How to get to Gombe National Park:
If you are reading this, than you are interested in going to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania – well you have come to the right place!
I noticed when planning my own trip to Gombe National Park a few weeks ago, there was limited information online about the ground transport options to get to Kigoma, and then how to go onwards to Gombe. So I have provided information from my experience here, including the things I would have done differently, so you can plan your best trip!
Step 1. Getting to Kigoma Town
There are 3 options to get to Kigoma: train, plane or bus. You could also rent a car and drive, though I wouldn’t want to do the drive myself. My disclaimer here is that I only took the bus, so I cannot paint a picture as to how the train or flight experiences are to and from Kigoma, but I have provided information on the various routes for your reference.
Trains are available to Kigoma from Dar es Salaam, Tabora and Mwanza. I have heard that it is quite lovely, although time intensive. There are 2 main train lines, but you will need the Central line which links Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, via Tabora. You can also reach Kigoma by train from Mwanza via Tabora. I have heard that due to the transfer that is required on these journeys, there can be extremely long delays (i.e. > 24 hours).
It is possible to fly, but there are limited commercial airlines going in and out of Kigoma, which means big prices! Flights in and out of Kigoma airport are provided by Precision Air, 3-4 times a week, but are costly and somewhat unreliable. There are also private planes that you can hire that service Zanzibar, Serengeti and Kigoma, but again these are quite costly.
I apprehensively opted for ground transportation, despite hearing tales of harrowing, dusty bus rides because it is the most economic way to get there.
I took the Saratoga company’s “Pride of Kigoma” bus from Mwanza, which departs at 5:30am from the Mwanza main bus station and arrives at approximately 9:00pm at the Bera petrol station in Kigoma. Note the ticket offices are in separate locations (which your taxi or piki driver will be able to take you to, just tell them Saratoga). The cost of a one-way ticket is 31,000 Tsh (15 USD/ 18 CAD).
You can expect a few bathroom breaks along the bus journey, a lunch stop (where you can purchase rice and beans or fish, drinks and snacks), and a few stops to service the bus (i.e. to get gas or add oil to the engine on the side of the road). I’m not sure if this was just in my experience, but it seems the bus takes a beating on the rough roads so on both of my bus journeys we had to stop for 30-40 minutes on one or two occasions to service the bus. (Not sure why they don’t do this when the passengers are off the bus at lunch time, but regardless expect frequent stops along the way).
The bus is non-air conditioned but ventilated with windows, which makes for a hot, dusty trip. At one point, the temperature on the bus was registering at 35 degrees Celsius! So bring lots of water (though you can buy drinks along the way at the various stops) and wear layers so you can take them off as needed to feel comfortable when the temperature rises mid-day. I would also recommend bringing hand hygiene gel, baby wipes or toilet paper (as bathroom stops do not have any), and plenty of things to do.
Tip: I heard from a source that recently someone was drugged on a bus from Mwanza to Kigoma through a piece of laced candy and then robbed. Though this could be an unfortunate isolated event, be vigilant when accepting food or drink from strangers and keep an eye on your belongings. I chose to carry my bag with me to and from the bathroom instead of leaving it on the bus.
Step 2: Getting to Gombe
There is a Gombe National Park Tourist office in Kigoma town, which you may want to visit to get more information before heading to Gombe. In my experience, the man working at the tourist office was very nice and keen to inform me on every aspect of Gombe (even though I knew most of it), including prices of the park and of private boats. I had to talk over him (and yell) at one point to get him to stop talking so I could explain that all I needed was directions to the public boat. So to be honest, I didn’t find it very helpful aside from getting the name of the beach where the public boat departs (which I have provided below for your convenience).
There are two options to get to Gombe Stream National Park from Kigoma: the public boat and hiring a private boat – I took the public boat to Gombe and hired a private boat back.
1) Public Lake Taxi
The public option is essentially a motorized, wooden boat costing 4000 Tsh per person, one way. Note that this boat does not run on Sundays. It departs from Kigoma at 12:00pm, and though the journey is only 16 km north, it takes around 3 hours because it makes a few stops along the coastline to inland villages. My arrival time at Gombe was around 3:00pm – 3:30pm. The boat leaves Gombe for Kigoma at 7:00am, though I saw it actually pass Gombe closer to 8:00am.
Also, note that the water taxi does not depart from the Kigoma marina. In order to get to there, tell your taxi or boda boda driver to take you to Kibirizi beach. You will arrive at a large sandy beach with multiple wooden boats, cargo and a few shops. You can buy water, juice, biscuits or bread before your journey. There is a washroom on the north side of the beach past the shops – just ask them for the key (important as the boat has no toilet). When you get to the boats, tell them you need the boat to Ujiji (you will get off at the Kasekala stop which is Gombe). However if you say you are going to Gombe Park they will also know which boat to put you on (Kasekala and Gombe are interchangeable).
