Semuliki National Park
Semuliki National Park is one of Uganda’s newest National Parks having been gazetted in 1993 which hosts 220 square kilometers of East Africa’s only lowland tropical rainforest. The national park is located in the extreme west of Uganda Bwamba County within Bundibugyo district on Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Spreading over a land area of 220 square kilometers.
Semuliki National Park has a high diversity of plant and animal species together with microhabitats being located at the junction of several climatic and ecological zones. Most of the Park’s vegetation is majorly medium altitude moist evergreen to the semi-deciduous forest.
For game viewing tours, the park has got over 60 mammal species and more than 400 bird species for bird watching safaris. The park’s dominant mammal species include forest buffaloes, leopards, hippos, Mona monkeys, water chevrotains, bush babies, civets, elephants, and the pygmy flying squirrel.
Uganda safaris in particular primate safaris are also done to the presence of eight primate species including red-tailed monkey, Vervet monkey, blue and De Brazza’s monkey, grey-cheeked mangabey, olive baboon, black and white colobus, and Chimpanzee together with over 300 butterfly species.
Semuliki valley national park is home to over 400 bird species and over 216 of which including the lyre-tailed honey guide forest ground thrush and sassi’s olive greenbul are true forest birds. There are also other 12 unique bird species, which are extremely limited in Africa safaris but can be seen by tourists spending a few days in the Park and these include Western bronze-napped pigeon, yellow-throated cuckoo, piping hornbill, red-sided broadbill, Xavier’s greenbul, capuchin babbler, yellow longbill, blue-headed flycatcher, red-billed helmet-shrike, crested malimbe, pale fronted antpecker and chestnut-breasted negro-finch among others.
History of the park
Semuliki national park is 220 square kilometers with altitude of 670-760 meters above sea level, it is the only tract of true lowland tropical forest in east Africa with a forest reserve created in 1932 and upgraded to national park status in 1993 hosting over 441 recorded bird species and over 53 mammals.
Large areas of this low-lying park may flood during the wet season, semuliki national park sprawls across the floor of the semuliki Valley on the remote , western side of 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, 12-18000years 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 community that originated from the Ituri. As a result, this park provides a taste of Central Africa without having to leave Uganda.
Semuliki’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.
Attraction and Activities in Semuliki valley national park
The park has got fantastic scenery for Uganda safaris and wildlife safaris made up of hot springs, tropical forests, Semuliki river meanders with many other ideal attractions
As you come down the escarpment of the Western Albertine Rift you will find the views most amazing, vast savannah grasslands, forests, bordered by the Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon. Lake Albert, the Semliki River and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Semuliki National Park and Wildlife Reserve is not normally on most Uganda safari itineraries unless you are a birder, but its vast beauty, its diversity, its presence of Central African plants, trees, flowers, birds and mammals, its Semliki National Park, Semliki Wildlife Reserve, Semliki River, hot-springs, tropical forest jungle, primates, mammals and more make it a place that if you know about it, you want to include in your Ugandan Safari.
The Semliki National Park part of this valley is spread out on the remote side that is the western part of the Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon. The largest portion of the park is made up of an unspoiled low-land forest that is an extension of the Ituri Forest that spills over from the Democratic Republic of Congo side across the Semliki River. The vast Ituri Forest from here covers a large tract of land in the Congo that extends all the way to the Congo River. Coming here is like entering Central Africa, like visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo without crossing the border.
Things to do and see in the Semuliki Park and Wildlife Reserve are quite different from the rest of Uganda, sights that are more familiar to travelers who have been to Central and West Africa. Their huts that are thatched with West African Oil Palms, even the Semliki River is like a miniature Congo River, the Bwamba Forest is the home of species of mammals and birds that are normally found in Central Africa.
The original dwellers of the ancient rainforests still live here, the Batwa Pygmies and other communities who migrated to this area over the centuries such as the Bambwa farmers, the Bakonzo who are found cultivating the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon and the Batuku cattle keepers, pastoralists who lived on the open plains of the Semliki Valley.
The Bambwa Forest is the only lowland-tropical (670 to 760 meters above sea-level) forest jungle in East Africa – home to over 441 recorded species of birds and 53 mammals. The recorded species of birds make up 40% of Uganda’s total Bird Species all contained in this most amazing valley of natural wonders.
Scenic Game Drive, Game viewing is excellent in the open savannah grasses of Semuliki Valley national park. Even without entering inside Semuliki National Park, a scenic drive around it brings you closer to the marvelous beauty of the Park’s surrounding. A drive to Sempaya hot springs makes you come across the Rift Valley towards Congo, it’s also fringed by forest where you can even stop and have a look at the monkeys and birds while no incurring any park fees since it’s found outside the Park. Swamp greenbul and various forest hornbills are also worthy scanning while at the patch of fig and palm forest about half way between Sempaya and Ntandi.
Sempaya Hot springs, this is the most popular attraction in Semuliki National Park and a Uganda safari to the national park without visiting the hot springs is surely incomplete. A Short guided walking trail from the Sempaya Information Centre leads you to the cluster of hot springs at Sempaya. This eye-catching site has its largest geyser spouts up to 2m high from a low salt sculpture opening. Be cautious of the emerging water from the hot spring that has a temperature of more than 100 degrees Celsius with hot surrounding pools.
