Float­ing Na­tional Park

Un­in­hab­ited is­land of Rubondo is of­ten seen as Tan­za­nia’s very own Noah’s Ark writes BBC’S Anthea Rowan

Business Daily (Kenya) - - TRAVEL -

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.

Un­touched is­land

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.

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 pri­mate­friendly vines that you could imag­ine Tarzan him­self swing­ing by with a whoop. In fact, the pri­mates are the is­land’s big­gest suc­cess story.

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. Ex­ude magic

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.

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