Greetings…I’m sure there is nobody out there that checks this blog frequently, simply because I don’t have time to post very often. But, I finally got some time to at least go through all of my photos from my Mountain Gorilla Trek in Virunga National Park in the country of Rwanda. I am posting them on my site and you can now view them at the following link:
It took me a several hours to go through the photos, edit them, and choose the ones that I wanted to share. As I did this over the past several weeks, I found myself simply amazed at what I was able to do in Rwanda. Many times I would stare at a photo and remember explicitly what I saw or how I tried to arrange myself for a photograph. In the flurry of activity, I still managed to often times observe what was in front of me and to take a minute to remember how lucky I am to be able to do something like this.
Seeing the Mountain Gorillas is something that I had always wanted to do, and the experience exceeded every expectation that I had. These gentle giants are something that I cannot really describe to you. Their mannerisms, their playfulness, their desire to be a part of a family and community…all of these rival us humans. They honestly would have you laughing one moment, for example when a giant silverback would let a big fart rip right in front of you. While the next minute you were on the verge of tears as you watched a vulnerable and clumsy baby gorilla struggle to climb up into its mother’s arms for protection and comfort. Many people asked me if I was ever scared or thought what a full grown gorilla might do to a human. Honestly, the thought never entered my mind. When you observe the Mountain Gorillas in their natural surroundings, I think any sort of common sense or fear simply leaves your body. You forget that you might be in danger, and it is hard to imagine that a Gorilla would come after you.
Trekking is highly structured and regulated. You must have a permit for each person to enter the National Park, and I believe only 64 permits are available each day (they sell out months in advance). You hike to the jungle at the base of the mountain, and the porters keep in contact with spotters that are searching for the gorilla families inside. The gorillas might be low, or they might be high and up the mountain several miles. Once you finally meet with the trackers, you leave your camera bags behind as you need to remain nimble to keep up with the Gorillas as they go about their business. Once you meet the Gorillas, you have exactly 1 hour to be with them. That’s it…not a minute more or a minute less. This is done because obviously having contact with humans brings risks to the Gorillas, so the regulations exist where there is only 1 hour of exposure per day. There is no negotiation here, so you need to hope the Gorillas are behaving well during your hour. You won’t get another hour just because they are all sleeping or because they are all going crazy and running through the jungle much faster than you could ever hope to.
There are currently only about 800 Mountain Gorillas left in existence and as such they are critically endangered. They have made a very strong comeback over the past decade as the countries of Rwanda and Uganda have embraced tourism and have put in programs to protect the Mountain Gorillas and their habitat. While there is still a danger of poachers, the threat is much less than in the past as the locals understand that the tourism draw enables them to build a strong community and also to protect and care for the Mountain Gorillas. Many people are employed by the industry, and I can also say that the guides, spotters, drivers, and porters are also a special part of this experience.
For those of you that don’t mind some mud and water, watching for armies of fire ants, avoiding stinging nettles in the jungle brush, hiking uphill in mountain terrain, or being in the dark and unpredictable jungle, I can’t recommend the trip enough. The only bad thing I had happen to me is a very large fire ant got into my sock and lodged itself into my ankle. It hurt like hell, but thankfully I didn’t get attacked and was able to avoid the large swarms of them on the ground. I don’t mention those things to scare anybody or to suggest that it is extraordinarily difficult. The bottom line is these Gorillas are in the wild, and you have to come to them. They don’t come to you. You need to have proper clothing, the right attitude, and patience to make the trek a success. Then, once you make it, you had better hope they cooperate for some photographs.
Photographing these creatures is extremely challenging. The jungle is often dark or only dilapidated light, so you need to rely on fairly high ISO values to have any respectable shutter speed to avoid motion blur. Exposure can be very difficult as the primary colors you are dealing with are black and green, both of which can throw off metering quite easily. Perhaps most challenging…the gorillas often don’t stay in one spot. You have to go chasing them with your camera gear, muddy terrain, and jungle brush everywhere. Many of the people on the tour fell during the treks. You have to keep an eye out for what is going on, that is for sure. Sometimes you get lucky and can use a monopod to have a steady shot, but other times you are more reactive and just trying to do what you can in hopes that some of the photos turn out. I have to say, overall, I am quite pleased with the photos I got on the trek.
I can say with certainty that I hope I am lucky enough to be able to go again one day. It truly was the best trip I’ve ever done, and I will remember each day for the rest of my life. I currently do a lot of online research to see how the Gorillas are doing. Unfortunately, one of the silverbacks recently died in January, which has caused quite a strife for the gorillas that were part of his family.
If you are interested in doing this trip, I recommend looking at Paul Renner’s Safaris. He goes every year, and the trip is very well structured and organized. Paul is a great photographer and an even better person, so you can’t find anybody better to go on a trip like this with. You can learn more about Paul and his safari adventures at: http://www.rennersafaris.com