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So this gal isn't the prettiest.....

The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda
Photo Safari 2018

This photo tour marked our 102-106th Mountain Gorilla Trek for Mary Ann and me, and luckily for our group we were able to schedule this tour under the old treking fee, a bargain $750! The new permits cost $1500, for the trek and the one hour of Gorilla viewing, and our group was the last group to trek under the old price.

As usual, it was simply terrific, with outstanding photography and experiences, but I must say that I am concerned about this increased fare. In the past, almost all Gorilla groups had the maximum number of tourists, 8, nearly every day. Now, some groups were not visited on any given day, and some groups only had 2 or 3 tourists.

While that might seem great, as researchers wanted to limit the number of tourists, and the Park authorities wanted to maintain the same revenue with fewer people, I think it has back-fired. Small hotels and restaurants are suffering, as you'll see as you read on.

This reality didn't affect us, of course, except the sadness Mary and I felt because of the financial hits many of our Rwandan friends are now taking on the chin. Our treks were great, true adventures, and everyone got some great shots, every day.

jThis year Mary and I did something different. Olympus loaned us their flagship camera, the OM-E-Mark II, and several lenses. For our treks we left our Canon gear behind, and instead both of us shot Olympus, using a 12-100mm lens that was the DSLR equivalent of 24-200. Normally I carry two cameras, one with a 24-105 and the other with a 70-300, although I was planning on using the 24-105 alone this year. Mary was planning on carrying the heavy 28-300mm lens, a bit more versatile than my combination. At any rate, we didn't use any of that gear, and instead used the Olympus 12-100 (24-200mm equivalent) and we loved it. The entire system, a micro 4/3rds, was smaller than my usual gear, and mounted on a Really Right Stuff monopod we had a light weight rig that allowed us to move through the forest effortlessly. It was great.

We wondered if this series of treks would be our last, as $1500/fee was putting our usual 5 days of treking out of most folk's price range. However, realizing (perhaps) that their price is outrageous, Rwanda's parks are offering a 30% discount for people who spend two days in another park. That drops the fee to $1,050 -- still steep, but for us, if we did four treks instead of five, the discount would amount to almost $2,000. So we're thinking of adding another park that would be less expensive and would make a trip worthwhile for those traveling there only for Gorillas and not continuing on with a safari elsewhere.

The images in this trip report are all Mary's. I shot 4K video with the Olympus, and Mary shot RAW stills on her's. Hopefully, I'll soon have a link to videos I made on the treks.

Last - as I started working on this Trip Report today, I received a PDF copy of my latest book, Gorillas in the Wild, to proof. The book will be published in early 2019, but I've included a few pages here.

Following that, is my day-to-day Trip Report, with Mary's photos.

You can preorder autographed copies from our office.

Here's the Report!

Day 1

We left Nairobi, Kenya at 4:30AM to avoid the inevitable road closures because of the Kenya marathon. The flight to Kilgali, Rwanda went uneventfully, and after meeting our guide at the airport we continued to the Serena Hotel where we met the photographers who arrived the previous day. We drove directly to our lodge in time for lunch, giving everyone plenty of time to get their gear in order for the first trek, tomorrow.

Day 2. Sabyinyo Group.

