Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Trip Report
The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
February and March, 2005

Read this at your peril ...
If you visit the Gorillas once, you'll want to go back!

This headline isn't a joke. Rwanda, its people, landscapes, and gorillas, are simply addicting. We did two trips that involved 5 days of gorilla trekking for each, insuring that we'd have some incredible shooting during our stay. And we did.


Photographing and interacting with the people is as much fun as the gorillas. The people are wonderful,
friendly, and appreciative of tourists. The landscapes ... well, Rwanda is often called 'the Switzerland
of Africa' and the terraces, rich color, and changing light is simply spectacular.

Our trips involve five days of trekking because the mountain gorillas are mobile and the weather unpredictable. Ideally, a photographer wants the gorillas in the open on a cloudy-bright day, and in five days the chances are fairly good we'll get exactly that. This has proven true for all of the gorilla photo safaris we've done -- four since 2003, involving 20 days of trekking. But it is possible to have a day of rain, which challenges one's fortitude in shooting, or a day of bright sunlight, or a day when the gorillas are in thick bamboo or vegetation and the shooting is tight and uncomfortable. We had days like that, too, but even in the toughest conditions we still made some great shots. But, when it was really good, it was simply great!


Left: Fortunately, the gorilla population seemed to be on the rise. We found babies with every
group we visited. Middle: A silverback purses its lips in a dominant posture display -- he was
annoyed with us and adopted a threatening stance only yards away! Right: Ideal light -- cloudy
bright, and ideal circumstances -- out in the open! In five days of trekking we were almost assured
of good luck, and we had it!

For sake of brevity I'm going to combine the trip reports as readers can get an understanding of a gorilla trek without dealing with the day-to-day particulars of a given trip. Of these ten days of trekking, however, three days really stood out as some of the most exciting shooting we've done with gorillas. On our first gorilla tour, we had very consistant good shooting but one of the gorilla groups that is open to tourists was simply too far away to make a visit practical. The group, Susa, required nearly 6 hours of hiking, and tourists were returning after dark from extremely exhausting days of trekking. We elected to avoid that group!
Left: A silverback showing his distinctive back, the mark of a mature male.


Since Susa was unavailable the park managers opened up one of the research groups, a group of 36 gorillas known as the Shinda group. It required about a 2.5 hour hike to reach the Shinda gorillas, but the route took us into high country we'd never visited before where Hagenia trees, resembling southern oaks, dotted the hillside. If you've seen the movie 'Gorillas in the Mist' you may be familiar with this photogenic tree. Research groups are continually monitored by researchers, and the Rwandan young man in charge of Shinda was a bit reluctant to have 8 tourists approaching his gorillas. He was especially worried about how the gorillas would react to our tripods, but he eventually conceeded when our gorilla guide explained the situation -- we needed those tripods for sharp images. The gorillas were in the open but the vegetation was a bit high, so some of our views were limited to upper torso shots. Still, there was a thrill and excitement to be working truly wild gorillas, and we enjoyed the experience. But it got better.

As the hour-long visit ended one of the 7 silverbacks in the group grew annoyed and charged out of the surrounding brush, emerging about a dozen feet away. The researcher told us to gather, get down and adopt a submissive posture. We huddled together in a lumpy cluster and the silverback, strutting high on all fours, moved closer. The researcher hissed, 'stay down, and don't move.' The silverback advanced, and our gorilla guide grabbed a tripod leg that was poking out of our group and pushed out of the gorilla's reach. Huddled like a bunch of seals on a beach, our backs hunched, we waited, and Mary and I slipped glances at the silverback glowering at us from less than five feet away. I whispered to Mary, 'This is just so cool,' as the tension, excitement, and just plain joy of this experience was completely unique. We didn't film this encounter, but it remains one of the most memorable experiences we've had with the mountain gorillas.

On our second trip we had an opporuntity to film Susa, a group especially noteworthy this year because the troop of 37 have several babies, including the only known surviving pairs of TWINS. Multiple births are rare in gorillas, I believe three sets have been recorded, and there are known surviving sets. Normally, the female carries a newborn swaddled under one arm, a difficult procedure when she's trying to carry two babies. Overwhelmed by the task, females have, in the past, abandoned one of the babies. This set are lucky -- the mother is accepting help in simply baby-sitting duties and the babies are thriving. We had some spectacular shooting in good light in open cover and we got those twins!

