field notes

uganda, 2010

For a nature photographer, Uganda is certainly one of the best travel destinations in Africa. With 18,783 species accounted on a territory of only 241,551 km², the biological diversity in this country is phenomenal. Uganda harbours 1.7% (86 species) of the amphibians, 1.9% (142 species) of the reptiles, 2% of fish (501 species), 4.6% (249 species) of the dragonflies, 6.8% (1242 species) of the butterflies, 7.8% (345 species) of the mammals, and 10.2% (1012 species) of the bird species globally recognized. There are more species of primates than anywhere on Earth of similar area. The high level of biodiversity results from Uganda's location in a zone between the ecological communities that are characteristic of the drier East African savannahs and the moist West and Central African rainforests, along with large differences in elevation and extraordinary combinations of terrestrial and aquatic habitats. The ecosystems range from the snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, the Virunga Volcanoes and Mount Elgon to high altitude montane forests, to the open waters of lakes, to the islands of Lake Victoria and Bunyonyi, and from lowland rainforest of the Congo Basin to dry savannah of Kidepo Valley. For a landscape photographer, Uganda offers a unique mixture of semi-arid woodlands, savannah and forest communities as well as a wealth of montane and lake habitats.

Biologists, nature photographers and other people interested in wildlife research or viewing need to hurry to visit Uganda because the paradise is vanishing due to numerous factors whose impact is unavoidable: population growth and urbanization, tourism, cross border conflicts and refugees, soil erosion, coming oil and gas exploitation in the Albertine Rift, country's industrial and agricultural development, global climate change, spread of animal and plant diseases... Being a pessimist when it concerns a longterm existence of wildlands and the wild nature as such on our planet, I expect further loss of Uganda's attractiveness already in the next decade or so — due to increased tourism. In famous national parks of Kenya and Tanzania you see today tourists more often than wild animals — and a mobile telephone seems to be just all that one needs for photography there. But not the omnipresence of people is what is really bad. The ongoing civilization of natural sites — which is usually called "development" — is a much worse consequence. Those changes are not only of optical or aesthetical kind, i.e. not only landscapes are looking cultivated and animals are behaving not normally. Construction of roads and hotel resorts causes substantial changes of fauna and flora and of the entire ecosystem. Chances to make business with tourists attract locals which, in turn, leads to further population growth and urbanization. All this may appear good to governments and humanitarian organizations who are earning money through combatting poverty, sustainable development, social and economic growth, etc., but people interested in conservation of wild nature would view it as a disaster. The mass tourism and its impact are the main reason why I wouldn't go any more to Kenya — where I have been two times. I also wouldn't go in Tanzania to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area though I have not been there. If the marketing of tours to Ugandan national parks would have the same success, Uganda won't be a place for me, too. Ironically, it is the current policy of high prices that may help prevent a holiday tourist from coming to Uganda and thus to reduce the pressure of mass tourism on nature.

the route

I started my Uganda visit in 2010 with two canoe trips on the Mabamba Swamp in search for the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex).

My next destination was the Semuliki Forest which is the eastern part of the vast Ituri Forest in the Congo Basin. This area is very rarely photographed. Anyway I hadn't seen any good landscape photos of Semuliki Forest. My goal was to get images of the forest itself and to do some macro photography.

After Semuliki I was staying for three days in Kibale Forest. Kibale Forest is famous for its primates. At least 13 species of them live there. The goal was to photograph forest animals, particularly monkeys, birds and insects.

My next destination was the Queen Elizabeth National Park where I spent 3 days in Mweya sector and 2 in Ishasha. My goal was to photograph savannah wildlife and landscapes. I also visited Maramagambo Forest and Kyambura Gorge.

From Queen Elizabeth I went to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. On one day walked through the forest from Buhoma to Nkuringo village where I stayed for two days and visited a mountain gorilla group.

After Bwindi the next destination was Mgahinga Gorilla National Park at the border to Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo where I climbed one of the Virunga Volcanoes. My main goal was photography of landscapes.

The journey ended in Entebbe where I was photographing birds at Lake Victoria.

Overall, this trip took 20 days. To have better opportunities for good photos, I stopped for at least two days at each location.

the season

I decided to travel Uganda in June, and this choice proved to be perfect. June is the last month of rain season and at the same time the first of dry season, i.e. it may rain in June now and then but only briefly. This is the time when most animals are breeding. That means that some animals would look more colourful — particularly birds in breeding plumage. Birds, hoofed mammals, etc. would be showing breeding behaviour which is often quite spectacular. Since June is not the dry season yet, the colours of vegetation and of the sky would be more intensive, the air clear, and occasional clouds would make the sky on landscape photos look better. Also I was expecting to see less tourists in June than in July or August. Indeed, there were relatively few visitors even in such popular national parks as Queen Elizabeth and Kibale Forest.

Having learned geography at school, people in northern countries would think that Uganda which is situated at the equator has a very hot climate. But this is not completely true. At least in the south-west of the country that I visited the temperatures even in June were very pleasant and comfortable for a European. At the altitudes of 2,000 m and above it was cold in the evening, and I had to wear a fleece jacket. In Mgahinga Gorillas National Park, I even had to sleep in my own down sleeping bag, so cold it was in the night!

roads and transportation

There are two main highways in the south-west of Uganda — one from Kampala to Fort Portal and one from Kampala to Kabale via Masaka and Mbarara. When I was there in 2010, Chinese were building a highway from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo (maybe because of the beginning oil exploitation at Lake Albert). The other highway from Kabale to Kisoro was under construction, too. Highways have absolutely disastrous impact on nature. I wouldn't mind if they would go only through towns and farm land. But in western Uganda very large areas of rainforest and savannah are being cleared for their construction. Where the highways are already in use I often saw dead animals (usually mongooses) that had been killed by cars.

Fortunately, most of the roads in Uganda's are still in their original state — without surfacing. This is certainly irritating for drivers and car owners but, being a passenger, I was enjoying this look and feel of Africa. When I was preparing this trip, I new that many such roads can be passed only by a 4WD car. So I hired a Landrover Defender with a driver. In Uganda, I learned very soon that it was a very good choice when I was hearing about tourists having problems with other types of cars — even with some 4WD, such as Toyota Landcruiser. Anyway, if you want to be able to reach in Uganda all places that you planned to visit, you have no alternatives to a good 4x4 car.

In Uganda, a rental of a car for self-drive costs always more than of a car with a driver. Though driving a car myself had some advantages, I preferred not to do it — not only because of the costs. I just found it better to concentrate myself on travelling and photography instead of having permanent stress with bad roads, technical problems, orientation in the country, local customs, search for petrol, etc. I was lucky to have a very good driver who was doing everything necessary, so I could just relax and enjoy the trip.

I rented the car for 18 days. The accommodation and meals of the driver were included into daily rental price. This is not with all companies so, and when you are comparing their offers, it is important to look if the living costs of the driver are included in the price. If you are going to rent a car in Uganda, you should also check the number of miles (or kilometers) per day included, and how much you pay if you exceed it. In my case, there were 150 km daily, and the company was charging 0.3$ per extra kilometer. Though I hadn't used the car for five days, I payed 100$ at the end of the journey. This was mainly because of game drives in national parks and long distance drives on two days (from Entebbe to Fort Portal and from Kabale to Entebbe).

With about 1.20$ per liter, the petrol price was quite high. For a diesel car, the fuel would have been a bit cheaper, but that Landrover had a petrol (benzine) engine. In 18 days I spent about 300$ for fuel. That was not very much, considering the big distances and the fact that the driver was often switching to the first gear speed to be able to go on a bad road.

A report about transportation in Uganda would be incomplete without mentioning the porters. This traditional service is still very common in Africa. Letting someone carry something for you has nothing to do with bad treatment of this person because you pay for it. Those people earn their living with this service, so they will be happy if you would hire them. The prices for porter services are not high. If you are going for a day trip, a porter to carry a backpack with about 10 kg load would charge just 15$. Of course, for more luggage you would need more porters, but usually it would be only one backpack. Porters are great means for transportation of luggage off-road. It is as if your backpack has learned how to walk by itself. This is a great solution for photographers who would like to use a 500 - 800 mm prime lens in a rainforest or mountains: One just can let a porter carry it and the tripod. I am really missing such service in other parts of the world!

accommodation and food

In Uganda, lodges and camps inside and around national parks are absurdly overpriced. Most of them demand several hundreds of dollars per night even if the quality of their services, facilities and meals is quite poor — measured on European standards. If I were alone on this trip, I had preferred to sleep in my own tent. But since my wife and our friend were with me, the accommodation had to meet their demands too. So, when we were visiting national parks, we had to stay in lodges and camps that were available there. To avoid time loss for getting every day to and from the park by car on a bad road, I preferred to book accommodation close to park gates or in the park itself, so that the excursions in the park were beginning in just a couple of minutes of drive or walk from the place where we were sleeping. The best such place was Primate Lodge in Kibale Forest National Park. With the price of 130$ per night for a double room (however, with full board), it wasn't a cheep accommodation, but we really enjoyed staying there for 3 days. Among lodges where I had a chance to stay in Uganda, Primate Lodge was the only place where the level of comfort and service was more or less adequate to prices.

