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Tanganyika – a miracle lake in Africa

Reading time: 32 min.
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Lake Tanganyika is one of the oldest freshwater lakes on the planet, a real miracle of nature. Tanganyika is a venue of the great evolutionary experiment – its waters are inhabited with endemic species of fish and other animals not found anywhere else in the world. The maximum depth of the lake is 1,470 m, and only Lake Baikal trumps Tanganyika in terms of depth. The shores of the lake are framed with beautiful sandy beaches and tropical forests.

Lake Tanganyika at sunset
Lake Tanganyika at sunset

Location and geography

The shoreline of Lake Tanganyika crosses the territory of four countries at once: Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Zambia. But Tanzania boasts the best views and the most convenient access to the lake. Tanzania also owns almost half of the waters of Tanganyika, and the shoreline here is for the most part either even with the water level or slides down in gentle slopes. At the same time, the shoreline on the opposite side of the lake in the DR Congo is formed by rocky cliffs.

Tanganyika Lake is so huge that when you stand on its shore, it seems like it’s a sea in front of you, though a calm one. The average width of Tanganyika is 50 km. But the most impressive part is that the lake is 676 ​​km in length – from northern to southern tip. This is more than the distance between Paris and Milan – just imagine all this space filled with water! This makes Tanganyika the longest freshwater lake on the planet.

The lake is rich in fish, and fishing is a popular activity for the local community. Besides regular freshwater fish caught for cooking, aquarium fish are also a common catch here. Dozens of moored boats, wooden bridges for fishermen with fishing rods are a typical landscape in this area.

Fishing boats on Lake Tanganyika
Fishing boats on Lake Tanganyika

Vast stretches of the shore zone are surrounded by real tropical forests that provide home for chimpanzees. Chimpanzees like to climb down to the waters of the lake, and you can observe them from the territories of national parks.

The largest settlement near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania is the city of Kigoma with a population of over 200 thousand people. It is a poor but exotic city. Among the attractions are the old buildings of the railway station, port facilities and a shipyard built in the colonial era. There is also a small museum dedicated to the research of the traveler Livingston.

A fruit vendor on a street in Kigoma City
A fruit vendor on a street in Kigoma City
Fresh fish is sold on the streets of Kigoma in the morning
Fresh fish is sold on the streets of Kigoma in the morning

On the northern shore of Tanganyika in the neighboring country Burundi, there’s a large capital city Bujumbura. To the west, in DR Congo, lies the city of Kalemie – a largest western port of Lake Tanganyika. These and other small towns are connected to Tanzanian Kigoma by river transport. The most striking among them is the famous German steamship Liemba (MV Liemba). Within its century-long history, it sank twice staying at the bottom of the lake for several years, but was eventually raised and renovated, and is now cruising with passengers around Tanganyika. Read this mind-blowing story in the final part of our article.

Things to do while on the lake

Be sure that Africa’s deepest lake will surprise you not once with exciting discoveries. To find them, you don’t even need to dive a kilometer deep – it’s enough to scratch the surface!

Walking and observing chimpanzees in the parks

The most popular type of recreation at Lake Tanganyika is to visit one of the national parks closely adjacent to the lake – Gombe Stream National Park and Mahale Mountains National Park. The dominant vegetation in both parks is natural rainforests.

The parks are home to hundreds of species of birds and mammals, predators among them. But of greatest interest are the primates living in these forests as families. The most common among them are chimpanzees, the closest relative of humans (more than a 90% genome match). Just imagine how exciting it is to watch our wild brethren in their natural habitat groom one another, play complex social games and interact in a variety of other ways!

Chimpanzee in Mahale Mountains Park
Chimpanzee in Mahale Mountains Park

The beaches of Lake Tanganyika

Besides walks with chimpanzees, you can indulge in a traditional beach holiday. There are several beaches in the city of Kigoma, and some of them are simply amazing spots to relax! Quiet sandy shores with clear and calm water, lodges with authentic tropical ambience, walks by the lake under a canopy of tropical trees bowing down to the lake, and, finally, breathtaking sunsets. A paradise you wouldn’t expect to find in the depths of the African continent.

