2012
05.15

There is no experience in the world quite like an African safari.  It is one of those trips that one often hears associated with “bucket lists” and things to do before you die.  But if a safari in Africa is part of your dreams, then you won’t want to wait until your dying bed because this is no once-in-a-lifetime experience; once you have participated in an African safari, you are almost sure to want to go back again.  And I will admit that this was never really on the top on my list.  I enjoy seeing wildlife, but my passion has always been more focused on experiencing new cultures and different people.  But after my recent trip to Tanzania, I can certainly say that doing an African safari should be at the top of everyone’s list.

Having grown up hunting, fishing and visiting zoos, I think I had become a little desensitized to wildlife.  It was only on those rare occasions that I spotted a bear, moose, or wolf in the wild that I felt the thrill associated with wildlife encounters.  I had seen plenty of giraffes, elephants, zebras and lions; but in captivity these animals seemed to lack any great thrill.  They lazed about in pens or cages while we gawked at them from a safe distance.  Yet, this past week I discovered that such animals in the wild are a very different creature.

Arriving in Arusha, Tanzania in the low season was a great blessing for us.  Our hotel was nearly empty and safari operators were offering low season discounts.  Rachel inquired with several guide services and found a 5 night/6 day safari on Tanzania’s famous Northern Circuit.  Even the reduced price was still far beyond our budget, but we had come this far and we were confident that it would be worth every penny.

One can imagine our excitement when our guide arrived in a 7-person safari vehicle for just the two of us.  His name was Baraka and our first impressions were of a friendly, well-mannered man of 35 with a kind smile and funny lingering laugh.  He was polite and knowledgeable, filling us in on information about Tanzania as we traveled a couple of hours to the first of three parks.  The scenery was beautiful right from the beginning and the colorful Maasai villagers who dotted the landscape only added to our intrigue.  Most interesting were the teenage Maasai boys who walked along the roadside dressed entirely in black with their faces elaborately decorated with black and white paint.  They stood out in stark contrast from the richly colored landscape, their ghoulish decoration a sign of their recent circumcision and ongoing journey into manhood.

From the main highway we turned onto a dirt road leading to the first destination on our African safari:  Tarangire National Park.  Though almost unknown compared to nearby Serengeti, Tarangire was immediately impressive with its herds of elephants and wonderful baobab trees.  I was in such awe of the landscape that I was filling up memory cards before the animals even appeared.  Luckily, it would not be long before I was spotting impalas, ostriches, elephants, and giraffes.  As African safari virgins, we fired off countless photos at distant animals as if they were the only of their kind we might see.  We could hardly contain our enthusiasm as Baraka followed dirt roads to beautiful vistas where we scanned the woodlands and river ways in search of elusive animals.

The highlight of Tarangire would come at the end of the day when we discovered a herd of 20+ elephants, including several juveniles, grazing at the roadside, their bodies covered red from the mud in which they bathed.  We shut off the vehicle and watched in amazement as they went about their business, seemingly unaware of the gawking tourists just a few feet away.  I was filling up cards so fast that I had to set up a mobile computer station so I could download and empty cards as we drove.  At one point, I was so engrossed in my downloads that I did not even notice when a full-sized giraffe appeared right outside our window.  And while the setting sun lit up the sky with brilliant colors, we traveled back through the park standing up in our safari vehicle admiring the beauty all around us while the wind blew into the smiles that covered our faces.

We arrived at Tarangire Safari Lodge just in time to see the incredible view before darkness fell.  The lodge was elaborate and nearly entirely open to its surroundings.  Built on a hill overlooking the Tarangire River, one could sit in the lodge or dining room and gaze across a vast expanse of acacia and baobab trees where animals gathered in the dry season.  It was during that time that visitors would flood into the parks, but during the wet season in which we arrived, we were the only guests at the lodge.  We were greeted with wet towels to clean the dust from our faces and cool drinks to quench our thirst.  Our bags were carried to our luxury tents by the attentive staff who also served us a three-course meal while we dined alone in the big empty room.  I admit we felt a little silly with the entire hotel staff waiting on us, especially at breakfast when a huge buffet was laid out for just the two of us.  But this was just a small taste of the luxuries available on Tanzania’s Northern Safari Circuit.

