Mpanda, Sumbawanga & Rukwa


The small and rather nondescript town of Mpanda is, despite its remote location, a significant route focus for travellers exploring the infrequently visited southwest of Tanzania, as well as being the northern springboard for visits to the nearby Katavi National Park. Straddling the rough dirt road that connects Kigoma to Mbeya via Sumbawanga, Mpanda is also the southern terminal of a branch line of the central railway that runs southwest from Tabora. Mpanda is linked by road to the Lake Tanganyika ferry ports of Ikola and Kalema.


Getting there and away

The most likely reasons why travellers would pass through Mpanda are to visit Katavi National Park, to travel by road between Kigoma and the Zambia border area, or to see part of Lake Tanganyika from the ferry before looping back north by rail between Mpanda and Tabora.

For those coming to or from Mpanda by lake ferry, the closest ports are Ikola and Kalema. There is no regular road transport from either port to Mpanda, but a few passenger-carrying trucks run up and down the road every week, taking up to five hours in dry weather and much longer – or possibly not running at all – after heavy rain. Based on our experience, and that of other travellers, a two to three day wait for transport is par for the course.

The best option travelling northward from Mpanda is the twice-weekly train service to and from Tabora. These trains leave from Tabora on Monday and Friday at 21.00 and from Mpanda on Tuesday and Saturday at 13.00. Departures are generally quite punctual, but the actual trip typically takes take anything from 10 to 15 hours. There is no restaurant car or bar on the train, and although some food and drink can be bought at stations, you’d best stock up for the trip. For more details of fares and bookings, as well as onward rail connections from Tabora to Kigoma, Mwanza and Dar es Salaam, see the box The Central Railway on page xxx. Note that although there is no formal public transport along the road between Mpanda and Kigoma via Uvinza, a few trucks usually run this way most days, taking at least 12 hours.

The road south from Mpanda to Sumbawanga via Sitalike and Katavi National Park used to be very lightly trafficked, but these days there is at least one bus daily, as well as several dalla-dallas that meet all trains arriving in Mpanda. The Super City Hotel complex is the hub of all public transport out of Mpanda, and we’ve always found people here to be very helpful with advice and information about transport.

Where to stay and eat

Super City Hotel Tel 028 282 0459. Three different guesthouses, as well as a restaurant and a couple of bars, are confined within this fenced compound on the Sumbawanga road about 1km out of the town centre. The best lodging, to your far left as you enter the compound, is the multi-storey Super City Hotel, which charges a very reasonable Tsh4,000/6,000 for clean and airy en-suite single/twin rooms with running water. The other guesthouses are more basic and cheaper. The restaurant, which serves grilled chicken or fish and chips, is very variable in standard convenient. Most truck drivers stay here, and all southbound public transport leaves from the compound entrance, so it’s a good place for lifts to Katavi and Sumbawanga. If you arrive at Mpanda by train, walk uphill from the railway station for about 200m to a traffic circle, where you need to turn right and follow the Sumbawanga road for a few hundred metres to reach the Super City complex.


The name of this town of some 75,000 souls might sound like the chorus of a Hollywood musical about Africa. The reality is somewhat more mundane – Sumbawanga, administrative capital of the vast but thinly populated Rukwa region, is a reasonably substantial and equable mid-altitude town, but wholly unmemorable. It is, however, the largest settlement along the 500km road between Mpanda and Tunduma (on the Tanzam Highway), and it also lies at the junction for a road southwest to Kasanga, the most southerly port on the Tanzanian part of Lake Tanganyika. Most travellers heading through this part of the country will overnight there at some point, but they are unlikely to be inspired to stay any longer than they need to.

The Ufipa Plateau between Sumbawanga and Lake Rukwa consists of a roughly 1,000km2 block of land above the 2,000m contour, and is of interest for its extensive cover of montane grassland and forest habitats. In addition to several endemic flowering and other plant species and a varied selection of localised forest and grassland birds, the plateau harbours an isolated population of red colobus monkey. In a private vehicle, the plateau can be explored by driving out of Sumbawanga for an hour or so along the road towards Lake Rukwa. On public transport, according to a ranger at Katavi, you can get from Sumbawanga to the village of Kijiji on the back of a pick-up truck, and from there walk to another village called Mpondo, where there are spectacular views over Lake Rukwa.