Awoke to clear skies, with the top of each volcano capped by a picturesque cumulous cloud. After orientation we headed to Sabyinyo, which was an easy trek yesterday. As we hiked, we were rating the trek at a 2, but that changed, becoming an 8-9 by the trek’s end. Our easy hike morphed into a climb uphill, then a slippery descent until we found the gorillas.
Sabyinyo now has 22 members, with 3 Silverbacks, and several babies, but some time this morning an unhabituated female joined the group and, frightened by people screamed and retreated, causing the number one silverback to pursue her to keep her with the family group. Much of our shoot was following gorillas through thick bamboo, down slippery hills, sometimes almost crawling beneath bowers of bamboo. Shooting was tough and transient, with limited windows, and consequently Mary and I did very little shooting as we had the group take whatever openings we had. I did video, and ended up with 8 clips of blasé material, and Mary shot a few hundred shots at most.
jMost of the time, just as we’d set up the gorillas would rise and be off again, prompting us to follow along as best we could. Two mothers with babies paused for a reasonably long time, but the sun appeared, and the contrast between the sun-lit parts of the gorilla and the shaded was truly hurtful.
Towards the end of the shoot Silverbacks finally settled down and everyone got some decent portraits. I was surprised, when Chris showed me her best work at dinner … if her shots were indicative of what the group got everyone should be very happy. There wasn’t a large portfolio, of Chris had great portraits, yawning, fang exposed silverbacks, and nice family shots, so the shoot, despite its enormous difficulty, was pretty successful.

On a scale of 1-10, the trek was a 9, and the shoot about a 3.
Mary is just 4+ months after double back surgery, and by the conclusion of an hour’s shooting, involving some really strenuous up and down hill climbs, her feet were asleep and causing a lot of shooting pain. She was in agony, and her face showed it, and after lunch we both tried to nap, but she hurt too much to fall asleep. As I write this, at 9PM, she’s better, but, like me, very, very sore.

gDay 3. Kwitonda Group

At 5AM the skies were clear but by 6 the top of the volcanoes were shrouded in clouds, and the total sky covered with a brooding blanket of somewhat ominous-looking clouds. At HDQ it began to drizzle, and as we started our trek up a long and continually rising hill that drizzle continued. Soon, however, it stopped, and by the time we reached the Gorillas, about 40 minutes into the forest, the rain had stopped and we were left with a wonderful canopy of light clouds that provided contrast-free, perfect lighting. And the Gorillas cooperated!
After grabbing our gear we had a two minute walk to our first Gorillas, two Blackbacks that were engaged in the most vigorous and long-lasting wrestling match I think I’ve seen. We were close, and the vegetation was matted down, giving us a great view. When the match appeared to be concluded a few of us followed our guide downhill to a Silverback and a few females. The fight had resumed, and some shot it, while others worked on some subadults and females nearby.
I had been shooting video of the Silverback as he sat and munched on bamboo, but when the rest of our group appeared, our guide asked us to stop taking photos so that any proximity, that couldn’t be avoided, would not be recorded. Obediently, I stopped videoing, and a second later, without warning, the Silverback rose, chest-thumped, and ran directly toward me. This was THE shot I’ve always wanted – a full face-on view, and I missed it! Had I simply kept videoing … at any rate, you always miss some shots, and that’s probably a driving force for coming back. I wasn’t upset, and I hope I’ll have another chance some time in the future.

For the next hour, or what remained of it, we were in the  thick of it. Mothers with babies nursed nearby, while another female built a nest as her baby clambered about on a limb, performing nicely. Other juveniles played in trees. Mary’s baby, that she named at the Kwitza Inza ceremony two years ago, belonged to this group and Mary was thrilled to see her baby, now a very large ‘baby’ or subadult at three.
This group has three Silverbacks, and while Number 1 stayed in his original position (after returning from his charge), the two other Silverbacks joined us at the bottom of the meadow. Those two were in a bit of a dispute, perhaps trying to establish a dominance hierarchy, and the two postured at each other, adopting the stretched out view that prominently displays their back. At one point one puffed his lips and began the high-pitched yelp that precedes most chest-thumping displays, but it fizzled out (because, of course, we all were ready for this one!).
Virtually everything we wanted to shoot, whether moms with babies, Silverbacks, babies, or portraits, were out in the open and clear of vegetation. The light remained perfect, and we concluded the hour extremely happy.

On a scale of 1-10, we rated this one a 12! The trek was probably a 4, simply because it was a very long, but obstruction-free, hike through the farm fields and paralleling the stone wall. Inside the forest the hike was uphill but easy, and short – at 40 minutes max.

As we left the forest for a long, steep hike downhill towards the car, the sun appeared. That was fine, now, but would have ruined a great shoot. Later in the afternoon it again clouded over, and after dark it rained.
It was a spectacular day – one of the best in years!

Day 4. Igisha Group

A Nat’l Geo group booked ALL of the gorilla groups in the areas closest to Park HDQ and so we were assigned a splinter group of Susa, once the largest family group in Rwanda with 70 or so members.  The group, Igisha, is composed of 33 gorillas, with 5 silverbacks, numerous babies, and all the rest. Susa and Igisha are located on the far side of Karisimbi, the tallest volcano, and requires over an hour drive to reach it. These groups are also among the highest in elevation, and the Susa group may require at least an hour hike through farm fields, practically straight up and very steep. Fortunately, Igisha is in a far more accessible area and we were able to drive quite close, and so our trek across the farm fields was gradual and very comfortable.

gInside the park we entered a thick, dark grove of bamboo where the Gorilla group was yesterday, but fortunately for us they had moved higher on the mountain slopes. After an hour hike uphill, on a fairly easy trail, we reached the Gorillas. After getting our gear we had to stoop low to negotiate two long, dark tunnels of bamboo – an impossibly thick area and so dark that shooting would be impossible. We’ve photographed, or tried to, in those conditions in the past, and the shooting is almost worthless. As we crawled along Mary and I worried that we were going to have one of those days.

Fortunately for us, the Gorillas were not in the tunnel but at least 22 gorillas, including 4 Silverbacks, were spread out across an open meadow. It was a marvelous sight.
The shooting was a bit tough at times, with steep patches for footing, but with a bit of maneuvering most everyone got into position. The bigger problem was where one should go, as action was happening everywhere.

Mary and I were separated, and she photographed three great Chest-beating or running sequences where the Silverback pulled down bamboo, while , from my position I didn’t see a one. Baby activity was great, including one 20 day old baby.



The wide-angle views showing all or most of the family group were excellent, with nice habitat and wonderful light, as the skies had clouded over early, and only once in our hike in did the sun shine. Otherwise, we had perfect mammal light. Towards the end of the shoot storms rolled in, and we had a light drizzle for a few minutes at the shoot’s end. On our trek down, it began to rain, a fairly steady rain that made the trails slippery but not enough to soak us. We returned to the car around 12:30.
We drove back to Musanze where the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has an informative one-floor museum on the Gorillas and Dian Fossey’s life. It was a very informative series of display conveying a lot of information. We returned to the lodge by 3,ready to edit images.

Day 5. Agashya Group

We awoke to complete overcast and minimal visibility, as if a fog had settled over the land. By the time we had breakfast and headed to Park Headquarters the air had cleared and the volcanoes were visible, although a high cloud cover provided nice, soft light.


This was one of our easiest treks, a relatively short walk to the stone boundary fence where, after crossing a small bridge (also used by Gorillas, judging by the dung) we entered the forest and met the trackers. We geared up then, and within fifty yards we were with the Gorillas, about 20, all centered around an open clearing.


The shooting was excellent, with very clear views the entire time, with most of the family groups right in front of us. The cloud cover provided perfect lighting, and the hillside where we shot was fairly easy to negotiate for position changes.
The highlight for most were the juveniles, all under two years old, who constantly played and wrestled, often swinging around an upright bamboo stump where they often wrestled. A nearby mother was refuge for the youngest of the three wrestlers, and that one would often run back for a quick confidence-building fix from mom.


Baby Gorillas have a white patch centered around their butt, and I wonder if that very visible, and seemingly superfluous spot, might perform a function, in clearly showing if that end needs attention from its mother. I’ve never heard a reason, but sanitation does seem likely.


At the end of our time, as if reading their own watches, all of the Gorillas followed one of the Silverback into the forest and disappeared. On a 1-10 scale, the shoot was another 10, and the trek a 1 – extremely easy. We were back to the vehicle by 10AM.
Afterwards, we drove to the site of the Kwitza Inza Ceremony, where Mary and I named Gorilla babies the previous two years, to photograph the new larger-than-life bamboo sculptures – the gorilla, rhino, giraffe, and lion. From there we went to the community curio market, discovering a dance troop that was practicing for their first performance. We shot photos inside their building, and later, for their very first dress rehearsal, they performed on a stage. Their dancing drew quite a crowd, and it was excellent.
On our return home we stopped at our friend, Gilbert, new boutique Hotel, Villa Gorilla. We’ve known Gilbert since he was a room steward at our first lodge, 16 years ago, and since then he built a small hotel. Business was good, and in 2016 he expanded, buying more land and building several separate cottages that were extremely nice. His room rate, including all meals, was a steal, a tremendous bargain, and then, totally unexpectedly, the Park raised the Park gorilla fees to $1500 per permit. Gilbert’s bookings suddenly cancelled, as travelers that were using his hotel (a good one!) could not afford the new Park fees. Those that could seemed to be able to afford anything, and now hotels are going for as much as $2,000/night, with the newest Hotel soon to be opened going for $4,000/night.
Our group visited, and Gilbert’s staff served tea and excellent coffee, while several of our group offered business suggestions to help him along. I shot some video of his hotel, and later put together a short video for Gilbert to use for promoting his wonderful and affordable hotel.
Here's the video - help him out!
His story isn’t unique. When the Park raised fees, innumerable ‘little guys’ got killed, as fewer people visited the Park and those that did generally stayed at the high-end lodges. Porters, curio shops, small hotels, and local restaurants all suffered. Porters, who carry the packs for tourists, are suffering badly, as now some Gorilla groups are not visited daily, and many (and we saw this) have only 2 or 3 tourists instead of the 8 they had before the increase in fees. While the Park may have achieved its objective in reducing the number of visitors, the unintended consequence is that local Rwandan entrepreneurs have really suffered.

Day 6. Hirwa Group

gOur last day of trekking and for the first time, this year, we had a Gorilla group outside the Park boundary. We went to Hirwa, the family group that includes the baby, Injingi, or JoMa has we nick-named him. After a reasonably steep climb up through the farm fields we found the Gorillas on the stone boundary fence. As we approached, several subadults entered the fields where they spent much of their time chasing one another, wrestling, and playing. Between bouts they chewed at tree stumps, presumably for sap. The mother of my baby posed beautifully on the stone wall in front of Mary, framed by darkness, and we almost had the main Silverback walk along an join her. Instead he dropped into the forest, and we followed.


gEntering the forest was a bit tricky, as the porters and trackers had to disassemble a portion of  the stone wall for us to enter, and where we did was adjacent to a very steep depression, quite cliff-like. We also negotiated it safely, although earlier, while still in the field, one in our party stepped on a rock and tumbled, and after rolling over seemed to have done a perfect face-plant. It looked as if the neck was broken, but fortunately it was just the position – so all was well.
The shooting in the forest was tough, darker than we’ve had elsewhere, although the subadults continued to wrestle, nearly continuously, when they were not contesting several vines that they attempted swinging on. Virtually every time one began to swing, or twirl, another would tackle or grab the swinger, and another wrestling match would ensue. Little JoMa, I was pleased to see, was quite feisty, and continually initiated wrestling matches with the subadults that were twice his size.
gThe silverback, Munyinya – perhaps the largest of all the Silverbacks now, posed wonderfully, sitting in the open and either glancing about or eating bamboo. We left the gorillas with the subadults still actively wrestling – something they’d done for the entire hour.
The hike down was easy, and after lunch we headed to Kilgali where we had a final group meal which concluded a very successful Mountain Gorilla Trek. We hope to get back soon!

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