Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
Since I am interested in photography, I have specifically written this for
other photographers who are wondering what to expect if they take on a similar
adventure.I originally booked permits and accomodations, car and driver through
Natural Habitat Adventures at 1-800-543-8917
Photographic equipment recommended
A *quiet* body. Quiet film advance and rewind. If its not, be prepared to
muffle it as soon as you need to rewind. A 70-300/2.8 lense choice. I took a
70-200/2.8, which was ideal. There was no opportunity to use a 28-70 range, under
'normal' conditions. Bring a monopod to rest it on, although I did not, I wish i
had. It was challenging to handhold steady since the lighting was often VERY low.
If you have a 200/1.8 or similar, this would also be a great lense. If you need
to go wider than 70mm, you can usually just step back a bit. The gorillas were
never closer than 5m (if they were, we were pulled back,) and usually about 5-10m
range was common. I was mainly trying to frame an individual portrait or maybe
two individuals interacting. You rarely saw an individual's entire body, usually
just the head and shoulders sticking through the undergrowth.
The policy is to carry everything on your body. Nothing is ever allowed to be
put down in case a gorilla is curious and picks it up, which would be a health
hazard for the animal (possible transmission of human germs.) All items must
remain on your body or be handed to another person to carry. One of our trackers
was kind enough to hold another individual's gear, but I would not rely on them,
they have their own work to do in monitoring the group's behavior. Therefore a
vest with pockets for film, etc., is essential. I packed mine up in my backpack,
and only put it on for the actual encounter with the gorillas. Too hot to wear it
I carried either two camera bodies with two different lenses or one camera
body and one camcorder on straps around my neck which worked well. It wouldn't
have been a bad idea to carry two camera bodies BOTH with 70-200/2.8 lenses,
since you can use different film, or just keep firing away when the 'right
moment' happens. I would probably only carry a monopod if i had someone I could
pass it off to, when needed. The gorillas can either sit and pose, or constantly
move, and in the dense vegetation, on a sloping hillside, you need to be free to
move as well. If you are 'fast with a monopod' (changing height, etc.,) then you
would do well to bring it along, it certainly would help with the slower shutter
speeds you'll be encountering. A tripod is not recommended. The animals move too
quickly, and the ground will probably be hilly and uneven. Not to mention, you
trip up the other 5 humans who are trying to photograph the same, one animal in
view, within a 12" window through the dense vegetation...
Weather and Light:
We were lucky and had no rain, but be prepared with rain covers for you and
the camera gear in case it happens. Its recommended not to bring ponchos since it
will snag on all the dense forest growth as you hike, and instead bring
pants/jacket type of waterproof hiking gear.
It was cool (55-60) at night and warmed up quickly to mid-high 70s while
hiking at 930am and mid-high 80s by noon. The forest is hot and humid! My biggest
mistake was not 'pre- warming' my gear up. My camera gear was packed in the
backpack the night before, such that when the bag was opened up, it was still
*quite* cold! This lead to immediate fogging of the lenses as soon as I pulled
them out to the hot, humid air. The best solution to the problem I can think of,
is next time to take some rubber gloves, and fill them with warm water from the
camp, and put them in waterproof bags around my lenses/camera bodies. Or somehow
warm up the lenses and the bag before heading out for the day's hikes (I welcome
suggestions!) It would be difficult to remove the lenses 'before' you encounter
the gorillas to warm up since you don't know when you'll meet them, nor is there
an opportunity to stop since you don't know if they are far or close, so you hike
continuously, to improve the odds of seeing them before the day is over.
Don't forget to pack extra camera batteries in your vest/on your
The lighting is a crap shoot. It was *very* dark most of the time, so bring a
wide variety of film to prepare for many conditions. Due to the dense canopy, if
the sun is out, you may have some patches of sunlight that come through holes in
the canopy, and if you're lucky, a gorilla will move into this area, or a bit of
light will shine into their eyes. While we were there, during the first day, it
was noon, the sun was out (occasionally behind clouds,) so we had some great
light opportunities. The second day, it was much earlier in the day, and overall
much darker. So take the fact that you might encounter the animals early in the
day, under lower light conditions, into consideration.
