Rubondo Island is probably one of Tanzania’s best-kept secrets. Yet it’s one of the few places in the world to track wild chimpanzees. Catrina Stewart heads to Lake Victoria in search of the apes.
Rotinik looks glum as he fiddles with his radio. The spotters, out since early morning, haven’t heard, yet alone seen, any chimpanzees yet.
But everywhere there is evidence of their recent movements – a leafy bed high up in the trees, the stark imprint of a footprint, a slimy dollop of regurgitated forest fruits. We have been walking for nearly an hour now through thick tangled jungle, and we know we’re on their trail. Trouble is, chimps move fast, and they could be miles away.
We could be part of a slick military operation – the trackers, several of them, have fanned out since early morning, keeping in regular radio contact as they look and listen for the chimps. Rotinik, an experienced tracker with the Tanzanian Park Authorities, is bedecked with rifle and walkie talkie.
We walk on – silently, each immersed in our own thoughts. I wonder if we might not see the chimps at all. The radio crackles to life, and Rotinik flashes us his first real smile of the day. The trackers have heard their chimps – but they’re some distance away still. “Many kilometres,” he says. “Is it ok?” We nod enthusiastically. We haven’t come all this way to Rubondo, a hard-to-reach island in Lake Victoria, to give up so soon.
Suddenly, there is a heavy crashing from close by, and I jump fearfully. Elephant. Hemmed in by the forest, we can’t see them, but they trumpet their presence. As Rotinik unslings his rifle, trigger finger at the ready, he tells us we have to find a way around.
I half expect a grey pachyderm to plunge out of the undergrowth at any moment. The chimps are plainly terrified, too. The trackers, their voices coming over urgent on the radio, say they are on the move – and fast.
‘JURASSIC PARK WITHOUT THE DINOSAURS’
Rubondo was first described to me as “Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.” The long stretch of island – densely thicketed, and only vaguely mapped – has emerged as something of a Noah’s Ark for endangered species. Giraffe, elephant, various types of antelope, including the rare Sitatunga, bush pig and rhino (later poached out) were all introduced here, a haven far from the plains of the Serengeti and its predators, where the animals could survive in perfect isolation if the rest of Africa went to pot.
But it is the chimpanzees that are arguably the island’s biggest draw. German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek rescued a dozen or so chimpanzees from zoos and circuses across Europe in the 1960s, and dropped them onto Rubondo. The chimps were mostly young orphans when taken into captivity, never learning the basic skills of survival out in the wild. The move to reintroduce them into the wild was an experiment in the truest sense of the word. Would they learn how to hunt, how to forage?
For the next few decades, the world forgot about them – and the chimps thrived. From a mere dozen of chimps, Rubondo’s dense tangle of jungle is now home to as many as 60. Although one group in the north has grown used to humans, there are two other groups that are rarely seen, yet alone studied. They live a blithe existence, unthreatened and untouched. Remarkably, it remains the only successful reintroduction of captive chimps into the wild.
A STORMY CROSSING
Situated in the southwestern part of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Rubondo is not the easiest place to reach. As we drove across Tanzania, we buoyed our children with the prospect of a fairytale island with fire- breathing dragons. By the time we reached Nkome, our sailing departure point, the weather was closing in, and the mystique of Rubondo was, for the kids at least, losing some of its appeal.
Waves smashed against the jetty, and Emmanuel, the boat’s captain, urged us to hurry up. Within moments of setting off, I could see why. The wind had picked up and rain was falling hard, its slanted needles slashing my face. My three-year-old daughter clutched a poncho with her tiny fists, and stuck her head under, not to re-emerge for the hour-long stormy crossing.
As we fought our way through Lake Victoria’s roiling waters, half-baked memories of ferry disasters in these waters flitted across my mind. We might have been in the North Atlantic, not Africa’s largest lake. But as we motored into Rubondo Island, the wind dropped, and we tumbled out, drenched, from the boat onto the a crescent-shaped beach. “It may look like paradise,” Larry, Rubondo Island Camp’s manager, greeted us, “but there are crocodiles and hippos. So no swimming.”
It wasn’t a day for swimming in the pool, either, and my children took the news with dismay. Over tea, Rosie, my five-year-old sobbed, “I thought there would be dragons and fairies, and seashells to pick up, and waves to jump over.”
