If there are places in Uganda that are naturally endowed yet not frequently visited by tourists, one of such places is the Semliki National Park. As rare as it is, it is a place any nature lover would wish to go back to after the first visit due to its endless beauty and attractions.
This 220 sq km park is located in western Uganda in the Albertine rift valley floor and includes Toro-Semuliki wildlife reserve. Semuliki national park is about 387 km from Kampala and the journey takes about 5-6 hours drive. Because Semuliki is in the valley connecting to the Congo basin forests, it protects diverse habitats such as tropical forests, riverine, avian and grasslands.
This off-beaten track destination is situated within the remote corner of western Uganda bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and stretches for approximately 220 square kilometers (84 square miles) protecting the eastern extension of the immense Ituri forest thus forming part of the forest continuum that extends across the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Congo River Basin. It was first gazetted as a forest reserve in 1932 before being upgraded into a National Park in 1993. It is one of the continent’s most ancient and biodiversity rich forests to survive the last ice age (12-18,000 years ago) and currently considered the only true lowland tropical forest in East Africa sprawling across the floor of the Semliki valley on the remote western side of the Rwenzori.
Just like other Parks in the country, Semuliki National Park is managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and comprises of a distinct ecosystem within the larger Albertine Rift ecosystem with an altitude of 670-760 meters above sea level. The vegetation of Semliki National Park is dominated by medium altitude moist evergreen to semi-deciduous forests thus the dominant plant species are the Cynometra alexandri. Interestingly, majority of the plant and animal species within this site are found within the Congo Basin forests and most of them reach the eastern limit of their range in Semliki National Park.
How to get to Semliki National Park
This Park is found along the main Fortportal-Bundibugyo road, approximately 52 kilometers from Fortportal thus two major routes are used from Kampala. The shorter and commonest is Kampala-Mubende-Fortportal (180 kilometers lasting 4-5 hours) then proceed to the Park and the other route is Kampala to Fortportal via Masaka-Mbarara-Kasese (465 kilometers lasting 7-8 hours). Whichever route you choose you take, remember to use 4WD vehicles during the rainy seasons although a strong 2WD vehicle can also work.
Things to See
The Semuliki National Park has one of the most beautiful scenery and landscape that can be seen anywhere in Uganda. It lies on the on the extreme west of Uganda and has a mountains on its one side and the Lake Albert on another. There are several camping sites on the park where one can pitch camp and enjoy the natural wonder of the region.
Semliki National Park is undoubtedly a biodiversity hotspot with over 60 species of mammals that call it home and some of them include antelopes such as over 9 species of duikers such as the bay duikers, white0bellied duikers, more than 8 species of primates including the Red-tailed monkeys, bush babies, Olive baboons, Grey0cheeked mangabeys, De Brazza’s Monkeys, Blue monkeys, Mona monkeys and chimpanzees among others. Other mammals include forest buffaloes, elephants, leopards, water chevrotains, pygmy flying squirrels, Hippos and many others.
There are also over 450 species of birds than call this Park home hence making it a birding paradise offering shelter to the Chestnut-breasted Negrofinches, Green-tailed Bristlebill, Red-rumped tinker head, red-billed Dwarfs, Capuchin Babbler, white-bellied Kingfishers, Ituri batis, yellow-throated cuckoo, Dwarf Kingfishers, black-wattled hornbill, African-wood owls, blue-headed crested flycatcher, Red-Eyed Puff-back, Red-thighed sparrows, Ayres Hawk-eagles, Nkulengu rail, Lemon-bellied Crombec and Zenker’s honeyguides amo0ng others.
There also several species of mammals and nine species of primates including De-Brazza’s monkey. Visitors get an opportunity for primate viewing though animals like forest elephants, warthogs, leopards, buffaloes, antelopes. You walk with no other tourist around which increases chances of spotting animals even though there’s thick vegetation.
Travelers will find hot springs famous as traditional healing sites and cultural encounters of the Bamaga people. There are both male and female hot springs, with boiling hot water which is believed to cure many diseases as well as relive stress and boil eggs and banana.
Things to Do
Due to the numerous attractions within Semliki National Park, several tourist activities can be enjoyed and these include chimpanzee tracking, nature walks/hiking, bird watching and cultural encounters.
While most people are always excited with the wildlife and bird species, the Semliki Hot springs will always catch your attention. The highlights of this park are hot springs . There are two hot springs that are popular attractions. These are two meters of boiling water at around 130 degrees C and 12 m in diameter. It’s very popular with tourists to boil their food on the hot springs especially boil eggs which get ready in 10 minutes and eat them. You will undertake a one-hour walk to explore the male hot springs which also allow you to transverse the patch of forest where a number of primates such as grey-cheeked mangabeys, red-tailed monkeys and the black and white colobus monkeys can also be sighted. The female hot spring is about 30-minutes hike through the Palm-filled forest from the main road and is dominated by a boiling geyser. This is also where you can boil eggs, potatoes and plantain within few minutes.
There is a wonderful opportunity to go for relaxing walks along the forest and see a vast variety of wildlife, which may include leopards, water buffaloes, elephants, statungas, pygmy hippopotamus and water birds depending on how lucky you get.
When it comes to local communities, there are presently four different ethnic groups living around the Park and they include the famous Batwa pygmies who were originally hunter-gatherers but not live at the edge of the forest, the Bwamba farmers that occupy the base of the Rwenzori, Batuku-cattle keepers occupying the open plains and finally the Bakonzo that are generally cultivators on the mountain slopes.
Semuliki is most famous for bird watching. Over 440 species of birds include 50 central African forest biome species which you can’t find in any other part of East Africa. Specialist birder watchers while taking in views of the Mountains of the Moon can explore hiking trails to look for Congo serpent eagle, African piculet, piping hornbill, Nkurengu rail, swamp palm bulbul, orange weaver, and blue-billed malimbe among other species.
There are accommodations ideal for visitor stay. Some of the lodges are found in and outside the park in Sempaya, Bundibugyo and Fort Portal town. Some of the most popular lodges are Semliki Safari Lodge, Ntoroko Game Lodge, Kirimia Guesthouse and the National Park Bandas and Campsites.
There are also options for camping but tourists should bring their own food to the camp. Cooking utensils are available for hire and there are some canteens in the area too but its best to get your own food. Luxury accommodation is also available but needs to be booked in advance.