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15 hours ago, SafariChick said:

Wow, I didn't remember that you booked the extra couple days near Jo'burg either - I do remember all the worries over the electronics policy though, and rightly so! Shame about the lodge you wanted being closed - I think I remember reading about that one too!  Same thing happened to us with Jack Hanna's place closing for renovations - but we ended up being very happy with our altnerate lodging, which was also a bit cheaper! You got some fantastic shots of the monkeys! Looking forward to hearing how it all plays out.




It's funny how things sometimes have a way of working out.  There definitely were some twists and turns along the way, though.  Thanks for following along.



13 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

the only reason I have yet to go see gorillas, which is high on my list!, is my lack of confidence in my stamina and endurance doing the treks. Like antartica, i have come to terms with the unlikelihood I'll ever go. So I live voraciously on TRs like yours. :)





Don't be so quick to rule it out!  I'll be offering lots of words of encouragement as we go along.  Thanks for your supportive comments.

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Although groups for the gorilla treks are limited to 8 persons, golden monkey groups can have as many as 25.  And, as it was high season, that’s exactly how many we had.  I was worried that such a lar

Meanwhile, J. had lingered behind and motioned to me.  A blackback, who was more independent than the others and didn’t always feel the need to keep up all the time, had appeared.     

Gorilla Trek # 1: Isabukuru Group    After a somewhat fitful night filled with anticipation, the alarm went off at 5:00 AM.  The day of our first gorilla trek had arrived.  As we walked to t

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A good start to the report, and some great pictures!  I have a trip booked for February with Rwanda as our first stop, so I can't wait to see your pictures of the gorillas.  As a side note, we booked our trip in April -- almost exactly one month before the price increase was announced.  We found out just three weeks ago that we would still get the permits at $750, so that was very welcome news!


How was the Kigali Serena hotel?  We are staying there for one night after arriving from the U.S. (although we arrive late that night so about all I will see of the hotel is the bed).

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Wow, I'm glad you pulled the trigger and booked when you did!  I do have to give credit to Rwanda Development Board for honoring all permits secured before the price increase announcement.  That was definitely the right thing to do. 


The Kigali Serena was very nice -- two restaurants, a well-designed bar area, and comfortable and well-appointed rooms.  It makes for a good staging ground at the start and/or end of a trip there. Heads up: They did check the undersides of all vehicles entering the premises for bombs, and you have to walk through a metal detector, and have your belongings X-Rayed, when walking into the hotel. 


That struck us as a bit off-kilter given Kigali's safe reputation, but the hotel is located near Embassy Row, and it looked like the bar is a popular place for dealmaking, so maybe that was part of it. The airport also has very tight security. We arrived for our international departure 3 hours early, and were glad we did. 


In any event, I hope you will enjoy Rwanda as much as we did.


Our first gorilla trek is up next.

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Overall, I was happy enough with my photos of the Golden Monkeys.  But they had been a challenge, and not just due to the usual reasons that they are, well, monkeys, and, thus, like to be up in the trees and otherwise stay very active.  No, the challenge I am speaking of here is the sun.


Early on, @IamFisheye had recommended that I take a look at photographer Andy Rouse’s self-published book, Gorillas, Living on the Edge.  Finally, long after I had booked our trip, I was able to track down a used copy for a reasonable price. I was most anxious to hear what thoughts and advice an experienced professional photographer had for those aspiring to take photos of mountain gorillas, and here’s what he had to say:


"Mountain gorillas really challenge my photography and continually push my abilities to the limit.  I am constantly working at the edge of what is technically possible, since light levels are low on the slopes of the Virungas.  Of course, they are low because I choose to always shoot under the cloud cover during the rainy season in Rwanda.  On a technical level, this is to reduce unflattering shadows on the face and to keep the dynamic range between the dark gorilla and the sky manageable.  Aesthetically there is something romantic about gorillas living on the misty, moody slopes of a volcano.  I absolutely hate images of gorillas taken in the sunlight; for me, they just lack something." (emphasis added)




While I can’t say my feelings on this subject are as strong as that, I knew where he was coming from.  The sunlight and shadows on the monkeys as they foraged, and the specular highlights resulting from the brightly lit foliage in the background, had presented a lot of limitations and frustrations. 


