Dodging crocs on chimp island

Tanzania’s Rubondo Island National Park in Lake Victoria is a place where chimpanzees live wild, Nile perch prowl the depths and crocodiles surf the waves. Come, the forest is calling.

By Anton Crone (GO! magazine, March 2014)

(An extract from Anton Crone’s Bright Continent Blog.)

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Quinton Miller stuck his finger into the long, white lump of dung. “Smells like python,” he said. Trackers James Leonard and Simon Yohana nodded in agreement, the tips of their fingers also iced with sticky goo. All three looked at me. Resigned, I stuck my finger in. It was warm near the core. If this was python poo, the owner couldn’t be far away.

I scanned the forest undergrowth as I took a whiff. The smell didn’t match any of the poo smells in my memory bank, but it was certainly poo. Before I could give my verdict, though, Quinton hissed: “Stop. Don’t move!”

He pointed to a bush just a metre away. There, camouflaged by the shadows, was the tail of a rather large African Rock Python. And we could see quite clearly why it had decided to empty its stomach…

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Our aim on the island that particular day was to spot wild chimpanzees. This might have been easier if Rubondo wasn’t the biggest island national park in Africa, with vast swathes of forest for the chimps to hide in. Troops typically forage in a home range of 18–22km square. Judging by the 50 or so nests we’d found in the trees, and discarded husks of fruit, we were at the core of at least one troop’s range. But as James pointed out: “They’ll see you before you see them.”

The history of Rubondo’s chimps explains why they’re so wary of humans. They were introduced by famous German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek after the island became a wildlife sanctuary in 1965. Sixteen of the original chimps had been wrenched from their homes in West Africa and toured Europe in zoos and circuses. They were rescued by Grzimek, who released them into the wild on Rubondo in stages between 1966 and 1969. The chimp population on the island has since grown to an estimated 40 individuals.

The aim now is to habituate Rubondo’s chimps, but steps in that direction have only just begun. With a lifespan of about 40 years in the wild, it’s doubtful that any of the original chimps are still alive – in other words, all the chimps on the island were born wild. I love the thought of that. As we slogged through the forest, I realised that I had no burning desire to see a chimp just to tick it off a bucket list. Knowing they were there was enough.

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Before we came across the python, the four of us had sat in silence on top of a hill, listening for the chimps. We heard all manner of sounds: insects creeping beneath the fallen leaves, the rush of wings, the call of black-and-white casqued hornbills and the whoop of their four legged doppelgängers, black-and-white colobus monkeys. We did this three times – at one point we lay back on the ground and fell asleep to the sounds of the forest. It was wonderful, an almost primal feeling.

I had been to Rubondo before and I’d been hooked – not unlike my fishing guide, Keith Hoskin. When I arrived, a fishing rod was shoved in my hand and I hardly let go for five days. Lake Victoria is renowned for its gigantic Nile perch and the fishing around Rubondo is particularly good. Because it’s a national park, fishing is limited to the few people who buy permits, which means the fish grow fat.

Along one stretch of the island, a cliff dives into the water, marking the deepest point in the lake. That’s where the big perch lurk, and I landed seven fish between 25 and 35kg during my time there. Despite their size, they were lively at the end of the line and it took a good deal of effort to get them into the boat. Once aboard, the fight didn’t stop – they trashed about violently, making it difficult to get a hold of them to pry the lure from their vice-like mouths.

Fishing on Rubondo is strictly catch and release. Armed with gloves and pliers, my guide Keith did good job of freeing the beasts and returning them carefully to the water. He had a deep respect for them and made sure the water was running through their gills and that they were swimming before he set them free.

At one point I caught a tiddler of about 5kg, but it was an angry fish and it thrashed around so much that it threw the lure and leapt back into the water. In the process, it left Keith with a memento: a 15cm Rapala lure hooked right through his nose. He looked like a tribesman from the forests of Papua New Guinea. Once the laughter had subsided, we set about releasing him with wire cutters – a tricky job on the choppy lake.

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I had been so taken with the fishing during my first visit to Rubondo that I neglected the other aspects of the 457km2 island. What makes it so appealing is that there are only two small camps for guests. It’s as if you have the whole place to yourself.

