Photographing Gorillas in Uganda

Uganda is home to one of the most amazing experiences one could possibly get. It’s a place where you can come face to face with the largest, most powerful, yet shy and gentle primates on the planet. Unfortunately, they are also the most endangered as well, with only around 650 left on the planet. A sad fact for one of our closest living relatives.

In the south west corner of Uganda straddling Rwanda and The Congo, right on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, sits the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This marvelous part of the world is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and home to some of the worlds most interesting creatures. We were there for one in particular. The enchanting Mountain Gorillas.

Leaving the closest town Kabale, we had spent several hour ride on the most insane 4WD track that brought us to the distant Bwindi National Park. Our accommodation was spectacular. It sat right on the edge of a valley overlooking the jungle we were to be trekking in the following day. It was such a beautiful view, and I couldn’t help but smile as I gazed across the valley with my mind racing a hundred miles an hour about what we were here for. I’d wanted this experience for as long as I could remember! The night was cool and misty, and the dim lit fire in the corner of the room slowly crackled and lit up the wooden structure with a soft glow, while the sounds of the jungle buzzed in the background. One of the most relaxing nights on earth.

Up at the break of dawn, we filled our bellies and spent an hour in the 4WD yet again, heading as far into the jungle as tracks would take us. Bumping up and down, we eventually reached our starting point where the Trackers were awaiting us. We had two Guards armed with AK47′s (just a kilometre or two from the Congo, this jungle isn’t the safest place on earth, and there are many wild elephants in the area also which also pose a danger). Still very early the morning, we set off on our long journey to find our family. Three and a half hours climbing straight up a mountain, following our guide as he hacked our way through the most insanely dense jungle with machetes (a crazy amount of effort) we experienced the most thick, lush and untouched jungle you can imagine. But we got the lot; scratches, bruises, insect bites, severely done over by armies of fire ants, which their bits still continued to burn a day later. But, it was fun and the landscape absolutely gorgeous!

Then the radio call came in – they had found our family and were only minutes away! Hearts started thumping. Adrenalin started flowing. We reached the mountain peak  and were finally introduced to what we were there for; a family of six Mountain Gorillas, including the Silverback that weighs up to around 250kg’s and stands up to 2 metres tall. His arms were as thick as my torso! Seeming though he was the first we encountered, it was a very daunting initiation into the experience.

But despite how utterly huge and powerful these beautiful animals are, and the fact that they could crush you in a second, they truly are the most placid and peaceful creatures on the planet. They have absolutely no intention to hurt you and happily let you get within a metre or two before letting off an annoyed grunt. We spent over an hour with our playful family, following them around the area, sitting with them, laughing at their antics, watching them frantically eat and just, do their thing. Gorillas don’t necessarily sit still all the time. Our family was very active and constantly bashing their way through the jungle, in which of course we immediately chased after. Catching up to them at times was difficult, especially with how dense the vegetation was. At times we weren’t even walking on the ground, we were walking on crushed foliage – it was that thick! On one occasion we were caught in a game of ‘Chicken’ with one of the females, as she wanted to get passed and get back with another member of the family, and we were in the way. Nor her or we were sure how to approach this situation, as there isn’t exactly room to move out the way. Safe to say, she won the stand-off. She charged straight at us and we basically fell back into the jungle wall. The tracker peed his pants laughing! My heart had been solidly wedged in my throat! There were 2 or 3 other people with us, which this female actually hip-and-shouldered out the way just after passing us. Haha, amazing! But an hour and a half later it was time to bid farewell to these amazing creatures and begin our descent.

The entire day has now become one of my favourite, if not THE favourite travel experiences. “Hands down the best”, my wife describes it as. Though a little more specifically; I’d have to say being within 2 metres of the silver back (no, not joking) and staring straight into his eyes with him staring straight back into mine … I can’t ever describe how that felt and won’t ever be able to articulate in words how it made us feel. It’s something that just has to be experienced.