From the moment we arrived in Tanzania, we remarked at how well the system was set up in order to cater to its higher class clientele.  From our fantastic accommodation in Arusha to that of the Serengeti, everything had been planned with high-paying guests in mind.  Budget backpackers would find little here to suit their needs, with even basic tent camping safaris costing around $150/day.  Granted, there are a wide range of services available, but by traveling in the low season we were able to stay in the classy hotels for the same price one could pay for a comfortable camping safari during peak season. Also, the weather was gorgeous, sunny almost all the time with beautiful and dramatic skies to accentuate the unforgettable landscapes.  The little rain only added to the beauty by turning everything bright green and fueling the growth of wildflower fields across the savanna and especially on the floor of the Ngorongoro Crater.

Best of all, there were few tourists so we rarely had to share the sights with other guests, except when there was something really special and all the vehicles came pouring in.  In those times, it became a bit of a madhouse with vehicles jostling for position and frustrations flaring; though had it been the high season, I would have found those moments unbearable.  I could only remark, time and time again, how happy we were to have visited during low season when the weather was excellent and the number of tourists more tolerable.  That being said, it was clear that Tanzania’s Northern Circuit safari route had been well-tuned over the years to satisfy almost all visitors that come this way.

Tarangire National Park might not be the most well-known of Tanzania’s parks, but this 12,500 sq mile park has the greatest concentration of wildlife outside the Serengeti ecosystem.  It is a lovely and quiet park skipped over by many visitors who stop in for only a few hours or rush west in search of the acclaimed Serengeti.  But the beauty of Tarangire can best be appreciated by spending at least a couple of days exploring the park which is best known for its elephant migration, birding opportunities, and quiet safari atmosphere.  With a game viewing area that is roughly ten times the size of nearby Lake Manyara and concentration of wildlife that is expectational throughout the year (particularly between July to October), Tarangire National Park is easily one of the highlights of the Northern Safari Circuit.

2012
05.12

As six rangers armed with AK-47s climbed into the back of our truck, I finally understood the charge for a “Ranger Escort to Tongo”.  Located in the southern sector of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tongo is a unique forest island situated on a vast lava flow from the Nyamulagira Volcano.  Estimated to be 300 years old, Tongo is home to a small population of around 50 chimpanzees.  In October 1987, the Frankfurt Zoological Society initiated an extensive project, building a comprehensive network of trails in which to locate and follow the chimps, gradually habituating them to the presence of humans over an intensive two-year period.  At the time, Tongo was the only location where chimpanzees had been habituated for tourism without the use of artificial inducement (food, reproduced chimpanzee calls and other sounds) and initial efforts were very successful, providing important tourism revenue for park management and benefiting the small rural community of Tongo.  Yet, in 1993, civil unrest in the DRC reached its peak, followed by a massive influx of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Throughout these times of crisis in the Congo, the ICCN rangers continued monitoring the chimpanzees, and thanks to their remarkable efforts, the chimpanzees remained unharmed.

With a return of relative peace and stability to the region, chimpanzee treks in Tongo were re-opened to the public in January 2012.  We were excited to be among the most recent visitors to Tongo, though at the time we had not been informed why we needed a truck full of rifle-toting rangers to visit the area.  We were both a little nervous as we started down a dusty, desolate stretch of road and I will admit I was especially worried when we passed a United Nations truck full of soldiers staring us down.  The road crossed a wide, lava-covered valley and for the longest time the only people we saw were the occasional armed rangers crouching beneath homemade shelters.  I found myself scanning the road ahead for potential ambushes, imagining myself acting bravely as bullets whizzed past our heads.

Arriving at the Tongo Ranger Station, we breathed a sigh of relief having survived this long, empty stretch of road where robberies have occurred in the past.  Our escort was joined by several more armed rangers and we wondered again if we were in danger as we stood on the road surrounded by a dozen rangers who did not speak English, most of whom were armed with AK-47s.  I was beginning to wonder if we were going to war or just to see the chimpanzees.

