Katy Heerssen previews the paradise on Rubondo Island, a secret gem on Lake Victoria that proves as unpredictable as it is peaceful.
The island home of Asilia Africa’s newest addition, Rubondo Island Camp, is a bit of an enigma to me. One-part relaxed waterfront retreat and one-part field day for active adventurers, I found it so different from the traditional safari, jungle or island experience. Still, all three are a part of its identity. Uninhabited and unexplored for decades, Tanzania’s Rubondo Island is the largest island national park in Africa, and Rubondo Island Camp is the only property on some 170 square miles in Lake Victoria’s southwestern corner. Nearly all of that area is forested with sub-tropical flora, which is what attracted the attention of Professor Bernhard Grzimek of the Frankfurt Zoological Society and set the scene for the island’s unique population today.
In 1966 Grzimek released the first of four cohorts of chimpanzees onto the island, all having been liberated from captivity in European zoos and circuses. In the years that followed, Rubondo became a sort of experimental wildlife refuge with antelope, elephant, giraffe and black-and white colobus monkeys joining the wild-born chimps and being left to their own devices in the protected jungle. Over time the relocated conglomeration has thrived, with elephant numbers now estimated in the 70s and the chimpanzee population having grown to around 40 from the original 17. Any habituation these animals may have had at one time has been forgotten as decades without the company of human neighbors or tourists has let their instincts take control.
Nature has literally let loose on Rubondo, from the species released by Grzimek to the thick forest left unbothered under national park protection, to the seemingly impenetrable tangles of vines, logs, and mossy trunks. All add to the wild mystery of the place.
The unpaved road that snakes across the island can be a challenge to navigate. On my jaunt through this jungle, guide Victoria fittingly called the bumpy ride a “Rubondo Massage.” The drive was serene and green on all sides, transporting me through a tunnel of plant life. When passing from the cover of trees into sunny clearings, I felt it on my skin just as much as if I was on the open savannah, but without the smothering humidity of Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast. As we drove we spotted countless groups of butterflies wicking moisture from animal dung in the road, each exploding in a cloud of color as we passed. The occasional bushbuck was interrupted on its warm patch beside the road and bolted back into that impossible knot of foliage after staring at our truck for a moment. But the real stars of the show on a drive through Rubondo are the masses of birds. Over 200 species have been recorded within the national park including grey African parrots, whose ancestors were released on the island in the 1970s after being confiscated from the illegal animal trade.
Wildlife has the right of way on this island and can interfere with commuting. For me, elephants and an immovable downed tree lead to an unexpected jungle trek in flip-flops. The same gentle giants from the Serengeti that delighted me with their play are the overzealous landscape architects of Rubondo. Native fruit trees descending from groves planted by the pre-1960s island settlers are irresistible to the elephants. Their appetite for sweet fruit, plus their massive size in such close quarters, leaves a path of felled timber that often crosses the island’s narrow roads.
Sometimes a machete will take care of the problem, but when it doesn’t, the choices are either to turn around or to walk ahead. Forward we went on foot to one of the highest points on the island, and back down to the waiting boat, surrounded by the hum of the jungle. Yes, it was unplanned, but if not for this hike I would have missed hearing the calls of a troop of black-and-white colobus and catching a glimpse of one of them from a distance. As on a traditional safari, exploring by foot on Rubondo is often a completely different experience from a drive.
The only way to get close to the secretive chimps that live on the northern end of the island is by foot. Currently it is very rare to see them out and about, but international researchers are in the early stages of the habituation process with hopes of making them more visible to visitors in the future. Walking through their habitat with one of the researchers to see the signs of their activity is a testament to the success story of Rubondo as a conservation island.
The attitude of conservation translates into Rubondo Island Camp’s physical structures, all constructed with materials sourced on the mainland to protect the integrity of the island forest. Just eight chalets, all with lake views, are a part of this paradise. Here I not only have running water fed by the lake, but I also have the luxury of three solid walls and a roof. The fourth wall is canvas and mesh, the perfect floor-to-ceiling window to the lake and a reminder of the wild surroundings.
Baths are fitted with rain showers, double sinks with handmade soaps and refillable pump bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash. I yearn to replicate the modular concrete built-ins of the bath in my suburbia closet back home. The bed itself is built into the wall too, and the switches for the over-bed lights and wall sconces are right next to my head as I sleep. Through the windows at night I hear the waves of the lake crashing, tricking me into thinking I am in an ocean-side cabana.
Anyone who’s been to Africa knows the sun does some incredible things to the sky. New colors are on display each dawn and dusk, never in the same combination and never failing to make one stop and look out at an expanse of land rarely seen in such splendor. On Rubondo it’s no different. The camp’s main lounge and dining area have the privilege of overlooking the lake on two sides, making it the perfect place to watch the sunrise and sunset paint the sky with vibrant purple, orange, pink and gold. I live for watching the reflecting lake light up each day.
Lake Victoria is deceiving in its serenity. The beach at camp is beautiful, but it is not for swimming—crocodiles and hippos have claimed the waters for their own and can regularly be seen patrolling offshore. There are a number of nooks and marshy coves around the island and on surrounding islets where crocodiles and monitor lizards like to relax. One spot in particular is populated entirely by birds. Here I see trees brimming with cormorants, fish eagles, sacred ibis and a variety of stork species. Boat rides through the national park are full of these little vignettes of shore activity. There is also a fair amount of World War I history in the area, including German trenches and tunnels that we accessed by boat. Anglers are at home here too, of course. The lake is stuffed with Nile perch, with some of the largest on record topping 220 pounds. Hence, our catch of the day is considerably easier to handle.
Rubondo Island Camp includes a family suite that sleeps up to five. A honeymoon suite is set on the far end of the beach to take full advantage of the panorama, enhanced by an additional outdoor shower. Honeymooners on the island get first dibs on the dhow and the private dining deck at the main lodge. A pool surrounded by a wooden deck overlooks the lake for those who simply must take a dip, and a massage set to the waves from the lake is an ideal way to fill the afternoon hours between excursions.
As difficult as it is to put my finger on Rubondo Island, I fell in love with this place. Its residents are an unlikely combination of animals that have somehow coexisted on their own for decades, and its atmosphere is the definition of wild. A stay at Rubondo Island Camp is the perfect continuation of a Tanzanian safari experience. Rubondo is in a category all its own, speaking honestly to the adventurer within.