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.

Kids

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Impenitrable Means Impenitrable

There is a nice article at TheAtlantic.com today called Mountain Gorillas at Home. My gorilla photography pales before it so I will spare you of anything more than a link, below, but the area around the gorillas is interesting in its own right. Here are a couple of shots of where the Uganda gorillas live (there are also gorillas in Rwanda and Congo). This is a place called the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Strictly speaking, it’s not quite impenetrable. There is this road through it:

Adjoining the forest are heavily farmed, terraced fields. The hills are really steep, as you can see here:

We visited the gorillas in the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, farther down the road (See the Mountain Gorillas Gallery at EarthPhotos.com). Here are a few things I wrote at the time, when CS&W was on Typepad. I guess they ought to still work: 12345678.

And while we’re here, apropos to nothing except that I just ran across this photo, and it’s also from Uganda, here is the only galloping hippo I have ever seen:

Click ’em all to enlarge them. And have a look at more in the Uganda Gallery and the Rwanda Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Friday Photo #18, the Virunga Gorillas, Rwanda

FridayPhotoGorillas.mp3

This photo is from one of two mountain gorilla treks we took in 2008 in the Virunga mountains of Rwanda. Click to enlarge. More photos from those treks here. And if you’re considering a trip, here are some tips I wrote, mostly on my experience with taking pictures in the jungle. See more of Rwanda in the Rwanda Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. Here are links to some of the other stories I wrote at the time: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. And here are all the Friday Photos.

Congo Intrigue

gorillas

Battles for resources, outright wars and jockeying for power never seem to stop in eastern Congo.

Four men were jailed for eight years each in South Africa on Wednesday for attempting to murder a former Rwandan general. The Kagame government in Kigali disavows knowledge of the plot, sort of.

A tweet from Anjan Sundaram (@anjansun) points to this scary story involving a Belgian prince, AK-47 fire, a British-registered company based opposite the Ritz in London’s Mayfair and ongoing efforts to save the Virunga Park – and its small population of mountain gorillas – on Congo’s eastern border.

One tiny personal anecdote from the Congo border, albeit from the much safer Ugandan side.

•••••

And if you’re looking for an off the beaten track travel/adventure for your next read, I recommend Anjan Sundaram’s book called Stringer, A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo.

Animals – Wednesday HDR

CheetahHDR
BaboonHDR
FlamingoesHDR
GrasshopperHDR
GorillaHDR

The cheetah and the grasshopper live in South Africa, the baboon and flamingoes are from from the Tierpark Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich, Germany and the gorilla at bottom lives in Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda. More gorilla photos here. All processed in Photomatix and Photoshop. Click 'em to make them bigger. More HDRs here.

So Sorry for Ugandans

Musicians have postponed concerts, resident Somalis fear retribution, and an unexploded suicide vest has been found in the aftermath of the Kampala bombings.

Politically, Michael Wilkerson in Foreign Policy thinks "public sentiment might have little influence on the Ugandan government's
next move. President Yoweri Museveni has long defined his relationship
with the United States by positioning himself as a staunch ally against
Islamist extremism in East Africa."

Smile Personally, I don't remember a cross word spoken by anyone in all of Uganda. We hope everybody we met in Kampala is all right.

No one planning a visit to Uganda's fabulous national parks, or to see the gorillas, should even think about canceling. It's a beautiful country full of friendly, smiling, welcoming people.

Wednesday HDR – Gorillas Mull Extinction

A damp fog blankets the clear-cut hills outside Parc National des Volcans in southeast Rwanda as we trek in, two of a group of eight, with an additional crew of guides and porters. We come upon a family of gorillas, but one male remains solitary, arms crossed across his chest. Pensive, it would seem.

If you're going to trek to see the mountain gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, time to get a move on.

This week's HDR photo, below, in which our hero seems to fulminate on the encroachment of those demanding humans, visible just on the next ridge, is a perfect illustration of the perils this dwindling community of 800 or so gorillas faces. A report just issued by the U.N. titled "The Last Stand of the
Gorilla – Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin"
suggests that "Gorillas may disappear
across much of the Congo Basin by the mid 2020s." Download the report, or read a story about it.

Gorillahdr72dpi

Click the photo for a much larger, higher-res version. And continue below the jump for tech details on the HDR photo itself.

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