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Rwanda, and Mountain Gorillas. For Mary and I, this trip marked our 106-111th Gorilla trek, and despite all of our encounters, the thrill of seeing and being with the Gorillas never gets old. Speaking of which, our old guide, who was THE guide everyone wanted, retired during the Covid shutdown but his replacement was always one of our all-time favorites, and as we expected, did an incredible job. This report is excerpted from my daily posts on FaceBook where I post at least one photo a day, with some text. The text will give you a great idea of what this wonderful trip is like. Join us next year ... we'll be back!

October 18, 2021. The flight and Covid tests went well, and our outfitter did a great job of VIP-ing our arrival in Rwanda. The flight took us over Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, and truly an inland sea. The lake, one of many that border or are in the African Rift Valley, was home to a group of fish that radiated out to a variety of shapes and species, an aquatic Galapagos that showcased evolution in action. Unfortunately, Nile Perch were introduced as a food and sport fishing fish, and this predatory fish has devastated the native species. I’m rusty on the facts, but the Perch fishery may be in trouble as the Perch have wiped out their food base. Also distressing was looking down onto the lake and seeing a well defined difference between blue water and green, which I suspect is a algae or vegetation bed that is overwhelming the shore areas. Fishing boats passing through left a jet contrail-like wake that persisted long after the boats have passed, something that clear water would not do.
Tomorrow we head to Akagara, a National Park that is Rwanda’s version of the Serengeti, where we’ll spend two days before heading to the Gorillas. Today, a couple of beers, sleep for me, repacking for Mary … anything wrong there?

October 19, 2021. If you’ve seen Clint Eastwood’s film, Million Dollar Baby, you can relate to the following, and how quick and unexpected disaster can strike, or by good graces, not. Today we left for our lodge at Akagera National Park, arriving for a late lunch. After the staff’s orientation, as we sorted luggage to go to the rooms, Mary stepped back, not knowing or seeing that there was a step down to the next level. Next thing we knew was Mary back-peddling, trying to regain her balance before succumbing to gravity, hitting the floor (fortunately butt first) before her elbows and then her head hit the hard wood floor. Just a foot away a thick, deadly bench stood by, and had she traveled just a little further before falling backward she may have hit it with disastrous consequences.
Fortunately we have a great former neurosurgeon on the trip who checked Mary out, and aside from an ostrich-sized goose egg on the back of her head, a stiff jaw, sore muscles, aching shoulders, and a splitting headache, she is fine. We passed on the afternoon activity, a sunset boat ride for hippos and crocodiles and plenty of birds (I know, I’m a saint), but the group went out  and, fortunately, the windy afternoon slipped into a dead calm. 
The lodge has no internet so posting a shot is impossible, but  nevertheless, as Mary sat with an icebag behind her head, I stepped out to shoot a Vervet Monkey and an African Darter to complete the Daily Challenge.
Puff Adders one day, a potential concussion or a broken neck, or hips, or leg on another day, we’re both a bit tired of these near misses. I ordered a big Bubble from Amazon, and I think I’ll keep Mary inside one for the rest of our time in Africa.
The group did a boat tour for birds at 4:30PM, a sunset cruise without a sunset in the cloudy conditions.

rOctober 20, 2021. Worried that Mary might have a concussion, and otherwise would still feel poorly, she skipped the game drive and, being the saint I am, so did I. The plan for the group was an all-day game drive but one of our participants wanted to do the boat ride again and, with Mary feeling better, I joined her.
We shared our boat with a boisterous and noisy group of middle school kids on a mission trip, who were justifiably excited on seeing their first hippos and elephants, but when we were notified that a rare Black Rhino was spotted I told the kids to be quiet so we wouldn’t spook the animal, and they were great. The other boat that joined us with the other students was still a noisy circus, but ‘our’ kids were great, and were treated to a sight I’ve never seen before.
The two Black Rhinos were fighting – possibly more as a contest than as a real fight, but there was plenty of chasing, head butting, etc., and it was action like I’ve never seen before with Black Rhinos. Earlier in the day I shot Hippos and Darters at the lodge, but doing the boat ride proved valuable.

