Africa Vignette #12: Gorilla Trek

For this week’s vignette, a mostly previously-published review of two day-long gorilla treks in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, including some photography tips:

A silverback

The first day we visited the 12-strong Hirwu (“Good Luck”) group, the second the 18 member Amahoro (“Peace”) group. Here’s a little about how the treks work, and some things we learned about taking gorilla pictures.

Both days started the same way, as all the trekkers mustered at the park headquarters in the 7:00 hour. There were pots of coffee and tea, and it was one of those mildly awkward moments, when a few dozen strangers speaking different languages attempt to mingle, with nothing really to say.

Out front on the grass, a display measured off seven meters, with a pair of boots on one end and a painting of a gorilla on the other, graphically illustrating that we were to go no closer to the gorillas than that. The reality, both days, wasn’t so simple.

ORTPN, the Rwandan tourism body, put on a thoroughly professional operation, and for good reason. From the Kampala Monitor:

“Revenue receipts collected from the tourism industry have increased by 15 per cent with a collection of $80m in just six months. According to officials in Kigali this figure has surpassed the $68m target that was envisaged for the year 2008.

Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Rwanda’s agency that regulates the tourism industry and the country’s national parks said last week that the collected revenue now officially makes the tourism industry the number one foreign exchange earner contributing about 3.7 per cent to Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

Also from the Kampala Monitor: “Gorilla tourism alone – that has seen vast numbers of tourists heading to northern Rwanda for a view of the rare mountain gorillas – brought in $7million.”

Everyone’s guides/drivers took their permits to meet with the administrators, who put individuals in groups of eight. We all divided into these groups for a brief orientation talk with our respective trackers, then adjourned to our vehicles to ride maybe forty minutes to our respective trek starting points.

The rules mandated that we would have one hour with the gorillas. Once we got to them we would stop a hundred meters or so shy and drop everything except what we could carry, which meant, realistically, a camera and/or a water bottle.

Our first-day tracker, Eugene, explained this is principally for the gorillas’ benefit. One of the reasons was that we weren’t to put anything down, so that the gorillas wouldn’t be tempted to come over and pick it up and potentially get human germs.

The second day one man brought a huge backpack full of both video and SLR camera gear, really way more than he needed, and argued strenuously to be allowed to bring it to the gorillas, but the guides stood absolutely firm. They explained (another reason) that such a big pack made this man, to the gorillas, not the shape of a human to whom they had been habituated.

At the start point, porters were available for ten dollars. They would take in your day pack, water bottle, lunch, anything you might have, and watch your things while you were actually with the gorillas.

Apart from the fact that that was useful, we also felt like it was a good way to leave behind just a little something in the local community, and we hired two porters each day and gave them each $15. You’ve paid to come all this way and then paid $500 for your permit. This is no time to go frugal.

Each group of eight trekkers and their guide and porters was led and trailed by Rwandan soldiers with rifles. They mainly remained discreetly out ahead and back behind the group.

Each gorilla family in Rwanda is tracked dawn to dusk. Trackers, who know the gorillas individually, go in each morning and find their family based on the previous night’s position. As we set out each day, our tracker/guide talked by cell phone with the trackers who were already with the gorillas, and learned where to take us.

The first day’s trek in was as hard as anything I’ve done in maybe ten years. The second day was opposite in every way, and we were in, had our hour and out by 11:30 a.m.

The group adjusts its pace to the slowest person. The first day a substantially unfit woman slowed the group so much that by the time we arrived where the trackers expected us to see them, the gorillas had moved. Unfortunately, they had moved straight down a sheer ravine and back up the opposite size.

Forced to create our own path, one of the trackers walked ahead of us with a panga, a curved, two-sided machete, literally hacking the jungle footstep by footstep, straight down then back up the far side of a ravine. There was nowhere amid the dense vines, really, to put your feet. We let ourselves down and moved upward more by grasping vines hand over hand, and each handful was packed with stinging nettles.

The less fit lady never made it any closer to the gorillas.

But we did, we finally found them, and in doing so saw how the seven meter rule back at the ranger station is really more of a theory than a rule. We came over a small rise and there we were. The gorillas were arrayed before us, some not two feet away, and it wasn’t as if we could assemble in a neat semi-circle around them. Over the course of our hour several gorillas, including the huge 36 year old silverback, walked by within touching distance.

Over the course of the hour each day, members of the group largely ignored the humans. They’d eat, climb trees, get up and walk a short distance and plop back down to eat some more. Once in a while a youngster would jump up and just go rolling and tumbling down the hill. They ate most of the time.


Photography-wise: I had been concerned about the high contrast I thought I’d encounter – sunlight and shadow, brightly sunlit leaves beside dark gorilla coats. We discussed contrast filters in a previous post. In the event, both days we came upon the gorillas in open enough areas that that didn’t turn out especially to be an issue.

I had a useful conversation with a man named Dave a couple nights before. He was proprietor at the Ishasha Wilderness Lodge on the Uganda/Rwanda border, on our drive down from Kampala, and he had gone in to see the gorillas not long before.

His main advice: Manual focus.

He said even if you spot focus you’ll be frustrated that autofocus grabs a twig or a branch or a leaf you might not even notice through the viewfinder, instead of the gorilla just beyond.

He was mostly right. I did use autofocus when it was appropriate, when the gorillas were sufficiently out in the open, but his having made me aware to be ready to flip the switch over to manual was key, and I am grateful.

Since light was likely to be a challenge, I decided to go in this way: I’d set to aperture priority, open up my aperture as far as it would go, and then read my shutter speed as a guide to how low I could set the ISO.

It worked pretty well, and I’d do it the same way again, I think. As a result I shot all over the range of ISO’s, up at 800 and 1000 when necessary but much more often down in the 200 – 400 range. Flash is prohibited.

One other bit of essential photo advice: don’t even bother to haul in extra lenses. I know, this is an important photo shoot and it’s expensive and you want to be ready for anything. But you just won’t need it.

I took in my Nikon D-200 with my 18-200 f/3.5-.6 and it was all I can imagine ever needing. You’re just not going to need a longer lens. I’d have been content with Nikon’s 18 – 135, 18 – 105 or probably even 18 – 70 DX lenses.

One other note: The Virunga Lodge where we stayed, run by Volcanoes Safaris, bills itself as “magnificent” and “stunning” and “The best lodge in Africa,” but the little room around back, where there was power to recharge your camera batteries and plug in your computer, never worked for me. Made a little “pffft” electrical noise that scared the hell out of me when I plugged in my computer. Since I hadn’t brought an extra battery for the laptop, it was frustrating to have to wait a few days until we’d left to see my photos.

So just in case, 1. Bring enough charged batteries for the whole shoot and 2. Consider a battery operated viewer or an extra laptop battery if you want to see your photos right away.

Note the gorillas’ precarious habitat, surrounded by humans

See more mountain gorillas and more photography from Rwanda at

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.

4 thoughts on “Africa Vignette #12: Gorilla Trek

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