Home April - May 2017 The Semliki Valley – Uganda’s hidden vale

Semliki Safari Lodge

Article by Pamela Kertland Wright

Legend has it that when the early white ‘explorers’ first came through the Semliki Valley, they happened across a wide river where a woman was drying fish on the bank. They asked her what was in the river, what kind of fish she was catching

“Semliki” she replied, protectively drawing her baskets over the fish to hide them from view, meaning ‘nothing here’ – clearly a ruse meant to deter the men from returning in numbers, stealing the bounty of fish.  And so the name was born.

 

Over the centuries a number of people have passed through this secretive valley.  Baker, traipsing around the area of Hoima and Murchison in the 1860’s, travelled down the edge of the escarpment and spied the expansive waters below him, naming the water ‘Lake Albert’.  He would have also seen the peninsula at the southern end of the lake, now the village and port of Ntoroko, which marks the northern, reaches of the Semliki Valley.

William Grant Stairs, a Canadian, and Stanley’s second-in-command wrote in his diaries:
“How pleasant it is to once more get out onto the plain and feel the breezes’. He further describes the views of the valley “This place is remarkable…overlooking the Semliki River running into the Albert Nyanza whose waters one can see glittering far away in the sunlight…”

Two decades later in 1888, Henry Morton Stanley and his ragtag band of myrmidons staggered out of the depths of the Congo and emerged under open skies, headed for Equatoria on their ill-fated mission to rescue Emin Pasha.

Nearly 50 years after this expedition, in 1924, the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) embarked on a 4-month safari in East Africa.  Starting in Kenya they hunted lion, rhino, antelope and zebra for several weeks…and then moved across to Uganda where they made their first camp in the Semliki Valley.

This was a safari in the grand tradition, and set new standards for regal processions and hunting grandeur.  They may have covered a lot of ground on foot, but with 600 porters carrying all the gear, the hardships of the journey were not keenly felt. The young Duchess was a plucky sort, it seems, and despite her fears and apprehensions she may have had before her trip to East Africa, she later referred to her experience as:

‘Wonderful.  Best bit of one’s life’.

The trip was later referred to as their ‘idyllic time in the wild’.

This little patch of Western Uganda must have truly held fascination for the Royal couple, and a special place in their hearts, for it was here in the Semliki Valley that – for the first time on the entire East African journey  – they spotted elephant.  Herds of elephant.  The Duke shot a large bull with trophy tusks.

Nearly ten years after the Royal Safari, the Semliki Valley was officially gazetted as the Toro Game Reserve, one of Uganda’s very first protected areas.  (The Semliki National Park was not gazetted until 1993, elevated from Forest Reserve status).

Toro Game Reserve attracted droves of tourists and hunters.  They came for the large black-maned lions and the elusive forest elephant known as ‘Semliki Rats’.  They came for the vast herds of hartebeest and the incredible avian diversity.  In the 1950s and 1960s Semliki Lodge was heaving, doing a profitable trade, running at 80% occupancy

But that was then.

Despite the fact that the Semliki Valley captivated explorers and travellers for generations, nearly a hundred years after the hugely successful Royal Safari, the area has fallen into obscurity, a little-known place that hardly gets a mention in the promotional materials for Uganda’s tourism industry.

It’s true that the area was decimated during the war-torn years of the 1970s; it’s also true that some species that thrived there, like the Jackson’s Hartebeest were hunted down to non-existence.  But with efforts from both outside and within, the levels of wildlife have shown steady trends of improvement.  Just at the time of writing this article, I’m told, leopard were seen clearly by the Wasa River and elephants roamed past the lodge, trumpeting as they lumbered by the swimming pool.  It’s an area that is healing, an area well on the mend.

Black and white Colobus Monkey

Black and white Colobus Monkey

Yet a quick look at the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s website shows absolutely no information on the Wildlife Reserve, despite the fact that there are two lodges – Semliki Safari Lodge and Ntoroko Lodge – and a long-standing Chimpanzee research project based within its boundaries.   It’s as though the area has been redacted. It may as well not exist.

Among those who know better, many would agree that the Semliki Valley has for years suffered from a lack of identity.  With a National Park and a Wildlife Reserve bearing the same name, it is confusing to punters.  Even though each protected area is unique and distinctive, the fact that they share the same name erodes this truth.

The identity crisis is further exacerbated by the inconsistencies caused by frequent name changes to the Game Reserve, all in the last 25 years.  From Toro Game Reserve to Semliki Game Reserve to Semliki Wildlife Reserve to Toro-Semliki Game Reserve to Semuliki Game Reserve to Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve. One wonders when the next change will be.  It’s not hard to understand the challenges faced in marketing such a mercurial destination that doesn’t seem to exist. It’s like trying to explain the mystery of Shambhala.

Clearly, the legend of the woman fishing in the river rings true – she was on to something: Semliki is indeed a well-kept secret, a hidden treasure.  But it’s time to let that secret out of the bag.

Ugnada Kob Semliki

Ugnada Kob

So how to describe it?  If we try to anthropomorphise, we could say that where the bigger, more well-known parks like Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Kidepo are the big, boisterous, popular kids at school, the buxom blondes, Semliki is a quiet and mysterious brunette.  A thinker: a shy yet splendid creature who reveals herself slowly and at her own pace.

An article in Travel Africa magazine described Semliki as a place where ‘you allow your other senses leeway’.  This is very apt.  Semliki is about the smells and the sounds and the feel of the wild, it’s about re-training yourself to be aware, to be mindful of your surroundings, to be present.  But let’s back up a minute, and imagine ourselves getting there.

