The 220km2 Semuliki National Park lies in the isolated Bundibugyo district, beyond the Rwenzori mountain on the floor of the Semliki 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.

Thatch huts are shaded by West African oil palms, the Semliki River (which forms the international boundary) is a miniature version of the Congo River, while the local population includes a Batwa (Pygmy) community that originated from the Ituri. As a result, a visit to Semuliki provides a taste of Central Africa just a 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 re-colonise a better, wetter world. Today the Semuliki valley is a hothouse for vegetation growth, with temperatures rising to a humid 30°C doused by an annual 1250mm of rain, mostly between March-May and September-December.

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; brief reminders 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.

How to get to Semuliki National Park

As the crow flies, Semuliki National Park is just 27km from the regional capital of Fort Portal. 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 Semliki 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 Fort Portal 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 Kabarole Tours in Fort Portal (behind Don’s Plaza).

Two routes connect Fort Portal 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 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 Fort Portal and Bundibugyo.

Flora and fauna

Alassified as Moist Semi-Deciduous forest, Semuliki 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 Semliki River and beautiful mixed forest around Sempaya.

Spillover from the Ituri of the Congo basin, Semuliki contains 336 tree species. It also supports an exceptional variety of mammals, birds and butterflies. This 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 savannah 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. 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. 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 Semliki 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. Nocturnal primates include potto and bushbaby.

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 the Ituri. Their life style is now changing due to interaction with other local communities and the impact of tourism, and the Batwa have migrated to the forest edge at Ntandi. They now support themselves by small scale cultivation and contributions from visiting tourists.

Around the park

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. This is dominated by a boiling geyser (103°C) 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.

Sempaya – Ntandi road

The 5km section of public road between Sempaya and Ntandi village 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 North Rwenzori Forest Reserve, just off the Bundibugyo road 500m beyond the park office.