However, we should warn those who might decide to explore the shores of Tanganyika on their own – never go far away from the city or other settlements. Quiet empty nooks to swim and enjoy the beautiful views will be luring you in from everywhere, but remember that these wild spots are where crocodiles and other dangerous predators are likely to lurk. Always stay on civilized beaches and ask our managers for advice before heading to the lake.

Sunset on the beach of Lake Tanganyika
Sunset on the beach of Lake Tanganyika

Diving in Tanganyika

Tourist infrastructure outside the national parks is still poorly developed, but fishing enthusiasts will find surely find hotels and docks for motor and rowing boats. There are even diving centers that run underwater excursions to the beautiful colorful fish that abound in the waters of Tanganyika.

Pleasure boat on the shore of Tanganyika
Pleasure boat on the shore of Tanganyika

With the waters of the lake being mostly calm, it is an ideal place for beginners to get their first diving lessons. It’s best to start in shallow water. In some places, water transparency reaches 20 meters and higher, so even experienced divers will enjoy a visit to the inhabitants of the lake.

The water in the lake is very warm: the temperature fluctuates at around 24–28 °С. Dives are comfortable and safe - neither mammals nor amphibians will bother divers. Residents even joke that diving in Tanganyika is safer than taking local shuttle buses.

It’s important to keep in mind that the surface of the lake lies as high as 773 meters above sea level, so diving will take place virtually in high mountain conditions. Diving experience and professional guidance will be to your benefit.

Lake Tanganyika is called a huge natural aquarium because of the many types of cichlids that live here and nowhere else. You can watch these beautiful cichlids from a close distance in shallow water – dive only five meters deep and you will be surrounded with shoals of colorful nimble fish!

Boating and fishing

You can always take a boat trip from the shore of the lake. Local guides will take you to the best spots accessible only from water. The nature here is untouched by man and beautiful beyond words. This is one of the warmest regions on our planet, a world of tropical vegetation and the richest diversity of the animal kingdom.

Tanganyika is also famous for sport fishing. In March-April, there’s a special championship held on these shores. It is a perfect event to fish for fun. Besides, a great deal of the world’s beautiful aquarium fish is caught here and then dispatched to aquarium enthusiasts.

Shore of Lake Tanganyika, view from Tanzanian side
Shore of Lake Tanganyika, view from Tanzanian side

Among the highly prized “trophies” chased both by the local and visiting fishermen are "elephant" and "tiger". “Water elephant” is a Hausa language name for a Nile perch. It’s about 0.5 meters long and weighs 15 kg. The record parameters ever recorded were 180 cm and 140 kg. “Tiger” is a giant tigerfish, also known as hydrocynus goliath – 1.5 meters in length, weighing 50 kg. The most impressive thing about it is 32 canine teeth. They say that tigerfish attack even hatchlings of a Nile crocodile.

What is Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika is the oldest rift lake in Africa, formed during the movement of the two tectonic plates – the Arabian and the African ones – and the following split of the latter into two. The place where the African plate broke into the Somali and Nubian plates became a huge water reservoir that we now call the African Great Lakes. Besides Tanganyika, among these lakes are lakes Victoria, Nyasa (Malawi), Rudolf (now Turkana), Edward (Rutanzige), Albert and Kivu.

Tanganyika is also the deepest lake in Africa, with a maximum depth of 1471 m. On a global scale, it is the second deepest after Lake Baikal with its 1642 m. The average depth of Lake Tanganyika is 570 meters. It is filled with the volume of fresh water that amounts to 18% of the total world's supply that we have access to. Considering the unique features of this lake we could list numbers and measurements forever, but we’d rather move on to more exciting facts!

What is the origin of the name Tanganyika

The first version of the name’s origin says that in the language of one of the local tribes there is a phrase similar in sound, which means something like "a reservoir abounding with fish." According to other explanations of local residents, the word "Tanganyika" can be translated as "a plain-like lake" or "a huge lake stretching like a plain." However, there can’t be a final definitive version because multiple tribes have been settling by these shores, each with their own language and their own description of the lake.

It is also interesting that in the past, Tanganyika served as a name for the mainland of the present-day Tanzania, when it was not yet an independent state and was ruled by Great Britain.

