Side Trip to Lake Victoria: In or Out? -- With Mwanza, the biggest port on Lake Victoria, under 2 hours' drive from the Western Corridor, the question arises, should one set aside the better part of a day (or more) to say you have cast eyes on Africa's largest lake? The answer is, no. Unless you are in the enviable position of spending months traveling the East African circuit, or are a keen angler, Lake Victoria should enjoy minimal priority. This is largely due to the quality of the water. Unlike the waters of Lake Tanganyika, so clean and clear that you can snorkel and scuba-dive, you cannot swim the murky waters of Lake Victoria without risking bilharzia. It's also awkward to get to and around the lake. You could fly to Arusha or Dar es Salaam from Mwanza, but with little point: The flight will cost more than your flight from the nearest airstrip in the Serengeti. Road conditions west of Mwanza are also poor, so circumventing the lake is an ordeal, besides which there is no strong drawcard along its shoreline. The three main lake ports -- Mwanza, Musoma, and Bukoba -- are classic African towns, for the most part a scruffy sprawl, their colonial-era buildings in decay, with no distinguishing cultural or historical characteristics and little by way of scenic beauty or shopping. As a result, there is no developed tourism infrastructure, and the ferries that ply the lake, passing the admittedly alluring islands that dot its shores, are pretty hardcore by middle-class Westerner standards. That said, Mwanza is Tanzania's second-largest city, and an important travel hub that you will certainly pass through if your travel plans include an overland trip to Uganda (or if you just want to get off the well-worn Northern Circuit route); it is also 20km (12 miles) west of the Bujora Sukuma Museum. Initiated by Father David Clement in the '50s, it is aimed at Sukuma visitors interested in understanding their royal lineage and traditional customs rather than Western tourists. As such, it offers authentic insights into Tanzania's most populous tribe and is a highly recommended stop if you are in the area (signposted from Kissesa on the Mwanza-Musoma Rd.), particularly on Saturdays, when you might catch the Sukuma Snake Dance performance.
If you find yourself in Mwanza for the night, the best place to stay is at the lakeshore Hotel Tilapia (www.tilapiahotel.com). Another property in the Sandhu family portfolio (though these accommodations cannot compete with their Mbalageti Lodge in Serengeti), Tilapia enjoys a better location than any of the other city hotels (1km/1 mile from the center, but on a tranquil position on the lake), and it offers clean and comfortable rooms from $95 double. Alternatively, there's the newer Isamilo Lodge (www.isamilo-lodge.com), on a hilltop 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the city center, with lovely lake views and rooms ranging between $80 and $120 double. Or if you don't mind being 12km (8 miles) out of town, Tunza Lodge (http://tunzalodge.com; $120 double) is popular with the fishing set, with just 12 bungalows surrounded by lush gardens and green lawns that line a pristine sandy beach. If you're here for the fishing (or birding), the place to be is Wag Hill (www.waghill.com). A real find, with just three large bungalows sharing 17 hectares (42 acres) of protected indigenous forested hillside, a comfy open-air dining area overlooking the lake, and great pool, this tiny eco-lodge is the most tranquil place to be near Mwanza, with only birds and monkeys disturbing the peace. Staff will pick you up from the Mwanza Yacht Club by boat. Boat transfer, fishing lessons, all excursions, beverages, meals, and laundry are included in the price of $550 double.
If you have no desire to see Mwanza but simply cannot resist seeing (or fishing) Lake Victoria's waters or are traveling to or from Kenya along its shoreline, you could consider booking one of the eight bungalows (avoid the tents) that line the sandy cove that faces Speke Gulf (named after explorer John Hanning Speke, who, in 1858, discovered Lake Victoria to be the source of the Nile). Speke Bay Lodge (www.moivaro.com) is 15km (91/4 miles) directly west of the Serengeti National Park's gate (125km/78 miles northeast of Mwanza), so you could even use this as a base to visit the park, perhaps passing through to Ikoma, another budget Moivaro property that lies within spitting distance of a park gate and costs significantly less than those within the park.
Other than the simple fact that it is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world (after Lake Superior in the U.S.), Lake Victoria's chief attraction (at least, in the area that falls within Tanzania) is Rubondo Island National Park, a tropical forested island paradise with sandy beaches, somewhat inconveniently located in the far southwestern corner of the lake. Rubondo Island is primarily a great birding destination; you can ostensibly go chimpanzee tracking here, but the Rubondo's primates are notoriously shy, and you will almost certainly have better luck at Mahale and Gombe, near Lake Tanganyika. More problematic is the fact that what was touted as Rubondo's first luxury lodge, opened by Flycatcher Safaris a few years back, has sadly changed hands and, due to a lack of interest, closed down. You can still camp or stay in one of the grubby National Park bandas on the island, but given how long it takes to reach Rubondo (by vehicle and then by boat), this hardly seems worth the time and effort. Should the lodge reopen, with flights to service it, I will certainly endeavor to visit and review it in the future.