Getting there and away

There is now normally one bus daily between Mpanda and Sumbawanga, as well as a steady stream of trucks, typically taking from 6-10 hours in either direction depending on road conditions. Several buses daily run between Sumbawanga and Mbeya via Tunduma, leaving in either direction at 07.00 (book a seat in advance) and taking about eight hours either way. Heading to or from Kasanga on Lake Tanganyika, there are a couple of buses a week and a few pick-up trucks daily generally leaving before noon – ask around at the market.

Where to stay and eat

Mbizi Forest Hotel (10 rooms) Tel 025 280 2746. This simple but clean new lodge on Meku Bar Street is probably the best in town, with a good garden bar and restaurant. It charges US$10/15 B&B for an en-suite single/double with TV.  

Moravian Conference Centre Tel: 025 280 2853. Email: Situated on Nyerere Road in the town centre, this recent three-storey construction offers the most comfortable accommodation in Sumbawanga. Facilities include an affordable cafeteria and dining hall, a business centre with fax and email services, and satellite television. First floor rooms using common showers cost US$8/16/19 B&B single/double/triple, while en-suite rooms cost US$10/20 single/double. Smaller, cheaper en-suite rooms on the second floor cost US$5/10 single/double.

Upenda View Inn Tel: 025 280 2242. Situated about two blocks from the bus station, this is a reasonably comfortable hotel, perhaps beginning to show its age slightly, but very good value nonetheless at US$5 for a clean en-suite double room. A garden bar and good restaurant with a varied menu and delicious home made soup are attached.

Lake Rukwa

One of the most alluring and remote wilderness destinations in East Africa, Rukwa is a shallow alkaline lake with an average depth of about 4m, which fills a sump in a truncated branch of the Western Rift Valley and has no known outflows. The first European to visit the lake was John Speke, but it was not explored further until the 1880s, when the Scots geologist Joseph Thomson (he of gazelle fame) followed much of its shore. With a surface area of roughly 2,500km2, Rukwa is by far the largest lake to lie entirely within Tanzania, but seasonal fluctuations in waster level often split it into two discrete expanses of open water separated by a vast marshy plain. The lake’s extensive floodplain that attracts large ungulate herds after the November rains, and in 1997 the northern park of the lake and its hinterland were gazetted as the Rukwa Game Reserve, part of a contiguous protected area of greater than 10,000km2 centred on the adjacent Katavi National Park.

Rukwa supports a mammalian fauna similar to that of Katavi, but is also an important stronghold for the localised puku. According to scientists who know it well, oft-repeated stories of albino giraffes and unusually striped zebra in the Rukwa area are legend bordering on myth. The lake is, however, notable for its high densities of crocodiles and hippos. The lake’s avifauna was last studied in the 1950s, when a checklist of 363 species was compiled, but it is known to support innumerable flocks of various water-associated birds, notably white pelican, lesser flamingo, glossy ibis, spur-winged goose and African skimmer. The rare and magnificent shoebill stork is resident in papyrus swamps, as is the localised Tanzania masked weaver. At least one fish species is endemic to the lake.

No settlements of any substance lie on the lakeshore, which means it is only feasible to visit Rukwa in a private 4×4 vehicle. Any such trip should be treated as a full-scale expedition, carrying an adequate supply of spares, fuel, food, drinking water and camping equipment. The approach roads are rough and may become impassable after rain. The safest time to visit is between March and October, but there is more game in the wet months. Rukwa can be approached from Mbeya (via Chunya), from Sumbawanga (via the Ufipa Plateau), or from Katavi National Park. The management of Katavi Tented Camp can arrange fly-camping excursions to the Lake Rukwa.

(c) Philip Briggs 2009


6 thoughts on “Mpanda, Sumbawanga & Rukwa

  1. DEWALD says:

    We planning to cross into Tanzania from Zambia on this route. Mbala to Sumbawanga. How user-friendly is this BP. Know I need to clear customs in Mpumulungu and imigration in Mbala?

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