Was It Worth It?

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

My answer is Yes. Definitively Yes.

Yes, it was worth it.

It was worth every penny, every flight, every dangerous car ride and treacherous hike… it was worth schlepping my camera gear halfway around the world and no, I do not regret for one second my decision to go out and photograph the lowland gorillas in the misty mountains of Uganda. To me, even just this sunset alone was well worth the trip to Uganda and all the effort it took to get here.

For those who care, this photo was taken on an iPhone 14 Pro Max. The cameras on this phone impress me so frequently that I've stopped being surprised when I'm able to achieve a great photograph with just my iPhone.
For those who care, this photo was taken on an iPhone 14 Pro Max. The cameras on this phone impress me so frequently that I've stopped being surprised when I'm able to achieve a great photograph with just my iPhone.

However, I’d be willing to bet the passengers of the vehicle in front of us do not feel the same way.

Allow me to explain.

Also, allow me to be brutally honest about my experiences here, so you can be secure in the knowledge that I am trying neither to convince nor dissuade you from attempting this journey for yourself. My candor in these matters could possibly help you decide whether to pull the trigger on such an adventure! But rest assured, I am not a travel agent or a tour operator, and I have no skin in this game. I am just a landscape and wildlife photographer who loves animals, and these are my experiences.

YOU HAVE TO REALLY WANT TO DO THIS!

You have to really, truly, want to spend time with these silverback gorillas in their natural habitat, because the ordeal is no easy feat. You need to go into the adventure well-informed and with your eyes wide open. Unless you are willing to spend the small fortune it costs to meet the gorillas like a rockstar or celebrity (using the fancy Sanctuary group or any other high-end outfitter), you need to know that it’s going to be extremely difficult, and not always a pleasant experience. Personally, this is part of the appeal for me, because if it wasn’t extremely expensive, time consuming, and physically difficult to achieve, then everyone would be doing it, and there would be more people up here disturbing these gorillas then there already are.

I realize that it’s a bit of a paradox to bitch about people disturbing these gorillas when that’s exactly what I was up here doing myself— kind of like sitting in your car on the freeway, bitching about traffic when you yourself ARE the traffic— but I can’t help it, I take pleasure in knowing that these gorillas are extraordinarily difficult to get to, and that the combined obstacles of time, money, location, physical stamina, energy, and determination are going to deter most human beings from attempting to visit them. The journey is substantial, and not everyone will consider the reward to be worth the investment.

In fact, I’m almost reluctant to share my amazing pictures, for fear that once people see how close I was able to get to these beautiful creatures, and how expressive and playful and majestic they are in my photographs, everyone will immediately start trying to load up their camera gear and book a trip for themselves and everyone they know forthwith.

(I said ALMOST, lol!!)

THE PHOTOS

This one seemed to be looking up, just over my shoulder. What?! Oh God, what's behind me?!
This one seemed to be looking up, just over my shoulder. What?! Oh God, what's behind me?!

It was as if this little one was trying to nervously communicate to me how important it was that I kept quiet -- for my own good. I think he knew they were planning something.
It was as if this little one was trying to nervously communicate to me how important it was that I kept quiet -- for my own good. I think he knew they were planning something.

This one channeled Marlin Brando from The Godfather, and I’m pretty sure he was trying to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
This one channeled Marlin Brando from The Godfather, and I’m pretty sure he was trying to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

For multiple reasons, it was a good thing I had a long lens with which to shoot to shoot this little guy.  Not only was I offered the best position by the trackers, but even I know you don't want to get too close to a mother and her baby. If she felt threatened, things could go downhill in a blink.
For multiple reasons, it was a good thing I had a long lens with which to shoot to shoot this little guy. Not only was I offered the best position by the trackers, but even I know you don't want to get too close to a mother and her baby. If she felt threatened, things could go downhill in a blink.

But before you start calling your travel agent and booking your flights to Uganda, let’s not forget about this important and compelling photograph as well— the one of the overturned Jeep on the side of a winding, treacherous cliffside road.

THE JOURNEY

I can only speak to what it was like for myself, coming from Dallas, Texas, but getting to Uganda was not especially easy. It involved bringing camera gear on two different 4.5-hour flights and then one long 16-hour flight, just to get to Entebbe. But it isn’t until you’ve touched down in Uganda, and begin traveling by car, that the REALLY treacherous part of the journey begins.

