The roads heading west from Mwanza to Geita and Biharamulo, then branching northward to Bukoba or westward to the Rwanda border, are generally in poor condition, as are the buses that traverse them. For travellers who are using public transport, and who simply want to get between Mwanza and Bukoba as efficiently as possible, a far better option than bussing it would be to use the overnight ferry service that runs between the two ports four times weekly. You would need to use these roads, however, should you be planning on crossing overland into Rwanda, or on travelling by road to one of the mainland ports from which you can reach Rubondo Island National Park. Overlanders driving between Tanzania and Rwanda or Uganda will also use these roads.
The most significant towns along the road running west from Mwanza are Geita and Biharamulo. Buses do run directly between Mwanza and Biharamulo, a 300km journey that entails a full day on the road, and it would certainly be possible to cover this stretch in a day in a private vehicle. There is, however, much to be said for breaking the journey into 125km and 175km stretches by staying over in Geita. If you’re heading on to Rubondo, the best options are either to fly there from Geita or else to bus on from Geita to Muganza, as covered in greater detail under the section on Rubondo Island National Park on page xxx. Details of travelling between Biharamulo and Bukoba or the Rwanda border are included below. An alternative to bussing along the southern lakeshore would be to catch a ferry from Mwanza to Maisome Island or Nyamirembe, and proceeding overland from there. In mid-2008, however, this service was not operating, check with the port in Mwanza for updates.
The booming town of Geita, which lies about 120km west of Mwanza, has emerged as the lynchpin of Tanzania’s recently revitalised gold mining industry. Tanzania was a minor gold producer in the colonial era, but production ground to a halt in the post-colonial era, to be resuscitated in the 1990s following the discovery of several new seams in Lake Victoria region. In the late 1990s, Tanzania attracted an international gold rush with few modern peers. Exports rocketed from less than US$10 million in 1998 to more than US$100 million in 2001, and the country is now ranked as the continent’s third-largest gold producer after the established giants South Africa and Ghana.
Jointly owned by Ghana’s Ashanti Goldfields and the South African AngloGold Company, the Geita Gold Mine cost US$165 million to construct, and it is reputedly the second largest on the continent outside of South Africa. It was formally opened in August 2000 by President Mkapa, and during the first 18 months of activity, more than 150,000 ounces of gold were extracted. The mine’s reserves are estimated to stand at around 15 million ounces, which at present rates of production should keep it ticking along nicely going for at least another decade. The town of Geita, meanwhile, has grown from being a rather insignificant settlement to probably the twelfth most populous in the country, with a population approaching 150,000 today.
Geita Gold Mine has attracted its far share of controversy during its short existence. Even before the mine was operational, several respected conservation bodies expressed concerns about the potential consequences of toxic sodium cyanide used in the gold extraction process leaking into the Nyamalembo River, which flows through Geita into nearby Lake Victoria. Tundu Lissu, of the US based World Resource Institute described the project as “a disaster in the making”, going on to say that “should any of this cyanide find its way into the lake, then Tanzania will not suffer alone but so will her neighbours and millions of other people”.
These concerns were stoked within months of the mine opening, when villagers in nearby Nyakabale reported several human fatalities and loss of livestock, apparently caused by a toxic substance infiltrating the village’s main water source following heavy rains. The mine has refuted widespread allegations of culpability, and the results of subsequent tests of samples taken from the dead livestock and affected water source have yet to be made public – some sources suggest agricultural pesticide rather than cyanide might have been responsible for the deaths. Whatever the truth of the matter, this much is irrefutable: mistakes happen, sodium cyanide is toxic, and Geita lies a mere 20km from an inland sea whose waters support an estimated 30 million people across three countries.
Another unrelated scandal erupted in 2001, when it emerged that hundreds of people who had been displaced by the construction of the gold mine never received the full agreed compensation payment. It appears that the mining company made the full payment of slightly more than US$5 million to the government officials responsible for co-ordinating individual compensations in 1999. But it has been alleged that somewhere along the line the official books were cooked and an undisclosed proportion of this amount was diverted away from the local people for whom it was intended. A task force appointed by the government’s Prevention of Corruption Bureau government is currently investigating the allegations.
Geita might be two thirds of the way to fulfilling the ‘sex, money and scandal’ criteria that make for a good soap opera, but the town could hardly have less to offer travellers, especially as the substantial expatriate community is based in a discrete mine compound. Still, for travellers heading from Mwanza to Rubondo Island, Rwanda or Bukoba, Geita forms a convenient stopover, linked by regular buses to Mwanza (four to five hours) and plenty of (generally very slow) transport heading further west. There’s no shortage of budget accommodation in Geita. The Africa Inland Church Hostel (tel: 028 252 0029) has been recommended as a clean, basic and peaceful place to sleep over. The Lake View Hotel, under French management, has slightly better rooms but is potentially rowdier, since it’s a favoured drinking hole with miners, with an atmosphere that completes the soap opera trio referred to above. Cheaper guesthouses abound.
In direct contrast to Geita, Biharamulo, roughly 175km to its west, is a former German administrative centre boasting an attractively laid-out, albeit rather rundown, old town centre of shady avenues lined with a few German buildings. In addition to the usual motley collection of central guesthouses, of which the Sunset Inn is about the best, accommodation is available at the Old Boma, on a hilltop about 1km from the town centre. Built in 1890 and recently restored as a guesthouse by a Dutch couple, the Old Boma is a lovely atmospheric retreat, charging around US$10 for a double room.
Biharamulo is the nearest town to the obscure Biharamulo Game Reserve, a 950km2 sanctuary dominated by miombo woodland and situated on the mainland roughly opposite Rubondo Island National Park. The reserve is known for its substantial population of roan antelope, and also supports other large mammals such as elephant, impala and topi, but visitors are thin on the ground and facilities non-existent. The rough road between Biharamulo town and the small lake port of Nyamirembe – the latter accessible by ferry from Mwanza – skirts the southern boundary of the reserve. For permission to visit the game reserve, and any other information, you must first visit the reserve headquarters in Biharamulo town.
Muleba and the Bukoba Road
Regular buses run along the 165km road between Biharamulo and Bukoba, taking about six hours or longer, depending on road conditions. One potential stopover is the port of Muleba, which lies about 60km south of Bukoba and is an important depot for coffee grown in hilly vicinity. Ferries between Mwanza and Bukoba stop at Muleba, and regular dalla-dallas between Bukoba and Muleba take about two hours. A scattering of cheap local lodgings includes the Nshamba, Size and Victor Guesthouses.
(c) Philip Briggs 2009