As the stress of work piled up, I needed a big vacation and I figured a photo safari was just the ticket.  I searched a bit and ended up with a tour organized by East African Safaris .  This trip has 2 distinct parts, the primates of Uganda and the Savannah of Tanzania.  The tour was going to be just me and my driver/guide Ezekial which works great when your priority is photography, you get to go where you want and take photos as long as you like.  Another advantage is that I get to tailor the tour to my own preferences, so I take 2 days in Kibale National Park to see the chimpanzees and 2 special visits with the Mountain Gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and forego Queen Elizabeth National park.  I geared up for the trip by getting a 500mm f/4 lens, a 1.4x extender, 64GB more memory and a new photo bag to haul it all.  I booked the flights and tour and was ready to go.  Only after that did I realize that I had a potential problem flight that might not let me hand carry my photo gear due to weight and size.  So I bought a photo vest as well so that I could stash as much gear as I could in my “jacket” to lighten my carry on if necessary.  I’m ready, let’s go.

I depart in the evening on Saturday May 24th and arrive the next day at 10:30pm in Entebbe, Uganda.  I grab my bags, go through immigration where I get the necessary visa and head out into the fresh dense air.  Ezekial is waiting with a cook/backup driver Pablo.  We drive straight to a hotel where I pay the balance of my tour in cash ($100s before 2005 are not accepted in Uganda and Tanzania.  In 2013 the US started making a new $100 bill, I suggest to only take these).  I get right to sleep because I have to get up at 6am Monday May 26th for breakfast and depart at 6:30 to travel to Kibale National Park.  We have a box lunch for the trip and drive 7 hours straight.  We arrive at 1:30pm, I step out of the car a bit groggy with camera in hand.  I have to quickly organize and get alert because I’m going straight onto a walking safari of Kibale National Park to see Chimpanzees, Monkeys and Baboons.  The Baboons run straight away so there is no chance to photograph them…at least not in this park.  We did photograph a young Chimpanzee eating the lower fruit on a tree, always working his way away from us.  And then we took a long hike across the park and saw a few different types of monkeys but most were quite distant.  It is difficult shooting these dark animals in the dark jungle with bright sunlight streaming through and clouds frequently changing their intensity.  I was forced to bracket exposure (leaning to under-exposure to properly expose the dark animals) just to assure that I would get decent shots.  We are camping out at the park.  Everyone else on the walking safari is staying in the lodge.  I wash up and then just sit back to relax and enjoy the fading sunlight, coffee/tea/popcorn surrounded by hundreds of skittish butterflies before a nice dinner.

Tuesday May 27th I awaken to a huge breakfast and I wonder if my cook realizes that I’m just one person?  The monkeys come through the jungles making their way around my camp and I’m doing my best to photograph them.  In the morning I head for a hike around a swamp filled with papyrus and primates.  Late in the morning I take another walking safari of Kibale, but this time we are driven to where we were picked up yesterday and work our way back to the ranger station.  I worked hard to get pictures of the chimpanzees high up in a tree, but I’m not sure they are working out.  Then an adult female climbs down and starts hiking through the jungle.  We follow.  She stops once and we grab a handful of shots before she’s off again.  Then she climbs up a tree and starts eating.  Again I am trying my best but shooting up into the light leaking through the canopy is not yielding great results.  Just as I think we are going to hike away, she climbs back down and starts off again through the jungle.  We, again, follow and after almost a mile she just lays down and looks up at the canopy and the sky with thoughts of a nap running through her head.  We have to maintain a certain distance but I think I get some really fun shots.  We hike a long way back with only a few shots of the jungle to show for it.  It is the tail end of rainy season and this night brought some big thunderstorms.  Middle of the night I had to “check tire” (that’s what Ezekial says when we are in the Land Rover on safari to indicate that a bathroom break is needed) so I put on my rain jacket and flip flops, walked to the edge of the jungle and relieved myself.  That’s right, the only thing I’m wearing is a rain jacket and flip flops.

Wednesday May 28th we have another big breakfast, the guys break camp and load the Land Rover.  We leave early for the long drive to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  We arrive in the late afternoon at the Gorilla Resort.  My room is a large tent with 2 queen beds, sitting area, full bath and a deck overlooking the Bwindi valley. Normally they book a different place not quite as nice but it is booked solid.  My crew will be staying elsewhere and I’m the only person checked-in at this Resort.  Just my luck, 2 more nights dining alone, yay.  I take my first shower since my arrival in Uganda then take some photos of birds from my deck.

