I was fortunate to go on three different gorilla treks and see three different gorilla families in Uganda. These hikes varied in time from twenty minutes to three hours. I have thousands of photos of gorillas with faces hidden by dense leaves and foliage.
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
It takes quite an effort by many people to get eight photographers to a location to photograph a troop of gorillas. We had three guides who drove with us throughout Uganda and drove us the long distances to the gorilla parks. Our three treks took place in two different parks, Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks. Only one group of no more than eight photographers is allowed to visit one gorilla family for one hour a day.
The Obligatory Dancing…
When traveling for years as we did, we did our best to not go on tours where locals were dancing for tourists. We got trapped into it when visiting China, Ecuador, Switzerland and now Uganda. When watching this video, please note this is only a short part of ONE dance. Then there would be a costume change, followed by another dance, then another and yet another costume change, each with even more yelling. If you think I’m just a curmudgeon, please feel free to listen to it a dozen times on very high volume.
First, Locate the Gorillas
Since the gorillas roam about all day and into the evening, a group of five locals follows the gorilla troop throughout their habitat. They do not spend the night with them, but come down late in the day and return the next morning. They are the trackers who then get on the radios the next morning to tell the guides the gorillas’ location, “…Just past the moss covered stick by the big tree…”. The tourists are then led to this spot, or at least that is the plan.
This worked well for two of the three trips. We would start out on a well marked trail, but the last section was only made possible by a machete wielding leader. Here are five such trackers. Of course they all received a well deserved tip at the end of our one hour visit. Gorillas used to be hunted or captured, so the parks are trying to show there is a living to be made by protecting the gorillas for tourism. The masks were not for the humans, but to protect the gorillas from humans. We did not have to put the masks on until we were close to the gorilla families.
Judging from the heavy coats some of the guides were wearing, you might think it was cold. It was likely in the mid 70’s, but this was their winter, so they were bundled up.
Sherpas Carried Our Gear
Due to the steepness, length of the hike and how very out of shape some of the photographers were, eight locals were hired to carry our gear. It was certainly appreciated on our longest hike and it freed us up while photographing. These locals, one for each photographer, were also tipped. The suggested amount was $20. Compared to the cost of the photo tour and transportation, these individual tips are not very material. But when you go on three treks and have three guides for 21 days, we were paying out thousands of dollars in tips which had to be in crisp cash. They would reject any torn bills and the $100’s had to be more recent issues, nothing older than 2016.
Finally, there was the main guide who likely got the job because he was personable and was better at speaking English. He too was tipped, but more than the others. There was a lot of behind the scenes bargaining for the best group of gorillas for the day. Our first hike was only 20 minutes long since some of the photographers were complaining about having to hike very far for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing gorillas i. Therefore, our guides negotiated for the closest gorilla family for us.
Lodging and Food
There were no real complaints about the lodging and certainly not the food. But we had very little opportunity to get a taste of local cuisine. Maybe that is a good thing, I’ll never know. The lodges and restaurants knew who they were cooking for and provided us with familiar meals. At our last lodge in Kenya, our cook was leaving the compound to be replaced by a Thai chef for the next group. We often got into the lodge late in the evening and left early the following morning, so we seldom got to take part in much of the lodging amenities. The lodges were certainly not what I was accustomed to, but they were very good and spacious. The worst trait was electricity would go off when we needed to charge our batteries or not be on when checking in. Flashlights and head lamps should be part of the standard recommended gear.
Any down time we had was spent charging batteries, downloading your photo cards onto two other devices for back up and simply resting.
For more information on our lodging, here are some links to their websites for more details. I only included these two links, as the other lodges where we stayed appeared so luxurious in the websites, I did not recognize them. All water got shut off at one hotel. They claimed elephants broke their pipes.
Finally Some Gorillas
When you first see the gorillas, you do not know if that is the best shot you will have for the day, or if you should wait for better photos. So a rookie photographer clicks away on motor drive, taking about 10 photos a second. As a result, I have many hundreds of photos of gorillas with leaves in front of their faces.
Yet another group of human visitors each day is a non-event for all these gorilla families. They continue to eat, and pay zero attention to the frenzy of photographers. We are not competing for their food and we try to keep our distance. However, it is possible, even likely, while you are looking through your camera in one direction, a gorilla can approach from the opposite direction. Or they can simply walk toward you as you are photographing them. We seldom used a lens greater than 300mm.
On one trek we were not having many great shots, then we rounded the bend, following the troop up the mountain and we came upon a wide open field. Even I knew it was special.
By the way, the lead-off photograph of the gorilla in this blog seeming to be growling or snarling at me, was actually the final stages of a big, lazy yawn. There was no agitation or fast movements with us or the gorillas. I do not recall seeing the gorillas playing. They are mostly rolling around, grabbing green limbs to eat and yawning.
It was a very tight fit at times with eight photographers huddled around one good gorilla scene. Some people could get crowded out. However, the situations would eventually change and others may get the best position later. I again learned there is a lot of excitement and room for error when your camera is not second nature to you. I would at times have wrong settings during crucial moments. In the photo above I likely took fifty or more photos of the family before noticing there was a baby in the scene.
Many More Animals to Come
Monkeys were a common site at our hotels and along the roadside. We saw this mom and baby sitting under a guardrail two feet off of the road.
One more gorilla trek and Kenya yet to come…