Lake Chala is a crater lake that straddles the border between Kenyan and Tanzania. It’s water comes from groundwater from Mount Kilimanjaro. Lake Chala is a destination that pops up now and again in various travel groups and social media pages I follow. Yet very few people I know have actually been there. A combination of a day off (thank you flexi-time!) and a one day flight sale, meant that I was finally able to take a trip there last year.
As much as I love organising group trips, I am something of an introvert, so for this one I decided to roll solo. The last solo trip I took was to Lamu Island, Kenya, in 2018, so it was definitely time for another!
I also wanted to dispel some myths about Tanzania being an expensive destination to travel in, so I decided to visit Lake Chala completely by public transport. It was very easy and enjoyable, so I am happy to share my full journey with you here.
Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro
With my tent and backpack in tow, I headed from Dar es Salaam to Kilimanjaro Internation Airport (KIA) on a Friday morning. I cheated in the Dar part and took Uber to the airport for 20,000 Tanzanian Shillings (tsh) (actual charge – 16,000 but I rounded up because Uber is stingy!)
Once I landed in KIA, I was happy to see how green everything was. There had been a lot of rain so the surroundings were completely lush and the air was fresh. Directly outside the airport, I took the Precision Air shuttle direct to Moshi for just 10,000 Tsh. The journey took around half an hour and the bus was comfortable.
Arrival in Moshi
On arrival in Moshi, I decided to take an hour or so to gather myself, have breakfast and plan my route. I walked to Kilimanjaro Coffee Lounge and had a huge breakfast of omelette, bacon and fried potatoes, with coffee and juice, for just 15,000 Tsh. It was the perfect start to my trip.
The experience got even better when I told the waiter that I planned to visit Chala by public transport. He immediately phoned his friend who lives there to come meet me. Unfortunately the friend wasn’t available, so instead the waiter walked me to the busy dala dala (public bus) stand and found the correct bus for me. I luckily managed to get a window seat – highly recommended for some extra air – and settled in with my bag and tent under my feet.
Moshi to Holili – hello Kenya!
The drive from Moshi to Holili took about 2 hours. Holili is on the Kenyan border and is the last stop for the dala dala so you don’t need to worry about when to get off. The journey was interesting, with a mixture of Swahili and Maa (the Maasai language) being spoken throughout the bus. For just 2000 shillings for a 2 hour journey, the cramped seating is definitely worth it.
Biscuit shopping at Holili
Disembarking at Holili was a bit overwhelming. I found myself surrounded by 10+ boda boda (motorbike) drivers who all wanted to take me to Lake Chala. If you don’t speak Swahili, I recommend staying back on the bus for a minute and choosing one of the drivers while on the bus. That way you will have someone to accompany you from the bus directly to the boda without hassle from other drivers.
I didn’t realise this, jumped off the bus and on seeing the amount of drivers waiting, found myself panicking and running into the nearest shop – “jamani, siwezi kula kwanza?!” (Can I not eat something first?!) The shopkeeper told them to leave me be. To buy some time, I spent way too long choosing one packet of biscuits and ended up going with the first driver who had approached me at the bus. Lesson learned – avoid the crowds!
Holili to Lake Chala
I had been told that I could negotiate the price of the boda to 7,000 Tsh but in the end I paid 10,000 just to get on the road quicker. After a short drive on tarmac, we turned onto the dirt road and the real journey began. The drive to Chala is beautiful. We drove through sisal farms with the backdrop of Mt. Meru behind us and Kilimanjaro in front of us. The contrast between the red dirt road and the varying shades of green made for some beautiful photographs.
Just outside the gate to Lake Chala, there is a compulsory stop at the Tanzanian Wildlife Authority where you must pay the conservation area fees. Disappointingly, the fee for foreigners is the same whether you are resident or tourist (unless you have a NIDA card apparently). I paid US$28 (I think Tanzanians pay around 8000 tsh).
Arrival at Lake Chala Safari Lodge
There’s only one resort in operation at Lake Chala – Lake Chala Safari Lodge. In the past there were more, including one on the Kenyan side. However, the Kenyan government have since closed access to the lake on their side (more on that later!)
I always say that travelling in rainy season has more advantages than disadvantages. This trip proved no different. On arrival, the camp manager took one look at my tent and offered me a very reasonable all-inclusive upgrade to a luxury safari tent due to the muddy conditions of the campsite after the heavy rains. I happily took the upgrade and found myself with a huge double bed, overlooking the plains below – heaven!
The lodge consists of 6 luxury tents. They all have double beds, full bathrooms with hot water and a balcony with a view. There’s also a large bar and restaurant area, with spectacular views over the lake. I spent hours reading there. I also enjoyed some local food with the sounds of the jungle around me.
Yoga, kayaking and hiking – relaxation and exploration
I started my day with yoga on my balcony while I watched the sun rise. It was such a peaceful way to start my day that I felt as if I had been there for days, not just one night! Breakfast was a feast at the restaurant, with fresh, local produce.
After breakfast, I decided to explore the area. I was advised that swimming isn’t allowed on the lake due to a number of accidents that took place there. Instead I took a kayak and spent 2 hours on the lake with a guide. I paid 10,000 tsh to rent the kayak.
In the afternoon, I went for a short walk with the same guide as before. As we walked through the grassland, he explained some of the background of the area. In the past, animals used the area as a route to move from Masai Mara to Serengeti. Nowadays, people have settled on the Kenyan side and the government have put a fence, so the animals don’t come anymore. Still, the guides on the Tanzanian side keep the bush cut short to ensure safe passage, in case animals find their way there.
The highlight of our walk was when we reached the dry riverbed. In the past, the river passed through, bringing water to the land and the animals. Nowadays, it is mostly dry apart from in rainy season. It reminded me of something from another planet!
The full Lake Chala experience
Lake Chala exceeded my expectations. It is easily accessible, beautiful and mostly unspoilt. The Government fees should be reduced, given that wildlife is no longer very present there. However, it’s still worth visiting, especially if you are Tanzanian, as you will pay lower fees.
The camp managers have really made an effort to improve the quality of accommodation and services. More activities would attract more visitors, but as a place to relax it’s perfect. So is it’s proximity to Kilimanjaro. It would be the perfect place to unwind after a climb. I loved my time there and I’m already planning my return!