To use the well-worn adage ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’, the road to the Semliki Valley is breathtaking.  After the bright and vivid greens of tea-estates and the crisp highland air of Fort Portal, the road to Bundibugyo starts to wind its tortuous and precipitous route down the edge of the Western Rift Valley.

It’s the sort of road that make you go ‘aaaah’, but in all the right ways:  a bit of awe, a bit of trepidation, a bit of adrenaline and a whole lot of ‘oh my gosh this is beautiful.’  To the left, the foothills of the Rwenzori’s, bamboo-clad and mist-shrouded give way in the far distance to the Blue Mountains of Congo.  To the right, the escarpment and its vertiginous drop to the valley below are punctuated by twinkling waterfalls.  Straight ahead, the vast expanse of the Semliki Wildlife Reserve (or is it the Game Reserve?) stretches out for miles, the greens and sages and olives, reaching out finally towards the sparkling blues of Lake Albert.  It’s just as WG Stairs described it nearly one hundred and thirty years ago.

The road itself is beautiful, paved all the way from Fort Portal down to the valley floor, to the village of Karagutu.  Keep straight for Bundibugyo and you’ll get to the Semliki National Park or hang a right towards Lake Albert and within minutes you’ll find yourself in the Semliki Wildlife Reserve.  As soon as you enter the reserve the terrain starts changing.  The whole valley is a mosaic of habitat and vegetation zones – acacia-combretum woodlands transform to swathes of borassus palms, which in turn yield to the river valleys, and gorges that crisscross the reserve and literally hum with life.

Savannah Elephant - Semliki

Savannah Elephant – Semliki

While the Semliki Valley was once famed for its lions (Brian Herne a famed White Hunter in his book Uganda Safari said:  “I have never seen so many big lions in other parts of Africa”), now it’s the other animals that take centre stage.  Between the National Park (which forms the eastern-most reaches of the Ituri Forest of the Congo) and the Game Reserve, the combined natural environment is the perfect collision of all African habitats:  tropical forest, wetlands, riverine forest, lakeshore, dry savanna…in essence, this is where East Africa meets Central Africa.

The mammals found here reflect this clash of habitats:  as well as savannah elephant you’ll find the gorgeous forest elephant.  Smaller, narrower, and darker with straighter tusks that point straight down, the forest elephant is especially unique in that they have extra toes:  five instead of four on the forefoot, and four instead of three on the hind foot.  They also tend to travel in smaller groups than their larger cousins.  They are shy creatures, but more regularly seen now in the Game Reserve, particularly in the river valley below the Semliki Safari Lodge.  Forest Buffalo are also regularly seen.  Slighter redder in colour than the Cape buffalo, the Forest Buffalo are about 1/3 smaller with smaller horns and much darker faces.  It’s not unusual to see them among a herd of Cape buffalo.

The gallery forest – glorious tracts of giant cynometra, ironwood, broad-limbed figs and cola gigantea and other jungle trees with massive buttress roots – is home to at least 2 groups of chimpanzees, probably more.  The University of Indiana has been running a chimp research project since 1993, in part to gain a better understanding of bipedalism, which could provide further insight into evolution.  Apart from the river valleys, much of the Semliki habitat is dry, presenting a challenge for the researchers as the foraging area is much bigger than most.  In a day the chimps could cover anywhere from 2 to fifteen kilometres or more a day, depending on the availability of fruiting trees.  A physical challenge indeed, for those trying to track them, but visitors to the reserve can join the researchers on their daily outings.

Craggy Savannah foraging and palm forest

Craggy Savannah foraging and palm forest

Semliki is a veritable mecca for birders, with around 450-recorded species in the area including a number of endemics and rarities like the Yellow Throated Nicator, the Spotted Honey guide or the White Crested Hornbill (bearing an uncanny resemblance to a dancer in Ziegfeld Follies).

For the checklist fanatic, a boat trip out on Lake Albert almost always yields sightings of the Shoebill, often as many as 4 at a time.  This is remarkable, as normally the Shoebill is a very solitary bird.  An extraordinary creature, the Shoebill was recently referred to in an Audubon artlce as a ‘Death Pelican’ or ‘Monster face’.  You’ll find one standing in the shallows, staring with a primordial and hostile eye before suddenly jabbing its face into the mud, producing a wriggling lungfish between its massive jaws.  Jaws?  Do Shoebills have jaws? They may as well have jaws – their beaks look more like a Dutch clog than a standard bird’s beak, why not call them jaws.  Once believed to be a stork, it is understood now that the Shoebill is classified in its own genus – Balaenips Rex – a stand-alone creature to be sure.

Shoebil Semliki Valley

Shoebil

Regardless of the Death Pelican, the boat trip itself is fantastic, drifting past fishermen casting their nets as you quietly putt-putt towards the rise of the escarpment, the dramatic silent rock-falls, and the thundering waterfalls.  Hippos blink at you; kingfishers dart from reed to reed.  It’s tempting to keep heading north, hugging the shoreline of the escarpment, until you reach Murchison…but that would be a 100-mile journey, and storms can whip up quickly.

Semliki is also about the other things, the smaller things that you suddenly find yourself noticing like the flock of butterflies.  The water dropping off the nose of a baby waterbuck as it lifts its head from drinking, the vertical upright tail and punk-rock hairdo of the warthog as they trot by, the sun as it sets behind the Rwenzoris.  It’s the night sounds, the eerie and dramatic call of the colobus monkey, the deep ‘cough’ of leopard hunting at night and the shrieking of the baboons as they scramble to safety.

In a place like Semliki, you find yourself indulging in that rarest of luxuries: the chance to be still.
You’re in amongst it all, and it’s otherworldly, almost spiritual.  But hurry up and go before it changes its name and, like mythical Shambhala, disappears again into the mists.

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