morning an unmatched sandy beach is accessible here too for swimming a couple of kilometers toward the south on your way to Chanjali village.

The footpath disappears again as the hiker treks toward the villages of Chanjali and Mbimbi toward the southern ends of the lake away from Lumbila.  Mobile phone signals for most networks  from both Tanzania and Malawi are available here, though,  a definite sign we were not exploring the Nyika Plateau with David Livingston in 1862  but Ludewa District of Njombe region in Tanzania in the 21st century.

Modern day ‘hunter gatherers’ Kai Hoffman and Kiang’i Samson decided they had found something they could use.

We surveyed in daylight during the return trip the terrain we passed in darkness and got thrilled to find wild fruit. The nature in this desolate section might remind you of the ages of antiquity when Tanzania was a hunter gatherer society. We saw the African fish eagles, we saw fishermen in the lake and one unfortunate reality:

The German ‘hunter gatherer’ sizes up his wild fruit

The inhabited sections of the lakeshore stretching from Matema Beach in Kyela district to Chanjali village in Ludewa district suffer massive environmental destruction.

Villagers in the inhabited stretches are primarily fishermen cut off from the rest of the country by lack of roads. Their only connection to the rest of the country and world is by small boats plying the lake. They also have no fertile land for agriculture.  This lack of land forces the villagers to farm cassava on the steep slopes of the Mount Livingstone ranges.

The villagers on the shoreline of Lake Nyasa on the Tanzania side have consequently chopped off trees on the edges of the lake to create the agricultural land they need for cassava.  And the tilling of the land is done in ways which do not retain water when it rains. The result is massive soil erosion on the slopes of the mountain range.

Hoffman, a member of the Green Party in Germany and an environmentalist in his own right urged authorities in the country to consider educating villagers on the use of terracing methods when they farm cassava on the slopes of the mountain.

Cassava on the slopes between Chanjali and lumbilia villages.

Terracing will help reduce soil erosion on this mountain range, he says. The citizen of Germany who grew up in Tanzania as a missionary kid says Tanzania is really home to him and, like other Tanzanians, Hoffman wishes the best for this country he loves so much. Terracing will go a long way to save the environment along the Lake Nyasa shoreline on the Tanzania side he insists.