Take a LOT of film. When you run into a 'good situation', fire away everything
you have, as quickly as possible, since they usually do not stay in good
lighting, or in clear view for long. I used 5 rolls one day and two rolls
(barely) the next. I took both slide and print film. I had Kodak E100S (to push
to 200,- I wish I had also taken some Kodachome 200,) just in case the gorillas
decided to pose in good light. I didn't use it, no such luck, although I might
have used it if i had a faster lense than the 2.8 and/or monopod.
I mainly used Provia 400, which was not fast enough witha 70-200/2.8 . Many
photos came out slightly blurred, either from movement on my end or theirs. The
sharpest photos were from the Fuji Press 800 print film, *when* I had a good
opportunity. I think Provia is enough, you just have to have some luck with
positioning of the animal and you. A monopod wouldn't have hurt *if* I could have
gotten it into position in time. I did have some sharp photos from the Provia
400, but the were the minority. It depended on how much light fell on the subject
at that minute.
Final answer? Take a little of everything, and as least two bodies to put it
in. You've only got one hour a day, for two days, usually, and its a luck
situation. Definitely take the slower speed (a 100/200) films in case you get
lucky. Take the highest you can live with so when you don't, you will have
something to remember them by. :)
As mentioned, its not recommended to bring ponchos for rain gear, since they
easily snag on all the dense underbrush. Its recommended to wear jacket/pants to
reduce hang up problem. Also absolutely necessary is a good, waterproof
(preferred) pair of ankle-supporting hiking boots. The terrain is wet, slippery,
muddy, straight up and down, hilly, and constantly changing. I also strongly
recommend knee length gaitors, I wore them, and loved the extra protection. Also
keeps your boot laces from snagging on every twig. I also took a pair of Leki
hiking poles and loved them. At the office, before your hike, they have some
hiking poles made out of branches, available to borrow, if you like. At least
take one of these, since there are many times you'll use it to help with balance.
I loved my Lekis and they helped pull me up hills, or keep from sliding down the
other side, everyone else needed assistance from the porters, but i would just
plant my poles in, and do fine. Of course a long sleeved shirt and long
(thickish/rip resistant,) pants are needed. I sprayed both of mine with a
pyrethrum based insecticide that is made for permenant application on clothing.
Although the threat from mosquitos was minimal, it had benefit in repelling the
number of ants which would drop down out of trees, climb up your boots, and cross
over branches to climb over you. I wish I was exaggerating, but we stopped three
times to bat large numbers out of hiker's hair and legs, which would get under
the clothing and bite terribly (I saw the welts they left, not a pretty sight.)
Tucking the pants inside of socks AND wearing gaitors is the BEST protection,
since most climbed up boots when you stepped on an ant trail, or had to walk
alongside one. Finally, gloves (thick garden type) were recommended for extra
protection against thorns and such if you grabbed vegetation to help pull
yourself along, or stinging nettles. We did not encounter any stinging nettles,
but some groups do, especially outside of Bwindi (in Zaire or Rwanda.) I took my
gloves off, and only used the Leki poles so I did not touch any vegetation (which
was yet another way to pick up the ants.)
What to carry all this stuff in? I had a backpack/photo gear bag which inly
carried the camera bodies, lenses, film, photo vest, and other photo gadgets,
including a camcorder. I had a second backpack which carried lunch, water ( 2
-2.5 liters, used up each day,) rain gear, gloves, small emergency kit, etc.
Porters (local young men, and even a few young girls,) are available for hire.
Its recommended to pay them about 2-3 US$ for the day (although we tipped quite
heavy.) I hired two porters, next time I'd probably hire a third, so many were
there, waiting for a job, and its so inexpensive, I say hire as many as you can.
Make the bags somewhat light so you can spread the weight out. The boys were all
wonderful, smiling companions on our hike, they helped us when the terrain became
rough, and if someone had sprained an ankle (happened to someone on the group
before us,) they would have helped carry the person back. Again, take a photo
vest to carry everything in that you'll need to photograph the gorillas when the
time comes, and have it prepacked, ready to breakout and go. Don't forget to pack
extra camera batteries on your body/vest.
The rules/The hike:
We stayed at a permanent luxury tented camp owned by the local company
Mantana, who was booked by Natural Habitats for this trip. It was a few minutes
drive outside of Bwindi, next to a local village. Great food, great employees.