In some other places, such as Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park and Nkuringo village at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, there were only two options: either an overpriced midrange lodge (for 90 - 150$ per night) or an awfully overpriced "luxury" lodge (for 350$ per night or more). In both cases prices didn't correspond to services. Of course, I always chose the lesser evil, i.e. the first option — not only because I couldn't afford a more expensive lodging. Even if money wasn't an issue, it should be payed only if the price is fair. Even if it is in Africa, a lodge or camp whose rates are like in the best European or American hotels has also to provide services like there. Almost all such places in Uganda are owned by Europeans. So I don't accept as an excuse when their managers are explaining bad food in the restaurant, no electricity in the rooms or absence of hot water with the fact that it is a developing country. If so, the prices should be as in the 3d World, too. It is the foreign owners of those lodges who want to invest very little money in a 3d-World country but to achieve 1st-World profit.

In those parts of Uganda where I've been to, finding food was not a problem at all. However, in lodges and camps (even in quite expensive ones) the meals were quite unvaried — especially breakfast. I doesn't matter how much I was paying per night, the breakfast menu was the same: plain omelet, Spanish omelet, cheese omelet... All together, these were six or eight egg dishes — the same every day, for 18 days! Of course, I was refusing to eat eggs every morning, but bread with honey or marmalade was the only alternative then. For dinner, the guests in lodges and camps were getting either beaf or chicken, or Tilapia fish — but always the same, very simple dishes. There is plenty of food growing in the country and being sold on markets and in shops but the staff and the owners of lodges simply don't want to provide their guests with a more or less full-featured menu even if they are paying good money for it.

The same should be said about coffee and tea. Uganda is one of main exporting countries of them in Africa. Ugandan coffee is being sold even in Germany. However, in all places where I was staying (even in expensive), there was only the cheapest Kenyan tea in bags and cheap instant coffee — Nescafe Classic and similar. I can imagine that local population doesn't drink coffee and tea much, and maybe they don't have access to them made for export. But why the European owners just don't organize supplies of the same excellent Ugandan coffee that I purchased in a duty free shop in the airport of Entebbe to their lodges and camps?

In Kampala, Entebbe and big towns, such as Fort Portal, there is a great choice of restaurants which offer very good meals for quite low prices. Even in Entebbe, where the prices are higher compared to province, I could eat a good dinner in a very nice restaurant for not more than 15$.

safety and security

Regarding criminality, Uganda is a very safe country, compared to other African countries or even to some places in Europe or USA. Outside Kampala and some big towns criminality appears not to be an issue at all. In country's recent history there were security problems in border areas to Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. During my visit in 2010 only the situation at the Sudan border was still of concern, and it was not recommended to travel there without a military escort.

The risk of diseases in tropical countries like Uganda is very much exaggerated by pharma companies, politicians and medic. The chances for a tourist to get seriously sick in Uganda are not higher than in such European countries as Ukraine or Russia. Of course, there is always certain risk but it is not higher than to get a car accident somewhere in Europe. In my opinion, the measures of prophylaxis are a matter of personal preference. Someone who isn't afraid of a risk and wants to save money can choose not to do anything for disease prevention and will with high probability return home healthy. I am not that kind of a person and preferred to have more security — particularly against malaria. As malaria protection, I was taking Malarone (i.e. the most expensive but also the most effective medicine). To make this drug work in case of infection, I had to swallow a tablet (= about 7$) every day, though the only place where I saw Anopheles mosquitoes was Queen Elizabeth NP. During my visit in Uganda there were surprisingly few mosquitoes also of other genus. Some were at Lake Victoria, at Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth NP, and in Semuliki — but by far not so many as in the same year at my home, in southern Germany. Overall, in 20 days in Uganda, I was bitten only a couple of times by a mosquito, and it was very unlikely an Anopheles.

The second major health hazard — after malaria — is caused by schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia, or bilharziasis). Having heard and read much about it before and during the travel, I am taking the threat of this disease even more serious than of malaria. The only measure against it is avoiding contact with polluted water. For instance, all lakes of Uganda and lowland rivers, including the Nile, are such places. Even the water for shower can be infected with parasites if it was taken from a lake or river. In camps and lodges where I was staying the water for showers was rain water that was collected in barrels. Since schistosomes need water snails as temporary hosts, rain water is of course free of them.

The restaurants where I was eating in hotels and lodges and in cities were clean, and the food was looking fresh. But, of course, one should take a reasonable amount of care with food sold on streets and in places where hygienic conditions look suspicious. However, I even ate fried grasshoppers that I got from a man on a street in Kampala, and didn't get ill after it.

During my Uganda trip 2010, there was only one real health risk that I was daily confronted with: A possible injury during forest walks. I think it is wise for everyone who is going to hike in tropical forests in Uganda or to climb mountains to bring a first aid kit for that case.

photography experience and tips

I am surprised not to have met a single photographer during this 20 days long trip in Uganda. When I was in Kenya, I was seeing almost every day someone with professional photo equipment. In Uganda, I had the feeling to be the first and only traveller in coutnry's history with a large supertele lens in hands. My driver told me that his colleagues were asking him what is that "big bazooka" that his client is carrying. Sometimes locals were also asking the driver if I was from BBC. This was very surprising because I had been imagining Uganda as a very popular destination for nature photographers because of its biodiversity and great variety of beautiful locations.

As usually, I took most of my equipment with me on this trip. I went to Uganda by a KLM flight via Amsterdam. According to KLM's regulations for the baggage in economy class, a passenger may have up to 2 pieces of checked luggage that weigh up to 23 kg each (i.e. together up to 46 kg!) and take up to 12 kg hand luggage on board. For photographers, this company is very nice indeed! To take maximum of valuable and fragile equipment parts (such as cameras and lenses) in hand luggage, I used my favourite ultra light backpack Golite Jam (see a review here). I put all lenses (including the 2.8/300 mm!) and both camera bodies into it and its weight was still within 12 kg. That bag could also fit into every baggage compartment even in the quite small Fokker machine that was flying from Nuremberg to Amsterdam. The more sturdy rest of my equipment such as components of Novoflex Quadropod, tripod head, flash brackets, cables, batteries, binocular, etc., was in the padded but light Yellow Moon YM-902 (see a review here) rucksack that I checked in.

Almost all of that equipment I was using more or less frequently in the cases described below.

shoebills at lake victoria

One of the best places in Uganda for viewing and photographing the Shoebill is the Mabamba Swamp. This is an internationally known fact among birders, so many of them who go to Uganda also visit this place. The swamp lies about 15 km west of Entebbe and extends across more than 100 km² from a bay of Lake Victoria. The Mabamba Swamp harbours a large variaty of water-associated birds, and when water lilies (Egiptian Lotus) have opened their flowers to the sun, it is one of the most colourful sceneries one can imagine.

A market at ferry embarkment. Though this place is worth to visit for a travel photographer or someone who is interested in seeing different culture and people, I wouldn't recommend to a traveller who is going to Mabamba Swamp to try crossing the bay by this ferry.

Despite their proximity, Mabamba Swamp and Entebbe lie more than 40km apart by road. To reach the swamp from Entebbe, one needs more than an hour. The geographically shortest route is one that involves crossing the bay by a ferry. This possibility wasn't mentioned in any travel guide that I had read before, therefore I didn't know about it. It was the driver who got this idea. He had never been to Mabamba Swamp before, so his knowledge of the way there was also only theoretical. However, he was convinced that it would be the best to take the ferry instead of driving around on road.

Since we went to the Mabamba Swamp two times — once by ferry and once around the bay, I could compare both options. Taking the ferry on the first day proved to be not better than driving a longer distance on road for two reasons. First, since the ferry goes only on weekdays and only in certain hours of a day, you should know its arrival and departure time. Even if you do, you should arrive very early before departure — to get enough space for a car on it. Since we came there about an hour in advance, our combined way to the swamp by ferry and car took about as much time as the drive there directly. The second reason, why I wouldn't recommend anyone that ferry is its small size compared to the number of people and vehicles that it takes on board. One should be an extremely skillful driver to embark such a large vehicle as Landrover Defender on such a small ferry. Even to be able to get by car through the crowd at the bank and to deal with many irritated people, one has to know the local language. Fortunately, my driver could both — to negotiate with people and to get the car onto the ferry. I wouldn't be able to do it. So if I were driving the car, I would have definitely gone to the Mabamba Swamp on road.

No booking in advance is necessary (nor possible) for an excursion to the Mabamba Swamp. There is just a small village where one has to get to which is a kind of a gate to the swamp. The Mabamba Swamp isn't a protected area, thus one doesn't need to pay for entry but to be able to go there and to find shoebills, one needs a boat and a guide. After we arrived there, a man came to me and said that he is the official guide "on duty". When I mentioned in the car hire company in Kampala that I am going to the Mabamba Swamp, they advised me to be careful when choosing a guide because not all locals know well the birds on the swamp and not all are able to localize shoebills. At the location, it was much easier to find a competent guide than I had been thinking after that warning: Since every day some birdwatchers visit the swamp, the services for them are very well organized, and all people who work as a guide seem to be officially employed and trained.

The official fee for a canoe ride for 2.5 hours (including a paddler and a guide) was 30 000 Ugandan shillings (i.e. about 13$). However, in that case they didn't guarantee sighting of a shoebill. They would do it, if you pay 40 000 Ush (about 17$), i.e. they would then be driving you through the wetlands on that day till you've seen and photographed a shoebill. This was just what I wanted, so I payed 40 000 Ush. This was the price per canoe — not per person, i.e. it didn't matter how many people are going for an excursion! The more people are there, the less it costs per person. However, the boat can take at maximum 6 persons. Since there are a paddler and a guide, only 4 passengers can go into one boat — especially if at least some of them are photographers, i.e. would need some extra space. I would recommend anyone who would like to be able to move in the boat and to position the equipment to pay for the whole boat and to go alone because 13$ or 17$ is not much.