October 21, 2021. Today we headed to Musanze, the town that borders Volcanoes National Park where we’ll spend the next six nights. Most of the day was travel, but at breakfast I carried my lens and an African Fish Eagle obliged by flying to an old palm to feed upon a fish. I had my shot of the day, and tomorrow, Gorillas. And once again, Internet!

gOctober 22, 2021. We did our first of our 5 Mountain Gorilla treks today, and the weather was perfect. One might think sunny conditions are best, but bright sunlight creates contrast and sharp shadows, something we try to avoid. Fortune smiled on us, as clouds built up on the volcano’s slopes as we trekked through the farm fields and forest. As we neared the gorillas the sun broke through, but before we started shooting the clouds returned, creating soft light that made for great images. We had a Silverback, the lone big male in this, the Hirwa Group, and several (3) mothers with babies under 3 years of age, and a variety of others of varying ages. It was a good shoot!

g October 23, 2021. We awoke to sunny skies, and the ‘good’ weather persisted for the duration of our trek to the Sabyinyo Gorilla group. Sunlight is the curse for photographing gorillas, as shadows are harsh and sharp, and we longed for the soft lighting we had yesterday. We found the Gorillas in an open glade, with the Silverback accompanied by three or four juveniles that played and wrestled nearby. The Silverback had been in a fight previously, and his lower lip was ripped terribly, creating a continuous drool. I chose a shot where a bamboo stalk was masking the wound. When the Silverback moved into the forest our sunlight shooting was over, and when we found the Gorillas again the group was resting in the shade of a large tree that functioned as a playground. Subadults continually swung on a long vine, often spinning for multiple rotations before, often, another grabbed at the vine or the Gorilla to start another wrestling match. Years ago, this group had a very bold, and nearly aggressive juvenile that kept those manners as a Blackback (teenager), but fortunately as a Silverback that Gorilla left the group. But the new batch of subadults seem to be following in his footsteps, charging close and rushing by several times, no doubt having a great time doing so.
The shooting was exceptionally difficult today, and the videos I did probably best depict the marvelous show we had with the twirling apes.

gOctober 24, 2021. We headed to a new group, a split-off group from the huge Susa Mountain Gorilla group. This one, called Isimbi, had one huge Silverback, five females, and the rest juvenile and babies. The group isn’t visited too frequently, and surprisingly, and a bit frighteningly, the females first rushed at us in a display of intimidation. That is rare. The Silverback, which we had hoped might do some charging chest-beating, was surprisingly easy-going, and appeared, disappeared, and reappeared a few times in the magical clearing in a stand of bamboo where we photographed for our hour. Our Silverback was huge, one of the biggest we’ve seen, but a great poser, and at the end of our session two juveniles took turns climbing upon his back as he lay upon his belly, the juveniles climbing up towards his huge, dome-like head, sometimes standing to do a chest beating of their own before rolling off the giant’s back. We were hoping for cloudy bright conditions but as we hiked the clouds burned off, and our shoot was a mixture of sunlit clearings, some shade, and, at times, terrible contrast, but the show and the shooting was the best so far. A good day.

gOctober 25, 2021. Hoping to beat the sunshine, we left our lodge at 6AM, driving directly to our gorilla trekking departure point, a 1.5 hour drive. As we hiked through the thick bamboo forest the cloudy skies cleared, but fortunately patchy clouds persisted through the morning as we began our shoot. Our group today was Isha, with 6 Silverbacks, multiple females and babies, including one that was only three weeks old. That wrinkled little one resembled Yoda from Star Wars, still toothless and tiny. Juveniles climbed bamboo stalks to the top, with their weight canter-levering the stalks downward into the clearing where the juvenile would drop into the group. We had multiple opportunities for photographing either the youngest, or another very young baby, and this was the best shoot so far, and that is saying something!
With meetings taking up most of the day after our trek, I had little chance to review images, but a quick pass-through resulted in the images you’re seeing here.

