Sharon B

The Kagera River and Toni Nutti's island

14 posts in this topic

When I was twelve years old my father was an engineer on a very remote tin mine, Kyerwa, in North-West Tanzania near the border of Ruanda Burundi. My father and the mine’s geologist (Roy Basham) decided to make a boat trip up the Kagera River, which forms the border between Uganda and Tanzania, to take photographs of the wildlife in and alongside the river. They took me with them. The river was in flood but they were confident that we could do it. We probably would have succeeded if the outboard motor had not stalled. We were swept back down-stream to our starting point where the ferry crossed the river. The ferry was one of those wonderfully primitive affairs with a steel cable running across the river and the cable was somehow hooked through the ferry. A team of able-bodied young men used to pull the ferry across by hauling the cable to the accompaniment of loud chanting and laughter. On this day, however, the ferry was out of service because of the flood and the steel cable was about a foot under the surface of the water. The small motorboat drifted down until it hit the cable and then it capsized. My father and the geologist were thrown onto the cable but when I came up for air I was already a few meters away in the racing rapids of the flooded waters. I climbed up onto the bottom of the capsized boat just as the anchor caught some rocks on the bed of the river. The boat went under completely and left me in its swirling wake to swim frantically for the nearest bank – needless to say - the opposite bank. I made it to the other side amidst cheers and applause from the audience but It took a lot of money as well as a lot of cajoling to get the ferrymen to bring the ferry across the raging waters to fetch me! From that day I was always known to the natives as “Memsahib Samaki”, meaning Fish. I later found out that a family of crocodiles lived a few meters downstream and another family of hippos lived nearby, upstream. Had I known that at the time my swimming would have been even more frenzied! My parents were good friends with Toni Nutti and my mother used to 'babysit' the island and the orphans when Toni went off to the Big City... Kampala. I remember her fascinating and exciting stories that she told around the dinner table. She was an amazing woman.

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These are exactly the old experiences we at Safaritalk love to read about Sharon: have you got any images to add? What great memories... welcome to Safaritalk. Matt.

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Looking upstream original bridge swept away by floods

 

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Looking upstream To The cables crossing To Toni Nutti's island

 

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Mum crossing At Kikagati

 

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Orchid unique To Toni Nutti

 

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The only Way To Get To Toni Nutti: This was the first 'chair' which was later replaced with a more solid and safe 'cage'.

 

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Toni And babies

 

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Toni feeding Her baby

 

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Cage crossing To Toni Nutti's island

 

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Dad crossing into Uganda: I see from Google Earth that the old ferry has since been replaced by a steel bridge.

 

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Dik Dik behind Toni Nutti's island

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Kagera from Kikagati downstream

 

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Kagera from Kikagati upstream

 

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Kagera River In flood

 

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Mum And Jock's sister

 

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Toni Nutti's rapids

 

Just helping Sharon B embed the old photos, I'll let her take it from here...

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Sharon B, please tell us more about Toni, and how she came to be living on this island. I think other Safaritalk members have met her years ago, (Twaffle?), and perhaps they can add to the Toni Nutti story. I'm sure that your father, Roy Basham would have known Twaffle's, who's early life growing up in East Africa is recounted here.

 

Matt.

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Sharon this is fantastic. Thank you do much for sharing these photos and stories. Toni's island was one of my favourite places but I was much younger than you. What years were you there? I'm looking on my iPhone and don't have time today to do more than let you know how happy to see your posting.

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Thank you, Matt and twaffle.... I also love your stories of your childhood and your memories run parallel to mine, TW. I was 13 years old in 1962 so I am probably a little older than you.

 

My parents became very good friends of Toni when she was in her sixties, perhaps even in her seventies. Toni’s husband had passed away and Toni refused to give up her island. She became well known for the care she gave orphaned and injured animals. To cross the river we used a cage made out of metal mesh, swinging out over the turbulent water. The Africans pulled on the ropes to bring us safely to the other side. Toni had tame antelopes including a klipspringer. A lot of her income was derived from donations and paying guests She had photographs of famous film stars that had stayed on her island dotted around her home. A unique orchid was found on the island that had never been found anywhere else in the world. Also new insects were discovered there. The island was a Garden of Eden - very, very special and romantically intriguing. She had a resident hippo that lived upstream and sometimes at night you could hear it grunting and stomping around the garden and monster crocs were frequent visitors, too. My mother used to stay on the island and take care of all the animals when Toni went away to the Big City, Kampala for supplies. I remember a story she told us at dinner one evening about keeping croc eggs in the bath – I don’t know if she was going to feed them to the guests for breakfast, or what! – but they hatched in the night and she had baby crocs everywhere!!

I also remember helping my mother to bottle feed a young dik dik. Toni was an eccentric old lady and everyone had the utmost respect for her. We eventually moved away from Kyerwa and relocated to Kilembe Copper Mines in 1966 and at the time, I was in England at boarding school. My mother never told me what happened to Toni and her island after that.