The next morning, however, dawned bright and clear, the previous day’s turmoil forgotten. We led the children through the forest, looking for antelope and monitor lizards, before taking the boat out again, this time to gaze at the dozens of crocodiles perched menacingly on a outcrop a short motor from the camp. But no tourists have ever come to harm on Rubondo, and the proximity of such creatures provided an excitement and thrill at brushing so close to nature.
By late afternoon, the children were immersed on the beach, busy collecting snail shells and other washed-up debris. Dragons there were none, but there was an island to explore, a pool to splash in, and plenty of sand to feed the imagination.
Later, we fell into conversation with our fellow guests. They had returned from tracking chimps, and had watched in amazement as the primates caught and tore apart a bush buck, a rare sighting for a creature that is one of our closest relatives.
As we panted in pursuit of Rotinik, now rmly on the trail of the chimps, I pondered the bloodthirstiness of these creatures, who to all appearances seem so gentle. Chimps normally feast on berries, but when food is scarce, do go for meat.
Suddenly, two spotters plunged out of the thicket, their faces glistening with exertion. They were both smiling, and said that the chimps were close. Indeed, soon we could hear the shrill shrieks as the chimps called to each other, and as a group we set off at speed in their direction.
FORGING A BOND
For the next hour, we crouched and crawled across the forest oor, peering through the dense undergrowth for a glimpse of the apes. In Gombe park to the south, our guide explained, the chimps are fed, making close-quarters observation a near certainty. On Rubondo, the process of habituation has been much more natural, and several teams of researchers had tried – and failed – before to get close to them.
When Asilia took over Rubondo Island Camp in 2013, it poured money into the chimps’ habituation, achieved by a large team of very intrepid, very patient guides who have worked painstakingly to forge a bond with the shy primates.
This was taking safari to another level. We were more or less alone on this island, tracking our quarry. I fancifully compared myself to the hunters of the last century, who would spend days in pursuit of their prey, to be nally rewarded. For us, though, there was no bloody end. Just the pleasure of glimpsing the chimps in their natural habitat, sitting under a tree scratching or munching on a piece of fruit. Or swinging through the trees, the chimps acutely aware of our presence, but not unduly concerned by it.
It was time to head home – and back to our children. As the boat that came to collect us eased past rocks to the stony shore, we spotted a rock python in the water between us and the boat, its massive, coiling body inert, waiting for its prey. I wondered fretfully if roles were about to be reversed, and took a leap of faith to scramble onto the waiting boat. Emmanuel’s hand clutched mine, and I was safely aboard. This was true African jungle – raw, untouched, enchanting.
The writer and her family were guests of Rubondo Island Camp.
WHERE TO STAY:
RUBONDO ISLAND CAMP
This is the only top-end place on the island, attractively located on its own beach. Accommodation is in spacious, thatched cottages set a couple of hundred yards back from the beach. For honeymooners, or a spot of romance, try the treehouse for a night, a secluded room perched among the trees with an open-air tub. The lodge has a large lounge and dining area catching the lake breezes, and a pool. Activities include game walks, boat rides, chimp tracking and fishing. Starts at $200 pp a night for East African residents, inclusive of all food and drink. No children five and under. www.asilia.com
Run by the Tanzanian Park Authority (Tanapa), these bandas offer very affordable accommodation on a private beach. Lake-facing bandas, really brick huts, are simple, but offer excellent value. There’s a big kitchen on site for those choosing to self cater, but food can be provided at an additional fee. There’s a comfortable furnished (beached) boat, shaded from the sun, for relaxing on during the day. As at Rubondo Island Camp, chimp tracking can be arranged, but requires some time to set up. Reservations are managed through Tanapa’s of ce in Arusha. Starts from about $25 pp.
FEES AND LOGISTICS
- East African residents pay $30 per adult in park fees, $15 for children aged 5-15. EA Citizens pay Ksh 230, and Ksh100 for children.
- Rubondo Island Camp can arrange boat transfers from Nkome on the southern tip, starting at $200 (for four passengers). Both the camp and bandas can also arrange the shorter boat transfer from Kisenda on the Western shore for $100.
- Alternatively, Auric Air flies from Mwanza and Bukoba, and will stop at Rubondo if at least two passengers.