From Fort Portal, the road winds into the enchanting hills. On this particular bright Sunday morning, Uganda Tourism Board leads local golfers to Bundibugyo, the home of Sempaya hot springs. Bundibugyo, carved out of Kabarole in 1974, is one of the scenic, but isolated districts positioned beyond the Rwenzori Mountains. The area boasts five tribes: Bamba, Batuku, Babwisi, Batwa and Batooro.
After a 52-kilometre drive on tarmac, welcome to Sempaya, the brewing field of natural boiling water, spewing cloudy steam above 100˚C. Situated in the heart of the remote and beautiful Semuliki National Park, the protected area covers 220 square kilometres on the shores of Lake Albert.
This offers a mosaic of different habitats; from tall grass woodland, acacia savanna, grassland with extensive patches of borassus to wet-lands. Semuliki is dominated by the easternmost extension of the Ituri Forest of the Congo Basin. Little wonder that telecom signals continue to remind us that we are within or not far away from the DR Congo. To the west is River Semuliki which separates Uganda and DR Congo, to the south up to northeast are the Rwenzori ranges, northern part is Semuliki flats and Lake Albert.
Story behind Sempaya
The name ‘Sempaya’ was derived from builders who spoke Swahili. It is believed that as they carried out construction on Fort Portal-Bundibugyo road a few metres before the Sempaya tourism centre, their machines got damaged. They said, “Hii sehem mbaya” to imply -This is a bad spot. The locals interpreted it as Sempaya, hence the name of the place.
Sempaya geysers are steeped in a legend of the Bamaga clan, among the Bamba. It is said a man called Bamaga went hunting in the thick forest and disappeared. This worried his family which alerted the villagers who embarked on a search for him. After a few days, they found his spears, backcloth and dogs at the male hot springs. They were in utter shock and exclaimed, ‘Bintente!’ in their language to mean - Oh! He has gone.
A few days later, Nyasimbi, Bamaga’s concerned wife mounted the search to clear mysteries around her missing husband. She also disappeared in the forest. After three days, they found her clothes at the female hot springs and named it Nyasimbi. It is upon this background that the male hot springs are called Bintente and female hot springs are referred to as Nyasimbi.
The hot springs have existed for over a million years. The Bamaga clan attributes the natural features to their culture. There is no evidence that a particular person(s) discovered the boiling geysers, except the legend of Bamaga and Nyasimbi. The descendants of the two visit the place to seek ancestral blessings and offer sacrifices during hard times; they sacrifice male and female animals at the male and female hot springs respectively.
This cultural practice is done in November by the entire clan, whereas families are allowed any time they have problems at no cost. “Where local communities have cultural attachments in the protected areas, they do not access them through payments. It is free of charge,” says Justice Olibokiriho, a ranger guide at Sempaya tourism centre.
Sempaya geysers are the hottest in Uganda. Some spots vary depending on conditions.
“When water is boiled deep down through the volcanic rocks, it can pass through cold rocks to the surface and then loses temperature. That is what causes variation around some spots,” explains Olibokiriho. Water from the hot springs flows out where it meets a stream from Rwenzori ranges, then pours into river Semuliki, ending up in Lake Albert.
On any given day, you can find Olibokiriho seated on a bench with colleagues sharing experiences from the field as they wait for more tourists to arrive at the old offices that need a revamp. The ranger guides at the Sempaya centre are always dressed in camouflage fatigues with black boots or gum boots. Olibokiriho’s vigour as a nature specialist in Semuliki is reflected in the number of years in the field; seven years in Semuliki wildlife reserve and eight years in Semuliki National Park.
Prior to that, he spent six years working as an assistant to a lepidopterist.
Olibokiriho says Semuliki is the only true lowland tropical rainforest in Uganda. “The park has primary and secondary forests. In the 1970s, the government permitted local communities to live in the park; some areas were cleared, whereas others were left intact. Those which were cleared have secondary forests with misty trees, whereas those that remained have primary forests with predominantly iron wood trees,” he reveals.
Semuliki was earlier known as Bwamba Forest since 1903. From the female hot springs (Nyasimbi), there is a long bridge to the male (Bintente) in open grass. It is enlarging because the outlet is under water and the minerals are not deposited back to the outlet. Olibokiriho says it is the reason it has created a big crater lake around and there are hanging rocks which do not give proper access.
The walk to Bintente offers a stunning scenery of Rwenzori ranges and geothermal grass which offer amazing photographic opportunities. The temperatures at Bintente are 95˚C, whereas the outlets that are not accessible are estimated at 98 ˚C.
It is important to note that Bundibugyo is hot as a result of altitude; The higher you go, the cooler it becomes and the lower, the hotter. Semuliki is in the western arm of the East African rift valley and the elevation in the park is low (670 to 760) metres above sea level. This perhaps explains why Fort Portal is cooler than Bundibugyo.
At Sempaya, the activity starts at 8.30am and climaxes at 5pm. Eggs are sold to demonstrate the importance of the hot springs in preparation of foods.
Carry waterproof shoes or hire gumboots at the start point. Ugandan Adults pay Shs 15,000 and children of the age five to 15 years pay Shs2,500.