Toni Nutti and the Royal Drums

Toni Nutti was born at the turn of the 20th century. She was a petite, Italian, pioneering woman of formidable character with a mop of unruly wiry hair that she later always kept tied up in a bun. She and her husband arrived on the coast of East Africa around 1925 and travelled on foot westwards through Tanganyika heading towards The Mountains of the Moon (the Ruwenzories) where the gorillas hide out, with bearers carrying their goods and chattels. They circled the southern edge of Lake Victoria and followed the lake northward, where they stumbled across the torrential Kagera River. This 400 km-long river is the most remote headstream of the Nile and originates near the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika. It meanders its way north creating the natural border between Burundi and Tanzania. It later starts flowing east where it forms the boundary between Uganda and Tanzania until it disgorges itself into Lake Victoria. They camped along the banks every night and one particular spot downstream from Kikagati caught their fancy. They set up camp and settled for a while. They became familiar with their surroundings and the local natives. One day it occurred to them that there was something strange about the increased rapids and the movement of the waters of the river. They explored further and discovered that they were in fact not looking across to the other bank but to an overgrown island that had escaped the attention of earlier cartographers. It was hazardous crossing to the island but when the waters subsided they excitedly entered the river upstream and watching for markers that they had set on the bank they drifted down to the island, moored and began exploring their find. The island was probably about 500 meters long by 300 meters wide and when the rains came the island was surrounded by turbulent and dangerous rapids. This may be her island… I retrieved it from Google Earth and it is the most likely island because I seem to remember it was about 10 miles east and downstream of the Kikagati border post.

They made an even more exciting discovery whilst they were wandering around the island that would make a huge impact on their lives. The young couple returned to the northern bank of the river where their camp was and started making plans to travel some 200 miles to Mengo, Kampala. Their mission was to get audience with the ruling Kabaka of Buganda. When Toni Nutti and her husband were presented at the royal court, they reported their discovery on the island. The ruling Kabaka was so grateful that he gave them the island as a gift. It turned out that at some stage in the previous reign of the Kabakas during a period of instability and uncertainty, the Royal Drums had been hidden away for safe keeping. They were hidden on an island, but the island couldn’t be found again. The secret place was lost and the drums were never retrieved, until the Nutti’s discovered them on the Secret Island.

I have read some other articles about Toni Nutti on SafariTalk, but my recollections of her stories are somewhat different. I have endeavoured to retell the tales as I heard them on our numerous visits to her island and I have tried to keep them as true to my memories as possible. I have not embellished them, but I hope I have captured the essence of Toni Nutti and her amazing pioneering life. I was 13 – 17 years old when we frequented the island.

But I think perhaps the idea that she came out to Africa to marry a Count may have been confused with Karen Blixen’s identical story, because this is not how I remember the story at all. I am not totally sure what happened to her husband, but I was always under the impression that he had died. That Obote deported her is perfectly believable because she was friendly with the Kabakas and the Kabakas’ kingdom was abolished by Obote at about the same time. I have recounted the story about the lost Royal Drums as I was told it around the dinner table one evening during one of our visits. She may very well have been a Countess – I cannot dispute this part, but I prefer my memories of her telling us that the Kabakas had given her the island in gratitude for finding the Royal Drums… and besides it makes a far more intriguing story, and that may have been her intention all along. I would love to hear other stories about her.

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Matt, maybe you can clarify a query I have... do my pictures show a Klipspringer or a Dik Dik? I confuse the two.

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Sharon,

I was fascinated by your account of Toni Nuti's island. All my memories of a visit there came back recently while I was typing out the diary I wrote in August 1963 at the age of 16 when accompanying my social worker father and my mother on a tour of Uganda. This is what I wrote for August 7th. (We approached the island from the Uganda side.)

 

"At 5:30 pm we turned into a side track marked “Toni Nuti” and parked the car in a ramshackle garage. After some minute, dad managed to understand that the ragged man with an envelope in his hand speaking wildly in the language of Ankole wanted our names. We cautiously clambered along the bridge on which the torrent was pouring over the planks in spite of the sacks, to survey the next step of our journey. A cable passed across the fastest part of the current and, slung over it, was a small fragile metal chair, which was pulled by a very frayed-looking piece of rope “safe but rather terrifying”, we had been assured in a letter from Toni Nuti. One by one we climbed gingerly into the seat, mummy first, daddy last but not least.

 

Toni is a real character and kept us laughing all the evening with her miming and stories of the difficulties when the bridge broke. Apparently, she had to practically wade across the river on what remained of the bridge with the water up to her neck, tied by a rope, which was held by two Africans in case of an accident. When she got there and looked round, there was one African, the rope loose at his feet, calmly lighting his pipe and grinning at her! Then followed a frantic series of signals to him to pick up the rope, at which he only grinned more.

