Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Trip Report: The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
25 Treks and Counting!

Just two years ago - in the fall of 2003 - Mary and I made our first gorilla trek. Now, 25 treks later, we can honestly say that the magic hasn't disappeared, the excitement is still as great, the experience still as unique and wonderful as it was at our first meeting. We can't wait to return and continue our experiences in what may be the most intimate and rewarding wildlife experience in the world today. Let me explain why.

At present there are in the neighborhood of 720 mountain gorillas left in the wild, most concentrated in the rugged mountain slopes of five dormant volcanoes preserved, in Rwanda at least, by Volcanoes National Park. Park boundaries, and in the Republic of the Congo and in Uganda, by their respective national parks. Rwanda's share of the mountain gorilla population is the largest, with over three hundred individuals, with the rest scattered between the Congo and Uganda. Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest gorilla population is the smallest, and may, indeed, be either a separate subspecies, a 'bridge' subspecies between lowland and mountain gorilla, or may be simply a disjointed population of the latter. I'll let taxonomists argue that one.

Unlike almost any other wildlife watching/photography experience worldwide, gorilla trekking involves being on-foot and very close to the animals you're watching. While it should go without saying the 'mountain' gorillas would imply mountains, and therefore steep climbs, elevation, and, if anyone bothered to research the trip beforehand, jungle and muddy trails, it is amazing how ill-prepared some tourists are who intend to visit the gorillas. On our last trip American tourists asked us whether or not they could drive up to the gorillas or if they'd would have to walk, with members in the party wearing casual 'clog' style shoes -- sure to be sucked off one's feet in the first mud hole; unbroken, clean white sneakers; and dress sweaters! We informed that party that they might wish to reconsider their hiking attire!
The Images in this portfolio are a compilation of the work of our participants and not only Joe and Mary Ann's. Although not specifically credited per image, this portfolio contains shots by Tom Aufiero, Dave Schollenberger, and Ivan Rothman as well. The best images in this portfolio are, of course, made by either one of those three.


Our Trekking Group this year - Top Row: Tom Aufiero, Ivan Rothman, Erich Almasy, Bottom Row:
Dave Schollenberger, Cynthia Blanton, and Mary and Joe. The other primate images include:
Baby Gorilla climbing bamboo, silverback grinning, golden monkey with baby.


While the above paragraph might instill some fear about visiting the gorillas, it should not, and it certainly wasn't intended to. Treks are not strenuous, or are not exhaustingly so, for anyone who simply bothers to get into shape. Prior to this trip Mary and I were fairly active with other photo shoots -- to Alaska,Yellowstone, and Churchill, but we didn't do any 'conditioning' hiking until we arrived in Kenya. There, for the month we conducted photo safaris, we walked 15 to 45 minutes at lunchtime an average of 5X a week. Those walks, of lengths of less than 1 mile to about 3, was the extent of our conditioning, and we were fine in Rwanda. In our gorilla group this year, various participants engaged in varying levels of pre-trip conditioning, resulting in corresponding degrees of ease and enjoyment in trekking. That's typical for a group, but regardless of pre-trekking conditioning everyone grows stronger each day. On our last trek, 6 of the 7 in our party (including Mary and I) ascended about 600 feet to an elevation of almost 8,000 feet. It was the most difficult, taxing hike of the five days of trekking, with the first hour consisting of almost an hour of uphill hiking through the shambas (farms). That trek was also the most rewarding, for after almost a two and half hour trek we arrived at Susa, a troop of 40 gorillas, that rested in a natural bamboo clearing. Babies, the only twins known to have survived past birth, juveniles, and enormous silverbacks clustered around the opening, treating us to the most intimate views of the entire trip.


Juvenile on a moss and orchid covered tree limb, Silverback in a forest clearing - the ideal setup for great images;
Mother and young; juvenile portrait.


Intimate, literally. At one point our attention was directed to a subadult male, a young blackback, that was copulating with a female who rested her chin upon a bent wrist, seemingly bored to distraction, by his peculiar squeaking grunts of excitement. We knew what those sounds meant, as did the five silverbacks that shared that troop, and we were amazed that this teenager didn't receive a sound thrashing for his boldness - or libido. We watched the twins wrestle, a youngster swinging from bamboo poles over the clearing -- scrambling with cycling legs as he tried to grab a pole below, and a mother - Poppy, a gorilla known by the late Diane Fossey, as she tended her latest baby. More than once we were whacked by a bamboo rod a young gorilla snapped or bent, and once we had to clear a passage for an enormous silverback that had followed along behind us and waited, I hope patiently, for us to step aside. As the silverback lumbered past, in his strutting, knuckle-walk, with a back broad enough to host a place-setting of eight, we were awestruck. These are big animals, and yet so gentle.



Silverback in a Rwanda farm field outside the park boundaries, with a thatched hut in background; Baby cradled between the feet of its mother;
and Mom and Baby during the mid-morning siesta on a bed of broken bamboo.

As we always do, we did five treks for the gorillas. While one 'great' trek might be all anyone needs (I write this doubtfully) to satisfy one's desire to see gorillas, you just never knows what you'll have. On any given day of trekking you could have the gorillas in the open in bright sunlight - terrible conditions; in deep, dark bamboo tunnels in overcast light - terrible conditions; anywhere in a heavy thunderstorm of drenching rain - terrible conditions; on impossibly steep hillsides where your footing is comprised of springing mats of stinging vegetation - terrible conditions; or in a beautiful forest clearing under cloudy-bright skies, providing plenty of shutter speed and aperture without harsh shadows -- ideal conditions. Doing five treks doesn't insure you'll get an ideal day, but it sure ups the probability. On most trips we get a mixture of all the different shooting conditions so that one day, by far, stands out as the best.