Lung fish Protopterus — favourite food of shoebills living on the Mabamba Swamp. Such fishes are also the main catch of local fishers.

When I was there, only two hours in the morning were suitable for photography. Till about 9:30 a.m. the light was bad because it was very cloudy and windy. After 11:30 a.m. the sun was burning, the light was too harsh, and the birds didn't show anymore. On the first day, I arrived (after a ferry trip!) only at about 10:30 a.m., and had therefore only about an hour of good light for photography. Nevertheless, we managed to find a shoebill and many other interesting and colourful birds. Unfortunately, all of them were — as wild birds usually are — quite shy. With a boat, it was very difficult to get close even to jacanas and ducks. Since all birds were residents of the Mabamba Swamp or of the adjacent area where nobody is hunting or chasing, or doing any other harm to them, I am explaining this behaviour only through a flee distance which is determined by an instinct. In every bird species or population there might be a critical minimal distance at which they don't tolerate any potential threat and flee. It doesn't matter in this case how the real experience of those particular individuals was. This distance also appears to be relative to the size of the bird. On the Mabamba Swamp, jacanas, lapwings, ducks and herons were allowing a boat to come at 15-20 m to them before they flew away. Usually long before that they were getting alert — were standing with raised heads and stretched necks and looking at the boat and people in it. With such little birds, 20 or even 10 m is still too much for a good photo with a 300 mm lens even in combination with a 2x teleconverter. Tiny malachite kingfishers were allowing a distance of about 5 meters. In comparison with their size it is almost the same as a jacana at 20 m — no chance to get a frame filled with it.

It was even worse with shoebills. Though they are very big and have no enemies where they live, they are extremely shy. I had seen them in Frankfurt Zoo before, and new that a shoebill is a quite large species, but when I saw it in the wild, it was looking like a giant prehistoric bird — maybe because other birds there were much smaller. Though it is a very, very big bird, it is difficult to spot a shoebill before it takes off and flies away. Without a very professional guide I would (if at all) have registered only "a large grey bird of unknown species" flying far. Indeed, shoebills at the Mabamba Swamp were allowing to approach them at only about 150 m!

Initially, there was only one day-trip to the Mabamba Swamp on my programme but since I arrived too late on that day and recognized that staying there longer wouldn't make sense, I decided to return on the next day and to try to be at the swamp earlier. The guide told me that early in the morning, when shoebills are hunting, it is possible to get very close to them — at a distance of "just a meter". Of course, I didn't believe that it can be so close, but even 10 or 20 m would have been not bad, too.

The next day, we left our hotel in Entebbe at about 7:15 a.m. It was Sunday, and the ferry didn't go, so we drove around the bay. When we arrived in Mabamba village, it was already around 8:30 a.m. The lighting was quite different than on the previous day when we were there just one hour later. As I mentioned above, this time it was very cloudy and the wind was blowing. The water and the sky were grey, and the flowers were hidden. Overall, the swamp was looking absolutely different. I had to use flash all the time — not to lighten up shadows but as main light.

A typical view at shoebill through a 600 mm lens! It is very unlikely that you would get much closer to the bird than this. So it is better to bring at least a 500-600 mm lens and a 2x TC, to have a combined focal distance of 1000-1200 mm.

The first shoebill that we saw was even farther than on the previous day, and quickly flew away. With that bad light and very large distance, it wasn't possible to get shots that would be any good at all. Even with that weather, the images could be okay if the bird were in 10 m or closer, so that the flash could do its job. The guide was only telling us that he is wondering why the shoebills have got so shy... I could explain it by one of three possibilities: Either the birds had been recently too much disturbed by people (e.g. were being chased by fishers as competitors, etc.), or it was a regular seasonal change of their behaviour (e.g. during breeding season, migration, etc.), or it was always like that, i.e. the birders could see them only at large distances but were satisfied with that, so that the guides didn't even notice how far the birds in reality were. The third assumption appears to me more likely to be correct because I have never seen any photos of shoebills taken on Mabamba swamp that would be looking like images of "a shoebill" and not as of "a swamp landscape with a shoebill".

A little later on that morning the sun started to come out and the swamp was getting those wonderful colours that we had been enjoying so much during our previous visit.

Finally, at about 9:30 a.m. the light was very good. Soon we found another shoebill that was about 100 m away but a bit closer that during our previous encounters. I managed to take a couple of photos of "a shoebill in its environment" before it escaped again. If I had a 600 mm or a 800 mm lens with an teleconverter , there could be some nice bird shots too — even at a so large distance, but my 300 mm lens was much too short for it. After so much effort and two days of search I was quite satisfied with what I got, but it wasn't that species photo that I had been planning. Certainly, much better results were possible, if I had spent more days (mornings and evenings) on the Mabamba Swamp, and had used a much longer lens.

wildlife photography in forests

Photographing forest animals and flora may be quite challenging even in Europe or North America. There are three reasons for this: bad light conditions, physical obstacles, such as leaves, branches, etc., in front of the lens, and big distances to subjects in the canopy. In tropical forests with their dense vegetation and very high trees, such problems are usually much more drastic.

Books and films about tropical nature are usually presenting tropical forests, especially rainforests, among major sources of life on our planet — a place with the most biodiversity on Earth that is providing the most material to evolution. Maybe you were already walking in Europe in a forest on a sunny day wondering why it is so empty: No birds, no other animals — only the sound of tree leaves in the wind... In a rainforest in Africa you would be surprised to have quite the same feeling. Though the plants and the whole scenary may appear different, you wouldn't find there, at first glance, much more animals than in a forest in moderate climate. To spot a monkey or a bird high in a tree, you have to go slowly, to look and to listen carefully. You also need to pay attention to what is happening on the ground — to be able to see insects, spiders, millipedes... However, it wouldn't be such experience as you may expect after reading adventure books or looking BBC documentaries: To experience the abundance of life in a tropical forest, one has to learn the forest better and to spend much time there.

During my Uganda trip in 2010 I had opportunities for photography in several types of forests — lowland rainforest (Semuliki), gallery rainforest (Kibale), montane rainforest (Bwindi, Virungas), river forest (Kyambura Gorge), acacia forest (Ishasha). Apart from landscapes, I was interested in primates, birds, invertebrates, and, sometimes, in plants. Of course, I was always hoping to find a frog or a snake but didn't expect it much.

Primates: For a photographer, primates can be devided roughly into two categories: tree-dwelling and ground-dwelling. Tree-dwelling primates spend most of their life in trees — often high in the canopy — and never or extremely rarely come down to the ground. All monkeys that leave in Uganda are tree-dwelling animals. Baboons and apes (chimpanzees and gorillas) are at least partially ground-dwelling: Though they can spend much time on trees (especially, chimpanzees), they readily walk on the ground — particularly when they have to cover a long distance. The photographic experience and results may be quite different with these two ecological types of animals.

From photographer's viewpoint, monkeys live and behave very much like birds: They stay high in the canopy, are relatively small, and change frequently and quickly their poses and location. All this causes huge problems for a photographer, and in a wild forest, a photographically good image of such an animal can be extremely rarely achieved. Many wildlife photographers want to obtain only images with nice composition, smooth lighting and clean background. Such perfect conditions are extremely rare in all forests. If you are one of those photographic purists, parks in cities, towns and around lodges, camping grounds, plantations, and similar cultivated areas are the only places in Uganda (not to mention a zoo in your country) where you may get images of monkeys that would meet your high demands. You wouldn't find all species in such locations, though. Personally, I know one reliable place where mantled colobus and vervet monkey can be found in more or less optimal conditions for photography. This place is the Entebbe Botanical Gardens.

If you are a naturalist in photography and prefer "real wildlife", i.e. undisturbed animals in their original environment, you will have to accept all those bad conditions that I mentioned above and to learn to deal with them. You also shouldn't expect then too much excitement from aestheticising audience and fellow-photographers about your images.

Much can be improved with proper equipment. Anyway I would recommend to use at least a 500 mm lens with a 1.4x or a 2.0x teleconverter, i.e. to have 500-1000 mm focal length. Since it is not possible to use a tripod (because you will have neither time nor enough space to set it up), you should take a monopod with you. Since the maximum aperture of a 500 mm lens would be f/4 and with a converter it may be even f/8, the exposure time will often be quite long — longer than 1/50s. So, even if you would use a stable support, most of your images will be blurred due to the movements of animals.

If monkeys are sitting high in a tree, it is impossible to achieve a view from the same level, i.e. to fulfill even this basic composition rule of wildlife photography because in most cases the animals will be photographed from below. However, in some forests there are places with observation platforms — so-called "tree houses". In the Semuliki Forest there is one such platform near Simpaya Hot Springs. There are also some in Kibale Forest — for instance, at Bigodi Wetland and near Kanyanchu Camp. Such platforms were designed first of all for birdwatchers and general tourists and are not perfect for photographers. Where a birdwatcher would be satisfied only with a sighting of a bird and a tourist only with a beautiful view at the forest, a photographer, even equipped with a long lens, would need a much shorter distance to the subject. For good shots of monkeys even on nearest trees, one still would need a focal length of 800 mm or longer. On the observation platform in Semuliki, I've been always using my 300 mm lens with a 2.0x TC, and it was still too short.

This image illustrates the maybe greatest challenge for a photographer in a forest — when leaves and branches are in front of the subject. This couple of double-toothed barbets (in a very sweet action) is perfectly in focus. The exposure was quite good, colours are good, and the composition, too (This is an unprocessed full frame.). However, there are blurred areas and colour casts all over the image because some leaves and branches were in foreground. I was using here a 2.8/300mm lens with a 2.0x TC, i.e. 600mm, wide open (f/5.6). Even the open aperture didn't solve the problem.

