Rubondo Island National Park is a unique place, situated in the South-West waters of Lake Victoria; it is exceptionally beautiful, far flung from the madding crowd and last, but definitely not least, cheap, since this is a park where hiring a four-wheel drive vehicle is not an obligation. Therefore, between the 19th and 24th September 1991, five of us (all volunteers with VSO) took a break here on this island. I am quite certain none of us will ever forget this trip end that none of the five will ever deny that much of the memorabilia we have stored in our minds are the events of one single day,
We begin in the early morning at the Rangers Headquarters camp where we were staying. We hired a park boat and bought fifty litres of petrol because today we were going to the southern end of the island to look for Rhino and Elephant. We set off slightly late, and headed south, past the Island of Birds, the Island of Crocodiles, over the deepest blackest waters of Lake Victoria, and skirted a series of formidable rock cliffs that fell straight into the deep water. We reached our first port of call, a smaller Rangers outpost that we were already familiar with, having spent our first night on the island there. This is where things really began to happen. To begin with, we foolishly let the Rangers take our boat (and our petrol) to the opposite side of the island to buy some cigarettes. Meantime, we brewed up some tea and had a simple breakfast. Eventually, the boat came back and we were prepared to leave.
Into the campfire I threw a pinch of the magic powder that I had bought from my local medicine man (he sold ‘dawa’ in the market place) for drawing the animals to us, imploring whoever was listening, in my best Kiswahili, to “Bring us Elephant and Rhino”. We had not quite gone when I was called over to the side for an urgent discussion with one of the Rangers. Reluctantly I disappeared behind a big tree with the man in order to listen to his problem, when, without further and to my immense consternation, he began to silently unbuckle his trousers and undo his fly. My mind began to reel with the possibilities. He silently carried on until his lower midriff was totally naked, and then, wedding tackle in hand, he began to beg me for help. His genitalia had been beseiged by insects of a variety I had no inclination to study more closely, and he, having seen me with the magic powder and having heard my Kiswahll, had obviously decided that I was an Mzungu to whom all could be bared. As it was, I was in no position to help and somewhat befuddled by his unique situation, All I could do was to worm my way out from behind the tree by claiming that two of the other VSO’S (who lived at the nearest mainland town) were the ones to see and that he could feel free to drop in on them any time he saw fit. We pushed off, and thus it was that we came across the poachers in the lake.
The day’s plan was that we were to be left at the southern end of a long sweeping bay, and that we would walk north following the line of the shore until we’d reached the end of the bay, where we would be met. We’d just rounded the northern tip of the bay formed by a headland crowned with a large steep hill, when we spotted another boat. Obviously they were poachers and so we set off to arrest them. As we drew nearer it became clear that their vessel was waterlogged; there were two men sitting up to their chests in the lake astride their stricken and totally useless boat.
At first I had thought they were using a cunning trick to hide from us – The lower they were in the water, the less we could see of them. In fact they were drowning and had been so since nine pm the previous night when their boat had begun to sink.
Ridiculously, we offered them our greetings and condolecences, and finally we rescued them. The thing was that the two fishermen-cum-poacher s were so dispassionate about the whole affair. Since nine pm they’d been slowly drowning, not four hundred metres from the shore, yet they’d not attempted to attract our attention nor flung themselves into the sanctity of our boat, nor attempted to reach the shore, nor displayed any emotion whatsoever. This was very disconcerting and occupied our minds for a good part of the rest of the day. Though they could talk end breathe, it was as if we had just pulled two very dead men from the lake. Anyway, we the tourists and the Rangers, were left at our start point while the ‘dead men’ were taken back to the Secondary Rangers post that we had just left.
We began to rapidly move northwards. Our Ranger, an ex-soldier, must have been in the throes of some sort of Uganda War flashback, because what we were engaged in was not a gentle tourist stroll through the woods, but a tough physical speed march. The woods were magnificent and, as on the previous days, the magic powder seemed to be working for we were surrounded by wildlife: Bushbuck, Sitatunga, fresh spoor of Elephant, and a diversity of birdlife to make an ornithologist weep. Much marching later and we were approaching that part of the bay opposite to where we had made our rescue. Our Ranger stopped and casually informed us that there was a crocodile on the beach in front of us. At first I saw nothing, but then the ubiquitous tree trunk that was protruding from the forest edge suddenly become the neck and head of a crocodile.
In that instant of recognition, I knew why those fishermen had ‘died’. Had I been mad enough to wish to run forward and embrace the crocodile in a warm hug about its neck , its tremendous girth was such that my hands would have failed to meet on the far side of the beast. The crocodile was now looking at us with its rear eye (deep orange-yellow in colour and infinite in depth): it rose and began to emerge from the forest’s edge to cross the beach not fifteen metres to our front. The beast was extraordinarily large, elemental and awesome, as tall on its feet as a very, very large dog. Needless to say we, the tourists, were rooted to the spot. The crocodile’s length (perhaps five metres or so), passed us and entered the water. Its tail waved once and it was gone. So that was it. Can you imagine sitting up to your chest in that creature’s dark kingdom from nine pm last night till this morning? “But that was only a small one” announced our Ranger, “the bigger ones are in the Island of Crocodiles that we passed this morning”. Suckers for punishment that we were, we decided to have a closer look on our return journey. We carried on, but by now some of our party were suffering from the effects of the marching and the heat. It was necessary therefore for three of us to remain behind while the others went to bring the boat back. This we did. We all climbed aboard and began the return to the headquarters via the other Rangers post.
The two men from the lake were still in shock, though slightly more lively; we didn’t have anything to say to them. What could we say? We had just arrested them for poaching, after all.
The day was not over yet. The unforeseen activities of the day, the cigarette sortie, the rescue, and returning to pick up the retired tourists, had sorely depleted our petrol. In short, we didn’t have enough to get back. We were faced with two poor choices: stay here the night (with our insect laden friend), or go on and then row the rest of the way.
We chose the latter. At this point, let me tell you that I am terrified of deep water – but deep black water inhibited by large monsters? Well, as it was , we ran out of petrol as we were circling the Isle of Crocodiles. We were going to run out of petrol anyway, and as I said, we were suckers for punishment. The crocodiles put on a great display for us. On sighting us they rushed from their basking points, down their mud-slides, to crash with horrible momentum into the water. We screamed and, for an instant, I nearly began to run, when fortunately I remembered where I was.
Every one of them was a large beast, though, to the great disappointment of our Rangers, none were larger than the one we had seen on the beach. From here, it took us six hours of constant rowing through the inky night to reach our camp. Though I was frightened, I shall never forget how beautiful that night was. The moon was bright and we could clearly see the island to our left, the cliffs falling into the waters. The other four VSO’s were singing as they rowed, but I was silent, numb with fear and awe.
When we got back we found that the only other campers there had left us another gift from the lake, Tilapia – good fish for eating. We fried them up and it was delicious, and let me tell you, it was not just the taste I was enjoying.