Semuliki National Park is 220 square kilometers and lies in the isolated Bundibugyo district, beyond the Rwenzori Mountain on the floor of the Semuliki section of the Albertine Rift valley. This largely forested Park represents the easternmost limit of the great Ituri forest of the Congo Basin and contains numerous species associated with Central rather than Eastern Africa. Thatched huts are shaded by West African oil palms, the Semuliki River which forms the international boundary is a miniature version of the Congo river, while the local population includes the Batwa ( Pygmy ) community that originated from the Ituri. As a result, a visit to Semuliki provides a taste of Central Africa just couple of hours from the comforts of fort Portal.
Semuliki is one of Africa’s most biodiverse forests and is particularly noted for its varied bird population. This biodiversity is enhanced by its great age, for it is one of Africa’s most ancient forests. During the dry conditions of the last ice age, 12 – 18,000 years ago, most of Africa’s forests shrank and disappeared. Only a few patches like Semuliki and Bwindi survived, protecting forest species during the arid apocalypse until they could eventually emerge to recolonise a better and wetter world. Today the Semuliki valley is a hothouse for vegetation growth, with temperatures rising to a humid 30 degree centigrade and doused by an annual 1250m of rain mostly between MAR – MAY and SEP – DEC.
While Semuliki’s species have been evolving for over 25,000 years, the Park contains evidence of even older processes. Hot springs bubble up from the depths beneath Sempaya to demonstrate the powerful subterranean forces that have been shaping the rift valley during the last 14 million years. The low lying Park lies on the rift’s sinking floor, most of it just 670m above sea level. Large areas may flood during the wet seasons, a brief reminder of the time when the entire valley lay at the bottom of a lake for 7 million years. The Semuliki Forest reserve was created in 1932 when forest villages were evacuated as a measure to control sleeping sickness and yellow fever. The reserve was upgraded to national Park status in 1993.
Semuliki National Park is just 27km from the regional capital of Fortportal as the crow flies. However the direct route is complicated by the massive Rwenzori Mountain and a detour to the north is required to thread through the rocky Buranga Pass into the Semuliki valley. The 52km drive to the Park office at Sempaya provides panoramic views over the rift during the descent from Buranga. In good weather the drive takes about two hours but mountainous sections are muddy in wet weather and a 4WD vehicle is recommended. Public transport runs daily from Fortportal and Bundibugyo town, 15km beyond Sempaya. Transport for the return journey can be hard to find later in the day after 4PM so be prepared to stay over. Backpackers can enjoy more flexibility by forming a group to hire a Vehicle from Tour Companies on Fortportal Town.
Two routes connect Fortportal to Kampala. These can be combined to create an attractive circuit to and from the capital. The direct option is the 300km 4 hour drive via Mubende. The alternative route through Mbarara to the south is considerably longer but offers stopovers at Lake Mburo and Queen Elizabeth National Parks.
ACCOMMODATION IN SEMULIKI NATIONAL PARK
The Park provides a Campsite with basic cottages at Bumaga, 2.5km from Sempaya. Meals can be prepared to order. Cooking facilities are available with utensils available for hire. Hotels and Guesthouses are available in Fortportal town and Bundibugyo. There is also an upmarket facility at Semuliki Safari Lodge for the Luxury Tourists.
FLORA AND FAUNA IN SEMULIKI NATIONAL PARK
Classified as moist semi-deciduous forest, Semuliki National Park is the only tract of true lowland tropical forest in East Africa. The centre of the Forest is dominated by Cynometra ( ironwood ) but the edges are attractively varied with riverine swamp forest along the Semuliki River and beautiful mixed forest around Sempaya. A spillover form Ituri of the Congo basin, Semuliki contains 336 tree species. It also supports an exceptional variety of mammals, birds and butterflies which is attributed to the forest’s great age, its transitional location between Central and Eastern Africa, and to a variety of habitats, notably forest, swamp and savanna woodland.
Birdlife is especially spectacular with 441 recorded species that represent 40% of Uganda’s total of 1007. 216 of these are forest species, 66% of the Country’s forest birdlist, while the list is expanded by the riverine habitat and a fringe of grassland in the east of the Park. There are numerous rarities of which 46 Guinea-Congo biome species are found nowhere else in East Africa while another 35 can be seen in only 2-3 other places in Uganda while five species are endemic to the Albertine Rift ecosystem.
The forest is home to 53 mammals of which 27 are large mammals, duiker sized and above. Several are Central African species found nowhere else in East Africa. Forest elephant and forest buffalo are smaller versions of their savanna relatives. Hippos and crocodiles are found in the Semuliki River while the forest is remarkably rich in Primates. Chimpanzee, black and white colobus, central African red colobus, blue monkey, red-tailed monkey, de Brazza’s monkey, vervet monkey, grey-cheeked mangabey, baboon and Dent’s mona monkey are present while the nocturnal primates include potto and bushbaby.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES IN SEMULIKI NATIONAL PARK
A). SEMPAYA HOT SPRINGS
The Hot Springs at Sempaya are Semuliki’s most famous attraction. Two main Springs are set in a lush swampy clearing close to the south-eastern corner of the forest. The outer spring is just a few minutes walk from the Sempaya Park office and is dominated by a boiling geyser ( 103 degrees centigrade ) which spurts up to 2m high from a white, iced cake-like base of precipitated mineral. Water also bubbles in small pools in which eggs can be cooked. The more distant inner spring is reached by a 30 minute trail that leads through beautiful palm forest before crossing the swamp on a boardwalk. This Spring is a broad steaming pool about 10m across.
B). SEMPAYA – NTANDI ROAD
This is 5km section of public road between Sempaya and Ntandi village which runs through one of the loveliest tracts of forest in Uganda and provides clear views up into the forest canopy to spot birds and monkeys. The pretty Mungiro Falls lie in the Rwenzori Forest Reserve just off the Bundibugyo road 500m beyond the Park office.
C). SEMULIKI RIVER
The Kirimia trail leaves the main road near the iron bridge at Kirimia, 10km from Sempaya and runs for 11kms to the Semuliki River, fording the Kirimia stream a couple of times on the way. The 3 – 4 hour walk to the River is a must for birders seeking ‘Semuliki specials’. The Red monkey trail runs from Sempaya to reach the River as it emerges from the forest. The 6 hour round trip provides opportunities to sight grassland as well as forest birds. In dry weather it is possible to drive past the homesteads of the Batuku pastoralists east of the Park to within 10 – 15 minutes walk of the River to look for crocodiles and water birds.
D). THE LOCAL PEOPLE
There are four ethnic groups living around the Park. The Bamba and Bakonjo are found in the valley and mountain slopes respectively and are agriculturalists who produce cash crops such as coffee and cocoa while subsisting on food crops that include bananas, rice and potatoes. North of the Park, the rift valley plains are occupied by Batuku pastoralists. The smallest group in the valley is a community of Batwa ( Pygmies ). Traditionally, these were forest dwelling hunter gatherers originating from Ituri. Their life style is now changing due to interaction with other local communities and the impact of tourism and have migrated to the forest edge at Ntandi. They now support themselves through small scale cultivation and contributions from visiting tourists. A community walk can be carried out in order to gain an insight in the way of life of these people.