Up close with African elephants at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa
Last month I returned to Londolozi Game Reserve, where I went on my first safari in 2004. The three days I spent there reminded me of why Londolozi has such a fantastic reputation and constantly winds up on lists of the best safari lodges in the world.
Solo rhino at Londolozi
This time my husband and I stayed at Tree Camp, the newest of the camps at Londolozi and found the room far more luxurious than we needed it to be. We appreciated all the mod cons like AC and dual vanity sinks and the hot tub, but the point of safari is to go on the game drives and see the animals. Tree Camp was amazing, but I don’t think it’s necessary to get the fanciest room at Londolozi.
A casual encounter with an African elephant at Londolozi
We also paid for a private vehicle, so that we could go at our own pace and hang out with certain sightings as long as we wanted. If I had to pick one splurge, I’d pick the private vehicle over the largest room on safari. This gives you a more customized safari experience.
Adorable elephant at Londolozi
Elephants on an afternoon game drive
There have been some changes at Londolozi since I first visited, and they are great. I’ll dedicate a future post to Londolozi’s photographic studio, which rents Canon and Nikon compatible lenses. This makes Londolozi a top pick for travelers who want the best photographic safari experience.
Pride of lions feeding on a wildebeest
Game drives at Londolozi last about three hours in the morning and another three in the afternoon. If you’ve never been on safari, six hours of game drives seems like a long time to spend in a vehicle. But the time flies on a game drive when you get to see such amazing wildlife activity up close.
The elephants and leopards were my favorite animals to view. And I got up close with quite a few of them.
Londolozi is famous for the leopards
One of the highlights of any safari at Londolozi is the seeing the leopards. They are beautiful and amazing.
Following a leaping leopard on a game drive
Leopard on the move at Londolozi
Leopard napping in a tree
Londolozi is located within South Africa’s Greater Kruger National park on the Sand River. This is also in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve.
Up close with an elephant on a game drive at Londolozi
If you are planning a gorilla trekking safari to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, you are going to want to document your experience with a camera or three.
There are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas in the world today
Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your gorilla trekking safari photography.
I took some of my favorite images on my iPhone 6s plus
Weather conditions for my treks ranged from rainy (think Gorillas in the Mist) to very contrasty when it was sunny. The contrasty day was the most difficult to photograph.
This mountain gorilla walked right by me
Tip #1 Hire a Porter
Porters are available (tip them US $10 per day) to help carry your gear/backpack and help you through steep and difficult parts of your trek. I would highly recommend using one. Not only are you supporting the local community, but there are a few times when it’s helpful to have someone spot you when you are climbing on a step rocks.
A juvenile gorilla swinging in the bamboo
Tip #2 Make Sure You have Pockets
The protocol for gorilla trekking safaris requires you to leave your daypack, backpack or camera bag about 100 meters from the group of gorillas you will be interacting with that day. This means that any gear you intend on using during the one hour you get to spend with the gorillas needs to be on you. Make sure your pants (most likely rain pants) have pockets for any accessories or spare batteries you might need.
Mother gorilla and baby (image shot and edited on my iPhone 6s plus)
Tip #3- Bring Your iPhone or Mobile Phone
Some of the best photos I shot during my gorilla treks were taken using my iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s plus. Mobile phones are great for wide angle photography, and you will be getting up close with the mountain gorillas. iPhones (and most mobile phones) are best at shooting wide angle images and are easy to carry. This makes them an an excellent choice for photographing your gorillas trekking experience.
Portrait of a mountain gorilla (taken on my iPhone 6s)
Trekkers in Volcanoes National Park are supposed to stay 7 meters away (approximately 23 feet) from the gorillas. The gorillas, however, do not follow this rule. Some will walk ride by you or even touch you. You can only photograph these sorts of interactions if you camera can focus when it’s close to the subject. My iPhone 6s was great at photographing at these short distances, where the lens I had on my Canon required more distance.
Gorilla laying on it’s back
Tip #4- Pack a few lens wipes
You’ll visit the gorillas on their turf, which is not a clear hiking path. The ground will be covered with vines and leaves and possibly mud. I tripped once each of the three days I was with gorilla trekking. While my falls weren’t painful, a few of them did leave my lens or cameras a bit dirty. Fortunately I brought a lint free lens wipe with me each day so I was able to wipe down my cameras and return to shooting promptly.
I shot this video of a mountain gorilla munching on bamboo on my iPhone 6s
Tip #5- Shoot Some Video
Your mobile phone is a great option for this. Even if you are not an experienced video shooter, this is the time to give it a try. Make sure your microphone is on so you have some of the sounds of nature. If you don’t like the sounds when you review your video later, you can always add music later.
Tip #6- Bring a wide angle zoom lens
If you are bringing a DSLR camera, you’ll want to have a wide angle zoom lens that can focus quickly with you. I got good results with my Canon 24-70 mm lens.
