The weekend of 31st Jan-2nd February 2020, Mountain Slayers Uganda had their first slay of the calendar year in and around the land of the Bamba, Bawesi, Batuku, Batoro, Bakonjo, and Batwa; areas covered by Semuliki National Park. It gets its name from the meandering 140km River Semuliki (Semiliki) that hugs the Ugandan border with Congo between lakes Edward and Albert. It empties its waters into Lake Albert. Semuliki is a Luwisi word (language spoken by the Bamba) to mean, “there’s nothing there”. As legend has it, a white man asked a woman crossing the river with a basket on her head for what was in her overly elaborate, super-sized basket to which she replied “Semuliki” or “nothing is there”. And thus a river was named.
Nicely nestled between lakes Albert and Edward-in the underbelly of the Albertine rift valley- Semuliki national park is a 220 square kilometer biodiversity mecca. This biodiversity- thanks in no small part to the rich fauna and flora of the Ituri forest- coupled with the fact that the park is located in the shadows of the Rwenzori Mountains makes it a dream destination for nature and hiking enthusiasts alike. With more than 440 recorded bird species, this park that predates the ice age, is also a bird watcher’s little slice of heaven. But I digress. It is the hiking that brought us here and boy was it an adventure!
Led by Chief Slayer, Sarah Jean, our ebullient, indefatigable German (MSU members call her the first Caucasian Ugandan or something like that) whose love for the outdoors is only rivaled by her love for Club Beer, the club members and some guests hit the 412km road to Bundibugyo. The drive that started off at Shell Lugogo was in a chartered Uganda Wildlife Authority bus. Bags loaded and pleasantries exchanged, it was time to start the party on the road.
Everyone was nodding to the beat blaring from the bus’ speakers with some openly gyrating to the intoxicating rhythm of an eclectic collection of African music. It was hiking season once again and this lot was determined to have the mother of all parties. The pre-hike info pack promised a hike of “moderate difficulty through the Ruwenzori foothills, with sweeping views of the rift valley and the Semuliki River”. It was meant to culminate with a visit to the Sempaya hot springs, shooting out of the ground like a mighty geyser intent on reminding us of the subterranean forces that have shaped the rift valley over millions of years.
Sitting in this west-bound bus, watching the blazing sunset over forest-covered hills en route to a campsite in the middle of one of the few remaining low lying forests and then waking up to the sound of birds and other wild beasts can only serve to deepen one’s connection to the land we call home. It’s a surreal experience.
We arrived at Bumaga Tourism Site in Semuliki National Park, a UWA run campsite at a little past 8 pm. The conscientious UWA staff was expecting us and quickly helped us unload luggage from the bus and led us to the campsite. They also have some few bandas for those who may not be so inclined to sleep in tents though being an outdoors club; MSU does highly recommend proper camping.
Camp set-up done, campfire blazing, it was time for dinner. This as far as I can tell was perhaps the only stain on what was an amazing trip. Going by people’s feedback, one would think chewing on a few nails may have been a more pleasant experience for their taste buds but as one soon comes to understand, the magic of being outdoors is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life in the wild itself – the tranquil pace and exhilarating sense of adventure – is the true magic.
The hike started at 9 am and was to take us through Kyamutema, Nyamitoto, Nyamitwa, Kaleyale, and Mukonzo hills. A 20-minute bus ride took us from camp to the start of the trail at Karugutu- Ntoroko district, on the base of Kyamutema hill. The lead guide who jokingly thanked us for “bringing the blessing of rain” briefed us about what to expect on the hike.
“It has been dry in this region but on the eve of our trip, the area received a heavy downpour.” We were the lucky charm for this community that heavily relies on growing cocoa and coffee. The enthusiasm and excitement in the group was palpable, the beauty of the rolling hills spellbinding. Very little could have prepared us for the battle of wills that lay ahead.
Talking about preparation, some people do runs; others hit the gym, etc in the lead up to major hikes. I’m not sure any of that would’ve mattered here. This was hard. With the innocent exuberance of a naïve youth, we quickly topped Kyamutema and onto Nyamitoto, a hill that has a special place in Bakonjo folklore. It gets its name from a Swahili word meaning “young”. In centuries past, it is said that this hill would produce a spear and war drum for the king.
