You reach Rubondo by small plane...
Rubondo Island Camp: Our full report
New for 2013, Rubondo Island Camp is the only camp on the 250km² Rubondo Island – one of the biggest islands in Tanzania’s vast Lake Victoria. Aiming to be a halfway house between a safari camp and beach retreat, the lodge sits on the shore of the lake, with views of the lake in front, and forest extending behind.
Arriving at the camp is special: it’s only accessible by plane and the birds-eye view as you soar over Lake Victoria and descend onto Rubondo is the perfect way to truly appreciate the geography, landscape and remoteness of the camp. In the past, a very simple camp had been located on the island for many years, but it fell into disrepair and closed. It is only very recently that the island has finally opened up again and become an accessible place for the adventurous traveller to visit. We last visited shortly after the camp officially opened, in June 2013, to see what the island had to offer.
Rubondo Island Camp is certainly a unique addition to the typical northern Tanzania circuit. The beach where the camp is located is small but very picturesque, with wildlife aplenty. Towering fig trees are filled with dozens of black kites, water monitor lizards scrounge in the bushes, white egrets and open-billed storks wade cautiously at the lakes edge, while a few otters can be seen playing in the reeds. The frequent sound of fish-eagles screeching above gives the whole place a primeval feel.
About 60m back from the shore, Rubondo Camp’s eight rooms sit fairly close together all facing out towards the lake. One niggle is that as people walk from their rooms to the main areas along the beach, they have to walk directly in front of other guests’ rooms, so these rooms don’t feel particularly private. However, the views from each are lovely.
The walls and floor are made of solid stone, with a tin roof on top (light sleepers beware if you’re in a room under one of the fig trees – the monkeys and African Grey parrots have a habit of throwing their unwanted fruit onto the roof below with great sound effect!) Inside, each room is designed in a natural and minimalistic style. The large double bed is the centerpiece of the room with the bedframe and bedside tables crafted from the same stone as the floor, so they appear as one continuous feature. A small writing desk and two simple chairs are the only other pieces of furniture in the room. The walls and floors are brushed beige, with brown bedspreads and pale lampshades, so while there’s obviously been a lot of thought put into the design and styling, they do feel a little Spartan. They have one family room with two bedrooms sharing one bathroom, and one honeymoon suite with a double outdoor shower.
The en-suite bathrooms located behind the bedrooms at this island camp are styled with the same continuous stone walls and feature a large walk-in hot-and-cold shower, twin sinks, flush toilet and plenty of space to hang up and put away your clothes. Again, they’re simple and stylish, but a few more little items, such as pegs to hang towels on, would be a welcome addition. The small verandah outside is a peaceful place to sit with a book, or perhaps a pair of binoculars.
It’s the main areas of Rubondo Island which really stand out for us. Very spacious, with sweeping views of the lake on three sides, the lounge, bar and dining areas are an incredibly peaceful place to sit and really take in the environment around you. The whole structure is completely open, with mosquito-net gauze that can be zipped down in the evenings to moderate the breeze and keep out the insects. Comfortable and colourful green sofas and armchairs sit in small groups on wicker mats, with some interesting books laid out on the coffee tables. Quirky lampshades made from old wine bottles, bright colours and funky patterns give the whole area a retro feel. There’s a small alcove housing a bookswap and games shelf, which guests are free to make use of.
The dining area is set just off to the side. Guests usually eat communally while staying at Rubondo Island Camp, but for those who want a little more privacy, they can also accommodate separate tables.
Between the main areas and the rooms there’s a small swimming pool around which some deck chairs are set out each day.
The day-to-day activities schedule at Rubondo Island Camp are far less structured then you will find at most normal safari camps. Although there are a number of activities on offer, travellers shouldn’t come here expecting to be out all day, every day. The whole atmosphere of the camp is about relaxing and enjoying the camp, and although there are a number of activities which guests can do – simply spending an afternoon in camp, with a pair of binoculars, is a brilliant activity in itself!
For those who want to venture further afield, guests can do guided walks around the island, focusing on the fantastic birdlife (there are said to be between 400 and 500 species on the island), tropical forests and vegetation. Vehicle safaris round the island can take you a little further from camp. Sightings of the usually elusive sitatunga and bushbuck are common, while the other mammals, namely elephant, giraffe, civet, genet and suni antelope tend to prove a little trickier to find.
There are chimpanzees, but with only around 30 on the entire island, the chances of seeing them are slim. Guests can take extended walks into areas of the island where they’re more likely to be found, and may be able to see their nests or hear them in the distance. There are efforts being made to study and habituate these chimps – although in reality it is likely to be some years before we can guarantee good sightings of the chimps to visitors here.
