Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Peace and tranquillity in the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve

If your idea of peace and tranquillity is a green and gold landscape studded with trees and scattered with herds of pretty Uganda kob, then come to the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve.

A 'harem' of female kob
The lucky and very busy dominant male
Stuart says taking photos of kob in Uganda is like
taking pictures of cows in Scotland.
If, on the other hand, you are one of those competitive tourists whose main aim is to tick off one of the 'Big Five', don't even bother thinking about coming. To be fair, there are a few leopards here, but usually only seen at night. Semliki definitely has elephants, but we didn't spot them. Once an area renowned for its lions, big cats are now rare. Admittedly, you will see a fair number of buffalo, but rhinoceros are now extinct everywhere in Uganda except for the breeding programme.

Buffalo - the only one of the Big Five we could 'tick'.
Now we've got all the negatives over, it's time for the positives and there are many of them, including some superlatives. The Semliki Reserve is one of the most beautiful and remote areas in western Uganda. If you want to see a 'real' African landscape come here. The Reserve stretches from the Rwenzori Mountains to the south up to the southern shore of Lake Albert. To the west are the Blue Mountains of DR Congo, which form the western escarpment of this stretch of the Rift Valley. To the east is the range of hills which forms the eastern escarpment. The Blue Mountains are quite distant and hazy, but the blue-grey shadowy heights of the Rwenzori mountain range and the escarpment hover above the savannah wherever you look. To the south, the Reserve is largely golden grassland but it becomes more lush, green and wooded as you approach Lake Albert, for it lies in the valley and delta of the River Semliki (the official border with DR Congo) and its various tributaries. This is real wilderness.

Rwenzori Mountains to the south
A bucolic landscape: the eastern escarpment with buffalo and warthogs.
To reach the Reserve, you leave Fort Portal by the road to Congo. Once a winding murram road, this is now rapidly being transformed into a broad four-lane tarmac highway, built by the Chinese and no doubt shortly to be the main route out of Congo for all the precious minerals and metals which have caused so much havoc there already. The central stretch of the road was still murram last week, but had been significantly broadened and levelled since our previous journey along it eighteen months ago. It is now just waiting for the tarmac. As for the winding, that is inevitable as the road zigzags down the northern end of the Rwenzoris.

Walking between Kichwamba and Karagutu along the unfinished road.
New road waiting for tarmac.
Off to Congo...
...and back to Fort Portal.
Once at Karagutu, at the bottom of the hill, the traveller makes a decision to go either to Bundibugyo, on the border of Congo, via the Semliki National Park and Sempaya Hot Springs (see our earlier post Fort Portal, Semliki and Toro Golf Course) or to do what we did, and turn right across the savannah and aim for the Wildlife Reserve and the luxurious and remote Semliki Safari Lodge.

The restaurant at Semliki Safari Lodge
When we say 'remote', that doesn't necessarily mean that the road was always empty, of course.

This troop of olive baboons clearly thinks it has priority.
You still have to keep your wits about you....

Like sheep, kob just follow each other.
...especially when the pedestrians appear to just plod along.

A fore-shortened view of a four-foot lizard.
However, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) makes sure that drivers are well warned.

£125 is a fortune in Uganda.
The Lodge performs a very important function in this part of the Albertine Rift Valley. While the Semliki Wildlife Reserve is one of the oldest in Uganda, dating back to 1929, the Lodge itself only opened in the 1990s. By this time, the Reserve had been systematically poached during the Amin years of the 1970s; by both sides in the Ugandan-Tanzanian war at the end of that period; throughout the civil war of the 1980s; and during subsequent rebel activity by the Allied Defence Force and the retaliation to it, including mortar bombardment, by the Uganda People's Defence Force (the Ugandan army).

A peaceful corner of the garden
In 2001, as a result of conflicts over the border, as many as 8,000 Congolese refugees entered Semliki to live near Lake Albert, and, like the locals, began poaching animals and felling trees for firewood. Poaching continues sporadically and every so often local communities set down poisoned bait to kill the lions which threaten their cattle and goats. Inadvertently, they also kill vultures and other scavengers. As a visitor, however, you are aware of none of this activity, past or present, and it will seem to you one of the quietest and most peaceful places in the world. And so it is... now.

The view from our tent, complete with early morning primate calls.
Camping, but not as we know it.
Why did the scouts never think of thatched roofs and balconies?
The Lodge therefore forms an important element in the rehabilitation of the Reserve, with the staff working alongside the UWA and Indiana University to preserve and study the enormously varied wildlife, including a group of chimpanzees. The development of tourism encourages local people to protect the wildlife, for that is what the visitors come to see. Though, to be honest, many of the visitors will probably be like us and also come to eat some of the best food in Uganda and lie around the swimming pool watching the swallows swoop around.

Swimming pool in the bush.
Lesser-striped swallow high in the sky...
...and briefly at rest.
Hopping from foot to foot, waiting for me to leave.
I'm between them and their nest.
We could hear the noisy twittering of the weaver birds, as they darted in and out of their nests.

I spent ages pottering around trying to photograph butterflies with my new camera, but made no attempt to identify them. I find birds difficult enough!

The moths were quite pretty too, though I'm not a great fan of them, especially when they try to fly into my face.

I even snapped some creepy-crawlies. Some were swimmers, including a cute little water beetle and a sinister creature which looked like a three-inch lobster.

A creepy-crawlie of the flying kind was a sort of variation on a wasp.

However, we didn't just laze around the lodge. Despite the apparent lack of 'dangerous' beasts, there were a lot of wild creatures to see out on the grassland, and not all of them looked all that peaceful - except the dead ones, of course.

A well-endowed warthog.
Anyway, 'danger' is always relative. We might be reasonably safe, but for the other creatures this was nature 'red in tooth and claw'.

What's for tea tonight? Uganda kob, our favourite....
Patient African white-backed vulture waiting its turn.
Palmnut vultures take a bird's eye view of the kill.
And now the marabou storks tuck in.
Actually, we saw more raptors in Semliki than we've seen anywhere else, perhaps because we weren't distracted by looking for lions on the ground and looked up in the trees for birds instead. If you're a young kob or a guinea fowl they can be just as dangerous as a big cat.

Lappet-faced vulture.
A threatening presence overhead.
Bataleur with red beak and red feet.
African white-backed vulture waiting for the carrion on the ground.
and up in the trees.
A white-headed vulture, I think.
Brown snake-eagle
And the most majestic of all, the largest eagle in Africa; the martial eagle.

'My manners are tearing off heads...' (Ted Hughes 'The Hawk')
We weren't surprised by the vultures hovering over the kill and knew that, despite their apparent docility when seen at a distance, buffalo and warthogs can be aggressive. However, we were taken aback by what we saw later that afternoon.

Baboon reluctant to share its picnic.
If you look carefully, you will see that the baboon on the left is holding its kill: a young kob. Somehow it had managed to carry it up the tree.  Its companion on the right finds it all too tantalising and moves closer and closer. Who knows what will happen next!

However, we also saw more tranquil scenes, such as the mutual cooperation between this bird and the buffalo from whose back it is picking insects.

We saw helmeted guinea fowl, pecking away

We saw this white-bellied bustard,  barely distinguishable from the grass through which it was stalking.

And we saw beautiful creatures like these two waterbuck.

Female waterbuck
Male waterbuck
And one of my favourites - this pretty little vervet monkey.

We came away from the Semliki Reserve thoroughly rested and stunned by the beauty around us. We hadn't expected anything quite so varied, quite so tranquil or quite so lovely.


  1. Wonderful! I want to come back! Lynn x

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