The second benchmark day occured on the second trip, on the fourth day of trekking. We awoke to a light rain, which intensified to a steady downpour by the time we reached the parking lot where the trek across the farm fields that bordered the gorillas' forest began. Photography seemed impossible, so we found the shelter of tin roofs while we waited out the rain. One of our participants was only half-joking when he asked, 'Do we really want to do this?' It was, indeed, pretty miserable.

The rain never let up and eventually our gorilla guide suggested we move out, as he was worried that the gorillas might leave their resting spot and seek shelter elsewhere. The trek was memorable -- the trail leading uphill slippery and often water-filled. My boots filled with water and my supposedly gore-tex rain jacket and pants clung to me, soaked so thoroughly that I was as wet as I'd have been had I jumped into a pool. The gorillas were fairly close -- about a 30 minute walk, and just as we arrived, miraculously, the rain stopped just as we were given the order to get our equipment ready.

Minutes later we encountered the gorillas, sprawled about in one of the best shooting clearings we've had on that trip. Shooting was good, or even great, even when the rain began again. Some of our best shots were tight closeups of rain-covered gorilla faces -- moody and atmospheric that so depicted the misery of a wet day in the jungle.

Throughout the shoot, the sole silverback remained in the clearing, alternately lying on its back in a relaxed pose or standing on all fours as it glowered at our group. While it maintained its vigil females built nests in the nearby vegetation, and a demonic-looking baby munched on an orange jungle banana and gaped at us with spikey, red-stained teeth. Suddenly, and for no reason we could discern, the silverback stood upright, beat its chest, and charged. I was using a 28mm at the time and recorded a motor drive sequence as it did so, with the last shot in the frame showing the gorilla's outstretched arms and the blue jacket of one of our participants, an instant before the silverback grabbed our guide and tossed him into the guy standing beside me! The silverback ran passed, then stopped, and now with its path cleared of any human obstruction, sauntered back to its original position and resumed posing.

I've only seen silverbacks chest-beating a couple of times, and never as one charged towards me. It was pretty exciting stuff.

At the start of our last trek of our winter trips I mentioned to Mary that we've never filmed the gorillas in the moss-cover Hagenia trees that are so picturesque and so emblematic of gorilla habitat. We had hoped for a short trek on this last trip, since we needed to drive back to Kilgali that evening in preparation for our flights back to Nairobi the following morning. We had hoped for dry weather, too, so packing would be easier.

Our luck held, and the weather was dry, but our route took us up a volcanic slope where, eventually, we circled the edge of an old crater. Tall trees lined the crater rim and the slopes below, and I joked to someone that the gorillas better not show off and climb down the trees into the crater bottom, which would require us to hike about until we found a route us humanoids could use. Those words almost came back to haunt me.

Left: A silverback on a rainy day feeding in the open. Middle: Another silverback
in the midst of the moss-laden forest -- habitat shots are important, too! Right: A female
waits for her baby.

When we reached the gorilla trackers and were told to get our gear together we stood on the vegetation lined edge of the crater, and we were told the gorillas were down below. That could mean a 200 foot drop down steep slopes, on uncertain ground with slippery footing, and I thought my joke came true. But we were lucky -- the gorillas were just 50 feet below us. We scrambled down the slope and within minutes we had gorillas in trees -- at eye level because of the slope, before the gorillas climbed uphill back to where we had left our packs! Our porters removed the packs (I wonder what the gorillas would have done with a Lowepro backpack!) and moved off, and soon we were following, or being followed, by the gorilla troop. At the hour's end, we filmed a silverback as it sat in the sunlight overlooking a crater lake and the rolling hills of its mountain home. Awesome stuff, and a great way to end the trip.

In this report I've alluded to aspects to this trip that might need clarification, so I'll briefly outline what's involved on a trek. You might find this helpful if you plan to join us next year for our ONLY gorilla trek. Here's those clarifications.

1. Visits are about one hour in length. Sometimes that's to the second, and sometimes there's a few minutes added if the gorillas wander off and the actual viewing time is less. An hour doesn't seem like much time but it is intense and satisfying, and if luck is with you it's all you need for making great shots.