Several other camps are around or just inside Bwindi borders.
We left camp by 745am for a short drive down the road to the Bwindi office. We
were to pick up our permits by 815am and check in. The permits listed what group
we would see on what day, our names and passport numbers. There are currently 10
permits a day available to see two habituated gorilla groups. The M (Mubare)
group of 12 members and the K group (Katendegyere) which has currently three
members. 6 people may see the M group, and 4 people may see the K group. Due to
some recent tragedies, the K group will no longer be visited after August 97.
Only 6 permits a day will be sold for the M group at that time. The locals and
companies were unsure when a new group will begin habituation for future permit
sales, but 'should' begin soon. It usually takes 1.5-3 years for a group to be
habituated enough for visitors to view safely. The permits are booked solid
during June, July and August. Other times of year, there is at least a chance to
get in on a standby basis, or if someone cancels.
Permits are sold to companies a year in advance, and if you are interested in
going, try to plan at least 6-12 months in advance to get permits. Currently (I
was told) they are limited to 2 days per person.
At the office at Bwindi, there are a few t shirts for sale, and a bulletin
board full of articles, visitor number totals for different years, and photos.
You'll meet your guide here, arrange for porters, and begin your hike, whichever
direction it will lead. We had one guide, and two trackers, who did the actual
tracking of where the gorillas had passed, etc. We hiked to the border of the
park, and our guide would stop us and explain the guidelines in dealing with the
animals that we were expected to follow. They are as follows (best I
Do not approach the gorillas closer than 5 meters. If they approach you closer
than 5m, you will immediately back off, slowly. If a silverback charges, stay in
the group, don't run, stand your ground. The group is to stay together within 10m
of each other. You are not to spread out, and the guides will tell you if you get
too far away. This way the gorillas always have a way to move away from you, and
you also have the safety of the other people nearby. If a 'youngster' charges
(which happened with us, a 4 year old,) the guides will 'chase him back', usually
by waving some leaves at him, or some branches. Again, let the guides step in,
and guide you as to what to do, otherwise don't move. They are watching what
happens closely, and know how best to handle things. If a silverback or adult
charges before the hour is up, then the humans have obviously disturbed them, and
the guides will take you away. That is why its important to stay quiet, move
slowly, don't talk (or if you must, whisper very quietly.) The guides will
reassure the gorillas and silverback with belch-grunts, and similar
vocalizations. You are not allowed to drink or eat in front of the gorillas, nor
put anything down (even a hiking pole,) while you are with them. This prevents
them from approaching you out of curiousity, and touching anything you touched.
The guides do not want the gorillas to touch you, nor anything you've been
holding since this can lead to a transmission of germs, and threaten the
gorilla's health. If you must sneeze or cough, you cover your face *and* turn
away, for the same reasons. We were all carefully asked whether we had any colds,
or were sick in any way. You are not allowed to come in contact with the animals
if you are in any way sick. If you admit to being sick before you start the trek,
you will have your permit fee refunded. If the guides feel you are sick during
the hike, they will send you back, without contacting the gorillas, and without a
refund. If you needed to go to the latrine at any time, a shovel was provided,
and a hole needed to be dug at least 12" deep, such that material was well
covered, and would not accidentally be uncovered by any primates later. Finally,
we only took what we could carry and keep on our bodies, with us to view the
gorillas. All extra bags and treking poles would be left behind with the porters.
We were not allowed to leave and return to get stuff from our bags. The gorillas
are viewed for only 1 hour, no more.
These rules were carefully explained, and I was *extremely* impressed with the
guide's behavior when we were with the gorillas. They did not hesitate to pull
individuals back who were too close to the gorillas, even if they were taking
photographs. 5m was the rule that was closely followed, and *I* thought that was
fantastic. The guides obviously realized what a special job they had: to protect
these animals so everyone has the opportunity in the future to view them as well.