While a visit during the rainy season might have better ensured cloudy weather and better conditions for photography, the notion of trudging up a mountain in the pouring rain and face-planting in the mud sounded miserable, and ultimately, for that reason, we had booked our trip for July, which ushers in the height of the dry season.   The downside, of course, is that July, along with August, also typically sees more sun and less rainfall than any other month.


The sky during our Golden Monkey trek actually had been partly cloudy, not fully sunny, but still very bright.  But as we ambled through the grounds of Gorilla Mountain View Lodge that afternoon, the clouds began to build. 


What were the chances that we would get lucky and have those romantic cloudy, misty skies that Andy Rouse waxes so rhapsodic over, but, at the same time, be spared the rain, and, thus, enjoy a dry trail for our gorilla trek the next day?

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Gorilla Trek # 1: Isabukuru Group


 After a somewhat fitful night filled with anticipation, the alarm went off at 5:00 AM.  The day of our first gorilla trek had arrived.  As we walked to the main building for breakfast, I looked up at the sky.  The clouds were still there, but a limpid sun behind the volcano was competing for attention. 





Which would win out?


By the time we arrived at the park headquarters, I had my answer.  For once, the gods showed pity on me and granted my wish.  We would have clouds and, as it turned out, no rain.






Once the park rangers have all permits in order, each group of trekkers are assigned to a particular gorilla family group and a guide.  We had told Patrick that we wanted a “Moderate” trek to a family with a diverse group of individuals: a strong silverback, a cute baby, some adventurous blackbacks.  Our first gorilla family would be the Isabukuru Group.


Eight of us (J. and me from the U.S., a mother and son from Sweden, a couple from Australia and a couple from Spain) gathered with our assigned guide at the park headquarters to introduce ourselves and to learn about the gorilla family we would see.  Because of our excitement (“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go….”), I’ve used some online research to supplement my memory.


We drove to a small village, where we hired our porters, selected our walking sticks, bade farewell to our driver/guides (who would wait, with their vehicles, for our return) and started hiking.  The farmland through which we traversed before reaching the park wall, planted primarily with potatoes, was surprisingly steep, and yours truly, hailing from the flat prairies of Texas, was clearly winded after about a half-hour.  But the pace was measured, we took regular breaks, and the hike was eminently feasible.















Finally we reached the stone wall marking the park boundary.  The wall is designed in a manner to keep buffaloes, which live in the forest (we never saw any), from wandering into the farmland and the surrounding villages.  We scaled the wall and found ourselves enveloped in a green world of moss and primordial trees and vines that looked more like a painting than the real thing.





At this point, we received the good news.  The gorillas were only about a 10-minute walk away.  We were instructed to leave everything behind but our cameras. 





Trackers soon appeared and began hacking a way for us to walk through the dense foliage. For a few minutes, it was tough going, as vines on the ground threatened to trip me at every step and the fresh juices of the just-cut vegetation made for a slippery path.  Suddenly, one of the trackers stopped; an index finger pointed upward.  A young gorilla was in a tree, but he soon disappeared from sight.


I then turned to my left, and my jaw just dropped.  There I was, standing face-to-face with a young female gorilla, literally just feet from me.  She was by herself in a setting that reminded me of a small grotto, surrounded by moss and tree bark.  She looked introverted, pensive, almost sad, with her arms were folded across her chest.  She was beautiful.






It is a moment, I safely can say, which I will never forget.  She seemed isolated, consumed with her own thoughts.  It was almost uncomfortable for me, because I felt like we had intruded upon a personal, private moment, but she didn’t show any discomfort or make any movement to separate from us. 








At the same time, she seemed somewhat shy (or am I overly anthropomorphizing here?).  






Whatever the case may be, by now, my adrenaline had taken over and I was just on autopilot.  I felt as one does when first awakening in an unfamiliar place: Is this real or am I still dreaming?  It was hard to tell. 


What I do know is at that moment, I fell in love.  I fell in love with her; I fell in love with mountain gorillas; I fell in love with the Virunga Mountains; and I fell in love with gorilla trekking. 


My dream had been realized.  The whole experience was just overwhelming.



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Our guide told us to follow him.  We rounded a bend, and an open area appeared in the midst of the forest, but the vegetation was still quite dense.


It took a few minutes to focus on what we were being shown.  At first, we could only discern black fur and an occasional gorilla body part.





We continued to follow our guide and trackers, maneuvering through the foliage for a better look. Slowly, the scene unfolded for us. There, seated in the middle, was the silverback, feasting on tender green leaves and stems, while a baby cavorted around and a juvenile laid on its back for a snooze. 