Even though I had trekked to Kala Pathar in the Everest Region of Nepal just less than a year prior (or perhaps because of this), all my concerns about gorilla tracking were focused mainly on the difficulty level of the on-foot hiking portion of the journey, and making sure I was in good enough physical condition to navigate through an overgrown jungle.

It was simultaneously both beautiful and hard to breath on the EBC, so I'd say the 14 day trek was breathtaking in more ways than just one.  But views like this made it all worthwhile.
It was simultaneously both beautiful and hard to breath on the EBC, so I'd say the 14 day trek was breathtaking in more ways than just one. But views like this made it all worthwhile.

Well, this turned out to be wasted worry. Whereas I was perhaps underprepared for the physical demands of hiking towards Everest, I was inversely overly prepared for the physical demands of the Ugandan jungle. (In hindsight, I should have been less worried about being in great physical shape and more worried about the vehicular portion of our journey…)

Once at camp, you are divided up into groups of eight– not including porters and guides— and each small group is assigned a different gorilla family to track. Everyone’s paths diverge almost immediately, and every group’s journey through the jungle is different. Therefore, I can only speak on behalf of my own unique experience. But hear me when I say this, because it is the truth: taking into account everything I personally witnessed, I believe any relatively athletic and reasonably surefooted individual could probably make this trek without much difficulty. (Hear that, Mom?! You could have done this with me!)

As far as hikes go, it just wasn’t that hard of a hike. Even with camera equipment in tow, it wasn't very difficult, and it certainly wasn’t very technical. Granted, I do stuff like this on a fairly regular basis, so perhaps I’m looking at it through a slightly skewed lens, but listen: the gorilla trackers and bushwhackers take the lead, they clear the path ahead of everyone with their machetes, and so there just isn’t a lot to worry about or a lot of physical exertion required. (In case you are wondering, I sing a very different tune when recounting what it’s like to TREK IN THE HIMALAYAS!).

THE PREPARATION

I do not want anyone to get the wrong impression— that tracking the gorillas is a walk in the park — because you are, after all, still in a wild and overgrown jungle, and a few photographers did manage to slip and get a little scraped up and muddy, and one person twisted their ankle; but that was about it. Oh, and there was another person who became winded and had to rest, but we later learned that they’d had no prior experience hiking at high altitudes of any kind, nor had they taken any measures to acclimate properly upon arriving to this sector of Uganda. And when I say “acclimate,” for some this may even be unnecessary or even comical, because we’re just talking about a maximum of like 7,000 feet above sea level here. To put it in perspective, you aren’t even as high up as you’d be at most Rocky Mountain ski resorts. So, I still maintain that with the right preparation, acclimatization, and a hired porter to carry the bulk of your camera gear and lenses, almost anyone can do this.

(Wait until you see how a severely injured woman from the overturned Jeep still made it up to see the gorillas!!!)

Notwithstanding all my unnecessary physical preparation, for what turned out to be a very short and easy hike through the jungle, the prep work that did pay off—and which I consider to be an imperative if you are planning to attempt any adventure like this in Africa — was taking the time to thoroughly spray every inch of my clothing with permethrin. Before I ever left Dallas, I took every single article of clothing that I planned to bring with me to Uganda, I hung it all up on the fence, and then I thickly saturated everything with a permethrin fabric spray. If you are wondering whether this actually works, all I can tell you is that the entire time I was in Uganda, not one mosquito or tsetse fly so much as landed on me, much less bit me. So you be the judge. The permethrin solution was totally colorless and odorless on my clothes, so it felt a bit like I was wearing an invisible magic spell. I got the distinct impression that there were others in our group— people that did NOT take the time to treat their clothing for mosquitos — who were not having quite so magical a time. Quite frankly, they looked itchy and miserable.

Trust me: even if it’s only for this one trip, get over your fear of chemicals and spray your clothes. You’ll thank yourself. You’ll also need to get a prescription for malaria medication as well as a vaccine for Yellow Fever in order to enter Uganda, but that’s all fun stuff you can worry about later. I’m still trying to help you decide if you want to visit the gorillas or not.

