Occupying the lowest part of the Rukwa Rift Valley (also called the Rukwa Trough), Lake Rukwa follows the same northwest– southeast faultline as Lake Nyasa to the south. The water is extremely alkaline, and there are salt pans at Ivuna, 15km from the lake’s southern shore, fed by hot brine springs. Excavations have established that Iron Age people lived on the lakeshore from as early as the thirteenth century, working the salt, cultivating cereals, keeping cattle, goats, chickens and dogs, and hunting zebra and warthog for food. The trade in Ivuna’s salt was sufficiently important to have made the southern shores of Rukwa figure as a stopover on a slaving caravan route to Bagamoyo during the nineteenth century.
Crocodile, hippopotamus and fish abound, of which tilapia provide the basis for a flourishing fishing industry that exports its dried catch as far away as Congo and Zambia’s Copperbelt – strange, given the plentiful lake resources in those countries, unless you know that Rukwa’s alkaline water makes for tastier and more tender fish. Despite the fishery, the lake could hardly be more different from its western neighbour, Lake Tanganyika: the latter’s enormous depth contrasting with Rukwa’s average of a mere 3m, while given the lack of an outlet and the unreliability of the streams feeding it, the lake’s size is prone to wild variations – at times it actually splits into two lakes separated by a narrow belt of swamp. During the 1820s and 1830s the lake almost dried up, and when the explorer John Hanning Speke passed by in 1859 he saw only an impassable swamp. The lake’s chronic siltation over recent decades, hastened by deforestation in its catchment area, appears to have bucked the trend by permanently flooding large expanses of formerly seasonal flood plain, an effect that has grown worse since the exceptionally heavy 1998 El Niño rains. The Uwanda Game Reserve, established in 1971 and still marked on maps, has for all practical purposes ceased to exist, as over half of it now lies permanently under water.
Rukwa’s main natural attraction is its birdlife, with over four hundred species recorded, many of them waterfowl. The disappearance of much of the flood plain and grassland ecosystem has greatly reduced the numbers of plains game that once frequented the area, especially after the short rains from November onwards. Still, you might still see zebra and buffalo, rarer animals such as topi and puku antelopes, and – at least according to rumour – an albino giraffe or spotted zebra.
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.