This spear is what he would use to fight off the kingdom’s enemies and after each successful battle, the spear and drum would disappear into Nyamitoto and await the next battle. I know a hiker or two who found Nyamitoto rather insurmountable and beat a hasty retreat to camp. The rest trudged along, but not before hurling a few light-hearted expletives in the general direction of the Chief Slayer for, well, for having chosen a hike that could’ve made the thought of scaling K2 seem comforting.
Anyways, with well-beaten bodies, we kept at it, went past Nyamitwa hill, another important site among the Bakonjo. Apparently, it has a pool on top that can only be seen by a select few folks and not without the express permission of the king. Now, if this sounds oddly familiar, it is probably because you’ve read the story of the emperor with his shiny clothes. There’s also the not so easy part of accessing the Konjo king on a whim which is no mean fits so we can’t speak as to the veracity of these lake claims because none of us could get clearance.
Moving on swiftly, we went past the shaky hill (Kaleyaleya), took in some breathtaking views of Semuliki River and off we went back to camp past sunset. Those who still had some energy trudged to the Sempaya hot springs but most of us mere mortals took our battered bodies to the fireplace and then off to sleep.
The next day, we got some Boda Bodas and went to Sempaya and boy, were they worth the wait! Well, the “female” hot springs at least. So, up until 1903, this forest reserve was called Bwamba forest and would be accessed freely by the local for subsistence and to perform their rituals. Legend has it (again!) that one day, two women who had gone to get water from the springs run into a male stranger who they had taken to the village chief and he was named Bamaga (rhythms with Okumagamaga in Luganda).
He married a village belle called Nyansimbi. One day, the two lovebirds disappeared into the forest never to be seen again. The community embarked on a frantic search that resulted in them finding Nyamsimbi’s backcloths at the female springs and Bamaga’s at the male spring. Thus the springs were named according to the sexes.
The Basaiga clan, to which these two belonged, still believe their people will come back at these springs and in fact, continue to perform cultural rituals at these sites. To those into geology and geography, they’ll know that hot springs form when rain and other running water (in this case the rivers running through the Rwenzoris) seep into the ground, is heated by magma and then makes its way back to the surface through the earth’s crusts known as vents.
For us, we were more fascinated by the gurgling, steaming, sulfurous water, shooting out of the surface like a geyser. Some folk thought it reminded them of a violent ejaculation (I know, I know!!) and went ahead to take pictures around the vent that cannot be reproduced here. We are a family page! The walk to the male hot springs is a pleasant, scenic forest walk. The males springs themselves have an anticlimax feel to them but still worth a visit.
Sarah Jean, The Chief Slayer
The Chief Slayer is the person who coordinates the trip on behalf of MSU. From mapping out the trail, getting service providers, collecting funds, developing info-packs etc. He/she is basically the fulcrum of the hike. Of course, Sarah had to go and outdo herself! She was excellence personified and raised the Chief Slayer bar to some rather dizzily heights, of the variety she took the team. It should be one tough act to follow.
Felix Andama, The Slayer of the Weekend
If a meteorite struck, he is the guy you wanna be stuck with. He has a contingency plan for everything and packs for exactly such an event. In true slayer spirit, he and Anthony Kagimu came through big time for me when my shoes gave way.
Achili Liz aka Soroti Liz
There are people who love hiking and the outdoors and then there’s Soroti Liz. She took the bus from Soroti, onto the UWA bus to Bundibugyo with the group and then back to Soroti all after a brutal hike and was on her desk at 7:30 am for Monday work. It’s for such people that the phrase “tough as nails” seems like a joke. For us mere mortals, we can only look on in awe.
The self-styled hike sloth. She reminds us that the point of a hike isn’t all about getting on top of a mountain; the real adventure is in the journey. It’s the views, the ever-changing terrain, and the will to get past your body’s painful complaints and carry you home despite the wobbly feet that she calls “spaghetti legs”. Tilly lives her life the way she hikes, on her terms. No one cares that other people are faster. That’s their path, you chat yours. Just like in life, hiking calls for us to appreciate the moment and live through several such moments until you get to your destination.
Who cares about a bad knee when there’s a slay? Forever the life of the party, more power to him! His orthopedic surgeon and physiotherapist won’t be best pleased but who cares? We slayed!