Ukerewe Island: A Weekend Getaway From Mwanza, Tanzania
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.
Ukerewe island is very tourist friendly, however you will not see many tourists around. The island is still very rural, with dirt roads stretching as far as the eye can see, connecting agriculture and fishing villages. 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.
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 Arusha and Dar es Salaam. From Mwanza, you have two ferry options to reach Ukerewe island.
Note: On September 21, 2018, an MV NYERERE ferry capsized on its journey from Ukerewe to Ukara, killing an estimated 200 people. It is reported that the ferry was overloaded with 400 people, nearly triple its capacity. (Source). This is not the same company which services Mwanza to Ukerewe, but it is still important to be aware of ferry regulations and whether a vessel appears to be over capacity.
1. The public ferry
The “MV CLARIAS” leaves Mwanza centre, near the central police station, at 9:00 am and arrives at Ukerewe island at 12:00 pm. Tickets are priced at 5,000 Tsh and are sold at the ticket window in the ferry station. The public ferry departs from Ukerewe island to return to Mwanza at 2:00 pm and arrives at 6:00 pm. Return tickets cost the same (5000 Tsh) and can be purchased in Ukerewe prior departure.
2. The private ferry
The private ferry company uses both the “MV NYEHUNGE” or the “MV SAMARI” boats. The ferry leaves the Kilumba-Mwanza port at 9:00 am and arrives in Ukerewe at 12:00 pm. It departs back to Mwanza at 2:00 pm and arrives there at 6:00 pm.
The ferry has two classes with different prices. Tickets are priced at 7,000 Tsh for first class (you will get a reserved seat) and 6,000 Tsh for second class (standing room only). Tickets are available at the ticket window in the ferry site prior to departure. The ferries run daily so you can purchase ticket same day prior to your departure, however it is recommended to get there approx. 30 minutes early to ensure you can reserve a seat.
More on the private ferry (the option I took)
First class is on the upper deck, so be prepared to climb a rickety ladder to the top level. In true Tanzanian style, there will likely be someone else sitting in your seat, so keep your ticket to find your reserved seat number. You will also need your ticket to show the crew after departure. If you plan to sleep on board, ask for a seat that is not in the last row when you purchase your ticket. This is the exit aisle so you will have people constantly bumping into your legs and feet when they pass to exit the upper deck.
There are vendors who sell bottled water (500Tsh), soda (1000 Tsh), and snacks on board (i.e. almonds, biscuits), however there is not much available food-wise. I would recommend bringing snacks with you, as well as toilet paper and hand hygiene gel if you think you will need the toilet. They are located on the lower deck (squatter style). On both journeys, the ride was fairly smooth, however if you do suffer from motion sickness it would be worth taking a tablet to ensure you don’t spend 3-4 hours with nausea.
We stayed at the Monarch Gallu Hotel in Nansio, approx. a 15 minute walk from the ferry port. The rooms are basic but clean, cheap 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 with hot water, a TV and a portable AC unit.
The hotel also has a restaurant on site, which is situated opposite the road on the beach, overlooking the lake. The prices are quite affordable, though expect your food to be prepared pole pole (slowly). For a vegetable curry with rice, vegetable samosas, a plate of fries and two cokes, we paid 14,000 Tsh shared between two people.
Day 1: Bicycle Tour of Ukerewe island
The Monarch hotel offers island bicycle and sight seeing tours. A bicycle can be rented for 1000 Tsh (50 cents), however we opted for a tour guide to also accompany us on the bike ride.
We had arranged a guide called Elias (+255 762 501 412) to take our group around the island for the two days we would be staying there for 10,000 Tsh per person. He even picked us up from the ferry port to walk us to the hotel! Elias arranged for our bicycle rentals and took us through the sandy, dirt roads of Nansio and the villages beyond. Our goal was to reach ‘Rutare Hill’ for sunset- which boats a high viewing point of the rolling, inland hills and a beautiful view of the lake and its several islands beyond.
We left for the tour at 4:00pm and arrived at the look out point just at sunset (approx. 6:30). This took longer than anticipated, largely because our group was inexperienced in biking over the sandy roads, which often unexpectedly produced rocks to navigate around or deep sand traps to pedal through.
Our first stop was to a local fishing village to admire the boats docking at the shores Lake Victoria.
After the fishing village, the next stop is Rutare Hill. The look out point is a further 5 minute walk up steep terrain, where you can rest and enjoy the stunning sunset.
The 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. 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.
Though the tour was a physically gruelling one, it was a highly rewarding experience! I found it enriching to engage in an activity that is so integral to life in Tanzania. Many locals get around by bike on these roads, and make it look quite easy so it was humbling to struggle through the sandy roads.
To end the day, Elias took us to a local pub for supper and a well deserved drink! The local pub is a convenient 10 minute walk from the hotel and even has a DJ and dance floor. We had a basic rice and beans meal for 1,500 Tsh and beers for 2,500 Tsh.
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).
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). Our tour guide Elias was able to arrange the car hire for us.
Halwego is the highest point on Ukerewe island with large rocks and caves.
As we arrived and began hiking to the top of the rocky viewpoint, a mama from the surrounding village introduced herself as a cultural leader and wished to tell us the history of the area.
As we gazed down on the lush, green fields below, she told us about Halwego during earlier times. The points we visited were 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, 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. 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.
We spent the rest of the morning at the beach, relaxing and playing cards before we headed back to the ferry to return to Mwanza. Many sources cite the water to be safe for swimming and we did notice children playing in the water, however none of us took the chance with Lake Victoria being known for crocodile related deaths and bilharzia.
What to Bring/Wear:
You can definitely getaway with packing ultralight for your weekend getaway to Ukerewe island. You will only really need a set of athletic clothing for the bike 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 and what I wish I had packed.
- 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)
- Insect repellent
- Head lamp
- Hand sanitizer
- English/ Swahili dictionary
Total Cost Breakdown:
Ferry trip = 14,000 (round trip)
Accommodation: One night in double room = 20,000 Tsh
Tour for both days (including bike rental): 10,000 Tsh per person
Car hire with driver: 60,000 Tsh per vehicle (obviously this will be cheaper if you split the cost between friends)
Meals: Three meals (lunch at hotel, dinner and drinks at local pub, quick lunch before return ferry) = 15,000 Tsh
TOTAL: 119,000 Tsh
Not included in cost: tip for your tour guide and historical leader at Halwego
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