Start Point: Rocky Bay Resort, Busisi, Tanzania
End Point: Rubondo Island Camp, Rubondo Island NP, Lake Victoria, Tanzania
KMs travelled: 227
Total KMs: 907
Rubondo Island lies on the western side of Lake Victoria. At 465 sq. km, it’s about a ¼ of the size of Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve and the only inhabitants of the dense forests are the National Parks rangers and the staff and guests of Rubondo Island Camp. The highlight of our stay was trekking for chimpanzees – there’s lots more on this below.
I’d expected the roads on the mainland to dwindle to dirt tracks and was slightly disappointed that we were on good tarmac all the way to the park’s main gate at Kasenda. It all felt far too easy to get somewhere that had always been very remote in my mind’s eye. That all changed as we donned our life jackets and boarded our small fibreglass boat for the transfer over and it became clear this was a path less trodden.
The 30-minute drive to camp through the lush vegetation gave us a hint of things to come. Bushbuck and monkeys seemed to be everywhere and we couldn’t drive 10 metres without a pygmy kingfisher or paradise flycatcher whizzing across the road in front of us. The park is best known for the chimpanzees that were introduced from war-torn Sierra Leone and other West African countries over half a century ago, but it also has elephants, giraffes, sitatunga, suni, giant forest hog and black and white colobus monkeys and birds… lots of birds…
We were the only guests at Rubondo Island Camp so we had the cove, private beach and view out over the seemingly endless waters of Lake Victoria to ourselves. We were extremely comfortable during our stay and the wonderfully attentive staff took great care of us. It was obvious that a lot of time and effort had gone into creating the right mix of rustic remote and upmarket comfort. There are only 8 rooms here so, even if there were other guests, I imagine we’d still have the feeling of being on our own desert island.
Our first afternoon was spent trawling the waters of Rubondo and the surrounding islands for Nile Perch… the area is regarded as being a good fishing spot and this proved to be the case for us, with Kian catching (and releasing) a 6kg specimen. After my very first ever sighting of a Sitatunga, our evening excursion turned into a speedboat driving lesson for Kian, who turned out to be a pretty decent Captain and thoroughly enjoyed crashing through the waves as his poor father clung on for dear life!
Our full day on Rubondo was focused on chimpanzees. The 17 individuals brought to the island in 1961 have grown to around 80 and they are split into 2 main groups, which have settled in the forests of the north and south. Habituation of the northern group started taking place on Rubondo in the early 2000s and the camp has been closely involved in the process, including funding the main crew of trackers called ‘Honeyguides’ after the bird that leads you.
Our adventure to find the chimps started with the trackers heading out early to find where they had nested for the night and the plan was for us to hike out to join them as they followed the chimps through the forest. We had to take a 40-minute boat ride up to the northern end and our captain (the real one not Kian) found a suitable place to get us on shore. The hike through the forest was not easy… It’s still a pristine bush with no established footpaths, so we followed animal trails that weaved along the hillsides. This was quite easy when an elephant opened up the pathway, but much less so when it was a chimp, bush pig or antelope trail.
Although these chimps are habituated, it’s not to the point that they ignore human presence close by, so our trek was a lot more about the adventure of following them and trying to get close than it was about finally seeing them. Our first contact was hearing calls between different groups and the males ‘drumming’ the roots of fig trees but it took almost an hour and a half for us to get a proper sighting of an individual – our Honeyguides informed us this was the second-ranking male who undertook a rather vigorous whooping and drumming display in a small clearing about 15-20 metres in front of us. This impressive display attracted the attention of others close by and, after lots of calling between these different groups, they all melted away into the forest.
The trekking here is not for the faint of heart. All told, we were away from camp for 10 hours and hiked over 13km in about 6 ¼ hours, much of which was tough work, clambering through vines and forging a way through the thick foliage. We got to see 4 different chimps of which one was a good sighting. However, the day was just as amazing for the adventure and the way in which we really got to experience the forest.
We could have easily spent a 3rd and 4th night here and I can’t wait to return with guests in the future, especially those with an adventurous spirit. As a final parting gift, our drive to the jetty was delayed by 2 large bull elephants (our first of this trip) blocking the road before they ambled off into the swampland to continue feeding.