The biggest highlights of our visit to Rubondo Island Camp were the boat trips. The birdlife on some of the smaller surrounding islands is simply fantastic. ‘Bird Island’ – named with good reason – is home to hundreds of cormorants, African darters, egrets, and flocks of pied kingfishers numbering more than 50. Marabou storks lurk in the tall trees, and numerous fish eagles (thought to be some of the highest concentrations in Africa) are spoilt for choice with a lake full of fish, and nests full of young birds. While hippo and crocodiles are only occasionally sighted from the shore of the lodge, they’re easy to see from the boat.
For keen fishermen, the 100kg-plus Nile perch that patrol the waters here are a reason to visit, and even the most novice fisherman will have a very good chance of catching a decent-size fish. A fishing permit (valid for three days) costs US$50 per rod. For more serious fishermen, you can privately charter the six-passenger camp boat for US$210 for a half day; while the four-passenger boat costs US$170 for a half day. On our last visit, in June 2013, the fishing was just trolling, but within the coming months they were due to get more gear, to allow for different styles of fishing. The manager, Hank, is an exceedingly keen fisherman and his enthusiasm is – pardon the pun – catching!
We visited Rubondo when it was still in its early stages and the managers had plenty more ideas in mind. They were due to start guided canoeing trips around the island and they also have a tree-house (which will be like their own version of fly-camping) and a small spa planned.
Our viewRubondo Island Camp is not the place for those seeking big game, guaranteed sightings of chimps, or back-to-back activities However, it’s wild, remote, off the beaten track and a truly lovely camp to relax and spend time just enjoying nature with a flexible schedule. You can explore by boat and by foot, as well as by vehicle and we think it would be a perfect last stop after a busy safari – or possibly a more nature-oriented alternative to Zanzibar. The camp is still new and finding its feet, but it has the potential to be a really special place.
Ideal length of stay: 3 nights will give you two full days – enough time to try the activities on offer and relax.
Directions: Rubondo is reached by a flight from either Arusha or Serengeti. It takes around 3–4 hours depending on how many stops the plane has to make.
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: Breakfast at Rubondo Island Camp usually starts with a fruit platter and tea, coffee and juice. A small buffet has a selection of cereals, after which you can order a hot breakfast (eggs, sausages and bacon) cooked to your preference.
Lunch is a set two-course meal. On our last visit, in June 2013 we had a chicken, butternut squash and caramelized onion fried wrap with watermelon and radish salad, followed by a basil-and-mint sorbet for dessert. It was fresh, light and extremely good!
If people want to go out for long day drives/boating, they’re working on providing picnic lunches out on a beach.
Dinner is a set three-course meal. Like the lunch, we found these to be excellent during our stay. On one evening, we had sweetcorn soup, followed by lamb stew, with a lemon tart to finish, and on another occasion we enjoyed green papaya salad, with stuffed pork wrapped in bacon, and a chocolate mousse to finish.
Overall, we were really impressed with the food here. It was well cooked, nicely presented and thought had gone into the recipes to make them imaginative. We also liked the way the chef came out after each meal to chat to the guests.
Dining style: Group Meals
Dining locations: Indoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: Most drinks are included except premium wines and spirits.
Birdwatching: The birdlife around Rubondo Island is fantastic, making this one of the best places for bird-watching in Tanzania. Boat trips are particularly special, with the appropriately named ‘Bird Island’ particularly impressive: numerous storks, fish eagles, African darters and egrets plus hundreds of cormorants and flocks of over 50 pied kingfishers!See more ideas for Birdwatching in Tanzania
Attitude towards children: Welcome children aged six upwards.
Property’s age restrictions: The minimum age at Rubondo is six years.
Special activities & services: None.
Equipment: There are some board games, colouring book and crayons and a dart board to entertain children.
Generally recommended for children: There is not a great deal to entertain children; it’s really more of an adult environment.
Notes: Children should be supervised at all times as Lake Victoria is not suitable for swimming, and crocodiles have been known to visit the beach.
Power supply: Generator
Power supply notes: There are plug sockets in all the rooms with 24-hour power.
Communications: There is WiFi in the main areas, although it’s not always that reliable. There is good cellphone reception throughout the lodge.
TV & radio: No
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: There is a first-aid kit at the lodge and the managers and guides are all first-aid trained. They also have links to flying doctors so if there were any serious issues, they could take guests to Arusha.
Dangerous animals: Moderate Risk
Security measures: There are askaris (armed guards) to walk you back to your tent when it is dark.
Fire safety: There are fire extinguishers in each room.
Disabled access: Not Possible
Laundry facilities: A full laundry service is included. However, as is usual for Tanzanian camps, ladies underwear cannot be washed, so they provide you with some washing powder in your rooms.
Money: There is a safe in the main office where guests can store valuables.
Accepted payment on location: All extras are paid in cash only at the moment (they’re hoping to get a card machine soon). They should accept US dollars, British pounds, euros and Tanzanian shillings.