2. Porters carry your equipment until you reach the gorillas, where you're instructed to get your cameras. At that point you must carry your own gear, and it's best to minimize what you carry as the cover can be thick, the hiking difficult, and the sensory stimuli so great that the less you have the better off you are.

3. Trackers find the gorillas for you. They leave every morning in the predawn, hike to where they left the gorillas the evening before, and began tracking. When they find the gorillas they radio headquarters and the gorilla guide leads the group to the gorillas. The 'gorilla guide' is one of the trained guides/naturalists that leads the tourist group from park headquarters to the gorillas. He is the person most responsible for the success of the visit.

4. Treks may be as short as 20 minutes if the gorillas are at the edge of the farm fields and if there is a parking area near the forest. Conversely, treks can be hours long -- our longest was three hours one way. Count on it being uphill at least some of the way, and maybe all of the way. On one trek we hiked, and photographed gorillas (which also usually involves moving, and sometimes very tough moving), for a total of 5 hours. Many sedentary people don't walk that much in two weeks!

5. Trails are fairly good, but in rain they become streams. Gorillas may not be near a trail, however, so count on some cross-country movement at the conclusion of the trek. This might involve crawling on hands-and-knees through dark bamboo tunnels, or slipping over crushed, wet vegetation on very steep hillsides. Stinging nettles may border trails or carpet a meadow, so gloves and some type of cover for pants legs are in order. On one trek we were joined by a South African wearing shorts but luckily the viewing took place in a bamboo thicket where nettles are absent.

6. Physical fitness is very important. We've advised past participants that they should get in shape by hiking 10 flights of steps a day, at the least, and to go for walks as well. The reality is this: In our last 10 treks we walked for at least an hour one-way every day. The average was probably 1 hour 45 minutes, and most of that trekking was uphill. Consequently, if you do your house steps for 10 flights during the day you ARE NOT getting in shape for a trek. One of our participants walked 21 flights of steps in an office building each day, and he did get in shape. 10 flights of steps in a home are not the same thing.

7. Treks began at 7,000 feet or higher. Some walks started at 7,600 feet or so, and sometimes we hiked to a 9,000 foot elevation before we reached the gorillas. Our highest ascent was 9,600 feet. If you live at sea-level (that's 0-50 feet elevation), you might find that you have a shortness of breath at altitude. By the fifth day, however, almost everyone reports feeling great and strong, and are accustomed to the altitude.

From what we observed in our groups, and with the other people we watched trek, or that we spoke with afterwards, we can make some conclusions:
1. Overweight people have trouble. The heavier the worse they were. Older people that were heavy reported the treks were hell, and many only did one trek, even if they were booked for, and paid for, three or four treks.
2. Anyone preparing for a gorilla trek should plan on hiking at a good pace for at least an hour a day, or for three miles. As one participant added, 'and do it uphill, too.'
3. I don't want to sound discouragng because our experiences have been rather pleasant. We've now done 20 treks, and 21 photographers have joined us on these tours. That computes to over 240 visitor days when you consider we do 5 treks per group, and out of that we've had only 5 days of sit-outs, where one person sat out three treks, and two other people sat out one. I mention this because I don't want to paint a picture that trekking is a terribly difficult thing to do. It is not, but the people that enjoy it best are in shape, or are strong, or have gotten themselves into shape for the trip.

Left: On an afternoon roadtrip we filmed people at a market, carrying sacks upon their heads,
and paddling dugout canoes. Middle: We always return with pictures. This girl is holding up her portrait
taken about four months earlier. She's grown! Right: As part of a birthday party for two of our
participants a Tutsi traditional dance company performed. One of the trip's highlights!

Points 1-6 are not meant to frighten people off. The headline for this report, 'read this at your peril' referes to the fact that virtually everyone that has visited Rwanda wants to return. The experience is fantastic -- I hope I've touched upon that with the gorillas, but the interactions we've had with the people have been just as much fun and just as rewarding, and I could spend hours recounting anecdotes of these experiences. In fact, on our future trips we're going to include a day or two to accomplish this -- the shooting opportunities for both are just too good to pass up. Rwanda is a great place, a super shooting location, and one I doubt we'll ever tire of. But to enjoy it, it's best to be physically ready.

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