The meeting between David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley is undoubtedly one of the most famous events in the history of African exploration. And understandably, the Voetspore team wanted to visit the spot near Ujiji where this rendezvous took place. Getting there, however, turned out to be harder than expected.
“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”
Were those words really spoken? It is certain that Henry Morton Stanley encountered the Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871, but did he utter the famous sentence? It is a question that has intrigued historians down the years.
In 1840, Livingstone set off on foot from Kuruman in the Northern Cape to explore the “Dark Continent” and free it from the terrible burden of slavery. And his African journeys elevated his status in Britain to that of national hero.
In 1864 he set off on yet another journey – this time to search for the source of the Nile. After more than five years without any news from Livingstone, rumours started to spread. Some said he was dead. Others believed that he was being held captive by hostile tribes.
Curiosity about Livingstone’s whereabouts eventually led the flamboyant newspaper entrepreneur, George Bennet, publisher of The New York Herald, to commission Henry Stanley to go and find Livingstone.
Stanley set off from Zanzibar, and travelled past Bagamoyo and Tabora. Eventually, after eight months, he found the good doctor on the shores of the Rift Valley Lake – Lake Tanganyika.
Their famous meeting took place at the small village of Ujiji and the phrase, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” ended an epic search that entailed sickness, hardship, endurance and courage.
In order to sell newspapers, the meeting had to be significant, and Stanley was not a man to let the facts interfere with a good story. The famous phrase was added to later reports of the meeting. Did he really say it? It is doubtful, but who knows?
Anyway, in view of the historic encounter, I decided that Ujiji was a place to visit. It is off the beaten track, far removed from tourist attractions such as Lake Victoria, the Serengeti or the Ngorogoro Crater. But the historical significance of the place made the journey worthwhile.
We were at Mwanza on the shores of Lake Victoria. We studied a map. It seemed easy – travel south to Tabora, then turn west and follow the Kigoma/Dar es Salaam railway line past Malagarasi all the way to Lake Tanganyika. But here was the problem – Malagarasi. It was not clear from the map if the road stopped at Malagarasi, but that didn’t bother us too much. The Voetspore team is used to bundu bashing and pushing its 4x4s through terrain that is not normally seen as traversable. So we set off.
First stop – Tabora. This city in the centre of Tanzania has a distinct Arab feel. It has many mosques and there is Arab writing on the buildings. Its Muslim character dates from the days when it was the hub of the slave trade in central Africa. The Arabs were the slave traders. They collected slaves in central Africa and marched them all the way to Bagamoyo, to be shipped to the slave market in Zanzibar. It was these very traders that Livingstone made it his mission to stop.
Tabora has little to offer in the way of accommodation. We stayed over at the Catholic Mission, which had developed into a favourite Voetspore overnight spot through the years.
The following day we left for Ujiji. Along the way people stopped us and attempted to communicate something along the lines of “it is impossible”. But how could we be sure? After all, there was a road on the map. It looked as though it stopped at Malagarasi, but clearly the railway line went all the way to Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, so why would the road end? We continued.
The road from Tabora was lined with mango trees, which interestingly, indicate the traditional slave routes. Mangoes are indigenous to India and were brought to Africa by the slave traders. The slaves ate these mangoes and discarded the pips next to the road. So today, the mango-lined roads give an indication of the slave routes used in Livingstone’s day. I have never seen as many mango trees as there are on the route between Tabora and Kigoma.
Just after midday, we arrived at the small town of Malagarasi, where the railway line crosses the Malagarasi River. We discovered that a bridge ran across the river, but it was only a railway bridge. The road stopped at the river. And the river was in flood.
Looking at the map, it was clear that a detour from Tabora, through Kahama and Kibondo, and on to Ujiji (a route of approximately 1000km) would seriously delay our progress. It would take at least two days of hard driving, so we decided to cross the river.
It was towards the end of the rainy season. The Tanzanian interior drains into the Rift Valley lake system and the river was flowing very rapidly. Before venturing into the water with our vehicles, we waded through first to check its depth. Rey was nominated and walked into the river. He did not even reach the halfway point before the water pushed past his shoulders. There was no way a Nissan Patrol would be able to get through.
Luckily there was one more option – the railway bridge. On our side of the river there was a little station, and I asked to speak to the stationmaster. He made me sit down, and closed the door. I explained our predicament and told him of our quest to get to Ujiji. I said that since a detour would add 1000km to our trip, we would like to use the railway bridge. He listened attentively, and then responded.
He said that tampering with any Tanzanian railway construction was an act of terrorism, punishable by a minimum of 15 years in jail. And driving across the bridge in motor vehicles would be deemed to be such an act.
I understood his position, but wasn’t prepared to give up that easily. Sure, ending up in jail would be a catastrophe, but for this to happen, the “act of terrorism” surely had to be observed and reported. What, I asked, would happen if the crossing happened at night with no one around? Surely it would not be reported.
I am not in the habit of bribing foreign officials, but to ensure that he understood the subtext of my statement, I mentioned that there could potentially be a small reward for a magnanimous official willing to let us cross.
The stationmaster stood his ground. He had been working for Tanzanian railways all his life and was approaching retirement. And he was not going to put his job on the line.
One could hardly blame him, so we turned around. This was probably the first time a Voetspore team had had to admit defeat. Normally we pushed on. Normally we refused to backtrack. But not at Malagarasi.
We drove back in the direction of Tabora and stayed over at Urambo. From there we travelled to Kigoma, and then Ujiji.
Ujiji was once on the shores of the lake. Since 1871, though, the shoreline has receded significantly, and today the water is more than 500m from the meeting place.
But to visit Ujiji, to observe the monument, is like walking on sacred ground. A visit to this seemingly insignificant spot is a must, even if it involves taking a 1000km detour, just to say “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”