Saturday, 26 March 2011

Gorillas In The Mist

The following post is about a trip I took a few years back to photograph one of my favourite animals of all, the mighty Mountain Gorilla.

In August of 2008, I returned to Africa to spend two months photographing the incredible wildlife there. I had been to Africa twice prior to this trip, but this would be the first time I took some half decent camera gear with me. It would also be my first time in Africa by myself and I was a little nervous to be honest. I was only twenty at the time and the thought of two months traveling across the continent by myself with all that gear was a little scary! However, the thoughts of what I would get to see and experience far outweighed the negatives, so off I went.

After nearly two weeks on safari, we had driven from Kenya, all the way through Uganda and reached Kigali, the capitol of Rwanda. After we had eaten lunch, we decided to visit the genocide museum which was nearby. When the Rwandan Genocide happened back in 1994, I was too young to understand what was going on. This was to be the first time that I really learnt about what had happened in this beautiful country.

I spent just under an hour inside that museum and eventually it was too much. I felt physically sick and had to get outside for some fresh air. I won't describe any of things that I saw in there, but it really affected me and I was relieved when we got back on the truck and took off towards the mountains. I tried to think about what was ahead, (I was going to see wild mountain gorillas!) but everywhere I looked I was constantly reminded of the country's bloody past. Every few miles we would pass a mass grave at the side of the road and many of the people I saw along the way were missing limbs. It was hard to feel excited.

Eventually we reached a town called Ruhengeri, where we would spend the next two nights. I went to bed early so that I was fresh and ready for the jungle hike the next day.

The first thing I did when woke up was vomit. I couldn't believe it! The side-affects of my Malaria pills had finally decided to take control of me on the most important day of the trip. Great. Throughout the course of the morning I was sick roughly twenty times and I was starting to feel really weak! We were taken to meet our gorilla guide and eventually driven to the base of one of the Virunga Volcanoes where we would be starting the hike.

By this point, I could barely stand let alone hike up a steep volcano though a thick jungle! I forced myself to keep going with every step but it was tough going and I had to keep stopping to vomit. Luckily I had a porter carrying my heavy camera gear otherwise there is no chance I would have made it more than a few feet.

After nearly four hours of hiking our guide stopped and told us we were getting close to the gorilla family. He gave us a few final tips: DO NOT hold eye contact with them and DO NOT run. Even if you are charged, you must stand your ground!

As we continued through the jungle, we began hearing this loud drumming sound. We were told that this was the silverback of the family beating its chest. What an incredible sound! After stopping to get our cameras ready, we were led into a clearing and were able to see the gorillas for the first time.

In total, there were nine mountain gorillas, a medium sized family. They were lying around in amongst the nettles and the thorns of the jungle and their weight had completely flattened the surrounding vegetation. They had created a clearing in which most of them were now feeding. The silverback gorilla began charging about beating his chest in front of us, within six feet from where we were standing. I was scared. Our guide reassured us that he was just proving to us that he was the dominant one and that he was in charge. I was still scared. Then our guide began communicating with the gorilla to let him know we were no threat to him or his family. After a short conversation in grunts between the two, this huge silverback settled down and began to eat like the others.

The Silverback keeps an eye on me as he eats - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

The Silverback Gorilla sits and stares - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

By this point, I had been hiking for nearly four hours and I had been vomiting constantly so that all I had left in me was water. I was so weak that I could barely lift my camera lens and after only five minutes of photographing the gorillas, I was unable to continue. The family group were slowly moving further and further into the thick vegetation of the jungle and I couldn't follow, let alone lift my camera one last time. I backed away from the clearing, lay down beneath a tree, and passed out.

A young male Mountain Gorilla - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

When I woke up in the middle of the jungle nearly an hour later, I had no idea where I was. I was worried for a minute that the group had forgotten about me and left! Then I saw one of our armed guards standing nearby, his AK-47 slung over his shoulder. He was well camouflaged so I hadn't noticed him at first. I suddenly realized that there were two more guards posted around the tree that I was sleeping under! We were only fifty meters or so away from the Congo border so these guards had been told to stay with me as the rest of the group followed the gorilla family deeper into the jungle.

Can you see a second gorilla in this photo? - Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

When you visit the Mountain Gorillas, you are only allowed to stay with them for one hour. I only experienced five minutes of that hour. I found out later that one of the females had bought her baby out to show the group, which I'm devastated I missed. I only managed to get a few photos that I'm happy with so another trip back to Rwanda is a must!

The hike back down the volcano was over pretty quick. As soon as I got back to the compound that we were staying in, I went straight to bed and slept for the next fifteen hours. 

The following day I felt absolutely fine. The only illness I experienced on the whole two month trip to Africa, happened to come on the most important day of my visit. 

Just my luck.

If you enjoy reading the stories behind my photographs, don't forget to subscribe to my blog. All you have to do is enter your e-mail address into the box at the top of this page and click 'submit'.

Thank you for reading!


1 comment:

  1. Great photos, CAI. I can relate to your experiences. Made this trek in 2003, genocide sites at Nyamata and Ntarmara and gorillas at Ruhengeri. All very powerful.
    -R. Baldwin