 

This year we had incredible luck -- perhaps the best weather we've ever had for trekking. We had one day when it rained while we hiked back down the mountains, but with rain suits we were fine and our clothes were dry the next morning when we began our next trek. We had one shoot where we had bright sunlight, and although we did get some images I must admit that was our weakest day. The other three -- well, four, really, -- the weather was fine, alternating between sun,cloudy-bright, and open shade.

It can get pretty darn dark in the bamboo tunnels or bamboo forest on a cloudy day, and we had one shoot where for about half of the time the gorillas were in deep shade. I did several exposures with ISO 800 at 1/6th second at f2.8 -- one would think I was photographing at night, not at high noon! However, on a tripod, with a gorilla calmly sitting and observing us, the images were still sharp. Sometimes, in this marginal light I'd purposefully use slow shutter speeds as the gorillas moved, and the sense of power and movement thus conveyed were quite powerful. The beauty of digital, since these experiments in creativity didn't cost me a thing.

On other days, in the often ideal conditions we filmed, Mary and I used ISOs ranging from 100 to 400, with shutter speeds often approaching 1/2000ths of a second. Sharpness, then, was not a matter of subject movement but of focus, and success depended upon whether or not we had the focusing sensor positioned properly. On a couple of annoying occasions, both of us did not and we missed shots that, even now, we wonder what the heck we did wrong - what were we thinking? But that happens, and we're being greedy, because the keepers far outweigh the couple images that got away.

As usual, our primary lenses for the gorilla shoot were Sigma 120-300 f2.8 zooms. These are extremely sharp lenses, and although they lack image stabilization we get sharp images when we take the time to securely anchor our tripods. On occasion Mary also used a 17-35 f2.8, and on several days I shot with a Tamron 28-105 F2.8. Using a Tamron lens is quite a departure for me, but I wanted to get the zoom range for close, habitat shots and I wanted f2.8, something only Tamron offered. On our first day I screwed up, because we had the gorillas in open farm fields and I incorrectly assumed that I could brace myself, use fast shutter speeds, and HAND-HOLD the Tamron. For the most part I was disappointed with the results -- few of the 'keeper' images were as sharp as those I took on subsequent days when I tripod-mounted the camera and Tamron lens. I do believe that the Tamron wasn't as sharp as the 17-35 f2.8, however, so if Canon ever produces a comparable zoom L lenses, I know I'll use that one instead, assuming (safely, I think) that it is sharper.

Our guides and the staff at Volcanoes were fantastic, as usual. There are several great guides we've worked with in the past and on these treks, including Oliver, Daniel, Felix, and Bernard -- all experienced gorilla trackers that have done wonders for us in terms of helping our participants get into position for wonderful shots. Help is sometimes required, too, for although you don't carry your equipment or pack up the mountain while you trek - unless you wish to, you must carry whatever you're going to use once you arrive at the gorillas. Until then, porters carry your backpacks, tripods, and whatever other gear you may need, and their leg strength is phenomenal.

Once 'on site' at the gorillas you must carry your own gear, and our advice is always to carry as little as possible. Photographing gorillas can be very fluid -- sometimes the troop will be hunkered down in one spot but more often, at least some time during the shoot, the gorillas move, requiring the photographers to follow. If you are burdened by a lot of equipment, or even a heavy tripod if you're not in shape, this can be onerous. For that reason Mary and I usually rely on our 120-300s, although we'll carry a shorter lens to switch to if the opportunity arises. I've tried carrying two camera bodies - one for each lens, but the effort frankly isn't worth it. I was better off simply carrying the extra lens and changing lenses as required. Doing so also helped insure that I'd use my tripod and not be tempted to hand-hold.

One of the other highlights, personally, for Mary and I was being recognized by our guide, Alex, and the superintendent of PNV for our efforts to promote tourism in Rwanda. Alex, in a small ceremony, presented us with Rwanda flag pins, making us 'ambassadors' for the country. We were honored, because our own committment and bond to Rwanda is great. We're so impressed with the country, how much progress it has made, how friendly the people are, how wonderful the roads are, and, of course, how spectacular the gorilla photography is.

Alex pinning Mary with the Flag while Justin looks on.

At this point we have ONE gorilla trek scheduled for next fall, in-between our two Kenya safaris, but even as I write this we're attempting to add a second trek at the conclusion of our second safari. It seems as if we can't get enough of the gorillas -- the shooting is wonderful, the experience of trekking is fantastic, and the people are always so warm and friendly that you know that your tourist dollar, your business and visit, is appreciated. If you're interested in either of these two treks please contact our office ASAP and we'll let you know of any availability for spots. Regarding that, though, I must conclude with a couple of points:

1. The shooting is one of the most moving and exciting experiences you'll ever have. It's exciting, intimate, and you'll never suspect an hour can go so fast, or that so much can be crammed into that one hour.
2. The shooting can be difficult. Gorillas can be on hillsides, in low vegetation tunnels, etc.
3. To enjoy this trip completely, you must commit yourself to getting into shape. If you are not in condition, the hikes can be killers, but if you walk beforehand - outdoors, you'd be fine. We don't believe a tread mill or stairmaster provides the same results as walking outdoors, or climbing flights of stairs, provides.
4. Dormant volcanoes can become active; stable countries and politics can change; conservation and access policies can be altered; physical abilities can deteriorate -- meaning that right now is the time to go. Don't put this one off for some future date; go while you can - it is one of the best natural history experiences you'll ever have!

 

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