For most of its long part of existence, Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve remains in the shadow.
Gazzeted in 1926 after hunters reduced kob populations, the 542 square kilometre stretch in Ntoroko and Kabarole districts, seems to be swallowed up by the more famous Semliki National Park.
Travelling through Mubende’s farmlands to the Kabarole mist covered mountains and long winding road of Bundibugyo district, many travelers will hardly make their way to the reserve.
It is six hours by road from Kampala and less than 30 minutes by air.
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) opened Semliki Safari Lodge airstrip in the centre of the reserve to allow aircrafts land at a fee.
Located within Ntoroko and Kabarole districts, Tooro Semliki is easy to locate.
On the day we travelled, we arrived amid a down pour that gives us another experience of the marvel that lies in the plains.
Philemon Tumwebaze, the acting warden tourism, beams with a smile as he welcomes us for an eventful trip.
We are strictly here to “eat some life” as we explore the gem in Uganda’s wild.
On the menu, is an evening game drive that we take after some hours of rest.
A sweet scent of soil aroused by the rain water sets us in the mood for a joyful drive with Tumwebaze as our guide.
First we encounter an outstanding feature – the soil leak – that forms part of marvel.
The place is a resting area for warthogs that are a regular sight and hard to miss.
At the far end of the plains, birds such as the heron and kingfishers fly around as if to monitor our moves.
“We have over 400 species of birds. This place is known for birding and we have some rare and endemic species you cannot see anywhere else such as the shoebill,” Tumwebaze tells us.
The reserve allows visitors to see all sorts of varieties and kobs leaking the soil are a must see.
In these kilometres of savanna grasslands, different animals pace up and down.
They are more noticeable if you hike at the Kijura escarpment or along the community walks to Batuku farmlands.
“We have giant forest hogs, buffaloes, velvet, red-tailed and black and white monkeys. We have chimpanzees in a savanna ecosystem which is unique because it is known they live in forested parks. We also have elephant forest sub-species which we think came from Ituri Forest,” Tumwebaze says.
After a night in the bandas (self-contained huts) in Semliki National Park about 25 kilometres from Tooro Semliki, we visit Sempaya female hot spring, considered to be one of the hottest in Uganda.
The springs are hot enough to boil eggs, bananas or even meat.
They are en route Bundibugyo and feed off the extremely hot underground water walled off by a forested shelter for monkeys, baboons and hundreds of birds.
Harriet Nakyesa, the Semliki National Park head guide, says the Bamba people believe the hot springs have a connection with their ancestors.
Today, because of the Fort Portal-Bundibugyo tarmac road, the hot springs attract more than 10,000 tourists every year. At least 7,000 of these are Ugandans.
According to Nakyesa, there is need to create a buzz about the hot springs to attract more tourists.
“We do not allow investment around the hot spring because it is a national park and everything is supposed to be left natural,” she says.
Leslie Muhindo, the park’s tourism warden, says the surrounding area is what should be of interest for potential investors.
“We need to put up a fully-fledged canteen and restaurant inside and outside the park,” he says.
Indeed, getting a meal around, you need to drive to Ntoroko or Bundibugyo town.
“In terms of accommodation, Bundibugyo is not well served so a good investor would put up a good hotel or campsites such that people visit and spend more money,” Muhindo says.
In the afternoon, the airstrip is where our primate walk start until it is cut short a few metres away.
River Wassa, which drains its waters from Mountain Rwenzori is impassable. However, to catch a glimpse of the rare dry habitat chimpanzees, Moses Rukiza says, we need to keep around a little longer.
“It is the only place where big animals come to water themselves,” he say, adding: “When it rains, all the water from the mountains drains here and sweeps away the bridge. We need some more funding to have permanent bridges.”
Toro Semliki is also known for the shoebill that lives in the marshy areas of Lake Albert.
However, attempts to see it seem not to yield much results as we cannot do a boat cruise because the boat is not fully functional.
“UWA procured a boat and it is not fully functional because we lack a crane to move it to the lake or construct a jet near the lake. It is a challenge and we have lost revenue,” Tumwebaze says.
However, there are plans to build a jet in the next financial year.
As the sun rolls down, we head for a campfire under the night sky at Nyati Game Lodge to recollect on the day’s events.
A cool breeze from Lake Albert sweeps through the lodge as velvet monkeys flash through treetops under the cover of darkness.
Majority of tourists visit Semliki National Park, Muhindo says, but not the reserve, missing out on the pleasure that the reserve offers.
“You would have people come see the hot springs and on their way back, pass by Toro Semliki and have an afternoon game drive,” he says.
Semliki Safari Lodges is about 30 kilometres away and while many people spend nights there, attracting locals is still a challenge.
“Most people do not want to spend money on animals they have grown up seeing,” David Kawamara, a guide who receives more than 80 per cent foreign tourists, says.
He says prices must come down to increase local tourism as well as relocating more animals such as lions to the reserve.
Improving local tourism
At Nyati Game Lodge, we engage in a conversation and it is evident that government must do all it to improve local tourism.
According to Barbra Adoso, there is need to engage new measures through which local tourism can be improved.
Key among them, is mindset change with a change in traditional circuit to include new destinations such as Toro Semliki Wildlife Reserve.
“We have done traditional safari camp but now want to do glamping or glamour camping so clients stay in an open space, have dinner by the lake or campfire,” she says.
“Why can we not think of hot water steam births that can be modified from the hot springs? We have a very beautiful lake but very little action is happening so it would be nice to have jet skiing, boat cruise or even have a boat connect Semliki to Murchison Falls,” she adds.
Getting to the reserve
From Kampala to Fort Portal via Mubende it is 290 kilometres while from Kampala–Fort Portal via Masaka-Mbarara-Kasese is about 465 kilometres. It sits about 28 kilometres after Karugutu Trading Centre before the first turn off Semuliki National Park.
The reserve has a boundary of three kilometres further on. The turn off to Semliki Safari Lodge is about 26 kilometres further just beyond the bridge over the River Wasa.
Lake Albert is further on, about 25 kilometres ahead at Ntoroko fishing village where UWA manages a number of bandas, a campsite and a canteen. There is also an air field managed by UWA.