Often, you have few seconds for a shot when the eyes of the animal on a tree are visible and turned towards camera, and the animal itself isn't covered by branches.

If monkeys have to be photographed from below, i.e. when they are in the canopy, a photographer who will be standing under the tree will be always struggling with a huge dynamic range: While it will be very dark under the leaves, the sky that will be showing through the canopy will appear extremely light and result in white ares in the final image. The only solution that really works in such situations is using a flash (of course, with an extender). However, another difficulty will usually arise in that case: Objects that will happen to be on the way of the flash beam may be casting shadows. When using a flash, a photographer has to do even more carefully what he anyway will be doing most of the time in a forest — "shooting through a hole". Often it is just a second that you have for a shot — when the face of the monkey has appeared between leaves and it is looking towards the camera. When I am going to photograph animals that could be moving I usually set the focusing mode in my camera to AI Servo. However, when I needed to quickly focus on a monkey's eyes that are just briefly looking between branches and leaves, the autofocus in my EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 30D was almost never working precisely and quickly enough. Therefore, I usually preferred to focus manually when I was photographing birds, monkeys and other animals in trees.

If the animals at least sometimes descend from trees to the ground, it is much easier to photograph them. While monkeys do this extremely rarely, baboons and chimpanzees often walk on the ground, and gorillas spend almost all their life there. For humans, who are ground-dwelling animals as well, it is of course much easier to photograph baboons and apes. However, the problems with light and with focusing that I discussed above are remaining here too.

Another typical problem can be seen here: This is a Ross's turaco, with more than 50 cm length — a quite large bird. This is an unprocessed full frame which was created with a EOS 5D Mark II and f2.8/300mm in combination with a 2.0x teleconverter, i.e. the total focal length was 600mm! You can see here how small the bird is on this image: It was sitting in the canopy of a tree that was at least 30 m high. I used a flash with an extender to lighten it up, so the exposure is not bad. In postprocessing, I can also extract some more colour on turaco's body (which is dark blue). However, this image looks snapshot-like and can go maybe only into a home album. With more optical reach, the results could be much better. This is a typical case because the trees in a rainforest are usually so high. Therefore a sufficient focal length is essential in forest photography.

Birds: Photographing birds in a tropical forest is much like photographing monkeys. According to my experience, it is more difficult, however. Many birds are very small, anyway most are smaller than monkeys. Due to their size and the ability to fly, it is very difficult to locate them when they are high in trees, even if you can hear them well. In the forests in Uganda, birds were staying in the canopy and almost never came down to the ground or to lower vegetation levels. Even if it was such a large bird as Great Blue Turaco, when it was sitting in the canopy, a lens with focal length of at least 800 mm would have been necessary to obtain a frame where it would appear large enough for the photo to be of any use. At least 90% of bird photos that you take in a rainforest will be for home use only, even if you have a 500 mm lens. So here is my advice: If you are focusing on photography of tree animals, bring your longest lens. If you wouldn't be able to go beyond the focal length of 600 mm, be prepared that the results will be usable only for your records.

Roads like this one that is leading to the park office in Kibale Forest national park are probably the best places for photographing butterflies. In the hottest hours of the day, between 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. there are clouds of butterflies of various shapes, colours ans sizes flying around and sitting on the road. Officially visitors are not prohibited to walk on this road. So you won't get arrested if you do it. But beware of elephants! By the way, this road in Kibale Forest, is where I dropped my EOS 5D Mark II.

Insects and other invertebrates: For macro photographers, excursions in a tropical forest can be definitely much more rewarding. Plenty of subjects can be found even not very deep in the forest. For someone who is staying inside or near the forest it should be enough to walk a little around to find very colourful spiders, cicadas, flies, mantises, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and first of all — butterflies. As usually in macro photography, flash and tripod should be used whenever possible. I had always a flash with me on forest walks and was using it with both — a tele and a macro lens. On many excursions, I had taken only a 300 mm lens with a 2.0x TC and a 12 mm extension tube and left the macro lens back. Though a dedicated macro lens provides somewhat better image quality, when I was photographing butterflies, I discovered that a tele lens with an extension tube has not only that advantage that I wasn't carrying an additional lens for macro: Since the depth of field with a tele lens was not as shallow as with a macro lens, it was often easier to focus — particularly on moving insects. Though I have two separate flash brackets — one for macro photography and one for a supertele lens — when I was expecting to photograph both — animals in trees and butterflies — I took only one bracket (Wimberley F-2) on the walk and was using it with both lenses.

photographing chimpanzees

After mountain gorillas, the second main tourist attraction in Uganda are chimpanzees. In 2010, there were three places where tourists could see them more or less reliably: Kibale Forest, Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park and Semliki Wildlife Reserve. The most popular location is Kibale Forest which has the most density of chimpanzees in Africa: In 2010, over 1200 of them were living on the area of about 800 km². A downside of this is that, though 13 species of primates were registered in Kibale Forest, chimpanzees have eaten or expelled most of them. I could see more species of monkeys in Semuliki Forest than in Kibale. In Kibale I have seen only red-tailed monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys and olive baboons. The monkeys were very rare and shy. Only baboons could be approached close enough for a photo. That primates were virtually absent where (after reading so much about this place) I had been expecting to find them in a great abundance and diversity, was my biggest surprise and disappointment during this trip. That high expectation was the main reason why after quite long hesitation I decided to visit Kibale Forest, though I am not too fond of going to places of mass tourism.

Some chimpanzee families in Kibale Forest have been habituated to humans, so that visitors can see them from a quite short distance. Probably some dozens or even hundreds of thousands of tourists every year go to Kibale Forest only because watching chimpanzees is guaranteed there to almost 100%. I was interested in chimpanzees too but my original plan was to visit them in Kyambura Gorge. However, since I went to Kibale, I finally decided to see them in both places because it was interesting to compare two different populations.

When I was preparing this trip, I was booking excursions in advance if it was going to be a popular touristic destination. Everyone knows, of course, that gorilla trekking permits are so. But also with the visit of chimpanzees in Kibale Forest, I was advised to book the excursion in advance. I did it in Kampala on the next day upon arrival. The clerk in the main office of the Uganda Wildlife Authority who was receiving bookings told me that there were no places on the day of my first choice but I could book for the next day. It was not a problem for me at all because I was going to stay in Kibale Forest for three days, and my programme was flexible. I also had understanding for the rule that only a certain number of people were allowed per day to visit chimpanzees. However, the situation turned out to be quite different when I arrived at the location: People who were just walking in at the park office could join the next visitors' group. On the day when I was going to the chimpanzees, our group of 6 persons and at least two other such groups (i.e. all together, about 20 people!) went to the same chimpanzee families at the same location. Sometimes there were more people around than chimpanzees, and visitor groups were often running across each other. Okay, formally there were still not more persons per group than the UWA rules were requiring, but at least 3 such groups were at the same place! It appears that local park office organizes visitor groups with all people willing to see chimpanzees whenever they come to them. If so, there is no reason for booking in advance — especially, if you are not in Kampala and have to go there extra.

Overall, my impression of the chimpanzee visit in Kibale Forest was quite mixed: On the one hand, it was a guaranteed opportunity to see and even to photograph chimpanzees. On the other, those many tourists running in the forest were making everything look more as a social event than as an excursion to wild nature. Either because they were afraid of people or because it was their normal behaviour, the chimpanzees were staying most of the time in trees. The trees were not very high, however, and one could make good photos — but only with about 800 mm focal length.

Three times I was lucky to meet a chimpanzee while it was sitting on the ground, and it was the only opportunity for me to take fairly good photos. Even on the ground, chimpanzees didn't allow people to come closer that 10 m to them. Therefore, I was using my 300 mm lens. Near the ground, it is very dark even if it is a gallery forest. Flash can't be used with chimpanzees, therefore the only possibility is to set a high ISO. I was using my 5D Mark II with ISO 1600 and f/2.8 - f/5.6, and even then the exposure was very long — 1/50s or longer. Fortunately, I could use monopod but nevertheless I got very many blurred images. Of course, there were also those huge problems with obstacles in front of the subject and with patchy lighting that I was already discussing above in the section about forest photography.

Few days later, I went to Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth NP to visit chimpanzees there. It was an absolutely fantastic excursion — one of the best experiences during that Uganda trip. Kyambura Gorge is a deep and, with only 2 km, quite narrow gap in savannah where a river rainforest grows. A family of about 20 chimpanzees lives there along with other primate species. Unlike Kibale, even colobus which are favourite food for chimpanzees are surviving there, and we could see them.

The forest in Kyambura Gorge looks not only fantastic from outside but it is so when you are inside: It is a perfect rainforest — like in all those films and books about the tropics. Walking there was a great experience that I will never forget. Though Queen Elizabeth NP is the most popular national park in Uganda, tourists go there mainly because of savannah wildlife. Fortunately, very few of them want to see chimpanzees and know about this opportunity.

Visiting chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge was a real tracking. We were only 4 people in the whole forest — us three and a guide. The guide was highly professional — the best we had during our trip. Interestingly, it was a lady. I even am thinking after that excursion that female guides in Uganda know more and work better with visitors than men. She was showing us very much in the forest and telling very many interesting things about the life of chimpanzees in that population. This was a quite hard walk on steep slopes, fallen trees, slippery paths made by animals. I suppose that it is also a reason why this place is not so popular among tourists as Kibale Forest. Anyway, I wouldn't recommend anyone who isn't in a good physical shape to go to Kyambura Gorge.

