The Tanzanian lakeside village of Mganza was chaotic and cacophonous. A veritable traffic jam of lake taxis was scrumming for a slice of shore, each blaring out a different tune from speakers tied on board.
We piled out of the car where we’d been incarcerated for hours – the foot wells were biscuit-crumb-dusted, testimony to too much time on the road – and we were greeted by Edwin, our camp manager and host for the weekend.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” he urged. “There’s a storm coming.”
My husband, our young daughter Hattie and I hurriedly picked our way across the crafts tethered tenuously to one another until we reached the one that would ferry us across Lake Victoria, Africa’s biggest lake at 69,500sqkm. The cold waters were slate-grey and whipped by a biting wind. Hattie’s eyes were wide and she gripped my hand tightly.
Our island destination, Rubondo, could have been anywhere within the lake’s watery expanse. Happily, it was the closest landmass to the shore, just a few kilometres away. Cloaked in an impenetrable, green forest, the island was at odds with the tree-denuded shores of the mainland.
The island was so untouched, a dinosaur could have emerged.
We were drenched by the time we disembarked 40 minutes later. After the raucousness of Mganza, Rubondo was pin-drop silent. The only sound was the haunting cries of fish eagles (the island is home to the densest population in Africa). In fact, the island was so untouched that I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur had emerged.
Rubondo became Tanzania’s very own version of Noah’s Ark
As we drove to camp, the deep shade of thick forest casting an aquarium-green glow, Edwin explained that Rubondo’s unsullied atmosphere is due to the fact that it was identified as a game reserve in 1965 and declared a national park in 1977. In the 10 years between 1964 and 1974, a number of threatened species were introduced to the 237sqkm island by German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek. Not only does Rubondo’s water-bound geography afford absolute protection, the island is uninhabited (apart from a handful of national park staff) and predators are few. In fact, until Grzimek introduced his menagerie, the only animal residents were vervet monkeys, otters and indigenous sitatunga antelope. It became Tanzania’s very own version of Noah’s Ark: a floating island sanctuary for threatened animals.
Edwin explained that while attempts to settle black rhino and roan antelope failed, the elephant, colobus monkey, suni antelope and African grey parrot have thrived. As have the chimps; indeed the tangle of forest is so thick with primate-friendly vines that you could imagine Tarzan himself swinging by with a whoop. In fact, the primates are the island’s biggest success story.
Since baby chimps will not leave a dead mother’s side, they were easy prey.
The chimps brought to Rubondo were born wild and captured as infants. Traditionally, their mothers had been killed by poachers who targeted the chimp populations of Tanzania, Uganda and the Congo – and since baby chimps will not leave a dead mother’s side, they were easy prey. The infant primates were used in European circuses and zoos until they became older, bigger and typically aggressive, after which they were dispatched to live out the remaining – sometimes 60 years – of their lives serving as biomedical research in Europe and the US. But Grzimek returned 17 fortunate animals to Africa, creating an artificial population in Rubondo that represents the world’s only successful reintroduction of chimpanzees. There were no resident populations to kill the introduced individuals, and unlike captivity-born chimps, the Rubondo animals seemed to have retained some knowledge of forest living. Today, the original population of 17 has grown to between 40 and 50 – but they’re still not the easiest to spot. As the only community on the island, the unconstrained chimps are free to wander widely across the full 237sqkm (in contrast, a territory at Tanzania’s renowned chimp sanctuaries, Mahale or Gombe, is generally 12 to 20sqkm). Researchers are lucky to see them after traipsing through the forest and undergrowth for hours, days, on end. Chances are, a crew of bush-walking, camera-toting visitors will not.
The isolated island exudes a sort of magic
But there are plenty of other things to see, including the flock of African grey parrots that greeted us upon our arrival at camp. I’d previously only seen parrots in cages nibbling disconsolately on a few sunflower seeds; here they were feasting on figs and happily depositing the remains on the heads of any humans that passed beneath.
We saw the island’s indigenous amphibious Sitatunga antelope, which have swamp-adapted splayed feet. Each morning at camp, a pair of spotted otters swam obligingly from one side of the bay to the other, their small heads carving a graceful wake across the water.
It's a sanctuary where the animals are finally safe.
We watched monitor lizards slink from sunbathing spots into the water, and cormorants drying their wings in choreographed symmetry upon rocks. Nile Perch caught by island boats came in as big as a man. We bush-walked and watched the afternoon sun, filtered by leaves, glaze myriad colourful wild flowers and fungi. We drank in the evening view, the sun sinking beneath the water (another anomaly in East Africa, where the sun more often rises from depths). The isolated and unspoiled island exudes a magic that could make anyone believe in a mythical Noah’s Ark: a sanctuary suspended between sea and the sky where the animals are finally safe.