BUDGETING: TIME VS MONEY

The next thing you’ll want to consider is how much time you’d like to spend with the gorillas. By law, all groups (regardless of how much money you dish out) are only allowed to spend one hour with the gorillas at a time, per day, to maintain the integrity or their environment and the autonomy and authenticity of their living situation in the wild. However, the pricier (Sanctuary) packages I mentioned earlier do offer the opportunity to become habituated with a singular gorilla tribe over the course of several days, thereby allowing them to get used to your presence. In theory, the repeated visits make the gorillas much more comfortable around you, allowing you to get much closer to them than you ever dreamed possible.

However, even in the short time we spent with our assigned gorilla family, one of the female gorillas got so comfortable with us that she grabbed and yanked the leg of the photographer standing next to me, so I don’t know how much more comfortable I’d really want these enormous muscular creatures to become with me.

Up until this terrifying altercation occurred, I had been silently praying that one of the gorillas would hopefully choose to interact with me, and maybe one would even want to touch me. But after I saw the gorilla grab my tiny friend Jody, I didn’t want this to happen anymore. In fact, I quickly began praying for just the opposite. Our close proximity to the gorillas suddenly felt too close for comfort, and I was beginning to rethink a lot of my life choices.

All things considered, even with the excitement of the unexpected leg-grabbing, I hope I have managed to paint a very pleasant picture for you of what my experience was like, thus far, while visiting the gorillas. Every penny was a penny well-spent, and yes, I wish I’d had more pennies to spend, so I could have enjoyed several more days with the gorillas. The gaze of the gargantuan male silverback was petrifying, and sent chills down my spine, but just like every second spent with these mesmerizing animals, interacting with the silverback was also electrifying and life-affirming in a way I’ve never quite experienced before, or since. So, for me, “pleasant” is entirely too weak a word to describe what my experience was like, I would have to go with some effusive, boundless, words like “transcendent” or “sublime.”

THE GORILLA QUEEN

However, not everyone felt this way, nor could they be expected do. This woman, for example, was in the Jeep directly in front of us when the driver lost control of the vehicle. It overturned and damaged both her legs in the process, so she had to be carried up the mountain on a big metal chair, by eight local men, Queen of Sheba style.

Knowing what all it took for me to get here to these remote mountains of Uganda —and imagining it must have taken this woman about the same (but with the added misfortune of being in the wrong car) —I sincerely hope that if I was in her position, I would demonstrate the same strength and resolution of purpose. I hope that I, too, would be able to see past the travesty and the pain of a near-fatal car wreck, and still insist on doing what I came here to do, and seeing what I came here to see, regardless of the cost.

Granted, throughout the entirety of the day she looked absolutely miserable up on that metal chair, but again, you have to admire her fortitude and perseverance. Even though the circumstances were dismal, and she was probably in excruciating pain, she still managed to fulfill her lifelong dream of seeing the gorillas in their natural habitat.

I’m extrapolating here, since she only spoke Italian (which I’ve established elsewhere I DO NOT SPEAK), so for all I know she was flying high on so much pain medication that she didn’t have a clue where she was, she won’t remember the gorillas at all, and her husband arranged all this for her and he will just have to tell her all about it later… but I’m going with “lifelong dream fulfilled.”

Since I’ve already emphasized to you how extraordinary and magical it was to spend time with the gorillas in the jungle, I feel like the introduction of this injured woman is as good a time as any to underline that the car ride getting here was an absolute misery— the likes of which you have probably never known.

THE FLIPPENING

It was August in Uganda, which means the outside temperature was always hovering around 95° F/35°C. As you can imagine, 8 hours would be a punishing amount of time to spend in a cramped and sweaty car with no air conditioning, regardless of what condition the roads were in. But now picture an unpaved dirt road carved into the side of a cliff, with a sheer and terrifying drop off on one side. The only saving grace about the enormous dust cloud we were constantly kicking up was that— as it billowed up and filled our open windows and our lungs with thick plumes of dirt— it also thankfully obscured our view and prevented us from seeing the dizzying precipice below with any degree of clarity.