Thursday May 29th at breakfast I can hear a family of Gorillas in the valley below my resort.  I’m driven to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and watch some video of the Mountain Gorillas while waiting for everyone to arrive.  Each day each gorilla family that has been acclimated to human visitors is visited by a single group of 8 clients for 1 hour only.  This costs $800 per client.  The fees go to protecting the gorillas from poaching, running the park, salaries for local guides and money for the local community.  Porters can be hired to carry your gear as you trek up to 8 hours to visit the gorillas.  We are divided into groups of 8, each group to visit a family of gorillas for 1 hour.  The rules are simple, stay 12meters from the animals, they can come closer to you, but if they do then do not touch them.  I’m with a group of photography hobbyists like me who have all brought DSLRs with some variant of a 100-400mm lens.  We are driven a dozen miles where I hire a porter.  We start hiking on a trail up a hill and then down a field to the edge of the jungle where we are told to drop our bags and walking sticks.  Our hour begins and we hike 100m to the gorillas.  Everyone is being very professional, keeping to the rules, not obstructing others and getting tons of shots.  First shooting the male silverback then a mother with a baby.  My favorites come at the end of the hour when an adolescent in a tree in front of us and at eye level is goofing around with us, fascinated by the sound of our shutters clicking away.  So much fun, but the hour seems to end quickly and we have to walk away from this fascinating experience of a lifetime.  We collect our bags and it starts to rain as we climb the steep slopes of a tea farm.  The rain lets up long enough for us to eat lunch and then we hike back to the cars and return to our hotels.  The day brings more rain and the night thunderstorms. 

Friday May 30th I check out after breakfast and we drive to the other side of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for a 2nd day (hour) with the Mountain Gorillas. This time I’m with a group of tourists carrying cell phones and point-n-shoot cameras.  I meet an intern researcher from the US (Anna) who, while well aware of the good these tours have done to prevent poaching of gorillas, is studying the negative impacts of these visits.  For instance, one silverback male died recently and an unacclimated male was prevented from joining the group, as it would take 6 months of acclimation (and lost client fees) before they could bring groups again.  Anna is noting our interaction with the gorillas and things like distance infractions by clients and if the guides prevent infractions.  If there is too much impact on the wild Mountain Gorillas then these types of tours could eventually be shut down and any interaction would then be limited only to researchers.  On this day we had to hike for a couple hours up and down very steep slopes (sometimes 70-80°) in the jungle where there is no trail.  As a fast hiker, I’m placed at the rear of the group.  The father/son in front of me will not stay with the group, they stand waiting for everyone to get ahead, then run to catch up.  When they do this I find myself 40-50m behind.  Frustrating but sometimes irritations can work to your advantage.  Then, out of nowhere, Anna gasps behind me, a female gorilla is coming down the trail behind us.  I start shooting, everyone else is too far ahead.  I turn forward again to see if we can keep our distance by heading down the trail and I see the male silverback standing ahead of us, so we stay put and the female walks right between us.  Then I turn to the silverback and get a dozen shots off creating enough racket that everyone finally starts to notice.  He passes right next to them.  The rest of the day I worked hard to get shots, but this was not a day of cooperation.  The others were all shooting video.  They would work their way to 2-4 meters away, stretch their arm toward the animals and then start videotaping.  There is no way for me to even get a shot unless I am willing to break the rules too.  Since they are taking video, they don’t want to take a shot and then give anyone else a chance.  The guides didn’t stop the clients, only a couple times asking people to move back.  It occurs to me that this is why I booked 2 days of gorillas, it’s nature and you never know what you are going to get. I feel like I’ve gotten the best shots already anyway and just spend my time observing and enjoying the gorillas.  We take the long hike back to the cars and have our lunch at the ranger station.  We drive to Mbarara to the Lake View Hotel.  I take advantage of the pool at this hotel and the crystal clear water it contains.  I wash out some clothes in the not so crystal clear water that is coming out of the tap in my room.  I finish the evening with some beers, steak and fries while watching an Indian cricket semi-final match at the bar.  This is the last day in Uganda, tomorrow we cross the border to Tanzania.  The primates of Uganda have been just incredible and I hope my photos do them justice.

Uganda, Africa

May 24, 2014

The value of our life is not solely measured by its length, but also by the depth of our hearts.

And breadth of our experiences.  And indeed the heights that we achieve.