When I got in contact with Craig back in August, he mentioned something about a fundraiser swim that Conservation Lake Tanganyika organizes every year. It was supposed to be a fun event to create awareness about Nsumbu National Park and to raise some funds through sponsoring of the swimmers he told me. This year however, a group of South African swimmers also got in contact with Craig whether they could use Ndole Bay Lodge as their base in an attempt to swim across Lake Tanganyika. This extraordinary group is known as “mad swimmers” and I was about to find out why.
It was on the very same day as the day “the stuff got real” for me here in the African bush, but that’s a story that I will leave for some other day. I had been staying at Nkamba Bay Lodge for a couple of nights to set out some camera traps in the hope that we would be able to find some long lost predators in Nsumbu NP and today the first two groups of swimmers would be arriving at the airstrip. I could hear the small five-seater Cessna airplane long before it came in sight as it made its way to the gravel airstrip where Craig and I were waiting. Upon arrival, all of the passengers, including the pilot, were happy to have both their feet on the ground again as it had been incredibly hot in the small plane. After quickly shaking hands and loading their very limited luggage on the boat, we left Nkamba harbour to set course for Ndole Bay once again.
Arriving at Ndole Bay Lodge must be very pleasant for any visitor and this group of strong African swimmers certainly was no different. After settling in their rooms the swimmers made their way to the deck where they enjoyed some nice Gin and Tonics that Misheck (the lodge’s barman) blissfully prepared for them and it didn’t take all too long before our new visitors were having a blast.
On Friday afternoon, we all went for a safety briefing on the lake and most of the swimmers tasted their first mouthful of Tanganyika freshwater. In the evening, the final group of hardened swimmers arrived at the lodge and as the moon began to rise over the lake, all the swimmers were getting ready for the coming day’s big swim.
My alarm went off at 2.30 AM and it took me some time to realise why on earth I’d put my alarm at this awkward hour. When I got down to the lodge, some swimmers were already busy preparing dehydration drinks while others were enjoying an early morning coffee or tea. By 3.30, it was time to board the boats and get over to Tanzania as soon as possible to start the swim. After some minor delays due to one of the boats we were going full steam ahead into Tanzanian waters and just a little before 6 AM the first swimmers plunged in the pleasant 28 degree water of Tanganyika.
The first 45 minute swimming cycle went by very fast for me as I was helping out on one of the boats but I’m sure it must have been much longer for the people that were in the water that morning. Most of the swimmers teamed up so they would be able to swim across while taking turns as swimming for 40 kilometres straight is near impossible for most people. This Saturday however, one of the mad swimmers that goes by the name of Jean Craven, decided not to get out of the water anymore before the whole swim was finished. Supportive as always, I jumped in the water with my snorkel and flippers to try and swim with the incredibly well-trained swimmers for a bit but that turned out to be a joke. Even with my flippers, I was only able to keep up with them for about 10 minutes after which I rapidly lost sight of the guiding rope that was attached to the kayak that was paddling up front to set the course. After about 30 minutes had passed, the real swimmers were already on the horizon while this intermediate swimmer was even struggling to keep up with the support boat. To make matters worse, the boat had already stopped its engines for quite a while and even then I wasn’t able to keep up with it. I decided to get out of the water not long after that and I realised there and then where the name “mad swimmers” came from; these people are insane! Chris, our paddling hero on the kayak, was getting fed up with sitting in the same position at that stage and I decided to start helping him out so I could at least make it across the lake without being on a motorised boat all the time.
The team went on to concur the heat of the burning African sun at an insane pace of about 3.5 kilometres an hour while me and Chris (Chris did by far the most paddling by the way) were trying to keep a steady course to the Nandu headland that we could just make out on the horizon. Keeping a steady course with the kayak might sound like the easiest task of the day but when the wind picked up on starboard in the afternoon it turned out to be quite a difficult task. Our mad swimmers didn’t mind that, they were busy getting as far as possible without noticing much of their surroundings. As the swell grew bigger and the paddling became more difficult, all the people on the boat had noticed the huge waterspout that seemed to be catching up with us from starboard. Luckily, the wind changed just in time for our swimmers to continue swimming without noticing anything and the day went by without any further problems.
As the sun was slowly making its way to the Zambian horizon in the distance, and copious amounts of GU (Pure Performance Nutrition) found its way down to some of the die-hard swimmer’s stomachs to give them an energy boost, I was paddling ahead on Tanganyika’s surface in total admiration of these extraordinary swimmers.
Upon arrival on the other side of the lake, they had achieved something that had never been done before, swimming across Lake Tanganyika in one day, astonishing! And even though I did not swim across the lake myself (I barely made it any further than 2 kilometres) I can’t help but feeling very privileged of having been able to join the mad swimmers for a day. They are an incredible bunch of people that helped to raise awareness and funds for Conservation Lake Tanganyika and for that, I salute them!