It took us much more time and effort to find chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge — not only because it wasn't a mass activity as in Kibale, where many people were chasing them and telling each other their position on radio. In Kyambura Gorge, it was a real forest excursion when we had to learn about forest first, to see how chimpanzees and other animals live there, to recognize their trails, to hear their calls... We had to walk through the whole forest. Finally we found them. Some were running on the ground and some sitting in trees. It was already late afternoon, and the chimpanzees were preparing for the night. One young male was even looking tired and was resting on the ground — in just a couple of meters from me. It was amazing! I nearly stumbled on him!

In Kyambura Gorge, monopod was not allowed and, of course, flash could not be used. The light was very low. Once again, I had to use the 5D Mark II at ISO 1600, and again, at least a half of the images were blurred. But nevertheless I got some good photos. And overall, tracking chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge was a rare case of an absolutely perfect nature excursion.

game drive photography

Honestly, I hate game drives. A car can be absolutely essential to get to a remote location and away, for transport of baggage, or as a means of traveling long and at large distances. But it is probably the worst way of wildlife watching that I can imagine. Cars disturb animals and destroy their environment. In savannah national parks throughout Africa, roads and car traffic isn't serving habitat and landscape protection as one may think. No, it is only intensifying the tourist flow and increasing profit. Compared to the damage that cars cause to vegetation and soil in national parks, the damage from walking visitors would be minimal because not so many people will be able to do it, and their walking routes will be much thinner than roads. The officially declared argument that people have to stay in cars to be save from dangerous animals isn't satisfying because the same people can walk everywhere outside the parks, where elephants, buffaloes and lions live too. Since lions are very rare and don't hunt humans when there is so much other food around, they aren't dangerous. Tourists visit also other areas of the world where large predators such as tigers and bears leave, have to sleep there in tents and move around by foot, but accidents with predators occur extremely rarely. Forest national parks in Africa (such as in Uganda — Kibale Forest, Semuliki Forest, Mgahinga Gorillas NP, etc.), where many buffaloes and even elephants live, can be visited also only by foot. So only one reason for game drives comes to my mind: The government wants to achieve maximum visitors' throughput and thus to maximize profit.

In African savannah parks the same as in forests should be possible: People with keen interest in wildlife should explore it in a natural way — by foot. Someone who isn't fit enough for long walks or is "afraid of monsters" should stay in one place, e.g. in a hide or on an observation platform, and watch animals that would come there (e.g. to rest or to drink water) or just be passing by.

Unfortunately, almost all savannah parks also in Uganda can be visited only by car. So for me there was no exception: In Queen Elizabeth National Park, I had to spend most of the time in the car and to photograph animals and often even landscapes through a window.

Well, in some cases I was getting out of car even in the park. In the tree that my lens is pointing at on this photo, there was a leopard. I left the car and walked slowly towards the tree. I had the EOS 30D with the 2.8/300mm and a 2.0x TC in my hands, i.e. the combined focal length was 600mm (or even 960mm — including 1.6x crop factor of the camera). However, I couldn't come closer than about 50m to the subject, therefore the leopard was still quite small on the photo that I got. It had also been very shy: As soon as I made just one step more, it jumped down and disappeared. A longer lens with a teleconverter would have done a better job here.

I am photographing a female warthog with a wide-angle lens. On Mweya Peninsula in Queen Elizabeth National Park people are allowed to walk. One can encounter warthogs, waterbucks, mangooses, and even an elephant, and have a unique opportunity for a close-up photo. The animals are, of course, wild but not afraid of humans. However, after I had approached so close this warthog, I had to run a bit because she played an attack to scare me... and yes — I got scared.

There is one thing with Ugandan savannah parks which is very positive, compared, for instance, to many Kenyan protected areas: There are no fences around them. So animals have absolute freedom of movement in and out of the protected area. There are also lodges and camps in the parks or at park borders where animals can freely walk in, and, of course, people who are staying there can encounter warthogs, elephants, hippopotamuses and many other animals — even lions — when they walk around. However, accommodation in such places is usually very expensive (see above). For me, in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), the best moments were when I could get out of the car and walk — when I could install my tripod and photograph a beautiful landscape, could get closer to an animal... If I were driving the car myself, I would have done it more often even in the park during a game drive. But I had a driver, and though I was his boss, I didn't dare to break the rules — to request him to stop the car for me to get out. As during my Kenya trips, these were moments when I was regretting very much that I wasn't driving myself.

It was particularly frustrating not to be able to photograph birds. A great number of very interesting and nice looking bird species live in savannah. During game drives they were flying and running everywhere but only the biggest of them, such as storks, eagles and vultures can be photographed from a car, and even then — only from a quite big distance.

As I had expected before the trip, I liked Ugandan savannah parks more than Kenyan, however. First of all, there were not so many tourist cars. In more popular Mweya sector of QENP, I saw altogether not more than a hundred tourists per day. In the whole Ishasha sector, during one day, there were only maximum 5 cars with 2 or 3 people. Often there were no people around at all.

For someone who is looking for original landscapes and undisturbed nature, the Ishasha sector is more interesting than Mweya. For tourists who are travelling between QENP and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest it is only a place where tree climbing lions leave.

Those lions are the third (after gorillas and chimpanzees) major tourist attraction in Uganda. Actually, I should have written "used to be" because today a tourist who has come by a taxi or safari bus and made a brief stop at Ishasha most certainly won't find any lions although safari companies are still promising it. Some of the lions are still there but they now avoid staying in trees when tourists are around. I have seen them on trees two times during my game drives in Ishasha sector but both times that were the same two lionesses. Locals say that, when this area was first opened for tourism, there were many lions on trees. Safari drivers and people who work in the park are also arguing that most lions went to Congo since then — probably because they were too much disturbed by people.  In my opinion, it is a very realistic assumption. The lions climb the trees to rest in shadow during the day and  to escape from flies. While a lion is resting in a tree it can be seen very well — much better than in when it is in grass, and this was one reason why I was looking for them at Ishasha. The savannah at Ishasha River is one of only two places in Africa where lions are known to climb trees regularly. Since very few photographers go there, I was hoping that a photo of a lion resting on a branch would look more interesting than that mass of trivial lion photos that people are showing after each Africa trip. So this was the second reason why I decided to look for lions, though it wasn't the reason of my visit to Ishasha sector as such. I went to Ishasha to look at and to photograph the savannah, and lions were just an additional subject.

I had an impression, that unlike in Kenya and Tanzania, in Uganda lions are generally not so tolerant of tourists watching them. In Uganda they are simply like the rest of the wildlife — more wild. I suppose that this is due to the small number of tourists that are regularly visiting them: The animals there aren't habituated to cars and people as much as in some more popular parks such as Serengeti or Tsavo. So I can imagine very well that in Ishasha the lions even preferred to move away when they got annoyed by people. There maybe two dozens of such trees in the whole park, concentrated in a quite compact area. One needs about two hours to get there from the park gate and to check every tree. If it were guaranteed that tourists will see lions, there would be dozens of safari cars in this place the whole day long every day. Everyone who has been to African national parks knows that tourists are crazy with lions. So if everyone could see at any time a lion on a tree in Ishasha sector of QENP, all those tourists were there. Of course, the government would have been happy with it, but the lions decided it differently. If the park authorities want them to return, they would have to re-organize the tourism in a similar way as currently visiting gorillas or chimpanzees is. Of course, lions aren't yet as endangered as gorillas but already as chimpanzees. The number of people allowed to visit a chimpanzee family per day is limited by maximum 16 persons — 8 in the morning and 8 in the afternoon. In 2010, for a 2.5 hour excursion to chimpanzees in Kibale Forest 120$ (incl. park entry) were charged. I think the same is necessary for visiting lions in Ishasha sector: As with chimpanzees and gorillas, a ranger should go early in the morning to find them first. After that, a park car should bring 6 or 8 visitors to that place. The same can be repeated in the afternoon. Since the area can support only one pride of lions, only two tourist groups — i.e. 12-16 persons — can go there per day. However, the government could earn more from this small number of visitors than from currently maximum two dozens of people that are daily coming to the park with 5 - 10 cars. Since tree climbing lions are regarded as a nature wonder they should be treated as such.

As long as the situation remains unchanged, photographers who go to the Ishasha sector of the QENP because of lions should know that the chances of success are quite little. As I already mentioned, I and people who were with me have seen them twice on two days of game drives. Both times there were no cars and people around except us. I am quite sure that nobody else saw them on those days because they leave the trees when cars are around: The second time, when we had found a lioness on a tree, she descended a minute later and went away.

Even if the lions wouldn't be there, the Ishasha sector is a fantastic location for wildlife photography. The vast acacia savannah supports large herds of Ugandan kobs, topi and buffaloes. Also elephants are quite common there. Elephants, however, may soon cause an ecological disaster: They developed a habit to pull complete acacia trees out the earth when they want to reach the leaves on top. There are areas in the park that look as if a tornado has been passing there.

If you are looking for many species of undulates in one place, Uganda may be not the right place for you. Compared to Tanzania or Kenya, the variety of hoofed mammals is quite modest. In Queen Elizabeth National Park, that I visited, only the following species live: Ugandan kob, waterbuck, topi, buffalo, hippopotamus, warthog, giant forest hog, bushbuck. There are no zebras, nor giraffes, nor gazelles, nor other antelopes... But they can be found in other areas of the country. However, hoofed animals, such as buffaloes and kobs, were in great numbers both in Ishasha and Mweya sectors of QENP what was providing additional photographic attractiveness to the scenery.