I photographed the young mountain gorillas above using my Canon 24-70 wide angle zoom
Tip #7- Bring a Shower Cap
A humble shower cap is one hotel room amenity I always take and stuff into my camera bag. Shower caps can be used to protect your camera body in rainy or damp conditions, which are very possible if Rwanda. Rwanda’s rainy season is from March- May, but I had a light rain in early December. A plastic bag can also do the trick but in Rwanda has a ban on plastic bags. So if you don’t have a clean plastic bag available, grab a shower cap from your hotel’s bathroom instead.
Gorilla chilling out in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Tip #7- Disable Your Flash
Flash photography is not allowed around the gorillas. Be sure you know how to disable the flash on your camera or mobile phone and do so before you get to your group of gorillas.
Baby gorilla from the Hirwa group framed in vines
Tip #8- Look for Creative Ways to Frame Your Shot
The mountain gorillas in Rwanda have some very human behaviors, but they won’t pose for you. Look for angles that will allow you to frame the animals creatively. I found the vines and bamboo helped create interesting ways to frame the animals.
Ideally you want to be able to focus on the gorilla’s eyes. It is unlikely that the lighting will always be ideal for this. Apps like Afterlight and VSCO‘s clarity and shadow save adjustment features can help enhance your gorilla photos during your editing process. If you’re shooting with a DSLR, this can also be done in the editing process if you use Lightroom or Photoshop.
Tip #9- Shoot a Variety of Shots (including group shots)
Much of the time you’ll be in front of one or two gorillas. Try and look for a variety of images, including group shots. These might be harder to compose due to other trekkers in your group, or lighting conditions might not be ideal. Group shots help round out your coverage and give a sense of how the gorilla family interacts. If you have a clear shot of a group of gorillas moving, try capturing it on video as well as in stills. It helps give a sense of place.
I shot the video above of the Hirwa group of gorillas on my iPhone 6s
Tip #10- Don’t Forget to Shoot Landscapes and Details
In order to best cover your gorilla trekking experience, you’ll want to include a few landscape shots which show the area. If you have any sort of zoom capability, you’ll also want to get a few shots of details. When the largest silverback gorilla in the world did not want to show me his face, I took a photo of his vast back. If I could not see an animal’s eyes, I tried to zoom in on a detail like feet, hands, or toes.
A landscape of the some of rural countryside in Rwanda
This gorilla didn’t wouldn’t show me his face, so I photographed his feet
My gorilla trekking guides offered to take pictures of me each day. This is a better and safer option than taking a gorilla selfie.
Here I am photographing the mountain gorillas in Rwanda
Mountain gorilla framed in Bamboo in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Last month I went to the central African country of Rwanda to go on a gorilla trekking safari. There are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas in the world, and the easiest ones to visit by foot are those living in Volcanoes National Park. Unlike other safaris, visiting the ten groups (or families) of mountain gorillas who live in Rwanda involves trekking by foot through the fields and rainforest to see the animals. The treks can range in length from 1-3 hours (each way) with a one hour stay with the group of gorillas you are assigned to that day.
One of the gorillas I met during a trek
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Permits are very expensive, at $750 per hiker per day for non-nationals. Most of the fellow trekkers we met got permits for two days. I went on three treks. Permits for peak season sell out months in advance. Mine were arranged though my hotel, the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, which I can recommend highly.
Each morning the guides are assigned a family of the gorillas to visit, and the trekkers are divided up by language they speak and desired difficult of hike. Only eight hikers are allowed to visit each gorilla family. Your guide gives you an estimated length of how long to expect your trek to see the gorillas will be. The treks also range in difficulty (easy, medium and difficult). Rainy weather (and the resulting mud) can also affect the duration of your hike.
Left: Soulful eyes on a member of the Right: Mountain gorilla framed in bamboo
All three days the estimates were longer than the actual treks turned out to be. This is because each gorilla family is also followed by a group of trackers who work during the night to find where the gorilla groups are on a given day. I also got the feeling it’s standard operating procedure to set the expectation for the trek so they can meet or exceed it to avoid trekkers complaining or feeling that they were mislead.
Francois Birgirmana, the senior tourist guide
Other trekkers wanted to know how each day’s experience differed from the previous trek. While the treks were all different, the overall experience was about the same. One trek was shorter and steeper, another day we had the most famous guide, the famous Francois Bigirimana, who was very entertaining. The last day had the best light for photography. While different, each trek was memorable and justified the steep price of entry.
Left: Gorilla munching on bamboo Right: Sunlight and a mountain gorilla among bamboo
It’s safe to photograph the gorillas and make eye contact when they are eating. If the gorillas are moving, you don’t make eye contact. The guide(s) gives you the gorilla interaction protocol before you spend your hour with the animals, and clear your view when possible.
If you are going gorilla trekking in Rwanda, be sure to bring money to tip both your guide and tracker(s). It’s a great privilege to be able to see these amazing animals so close in their natural habitat, and the experience is better because of the guides and trackers. Tipping guidelines are US $20 or EUR 15 per couple for your guide and US $15 (or EUR 10) per couple for your tracker. The guides and trackers work hard to ensure you have a memorable experience and some of them are former poachers.