gOctober 26, 2021. Our last full day in Rwanda  and I’m writing this at the desk of the Presidential Suite in the Serena Hotel, a mammoth room that incorporates 3 bedrooms, two rooftop private patios, a massive meeting room and greeting room, all told, more square footage than our home. Today marked our 111th Mountain Gorilla trek, the world record for any tourist or photographer, and only researchers based here may have more treks. Based on all our time here and the tourists we’ve brought to Rwanda, we’re treated like kings and queens, and indeed, on our 100th trek, we were ‘crowned’ with those honorary titles. Having brought 22 different groups here, of 8 people nearly every time, we’ve contributed well over one million dollars to the Rwandan economy, and we’ve seen those dollars significantly being applied to gorilla conservation. We honestly thought that this would be our last visit to Rwanda, but the photography experience and the warmth and hospitality of the people had us rethinking this even as we drove toward Volcano National Park. We’ll be back, and we so dearly hope that some of you reading this will join us.
Today we returned once more to the Igisha Gorilla Group, with 35 members. We left early, not having to check in to headquarters, and arrived onsite around 8:30AM after a 1.5 hour drive. We had a short walk towards the forest where our truly wonderful guide gave us a briefing before, somewhat dramatically, pointed across the farm fields adjacent to the stone wall that marks the park boundary. There, stripping bark from eucalyptus trees, were our Gorillas!
Gorillas love the sap found beneath the tree’s bark, and with grassy, open space between each tree there was plenty of room to shoot, and there were Gorillas everywhere. With our four gorilla trackers and our guide, we had plenty of supervision and were able to disperse, photographing Gorillas eating, knocking down trees, or … best yet, sitting complacently upon the stone wall and overlooking the farm fields below them. Everyone had great shots of the Silverback sitting on the wall, without obstructions and slightly below gorilla-level, and of one of the mothers with a young baby.
Eventually, one of the six Silverbacks of the group headed into the forest, and most of the other Gorillas followed. Some did not, continuing to feed, but some signal, probably subsonic and below our threshold of hearing, had the remainders sprinting to the forest. It was as if the lead Silverback had expected all to follow, and giving a final reminder, like ‘Get here, now!’ the stragglers obeyed and raced into the forest.
A deep channel, dug to prevent African Buffalo from jumping over the stone fence, separated us from the forest but with some slipping and sliding, both down and up, everyone managed to enter the forest. Mary and I are often last in situations like this, giving the participants time to get across, and while we were waiting the Silverback beat his chest and charged our group. As always happens, the charge is only bluff, but it is always exciting, and hopefully some in our group got some shots.
That Silverback settled close to the trail where we paused for more photos. Silverbacks have some distinctive signals that they’re about to do a chest-beating charge, and our guide was watching and told us to get ready. The Silverback, if he did charge, could go either left or right, and reading the trail, I suspected that he might turn right to charge and follow through by joining the group. But I knew I might miss the event if I moved, and as luck would have it, when he charged he turned left, straight towards me, while I fired away, at 24mm and 1/320th sec before having to scramble backwards to give this giant some room.
Although Mary and I have photographed charges several times in the past, I never was satisfied, as I was never at the angle that I wanted, and envisioned, for that shot. Today, as luck would have it, both Mary and I were at that angle, and were only there because we were the last in line as we crossed the channel. I finally got my shot, one that I’ve coveted for 110 treks!
With time running out for our hour-long visit we headed into the forest to find mothers and babies, and we came upon an amphitheater where juveniles played on trees, Silverbacks sat regally, and mothers wandered by. Some of the shooting ‘windows’ were filled by other photographers, so I turned to a Silverback feeding behind us. When he got up, he walked directly at me, but in shuffling off the trail to let him pass, I didn’t have time to drop low for a gorilla-level wide-angle perspective as he came towards me. In times like this, you move first, shoot later.
A light rain had started when we began the trek, stopping when we crossed into the forest, but the light remained soft and shadowless throughout our time, providing for the best conditions we had in five truly productive and incredible days.
One final note, and an important one really. I truly believe that luck is a form of karma, that when you have a good group, good vibes, good things happen, and our group of six participants gelled together wonderfully, and our shoot was simply incredible.
We’re hoping to return again next October or November, and I urge you to consider joining us, for one of the most intimate and moving wildlife experiences you will ever have.



Paws Trails-Mary
Kruger 2 Kruger - Joe
Paws Trails - Joe


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