The Wild Things of Rubondo Island

Tuesday, July 25, 2006 | Rubondo Island, Tanzania (map)

The density of Rubondo Island's forests makes it easy for even the largest creatures to avoid human contact.
From the minute the boat bumped against the thin strip of white sand beach, I could tell that Rubondo Island is an almost unearthly place. A few paces from the water's edge, a seemingly impenetrable tangle of dark tropical forest began, covering the entirety of the enormous island, which from the water is easy to mistake for the mainland because of its size. Dino and a few of us ecology students would stay at the ranger's camp along the lakeshore, along with a few other groups of travellers.

Before the painful exercise of pitching our tents (a jumble of mismatched poles and bundled canvas which our guide company was happy to provide us with) at and shortly after dusk, we took a brief walk through the forest. Walking along the trail, peering into the undergrowth, I was reminded of the mornings in my childhood when my sister would wake up and come downstairs, her long hair in a
feral tangle, and my mom would order her to "Go comb that rat's nest!" Amid the roots of the banyan trees, hanging down from high up in the canopy to the forest floor, and the endless squiggles of liana vines entwined around the other vegetation, others recalled Where the Wild Things Are.

The wild things soon appeared. A few minutes from camp, a sitatunga ran across our path. These large, shy, swamp-dwelling antelope are characterized by their spiraled, striped horns and widely splayed hooves, the latter preventing them from sinking into mud as they feed. A few minutes later we spotted a male bushbuck deep in the undergrowth, at which point he ran off and displayed his own trademark—a loud bark that sounded just like a German Shepherd's. A few minutes later, Dino pointed out an otherwise normal-looking plant which has evolved a unique defense mechanism—when the plant is touched, it rapidly folds up its small, fern-like leaves, within several seconds leaving only its spiny thorns exposed.

After our fireside dinner that night, Dino made friends with the island's current resident chimpanzee researcher, who agreed to allow us to tag along the following day in search of Rubondo's chimps. We slept early, exhausted after our final, hectic week of classes but excited for the next day. Belching and guffawing loudly, the hippos feeding in the lake serenaded us to sleep.

* * *

5:30-wakeup. 5:45-breakfast. 6:15-speeding-down-forest-road-in-back-of-pickup-truck. Madness.

I'm finally fully awake around 6:45 when, as the sun comes up, we set off at a breakneck pace through the forest. The Tanzanian tracker, Simon, leads the group, followed closely by Clara, the young, rather geeky Czech chimp researcher, then Dino and us sleepy students, stumbling over vines and roots. Ducking vines and scooting under low-hanging branches, we speed through the forest, trying to reach the area where the chimps often bed down for the night before they head off in search of food. After an hour, we reach a small hill in the forest, and Clara announces in a whisper, "We'll stop here."

She and Simon plop down and rocks and rummage (quietly!) through their bags in search of cell phones, text messaging their respective families, this hill being the only spot on the island with cell service. "We're listening," Clara whispers to us. "This is how we find them"—the chimps, that is. After a half hour of resting and listening to the birds twitter and hoot, she declares defeat, and we move out again at a fast pace. Leaning under vines and branches, I quickly get the "Limbo" song stuck in my head, where it remains for the rest of the day.

We continue like this for six more brutal hours, stopping a few times to rest and fill up on water, cheap glucose biscuits and fruit. In that time we spot a number of brilliantly colored butterflies, the vivid glinting dead husks of a few exotic forest beetles, termite mounds the size of SUVs, the enormous chrysalis of a majestic Emperor butterfly, vines thicker than the trees they're wrapped around, and powerfully fragrant, billowing white flowers high in the forest canopy. Several times we cross the ten-foot-wide paths of huge footprints and squashed trees which elephants plowed through the forest, like thundering deities effortlessly parting the seas. We returned to camp in mid-afternoon, having seen only a few nests high in the trees to testify to the chimpanzees' presence, but hardly disappointed.

That evening, another brief walk—this time along a trail—took us by a furry Colobus monkey and a loquacious flock of African grey parrots, popular pets in the US and famous for their impressive vocal capabilities.

Our walk took us to the island's luxury lodge, currently being managed by an English university student and her friend, a young white Zimbabwean, fresh out of high school. When I asked him about possibly traveling to Zimbabwe, he told me a few tidbits. The most interesting information I gleaned was that, because of the country's hyper-inflation, when he went to the airport to fly to Rubondo Island, this young Zimbabwean took three suitcases with him—one with his clothes and other belongings, and two full of the money needed to buy his ticket. But who can argue with the policies of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship? Even Zimbabwe's poor can be millionaires today.

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