How old is Lake Tanganyika

By use of the reflected wave method, it was possible to establish when Lake Tanganyika began to form. According to seismic data, it happened 9-12 million years ago. In fact, this process continues to this day as the African Plate is slowly breaking apart just under the lake. In a few more million years, the tectonic plate will finally split, and East Africa will slowly float into the Indian Ocean. In this process, the current lake will get filled with sea salt water.

In general, Tanganyika has three basins of different age: the most ancient central one and younger southern and northern ones, some parts of the latter formed closer to the modern time (2 million years ago). As explorers were probing different areas of the lake, the age of Tanganyika would be determined with wide discrepancies, which caused confusion.

The final conclusion was made by geneticists. They examined the genomes of local fish and established their common ancestor. Judging by the so-called molecular clock, it lived right at the time of the lake formation.

Who and when "discovered" Tanganyika

Not wishing to propagate a one-sided Eurocentric view of the world, we will not delve into details of the "discovery" of Lake Tanganyika. It is obvious that people have lived here since ancient times – so long ago that this place probably saw the rise of Homo sapiens as species, considering that the Olduvai Gorge lies only 700 kilometers away from here.

Richard Burton and John Speke, brave British travelers and explorers, were the first Europeans to find the lake. They were striving to find the source of the great Nile and came to the waters of Tanganyika in 1858.

Tanganyika tributaries

Lake Tanganyika is formed by rain and several rivers. The largest of them, Ruzizi, comes from the north, from the territory of Burundi. By the way, it is on the banks of the Ruzizi that the legendary cannibal crocodile Gustav is said to abide. Gustav is credited with killings of 300 people, and he even became the main character of the horror film “Primeval”.

Nile crocodile. Found in abundance in the waters of Tanganyika
Nile crocodile. Found in abundance in the waters of Tanganyika

The Malagarasi River also carries water to the oldest lake in the region. Malagarasi itself is older than Tanganyika, and before the formation of the lake it used to fall into the Congo River. Local tribes call it "the river of bad spirits." We do not recommend going there unprepared. It is better to check all details with our managers and choose one of the safe and reliable tours with Altezza Travel.

We will not list all the lesser tributaries of Lake Tanganyika here. Let's just say that only one river comes out of the lake – Lukuga River. Lukuga flows through the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the equatorial jungle and straight into the Congo River. And that one, in turn, fallls into the Atlantic Ocean.

Special features of Tanganyika

As you probably realized by now, Lake Tanganyika is unique and full of surprises. No matter who you are - an experienced traveler, scientist or researcher – everyone will be impressed with the exciting features that it has in store.

The layered waters

In the language of science, this phenomenon is called stratification, and stratified reservoirs are called meromictic. This is best translated into human language by the example of the Bloody Mary cocktail. First, we pour thick tomato juice into a glass, and then add some vodka on top. The layers won’t mix up due to the different densities of the liquids.

Panorama of Lake Tanganyika
Panorama of Lake Tanganyika

The same thing happens in Tanganyika. No, diving deeper will not get you to the tomato juice, quite the contrary. The top layer is oxygenated water, which constitutes a great environment for existence of live organisms. But 200 meters deeper and down to the very bottom lies a column of water containing hydrogen sulfide eliminating any possibility of life there. The deep waters of the lake are a natural cemetery, a hydrological monument of nature.

The water in the lake is getting warmer

According to some observations, over the past century, the average water temperature in the surface layers of the lake has increased by 2 °C. It's a rapid and significant jump. Water warming brings about changes in the life of organics. For example, the number of algae is decreasing, and more and more poisonous water hyacinth, also called a malicious weed, is appearing on the surface instead.

All of this leads to a decrease in fish in Lake Tanganyika. Countries with access to the lake, as well as international conservation organizations, are looking for solutions to protect the unique ecosystem of the ancient lake. Let's hope it can be saved.

Tanganyika – nature’s lab

Throughout its long history of millions of years, the lake has never dried up. And it’s almost always remained isolated from other water reservoirs. And even now, despite the outflow of water through the Lukuga River, the fish remain in the lake and do not enter the Congo River system.

It was this combination of conditions (isolation, vast volumes of fresh water, stratification, favorable climate) that produced a rare phenomenon within such a relatively small area - a large-scale formation of new species.

