The Great Escape
While animals – and visitors – converge on the African plains, writer Anton Crane finds solitude, scenic splendour, a delightful new camp and abundant wildlife on Tanzania’s remote Rubondo Island
Elephants gather along the shore of Rubondo Island
The African savannah can be crowded with beasts. Some are sleek, some shaggy; some golden-haired or fawn; some are tanned, fanged and bearded with Nikons and Canons galore.
During the great migration of wildebeest between June and August, another migration traverses the plains. It’s a tide of visitors from all corners of the world. And it’s a strange spectacle, ferried as they are in safari vehicles, and armed with so many long lenses that they resemble battleships festooned with guns vying for advantage on the savannah.
But where the East African plains host an endless variety of lodges (Audley do know the quiet ones), Rubondo Island on Lake Victoria has only two small camps. One is very basic and belongs to Tanzania National Park Authority; the other is Asilia Africa’s new private hideaway, comprising just eight cottages beneath the forested canopy on the island’s shore.
Apart from rangers, staff and guests, there are no human inhabitants on the island. It has been this way since Rubondo was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1965, a secluded refuge for animals as large as elephant and as elusive as chimpanzee. At 456 square kilometres it’s the largest island national park in Africa. It’s also probably the least populated.
When I first stepped from the boat onto the island, a colobus monkey shouted at me from high in the trees, probably in protest at my arrival. Then a flock of parrots cackled at my bald spot as I walked over to my chalet. As I sat there to absorb it all – Lake Victoria’s vast horizon and the strange sounds of the forest – a bushbuck rounded my chalet. She stopped. We regarded each other for a moment, then she dropped her delicate head to graze not far from my feet.
A little overwhelmed by such bold forest creatures, I took to the water. Between scenes of crocodiles sneaking into the lake and hippos guffawing at our boat, Nile perch tugged and rose on my fishing line so often I began thinking myself something of a Hemingway character in a laddish novel.
They were good fighters, and a very decent size in any fisherman’s eyes, but to me they were giants and it felt grand to hold them – it fortified my ego. As is the practice here, we released them back into the lake, giving me a chance to appreciate them better, watch them find purchase in the water and carry themselves to the depths in a silvery flash.
There are a variety of activities on offer on Rubondo Island, from walking safaris to boat safaris and game drives. You can walk through a known chimp habitat and learn more about the process of habituation and tracking from researchers. You can try your hand at fishing, take a guided kayaking trip, sleep under the stars or sail aboard a dhow – the perfect place to sip sundowners.
Sometimes we’d cruise alongside steep island rocks sliding into the water – a perch for thousands of birds as keen on fishing as I was – or a cove of great palms and dark, dense trees, always swaying, rustling, exploding, alive with all manner of beasts. This drew me back to the forest to discover more.
On a morning drive between towering trees, sitatunga and bushbuck bound silently through the fallen leaves and elephant polished tree bark, soothing their itchy hides. There were civet, colobus monkeys and hints of elusive chimpanzees, handmade nests high in the trees, and butterflies – so many butterflies. The track we followed was a highway for swallowtails, African monarchs and blue-spotted emperors that flapped alongside us, stretching their new wings; battling gliders chased African vagrants from puddles then beat a retreat as swordtails descended. Habibu, my guide, enhanced the scenes with tales of butterfly war.
If I was jumping with each tug of line on the water, in the forest I was twitching with each sight of plumage. I’ve never considered myself a birder but on a walk through the forest I was taken by the primary-coloured splendour of red bishops, yellow-billed cuckoos and blue-throated bee-eaters. There were black and white casqued hornbill brushing the top of the green canopy and broad-billed rollers resting on branches after intercontinental flights.
At dinner in camp, I enjoyed the excited chatter of birders who had seen species previously undocumented here. They glowed with news of lesser jacana and spent hours in a boat circling a tiny islet, gazing at the proliferation of more than 13 species on this speck of land alone – the main island is home to more than 200 species.
This birding business was intriguing me. I joined them one afternoon and as we cruised along the island shore I commented on a nesting colony of black weavers in a tree on the water’s edge. Such a peaceful scene, I said. No, no, it’s war in there, said renowned birder, Paul Oliver, pointing out a juvenile gymnogene intent on plucking young from the nests, then driven away by attacking weavers, its mother flying over to extract it from an embarrassing hunt.
After that, when I returned to the water it was to take in everything around me, not just the creatures of the deep. In the stroke of a few days I had become smitten with birds and butterflies and if I was in awe of a big catch, I was equally in awe of a pied kingfisher’s or a heron’s or a fish eagle’s. Rubondo has a transformative power. Because the island and waters are so rich and so untouched, one feels closer to this Africa, so much more a part of it. It’s a wonderful alternative to a plains safari, or a secluded place to combine with one – secluded, but no less wild.