Toni is a short Italian wearing a very wide blouse, tights and red beach shoes. She is very vigorous and really enjoys every minute of her hard existence. In fact she cannot now stand any other climate and came down with bronchitis, colds and backache after ½ hour's walk in the snow on a short holiday in Italy.

 

The river is now 14 feet higher than normal and rose four inches in the day we were here. Much of the island is reduced to marsh, lovely for the ducks but for no-one else. Toni is furious that no-one has bothered to find the cause, probably a burst near Lake Tanganyika or in the swamps of Rwanda. They just try to mend the damage from this end. Her bridge over the border to Tanganyika has gone too and a new suspension bridge will cost £2000."

 

On August 8 I wrote that I had reverted to my tree-climbing age of 12 and continued: "The Tanganyika side of the island is a maze of muddy marshes, palm trees and masses of tiny overgrown islands set among the pouring water. Starting with a tree trunk, along which I crawled over the water, I set about finding a bridge over the border. The next stage was an underwater trunk over which a minor waterfall poured. I balanced along this with the aid of two sticks. After half an hour, I found myself so tied up in creepers that further progress was impossible but I thought I deserved to be able to say I had been to Tanganyika as I was more than half way over the river. Net injuries: water up to my knees (over my boots), a three inch blue bruise and a mass of scratches.

 

In the morning we saw a hippo at the far end of the island. Whether it was Lord Nelson or Lady Hamilton I do not know. However, we stalked it rather gingerly but it lumbered off into the water before we could get a photo. It was a young one and looked quite harmless but one hippo eats about 100 lbs. of food a day. One night two wild ones (though you could classify LN and LH as wild) had a fight and overturned all the rabbit hutches. They also raid her cabbages at night. Later on in the morning we saw three monkeys in the tree over the river. I climbed up into a small tree with my camera and waited but they never came near enough. It was a most frustrating day for photos. I got one good shot of the crested cranes, lovely delicate black, white and red birds. They stayed very close together as one of their number was injured and they would not fly off without it."

 

Our departure was on August 9:

 

"Today we had a frightful to do getting ourselves and the luggage over the bridge. Daddy was nearly having a heart attack seeing our large suitcase half out of the chair being swung across, and when the boy untied it right on the edge of the slippery concrete support, he couldn’t restrain himself from shouting out though the sound couldn’t possibly carry above the water and the boy wouldn’t and couldn’t understand in any case."

 

And, for the record, here is Toni Nuti's letter explaining her dilemma (spelling as in the original):

 

"Toni Nuti

The Island

Kikagati-Mbarara

(Uganda)

 

Telephaty or what? I had already started to write to you when your letter arrived - thank you.

 

I was writing to tell you that The Bridge, the last (illegible) to the Island, was swept away just a week ago! We are now erecting a new FUNICULAR, but I have (to day) my doubts if it will be read for the time you are supposed to arrive - However, we are now crossing people and supply on a chair pulled by a very safe cable roap - It is very rough but very sure - I think it is horrifying but it seams very popular - This is the position at the moment - If you decide to come I shall be delighted but please do arrive before dark."

 

I apologize for the poor quality of the map, drawn on extra large and very thin paper. The cut-off notations on the right read

"broken bridge to Tanganyika" and "swamp and islands".

 

I hope the above will stir the memories of other visitors to The Island.

 

Sheila

 

 

 

 

 

Toni Nuti20150202.pdf

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Welcome to ST Shavard and what a wonderful first post. This brings such happy memories and fills in many gaps where I was too young to remember details. I shall send this link to my sister who will have stronger memories than I. What wonderful days and times those were.

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Every time I am on Safari talk I am drawn to this post. One obvious reoson being that my company Kagera Safaris gets its name from Kagera River and the other being the various stories i heard while growing up - that there was an Islnad where a while person ( referred to as omujungu) lived plus many misteries of why she would choose to live on such a lonely island. thanks for the story and pictures.

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~ @@Sharon B

 

What wonderful stories!

I'm so glad to have found this thread. Reading your tales of Toni Nutti are fascinating.

Those small babies are petite!

Thank you for writing this so that those of us without roots in Africa might appreciate this part of its heritage.

Tom K.

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I remember Toni Nuti!!!

Stumbled on this web site. Amazing to find a name from the past.

My father was District Medical Officer for Masaka 1950 - 56. She was well known in the community.

My encounter with her was when Dad brought her to the house, he had seen her at the hospital because one of her antelope had gored her in the thigh. Something bigger than a Dik-Dik! Even at my young age I knew she was a character.

Robin FS

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@@rfairfulk welcome to ST. Isn't it funny that someone like Toni could bring such disparate individuals together from such a long time ago. I love reading all these stories.

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