Monday, 9 March 2015

Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park, Rwanda

Today was 'the big day' for our Rwandan adventure -  we left the hotel at 6am for the 30 min drive to the park HQ. Processing and a briefing took about half an hour - the guides divide up the visitors into groups of eight. As it is low season there were not so many visitors. The three of us were teamed up with three Canadians. We watched an amazing drumming demonstration then left for the hike into the park. 
Virunga has numerous gorilla families. The Rangers know them, and their characteristics, well. We were headed for a group over to the western edge of the park so drove for 30 mins on a dirt track before parking and heading off up the mountain. It took all of an hour to climb up to the dry stone wall bordering the park. At 2800m it was tough going up an incredibly knobbly path through acres of potatoes and pyrethrum flowers. In fact before we climbed through the stone wall we all smeared ourselves liberally with Rid, possibly containing an active ingredient grown in these fields (but probably not). Once in the park I found the going easier simply because it was so muddy and slippery all of us were forced to walk at a slower pace. The vegetation over the wall is 100% tropical rainforest. Impressive to see, slightly less impressive when you are slip sliding along paths being nipped and prodded from all angles by branches, brambles, bamboo and giant nettles. Although I was only wearing a short sleeved shirt, my first encounter with these massive stingers was an increasingly painful upper leg area. I must have walked into a stinger - it was very irritating for about 15 mins then it faded (thank goodness...).

We slithered on for another thirty minutes before we met the Rangers whose job it is to monitor the activities of this family. We dropped our kit, took whatever lens we needed and crept forward. After a few mins I spotted something black amongst the green undergrowth. It was two females lying on their backs sunning themselves. Or at least I think that was what they were doing. Apparently they eat early in the day - then relax for a few hours before moving off to find more food so it was a pretty good guess that they had stuffed themselves full and were sleeping it off. This was a very peaceful group because as the two Rangers cut their way through the dense bush so we could get a better view, the gorillas hardly even bothered to look up.
We nervously lined up and shot photos of this smallish group before moving on to look for the group's two silverbacks. I have to say it was very exciting because it soon became apparent that we were surrounded by gorillas - they were sitting in clearings, under bushes relaxing, seemingly impervious of 10 people making a right royal noise stumbling about in the rain forest. After 100 metres of slashing we found the boss silverback, all 220 kilos of him, just lying on his back in the sun scratching his boy bits rather like an overweight Aussie male in his backyard. It was both fascinating and compelling to see such a powerful and intelligent creature acting like it was his afternoon off.
We spent the best part of an hour and fifteen mins slashing and tramping round this small patch of jungle observing this silverback plus another junior silverback as well as several females. The group is supposed to have 14 members but I don't think we saw them all. A lot of stills were shot during our visit, plus a good few video clips - even a couple of selfies (thanks Angela!).
Despite the flog up the steep volcanic paths, the thin air and the dense bush in the park, it was a totally exhilarating experience. Both Tamara and Angela shot some great images of the gorillas. At times we were less than two metres from the gorillas. It was exciting and a bit scary too knowing that, despite their apparent ease with our proximity, gorillas are still very much wild animals and are powerful enough to inflict serious damage on a human. Thankfully none of our family were drunk on belly-fermented bamboo shoots so there were no drunken displays of aggression ( I recently read about a French photographer who was punched by a drunk male gorilla that was probably high on fermented bamboo shoots).
How do you get great shots of mountain gorillas?
Most shots are in the bush under cover, so choose a high ISO = 1600 or more
Best lens = 70-200mm, preferably with a fast f2.8 max aperture.

The power brick on my MacBook Pro is broken so I could not download and edit my pics for this blog so have pinched some excellent photos from Tamara and Angela and squeezed them into this post using my iPhone. A truly wonderful day!

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