Until this past March, the lead silverback was Isabukuru, but he had died rather unexpectedly at the age of 24 from illness.  This was Kubaha, the beta and only other silverback in the group, and, fortunately, he had smoothly transitioned into the leadership role.  The youngsters he was caring for were the offspring of females who had previously left the group.  (We were told that females occasionally will leave their group for a new silverback, a natural process that avoids interbreeding).  He had taken the orphans and put them under his protection. 












I was mesmerized.  The magic was broken slightly when the guide invited interested folks to sit on a nearby log for selfies and photos with the gorillas in the background, but he did a good job of making sure that no one lingered and that we all were able to get good views and the types of photographs that we wanted.


After fifteen minutes or so, the silverback ambled away, and his two charges followed. 





We tracked them through the forest, and then, suddenly, there was the whole group, proceeding a bit before stopping to feed, then moving on a bit more.












A mother with a young baby on her back appeared, but quickly moved ahead.  By this time, I had lowered my camera and was just marveling at the scene, not quite believing that here I was, little ole me, standing in a pristine African montane forest in the midst of a mountain gorilla family.  It was just magical. 



Edited by Alexander33
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Meanwhile, J. had lingered behind and motioned to me.  A blackback, who was more independent than the others and didn’t always feel the need to keep up all the time, had appeared. 






But once the rest of his family were out of sight, he apparently felt a bit lonely.  Dropping the leaf he was chewing on, the blackback scrambled past us toward the rest of the group, but not before giving J. a good, friendly whack on the calf with his left arm as he flew by.  J. just stood there, completely motionless, and my eyes grew wide as I sucked in my cheeks before bursting out in laughter.  Wow!


We walked at a leisurely pace through the forest some more, catching up with the group right at the boundary wall.  The silverback had found some large trees whose bark he had taken a liking to, and was savoring large strips of it. 









When he was done, the shy, young orphaned baby under Kubaha’s protection followed his lead and tasted some bark himself.  It was interesting to watch this youngster ape his mentor (sorry for the bad pun).









The silverback then looked beyond us, and, before we knew it, he had bounded over the wall and was in the potato field outside the park.  The rest of the family started to follow. 


Uh-oh!  A few of the trackers quickly followed in pursuit, and a minute later, the silverback had clambered back over the wall, into the safety of the forest.  I don’t know what motivation the trackers used to get him back over, but once they did, he led the family away through the forest.





And with that, our hour was up.


It had been an exhilarating experience.  It had exceeded my expectations.  And we had two more treks to go.



Our Porters (Lifesavers)





Edited by Alexander33
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Really enjoying this report, and you came away with some fabulous photos of the Gorillas! I´m getting very nostalgic reading this, we also had the Isabukuru group first, and I recognize many of the places from your hike. Sad to hear that Isabukuru is gone, I did not know that. And yes, I do remember that feeling of absolute awe upon seeing one´s first Gorilla, it´s a feeling I will never forget.

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Absolutely captivating photos!  You captured the personalities so well and I too could feel how mesmerized you were by them.  I felt it to be a honor and a blessing to be among them, and it seems you did as well!  Doesn't that hour go by fast?!?


I'm struck by the terrain you found them in.  I had two completely different terrains (thick shrub and bamboo forest) and it looks like you had a third, with an altogether different type of foliage than on either of mine.  So interesting that the one ecosystem has that much variety.

Can't wait to see more!

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Mesmerizing experience ... and mesmerizing photos!

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Wonderful photos!


i also did the golden monkeys first and am glad for that.  I ended up with numerous examples like yours with the, behind branches and leaves etc.



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It really was an amazing, unforgettable experience.


It seems the Isabukuru group didn't make us work quite as hard as they did for you. I had forgotten that they were your more challenging trek.  


I learned about Isabukuru's death not from our guide, but after the fact from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website .  According to them, it was Isabukuru who took the orphaned youngsters under his protection, and  Kubaha has, fortunately, just stepped into and continued that role. I'm wondering whether the baby you saw when you were there was the orphan we saw with Kubaha.?  I don't recall seeing another gorilla that age with its mother.  In any event, it certainly was touching to see that interaction.  





I agree. The forests there were very diverse. We, of course, were in the bamboo with the Golden Monkeys and would find ourselves in more open, thick shrub later in the trip, but this heavily wooded forest terrain was, by far, my favorite environment. It really seemed ancient and mysterious to me. I would have loved to have the opportunity to spend additional time just hiking through it. 





