Imagine an island where no humans live. Elephants, giraffes and deer roam free. Trees and foliage consume the island, encroaching on even the most well established dirt tracks.
Suddenly, a plane flies in low overhead, a reminder that indeed, some humans do come here. In some ways, it doesn’t seem too far removed from a world of dinosaurs, earning it the reputation as Tanzania’s Jurassic Park. Although it seems like another world, this place exists.
It’s called Rubondo Island and it’s the perfect antidote to selfie sticks, social media and Instagram guides to travelling.
A journey over land and sea…
Rubondo is not easy to get to. The difficult journey only adds to the adventure and feeling of being really off the beaten track (something that is rare to experience in this age of a quest for the most Insta-worthy destinations). To be honest, the lack of information online was a challenge, but also something that really attracted me to this secluded National Park.
The simplest route from Dar es Salaam consists of a flight to Mwanza, a six hour bus journey to Muganza (take the bus towards Bukoba- around 12,000tsh one way), a 15 minute motorbike or taxi ride to the dock (we paid about 10,000 shillings) and a 30 minute speed boat (US$100 return for up to 6 people). It wasn’t the easiest journey, but arriving on a small speed boat across Lake Victoria from the tiny village of Muganza, we knew that we had really landed somewhere special.
Solitude and surprises at every turn.
In Tanzania, I have experienced traffic jams to view lions in Ngorongoro, been surrounded by tourists at the full moon party in Zanzibar, and spend most of my weekends with friends on the beaches of Dar es Salaam. This was nothing like that. This was an adventure.
Rubondo Island is a “Noah’s Ark” affair. It became a game reserve in 1965 and is home to a seemingly random assortment of animals. Giraffes, elephants, deer and hippos roam free. There are chimpanzees on the island too, although they are not yet habituated to humans. To take part in the habituation process, you must pay a fee upwards of $200 per person. However, for me there’s something amazing about a place where animals are still not aware of humans.
The first impression that hits is the feeling of solitude. Apart from the park rangers and a young German couple, we were the only people on the island. The drive from the small dock to the Tanzania National Parks public bandas where we were staying was like a step into another world. Butterflies and birds flew freely above us while deer and warthogs darted across our path. The TANAPA bandas ($35 per night) were more like little cottages with one bedroom and a separate room for shower and toilet.
When we arrived we went straight to the huge campfire. The ranger told us we might even see hippos there that night as they exited the water. After our 15 hours travelling I settled in with my book and thought “the hippos will have to wait!”
How silly of me- nature doesn’t wait for anyone!
I had only read a few pages when the ranger from the camp came to our door. He invited us back to the lake shore to watch hippos exit the lake to look for food. Lions may be king of the jungle. but hippos are actually the deadliest animals in Africa. So of course, we were in!
We sat in silence, hearts racing as the hippos clambered out of the water and began their journey inland. Once they were all out we breathed a sigh of relief and started chatting with excitement. But it wasn’t over yet. The rangers motioned for us to follow them. We tracked the hippos as far as the airstrip through the pitch dark. The only light was the ranger’s torch.
Every so often we heard rustling on one side of the strip. The ranger would shine his torch for a quick glimpse before pulling it away before it disturbed the hippos. Once they got too far into the long grass to see, we made our way back to camp. This time we didn’t speak until we were safely back at the campfire. Even then we were too tired and excited by what had happened. The events of the day played in my mind and we slept happily dreaming of monkeys, crocodiles and hippos.
Waking up on Rubondo Island felt like waking up on another planet.
There were no cars, no music, no people- just monkeys running on our rooftop, colourful insects flying past our window and the gentle sound of waves lapping on the lake shore. Our first activity of the day was a boat safari on Lake Victoria. While colourful birds flew overhead, we floated to the deepest part of Lake Victoria. This huge lake spans Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. We caught glimpses of crocodiles swimming beneath us but I couldn’t take my eyes off the birds. From kingfishers to African Fish Eagles, birds swooped overhead everywhere we went. We even came across a whole island inhabited by birds!
In the afternoon we took a walking safari (kindly given free of charge to make up for a small mix up with our boat safari). This was where the real excitement started. As we scrambled through the forest, under branches and over roots, bushbuck darted through the trees around us. Eventually we made it to the viewpoint at the top where the native Zinza tribe used to give offerings. The small shrine can still be seen, although the tribe have been relocated to different islands or the mainland.
Sometimes nature brings peace but sometimes the animals have other plans…
As we descended from the viewpoint to the lake shore, our guide informed us that at this part of the hike we needed to stay behind the armed ranger at all times. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a huge crocodile ran from the bushes into the lake only 3 metres in front of us! I never knew they could move so fast and I have never been so close to such a dangerous creature on foot!
We had only walked a few steps more when the ranger put his arm out and shoved me back. A split second later another crocodile bounded to the lake shore, even faster than the last one. At this point our heart rates were up.
A girl in our group asked me did I think this was safe. I didn’t reply as I really had no idea! I trusted the guide, but did I trust the crocodiles?! A further 3 crocodiles crossed our path, by which point our guide made the decision to take us inland away from the shore, lest we stumble on another nest. We arrived back at camp with our adrenaline running. We decided not to go chasing hippos that night and instead opted for an evening of cooking in the shared kitchen followed by a beer by the campfire.
When you know paradise exists, how can you leave?
Once we left the island and waited for our bus from the tiny village of Muganza, Rubondo Island seemed a million miles away. It’s hard to believe that a place like this exists in this age of Instagram, blogs and overexposure. After spending 3 days completely immersed in nature, I was glad to have the day of travelling before adjusting back to my hectic life in Dar es Salaam. Rubondo Island reignited my love of nature and restored my faith that it is still possible to get off the beaten track. You just have to get out and find it.
- I booked and paid for all of this trip myself and can highly recommend contacting the Rubondo Island staff from Tanzania National Parks Service (TANAPA) to inform them of your trip. They can assist in all bookings by contacting: email@example.com We had some confusion about prices and bookings (particularly regarding resident, citizen and tourist rates- residents often need to pay the same as tourists, while East African citizens have a special rate) so I advise clarifying all of the costs before you travel. You can view the 2017-2018 park fees here.
- We took a walking safari, game drive and boat safari in Rubondo Island. Most of these activities were the same price for up to 6 people. Luckily on our second day, a group of 3 girls came and were happy to join us for activities. With a group, Rubondo Island is extremely affordable.
- If in doubt, ask! When we arrived for our boat safari, they had rented the boat to someone else even though we had pre-booked it. We could have come home disappointed had we not expressed our disappointment to the ranger and suggested a solution. They found us a boat from the nearby private lodge and even gave us a free walking safari ($20 pp) to make up for it!