Ukerewe Island: A Weekend Getaway From Mwanza, Tanzania
Updated for 2019
Ukerewe island is situated approximately 50km north from Mwanza. At over 500 squared kilometres, Ukerewe island is the largest inland island in Africa and the largest island in Lake Victoria. As you can imagine, there is much to explore, including beaches, forests, caves and scenic sunsets over the lake.
The island is very rural, with dirt roads and rice or corn fields stretching as far as the eye can see. You can definitely expect to catch a glimpse of authentic Tanzanian life during your visit to Ukerewe island, while also enjoying the island’s beautiful, untouched nature.
Tourism is still developing on Ukerewe island so you will not see many other foreigners around. As such, I recommend booking a guide to take you around (particularly because there are 3 tribal languages spoken on the island, so even if you know Swahili you will have difficulty communicating). I hired Pascal of ‘Visit Ukerewe Island’, and was really pleased with my tours! You can reach him on whatsapp at +255763480134 or email [email protected]
Getting to Ukerewe Island
The easiest way to get to Ukerewe island is by ferry from Mwanza. Mwanza can be reached by bus, train or plane from Dar es Salaam or by bus or plane from Arusha. From Mwanza, you have two ferry options to reach Ukerewe island.
1. The new ferry
The “MV RAFIKI” leaves the Lake Ferries terminal in Mwanza centre (near the central police station) at 3:00 pm and arrives at Ukerewe island around 5:00 pm. Tickets are priced at 10,000 tsh (or 15,000 tsh for VIP, pictured below) and are sold at the ticket window in the ferry station. The MV RAFIKI departs from Ukerewe island to return to Mwanza at 9:00 am.
Note: This ferry stays docked in Mwanza after its Saturday 9:00 am trip to Mwanza until Sunday afternoon for the 3:00 pm trip so if you want to go for the weekend you need to take the Friday 3:00pm ferry or use the old ferry on Saturday.
2. The old ferry
The “MV NYEHUNGE I” leaves the Kirumba Mwanza dock at 8:30/9:00 am and arrives in Nansino Ukerewe at 12:00 pm. It returns to Mwanza at 1:30 pm/2:00 pm and gets into Mwanza around 6:00 pm. Tickets are 7000 tsh first class or 6000 tsh second class. The “MV CLARIUS” is the smaller ferry operating at similar times, for 6000 tsh (the difference is the Nyehunge I ferries vehicles and passengeres, while the Clarius only ferries passengers).
The “MV NYEHUNGE II” leaves the Kirumba Mwanza dock at 1:30 pm and arrives in Ukerewe at 6:00 pm. It returns to Mwanza at 7:30 am and arrives around 11:30 am. Tickets are 15,000 tsh first class, 7000 tsh second class and 6000 tsh first class.
More on the ferries
You will need your ticket to show to crew after departure so be sure to keep it. There are vendors who sell bottled water (500 tsh), soda (1000 tsh), and snacks on board (i.e. peanuts, biscuits). On my journeys the rides were fairly smooth, however if you do suffer from motion sickness it would be worth taking a tablet just incase.
The Monarch Gallu Hotel in Nansio is a 15 minute walk from the ferry port. The rooms are basic but clean and include breakfast. Costs are as follows: a single room at 15,000 Tsh, a double room at 20,000 Tsh, twins room at 25,000 Tsh, the executive at 30,000 Tsh and a suite at 50,000 Tsh. I stayed in the double room, which came with one large bed and mosquito net, an ensuite bathroom/shower and a fan.
The hotel also has a restaurant on site, which is situated opposite the road on the beach, overlooking the lake. The prices are expensive by Tanzanian standards but the view and lakeside breeze is worth it! If you want a more local experience, you can get Tanzanian food at local canteens in town or ask Pascal to arrange a homestay.
Day 1: Visit a Traditional Healer and Tour Ukerewe by Foot or Bike
In the morning, Pascal will take you by foot to a village to meet a traditional healer. I met a female healer who came from a lineage of traditional healers. She uses plants and herbs from the island to create her medicines, which can be applied with oil to the skin, smoked or boiled in water for tea. When we met, she went above and beyond to even tell me things about myself (which she could tell just by looking at me…and were accurate by the way). This was a really fascinating experience and I highly recommend it!
