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Behind the scenes: photographing gorillas in Rwanda

Words & Photos: Teagan Cunniffe. Article from the Getaway blog Magazine December 2015

I’ve learnt through prior experience to never read one of Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s Getaway columns in public spaces. Either I burst out laughing or end up wiping away tears; both earn sidelong glances from those nearby. Hence my apprehension when I learned I was heading off on a real-life story with this brilliant writer, to find gorillas in Rwanda.

Gorilla tracking isn’t something I thought I’d be doing anytime soon, although I’d heard enough about it to know I wanted to do it at some point. A few years ago, my intrepid aunt and tough-as-nails grandmother hiked for hours in the heated forest, sweating and popping painkillers. ‘I didn’t think I’d make it’, my gran always said. ‘But if I stopped, the group would stop and no-one would get to see them’. Her reward for pushing on through was a set of glowing experiences they still talk about today.

I was lucky to get this image of the male silverback

I was lucky to get this image of the male silverback, the largest in this group, with his mountainous home in the background.

The Rwandan Development Board extended invites to cover the annual Kwita Izina (‘gorilla naming’) ceremony this year, and Getaway was on the invite list. Darrel bagged the story and I was sent, along with a small mountain of equipment, to join him.

And? It was amazing. But I don’t want to give too much away. You’ll have to read about it in Darrel’s equal parts funny and poignant story, in the December copy of Getaway magazine. It’s a gorilla tracking story the likes of which you’ve never read before.

It doesn’t matter if we don’t find them, I told myself. It’s the quest that matters: to be out here walking the Mountains of the Moon, halfway between the crater lake and Dian Fossey’s gravesite. You don’t have to see the gorillas to feel them: it’s enough just to be here, just to look for them. And then Emmanuel started making a low series of keening grunts and moans. For a moment I thought something was wrong, but then I followed his eyes. – Darrel Bristow-Bovey 

 

The Virunga mountains beckon as you drive out of the briefing area and start your expedition.

The Virunga mountains beckon as you drive out of the briefing area and start your expedition. 

Trackers communicate by radio contact in the dense forest.

Trackers communicate by radio contact in the dense forest. 

Thick greenery awaits in the mountains, but just below their slopes are the barren after-effects of agriculture.

Thick greenery awaits in the mountains, but just below their slopes are the barren after-effects of agriculture. 

Emmanuel wielded a panga, clearing aside bushes. Stinging nettles still remained though.

Emmanuel wielded a panga, clearing aside bushes. Stinging nettles still remained though. 

Huge trees filled the canopy at Volcanoes National Park, like something out of the movie Avatar.

Huge trees filled the canopy at Volcanoes National Park, like something out of the movie Avatar. 

Darrel striding through the jungle, floppy hat pulled firmly over his ears.

Darrel striding through the jungle, floppy hat pulled firmly over his ears. 

Finally, after about an hour and a half of hiking, we encountered our gorilla group.

Finally, after about an hour and a half of hiking, we encountered our gorilla group. Sometimes it’s shorter and easier; it just depends on what group of gorillas you’re searching for. 

Adult gorillas adoringly pored over the younger gorillas in their group. We had to step back as this baby made his wobbly way in Darrel's direction.

Adult gorillas adoringly pored over the younger gorillas in their group. We had to step back as this baby made his wobbly way in Darrel’s direction. 

This silverback gorilla made his presence known.

This silverback gorilla made his presence known. You never felt quite at ease when he nonchalantly pushed by, scattering side both gorilla and human groups in his path. 

Walking back along the trail, I nearly missed this gorilla sleeping just off to the side.

Walking back along the trail, I nearly missed this gorilla sleeping just off to the side. 

This iconic silverback made for the most photogenic shots.

This iconic silverback made for the most photogenic shots. It’s almost like he was posing for us. 

Emmanuel has been working as a gorilla guide for 35 years.

Emmanuel has been working as a gorilla guide for 35 years. He’s talented at his job and at times appears more gorilla in his antics than human. Next to him are the four trackers, who keep tabs on where the gorillas are everyday. Human contact with the gorillas is limited to one hour per day. 

The annual gorilla naming ceremony.

The annual gorilla naming ceremony, which joyfully celebrates the naming of the newborn baby gorillas, represented by small adults/ children in gorilla suits. This year (2015) 24 newborns were named.

 

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