A Mzungu in Rwanda

(© Ian Plant) During my epic 40 day tour of Africa, I spent several days in Rwanda to photograph mountain gorillas. Rwanda is a perilous place to visit, but not for the reasons you might think. Despite a disastrous civil war in the early 1990s, Rwanda today is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and idyllic countries I have ever visited, and I was surprised at how quickly I fell in love with this picturesque mountain paradise. After only three days, I didn’t want to leave to return home. Perilous indeed.

A mountain gorilla hides in the forest, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (by Ian Plant)

Mountain gorillas are elusive, making their homes in the high altitude forested volcanoes of East Africa. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon 70D, 109mm, ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/500 second.

Rwandans seem to me to be a politely reserved people, but all reserve is thrown out the window by their children, who can be found almost everywhere in large, boisterous groups. Wherever I went, the children would smile, laugh, and wave, greeting me with riotous calls of “Mzungu!”, a Swahili word which essential means “someone who wanders without purpose.” Over time, the word came to be applied to all white people in East Africa, so now it just basically means “white person.” One ridiculously adorable little girl even came up with an impromptu Mzungu-themed song and dance in my honor. She was probably just making fun of my awkwardly pale goofiness, but in my mind she was lyrically extolling my many obvious virtues (humility being at the top of the list, of course). Yeah, Rwanda is a fun place to visit.

A group of children gather to check out the Mzungu with a camera, Rwanda (by Ian Plant)

Although trying to look tough while posing for a picture, the children of Rwanda are remarkably gregarious. Canon 5DIII, 19mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/320 second. 

The cornerstone of Rwanda’s tourism efforts is Volcanoes National Park, home to the mountain gorilla. The elusive mountain gorilla has had it tough ever since Mzungus first arrived in the area. Unknown to science until 1902, the first two gorillas to bump into white explorers were promptly killed—setting an unfortunate tone for the rest of the century. Today, the mountain gorilla is critically endangered, with the total population estimated at under 1000 (mostly concentrated in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo). Although their numbers are slowly increasing as a result of conservation initiatives, gorillas continue to face major threats from habitat loss and poaching. A burgeoning tourist economy focused on the gorillas is probably their best hope for long term survival.

Baby mountain gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (by Ian Plant)

A tangle of baby gorillas playfully wrestling. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon 70D, 200mm, ISO 200, f/3.2, 1/400 second.

Gorillas are peaceful and magnificent animals, living in cohesive groups of anywhere between five and thirty individuals (sometimes even more). Sharing 98 per cent of their DNA with humans, gorillas are among our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. When looking into the unfathomable depth of their eyes, it is hard not to see us staring back.

Portrait of a blackback male gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (by Ian Plant)

Portrait of a blackback mountain gorilla (a younger male which has not yet achieved full maturity), Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon 70D, 200mm, ISO 320, f/2.8, 1/500 second.

Trekking with gorillas is a remarkable experience. Depending on which family group you are assigned to, your trek can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as several hours. The trekking can be very difficult, as it is often steeply uphill at high altitude, through seemingly impenetrable thickets of stinging nettles. The guides and trackers do a great job hacking a path out of the jungle, and porters are available to carry heavy camera equipment. When you find your group, you are limited to one hour of interaction, which never seems enough time to be among these gentle giants.

A mountain gorilla holds her baby, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (by Ian Plant)

Gorilla mothers are very protective of their young. For this mother gorilla holding her newborn close, I managed to find an angle with the forest reflected brightly in her eyes. Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Canon 70D, 157mm, ISO 640, f/3.2, 1/500 second.

It is amazing how close you get to these wonderful animals. Although extremely strong, mountain gorillas are generally tender and shy—though sometimes the powerful males will push people out of the way when moving through a group of tourists (nothing serious, just a “playful” push according to the gorillas guides). This almost happened to me; the gorilla knocked over one of my guides, who was standing two feet away from me. Some guys get all the luck!

A mountain gorilla behind a screen of leaves, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda (by Ian Plant)

The light was constantly changing while I was photographing mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. I used auto ISO so I didn’t constantly need to check my ISO settings, allowing me to keep my attention focused on my subjects. Canon 70D, 200mm, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 1/400 second.

I had an amazing time trekking with the mountain gorillas, and I can’t wait to get back! To learn more about conservation efforts to protect the mountain gorillas, go to the African Wildlife Foundation’s website: http://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/mountain-gorilla. You can see more mountain gorilla photographs on my website.

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