I had thankfully read another blog post recommending to bring an umbrella for shade, as the boat has no covering – but even this could not prepare me for what was about to go down.
The boat is extremely basic with a small platform circumventing its edges that acts as seating. As I awkwardly boarded the water taxi wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into, I felt like I was back in time, about to set sail on Noah’s Ark. After about half an hour of loading people, luggage, tires, a mattress, a TV, buckets of fish and live chickens onto the boat, we took off heading north along the coastline. Though the journey is only 16 km, this trip takes 3-3.5 hours due to the slow pace and frequent stops at inland villages to let passengers off. Within about 10 minutes, I was incredibly grateful for my umbrella and the water I had packed as the sun beat down on us.
At one point, our speed had picked up so much that the boat began to violently rock back and forth and people started putting on their lifejackets, while I mentally conjured up an escape plan if we should capsize. Not everyone had the luck of capitalizing on the upper seating on the edge of the boat; the mothers with babies and young children who were seated on the inside of the boat atop luggage and large bags of grain, appeared to feel the worst of it (as evidenced by their vomiting). After 3 hours, a few of my new companions told me that Gombe was the next stop.
Getting off the boat was another story. I was one of the first to board, so I was seated at the far end of the vessel. I had to shimmy down a plank of wood that is placed down the centre of the boat from tip to tip, offering additional seating for those more agile. Apparently I was not one of them, as I tumbled down from the plank barely missing a young child on the boat’s floor. After the fall, I was forced to crawl under the plank and the legs of those sitting on the edge, and climb over and around bodies and piles of throw-up on the bottom of the boat. I had never been happier to get my feet back on solid ground.
I don’t want to scare you away from the public boat – it was definitely an experience. But in my opinion the cons (questionable safety, hot, crowded, 3x as long, inconvenient arrival and departure times) outweigh the single pro (the inexpensive fare). So needless to say, I hired a private boat to take me back to Kigoma.
2) Private boat
I was initially leery of hiring a private boat due to the outrageous quoted prices (300-350 USD round trip – only 32km!). Note that this is only the starting price! Tanzanian culture includes haggling, so bargain hard and use Swahili if possible, as this can help indicate you are not a naive tourist and not willing to pay a ‘muzungu’ price (foreigner price). Although the cost may be ridiculous, there is no denying that hiring a private boat is way more convenient.
If you hire a private boat, you can go any time you wish and return at whatever time is good for you. This is important because the national park fee (100$ per 24 hours) begins the moment you step foot onto the beach. This is problematic if you wish to take the public boat because it arrives at 3:00-3:30pm and departs at 7:00am – this means you have to pay for two 24hour park passes and 2 nights of accommodation if you plan to take the public boat back to town. With a private boat, you could arrive in the morning and leave the following morning, paying for one night in the lodge and one park pass.
As mentioned above, I took the public boat arriving at 3:30pm and was forced to pay for two passes and two nights. Then not wanting to leave at 7:00am the second day and miss out on my second day of hiking (since I had paid for the full day pass), I decided to hire a boat back. Note this is not the most economic option because you pay for both ways in fuel, so you might as well travel by the private boat both ways.
I was able to get my hiking guide to assist me in the bargaining process, as there was no way I was paying 300-350 USD for a one-way, 16km boat ride. The guide broke down the price for me, saying it costs about 100,000 Tsh for fuel, about 50,000 for the boat driver’s wage, 30,000 for the boat assistant’s wage and then the rest is income for the boat owner, so he reckoned 300,000 Tsh (150 US) was a fair price. To be honest, I think that is still quite high – I hired a boat in Zanzibar for 50,000 for the entire afternoon…it is possible he was getting a portion from the boat driver for his referral so he may have padded the number, but it was way better than I could have bargained for on my own so I accepted the offer knowing it allowed me to track the chimps for an extra day.
So in conclusion, if you are heading to Gombe I would recommend hiring a private boat from Kigoma and bargaining hard to get a good price. A local would never pay more than 300,000 Tsh – in fact, they would likely pay way less). Even if the tourist office tells you it’s 300-350 USD, don’t pay more than 150-200 US. If you have no Swahili language skills, you could get a local taxi driver or boda boda driver to help you; they would be happy to help if it means you choose them to drive you to the beach from your hotel, and even happier if you give them a small tip for helping you bargain.
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