In most situations, with typical savannah animals such as kobs or even to photograph lions, a 300mm lens (sometimes combined with a teleconverter) is enough. It is too short for smaller or more shy animals — such as hyenas, jackals, warthogs, or giant forest hogs. Anyway, at least a 500 mm lens should be preferred.

This review would be incomplete without mentionning the "launch tour" — a "game drive" by a boat on Kazinga Channel, a river that connects Lake Geourge with Lake Edward. It is certainly the most popular touristic activity in QENP. I've even been told that most tourists come there only because of this excursion and leave the park immediately after it.

For a nature photographer, the usefulness of a 2 hour trip on a double-deck ship with about 50 people on board should be questionable. Therefore, when I was planning the programme for the days in the QENP, my idea was to hire a private boat for a trip on Kazinga Channel and on Lakes George and Edward. After I had arrived in the park and seen how large the Channel and the Lakes are, I realized that it would take too long for a canoe to go at such distances. It was possible, of course, to hire one for a drive to a very concrete destination, but it had to be a motor boat, if I was going just to travel around on the lakes for hours. I was also told that going along the banks by a small boat was dangerous because of hippos. I believed it too when I saw how many hippos were there. Unfortunately, there were no motor boats around, and I had no alternative to taking the regular tourist ship.

What time is better for a launch tour on Kazinga Channel depends on what you want to photograph. Since the ship will be going along the southern bank towards Lake Edward, the light will be better in the afternoon because the sun will be shining at that bank and not into your lens. It could also make sense to try an early morning, but the earliest departure is at 8.30 a.m. when it is already a little too late if you need to catch good light. However, it may be a good time for photographing hippos because they may be still on the bank. In later hours they will be in the water, and you will see only their eyes, nostrils and ears. When to photograph elephants at Kazinga Channel depends on weather. If the day is hot, they would come already in the early afternoon — at 2 p.m. or earlier — to drink water, and since the ship will come very close to that place, there will be an opportunity for good photos. Overall, a good compromise may be the ship that goes at 3 p.m. It may be a little too late for elephants, i.e. not so many of them will be there, but the light will be good — particularly at around 5 p.m., when the trip will be ending. For even better light, a later departure should be preferred but, except hippos, there will be fewer animals drinking and bathing than in earlier hours.

For photographing elephants, hippos, buffaloes and kobs from a ship or boat on Kazinga Channel, a 300 mm lens is enough in most situations. However, if you would like to photograph birds, you need a much longer lens. For birds, I was using the f2.8/300 mm lens with a 2.0x TC, and 600 mm was still not long enough. But with hippos and elephants, I needed the opposite and was often taking the converter off. This was the first place in Uganda where I preferred using a bean bag.

photographing mountain gorillas

In Bwindi Impenetrable Forest I visited the group of mountain gorillas that lives near Nkuringo village ("Nkuringo Group"). The village itself lies at an altitude of 2160 m, and the tops of the hills in the nearby forest area are at about the same altitude. The hills itself are about 500 m high, and since gorillas may be staying at the bottom as well as at their tops, someone, who is going to see them, has to be prepared to go up and down the steep slopes several times. The authors of travel guides are usually writing that one needs to be "reasonably fit" to do this. I wouldn't agree with them: one needs to be quite fit to track gorillas at Nkuringo. Climbing those hills may be very challenging and even dangerous, and I've seen people crying after they returned.

You may be wondering why I decided to go to gorillas at Nkuringo. In 2010 six gorilla families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (BINP) were open for visitors: 3 at Buhoma, 1 at Ruhija, 1 at Rushaga, and 1 at Nkuringo. Buhoma where the park head quarters is located is the #1 destination for tourists at BINP. Near park's main gate there is a great number of (mostly expensive) lodging opportunities, restaurants, gift shops, etc. Since tourists go to Ruhija from Buhoma too, at least 32 people are coming there every day. Also because gorilla groups can be easier accessed at Buhoma, this place is better suitable for holiday tourists, and I've seen many of them when I was spending there one night before I went to Nkuringo. So the first reason why I didn't visit gorillas there were those many tourists. The second reason was my expectation for beautiful scenary and views at mountains near Nkuringo. Third, I decided to walk from Buhoma to Nkuringo through the forest. This was a replacement for nature walks that I otherwise would have had at Buhoma. I didn't go to Ruhija because the forest there appeared to me not so interesting, other than at Rushaga. But the Rushaga group was new, and I didn't know about it when I was booking the gorilla tracking permits. So my choice was Nkuringo. I new that hiking at Nkuringo could be difficult, and the walk there from Buhoma was a kind of training.

Gorillas change their location every day. Early in the morning, two rangers localize them and report the position to the other ranger who is guiding the visitors on that day. Only 8 persons are allowed to visit one gorilla group daily and to stay with it for only one hour. Since there is only one gorilla group at this place, the permits are sold out already many months in advance. The excursion begins at about 8.30 a.m. from the park office in Nkuringo village and may continue for many hours if the gorillas are far or have moved from the place where the tracker rangers had found them. Usually, at least 4 or 5 hours are needed for visiting the gorillas at Nkuringo. So a visitor has to take with him some food and enough water (at least 1.5 l!). After the visitors reached the area where the gorillas have been recently staying they have to follow gorillas' trails. This is the most difficult part of the walk: The ways that gorillas take in the forest usually demand much effort from humans. Gorillas are much stronger and walk on all fours, so they can pass much easier under tree branches and lianas, climb tree trunks and hill slopes. Humans who follow them have to do the same but for them that route is not only hard but also dangerous. One can easily break a leg or get a serious injury from the sharp remains of a tree branch that was cut by a ranger when he was clearing the way. Even if this wouldn't happen, scratches by thorns and sharp branches are garanteed. So as much of the body as possible should be protected by boots, trousers, long-sleeved shirt or jacket and a hat. In addition to boots, I usually wear gaiters that provide more protection for legs from hits and scratches, and sometimes even from safari ants. Even if there is sunshine in the morning, the weather may change suddenly, and a short but abandoned tropical rain may come while you are in the forest. A weather protection at least for the equipment shouldn't be missing during such excursions. If you are unsure that you can climb the hills with heavy equipment, water, food, rain jacket, etc., you can hire a porter. When I was there, porters were charging about 15 - 16$ per day or trip. I didn't hire a porter when I went to gorillas but many members of our group did, and I've seen that the porters were indeed very helpful for them.

I am photographing the dominant silverback of the Nkuringo group. Notice the harsh and uneven lighting (at about 11 a.m.!), deep shadows and dense vegetation in front of the subject.

Mountain Gorillas are in my opinion among the most difficult subjects for wildlife photography. Though they can be easily approached, are large and move slowly, it is extremely difficult for a photographer to achieve a well composed and correctly exposed image of them.

I am writing this only from my experience with Nkuringo Group. Conditions and circumstances at other locations may defer — but not significantly. Gorillas always stay in dense vegetation. Actually clean places rarely occur in a mountain rainforest. Though they are quite large animals, much of their bodies is always hidden from the camera behind grass, leaves or branches. According to the rules, visitors should keep a distance of 7 m or more from gorillas. In practice, this requirement can't be fulfilled. Because of vegetation there is simply never place for such respectful distance. When I was visiting gorillas, a blackback male came as close as 1.5 m at me because I happened to be standing where he was going to pass through. I took most of the photos at 50 - 70 mm focal length, i.e. when I was in less than 3 m from a gorilla.

A perfect lens for mountain gorillas is a news reporter's lens like EF 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS L USM or Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR, or an all-around zoom lens like EF 24-105 mm f/4 L IS USM or Nikkor 24-85 mm f/2.8-4. In many situations also a standard (50 mm) lens can be used or even is to be preferred. Anyway, if you are going to photograph mountain gorillas, I would advise you to leave back your favourite supertele because it will be completely useless! Even in the forest, on the way to gorillas you wouldn't come across subjects that you would need such a lens for.

Usually gorillas will be staying in shadows — under trees or bushes. They are black and it will be also dark around them. Flash can't be used for at least two reasons: First, it would be a bad treatment of gorillas. Just imagine how you would feel if every day 8 persons would come and fire flashes at you. Very soon you would be irritated. Though the park authorities prohibit photographing gorillas with flash officially, I think only an idiot would have an idea to use flash. Second, there are always leaves and branches between the camera and the gorilla. They would be casting shadows at the subject if you would fire a flash at them.

So shooting with high ISO is the only solution. When photographing gorillas I had to set the ISO number in my EOS 5D Mark II at 1600 and in EOS 30D — at 800. Even then I got many blurred photos because a gorilla moved the head or a hand while the exposure was too long. Neither tripod nor monopod can be used. I had a monopod with me but a ranger collected all "sticks" including mine when we were just about to meet gorillas. Though there is no such statement in the visitor's rules, apparently, carrying sticks in presence of gorillas is prohibited, too. So, if you are a lucky owner of a Nikon 3Dx, it should be your main camera for a photo session with mountain gorillas.

A polarizing filter on the lens can help to reduce the reflection and hence to eliminate to a certain extent bright sun spots on leaves and gorillas' face. However, the shadows would have to remain too dark. Otherwise, the lighter parts of the image would be overexposed. A nature photography purist would probably say here: "Ugh! The light was too harsh!"