There were several instances where I could have sworn that not all four of our tires were touching solid ground. And I didn’t have to use my imagination to picture what our car might look like from the exterior, as it precariously scrambled up the side of this cliff, since there were several cars in front of us that were doing a great job of showing me in vivid and heart stopping detail what our car, too, was most likely doing. Often the potholes were so deep and so relentless that it felt as if we were being shaken by an almighty hand. In fact, can you really call them potholes if they are more ditches than divots, and they are placed one after the other, like the folds of an accordion?

I could not wait for this nauseating, nail-biting ride to end, and at some point, I had to force myself to stop watching the cars in front of us, as every death-defying maneuver looked as if it might end in disaster. So my eyes were therefore closed when, tragically, that’s exactly what happened.

We would later learn that the driver of the overturned car felt his brakes give out, and to avoid smashing into the vehicle in front of him, swerved into the cliff face. It was a better choice than swerving in the other direction— off the side of the cliff— but it nevertheless caused the car to overturn, and flip onto its side.

Before the dust could even fully settle, the remote mountainside road was filled with concerned villagers from the adjacent parish and the nearby vegetable fields.

If you look at this in purely dramatic, storytelling terms, the foreshadowing is all right there in the name, isn't it? I mean, what do we expect to happen to characters when they attempt to enter a place that is literally called the Bwindi IMPENETRABLE Forest?
If you look at this in purely dramatic, storytelling terms, the foreshadowing is all right there in the name, isn't it? I mean, what do we expect to happen to characters when they attempt to enter a place that is literally called the Bwindi IMPENETRABLE Forest?

Even though no one was killed, and everything turned out more or less okay, this is still not the note I want to end my story on.

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER: GORILLA TREK EVE

It took quite a while to get everyone rescued from the vehicle and on their way to proper medical attention, and it took even longer to get the road sorted and cleared back into a passable thoroughfare.

This put us arriving to the gorilla lodge just a half hour or so before sunset, just in time for a spectacular light show over a breathtaking view of the misty mountains.

This is the lodge where you might be staying to get a good night’s rest before the big day, before getting up early the next morning to track the silverback gorillas, and this was the view from my balcony over the jungle.

This was the view from my bed. You might notice the small detail that it's not really time to go to sleep quite yet, but I'm so excited about what tomorrow has in store for me! Let's go to bed already so we can wake up and meet the gorillas!
This was the view from my bed. You might notice the small detail that it's not really time to go to sleep quite yet, but I'm so excited about what tomorrow has in store for me! Let's go to bed already so we can wake up and meet the gorillas!

The structure was rustic and minimal and absolutely perfect, and shortly after dinner and prepping all my camera gear, I fell asleep to the sounds of animals and nature echoing all around me.

If you are having a hard time figuring out whether this journey is right for you, mainly because my story keeps oscillating between a dream come true and a nightmare from hell, then excellent. I’ve done my job. It was decidedly a little bit of both.

But as I laid there, drifting off to sleep… in my mosquito netted bed perched high above the jungle… listening to the exotic sounds of birds and the wind rustling through the trees… and trying to fight off the excitement of knowing that early the next day, I would be down in that jungle, beneath those very trees, meeting a family of gorillas for the very first time in my life… it certainly didn’t feel very much like hell.

It felt like I was in Heaven.

And it was worth it.

*************************************

Here the baby kept moving his hand in front of his face, but I wanted to perpetually stay focused on his eyeballs. Using a combo of BBF and eye tracking, mission accomplished.
Here the baby kept moving his hand in front of his face, but I wanted to perpetually stay focused on his eyeballs. Using a combo of BBF and eye tracking, mission accomplished.

Before you construct an erroneous timeline in your head, this was 2023, and the mask was less of a Covid thing and more of a "humans and chimps share 98.8% DNA, so let's protect them from ALL our diseases" kinda thing. Besides, I was so excited to see these guys in the wild that if they'd have told me to wear a tutu I would have done it.
Before you construct an erroneous timeline in your head, this was 2023, and the mask was less of a Covid thing and more of a "humans and chimps share 98.8% DNA, so let's protect them from ALL our diseases" kinda thing. Besides, I was so excited to see these guys in the wild that if they'd have told me to wear a tutu I would have done it.

Smaller in size but just as big in entertainment and heart, I also photographed some charming chimps and some mischievous baboons. You can meet them and read about them both HERE and HERE!