On my most recent photo expedition to Eastern Africa, 6 months ago, I invited a small group of avid travelers to join me. The three-week adventure took us to Rwanda and Uganda, two countries where photography opportunities and wildlife abound. I couldn’t wait to return to the slopes of Volcanoes National Park in search of the endangered Mountain Gorillas. What an epic trek it was. We also drove all the way to Akagera National Park close to the Rwanda-Tanzania border, tracked a large group of wild chimpanzes in the high-altitude Nyungwe rainforest, cruised the Kazinga Channel at Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, got soaked by the spray at Murchison Falls National Park, approached a sleeping southern white rhinoceros at Uganda’s Ziwa Sanctuary, saw the distant lava glow of Congo’s Mt Nyiragongo… The memories of this photo adventure are too numerous to list but they are certain to last for a lifetime. Check out the rest of this blog entry.
Zebras are notoriously shy and like to hang out together. During a morning game drive at Akagera National Park (Rwanda), we came across this fleeting scene. While it was hard to take photos from a moving vehicle, I knew that as soon as the vehicle stopped, these guys would take off. That’s what happened. So, this is the fleeting moment of calm before the big stampede. This picture was taken from a distance of about 120m.
Before I went to Africa for the first time, I often heard the phrase “African Sunrise” and always wondered what I really meant until I witnessed my first one. They are indeed very dramatic. This fiery sunrise was taken from the terrace of Akagera Game Lodge, before we head out for a game drive.
Rural scenes from Rwanda’s Kibuye district:
And a snapshot of a very bored produce vendor I saw through the car window, while driving towards Uganda’s capital, Kampala:
It always surprises visitors to see arable land so close to the Volcanoes National Park. In fact, the only delimitation is often just a shoulder high wall made of volcanic rocks. Two park rangers told me of several instances of mountain gorillas straying into fields located near these walls…
Many villagers hang out near the start of the trail leading deeper into Volcanoes National Park. Very often they provide for large families and other relatives. As a way to ensure tourist dollars also benefit these communities, it’s a good idea to hire a few guys who wil help carry your equipment, water, tripod, etc. And believe me, it is very often needed as the trek up Mount Bisoke or other parts of the national park can be steep and very muddy. On this particular trek, I was glad to have hired someone to help with the 400mm telephoto and a monopod.
Mountain gorillas are a subspecies of the eastern african and are highly endangered – the estimated total population is around 800, with family groups distributed around the Virunga mountains straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Seeing these highly endangered gorillas in their habitat was one of the highlights of this expedition. After an arduous four-hour trek through the dense and (very) wet rainforest hugging the slopes of Mount Bisoke – the 3.711m high extinct volcano – the park rangers accompanying us slowed down and gathered our group in a clearing for a briefing. We were reminded to keep our distance from the gorillas and were asked to form a single line before entering the wider area which was home of the Amahoro group, a family of SIXTEEN mountain gorillas! For practical reasons, rangers asked that we left our bags with two rangers who would keep watch. Indeed, it can be difficult to keep up with gorillas that are moving often while carrying gear. Also, rangers are very careful that nothing is left behind as items could carry pathogens which could prove deadly to gorillas. For the majority of our group, this would be the very first time gorillas would be observed in their natural habitat and the excitement was high. We could hear branches cracking and muffled noises nearby!
While gorillas are often portrayed as powerful and aggressive in popular movies, they are generally passive vegetarians. They ingest impressive quantities of bamboo shoots, stinging nettles, bedstraw, wild celery, thistles and grasses. In the picture above, Gahinga, one of the two silverbacks of Amahoro group is seen eating wild celery. Given their moisture-rich diet, mountain gorillas do not need to drink water.
Ituza, a young female hangs from a tree way from the rest of the group. Less than a minute after I took this picture, the branch she was sitting on cracked loudly and Ituza fell to the ground with a loud thud!
Despite our fascination with them, habituated mountain gorillas very often ignore human visitors. Many times, it looked as if they were giving us their back, literally. This picture is one I’ve tried to take many times, without success. Berwa seemed interested in the 400mm telephoto and looked right into it.
Abahyisi one of the youngest members of the Amahoro group and possibly one of the shyest and most curious.
A giant worm seen on my way down from Rwanda’s Mount Bisoke.
The next three pictures of birds in flight were a good test for the Canon EOS-1 DX’s autofocus.
This is what an “attack” by a Souza’s Shrike (Lanius souzae) looks like right before it flies very close to your head!
A purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) perpares to land near a crocodile, Kazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. This picture was taken from the boat meandering along the the Kazinga Channel. The drizzle visible in the photo later became torrential and we were forced abandon our prime shooting position on the boat’s elevated platform.
A marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) looks for food in a shallow swamp at Akagera National Park. Undeniably, the marabou stork is one of the ugliest birds around. This scanvanger performs an important role in ingesting carrion and waste, effectively keeping many areas clean. In many African urban centers, marabous depend on refuse and can often be seen feeding on practically anything, including metal, rubber and feces. These powerful birds are the size of a small child and are known to become aggressive when food is withheld from them.
A baby hippo at Kazinga Channel Uganda. If not for the many lacerations on its side, he looks almost brand new!
The next three photos are of some of the ubiquitous Impalas which dot the vast plains of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. The world-famous natural reserve was gazetted in 1954 and is home to more than 500 categories of birds and close to 100 mammal species.
Mother giraffe grooming her calf, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
The only 3-headed giraffe in the world lives at Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Park.
The picture below is a candid warning for those planning a wild chimpanzee trek inside Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest. Make sure you venture inside this forest with long trousers tucked inside thick/tall socks. And go in with shoes that close really well These ants will do everything to get to your tender tourist skin. They will bite very hard and will not let go. Don’t let them spoil your experience! You have been warned! I was kidding… about the 3-headed giraffe.
The wild chimpazees of rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest are incredibly photogenic. And a real challenge to photograph. Because they move quickly or position themselves high up in the canopy when stationary, telephoto lenses are a must. And due to the thick canopy, light will be dim inside the forest. In any case, high ISOs will be a must as well as the fastest aperture telephoto you can afford (to own or to rent). In the photo above, this young chimp feasting on fruits was very often hidden by branches and positioned very far from where I stood. Changing lenses while fighting a mini army of ants crawling inside my pants is a difficult exercise. But I managed to take this picture before I had to put the camera down to exterminate more ants.
The adult male chimpanzee above observed us for a while, from a very high branch, before giving us his back for almost an hour. Thanks man!
Two boys leave their house on a chilly morning in Musanze District, Rwanda, as smoke rises from the distant Mount Nyiragongo in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As one of Africa’s most active volcanoes, Mt Nyiragongo represents a significant threat to the densely populated city of Goma in the DRC, the town of Gisenyi in Rwanda and the wider area of Lake Kivu which separates both countries. In 2002, lava flowing from the volcano’s slopes forced the evacuation of half a million people in Goma. Mt Nyiragongo’s eruptions are closely monitored as there are concerns they can trigger the release of dangerous methane and carbon-dioxide trapped at the bottom of Lake Kivu.