The next huge problem is the uneven, patchy lighting when extremely light and very dark areas occur together. In some misty montane habitats this probably would not happen, but on a sunny day in Bwindi, the ugly bright spots on the animals and the surrounding plants can't be completely avoided. The only thing I could do was to try to reduce the possibility of overexposure of them. I used a polarizing filter for that purpose which helped me to reduce reflection from smooth surfaces, such as the skin on gorillas' faces and leaves. However, I couldn't lighten up the shadows by increasing the exposure because it would have caused overexposure of the light areas.

In my opinion, photographing mountain gorillas under such circumstances as in Uganda is more a touristic activity than wildlife photography. (The same I would certainly say about photographing in savannah national parks troughout Africa.) Everything there is more suitable for an average tourist rather than for a photographer. A photographer would need three things: 1) undisturbed wildlife; 2) enough time; 3) good light. All these three factors are missing when you have payed for a permit and got access to gorillas as a tourist. The guides will bring you to them in for photography the worst hours of the day — at late morning or at noon. They will not allow you to move around freely to compose the image but will be telling you where to stand and what to do. There will be more people around than gorillas, so before you release the shutter you will often have to wait till another person who is standing between you and the gorilla steps aside and frees the view field of your camera. And the worst thing: You have only 60 minutes.

After reading the above, you may think that I am disappointed. No! Not at all! When I was going to visit gorillas I just didn't expect anything photographically sensational. I went there more with zoological interest than with photographic. My aim was to see these rare animals in their natural environment and maybe to get some nice images. I could achieve both. Therefore I am considering this excursion as a success.

If you are interested in theriology, particularly in primates, the mountain gorillas is a must-see for you. You shouldn't expect very much from this encounter, however. I often had read reports by some hyperemotional visitors who were describing an encounter with gorillas as if they had met Jesus. Some people are simply falling victim of touristic advertisement that is usually telling them that meeting "their close relatives" will be an exceptional spiritual experience. In reality, there is nothing like that. It is just a big, black, hairy animal — an ape that resembles humans but unlike chimpanzee is very friendly to them and therefore can be easily and safely approached. I hope that there are still many people who would want to meet gorillas because of their keen interest on this animal and not because it is trendy, or prestigious, or because they play this way their childhood dreams and fantasies of being an explorer of Africa.

landscape photography

Uganda's south west offers a great variety of landscapes. Someone whose equipment isn't suitable for wildlife photography will have many opportunities still to get excellent images when he will be photographing landscapes. On my route, the following locations were particularly scenic:

At the edge of the crater of Mount Gahinga. The crater is filled with dense mist so that it looks as if the sky is inside it.
Subject Location Best time Focal length, mm
minimal (recommended)
Shoebill Mabamba Swamp 8.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 800 (1200)
Jacanas, plovers, herons, ducks Mabamba Swamp, Kazinga Channel 8.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 600 (800) yes
Saddle-billed Stork near Kazinga village in QENP 8.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 600 (800)
Marabu, Hammercop, Open-Billed Stork Entebbe Botanical Gardens and Lake Victoria strand 8.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 400 (600) yes (at sun)
Egyptian Goose, Great Kormoran Kazinga Channel, Lake Edward 8.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 400 (600) yes (at sun)
Malachite Kingfisher Mabamba Swamp 9.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 400 (600) yes
Pied Kingfisher, Woodlands Kingfisher Lake Victoria, Mabamba Swamp, Kazinga Channel 9.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 600 (800) yes (at sun)
Hadada Ibis Entebbe Botanical Gardens, Bigodi Swamp (Kibale) 9.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 400 (800) yes (at sun)
Sacred Ibis A breeding colony is at the road between Kisoro and Kabale 9.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 400 (800) yes (at sun)
Double-toothed Barbet Mweya Peninsula (near UWA office), Bigodi Swamp (Kibale) 500 (800) yes
Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill Entebbe Botanical Gardens 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 800 (1200) yes
Plantain Eater Bigodi Swamp (Kibale) 500 (800)
Ross's Turaco Entebbe Botanical Gardens 800 (1200) yes
Great Blue Turaco near Kibale Forest Primate Lodge 6.00 p.m. - 7.00 p.m. 800 (1200) yes
Grey Crowned Crane Ishasha Sector of QENP, meadows at the road between Kabale and Kisoro 5.00 p.m. - 7.00 p.m. 600 (800)
Mantled Colobus, Vervet Monkey Entebbe Botanical Gardens 9.00 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 400 (800) yes
Red-tailed Monkey, Grey-cheeked Mangabey Semuliki Forest 800 (1200) yes
Blue Monkey Simpaya Hot Springs in Semuliki Forest (from observation platform near "Male Springs") 800 (1200) yes
Black Colobus, L'Hoest Monkey Bigodi Wetlands (Kibale) 800 (1200) yes
Golden Monkey (Blue Monkey subspecies) Mount Gahinga 800 (1200) yes
Olive Baboon Semuliki Forest (near Simpaya Hot Springs), Kibale Forest, savannah in Queen Elizabeth National Park 500 (800)
Common Chimpanzee Kyambura Gorge, Kibale Forest 300 and 800 no
Mountain Gorilla Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Mgahinga Gorillas NP 50 (50-70) no
Ugandan Kob, African Buffalo Queen Elizabeth NP 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 300 (300-500)
Topi Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth NP 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 300 (300-500)
African Elephant Kazinga Channel and savannah in Queen Elizabeth NP 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 300 (300-600)
Warthog Mweya Peninsula in Queen Elizabeth NP 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 300 (40-600)
Giant Forest Hog Mweya Sector of Queen Elizabeth NP 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 500 (800)
Hippopotamus Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth NP 7.30 a.m. - 11.00 a.m., 4.00 p.m. - 6.30 p.m. 300 (300-500)
Lion Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth NP 300 (300-600) no
Leopard Mweya sector of Queen Elizabeth NP 800 (1200) no

general issues and observations

Equipment safety: As everywhere, in Uganda the photographic and other technical equipment is exposed to three main kinds of danger: damage, loss and theft (or robbery). During my Uganda trip 2010 couple of times my equipment nearly got damaged: Near Simpaya hot springs in Semuliki National Park my Sigma flash gun fell down into the swamp because I hadn't attached it firmly enough to the bracket. Luckily the swamp was covered by dense vegetation, so the flash didn't reach the water because it got hanging on grass. In Kibale Forest my 5D Mark II fell down on the road because it loosened itself from the lens. It was my fault again: I hadn't checked the attachement. Fortunately, no damage occured except some little scratches on the Kirk mount bracket and the camera body. Two times the Cokin filter holder fell off the lens that it was attached to. I had only to clean the filters after that — it was a miracle that they hadn't got scratched. All these dangerous moments could be easily avoided, if I had been more careful and checked if everithing was properly attached.

Uganda has surprisingly low level of criminality. Outside the capital it is very unlikely to run across a robber. However, theft can occur. In lodges and camps inside national parks, it is generally safe to leave some equipment in your room or tent when you are going for an excursion or a game drive. However, I was always putting it into a bag when I did this, i.e. I never left anything valuable just on a table or a bed. In places outside the parks, I was putting the bags with equipment into PacSafe meshes when I was going to leave the room for long.

During this Uganda trip I was fortunate not to loose anything valuable. It was only a lens cap that got lost.

Dust and humidity also present a potential threat. As in many parts of Africa, in Uganda there are places with very much dust in the air. Particularly dusty is the air in the car during overland drives or game drives in savannah. I didn't take any special measures to protect the equipment. I was just keeping parts that I wasn't using in bags or their pouches. Both cameras and at least two lenses were always in use, thus exposed to dust. The 30D body was covered by a silicon case, but I did nothing special for protection of the 5D Mark II. I just relied on its weather sealing. Both cameras were functioning properly.

Humidity didn't cause any noticable problems with cameras and lenses, too. I was keeping the lenses that I wasn't using closed in their pouches with 50 or 100 g of silica gel. I am using silica gel with indicator that changes its colour from orange to white when it absorbs water. If the gel has got completely white, it means that it is saturated with water. This didn't happen in all 20 days in Uganda. Nothing bad happened to cameras and lenses, however, the JOBO photo viewer that I was using for backup and assessment of image quality stopped functioning after two days at Virunga volcanoes. But at home, I could switch it on again, and it seems to work normally.

For longer trips like this time to Uganda, I usually take these two small bags. One contains Delkin universal chargers and plates. In the other one there are cables for various kinds for connections and sockets.

To charge batteries of my photo equipment I've been using two Delkin chargers with 2 plates for 4 x AA batteries, 4 — for LP-E6, 2 &mdash BP-511A, and 2 — for NB-5L.

The batteries that I took to Uganda: 16 AA, 6 LP-E6, 4 BP-511A. In practice, I needed only a half of this quantity because I could charge batteries from the car. However, I couldn't know in advance if the power socket in the car that I was going to get in Uganda would be working.

Almost everywhere in Uganda only the British type of power socket is used. Hence, unless your home country isn't Great Bretain, you have to bring with you adapters or cables with compatible connectors. An exception are lodges and camps that offer battery charging to their guests: They usually have also sockets suitable for European (and probably other) types of plugs. Since I preferred not to rely on this possibility, I had cables with British plugs for my chargers.

Power supplies: Knowing that there was no electricity in most of the areas that I was going to, I took some precautions. First of all I brought some spare batteries for camera bodies and flashes. My flashes are powered each by four AA (mignon) batteries. So I took with me two sets for each flash unit, i.e. 16 rechargeable NiMh batteries. I also had 6 batteries LP-E6 for the main camera — EOS 5D Mark II — and 4 BP-511A for the second — EOS 30D. With these power sources at least the cameras could be operating for about 12-15 days without being re-charged. Flashes would have consumed more power but they haven't to be used as often.

