Trekking with Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park, Congo

In the past two decades, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been considered one of the most dangerous conflict areas in the world. Congo’s civil wars, which began in 1996, devastated the country. The fighting has abated in recent years, and there has been a concerted effort to secure, stabilize, and reopen parts of the country for tourism. One of the first success stories has been Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Africa’s oldest national park, located on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, and tourists are beginning to find their way back to the DRC to see these magnificent animals.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II lens, ISO 2000, f/5.6, 1/320 second.

To reach Virunga, I flew into Kigali, Rwanda, meeting my driver at the airport. After a few hours’ drive I was at the border, where I crossed and met my Congo guide. In advance of my visit, I obtained a special tourist visa to enter the Congo for purposes of visiting Virunga National Park. From the border, it was only about a two-hour drive to Bukima Tented Camp, my base of operations for the next few days of gorilla trekking.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II lens, ISO 1250, f/6.3, 1/250 second.

I’ve previously written about my experience trekking with gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, just across the border in Rwanda. Although both parks are within the Virunga Mountains with similar terrain, the gorilla trekking experiences are somewhat different. Rwanda’s gorilla trekking infrastructure is more sophisticated, while Congo’s is less developed and has fewer tourists. Also, the gorilla encounters in Rwanda tend to be in more open areas, whereas the jungle in the Congo seems denser. The photography in Rwanda is arguably easier as a result, but the dense forest of Virunga meant that I had a lot of close encounters with the gorillas—far closer than the official eight-meter distance rule for the park.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/200 second.

Because I was often close to the gorillas, I found myself taking a wider view in an effort to show them in the context of their environment, and to create compositions more interesting than simply zooming in for a tight portrait. For example, when a precocious infant gorilla climbed a tree above me, I zoomed out to 24mm. The swirling shape of the tree and the vines beneath it caught my eye, and I quickly decided to incorporate those elements into the overall composition.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens, ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/320 second.

As always, I’m looking to tell a story, and to capture something of the elusive mystery of these animals. When I spotted this silverback lounging on the ground with his feet leaning against a tree, I zoomed out to include his surroundings. Unfortunately, the light wasn’t cooperating with me, as it was a bright sunny day, and the background was in the light while my subject was in deep shadow. Because of the extreme lighting conditions, I quickly shot three different exposures using exposure bracketing, and then I later merged the three exposures in Adobe Camera Raw’s Merge to HDR (this feature is also available in Lightroom). This effectively expanded the camera’s dynamic range, allowing me to tame the bright highlights in the background and reveal detail in the shadowed parts of the scene.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, f/3.2, 1/250 second, three exposure blend at ISO 200, 500, and 1250.

You can go online to learn more about conservation efforts to protect Virunga National Park here, and for mountain gorillas in general here. For my Congo adventure, I used Gorilla Trek Africa; they arranged my transfers, lodging, gorilla trekking permits, and basically everything else.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II lens, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/320 second.

To see more of my mountain gorilla photos, visit my website: Ian Plant Photography – Mountain Gorillas

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About the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to several leading photo magazines and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.ianplant.com.

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Discussion
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7 Responses to “Trekking with Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park, Congo”
  1. Edson Ricky

    The advantage of gorilla treks in the Congo is that the price of a gorilla permit is still down compared to Uganda and Rwanda making it cheaper. The only issue why many tour operators and individual tourists are not visiting Congo is due to insecurity fears.

    Reply
  2. Carol Johnson

    The photos of the gorillas are stunning and show their personalities so well. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  3. wayne edmison

    I am blessed in that I will be Gorilla treking around December 14th as part of a 57 day Nairobi to Capetown overland safari with on the go tours. I am a very amature photographer using a cannon camera with a 60 zoom and hope to get some great shots of these majestic primates. Even a blind squirrel gets a nut .Costing around 850.00 USD and worth every penny!!! The trek is likely to happen in Rawanda or Uganda. Question if required how much is the Visa for the Congo and is it availiable on the border.

    Reply
  4. Anne Xabie

    Gorilla trekking in Congo is another interesting adventure. But the unpredictable insecurity should not make tourists risk going to the Virunga for gorillas when they can trek gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda which are safer. Once stability is declared there, it will be ideal to visit the park. And the price difference between for a gorilla permit in Uganda and Congo is not about USD 200, so why risk because of such a little amount.

    Reply