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Semliki – Playing Hide and Seek in the Park

And so, those who know me might not understand the fun in ‘touring’ home. But, typical in a country where tourism is largely a thing for foreigners, I had never been to such attractions as Semliki Forest national park, just 53km from my hometown. That explains why, when Uganda Tourism Board called, I sprang at the opportunity of visiting it.

I was in the company of two beautiful young women and a seasoned nature photographer, but this was a result – not the motivation – of my desire to travel.

Found west of the Rwenzori, Semliki national park sprawls across the floor of the Semliki valley and is at the tail end of Congo’s Ituri Forest. Our mission was to walk this rarely explored beauty down-south – just in case we needed another reason to believe Winston Churchill’s description of our country as the Pearl of Africa.

The night before embarking on the trail, we spent some time with the two communities that have an attachment to the park – the Batwa (originally from Congo) and the Bamaga clan from the Bamba tribe. This evening helped to shed light on Semliki, which was gazetted in 1932 as a forest reserve but became a national park under Uganda Wildlife Authority in 1993.

The Bamaga believe the two hot springs at Sempaya (both female and male one) represent their ancestors who mysteriously disappeared at those spots, leading to the hot springs’ creation. UWA has signed a memorandum of understanding with the communities for sustainable use of resources from the park. The MOU obliges UWA to give 20 per cent of its revenues from the facility back to the communities to improve their standards of living.

They are also allowed to get firewood, fish from river Semliki, and perform rituals at the hot springs, with permission from the park’s authorities. After dinner with the community members, we retreated to our beds to get our body set for what turned out to be the next day’s long walk to some sort of stardom.

We were up by 7am and our guides, a UWA ranger guide and a policeman, both armed for security reasons, were already waiting. After waiting a little for the ladies to finish making up, we made a short visit to the female hot spring.

About the hot springs:

A guided forest walk leads to the hot water springs boiling with bubbles and protected by a swamp. A major attraction in the park, the hot springs at Sempaya are believed to have healing powers and special guidelines are issued to all visitors. According to www.aboutuganda.com, the largest spring is a geyser that spouts hot water through a low salt sculpture to some 2m high.

To the people living around Sempaya – perhaps in typical chauvinistic fashion – this hot spring is the male one. The female hot spring is just an open pool of water located a few kilometers from the male spring. The water at both springs is very hot – not less than 100degC. A boat ride from Sempaya River is a great way to discover the hot springs and its birds.

You can, we were told, actually boil an egg in hot water and it will be ready in 10 minutes. Our main interest was the 14km Kirumia Trail towards river Semliki that separates Uganda from Congo (DRC). But nothing could have prepared us for what was to follow.

Setting off at 8:30am, to our minds, we were out to see some of the 336 tree species, 53 mammals, 30 species of butterflies and over 400 bird species among other attractions. It was, we were sure, going to be fun. But my endurance and passion for tourism was about to be put to its sternest test yet.

Justice Olibokiriho, our guide, gave us a brief introduction about the great things to expect on the trail, and off we went – all excited, pointing at and taking pictures of whatever caught my sight. Walking closely behind Justice, as we fondly called him, I was soon able to imitate the Yellow Throated Cuckoo’s call, which responded and shyly came out of the tree branches. One thing, for sure, is that most animals in this forest are shy.

So, any tourist needs to be on high alert to catch a glimpse of anything. This went on for over two hours, until the energy levels started dropping so worrying lows. My body needed a rest but we were not even half-way. This trail is not for the physically weak – and I consider myself g. Justice suggested we make it to the Kirumia camp site before resting.

To make matters worse, one of my colleagues almost injured her leg. I knew it hurt but she had to be g for the team. Justice’s words of wisdom kept all of us going: “A determined bull fears no whipraquo.

By now she was walking with a stick for support. “I look like an old woman,raquo she said.

laquoOnly hotterraquo, I quipped, bringing a rejuvenating smile to her face.

It was the first time she smiled since we crossed the 3km mark. I breathed a sigh of relief when the camp site came in sight. We gave our friend first aid, drank some water, and off we went again. Along the trail, we saw different kinds of butterflies (green, yellow, gold, white, blue… ) that had the ladies going oohh and aaahh while we snapped away.

The forest is also a haven for birders. Its flora and fauna is captivating. Further down the trail, we met a troop of black-and-white Colobus monkeys (Colobus guereza). These were happy to play hide and seek – jumping from one tree to another and giving us a few seconds to take pictures, before disappearing into the branches.

At this point, the signpost read 7km. Hooray! We were half-way across. I spent the last part of the trail playing gentleman to my two female counterparts. When the going got tough, I pulled out my iPod and the first song that played was Barbiegirl. I hate that song. Who needed Aqua when I could enjoy the chirping birds, crackling leaves and scurrying squirrels in the leafy paradise?

I switched it off to further trudge on to the sound track of nature and the snapping of twigs under our footsteps for two more hours. Lo and behold, we saw it! No words can describe the look on my friends’ faces but I can sum it up as ecstatic.

Our ‘hosts’ took time off to interact with us, many speaking Rutooro. They told us that it was no place for women since it was far from the rest of the communities. They kept in touch with the rest of the world by listening to a portable radio plus mobile phones wrapped in polythene bags in case it rains or they fell in water.

One of them offered us a basket of fish, before we set off for the return trip. At 6:30pm, we made it back to the road, all happy but totally worn. That is when Justice gave us the amazing news he had been hiding.

Since he joined the national park in 2010, we were the first Ugandans that have completed the trail. Now, that is something worth writing home about.

Travel aisory:

Transport: Hourly buses to Fort Portal at Shs 25,000 or private car

Accommodation: A night at UWA Bandas will cost between 40,000 to 80,000

Safari company: Kabarole Tours and Safaris (0774 057390)

Source : The Observer

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