Semliki National Park sprawls across the floor of the Semliki Valley on the remote, western side of the Rwenzori. The park is dominated by the easternmost extension of the great Ituri Forest of the Congo Basin. This is one of Africa’s most ancient and bio-diverse forests; one of the few to survive the last ice age, 12-18,000 years ago.
The Semliki Valley contains numerous features associated with central rather than eastern Africa. Thatched huts are shaded by West African oil palms; the Semliki River (which forms the international boundary) is a miniature version of the Congo River, the forest is home to numerous Central African wildlife species, and the local population includes a Batwa pygmy community that originated from the Ituri. As a result, this park provides a taste of Central Africa without having to leave Uganda.
While Semliki’s species have been accumulating for over 25,000 years, the park contains evidence of even older processes. Hot springs bubble up from the depths to demonstrate the powerful subterranean forces that have been shaping the rift valley during the last 14 million years.
Park at a Glance
Size: 220km² with an altitude of 670-760m above sea level
Semliki Forest Reserve was created in 1932 and upgraded to national park status in 1993.
It is the only tract of true lowland tropical forest in East Africa, hosting 441 recorded bird species and 53 mammals.
Large areas of this low-lying park may flood during the wet season, a brief reminder of the time when the entire valley lay at the bottom of a lake for seven million years.
Areas of Interest
The Sempaya Hot Springs are Semuliki’s most famous attraction. The “male” spring, known as Bintente, measures 12m in diameter and is set in a lush swampy clearing. The “female” spring Nyasimbi, meaning “the female ancestors”, is a boiling geyser (103°C) which spurts bubbling water and steam up to two meters high – the steam cloud can be seen from as far as 2km away. Local people used to cook their food in these boiling pools.
This 6km section of public road runs through one of the loveliest tracts of forest in Uganda and provides views of birds and monkeys high up in the forest canopy. Birding walks take place in Sempaya, as well as night hikes deep into the forest. In Ntandi, local Batwa dancers put on traditional performances for visitors. Another local attraction is the Mungiro Falls near the hot springs.
The 160km long Semliki River carries runoff from the Rwenzori Mountains to Lake Albert and the Nile, proving ancient geographers’ claims that the Nile flows (in part anyway) from a snow-capped mountain in the heart of Africa. Broad, muddy, forest fringed and home to hippos and crocodiles, the Semliki is a miniature version of the Congo River. Visitors can watch the river meander across the rift valley floor from roadside viewpoints and hike through the forest to its bird-rich banks.
In Uganda’s oldest reserve, tropical rainforest meets grassy savannah and the flat plains are punctuated by deep river valleys. The unique geography is reflected in the diversity of wildlife, which includes the forest mammals of Central Africa, key East African species and a variety of birdlife. Chimp tracking commences here.
Wildlife and Birding
Birdlife is especially spectacular in Semliki with 441 recorded species, representing 40% of Uganda’s total bird species and 66% (216) of the country’s forest bird species. The list is expanded by the riverine habitat and a fringe of grassland in the east of the park. There are numerous rarities; 46 Guinea-Congo biome species are found nowhere else in East Africa while another 35 can be seen in only two or three other places in Uganda. Five species are endemic to the Albertine Rift ecosystem. Species to look out for here include the Nkulengu Rail, Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Piping Hornbill, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Black Dwarf Hornbill, White-crested Hornbill, Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill, Red-rumped Tinkerbird, African Piculet, White-throated Blue Swallow, Yellow-throated Nicator, Leaf-love, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe, Red-bellied Malimbe, Blue-billed malimbe, Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch, Orange-cheeked Waxbill.
The forest is home to 53 mammals of which 27 are large mammals. 11 species are endemic to the park including the pygmy antelope and two flying squirrel species. It is also home to the peculiar water chevrotain, known as the “fanged deer”.
The park is home to forest elephant and buffalo which are smaller versions of their savannah-dwelling relatives. The forest is remarkably rich in primates including the chimpanzee, baboon, grey-cheeked mangabey, black-and-white Colobus, Central African red Colobus, blue, red-tailed, de Brazza’s, velvet, and Dent’s mona monkeys. Nocturnal primates include the potto and bush baby. Hippos and crocodiles are common along the Semliki River.
There are two major roads from Kampala to Fort Portal, 4WD vehicles are recommended for both:
Semliki National Park’s Sempaya Gate is 59km from Fort Portal. The park headquarters at Ntandi is 6km further along the road. Historically, the journey was a slow and bumpy 2-3 hour drive on a narrow road that winds over the northern Rwenzori. The route is currently being widened and surfaced to make the journey shorter and more comfortable.
Though Kibale’s trailheads at Sebitoli and Kanyanchu can both be reached by vehicles, tourists explore the park on foot. Trails are generally well-maintained and the terrain, though undulating, is not difficult.
What to Bring
Hiking boots are ideal for forest walks although stout walking shoes are adequate. Lightweight raincoats are advisable. Altitude and the forest environment makes evenings cool and a light jacket is also recommended. If you choose to bring a camera, be aware that the dark-haired chimpanzees in typically dim conditions present challenging subjects.
Accommodation in these areas link to the accommodation part for
TORO-SEMLIKI WILDLIFE RESERVE
Climate and When to Visit
Northern Kibale is the park’s wettest area, receiving a mean annual rainfall of up to 1700mm, mostly during March-May and September-November. The climate is generally pleasant with a mean annual temperature range of 14-27oC. Temperatures are highest (and rainfall lower) in the south where the terrain drops down onto the hot rift valley floor and forest gives way to open grassland.
Dry Season: June to September is the driest time and temperatures average 80°F (25°C) when most animals remain near water, but be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms at any time. The hot dry time is January to February and is a good time to visit.
Rainy Season: It rains anytime from October to December and March to May when many roads become challenging to use. A good 4×4 vehicle is essential.
Birders who make it to Semliki will be rewarded with some of Africa’s best forest birding.
The Batwa’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle means they have always been dependent on Semliki forest for food, shelter, medicine and tools, though this is beginning to change as a result of interaction with other local communities.
Tourism offers an alternative source of income for the Batwa, and gives them the opportunity to maintain and display their rich cultural history through music and dance performances at Ntandi. They also produce intricate handcrafts for sale.
A boma, or cultural village, is currently being built so that the Batwa can demonstrate how they used to live in the forest –
Three tracks cross the savannah grassland of Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve.
The 13km KirumiaTrail runs through the heart of the forest to the Semliki River. This 8 hour round trip starts at 8am and is perfect for birders.
Hike through the monkey-filled forest to these boiling, gushing springs, and cook your eggs and plantain in the bubbling waters!