Having visited Tanzania multiple times, I have developed a love affair with East Africa. I visited Tanzania again this August to lead a workshop for The Giving Lens, but when the opportunity of co-leading a follow-up scouting trip to Uganda arose, I was beyond ecstatic. As opposed to Tanzania’s famed Serengeti plains, the pinnacle of this Uganda trip would be trekking deep in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in search of the massive mountain gorillas. Needless to say, I was excited to lead this adventure with my good friend and TGL Founder Colby Brown.
So after spending 10 days roaming around mainland Tanzania and 12 days getting some R&R in Zanzibar, I arrived in Kampala, Uganda where I met our team and we immediately began working with our NGO partner, Beacon of Hope Uganda. Our mission, as with most of The Giving Lens’ NGO partners, is to work with the local community’s youth to teach them to explore their creative side through photography. We bring along donated cameras and spend days with the students teaching them the basics of photography in the hopes that they will build an ‘after school’ photography program to help keep kids busy, focused and creative. I even wrote a story about why this work is so important to me.
Since I was mainly shooting a video for this trip, it wound up being difficult for me to switch and adjust settings between photo and video on my Sony A7rII, so I opted to take most of my photos using my iPhone 7 Plus. Little did I know I would be sharing this photo story on the heels of the iPhone X announcement. Since I have been using my iPhone for photos so frequently, I am beyond excited for the updates that the X brings.
But for now, armed with my Sony video camera and my iPhone 7 Plus, our students gladly took us around their neighborhoods, proud to show us their homes and families. It was immediately apparent that the Ugandan people were not only friendly and welcoming but also very photogenic and I was having a field day using ‘Portrait Mode’to capture their beaming smiles.
Our time with our students was beyond special. We made lifelong connections and they felt the self-confidence that photography can give you. But after three days with our students in their homes, it was time for us to hit the road, and experience the quieter Uganda that exists outside of the bustling capital.
First, we traveled to the town of Fort Portal and visited some of the projects that are NGO Tour partner Africa Sustainable Tourism runs. From tea farms to women’s crafts, the organization provides economic development opportunities for local communities. The scenery around Fort Portal is beautiful, and of course, we were greeted by plenty of smiling faces that seemed to be the norm in Uganda.
We decided to warm up our calf muscles for the gorilla trekking by searching for some chimpanzees. From our guest house in Fort Portal, our guides from Africa Sustainable Tourism took us to Kibale Forest National Park. At first, we could only see the chimps high in the trees, which wasn’t ideal for a photography group as the harsh white sky created rather unimpressive images. But our guide Benson kept assuring us to be patient, and soon enough, he was proven right. We heard the chimp calls not far away and followed until we found a group of about 7 who happily relaxed and posed for our cameras while grooming each other and eating on the forest floor. The experience was remarkable and got us even more excited about the gorillas.
But first, we stopped by Queen Elizabeth National Park to try to find some big game. Being the beginning of the rainy season, the game as started to disperse as water is easily available everywhere. But we still were lucky enough to capture shots of some lions and elephants, but the vibrant greens and beautiful cactus trees stole the show here.
And finally, after 8 days traversing the beautiful landscape, meeting the friendly people, and eating some delicious food, it was time for me to live out a childhood dream. Tracking gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
We had heard that gorilla trekking can be a shot in the dark. Sometimes, you can find the family that you are assigned to visit within an hour or two, or some groups can have much more challenging treks, sometimes totaling 9 miles over 9 hours. Colby and I prepared our team for a long day, but as I took my group of 4, we were shocked when we found the advanced tracking team just one hour into our hike, which happened to be a steep downhill through thick forest, making us realize where the park’s name came from. And so began our 1 hour with the gorillas. If they move, you have to follow…no matter how far. You only have one hour. ‘Make it count’, I kept saying to myself.
And just like that, there they were. Our family had one Silverback male leader, a couple of females, a number of juveniles, and an adorable 3-month-old baby. It’s hard to really describe the jaw dropping sense of awe that you get when you are in the presence of these incredible creatures…especially the Silverback. Standing right in front of this gigantic fella will make you appreciate the raw power that exists in nature. It was a humbling and amazing experience that is high up on my list of ‘coolest things I have ever done’ list. I actually used my Sony for most of this experience, as I was focused on getting really up close video using telephoto lenses, but I hope these pictures help you get the feeling of awe that washed over me.
As I sit on a plane somewhere over Greenland writing this, I can’t stop thinking about our incredible adventure through Uganda. Between the energetic and eager to learn children of Beacon of Hope Uganda to trekking through thick forests looking for chimpanzees and gorillas, Uganda is a country that has something for just about everyone. And it had more than enough for me and I can’t wait to find myself back in it’s friendly and beautiful embrace.