A 4:00pm guided bike tour can be booked with Pascal for 40,000 tsh or a walking tour for 30,000 tsh. The walking tour will take you through the villages of Hamuyebe and Namasabo, while the bike tour guides you through several villages to ‘Rutare Hill’, a perfect sunset spot.
I’ve done both tours over the years, and the bike tour was more physically gruelling for me, but it was a highly rewarding experience. Many locals get around by bike on these roads, and make it look quite easy, so it was super humbling to struggle through the sandy roads.
Pro tip: I would highly recommend wearing a backpack on the tour, packed with supplies. You will definitely want water (I use this bottle by Platypus), snacks, sunscreen and a camera. I wished that I had head lamp for the ride back in the dark — you would be surprised how much you will use a flashlight traveling in Africa! You may also want insect repellant for the sunset and ride back (I use this all natural one by Do terra).
The bike ride back to the hotel was at dusk with daylight rapidly deteriorating to darkness. Though most of the bikes had a working torch attached to them, they did not provide much light to navigate the bumpy roads (again, why you will want a head lamp). The way back to the Monarch hotel was mainly flat and downhill, however the village roads proved to be much busier at this hour, with more motorcycle traffic and people walking in the streets.
End the day at a local pub for supper and a well deserved drink! There are a few pubs in town offering basic rice and beans or rice and meat meals for 1,500 -3,000 tsh and beers for 2000 tsh.
Day 2: Halwego Viewpoint and Rubya Beach
It is possible to reach Halwego by bicycle, however we opted to hire a driver because we planned to go to Rubya forest and beach afterwards. The drive is approximately 20 minutes from Nasimo to the Halwego Viewpoint, and then another 30-40 to Rubya after that, so budget an hour of drive time per way and 60,000 tsh per car (round trip). Ask your guide to arrange the car hire.
Halwego is the highest point on Ukerewe island with large rocks and caves.
Once you arrive, you will hike to the top of the rocky viewpoint and listen to a mama from the surrounding village tell the history of Halwego from earlier times.
The viewpoint was once used as meeting places for men in the community to discuss aspects of village life over alcohol made from bananas. It was also used as a spot for sacrificial rituals and to monitor wildlife for hunting. Since these times though, wildlife has moved out of the region and sacrifices no longer take place, so the area has become a well known spot for visitors to stop and admire the beautiful landscapes.
Further West is Rubya Forest and beach, an enormous 35 km stretch of pine trees and white sand. Driving there, you will suddenly notice the gorgeous wall of pine trees as you approach the forest, and eventually reach an area where you stop the car and can walk through the trees to the beach.
Spend the rest of the morning at the beach, relaxing before your ferry back to Mwanza. Many sources cite the water to be safe for swimming but with Lake Victoria being well known for crocodile related deaths and bilharzia, I didn’t take the chance.
What to Bring/Wear:
You can definitely getaway with packing ultralight for your weekend getaway to Ukerewe island. You will only really need one set of athletic clothing for the bike tour or walking tour and a change of clothes for the same evening and next day. If you aren’t sure what to pack, don’t worry! Here is a helpful list of everything I brought:
- Lightweight jacket
- Athletic pants
- Athletic top
- Sports bra
- Hiking boots or athletic shoes
- Buff or hat
- Bathing suit (if you plan to go to the beach)
- Travel towel
- Daypack (you can read more about why I use the Osprey Questa here)
- External battery (power cuts are common in Tanzania so you will want this)
- Water bottle
- Insect repellent
- Head lamp
- Hand sanitizer
- English/ Swahili dictionary (though there are 3 other tribal languages spoken on the island, Swahili is still known by most people)
I hope you enjoy your trip to the island! If you still aren’t sure how to plan your travels, feel free to reach out to me with questions on instagram. Otherwise, I always recommend Lonely Planet as a great resource to plan your trip!
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