On my second trip I wanted to explore the dense forest with its 30-metre trees and hanging vines; I wanted to track chimps and eye out the birdlife, of which there are more than 200 species on the island alone. And I was going out onto the lake in a canoe, whether I liked it or not.

At Asilia Africa’s new camp, I met their brand coordinator, Quinton Miller, who was there to try out some new activities, one of them being canoeing. He shoved a paddle into my hand. Rubondo is home to a vast number of hippos and crocs, so paddling around didn’t seem sensible to me. But Quinton was keen – he’s a competitive ocean paddler and once kayaked the entire Yukon river. “Come, lets visit some flatdogs,” he said.

They weren’t hard to find. Besides the ample fish, crocs come here for the feathery fare. Some birds linger a little too long on branches hanging over the water, others venture a little too close on the lakeshore. And if it’s surf and turf the crocs are after, sitatunga and bushbuck come down to the water to drink.

As I paddled around, I wondered fretfully whether the crocs had ever considered adding travel journalists to their diet…

With Quinton in the front of the canoe and a couple of other canoes behind us, I felt a bit safer. We set out and paddled towards a slab of rock sticking out of the water, a few kilometres south of the camp. Not surprisingly, it was nicknamed “Croc Island”. There were five or six of the critters hunkered down on the slab and as we drew closer, my paddle strokes quickly went into reverse. It had little effect against Quinton’s powerful forward strokes.

The wind had chopped up the water and the waves were cresting as we neared the shallows of the slab. Quinton sensed the danger and finally eased off. We glided along slowly, checking out the residents crocs. Looking along the crooked line of their toothy grins and into their reptilian eyes went beyond the primal experience of earlier – it was prehistoric. I shuddered, sending little ripples out on the water. When a couple of crocs launched themselves from the slab, my paddling power suddenly improved.

From then on we kept a respectable distance and enjoyed watching the crocs sunning themselves on the slab and surfing the waves as they launched into the water. One croc seemed to rather enjoy this – he wouldn’t have been out of place bodysurfing at North Beach in Durban.

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We found calmer waters on the last evening of the trip. Quinton, an Asilia guide called Habibu Hamadi and I decided to spend the night in a bird hide overlooking a cove. Quinton and I paddled out there and Habibu took the safari vehicle around, loaded with mattresses and iceboxes filled with food and drinks – including an all-important bottle of whiskey.

This part of the island is known as “magic waters” by the local inhabitants who fished here before it became a conservancy. The narrow mouth of the cove makes it easy for boats to drive fish into nets.

Waterfowl stalked floating rafts of lilies; hippos bobbed in the water, sitatunga came to drink and half-submerged trees were heavy with weaver-bird nests. We glided between the nests in the canoe, enjoying a unique view of the little grass homes.

As the sun sank lower, we made for the shore near the bird hide, startling a huge croc that slipped silently into the water. About 20m short of dry land we were held up by lilies and we couldn’t paddle any further.

“Which way did that croc go?” Quinton asked, a bit too nervously for my liking. The croc was nowhere to be seen and night was falling fast. We were going to have to get out and push. So out we jumped, and down we sank. It was much deeper than we’d thought and difficult to wade through the reeds, but my legs were inspired to new powers as we hauled the canoe ashore.

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That night was one of the finest nights I have ever enjoyed in the wild. The hide is on stilts so it kept us safe from crocs and hippos, but it’s wonderfully exposed to the sounds and mysteries of the night. I knew Habibu from previous safaris and we all chatted cheerfully and shared stories. He told us about the first python he ever saw on the island – a four-metre long beauty. For once, we could trump him.

The python we had spotted yesterday was easily five metres long, and it had emptied its stomach to make space for the thing freshly bulging in its belly. It was probably a sitatunga – guide James assured me that it wasn’t a chimp; they were way too fast for a python.

Aware of our presence, the snake started to move off, but it’s lunch had slowed it down and it certainly wasn’t hungry anymore. This meant we could follow it safely. We even had a chance to touch its hide. And here’s the thing: Now I know what python smells like.

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