Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Ferocious looking, but a benign encounter; a baby licks the bamboo; a female 'smiling.'

Trip Report:
Mountain Gorilla Photo Safari Trek in Rwanda 2007
Our 40th Trek!

The experience of a life-time. The most exciting on-the-ground wildlife encounter possible. Two phrases that best sum up a mountain gorilla trek, for nothing compares, and nothing can really prepare you for the experience, for the thrill and very real sense of priveledge one feels being in the presence of these truly great apes. This year, because of our tight Kenya schedule, we could only do one Rwanda trip, where, as we always do, we did five treks, visiting five different groups.
This year, for the very first time ever, we did so without rain! On each trek, we completed the gorilla visit and returned to our vehicle before the rains started, which made the entire experience that much more pleasant. This year also marked our 40th trek, marking our eighth time to visit Rwanda, and even with our 40th we still never grow jaded, tired, or bored with the experience, but instead only look forward to seeing the gorillas once more.

In Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, where the mountain gorillas live, rain is a near daily event. The tall volcanic peaks snag passing moisture, building up a cloud cover even when the rest of the country is cloudless and dry. Clouds, for photographers, are a desired condition, as it reduces the contrast that can be deadly for effective photography inside the forest. Of course, clouds can also bring rain, which can be a positive point in shooting as well, although it does make the actual practise of photography a bit more difficult. One of my all-time favorite images, and a BBC winning shot, was made during the rain on a day when we were wondering whether or not we'd even be able to do the trek -- it was pouring so hard. Clouds, too, reduce the light levels, and when gorillas are in the forest, especially under the cover of bamboo, it can be darker than one could ever imagine equatorial Africa can be at 10AM in the morning. On one of our shoots we had those types of conditions, and it seems implausible that one could be using ISO 800 or 1000, at f2.8, and still be using only 1/30th of a second!

Mother and baby; a curious youngster; a baby rides his mother's back.

Although gorilla trekking is expensive, we nonetheless do five treks so that the odds are in our favor that we'll have the perfect weather and the perfect setting for photography on at least one of the five days. It is not uncommon, and I say this now having FORTY treks or gorilla visits under our belt in Rwanda, to have a washout day where it is too dark, too thick, too wet, or too bright and sunny to get a great photograph. Gorillas can be in partial vegetation on a sunny day where the contrast between sunlight and shade results in images that are lacking, or they can be in such a thick bamboo forest that getting anything sharp is almost impossible because of the slow shutter speeds involved. Doing five treks, we stack the odds in our favor, and it works.

This year, because of the absence of rain, we never had a washout, literally or figuratively. Even on our toughest day, we ended with a few great images. On that day, we treked for about three miles before finally finding the gorillas on the edge of a thick bamboo forest on the edge of a steep hillside. Most of the gorillas were hidden, but a few juveniles and young adults used the only clearing as a playground, using a hanging vine as a swing. Often, gorillas would spin on the vine, making circles that, while difficult to photograph, were hysterical to watch.

Unfortunately, the gorilla guide that we normally have was only assigned to us for only two of our treks, which was a bit of a disappointment because our guide has worked with us for almost all of our previous treks and he's become not only a friend but a vital asset in our shooting. Fortunately, one of the other guides we had in his stead was excellent, and a perfect replacement, but we did miss the comrade of our usual guide. Frankly, I was as much a bit disappointed because the park superintendent, now a personal friend, was on leave, and his replacement seemed to be going out of his way to assert his position of authority, and I was very annoyed when he promised us cooperation that he reneged on, without excuse, on subsequent days.

Three of the five people that joined us for the trek had traveled to Rwanda just for the gorillas, while two others had tied on the gorilla trek to one of our Kenya Photo Safaris. No one was disappointed, and the group coalesced into a wonderful, congenial fun group that we hope to see again very soon. Enough said, here, I think the pictures will tell the real story!

If you are interested in joining us for another gorilla trek, please contact us ASAP. We only take five people, and we are only
doing one gorilla trip in 2008 and maybe only one in 2009. Each trip entails five treks or visits to the mountain gorillas.

Contact us by e-mail.

Or FAX us at: (717) 543-6423.

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