I did not expect the 'rules' to be enforced so accurately and consistently and
was pleasantly surprised. I personally had no problems following the guidelines,
since they are created for the animal's safety, and the photo ops were great at 5
meters. It was such a priveledge to be in the gorilla's presence, and to have
that opportunity to see them, that what few rules they did have, were easily
There are no words for how you feel when you are standing a few meters away
from one of the most magnificent, intelligent animals on the planet. No
plexiglass, no cage bars. And then they look into your eyes. Let's just say its
hard to focus as the tears stream down your face. :)
I was lucky enough to visit the M group both days, which has a wide variety of
ages to watch, including the one silverback. On the first day, we spent about 30
minutes hiking established trail, then went off into 'semi-established trail' for
another 30 minutes, letting the trackers find the location they last saw the
group at the day before. We hiked another hour through much more dense
vegetation, up and down hillsides, and found the spot they had been seen at the
day before. Anther 30 minutes and we found the nests they had slept in at night.
It was slightly more than an hour of slower tracking (which involved a lot of
turning around, and backtracking, up and down the same hillside as we followed
their exact, meandering path,) until we found them. We'd started our hike at
830am, and found them at almost noon. When the tracker's sid they had found them,
our porters came up, and we had a few sips of water, put on our camera gear and
vests, and went with the guide to the gorillas. The porters stayed behind with
our gear, and did not come with us to the gorillas.
The first day when we approached they, we found them around two large fig
trees. Most were resting, having eaten well, and several were still up the tree.
A mother was at the bottom witha 10month old, alternating between hidden deep
shade and open grass below the trees. This was photographically a great
situation. We timed it right (a lunchtime rest,) and there was some open area
getting some sun or sun/clouds which some animals would move in and out of.
The silverback was in the tree, with some middle aged kids, and would throw
down large bunches of figs, or drop pieces they were eating. He eventually came
down (which was a sight to behold, him sliding down this large trunk!) and
disappeared into an area too covered by vegetation for us to see. The then lay
down to sleep with only his feet in the air. A young male charged us almost
playfully several times, beating his chest and having a good time. Another
slightly older female came near and sat down with her large belly, yawning, and
relaxed. The mom was quite protective of her 10mo old, so they stayed off, and
the 10 mo old came out once or twice to look at us and pose shyly, behind some
branches. You could easily see and photograph more than one animal at once, there
was still a lot of jockeying for positions between the 6 humans, since many
times, there was only one small view through the canopy to get the best angle, or
really see them.
The second day, we hiked only an hour, and came across group M even closer to
the main hiking trail than the day before. Sometime they would even come onto the
main hiking trail to feed, our guides told us. We didn't see nests, and we
started hiking about 820am, and found them just after 930am. They were more
active than the day before, I wish we had not found them so early in the day. The
light was low, much cloudier, lower in the sky, and the animals more active. We
had to stop and just hike after them several times, as they moved. About 5
minutes into viewing them (where the silverback had just moved into an open
position,) one person's camera began to rewind. It was *very* loud, and the
silverback looked at her, looked away (*still rewinding,*) looked at her, then
got up, and took the troupe into the trees, we never saw them on the ground
again. Completely different from the resting state we saw the day before. And a
disappointing day, somewhat, considering that it was the end of my gorillas
viewing for my trip. We watched them in the trees; it wasn't as intimate as the
previous day, but still enjoyable, still a privledge.
I'd probably be shot if I didn't mention that you should be prepared for a
long, challenging-ly bumpy road for 10 hours out of the airport city of Entebbe.
If you like, you can plan a stop at the 'lovely' 'Lakeview Hotel' (which actually
has some fantastic Maribou storks, Yellowbilled storks, and other birds you can
get quite close to photograph,) which is midway on the road. Crowned cranes are
easily viewed from the road. Uganda is beautiful, and worthwhile a stay beyond
just viewing the gorillas. A birder's paradise in many parks! But the road...the
road goes on and on. And so do the mountains. And so do the banana plantations,
rice fields, pineapple and tea groves covering the hillsides, for hours and
hours, and depressingly up to the absolute border of the 128 square mile Park. It
was a forest reserve (open to hunting and planting,) until it was turned into the
National Park in 1991. Its truely amazing that the park even exists in my
I hope the above gives you some ideas if you are interested in photographing
the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Any further questions you
may ask in email.
"Can it be possible that the mountain gorilla is doomed to extinction
in the same century in which the species was discovered?"
-- Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist