Banner Left Side Complete List and Schedule Digital Photography Schedule Domestic Tours and Workshop Schedule Worldwide Safaris and Tours Flash Photography Instruction Personal Instruction in Photography or Photoshop Stock Photography and Sales Seminars, Assemblies, Fund Raisers frequently asked questions







Trip Report – Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda 2011


In May, look for our incredible portfolio.
We will be doing two Rwanda Mountain Gorilla
Photo Safaris in 2012.
Each trip is limited to SIX Participants and 5 Days of Trekking!
Contact our Office for more information.

While this report centers on the Mountain Gorillas, this trip is just the first leg of a 14 week trip that continues, from Rwanda, to Tanzania, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. But the first leg, Rwanda, almost didn’t go off, because the Indian Embassy held off returning our passports to us, and we didn’t receive our passports until we reached the Newark Airport, where a courier delivered our passports to us as we checked in for our flight! We had applied for a ten year visa to India, and stupidly stated our occupations as ‘wildlife photographers’ instead of as tourists, resulting, not only in our passports being held up but also in our receiving only 90 visas. As I write this, our Nepal and Bhutan trips are in jeopardy since our visas expire at the end of the India trips.
Receiving our visas, our trip proceeded uneventfully to Amsterdam and Nairobi, but our flight to Kilgali, Rwanda was almost diverted as the entire country was covered in fog. We circled the area for over a half hour but finally made our descent, through fog and intermittent openings, but landed smoothly and safely. Thus began Day 1, which continues below.

Day 1, Kigali to Ruhengeri.

We met our driver/guide, exchanged money, and continued on to our lodge. The skies were oddly overcast, oddly, in that the air didn’t have the damp feel of fog but instead a smoke-like or smoggy quality that softened the light and cooled the temperature. Ideal light for shooting, and we hoped it would continue during our shoots on the following days.
The drive was uneventful, perhaps a bit less spectacular because the normal views, grand scenic of continuous cultivated hillsides, as steep as mountains, were muted or hidden. Our luggage was to go on ahead of us and at one point a vehicle passed an 18 wheeler oil truck and almost went head on into an on-coming truck. A bit later we realized it was our transport vehicle, with our luggage and camera gear! When I met  the driver later at our lodge,  I still tipped him, but only after wrapping both hands around his neck and shaking him, somewhat playfully, somewhat seriously, as I chewed him out for his unsafe driving. He laughed, but I won’t have him drive for us again


Day 2. Umubano Group.

gorillaThe day dawned with a cirrus-like, semi-smoggy cloud covering, which we hoped would hold throughout our shoot. We arrived at the HQ by 7, received our assignment, the Umubano Group with 2 silverbacks, several females, and a crazy young black-back, and two two-year old babies. The group was close, and should be an easy hike, or so we thought.
The drive to our trekking departure point was quite bumpy, and with the skinniest butts wedged in the backseat to accommodate our guide in the front, we bounced and slid, despite the close quarters. The trek started easy, about 10 minutes through the farm fields on a slight grade, but with the elevation we’d gained in driving we were already above the usual band of bamboo and instead started into the forest in the hagenia trees and lobelia brush,  beautiful, semi-open habitat. The trek continued at a level 2 rating, meaning it was incredibly easy on a 1-10 scale, as we found ourselves skirting the edge of a canyon-like lava chute. We could hear the whistles of our trackers, so we knew the gorillas were close.
Which is when things grew a bit more difficult. We were instructed to get our gear ready, where the porters who had carried our equipment – tripods and packs would leave us temporarily, and our guides looked a bit chagrined, as they discussed amongst themselves as to the best way to proceed. That ended up going down into the lava chute at a fairly easy grade, then climbing up a very steep path that led to another canyon and another ridge where we could see the gorillas foraging, but only in brief glimpses beneath the canopy of low trees and shrubs. Our guides spent nearly ten minutes waiting, no doubt deciding whether it’d be worth attempting another descent, but our luck changed and the gorillas descended the opposite hill, climbed our canyon wall, and began their mid-morning siesta on our side of the ridge.
For the next hour the shooting was fairly good, about a 6.5-7 on our scale, with cooperative females, playful youngsters wrestling or climbing atop the vegetation, and brief periods of activity with one of the silverbacks. The crazy black-back behaved, and although a few of the young moved close they retreated, without contact or incident. Our shooting position was a bit precarious – for much of the shoot Mary was perched on the very edge of the canyon, and at one point, as she moved her tripod one leg slipped through the vegetation into air space, tipping her gear but fortunately not flipping it off the cliff. For the most part the light held, with that soft, smog-like haze masking the sun’s brightness, and only occasionally did full sun create very contrasty conditions.
The trip out followed the same steep route in reverse, but ironically the gorillas paralleled our progress and, as we repacked for our porters to carry our gear out, one female was seated next to the trail that we had just passed through. Had she, and the group, been there an hour and a half earlier, our trekking adventure would have been much easier.
We arrived back to our vehicle at around 1PM, later than normal, but escaping any rain. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, if editing nearly 13 gb can be called so.


Day 3. Kwitonda

silverback and babyUsual schedule, and we arrived at our departure point by 8:10. Again, because our driver/guide drove far uphill across bumpy, rutted roads, our trek to the forest across the farm fields was easy, and we arrived at the wall by 8:44. The group was in fairly high forest, mostly out of the low bamboo forests, but when we started our gorilla shoot, at around 9:30, our first several gorillas were nested in a bamboo forest. These conditions are always dark, so I shot video with the Mark IV, and had some fun as a huge silverback, one of three in this group of twenty, came quite close and almost reached over my head to grab, and knock down, a 4 inch thick bamboo stem. After a few minutes, all of the gorillas in the grove moved out, and for the next hour we wound through a maze of high shrubs, low trees, and open areas as we followed one silverback or another, and various members of the family group.
It was, by any measure, an incredibly exciting morning, and several times silverbacks emerged out of the vegetation almost unannounced, and strode between us, offering eye-level views when I squatted next to the trail as they passed. On more than one occasion I actually felt a bit of tenseness – the silverbacks were so close, crossing the trail within an easy hand’s reach, and had they wished to make a point, I was certainly vulnerable.

portraitA few times both silverbacks and females climbed trees, and although with the gray skies the contrast was terrible, by positioning correctly we could often frame these climbers against a distant hillside or trees, and frame them appropriately. At one point, Chris and Mary, following me after I’d ducked beneath a low tree where a female perched, were positioned almost directly beneath the perched gorilla until our guide suggested they move, in case the gorilla peed!
Following the gorillas as they moved fairly constantly as they fed, pausing a few minutes at a time to tear down bamboo or to climb a tree, this shoot was arduous. We weaved through the maze, crawled almost on our hands and knees beneath low-hanging trees or bamboos, or slid or backed into mats of vegetation as we made way for gorillas passing. It was an exciting morning!
After the trek we visited the curio shop at HQ for people to comparison shop, since vendors assemble by our vehicle at the conclusion of every trek. After a lengthy lunch, we had a few hours free before the dance troupe of Rwanda dancers arrived – one half hour late, African time, as our guide says, for a late afternoon exhibition.
For most of the day the skies were a muted overcast, the smoggy light that may be high clouds, but whatever, it made for ideal shooting conditions through most of the day

Day 4. Agashaya

groomingAlthough it rained last night the day dawned like every other, with high clouds and a smoggy look we hoped would hold through the day. We were assigned Agashaya, named for the large silverback that’s taken over the group, with nine females and many young, totaling around 20 in all. The trek to the wall of the park was easy, as was the uphill hike through our first dark bamboo forest, where 30 minutes into the hike, we grabbed our gear in a little clearing and headed deeper into the bamboo.
Like yesterday, the gorillas sat amidst the bamboo, and within a few minutes we found Agashaya and a group of babies under one year that played about, climbing bamboo and tumbling around us. The light was low so I shot multiple video clips until the babies started climbing bamboo – and the shooting got interesting. Unfortunately, the silverback lay facing away from us, so we had little opportunity to film his face and the babies. After ten minutes or so, the silverback, Agashaya, started making low moans, signaling his intention to move, which happened within seconds, a liquid thrust of power moving away from us and into the bamboo.
He didn’t go far, and we soon got ahead of him where the silverback and a few females paused in a clearing in the bamboo, making great shots, before moving past me within feet. Over the next hour, or what remained of it, we did more work with the silverback – two opportunities, and with the females. Unfortunately, despite the abundance of babies, we didn’t get a mother nursing or carrying a baby, although many passed by us in the bamboo in vegetation too thick to shoot.
At lunch, our guide gave an informative history of Rwanda, and we spent the rest of the afternoon on a road trip to the Twin Lakes area, for scenic and some spectacular, and fun, people pictures. A group of old women caught my eye, and after shaking hands with all of them our guide negotiated for our taking photos, which went quite smoothly. Afterwards, I showed them their pictures on my LCD and they hooted with delight. As we returned to the lodge near 5:30 much of the sky was clear, with some high clouds hanging over a few of the volcanoes, but with the clearest weather we’ve seen since we’ve arrived. We hope the weather doesn’t improve!

Day 5. Sabyinyo.

gorilla and babyThe weather didn’t improve, and this morning, for the first time, the distant valleys were shrouded in mist and the skies were heavy and dark. Rain seemed to threaten, and the air was cooler than we’d seen it for the last several trips. Ironically, I packed my 400 and 7D to shoot the valley, hills, and mist, but everything was too obscured.
We were scheduled to do Sabyinyo, which, we were told, was a long, 2 hour or so hike over fairly easy terrain. One of our party would not be up to that hike, and elected instead to do the Golden Monkeys.  We headed out, and by the time we reached the parking area for the trek the first raindrops were falling, so we dug out our rain gear and hiked through a light rain. For much of the trek the hiking was fairly easy, undulating through a series of bamboo groves and skirting a few steep walled craters, before we started a long decent to the west which would, eventually, lead directly into the Congo. The rain intensified to a downpour by the time we reached the trackers, and we again dug out rain gear for our cameras to start the shoot.
I didn’t expect much, the going was treacherous across a steep, vegetated hillside dotted with stinging nettles, and I thought this would be just a viewing opportunity. We came upon our first gorilla, a blackback sitting atop a nest and grimacing, baring its teeth in an odd grimace, and we realized it was the ‘crazy’ blackback that can be aggressive, or curiously bold. By the time I arrived and tried setting up my tripod the blackback moved, coming towards us and causing our guides to scoot us out of his way, fearful he might push or grab someone. Fortunately, he did not, and continued uphill where, we discovered, more of the family had settled.
mom and babyAs we followed the rain stopped, and the rest of the shoot we enjoyed soft, bright light ideal for gorillas. The crazy blackback led us to a clearing where he grabbed a substantial tree and snapped it off, before proceeding to chew off hunks of bark. Good shooting, which suddenly stopped as he darted away, spooked off by his older brother, a now mature silverback that took up his position at the tree. He was soon joined by a female with a small baby riding her back, and these three provided quite a show, with the baby climbing atop his mom’s head, or climbing on the branches of the fallen tree, while the silverback munched on bark, closeby, sometimes seemingly catching his reflection in a lens.
Eventually they moved off and we headed uphill, looking for Guhonda, the massive silverback that rules this family. We found him, and several others, high in some trees, as we watched, almost directly below this giant climbing on limbs 30 or so feet above us. Eventually he scrambled down the trunk, knocked over our guide as he passed, and disappeared in the thick brush. We followed, and found him sitting in a clearing, posing nicely. Guhonda knows our guide well, and seems to have a habit of establishing dominance with him, and he now approached, fast, leaving our guide no option but to flatten himself on his back and look ahead, while this giant stood on all fours over him. Eventually, Guhonda reached out and gently touched his thigh, and then drew his hand to his nose to sniff. Satisfied, he moved off, and I moved to a position downhill to shoot. Guhonda now approached me, too fast for me to move out of the way, so I bent over – I was kneeling, anyway, as Guhonda stood about 3 feet from me before turning sideways and flopping onto his butt to begin feeding. At that point I grabbed my 16mm and did a quick shot, with the gorilla literally filling the frame, but unfortunately his face was turned away. Before he could face me, another gorilla came up behind and I had to move, scrambling out of the new gorillas path.
Guhonda began to make a daybed, and our hour was near up, so we moved on, finding, again, the second silverback, Guhonda’s now grown son, and the female and baby we’d seen earlier. In the open, sitting, with the baby climbing about on mom, making a perfect family portrait, and finishing our shoot.
The hike in took nearly three hours, and the actual gorilla shoot was one of the toughest we’ve had, with frequent moves that either climbed uphill across slippery cut or tramped down vegetation, or across the steep hillsides over the same. We were beat, and returning to our packs and porters seemed to take forever as we covered the same cross-hill or uphill route, finally reaching our porters in a stand of dry bamboo. Our guide broke out a perfectly intact loaf of bread for a snack, and we headed home, through forests trails now slippery from rain and slick mud, but under clear skies where the distant volcano, Sabyinyo, towered over a sweeping vista of bamboo groves. We reached our vehicle at 2:40PM, after nearly 7 hours of trekking, tired but elated with an incredible day.
Our Golden Monkey person didn’t have as successful a day, as it rained during the entire visit and the monkeys didn’t stay still, but moved continuously through the bamboo. Our lodge held lunch, which we had at nearly 4PM, and decided that that meal would serve as both our lunch and dinner, although we’d meet for a quick drink a few hours later.
All told, we rated the trek, on a degree of difficult of 1 to 10 as a 10, one of only two or three we’ve ever rated that high, but we also rated the shoot as a 10, as it truly was spectacular.

Day 6. Kwitonda.

gorillaThe skies were slightly overcast and looked promising, but the distant valleys were still muted and hazed in, so the rolling hill shot I sought yesterday still eluded me. The drive to Kwitonda follows a very rough track, and we bounced about, slowly climbing uphill to meet our porters and the tracker. As we hiked, the skies thinned, and a large patch of blue sky opened up, which continued through the rest of the morning and our shoot.
The gorilla group, Kwitonda, was low, only about 15 minutes into the forest and in a section with mixed trees and tall herbaceous growth, creating a maze-like environment as we moved through, looking for the group. Shortly, we encountered a gorilla high in a tree, but against the bright sky the shooting was impossible. We moved on, and spotted another high in a tree, but facing the sun, but before I could setup and shoot the gorilla skittered down the tree, practically plummeting into the undergrowth.
Things soon turned for the better, and we found the blackbacks and silverbacks sitting in the open, sometimes on logs, sometimes in open clearings, where the only real challenge was the light, as the sunlight sometimes made shooting impossible. Still, there were plenty of opportunities, including one series where one of the silverbacks sat upon a log in an open clearing, with another, smaller gorilla sitting nearby.
In one of our silverback sessions, our shooting was interrupted when an unseen gorilla suddenly screamed, and the male, and the other gorillas nearby, all darted off in that direction. We were told that an African Buffalo had moved through, and prompted the scream. At any rate, it wasn’t long before we found the gorillas again.
momThe vegetation was thick, and several times gorillas materialized in the vegetation and passed by us. Once, I was shooting a silverback when a noise or movement caused me to look over my shoulder where, just feet away, a female or immature was walking by, almost over my back! Once, when one of the silverbacks decided to move, it walked passed our group, with nearly everyone pressed as far against the vegetation as they could, the silverback shoved Nancy, and, as it passed her, grabbed a hold of the back of her shirt, pulling her towards him. Our guide broke that up, but I didn’t see how.
We were finished by 11, and back to the vehicle by 11:30, a big change from yesterday’s marathon hike, and we rated the hike at a 1 or 2, in terms of difficulty, and the shoot a 6. That score would have been much higher had the skies stayed overcast, but regardless, we had plenty of great opportunities, and a wonderful way to end our 60th gorilla trek.