June 7, 2024

The Semiliki Valley – Uganda’s hidden vale

Over the centuries a number of people have passed through this secretive valley. Baker, traipsing around the area of Hoima and Murchison in the 1860’s, travelled down the edge of the escarpment and spied the expansive waters below him, naming the water ‘Lake Albert. He would have also seen the peninsula at the southern end of the ake, now the village and port of Ntoroko, which marks the northern, reaches of the Semliki Valley.

Two decades later in 1888, Henry Morton Stanley and his ragtag band of myrmidons staggered out of the depths of the Congo and emerged under open skies, headed for Equatoria on their ill-fated mission to rescue Emin Pasha.

William Grant Stairs, a Canadian, and Stanley’s second-in-command wrote in his diaries:

“How pleasant it is to once more get out onto the plain and feel the breezes.”

He further describes the views of the valley nearly 50 years after this expedition, in 1924, the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Elizabeth) embarked on a 4-month safari in East Africa. Starting in Kenya they hunted lion, rhino, antelope and zebra for several weeks… and then moved across to Uganda where they made their first camp in the Semliki Valley.

This was a safari in the grand tradition, and set new standards for regal processions and hunting grandeur.
They may have covered a lot of ground on foot, but with 600 porters carrying all the gear, the hardships of the journey were not keenly felt. The young Duchess was a plucky sort, it seems, and despite her fears and apprehensions she may have had before her trip to East Africa, she later referred to her experience as:

‘Wonderful. Best bit of one’s life’.

The trip was later referred to as their idyllic time in the wild’.

This little patch of Western Uganda must have truly held fascination for the Royal couple, and a special place in their hearts, for it was here in the Semliki Valley that – for the first time on the entire East African journey – they spotted elephant. Herds of elephant. The Duke shot a large bull with trophy tusks. Nearly ten years after the Royal Safari, the Semliki Valley was officially gazetted as the Toro Game Reserve, one of Uganda’s very first protected areas. (The Semliki National Park was not gazetted until 1993, elevated from Forest Reserve status).

Toro Game Reserve attracted droves of tourists and hunters. They came for the large black-maned lions and the elusive forest elephant known as ‘Semliki Rats. They came for the vast herds of hartebeest and the incredible avian diversity. In the 1950s and 1960s Semliki Lodge was heaving, doing a profitable trade, running at 80% occupancy.

But that was then.

Despite the fact that the Semliki Valley captivated explorers and travellers for generations, nearly a hundred years after the hugely successful Royal Safari, the area has fallen into obscurity, a little-known place that hardly gets a mention in the promotional materials for Uganda’s tourism industry.

It’s true that the area was decimated during the war-forn years of the 1970s; it’s also true that some species that thrived there, like the Jackson’s Hartebeest were hunted down to non-existence. But with efforts from both outside and within, the levels of wildlife have shown steady trends of improvement. Just at the time of writing this article, I’m told, leopards were seen clearly by the Wasa River and elephants roamed past the lodge, trumpeting as they lumbered by the swimming pool. It’s an area that is healing, an area well on the mend

In this article:
Legend has it that when the early white 'explorers' first came through the Semliki Valley, they happened across a wide river where a woman was drying fish on the bank. They asked her what was in the river, what kind of fish she was catching. "Semliki" she replied, protectively drawing her baskets over the fish to hide them from view, meaning 'nothing here' - clearly a ruse meant to deter the men from returning in numbers, stealing the bounty of fish. And so the name was born.
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