In reality, only 2 spare batteries for the main camera and one for the second were necessary. Only when I was overnighting in Semuliki forest, on 2 days in Nkuringo, and on other 2 in Mgahinga there were no opportunities for charging. On other days, when the car was moving, I could connect a charger to its power socket. In some places where I was staying — Kibale Forest, Fort Portal, Kabale, Entebbe — there were sockets in the rooms that were powered during the night. In the camps in Mweya sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park and in Buhoma, people were charging batteries at a central place (in the restaurants) but I didn't need it having an opportunity to charge from the car.

Storage: I took 3 CF cards with 32 GB capacity and 2 with 8 GB on my trip to Uganda. I was using the 32 GB cards with my main camera which was 5D Mark II and the 8 GB — with the 30D. At the end of the trip, they were almost full, i.e. so much space was just right. Anyway, according to my experience, for a 21 Mp camera in Uganda a reasonable storage capacity would be one 32 GB card per week. Certainly, much more space would be necessary, if you would be shooting with it movies in HD quality.

As on my previous trip in Cuba, I had JOBO Giga Vu Pro for backing up images. However, it refused to turn on 3 days before the end of the trip when — after two days in Mgahinga Gorillas National Park. This happened when I reached a hotel in Kabale where I could finally connect the device to a power socket and to copy images from CF cards to its hard drive. So I couldn't use it for the purpose this device is made for. It was very frustrating. I didn't throw it immediately away, only because I didn't want to leave civilization litter in the country. So I took it back to Germany. When I arrived at home, I wanted to try one last time if the Giga Vu Pro would turn on, and it worked absolutely normally. I am assuming that the problem was caused by humidity, and the device started working in a place with drier climate. Okay, the production of Giga Vu Pro has been discontinued, and now it is technically outdated, but it has a rugged case and, according to advertisement of manufacturer, was suitable for outdoor use. This was the reason why I purchased it. It failed for the second time now. The first time, it was something different, however: After my previous trip, I discovered that the files that this device transfered back to CF cards were corrupted. For the next trip, I'll look for an alternative solution for backup and previewing.


In times of booming eco-tourism, Uganda quickly became for visitors an awfully expensive country whose touristic infrastructure was developing with an intention to attract and to provide comfort for wealthy travellers from Europe, America and Japan. One could expect high expenses for travelling in areas of the Earth with little civilization — such as Arctic. But for a densely populated African country where every natural reserve in the east or in the west can be reached from the capital by car in one day, the current level of park entry fees and prices in camps and lodges looks exceptional. As the demand grows, the prices for accommodation increase, too — by at least 15% a year. Replying to growing interest on visiting Uganda's main touristic attractions — mountain gorillas and chimpanzees — the government raises fees for entry permits every couple of years significantly. When groups of gorillas were first opened for visitors, permits were priced at 25$. In 2000 the authorities in Uganda were charging 275$. Four years later, in 2004, the tariffs were raised to 360$, and 2006, once again — to 375$. 2009, when I was organizing my first Uganda trip, I had to pay 500$ for one hour with gorillas, and the demand was so huge that, though I was booking 6 months in advance (!), I couldn't get the permits for the preferred day!

I have mixed feelings about such policy of high prices. Not being a rich man, I am directly affected by it having to pay such amounts that are far above my usual expenses. However, such measure is, in my opinion, an effective way to reduce the pressure of mass tourism on wildlife while the Ugandan government is still making big business with gorillas, and hence is interested to protect them. Mountain Gorilla is just one of many thousands of exciting animal species that live in Uganda, and people who don't afford visiting gorillas, shouldn't be disappointed. On the other hand, someone who doesn't care about costs, would go to the gorillas. But, fortunately, such people are a minority, hence gorillas and their environment wouldn't suffer too much from tourist crowds.

If your budget is tight, it doesn't mean, however, that you shouldn't visit Uganda. On the contrary, I would advise everyone who is seriously interested in tropical biology, wildlife and nature photography to go there a soon as possible — before the prices got really insane. The minimum budget per person (excluding flight) of such a 20-day trip to Ugandan south-west as mine was in 2010 around 3500$. However, one has still many possibilities to further reduce the expenses. Some of them I am sumerising below.

tips for cutting costs:

(1) Find a budget flight and book it well in advance. This is not a big problem if you are going to visit gorillas. Since a gorilla permit should be purchased as early as possible and since it is issued for a specific date, you would have to plan your trip many months before departure to be there on schedule. If you are going to Uganda from Germany, you may fly either by Lufthansa or by KLM (over Amsterdam). If you choose the first option, you would pay about 1,200€ for a return ticket. A flight by KLM would cost you a little more than 900€, i.e. you can save already on your flight ticket about 300€ (or about 500$).

(2) Share car hire costs. If you go in a group of 6 people in a mini bus and a driver, you would pay only about 30$ a day instead of 150-170$ if you would rent a Landrover.

(3) Sleep in your own tent. Camping opportunities are available almost everywhere in Uganda, and it is safe to stay in a tent. Even luxury lodges and camps usually provide a camping place where you can hit your own tent and pay for accommodation only a couple of bucks per night instead of hundreds.

(4) Share accommodation. If you travel in a group, you may find someone who would agree to share a room or a tent with you. In that case you would pay only a half of the price. Many lodges and camps have rooms even for three or more persons.

(5) If you stay in a lodge or a camp, it is worth to consider booking it as bed and breakfast or at half-board basis. You will be usually away from this place during the day, so it doesn't make much sense to book full-board accommodation. Of course, they will then give you packed lunch, but it would often cost more than a meal in a local restaurant somewhere in a village nearby. You can also buy food in advance in towns or in Kampala and eat it during safari drives.

(6) Go by public transportation instead of private car. There are buses and other regular transport means (such as mini buses, motorcycle taxis, etc.) in Uganda that can bring you from one town to another quite safely for very little money. However, this is not a good way to travel for two reasons. First, you would loose to much time waiting for a line bus or taxi. Second, line busses have their own stops and don't stop where you need. Therefore, I would advise you to consider twice before you decide to save money on car rental. Only if you are going to photograph a very concrete subject in a very concrete place, travelling there by a line bus may be an option worth to think about.

(7) Decide what is your real area of interest and plan your route accordingly. Entry fees for Uganda's protected areas and payments for rangers and guides are quite high and may drive your overall expenses high very quickly. If you are going, let's say, to spend 10 days in national parks of "Category A" such as Queen Elizabeth or Kibale Forest, the entry fees alone will cost you 300$. For a ranger, or guide you will pay another 20$ a day. Another 11$ or so you'll have to pay daily if you will be entering the park by car. Special guided tours such as night walks and forest walks will cost you extra 20 - 90$ each. All together, you would easily spend 1,000$ in 10 days only for your physical presence in a national park. But do you really have to? If you are keen on nature photography, you certainly have your preferred subjects and genre. If it is "big game" photography, national parks are the only place where you are guaranteed to find elephants and lions. Also some landscapes such as extended savannah habitats are remaining only in national parks. So, if you are a landscape photographer, it may be worth for you to go there. However, if you are interested mainly in macro photography and have no supertele lens in your luggage, daily game drives in a national park will be only a loss of time and money. Visits of so-called forest reserves and wildlife reserves will cost you much less and will be much more rewarding because you will be allowed to walk there. Also staying all the time completely outside of protection areas may be a good idea if you are interested mainly in bird, landscape and macro photography. In that case you will be free to walk alone any time and as long as you need to get a perfect shot.

(8) Don't go to gorillas! Yes, I mean it seriously. As I mentioned above, the Uganda Wildlife Authority was selling gorilla trekking permits in 2010 for 500$. While you are reading this, they may already have been raised their rates again. Who knows how much a permit is going to cost in the next five years? 800$? 1,000$? After I have purchased two permits (one for my wife and one for myself) and paid 500$ for each, I am wondering if a higher price would have been still acceptable for me. Would I go for it if it would cost twice as much? Almost certainly — not. Is watching gorillas for an hour worth 500 bucks? Well, everyone should answer this question for himself. For a typical mass tourist who had already seen Taj Mahal, Pyramids and the Eifel Tower it might be not a question at all because his travel agent is saying: "See last mountain gorillas before they/you die!" Such people are the main target group of countless tour companies in Uganda, Europe and America, and for them the Ugandan government opens more and more gorilla groups in Bwindi forest.
     I myself am judging about this matter as a biologist and as a photographer. For a professional whose goal in Uganda is to watch rare primates in natural environment, paying gorillas such a brief and extremely restricted visit would be a joke. I would advise zoologists to look for other ways to watch mountain gorillas — maybe to try to get an official permission for researchers or to contact primate researchers who are working in Uganda... For a photographer, the value of this visit is doubtful, too. Every year almost 4,000 people are visiting mountain gorillas in three countries. Most of them would try to make photos, and many would succeed. So every year thousands of new images of the same gorillas are made. The photos may be technically better or worse, but the animals look the same on them. Due to mass tourism, photographing mountain gorillas is today like photographing lions, cheetahs, elephants... You may get great quality images but they will be trivial. For really great and original images like those by Gene Eckhart in the book "Mountain Gorillas" (by Gene Eckhart and Annette Lanjow, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) you would have to spend months with these animals. So if I had to save costs and to choose what to leave out of my programme, mountain gorilla trekking would be my first choice.

final thoughts

My first Uganda trip was absolute success. But, of course, not everything was perfect, and I have some ideas of what could have been better or what I would do differently if I travel to Uganda again: