On this 9-day safari, you go on three distinctive gorilla treks, visiting the mysterious primates in their remote realms of Rwanda and Uganda. A specialist wildlife photographer guide leads your journey, revealing the tips and tricks for wild gorilla portraiture. Two days in misty forests help prepare you for the conditions, with golden monkeys an inspiring subject for testing out the light and drama of East Africa’s forests. Then on each gorilla trek, you spend an hour with a troop; by already understanding the conditions, you’re able to maximize this time, rather than use half of it experimenting with settings and lenses. Both the setting and subject provide a challenge when photographing gorillas, so having these two experimental days are essential stepping stones before meeting the giant apes.
Kigali, National Genocide Memorial Centre, Volcanoes National Park, Lake Kivu, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Day 1: Kigali – Relaxing in the Land of a Thousand Hills
Touch down in Kigali and there’s excitement in the air, the land of the gorillas just two hours drive to the north. Rwanda’s relaxed capital eases you into the photographic adventure, particularly at sunset, when the hues flicker across the hills that the country has named itself after. After being greeted at the airport, you’re transferred to a central five-star hotel. Rest, relax, or head out into the city as the guide takes you to prime points for landscape photos. You have two guides for the duration of the trip, one a native Rwandan, the second a respected wildlife photographer. They combine to bring a local experience and the best possible images.
Day 2: Volcanoes National Park – Introductions to the Misty Hills of Remote Africa
Wind into the green hills and you immediately discover the challenges of photography in remote Rwanda. Light is inconsistent, and it’s rare that the sky stays blue throughout the day. Mist swirls evocatively yet can appear flat on the camera. So many angles look like photos so which reflects the grandeur of the setting? On the journey north to Volcanoes National Park, there are countless places to stop and test out the conditions, with the photographer guide providing tips and tuition. You’ll move beneath a forest canopy and onto wide open valleys, then through small villages with inspiring portraiture subjects. Keep ascending, as your lodge is perched high above the canopy, gazing across the folds of green that the gorillas call home.
Day 3: Volcanoes National Park – Golden Monkeys and Rural Community Life
Travel beneath the thick forest canopy and the light flickers, shards sporadically illuminating the ground. Shadows float around, moving wildly as you head deeper and deeper through the trees. Working out the conditions takes a while, and if you only have an hour with the gorillas, there isn’t much time for experimentation. So today you’re on the trail of golden monkeys, following their echoed yelps through Volcanoes National Park. Light blue faces provide the focal point for your camera, and there are no limits to the time you can spend with the troop. Providing tutelage is your guide, a few tips here and there as you photograph these rare primates, particularly around the use of ISO and aperture in the uncertain light. Single close-ups tell a story, as do exquisite scenes of interaction amongst the troop. The golden monkeys occupy the same landscape as the gorillas and today’s photography is the perfect practice for tomorrow.
Day 4: Volcanoes National Park – Gorilla Trekking for Wildlife Photographers
As the guide clears the trail with his machete, you journey through the forest. Slowly and patiently you approach, three gorillas returning your gaze as you come to within ten meters of the troop. Exquisite and evocative, the gorillas quickly bring goosebumps to the arms as you stand across from them. So why do they make such challenging subjects? The matte black fur doesn’t help, particularly as it contrasts the vibrant green vegetation. Black eyes are set deep into their faces, and most of the older gorillas won’t return the camera’s gaze. Flash photography is prohibited (it upsets the gorillas) and using a tripod is a logistical headache when you’re deep within the rainforest. But after yesterday’s day in Volcanoes, you should have a good idea of the most effective settings before arriving at the troop.
At first, the camera points everywhere, the whole troop a potential photo. Slowly your heartbeat calms and there becomes a logic to the photos; a baby gnawing at tree bark, two juveniles exploring the higher branches, a silverback munching on red berries. Portraits reveal expressive emotions, then zoom back, and the great apes are framed against the raw splendor of the forest. You have an hour with the troop, and you’re officially allowed to within seven meters, although nobody told the gorillas, so it is they who come a little closer. Note that gorilla trekking is led by guides and trackers from the national park; your guides won’t be joining the trip. After returning to the lodge, your photographer guide offers a final lesson in selecting images and creating a storyline through your photos.
Day 5: Volcanoes National Park – Second Gorilla Trekking Experience
Your photographer guide leaves this morning, and you set off for another hour with another gorilla troop. Every family group is different; some have multiple silverback males, others a collection of youngsters, some a close-knit nine and others a scattered 25 individuals. No two troops are the same and no two images tell the same story; that’s the beauty of gorilla trekking multiple times. It also provides greater opportunity for good conditions, as the hills of Rwanda are prone to sporadic rainfall. In Volcanoes National Park, it usually takes one to two hours to reach the troop, a journey that isn’t along clear trails; often you follow narrow trails created by wildlife, ascending towards the gorilla trackers who have located the troop.
Behavior makes for special photos. Maybe a silverback bounding on two legs, a forceful show of power and aggression. It could be the tender care of a young gorilla, such love and affection in the mother’s eyes. Infant gorillas are still learning, and there are wonderful scenes as they test their strength and climbing ability. Older females have seen it before, and they gracefully hide, deep in the green or behind a tree trunk, only to show their faces for an opportune photo. At times, the troop comes together, a dozen gorillas captured in a single shot. Or your camera follows a curious infant who creeps closer and closer.
The hour time limit is generously observed, and it’s important to also put the camera down and take in the surreality of the experience. You’re stood in the heart of the rainforest, miles from everywhere, surrounded by some of the world’s final mountain gorillas. Only around 1,000 remain, and the world’s largest primate is critically endangered. Suddenly there’s a grunt, and you quickly reach for the camera. The silverback isn’t happy about something, and he voices disapproval through guttural sounds. Now comes a show of power, the chest beating reverberating through the rainforest as your camera captures the blurred movements of the fists.
Day 6: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Exploring the Cloud Forests of Uganda
Travel north, winding along roads that shout of wild Africa. Women strap babies to their backs with colorful blankets of cotton, or carry baskets of freshly-picked fruit on their heads. Circular huts dot the hills, each a slightly different hue after it’s been faded by the sun. Trails of rustic red earth travel beneath the terraced plantations, the redolent tone suggesting that the world has its roots in Africa. It’s only two to three hours of driving to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and you can travel slowly, stopping for many photos en route. You’ll meet up with a Ugandan guide at the border, who can assist in access to villages and photos with villagers. Like in Rwanda, your lodge is perched high above the rainforest, and the swirls of mist make for a seductive landscape photo.
Day 7: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Third Gorilla Trek
Uganda and Rwanda offer a very similar gorilla trekking experience. Traditionally, the actual trekking was usually shorter in Rwanda, although the habituation of new troops in Bwindi mean treks of less than one hour are also possible in Uganda. Trackers radio in the troop’s location and you follow, although sometimes you must keep walking as gorillas are rarely static. Porters can be hired to carry equipment, very useful if you want to take a tripod on one of the treks. The rules speak of a seven-meter maximum distance; it feels, and often is, closer than this. Guides know that this isn’t an experience to be rushed, so almost always you get the full hour. Although the park doesn’t 100% guarantee the gorilla encounters, in practice, there’s only been a handful of times in five years when trekkers haven’t seen the great apes.
On a third gorilla trek, you enjoy another endearing troop, helping build a repertoire of images that reveal the life of wild mountain gorillas. You learn from experience, each day getting better at wildlife photography in the rainforest. Experimentation is over and predefined camera setting allow you to switch quickly as the troop interacts, as nothing is ever static in the forest. The gorillas are moving, interacting, communicating, constantly living life in their natural habitat. Over three gorilla trekking experiences, you learn to follow the behavior, predicting which way an infant may turn or when a silverback might want some privacy. Continue with the photos then put the camera down, savoring the last few moments of intimacy with these exquisite giants of Africa.
Day 8: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to Kigali – Relaxed Day in the Hills of East Africa
After the trekking excursions and the energy invested in the primates, today is a very relaxed day returning through the hills of Uganda and Rwanda. It’s roughly four hours to Kigali, but there are a number of potential side trips, including to local villages, Lake Kivu, and genocide memorials in Rwanda. With a local guide, there are excellent opportunities for portraitures with some of the local people. Arrive in Kigali and the city’s premier hotel offers a serene final evening in East Africa, perhaps with cocktails around the pool or sunset over the city’s hills.
Day 9: Kigali – Departure
You depart East Africa from Kigali International Airport and will be transferred in plenty of time for your international flight. For evening departures, you have full use of the hotel during the day.