Lake Mweru is a natural freshwater lake, part of the rift valley lakes, located between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the second largest lake in the Congo valley (after the world-renowned Tanganyika), situated on the longest arm of the Congo River. The lake is especially inviting for adventurous souls searching for off-the-beaten-path destinations during their travels. The area shows what tropical Africa could be, if left to itself, having a dynamic population, rich in culture and colorful in nature.
Geography and Hydrography
The name “Mweru” originates from the Bantu term of “lake”, so locals only refer to it as “Mweru”. David Livingstone, who is credited with discovering the lake in 1867-1868, called it “Moero”.
The lake has two main inflows: the Luapula River enters from the South and forms the official border between Zambia and Zaire; and the Kalungwishi River, coming in from the Eastern Part. Both rivers form important deltas which supply locals with fish breeding grounds. If you choose to go along the Luapula River, you will encounter breathtaking waterfalls and small villages with colorful life, a real treat for any explorer. The Luvua River exits the lake on the Northern part, continuing its way North-West to join the Lualaba River.
Mweru is surrounded by Ncelenge, Kashikishi and Chengi towns on the Zambian side, and Kilwa, Lukonzolwa and Pweto on the Congo part. There are many islands located on the lake, the most important being Isokwe and Kilwa.
The shores of the lake are generally flat, with a rocky western coast. The Southern part is shallower, whilst the Northern area is deeper. On the South-Eastern part, Mweru is surrounded by the swamps of Bangweulu, which have a rare ecological feature. With a separate, unique ecosystem, they feature the Itigi-Sumbu-thicket, with over 100 species of trees and bushes, impenetrable to both humans and animals.
The lake is located at a higher altitude compared to Lake Tanganyika, situated at 763 meters. The lake’s temperature varies between 21-29 degrees Celsius, while the average temperature is between 27,5 and 35 degrees Celsius, making it pleasant all-year round.
The importance of Lake Mweru
Lake Mweru is in a beautiful remote area which offers a window to the colorful village life in Africa. But the people originally came here because of the very fertile lake (from a chemical point of view), which has a huge role in Zambia’s fishing industry and an enormous significance to the local economy.
Among the types of fish that can be found here we can enumerate the bream, catfish, tilapia, tiger fish, and elephant fish. The lake not only provides food for the locals, it also provides a means of living for the thousands of people living around it, since the fish are smoked, dried or salted, then are taken to be sold.
There is, however, a downside to this. Unfortunately, the lake has been overfished on the Congo side. If this issue won’t be handled properly, it will be putting the lives of thousands who make a living out of fishing in real danger.
Some locals also live out of their own shops that provide supplies for their neighbors, as well as from working at the copper mine, located 15 miles west of the lake.
The Transcontinental Trade Route
Mweru Lake was considered the center of a transcontinental trade route. Kilwa Island was a preferred point among Arab and Swahili traders who mostly bargained ivory, copper and slaves. The Scottish missionary and explorer credited for the discovery of the African lake actually helped form an opposition against the violent slave trade.
In the second part of the 19th century, there were wars between local tribes that unsettled the area until 1890. That’s when Alfred Shape and his expedition came to aid, killing one of the leaders and taking Katanga for the king of Belgium. By setting up Belgian outposts along the lake, the expedition managed to end slave trade and endorse development on the Western shores of Lake Mweru.
Katanga became the most developed of the Luapula-Mweru valley until 1960, when political crisis and local wars on the Congolese part caused things to collapse. The Congolese side was also affected by the second Congolese war (1999-20003), and is still recovering from that. The fact that most of the overfishing happened and continues to happen in this same region isn’t actually contributing to the development of the area.
National Parks and Conservation
There are two main reserves situated in the Eastern and Western parts, the Mweru Wantipa and the Lusenga Plain National Parks. Both of them had an abundance of wildlife once (buffalos, lions and antelopes mainly), but because of hunting and poaching most of these large animals can’t be seen in big herds anymore.
In the Mweru Wantipa reservation you can still find bushbucks, sables, elands, waterbucks, warthogs and grysbok in larger numbers. You can rarely spot hyenas, lions, leopards and buffalos, but these are small in numbers. According to locals, crocodiles and elephant populations were completely wiped out by poaching.
The national park is also a good place to view various water birds and is also a pretty good camping spot.
Accessibility and Activities
Before visiting the lake, you should be aware of the fact that tourist facilities in the area are limited to a few, so if you expect to stay in a hotel, you’ll have to do so at a 200-mile distance from Lake Mweru. For now, this is a place for the determined adventurers, but the good news is the area is rapidly evolving.
The lake section can be accessed through the tar road that was built in 1987 and contributed to more people living and visiting the shoreline. If you’d like to spend the night, there are several guesthouses with varying standards, but don’t expect any luxury here – it’s all about living like a local. There are also great camping areas around Lake Mweru, but before you settle your tent, be sure to contact Zambian tourist offices to learn about the safest places to camp.
As for activities, you can always delve in the colorful culture and learn about the history and heritage of locals directly from them. Being a very picturesque lake, don’t forget your camera at home, so you can take fascinating photos of this exciting and remote location.
There is regular service run by paddle steamers (originating from the Belgian rule), which still operate today. They travel on the Luapula through Pweto and make a stop at Kilwa Island. An even better way to explore the surroundings is to hire a local fisherman who will gladly take you on a personalized, guided boat trip wherever you’d like to go.
Don’t forget to check out the National Reserves close to the lake, but before roaming around the wilderness by yourself; make sure you hire a local for guidance, since there are no visitor facilities or signs along the pathway. Seeing wildlife for the first time is an unforgettable experience, but please remember to enjoy this encounter responsibly, in order for future generations to have the possibility of similar adventures as well.