The Hirwa gorilla group on the move
Comfortable hiking boots are the most important piece of gear you need to bring. Gardening gloves (which help protect agains thorns) and rain pants help protect against weather as well as safari ants, mud and thorns. I’ve never needed gaitors more. Mine were provided by my hotel. If you’re bringing your own, check I’d recommend Outdoor Research makes the best ones.
Video of the Hirwa gorilla family in Volcanoes National Park which I shot on my iPhone 6s.
Gorilla populations are increasing, with the current population estimated to be in the 900s.
I was lucky enough to visit the Hirwa group of gorillas on my third trek. This gorilla family has one of the rare sets of living twin gorillas among it’s members. This group was the most playful of the groups I visited.
The baby gorillas are named in a ceremony each year. The local school children pick out their names.
The Hirwa group of gorillas were extremely playful
The village children were out of school and very friendly
Last month I went to Rwanda for the first time. The trip was planned around mountain gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park. The gorilla treks took place in the mornings, leaving the days free after returning to the hotel, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, between 11:30 and 2 pm.
I love how women in Rwanda boldly mix prints
The lodge’s managers, Kenya natives Thor Karstad & Alisa Bowen, thought we might enjoy going on a village tour with Theodore Nzabonimpa, a local guide from the Volcanoes Opportunity Association. It sounded very interesting so we asked them to set the two hour walking tour for the next afternoon.
Two of the local village women I met during my walking tour
Gasura village is a short walk from the Sabyinyo Silverback lodge, where Theodore met us. I liked that the hotel has a connection with the local community. The Volcanoes Opportunity Association is a charity organization that was created to support local people through community tourism activities, like these village tours.
Theodore lead us along the roads and through fields to nearby Gasura village. He told us a bit about Rwanda en route. One of the first things you notice about Rwanda is how clean it is. Theodore explained that the country has monthly clean up day, Umuganda, where 80% of the population takes part of community service.
One of the village’s elder women
We walked about 15 minutes from the lodge to village streets where Theodore started being followed by the local village children, who were not in school due to the December holidays. Theodore is a real Pied Piper and knew all the kids. The smiles of the village children were infectious.
Left: Crafty women making baskets Right: baskets made by the village women
Some of the tour highlights included stopping at the homes of village women who make these incredible baskets by hand. These baskets came in a variety of colors and patterns, and take the women 1-2 weeks to make. We wanted to purchase a few and the women who made them charged us US $5 to $10 per basket.
The kitchen of a village house in Gasura, Rwanda
We made stops along the walk to families that Theodore works with through the Volcanoes Opportunity Association, who welcomed us into their homes and showed us what real village life is. It was eye opening experience.
The Volcanoes Opportunities Association provides a mattress to each family it works with
We got to peek inside the houses of local villagers. The simple structures were usually divided into a bedroom and living area, with a separate kitchen. The homes were sparsely furnished, and hangers in the bedroom served as a makeshift closet. There was usually a second set of clothes, but not much more than that.
One of well dressed village children
The village children were as curious about us as we were about them. They were absolutely fascinated when I would show them photos I shot with my iPhone, especially the moving live photos on my iPhone 6s.
Local women peeling potatoes in Gasura Village, Rwanda
My husband and I quickly realized none of these kids has ever seen a printed photo. We decided to take as many photographs as possible so we could have them printed and send them back to Theodore so he could to give them to the children.
This little lady was all kinds of fierce
The children very much enjoyed having their photos taken, and my camera became a way to connect and interact with them that transcended language barriers. We all had fun interacting, and I got to understand the everyday lives of the villagers I met.
Theodore gave a few items of clothing to local village children
Theodore knows what he is doing. He distributed a few items of clothing to the local children and I was struck by how polite the kids were. They seemed excited for each other, even if they were not the recipient of the item. This is a stark contrast to some of the more hands out, baksheesh-driven places I’ve visited.
This girl carried the baskets we purchased on her head very gracefully
Theodore balancing baskets and talking with the local villagers
Waves are universal
Kids playing ball on one of the village roads
Portrait of a Rwandan boy
Some kids were wearing their school uniforms, despite being on holiday
Two gorgeous smiles on girls in Gasura village
The local children were out of school for the holidays
Kids were often giving piggy back rides to children not much smaller than they were
My husband, Jeff, showing the kids live photos on his iPhone
Left: Photographing the village women Right: the picture I shot
Theodore took this photo of us with the group of village children
The villagers enjoyed seeing the images I just shot
I loved geeking out over new technology with the local villagers.
Theodore with a group of children in Gasura village
Going on a gorilla trekking safari was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So was meeting the local villagers in Rwanda and getting a feel for their lives. I think it made my trip more meaningful. I’d highly recommend taking a tour with Theodore if you’re planning a trip to Rwanda. It’s an unforgettable experience and a great example of how a small, focused charity really can help people.