Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Mountain Gorillas - Rwanda 2008

Trip Report

A gorilla family in an open clearing on the volcano slope, with virgin bamboo forest sweeping below;
a silverback lounging with a playful subadult male nearby, taking a break from wrestling dad.

This year's Mountain Gorilla treks to Volcanoes National Park, in Rwanda, marked our 41st through 45th treks, to this magnificent country and exciting and unique wildlife adventure. This year's trips were anticipated with some trepidation, as political unrest in the nearby Congo has resulted in the murder of several gorillas over the past year. The status and future of the mountain gorillas in the Congo is uncertain, and we worried that fact may have an impact upon the status of Rwanda's gorillas. In fact, it did, but in a positive way, as some gorilla troops have emigrated into Rwanda as if they sensed the safety found there.

AS usual, we had a wonderful trip and came away with hundreds of 'keeper' shots out of the thousands we shot. Our guides were great, the cooperation with the Volcanoes National Park staff was world-class and, I wish, would be a model for how other Park staffs managing wildlife resources interacted with tourists and photographers. Of that, I cannot say enough, except a simple thank you.

The following is my day-by-day journal from that trip. You may find it of interest as I rate the severity of the hikes and the quality of the shooting on the various days' treks. It may be of interest to you in planning your own trip or, if you are a serious photographer interested in getting quality images, it may be an impetus in booking this trip with us. We have been doing 5 days of trekking because of the varying shooting opportunities presented, as conditions can vary. In five days, we could have rain one day and bright sunlight another, we might have gorillas in dark, thick bamboo, or deep in a forest, but we're likely to have at least one or two days where the conditions are just perfect - the gorillas are in the open and the weather is cloudy-bright.

In the future (after this February's big 46th-50th treks!) we may start offering shorter trips involving 3 days of gorilla shooting, which should be adequate for getting great shots, albeit with a bit more chance of weather playing some factor. Gorilla permit fees and, because of a booming tourist interest, lodging fees in the area have increased and may continue to do so, making a longer tour of 5 days photographing gorillas, prohibitively expensive. We'll have to see ...

In the meantime, here's this year's Trip Report:

Day One - Nairobi, Kenya to Kilgali, Rwanda. Because of the Nairobi Marathon race, we had an unusually early departure for Kenyatta Airport for a 12:15 flight - leaving at 8AM. The extra time at the airport gave us the opportunity to do a pre-trip briefing while we were refreshed, in contrast to later in the evening. We arrived in to Kilgali around 1, had lunch, and headed on to Volcanoes, arriving around 6PM.

A portfolio of baby pictures -- or gorillas under age three. These are often quite playful and curious, and very animated.
When playing, they often clamber across females or the dominant silverback, both of whom are quite tolerant, and when
traveling, generally ride atop mom's back. Tiny babies are carried in the mother's arm, making the transport of twins quite
difficult, but the Susa Group has successfully raised twins, which are now around 4 years old.

Day Two - Left the lodge at 6:30, signed in at headquarters and, by 7:30AM headed to Hirwa for our first trek. We had a total of 800 feet gain in elevation, arrived at the gorillas at 9:55 for our hour, and shortly after its conclusion, as we packed to head down the mountain, the gorillas started moving, actually walking through our group as we backed up our gear.
We had one silverback, 6 females, and 4-6 young, in the open on the edge of an extensive bamboo forest. The young pounded on the silverback's back, pulled the hair and scalp of a female, and wrestled constantly, putting on quite a show. The one silverback has garnered his troop by successful, periodic raids of Sabyinyo, Group 13, and others. As a lone silverback, however, he may eventually have trouble himself by challenges from other roaming, troopless males, much as is happening with Group 13 which has disappeared into the Congo to avoid theft by a one-eyed male we've known for years. We rated our hike as fairly easy, about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the shoot at about a 6, as we had very clear viewing but a rather tight and limited shooting window, and the light often dropped to agonizingly low levels.
Day Three - Last night, as we went to bed Visoke and Karisimbi, the two tall volcanoes that dominate the western sky, were clearly visible, with Venus hanging high and bright low over their summit. That promising sky held through morning, and the dawn was clear, bright, and so colorful the light seemed to snap. More promising still, the summits of all of the volcanoes were shrouded with clouds, hinting at great lighting conditions on the mountain slopes. And this, it turned out, proved true.
We trekked to the Kwitonda gorilla group, fugitives from the Congo two years ago that have taken up permanent residence here in Volcanoes National Park. The hike was a bit more strenuous, with some more uphill hiking through the crop land, and, once we reached the gorillas and dug out our equipment, the hike to our shooting spot was a bit steep. On our scale, we'd give the hike a 4.
This troop has three silverbacks, with one dominant, Kwitonda, and over the hour we saw all three but with rather limited shooting opportunities of each. At the very end of the shoot one of the silverbacks sat up nicely, offering great portraits, but the show, today, was truly with the young.
We had wonderful, wide-angle views of four to ten gorillas at a time, with a mother and three month old baby climbing about the mother and often pausing for long moments for nice portraits. Once, another female grabbed and gently pulled the baby to her, but after a few minutes of cuddling the baby crawled back to his mother who, with a languid reach retrieved him, followed by the baby's clambering all about her head.
The troop never strayed, so we had two good shooting locations where we spent most of our time, and a third when we finally circled the silverbacks as we headed back to our packs at the end of the hour. At our second site two or three juveniles wrestled frequently, while, nearby, a mother nursed a baby that appeared about a half year old. One of our gorilla guides loves photography, too, and with a nice 16-35 mm L lens his slow motor drive seemed to be firing faster than any of our's, and a couple of times he appropriated an abandoned tripod as a temporary rest.
It was a good shoot, and we'd rate it about an 8 on our scale. Afterwards, we headed down to Ruhengeri for lunch, where our entire soft drink bill was less than one diet coke here at the Gorilla's Nest Lodge where, sadly, new ownership has changed the place quite noticeably, and for the worse. Some of the rooms had such poor lighting that Sherry and Kathy had to use flashlights to see their keyboards, and all meals, except breakfast, our off a menu. With a new lodge opening soon built by the original owners of the Gorilla Nest, I suspect this is our last visit to this once very favorite location.

