Paddling the African Lakes: Lake Malawi

By Ross Exler

Jan. 26. The trip is going well so far. A few days have been derailed by weather, but otherwise I’ve been making steady progress. I decided to paddle the Malawi side instead of the Mozambique side as they speak English on this side and I thought it would be interesting to be able to talk to people and hear about the lake and their lives firsthand. For the rest of the trip, virtually everyone will speak Swahili.

I’ve been following a routine of waking up around 5 and paddling until mid afternoon and then usually staying in small fishing villages at night. The people along the lake have been very kind and welcoming. They’re fascinated by all of my stuff, but especially the boat. They use dugout canoes, so my kayak is pretty shocking to them. My boat has been awesome, very stable, pretty fast considering I’m solo paddling a tandem and it’s loaded with a ton of cargo, and it easily fits all of my equipment. No issues whatsoever so far – the boat is helping a lot with my optimism and high spirits.

There haven’t been any mishaps yet. The only thing that’s a bit unsettling was that at one point I was paddling about 400 yards off the opening of a big lagoon, and I heard some sloshing in the water. I turned and saw a big crocodile about 20 yards away. It was at least 12 feet long and looking right at me. I definitely set a new personal speed record in the following minutes.

I planned the trip for 20 miles a day, and so far that seems pretty reasonable. My best day so far was 31 miles and my worst was 18, with a strong headwind. I’m sure that mileage will go up as the trip goes on and my fitness improves.

I have a few more days on this section, and then I’ll get to my first planned break – Nkhata bay. I’ll probably just be there for one1 rest day, but from there it kind of feels like the home stretch. From Nkhata Bay, I have about six more days of paddling and then this lake is in the bag and it’s on to bicycling towards Tanzania.

It’s been interesting to see the people along the lake, how they fish, and some of the environmental impacts. The lake is clear and blue except near rivers, where deforestation has caused huge amounts of sediment to turn the lake a muddy brown. The local people fish both using nets and lines with hooks. Some people are beach seining, which is pretty destructive. Others go out at night, far offshore, and use lights to attract the fish. It’s cool to look out on the lake at night and see dozens of lights in the distance.

I’m feeling good and confident. This lake should go down without too much of a fuss.

Paddling the African Great Lakes: TNC

Tuungane Dugout, Lake Tanganykia. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

January 5, 2018 Update

By Ross Exler

I first became aware of the African Great Lakes while I was a student working in the Alexander Cruz lab at the University of Colorado. The lab’s research was focused on novel species of fish endemic to Lake Tanganyika. Working with these species introduced me to the biodiversity of the African Great Lakes, but also the threats to the continued survival of these ecosystems. I soon realized that the African Great Lakes region is globally significant to biodiversity, vital in sustaining the lives of the millions of people who call the region home, but also tragically suffers from a comparatively low profile to conservation efforts in other regions. Therefore, a founding element of this trip was to find and support a non-profit whose work in the region aligned with my conservation ethos.

So, when I had adequately planned my trip, I conducted some research on the leading conservation groups active in the region, and found that The Nature Conservancy has a large scale project, the Tuungane Project, on Lake Tanganyika. The Tuungane Project brings a multidisciplinary approach to conservation and addressing the extreme poverty that is the underpinning of environmental degradation in the region. Their efforts are introducing fisheries education and management, terrestrial conservation, healthcare and women’s health services and education, agricultural training, and other efforts to increase the quality of life and understanding on how human activities impact the very resources that the local people depend on for survival. Without the buy in of local communities, efforts to conserve this incredible region will likely be unsuccessful.

I am happy to announce that I will be working with The Nature Conservancy to promote greater awareness of the value and threats to the region, as well as their conservation initiatives on Lake Tanganyika. If you have some time, please visit the Tuungane Project website and read more about the great work that they are doing.

Paddling the African Great Lakes


On Lake Malawi

By Tamsin Venn

This January explorer Ross Exler sets out on his quest to paddle the African Great Lakes. He plans to paddle across the three largest: Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria. The expedition will be the first unsupported, human powered, solo crossing of these lakes.

The total distance is about 1,000 miles of kayaking and 600 miles of biking from lake to lake through remote regions of Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. Exler will carry everything he needs, including a folding expedition kayak, folding bicycle, and folding bicycle trailer.

At press time, Exler was in Malawi waiting for a cyclone forming off the coast of Madagascar to pass before setting out. “The lake is looking massive and beautiful and I’m very excited to get going,” he says. The reason for his trip?

“I love Africa,” says Exler. “There are big animals, the landscapes are beautiful, the people are charming and endearing even when their living situation is very difficult. I go back there frequently, mostly recently for three months last winter to Botswana and Namibia in the Kalahiri. It’s a beautiful part of the world.”

He is also a man on a mission. He will be be working closely with The Nature Conservancy to promote awareness about the region and the work that it’s doing.

He writes, “The African Great Lakes region is extraordinarily important for vertebrate diversity, containing an estimated ten percent of the world’s species of fish. The lakes also contain approximately 25 percent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater. In addition to their ecological significance, the region’s fish and water are essential resources for the millions of people living along the shores of the lakes. Unfortunately, the lakes are under threat from invasive species, increases of sediment and nutrient inputs from deforestation and untreated sewage, over fishing, and the myriad impacts of poverty and war.”

No stranger to arduous journeys, Exler notes, “I’ve done a number of these large solo expeditions. I’ve got a background in biology and am drawn to these remote areas. To be by yourself and travel over a large area, that is the way to really experience it.” His most recent expedition was traveling 2,000 miles of the 4,000-mile-long Amazon River through Peru, Columbia, and Brazil for four months on a motorized canoe.

For this expedition, Exler needed a real boat plus a way to get it from lake to lake over roads. He reached out to Mark Eckhart at Long Haul Folding Kayaks, a low-key kayak company in Cedaredge, Colo. “Mark Eckhart was very enthusiastic and very helpful,” says Exler who refers to the kayak as a very high quality but artisanal project. The kayaks are made of wood frame components of ash hardwood and birch laminate with a rugged deck fabric of either cotton or acrylic. The company’s mission is to provide a safe and reliable way or reaching the most remote locations in the world. In the fall Exler went out to Colorado to pick up the kayak from Eckhart.

“It’s important too that he cares about how it goes for me and takes a lot of pride in his product,” he says.

Long Haul built the boat around a rugged, collapsible Burley bike trailer to make sure it fit inside the boat and made a custom skin to accommodate the bike. Exler will pack the boat up and put in on the trailer, and will bike the couple of hundred miles to the next lake.

“At night, I will wilderness camp or stay in small villages, relying on the kindness of local people – a reliance that has been rewarded time and again by good natured people in remote areas of the world. It is my hope to document the trip in a way that can bring you along to witness the splendor of this incredible place, and maybe to see some hippos and crocodiles from a safe distance.”

The itinerary is a starting point on the south end of Lake Malawi, at Monkey Bay, go through a portion of Mozambique and Tanzania, for 400 miles, then he will bike up and over to the Lake Tanganyika for 325 miles, then paddle up to Kigoma in Tanzania, or the vast majority of the lake. The lake ends in Burundi, but it has become a dangerous country, unacceptably dangerous. Then he will bike to the southwest corner of Lake Victoria, and paddle up to the northern end and finish in Entebbe, Uganda for 250 miles. Exler plans to take three months to complete the expedition and hopes to end the journey in March.

Exler is an accomplished photographer and story teller so look forward to stunning photos and finely spun stories.

To follow,