While on the trail to the hot springs through a patch of the forest you can encounter red-tailed monkey, grey-cheeked mangabey and black and white colobus that are very common at this point as well as interesting birds like the forest hornbills, blue-breasted kingfisher, red-rumped and yellow-throated tinker bird, Frasier’s ant-thrush and honey guide greenbul. There is another hot spring, which is more of a broad steaming pool than a geyser; it is located on the far side of the swampy clearing that can be reached by a boardwalk
Birding, it is another tourism activity that is carried out during the safari. The varying vegetation types found in the park offer birders a chance to see different birds which include forest birds, wetland birds, grassland birds as well as water birds. The area around the geothermal hot springs at Sempaya is not only very scenic but also offers some great birding most especially during nights. “Batwa”, a local pygmy Ituri ethnic group of people is found near the park. They were the inhabitants of Semuliki Forest and they basically depend on fruit gathering and hunting in the forest. Today there is a mixture and cultural exchange with other ethnic groups. A community visit to the pygmy village near Sempaya Gate will enable you witness these people’s lifestyles, traditions, dances, and give you an opportunity to buy souvenirs.
Red Monkey Trail, this is a wilderness trail through the Eastern margin of the Park to the Semuliki River. It also offers exposure to a variety of localized birds than the trail to the springs. In addition to the red monkey trail, you can as well see a variety of monkeys, crocodiles, buffalo, and elephant on the River.
Kirimia River Trail, This is 15km trail which runs North from Kirimia on the main Bundibugyo road to the banks of the Semuliki River, crossing the Kirimia River twice as well as passing a succession of forest-fringed oxbow lakes. The guided day hike covers the first four kilometers up to the first crossing of the Kirimia River and passes through the forest which is a residence to several monkey species like the African Piculet, long-tailed hawk, red-sided broadbill, black-faced rufous warbler and lemon-bellied crombec. In addition to these, there are other over 30 bird species associated to oxbow lakes environment but they are unlikely to be seen elsewhere in any other park..
Cultural Trails, the Batwa trail is the main cultural encounter at Semuliki National Park. The Batwa had been dependent on Semuliki forest for food, shelter, medicine, and tools due to their lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. Due to the decline of this dependence on the forest because of tourism, the Park offers an alternative source of income to the Batwa through allowing them to display their cultural history to tourists through music and dance performances at Ntandi. In addition to this, they also produce beautiful handcrafts for sale.
The Bambuti Pygmies live on both side of the Semliki River and are closely related to the Basu Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo rather than to Batwa Pygmies around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla Park. Most safari companies refer to the Bambuti Pygmies as Batwa, but they are not and their culture and ways are different from each other. Both have lived in the forests for thousands of year.
The Bambuti Pygmies are much smaller in number than the Batwa People. Both were evicted from their ancient forests, though the Bambuti have limited hunting and gathering rights. They can also legally grow marijuana and smoke it. The Bambuti can be visited and added to Uganda safaris as today they have their own guides, in the past, they had non-Bambuti guides who stole their money causing animosity between the Bambuti and Visitors, which has changed today.
How to get to Semuliki valley national park
From the capital Kampala to Fort Portal, which is the sub regions biggest city, there are two major roads; Kampala-Fort Portal via Mubende and Kampala-Fort Portal via Masaka, Mbarara and Kasese. There are 59km from Fort Portal to Semuliki National Park and further 6km to reach the Park headquarters at Ntandi.
The first route via Mubende is shorter from Kampala with 180km driven for about 4-5 hours compared to the second one that has 465km (7-8 hours) though it offers a more adventurous experience even before reaching Semuliki National park as you can have a stop to Lake Mburo National Park, Kyambura Wildlife Reserve, Rwenzori Mountains National Park or Queen Elizabeth National Park around Kasese. Both private and public means of transport can be used to Fort Portal and any public transport heading between Fort Portal and Kasese can drop you there. For those who would prefer to use private vehicles to the park, a 4WD vehicle is recommended especially in the wet season.
Accommodation/ Where to stay
there are not many accommodation facilities in and around Semuliki National Park however, there are several lodges and hotels in Bundibugyo and Fort Portal which are both budget and luxury/up market. Semuliki safari lodge in Semuliki valley is one of the luxury lodges and Ntoroko game lodge at the shores of Lake Albert that can accommodate both luxury and budget guests. Others include Kirumia guesthouse located 10km from Sempaya gate along the Bundibugyo highway and Bamuga campsite approximately 3km from the Sempaya gate
Semuliki National Park with its unique primate species, big and small wild game numerous bird species, eye-catching hot springs at Sempaya, swampy, montane and lowland vegetation species plus the unique culture of the Batwa make your Uganda safari tour activity package in the park complete. These enable you to enjoy hiking and nature walk, game drives and game viewing, bird watching, monkey trails, hot spring tour, River trails and cultural encounters with the Batwa community.