After taking off from Bukavu we head back across the southern end of Lake Kivu, destination Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Our route takes us past the point where the borders of Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda meet and in this area we fly over some spectacular scenery of mountains and rivers – indeed, the mountains here are very high and the Catalina claws her way up to overfly the peaks. Fortunately, at the point where they get really high, there is a convenient pass that we fly through and shortly after this we see the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika in the vicinity of the town of Uvira, just inside Zaire.
After the hazy heat of the mountains, the lake looks most inviting as we start to fly down its length, all the while reporting our progress to the controllers at Bujumbura in Burundi. Like Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika is a vast inland sea, no less than 450 miles long, up to 50 miles wide in places and very deep.
After 100 minutes flying time we land at the Tanzanian airport of Kigoma, our approach being relayed by a Cessna 182 as our own transmissions are not being picked up on the ground. The Cessna is owned by Roland Purcell of whom more later. Because we have crossed international borders again, we are faced with more form-filling although the exercise seems a little less serious than when we first crossed into Tanzania at Mwanza a few days before. Kigoma and its neighboring town of Ujiji are at the inland end of the railway line that crosses Tanzania from the coast at Dar es Salaam and passes through Dodoma and Tabora. I suspect that train-spotting in Tanzania is even less exciting than ‘plane-spotting although Kigoma is comparatively packed with no less than four Cessna 182s on the ‘field! The Catalina of course dominates the red dirt dispersal and is shadowed by a desultory and hungry looking soldier who doesn’t look like the sort to allow photography so I don’t even bother asking! Eventually, he asks for food and money and his requests are politely refused.
We have to wait at Kigoma for several hours, not to refuel on this occasion, but to wait until the water conditions on the lake further south are suitable for the Catalina. After a while, the airfield controller drives over to say he is going home and we will have to manage without him. Luckily, the likelihood of conflicting traffic seems pretty low! The water on the lake can get quite rough as the day wears on with winds from the Zaire side whipping up the surface and making landings potentially rather exciting! Our destination is Mahale Camp which is right on the shore where the lake is at its narrowest, about half-way down its length. We are told that the camp is some 100 miles or more from the nearest road and it is bordered on one side by the lake and on the other (eastern) side by thickly forested mountains. The only ways to reach the camp are by boat from Kigoma or by light aircraft and even then the journey has to be completed by boat! The only contact with the outside world is by radio. The camp is run by the aforementioned Roland Purcell, an expert on the area and a noted chimpanzee researcher and he uses the airstrip for his small Cessna.
The drill is for the Catalina crew to make contact with the camp at Mahale by radio to check on water conditions before setting off for a landing on the lake. On this day, our contact is the camp cook who relays information back to us. What does he mean if he says the water is boiling? – is he referring to the lake or his vegetables?! The first call is met with the answer that conditions are thought to be too rough but, an hour later, it is deemed suitable for an attempt so in the late afternoon we set-off.
The Mahale Mountains are covered in thick forest and rise to 8,000 ft with their base right on the lake’s edge. The actual site of our camp for the next three nights is a fabulous spot with green forested slopes contrasting with the white sandy bay in which it is situated and the bright blue waters of the lake.As Bryan McCook prepares to land on Lake Tanganyika, the sun is already beginning to drop.
Bryan McCook is in the left-hand seat for this leg and, on arrival, he circles the Catalina around the proposed landing area, assessing the water state and deciding on where to position the aircraft for the landing run. Once committed, we swoop over the beach and Bryan executes a marvelous landing on the still quite choppy water. It is not a full-stall landing but something like it as the Cat’ is dropped skillfully onto the surface. It is a wonderful experience and if I had to imagine an idyllic scene in which to arrive in a flying boat then my fantasy may not even match the reality of Mahale with its beach, mountains, forest, tented encampment and camp fire! Even as we taxy towards the beach, the sun is setting and the light rapidly fading with moonlight beginning to appear from the east. Amazing!
Z-CAT's mooring at Mahale with the mountains in the background. Visible is the tented 'dining room' whilst our tents are just in front of the trees, barely visible here Sunset at Mahale
Our time at Mahale is primarily spent tracking chimpanzees in the wild although there is plenty of time to relax, swim, go boating on the lake and exchange impressions of our Catalina adventure to date. All the while, our beautiful white flying boat is riding the waves as they crash ashore, anchored to the sandy beach with its undercarriage down and its tail tied to a convenient tree!A rather more choppy scene at the Mahale mooring with white cpas on the lake!
Come Saturday, August 15th 1992 we must return to the real world on the other side of the Mahale Mountains. Our early morning takeoff in the capable hands of Dave Evans is from calm water, the run taking about sixty seconds with a full load of passengers. Dave heads out over the mountains and into the sunny haze for this flight that will take us right across Tanzania. The scenery is vast but there are not too many places to force land! We stop at Tabora for another session of wobble-pumping to replenish Z-CAT’s fuel tanks courtesy of local labour and a small BP bowser trailer. This takes over two hours and yet again we are the only aircraft on the airfield, at least as far as I can tell. I resist the temptation to walk over to a small shack-like hangar, conscious of the ever-present Tanzanian soldier that is part of the scenery at all airfields in this country. I suspect it is empty but I like to dream that inside there may have been a long-abandoned East African Airways de Havilland Dragon Rapide or something similar!
To be fair, the guards here are friendly and they let us take photos on the apron. The usual crowd of children has turned out to peer at us and our old aircraft through the wire fence – we are something of a novelty to them! Antoinette Jaunet produces another superb cold meal on board the ‘plane – we still have some of the Parma ham that I lugged out to Nairobi all the way from Heathrow at the start of this adventure.Re-fuelling at Tabora in the middle of Tanzania - pilots Dave Evans and Bryan McCook survey the scene from atop the wing
To be concluded…