Photography Conditions

Photographing gorillas in Uganda was definitely not an easy task. The foliage in the jungle was extremely dense and made moving in the area quite difficult. Trying to get a solid foot hold was impossible at times and I was constantly being attacked by fire-ants and other insects. As the Gorillas moved around quite often, we were always having to follow them, and at times this became quite dangerous and at the end of the day I came away with many cuts, bruises and insect bites.

The lighting conditions went from bright sunlight to dark shadows depending on where they were in the moment. I chose to shoot this entire experience with a 50mm prime, at or as close to an aperture of f/1.8 (on a APS-C size sensor). This allowed me to get a fast shutter speed to capture their expressions in high, sharp detail, and create a shallow depth of field to make them the focus point, and make them really stand out against their surroundings. While I only had access to a 50mm at the time, I would recommend going into such an environment with with a lens range from 50mm to 200mm for best opportunities.

For those who would like some extra details

We took a two night package that included: transfers to/from the lodge (this is a solid four hour drive), 2 nights in a private room overlooking the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, transfers to/from the gorilla trekking starting point, all meals by the resident cook plus a packed lunch for the trek (the food was all pretty good too!). The whole experience typically costs around $650 USD each (though with the lack of tourists around the place, we were able to strike a better deal). Even though this is clearly expensive, it is probably the cheapest you could do it for. Because the Government priced Gorilla Permits are a whopping $500 USD in Uganda, and $750 USD in Rwanda, and they will continue to go up. … But I have to say, it’s the best splurge I’ve ever done, and a lot of the money goes towards the protection of the Gorillas!

About Author Clint Burkinshaw

I'm a guy who just loves to travel! For a long time now I've been drifting from place to place around this amazing world and have managed to find myself in the middle of some magical moments and mind blowing scenery. So with my combined passion for travel and photography, I've done my best to bring these moments to you.

  • Peter J Katuliiba

    I am lost in the very busy concrete jungle and petrol fumes of Johannesburg, and then a home story like this springs up out of almost nowhere. And I am invaded by a loneliness difficult to describe. I was born in Kabale. Trips between Kabale and Kisoro are some of the most memorable landdrives one can ever experience on the continent. Thank you for a beautiful story from home.

  • Terry

    What an amazing adventure and a great life you lead. The photos are fantastic. Thank you for sharing your pics and great story.

    • No problems Terry, the pleasure is mine 🙂 Glad you like the photographs – this day will always hold a special place in my heart. Such an amazing experience.

  • Johny Spencer

    Awesome story Buddy this is going on my bucket list, what an incredible experience once in a life time.

    • Mate, can tell ya for sure that you won’t regret it. I’d say that this would be the most emotional experience I’ve ever had in my life. They are just so unbelievably beautiful. I know I keep repeating this, but it’s so amazing that something so unbelievably powerful is so gentle and placid with no intent of harm. I wish us humans could be more like them…

      It’s gonna be an expensive few days for ya, but promise you that it’ll be the best splurge you do!

  • Derek Tempongko

    Clint, these photos of the gorillas are mesmerizing. I just can’t fathom how such a big and powerful animal like them could also be so placid and gentle to humans. Are they use to humans visiting them from time to time? How can they be so at peace with visitors?

    It would be my dream come true to pay a visit to these gorillas someday in person.

    Thank you for sharing these photos and your wonderful trip to the jungle, Derek

    • Thanks heaps for the comment Derek. The experience was a very humbling and sublime. These Gorillas have people visit them from time to time. A family has to undergo a form of habitualization first before they’ll let any tourists get as close to them as we did. While Gorillas have basically never attacked anyone, safety definitely needs to come first, so the Gorilla trackers spend an hour with them every couple of days so they continue to be used to a human presents.

      There are rules about getting too close though and making too loud of a noise to prevent frightening the silverback – which is something you don’t want to do 😛 Though if they get close to you – that’s ok. Which they did regularly! They are completely non violent and have no intent or want to harm us, which is why we can get so close and unprotected to such a powerful animal. They’re personalities are just not violent as humans.

      There’s only 650 left of these Mountain Gorillas left, which is one extremely sad fact, as they’re probably the most placid primate out of all the five primates (including us).