The unique fauna of Tanganyika

The fauna of the lake is made up of a great variety of species, more than 2 thousand in total. A large part of them have walked their evolutionary paths and are to be found only here, at the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The species that occur only in a limited area are called endemic. Lake Tanganyika and its surroundings are a habitat for a great number of endemics, and for this reason it is highly prized not only by research biologists, but, for example, by aquarists.

Fish of Tanganyika

The local types of sardines, sprat and the four types of perch are the most popular ones among anglers, and all of them are considered to be endemic to Tanganyika. In addition to that, catfish and eels inhabit these waters in a number of distinctive species. Even a poisonous pufferfish of its own kind is also found here.

But most of all, the lake is famous for fish from the cichlid family. At least 250 species of cichlids live here, and almost all of them are unique. Some species still remain unexplored.

Among the most beautiful and popular ones are:

  • lobed cyphotilapia zebra ("Queen of Tanganyika");
  • several types of tropheus;
  • Julidochromis;
  • many lamprologus, including the multi-striped lamprologus and Princess Burundi.
Lobed cyphotilapia - Queen of Tanganyika
Lobed cyphotilapia - "Queen of Tanganyika"

Aquarists around the world closely follow the research of the Tanganyika ichthyofauna, exchanging valuable information and, of course, hunting for rare colorful fish. Avid enthusiasts really want to get these beauties for their aquariums, not found anywhere else in the world.

By the way, even more cichlids can be found in the neighboring lakes: Victoria and Nyasa (Malawi). Moreover, in each of these reservoirs there are many of their own endemics.

Animals of Tanganyika

Dozens of snail species and other classes of mollusks are found in the lake. Many of them, again, are endemics. Besides mollusks, Tanganyika has even bred its own species of jellyfish!

The bottom and the shore of Tanganyika are literally crawling with crustaceans: there are at least two hundred species of them. These are crabs, shrimp and more representatives of other subclasses. When it comes to diversity of crustaceans and freshwater snails, no other African Great Lake can compare to Tanganyika.

Nile crocodiles, water cobras and some turtle species are the local reptiles. All large animals, as a rule, avoid crowded places and prefer thickets, and the likelihood of meeting them in the open is quite low. But there are monkeys that can sometimes be seen approach water.

National parks near Lake Tanganyika

As mentioned earlier, there are two national parks of Tanzania whose tropical forests border with the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Gombe Stream National Park

The first one is the smaller Gombe Stream National Park nestled on the northeastern shore. Its area is only 71 km2. As goes one funny saying, the number of monkeys in the park is equal to the number of scientists watching them.

Observing chimpanzees is a really old tradition here, it is more than half a century old. And the longer the observation, the more accurate the conclusions. It was here that the legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Goodall spent her entire professional life and overturned common public preconceptions by proving that chimpanzees can experience complex emotions and, more than that, are a highly intelligent species. The scientist is still actively advocating animal rights, even though she is now about 90 years old.

Chimpanzee family in Gombe National Park
Chimpanzee family in Gombe National Park
Chimpanzees are really inquisitive animals
Chimpanzees are really inquisitive animals

Besides chimpanzees, you will also find here yellow baboons, red colobuses, vervets, blue and red-tailed monkeys. Hippos, leopards, bush pigs and a great variety of snakes and birds, including flamingos, also live in the park.

The landscapes here are amazing! Exotic eco-lodges of Gombe Stream are waiting for you to come visit.

Mahale Mountains National Park

To the south of Kigoma lies one of the most beautiful parks in Tanzania - Mahale Mountains National Park with an area of ​​1613 km2.

As the name implies, the park stretches along the coastal mountain range called Mahale. Its peaks reach a height of 2462 meters. The rainforest spreads over the mountains like a gentle natural blanket, giving all its inhabitants shelter, shade and an abundance of food. Local chimpanzees live here like real royalty, just like hundreds of thousands of years ago. The thing is that the park is difficult to access because of the mountainous terrain, and chimpanzees have bred here in such numbers that no other Tanzanian park can boast.

Chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains Park
Chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains Park

It is all the more surprising that chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains get along with lions, also found in these areas. Hundreds of species of birds, porcupines and squirrels live in the park, and in the savannah part, in addition to lions, giraffes and zebras occur. However, visitors will not be able to get to savannah because the way would lie through the dense vegetation of the forest with no proper roads.

Local residents were relocated from Mahale Mountains in the last century. But now the region has almost returned to its primeval state.

The way to this park is unusual – you can get here only by boat. All movement around the coastal territory is possible only on foot.

Let’s get back to the city life!

Port City of Kigoma

It’s hard to call Kigoma - this large city on the shore of Tanganyika - remarkable in any way. However, it has some uniqueness to it that certainly deserves our attention.

To begin with, the city has a railway station, from where trains cross the country all through to Dar es Salaam, the capital by the Indian Ocean. Besides that, there is an airport.

You can walk around the city, although it is better to do this in the company of an accompanying guide. There are not so many tourists in the west of Tanzania, so a traveler may not be very comfortable on the streets of Kigoma.

There are many old colonial buildings in Kigoma
There are many old colonial buildings in Kigoma

If you are a fan of history and geography, it makes sense to drop by the small Livingston Museum and learn about those times when Africa was just in the beginning of being explored by Europeans. Here you can also pay respect to the statue of David Livingston, a brave traveler, missionary and humanist. There are almost no artifacts in the museum but taking a memorable photo at the meeting place of the famous African explorer with Henry Morton Stanley is an interesting challenge.

And finally, we recommend dropping into the port.

The legendary ship "Liemba" (MV Liemba)

Short military life under the name "Count von Götzen"
In the port of Kigoma, you can see a large ship, very old in appearance, if you look closely. Its long white hull, rectangular openings of the lower deck with handrails and now unusually protruding pipes suggest that we are facing a historic steamship. So it is - this venerable old sport is over a hundred years old.

The German cargo-passenger steamer Graf von Goetzen was launched in 1915. The First World War was raging, the current mainland of Tanzania was owned by Germany, and Germany needed military power on the waters of Lake Tanganyika to resist the combined forces of the Entente. Belgium, which ruled neighboring Congo, was a more immediate opponent.

So quite unexpectedly, the smooth surface of the ancient African lake was disturbed by a warship with real artillery pieces. Shots rang out, and drama escalated as the warring sides were sending their soldiers to the bottom.

In a year and a half, the Germans had to retreat. A strategic decision was made to temporarily sink the Graf von Goetzen near the mouth of the Malagarasi River in order to return later and raise it from the bottom. German troopers lubricated the steamer's mechanisms with a thick layer of oil and sent it to the bottom. But they did not return to Tanganyika because the war was lost.

In a couple of years, the Belgians raised the ship up, but another two years later there was a storm that took the poor Graf von Goetzen to the bottom again.

Long peaceful service under the name "Liemba"

When the entire mainland territory of the present-day Tanzania was taken over by the British and took the name of the lake, the steamer was raised, restored and refitted for civilian needs. In 1927 the former German warship became known as the "Liemba" (MV Liemba), and its mission was proclaimed to be the peaceful transportation of goods and passengers.

As the years passed, things changed in Tanzania, and even more so in the big world. But on Lake Tanganyika, something remained unchanged for almost a century - the passenger ship MV Liemba continued to ply between Kigoma and other ports. And this story has not ended - experts say that the ship's skin is in good condition and will last for several more years.

We hope that MV Liemba will soon celebrate another centennial anniversary, already as an exclusively peaceful steamship.

Ship MV Liemba
Ship MV Liemba

If not take a cruise, then at least take a photo of the legendary ship in the port of Kigoma is a very special thing to do for an inquisitive traveler.

Tanganyika - the great African lake, waiting for a visit

You might have noticed that in Africa, time seems to flow slowly, and events stretch out for years and even millions of years. And only the brevity of human life can rush us to the continent that is our home.

If you decide not to delay your trip to the beautiful Tanzania, do not forget to visit Lake Tanganyika. It will always have something to surprise and impress you with.

Tourist bungalow on the coast of Tanganyika
Tourist bungalow on the coast of Tanganyika

The western region of Tanzania has great potential for development of ecotourism, and we are sure that it will very soon rise in popularity. But you can already become one of those few to explore this amazing lake with its secrets and all the best that it has.

Revised on 30 May 2022
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