Thank you for your kind words. "Mesmerizing" is definitely the right word!





You're back?!  I can't wait to hear more about how your trip went.  My intention truly had been to post my introduction earlier, before your departure, in order to give you a proper send-off, but my schedule got in the way and I just couldn't manage it.  



Okay, Trek Two will be coming up soon.....


Edited by Alexander33
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What a look on that first female you encountered!  If only she could tell us what she was thinking.  The whole family turned out for you.  Fascinating how the gorillas did an about face in the potato patch.


Wildly successful first trek!

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@kitsafari you can do the gorilla trek because a Canadian couple that I met at Greystoke Mahale lodge told me that for $200 you can hire two people to carry you up in a litter. Another thing is that you can walk for short distances and as I know very well you are a gutsy and intrepid lady. You will manage without hurting yourself. I would also like to see the golden monkeys and I'm sure that you would as well. And then of course there is Akagera National Park and Lake Kivu, not to forget that Rwanda is a fabulous country for birding. 

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I really like your photo of the hand through the ferns, nicely done.  Seems like everything went well for you on this day, the weather cooperated, your "moderate" hike was only ten minutes in the forest, and they were in much more open terrain than when we saw them.  Looking forward to more, like others have said this brings back great memories.

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@Alexander33 not back quite yet.  Sitting in a Entebbe airport.  I had a fantastic trip and got some lovely shots of the golden monkeys, gorillas and a couple of the chimps, even though they were rather uncooperative.  I'm completely exhausted though.  LOL!


@Kitsafari I can confirm that the $200 for someone to take you up is correct.  There was a woman over 80 who found she couldn't do any more and she paid the $200 and got to see the gorillas rather than missing out.

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What wonderful photos and words @Alexander33 really enjoying your report and not just because it brings back such happy memories. The sheer joy of realising you are there  sharing space with these wonderful beings has to be one of the greatest feelings in the world!

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Fantastic photos and I can really feel your excitement from your writing @Alexander33!  Isabukuru was our first group this past February as well, and we were there before Isabukuru himself died.  It was a tougher hike for us than it seems it was for you, though not as tough as the one @michael-ibk and @AndMic had!  Really looking forward to your next two treks!

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12 hours ago, Tulips said:


@Kitsafari I can confirm that the $200 for someone to take you up is correct.  There was a woman over 80 who found she couldn't do any more and she paid the $200 and got to see the gorillas rather than missing out.



I hope I have that same mindset when I’m 80......




No excuses now!

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22 hours ago, Atravelynn said:

What a look on that first female you encountered!  If only she could tell us what she was thinking. 




So true.  I felt that way on a number of occasions on this trip.





Thanks for your kind compliments.  Some faces that should be familiar to you are coming up.....





Safe travels!



11 hours ago, Towlersonsafari said:

 The sheer joy of realising you are there  sharing space with these wonderful beings has to be one of the greatest feelings in the world!




I’ll second that.  Thank you, and there’s more to come.





I had forgotten that you are an Isabukuru alum as well.  We were definitely glad to have a manageable trek with them.  Stay tuned to see if our luck held out……:unsure:



Edited by Alexander33
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Gorilla Trek # 2: Umubano Group


The clouds remained with us the next morning.





On the way to the park headquarters, Patrick asked us if there was anything we’d like to try see today that we had missed yesterday.  Honestly, the only thing I could think of was that I wanted to see one of those young babies with the crazy, curly hair on top of their heads.  But, really, any other diverse family group would be fine with me.


As with the day before, we gathered with a guide and our fellow assigned trekkers.  Today, we, along with the friendly Swedish mother and son that we had been with yesterday, were joined by a Dutch couple and another American couple, the husband of which was a recently-certified safari nut, just like us.  He and his wife had been on five safaris in the last four years.


We were assigned the Umubano family group, and the drive to the trailhead took about 45 minutes, half of which was up a majorly bumped rock-pitted dirt road.  The upside of our bone-jarring drive (“Rwandan massage,” Patrick joked) was that our walk through the farmland to the park boundary was much more level than the day before.  This time, we didn’t even get winded.  As with the previous day, we had only been walking through the forest after crossing the border wall for about 10 minutes when we were motioned to stop.


Our guide’s radio crackled with something unintelligible.  He smiled.  “We don’t have to climb.  The gorillas are coming down to us.”  Good fortune remained with us, it seemed.