We had some very exciting times with the silverbacks, the gentle giants, and some fiesty blackbacks
that beat their chests and mock-charged. Normally, the silverbacks are quite calm and sedate; masters
of their domain and confident of their strengths and abilities.

Day Four - We awoke at 5AM and as we dressed thunder rattled our room, heralding an advancing storm. Shortly after, wind and rain swept across the lawn of the Gorilla's Nest and the skies hung low with a blanket of black clouds. The rain continued through breakfast, our drive to HDQ, and as we headed toward our destination, the parking area for Susa group, but stopped shortly before our arrival. Still, the skies seemed threatening, and for the first time I packed a rain jacket when we unpacked our gear and headed into the bush for gorillas. Fortunately, it never rained again.
Unfortunately, today we had my least favorite guide as one of the two who accompanied us to Susa, and true to form he was noncommunicative, unfriendly, unhelpful, and a general sour presence for the group. He was also obsessed with moving us about whenever a gorilla seemed anywhere near, and in doing so we were constantly changing positions, wasting time, and growing increasingly frustrated with the shoot. On a scale of 1 to 10, what had the potential of being an 8 to 10 was about a 5 - a series of opportunities lost.
That was sad because Susa group requires a very long walk, almost all of it uphill, for a total ascent of almost 1,600 feet. Yesterday, Susa group was close to the park boundary but today they had moved nearly an hour's trek further uphill where we located them in a relatively open area with, unfortunately, a lot of gorilla-high vegetation. There are 41 members of the Susa troop and we saw several of the silverbacks, Poppy, a 37 year old female named by Diana Fossey years ago, a three week old infant, and numerous juveniles. The light was fairly good, alternating between ISO 800 and 400, but at either speed our shutter speeds were almost always above 1/250th.
The hike, despite the vertical nature, was rated between a 6 and 7, still fairly easy on everyone's account, but the nature of the one guide really spoiled the experience. We got back to our vehicle about 3PM, and headed for lunch, not returning back to our lodge until almost 5:30PM, after a huge lunch where all of us decided upon foregoing dinner.
Day Five - I had a good feeling about today, and whether or not that was just wishful thinking or, playing the odds that we normally have, it was time for us to have some real luck and a knock out shoot. As it turned out, we had exactly that.
The day started clear, but even as our breakfast half-hour progressed some clouds collected over Karasimi and we hoped the other volcanoes would do likewise. The hike to the Sabyinyo group was easy, a 3 on our scale, but when we entered the forest it suggested we move quickly as the gorilla troop had taken an early siesta. Still, we paused for plant demonstrations and talks, so the timing could not have been too critical.
After reaching the trackers the hike went from a 3 to about an 8 or 9, as we headed uphill through low growth where, quite frequently, we simply walked across mats of vegetation. When we reached the gorillas the footing only got worse, as the small troop of nine were parked on the side of a steep hill. Gahunda, the silverback leader, lay stretched out on his back, with three younger gorillas at his feet, playing, wrestling, and periodically rolling off the hillside in their battles. Gahunda got up once and did a pseudo-charge, standing and beating his chest but simply circling his resting spot, and quickly dropped down for another rest.
About half way through the hour he rose and climbed further uphill, where he broke off young bamboo shoots and ate them, carrot-like, in good view. After several minutes of this he moved further uphill where he sat down and ate 'salad,' this time in clear view and facing us. When he moved on, circling the bush and mostly out of sight, a female with a young baby replaced him, and we had several opportunities for close-up mother and baby.
Our time was exactly one hour, but the shooting was superb, a 9 on our scale, and just missing a perfect score because the light alternated between cloudy-bright and sunny, and Gahunda, while providing some excellent portraits, was a bit lazy. Still, perhaps my favorite shot of the trip to date is of this silverback, the largest male of all the habituated troops in Volcanoes National Park, when he posed on all fours with the crater and bamboo-lined slopes visible behind him - the quintessential animal in habitat view.
We had a relatively early lunch where Alex discussed the events leading up to the Genocide, and afterwards we headed west for some landscape and people pictures. We were mildly successful here, as a low and black cloud that swirled around the volcano slopes finally enveloped us in rain.
Day 6 -Kwitonda
Our last trek, and our guide suggested Kwitonda, since it has several babies and everyone felt they had good coverage of silverbacks but not enough babies. The skies started overcast but eventually cleared, and our easy walk across the farm fields got us to the gorillas very early, perhaps too early for the mid-morning siesta. We tried stalling, hoping that clouds would cover the bright, contrasty sky but inevitably we headed in, and our first group of gorillas, several young and mothers, were sitting out in the open, in bright light, but directional enough that there was actually good shooting. Feisty black-backs came into the clearing, beating their chest and pushing the troop into the bamboo, where we followed.
From that point on the light was marginal, as we were in forest, a mixture of bamboo and tropical trees that created a glade-like, park-like arena. The silverback strolled through, parking himself on the periphery and separated from us by several females and black-backs. These put on quite a show, charging about or resting nearby. One black-back was seriously interested in me, and as I backed off our guide had to get between us and try pushing him away. Our other guide, at one point, was grabbed and pulled across the clearing until he spun clear. At one point, as I tried avoiding the over-zealous black-back, the male rose, beat its chest, and 'charged' toward me while I followed our guide and stepped out of the way, and, while doing so, I held my 16-35 at waist level and fired away as I walked. Unfortunately I had the top sensor active and most of the shots locked on the trees behind, but in a small view the 'charging,' beating chest gorilla was sure dramatic!
The shooting on this final trek was probably the poorest, because of the light and the contrast, but the experience was so thrilling and intimate that it was the best of all of our encounters. The others, in comparison, were merely 'shoots,' but this one was an encounter where so much was happening, in so many places at once, that it was the highlight of the trip for everyone.
That afternoon we headed into R to the market for our sandals, and then on towards the Susa area where we filmed people in the late afternoon light. In town, beggars with various disabilities approached us for handouts, with the worse a man whose feet were so distorted by elephantiasis that he appeared to be wearing shagging boats. His toes flopped forward, huge and wart like and completely unrecognizable as human, and although as a stock shot it would be valuable I couldn't bring myself to shoot him, even though, for money, I'm sure he'd have been happy to oblige.

One of the joys of photographing in Rwanda is working with the people, who are friendly and photogenic. I used a wide-angle
and shot low to silhouette a team of dancers warming up with a game of ball before a performance; Mary caught me and our
subject along a roadside; and a happy model carrying her baby after collecting bamboo by a stream.

Day 7 - Return to Kilgali
We had a late breakfast and after a final round of shopping at the lodge we headed to HDQ to photograph the Susa group's identification sheet. From there we headed toward Kilgali, taking a side road that leads to a church on a hilltop we've visited frequently for the terraced hillside views it offers. Church was just breaking out - it was Sunday - and kids were everywhere, but amongst them was an apparently crazy man, with one arm wearing shackles, who scribbled meaningless lines of notes in a torn notebook and, in rapid gibberish that was a mixture of French and Rwandese, he verbally abused us and our guide, Alex. At one point as the man pushed forward Alex stumbled and retreated a few steps and the lunatic, emboldened by an apparent show of fear, grew even more aggressive. I thought we were in for some physical confrontations and I anticipated giving the guy an uppercut or roundhouse punch in the head to drop him, but fortunately nothing happened. Afterwards, privately I fretted over the possible aftermath of defending or helping Alex, wondering how several hundred Rwandans would view knocking out one of their fellows, even if crazy. I didn't like my imagined scenarios.
Our drive back to Kilgali was uneventful, the weather great and the scenic opportunities good, as the skies were clear and we had great visibility. After an early dinner all of us went to bed beat, for our 5AM flight back to Nairobi required our leaving the hotel by 3AM.