Moments later, the trackers appeared, and leaving our backpacks and our porters behind, we walked down a narrow path. 


Some juveniles appeared in front of us, one up in a tree, and another on the ground below.



Why do I get the feeling this isn't the brightest member of the family?





One of the trackers pointed at some movement in the vegetation.


“Blackback,” he whispered.  And then he widened his eyes.  “He is very naughty.”


I wondered what this meant.  Did we need to take precautions for our physical safety?


Anything but, as it turned out.  Coming into the open, apparently, he just wanted an audience.









He sidled up to a female and began mating with her, as another juvenile looked on.



What are you looking at?





But his back had silver coloration in it, which left me confused as to why the tracker had referred to him as a blackback.  I assumed I had just misheard, and let it go.  Later in the hour, however, a more complex dynamic would reveal itself. 


Meanwhile, the youngster up in the tree above us apparently got fed up with this, and he noisily climbed down and loped out of sight. 








We followed him into a clearing at the edge of the mountain, where the rest of the family was lounging around.  In the midst of the group was the dominant silverback (I believe this is Charles). 






Putting it all together, now, I surmise that the blackback/silverback we had seen was a younger, subordinate silverback, perhaps semi-independent, but returning to the family in search of a stake to his own claim and some mating rights.  If so, that would explain why he had mated with the female off to the side and out of sight from the rest of the family (i.e.in front of Charles).  In retrospect, I wish I had asked, but there was so much going on around us that the question quickly escaped my mind.  In any event, I hope I've got the situation straight.



Edited by Alexander33
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This group was less active than the Isabukurus yesterday, but it gave us an opportunity to pay closer attention to their group behavior.


Charles was intent on grooming a few of his subjects.









Meanwhile, the youngest baby in the family found all kinds of ways to entertain himself, doing pirouettes in a counterclockwise fashion until he would get dizzy, sometimes losing his balance, then roughhousing with an older relative.




















Of all the behavioral sequences I observed on our treks, this is the one that most struck a chord in me of the close genetic relationship that we human beings share with gorillas.  That baby’s play resembled a human child’s so closely that it was almost eery.





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Suddenly, the peaceful harmony was broken.  The entire family looked up and in the same direction. 





The blackback/silverback we had seen surreptitiously mating earlier had made an appearance.  It was only at that moment that I realized he had stayed off to himself until then.


You can see in the background of the photo above that there was a second subordinate silverback, but he must have been comfortable with his role in the family.  Although he certainly was part of the interaction, there was no question that it was Charles who was in charge.  I'm not so sure that this other fellow was as accepting of his place in the hierarchy.












Tension was in the air, it seemed......







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The calm soon returned, however.  One member of the family found a delicious root to gnaw on.












But the dynamic seemed to have changed.  Charles rose and ambled into the vegetation out of sight, the rest of the family following.  We made our way toward their direction, and found the venerable silverback seated in a picturesque open area, with the mountains in the background.










As the rest of the family foraged on the juicy green vegetation, Charles looked over his domain. 






He’s getting older.  A wide yawn revealed that he’s missing an incisor.


Those who don't know about these most gentle of giants assume he is roaring ferociously......





......but, no, he is just yawning.  Time for a nap.








I can’t help but think that the day may come when Charles’s authority is challenged. But for today, he remained firmly in command, looking content and contemplative, as we, his human observers, gaped and tried to make the most out of our few remaining minutes with the Umubano Group before our hour expired.






It had been another exhilarating trek, again surpassing my expectations. 


The thing I remember most about these treks is that all my senses were on full alert – the colors, the smells, the sounds, the feeling of the cool, moist air against my face, all resonated to a degree of recognition that surpassed the ordinary.  It was the sense of being alive, right now, in this moment, for this purpose, and, for the time being, nothing else mattered.





“How was it?” Patrick asked after we had ambled back down the mountain, gathering at the small parking area, shaking hands with our guide and the porters, and wishing our fellow travelers safe journeys.


“It was fantastic, Patrick.  You outdid yourself.”


“Good!  And tomorrow, we’ll have an ‘easy’ one, yes?”




You know what that means, don’t you?




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Really enjoy your TR and your pictures. You have really good portraits. 

Can't wait to see Nyungwe's pictures and experience too!


How far were the golden monkeys? Would you say that 400 mm lens is allright for them??

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