Fifteen minutes into the hike I knew I was in trouble.  It was incredibly hot and I was pouring sweat with just one water bottle between us.  By the time we reached the chimps after more than an hour walking, I was so tired and dehydrated, I could have cared less about the chimpanzees.  I found a log, sat and rested while Rachel moved around the jungle spotting the chimps hanging out in the trees above.  I could only try to rest and relax, worried that I might not be able to make the return trek.  Without adequate food and water, I was in a precarious position and by the end of the hike I was vomiting and on the verge of passing out.  It was incredibly uncomfortable and a bit scary with no one there to help me but a half dozen rangers who did not speak my language and Rachel begging someone to help.  Eventually, we made it back to the road and began the drive back to park headquarters, feeling lucky just to be alive.

It had been a terribly exhausting start to our trip with far too many ups and downs coupled with almost no sleep or rest.  Time and time again, Africa was kicking my ass and I could not have been happier to arrive at the Mikeno Lodge.  My friend Sarah, who I met in Singapore five years prior, was there to greet us and welcome us into our luxurious accommodation.  As the only tourists at the park, we had the place all to ourselves and we marveled at the level of comfort and service.  From our private bungalow we had beautiful views across the park and the room was so outstanding that I knew we would hate to leave.  We had just two nights before our trip to the Nyiragongo Volcano and we were going to need all the rest we could get.

We had been in Africa just a few short days, but already so much had happened in that time.  My body was just exhausted and our days spent resting at the lodge could not have been better timed.  Our plan was to just relax and enjoy our plush surroundings, but soon fate would deliver us another hand.  Returning from a walk around the property, one of the employees rushed up to us in a frantic state and exclaimed, “We have to evacuate you!”  There was not time for discussion or questions so we hurried to our bungalow and threw everything into our packs as quick as possible.  Then, together with the rest of the foreign staff, we loaded into an immense transport vehicle and began our evacuation from the park.  Led by a truck loaded with six armed rangers, our convoy raced away from headquarters down the bumpy dirt roads past villagers who just stared at the foreigners fleeing the scene.  The feeling was surreal, not out of danger or fear, but the sense that we were abandoning the Congolese who would stay and weather whatever comes their way.

Down the rugged roads our convoy raced towards the border.  The rangers led the way clutching their AK-47s in their hands.  We could only sit back and watch the scene unfolding before us.  Congolese locals were beginning to line the roadsides in a desperate attempt to evacuate themselves.  With no vehicles to transport them, they grabbed whatever they could carry and they walked.  It was more than 20 miles to the border at Goma and the entire distance refugees lined the roadsides.  Necessary items were stuffed into bedrolls and mattresses and carried upon their heads.  Everyone, including the elderly and children, carried massive loads having abandoned their homes and not knowing when they might return.  The strength and resilience I had seen on their faces was now replaced by confusion and fear.  And in my heart I only felt guilt as we raced to safety in a half empty truck which could have carried twenty more.  Yet, I was painfully aware that there was nothing we could do to help them; they would have to take care of themselves just as they have done through decades of harsh and brutal war.

Perhaps the most startling moment was when we neared the Nyiragongo Volcano, the area in which the rebels were hiding.  Hundreds of people crowded in a field outside the area’s largest village.  Trains of refugees departed in both directions, fleeing what could become the center of conflict.  It was in this wide open field that the UN soldiers had gathered.  There were large convoy vehicles, armored tanks, trucks fitted with machine guns, and even a helicopter, all displaying the unmistakable blue letters representing the United Nations.  Other troops had set up a perimeter around the field, their blue helmets visible even as they crouched among high grasses.  The military’s presence was alarming, for though we had seen UN soldiers in the area, their sheer numbers combined with the amount of heavy artillery suggested bad things were soon to come.

Thankfully, at that point, we were all acting in a precautionary manner.  The violence was mostly centered around North Kivu, but the presence of 1,500 armed rebels in the area had everyone on high alert.  We were being evacuated before nightfall when tensions might rise and our only road out could become closed.  The United Nations operates three large bases around Goma and they were lending their efforts, though it was not their intention to fight.  Of the 6,000 refugees, many were families who hoped to spare their children and elders from any harm or danger.  And the road to Goma was packed with us all, believing this sprawling city on the shores of Lake Kivu would provide the safe haven we were seeking.

Even on a typcal day, Goma would be an unforgettable place.  Situated on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, Goma had swelled from a small border town to a home for millions during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  During that time, 10,000-12,000 refugees crossed the border every hour.  The massive influx of nearly one million refugees created a severe humanitarian crisis, as there was an acute lack of shelter, food and water.  Many camps continue to exist and today Goma has one of the highest concentrations in the world of aid workers, UN personnel, NGOs and refugees.  Even more surreal is the fact that Goma and its inhabitants are constantly threatened by the Nyiragongo Volcano, one of the world’s most active and dangerous volcanoes.  In January 2002, an eruption destroyed 17% of the town, including part of the Goma airport where derelict planes still stand wrecked in an apocalyptic graveyard.  Parts of the town still appear as moonscape after being covered under 6 feet of molten ash.  With millions of residents living under threat from the smoldering volcano, Goma is sometimes called “the most dangerous city in the world”.

At first we were relieved to be in Goma.  A few miles outside of town, our armed guards had turned around and bid us farewell as they returned to the park.  Presumably, we were out of harm’s way.  We placed our bags in a hotel and headed to a nearby bar for some dinner and drinks.  Goma could be an intimidating place with its muddy roads, dirty slums, and camouflaged soldiers toting AK-47s and RPGs, but in the confines of our expat bar, there was little hint of the chaos outside.

Then we heard the gunshots.  At first, it sounded like the pop of fireworks exploding, but the look on the faces around us spoke the truth.  Even Cai, who had seemed totally unfazed by the evacuation, now showed signs of worry.  This was very uncommon for Goma, he explained to us, as he dialed on his cell phone in hopes of getting some information.  Another employee who had lived in Goma was on the verge of hysterics.  She scolded Cai for having chosen a hotel situated near the home of notorious ex-warlord Bosco Ntaganda.  Apparently, Bosco, known as “the Terminator”, is a well-known citizen of Goma, roaming the streets freely though he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and charged with war crimes for enlisting and conscripting children under the age of fifteen and using them to participate actively in hostilities.  It all seemed too surreal that we would be sipping drinks and nibbling pizza near the home of an African warlord while gunshots filled the air.  Most of the foreigners seemed unconcerned so we tried to do the same.  Cai explained that the border was so close we could literally walk and cross tonight; yet we saw no reason to take off running quite yet.  If our friends were staying, we would do the same- just bring us another round.

It was agreed that the gunfire was too close to our hotel to bother returning that night.  We would choose another hotel, just 500 meters from the border, and we would return tomorrow to pick up our bags.  In a worst case scenario, we had our passports and the rest could be replaced, but thankfully that wouldn’t be the case.  The next morning, UN trucks filled with soldiers stood outside the main hotels and the usual camouflaged teenagers patrolled the streets with AK-47s and RPGs.  It seemed a typical day in Goma.  Apparently, a drunken soldier had been firing into the air, but otherwise everything appeared normal for the Congo.  There had been no violence in the park or surrounding villages and the park personnel were planning to return.

Our time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was drawing to a close and though it had only been five days, it felt like so much more.  We all joked and laughed about our ‘real’ African experience and how the rest of the trip would surely not compare with the Congo.  We thanked the folks at Virunga for taking such good care of us and providing one unforgettable adventure after the next.  Then we casually strolled to the border and once again we stepped from one world and into another.  We were safely in Rwanda.

2012
05.05

On July 22, 2007, park rangers at the Bukima Patrol Post in Virunga National Park heard eight gunshots ring out in the night.  In the weeks that followed, they would discover the bodies of three female mountain gorillas-Mburanumwe, Neza, and Safari-and a 500-pound silverback, named Senkwekwe, all shot dead by unknown assailants.  Just a month earlier, they had discovered another female, Macibiri, shot execution style in the back of the head; her infant, still alive, was found clinging to her dead mother’s breast.  Each of these gorillas was part of the 12-member Rugendo family, a group of endangered mountain gorillas well-known to visitors at Virunga National Park and beloved by its rangers.  Yet, in less than 2 months, 7 members of the Rugendo family had been murdered, including its patriarch silverback who was tied to a bed of bamboo poles and carried from the scene by 15 men in a photograph that made headlines around the world.

The killing of mountain gorillas at Virunga National Park shocked the world not only for its brutality, but also for its sheer importance.  Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals with only an estimated 820 existing in a small corner of the world and none living in captivity, putting them on the list of critically endangered animals.  Unlike lowland gorillas which can survive in zoos, mountain gorillas have always died when taken into captivity, making their continued survival increasingly difficult.  To make matters worse, the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas inhabit a small geographic area in Central Africa threatened by habitat destruction, poaching, charcoal production, illegal animal trade, human disease, war and civil unrest.

While mountain gorillas are large, physically imposing creatures, they are not the violent beasts often depicted on film.  In fact, mountain gorillas are gentle, affectionate, and intelligent animals living in highly-socialized family groups led by a dominant silverback responsible for protecting the family.  Mountain gorillas are peaceful creatures that spend most of their day foraging for food, playing and grooming, only displaying aggression when there is a threat to the silverback’s dominance or the family’s well-being.  Though some families contain more than one silverback, only one is dominant and he alone is responsible for mating with the group’s adult females.

Mountain gorillas are also among the animals most closely related to humans, with approximately 98% of their DNA matching our own.  They are playful, emotional and family-oriented, displaying a depth and intelligence that is eerily similar to their human counterparts.  This has created a paradox for the future of gorilla conservation as tourism becomes the greatest asset for protecting these creatures and also one of the biggest threats for gorillas which are highly susceptible to human disease, but lacking the adequate physical defenses to protect themselves.

Human similarities, Hollywood lore, dwindling numbers, and increased isolation have all contributed to making a visit with mountain gorillas one of the most memorable wildlife encounters to be had anywhere on the planet.  There are only three countries in the world where mountain gorillas exist – Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo- and it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to visit them.  The most reliable and safe locations in which to track gorillas are Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks in Uganda and the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda.  As of this year, permits for gorilla tracking in both countries will be raised to $750, allowing for a one-hour visit with wild mountain gorillas.  And with a limited amount available each day, proper planning is required to ensure you can obtain the necessary permits to make this dream trip happen.

With gorilla tracking becoming more expensive and crowded in Uganda and Rwanda, we elected to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo instead.  It had been five years since the infamous gorilla killings that shocked the world and adventurous travelers were beginning to trickle across the borders into the town of Goma and Virunga National Park.  For several months, the southern sector of the park had been considered safe with over 100 tourists visiting the gorillas and Nyiragongo Volcano each month.  Most travelers reach the park from Rwanda, crossing the border at Gisenyi into Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and continuing approximately 25 miles to the park headquarters at Rumangabo.  Alternately, the park can be reached via the border town of Bunagana, Uganda and making the approximately three-hour trip to Virunga National Park.

Situated at the heart of the Albertine Rift in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga National Park is the oldest and most diverse national park on the African continent.  Extending 186 mi (300 km) north to south and 14 mi (23 km) east to west, the park is comprised of savannas, swamps, forests, lakes, lava plains, hot springs, active volcanoes, high altitude glaciers and even ice fields.  Virunga also contains one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife found anywhere in Africa, containing more bird, mammal and reptile species than any other protected area on the African continent.  Along with 200 of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, the park is also home to savanna and forest elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, antelope, okapi, warthogs, lions, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas.

Virunga National Park is often said to be Africa’s most beautiful national park; ironically, it has long been one of the most threatened.  Founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium, the first national park on the African continent (originally called Albert National Park) was created primarily to protect the gorillas living in its forests.  The park thrived during its first 35 years until 1960 when Belgium granted independence to the Congo.  Thus, began the struggle to protect Virunga as the Congo began a decades-long deterioration into political upheaval, war and civil unrest.  By the mid-1980s, the Congo (then called “Zaire”) had dissolved into chaos and the park suffered terribly as poaching depleted large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed.  Over the course of the next 25 years, park staff suffered an almost uninterrupted series of trials that threatened to destroy Africa’s oldest national park.

By 1994, assault rifles had become readily available, allowing poaching gangs and rebel groups to attack patrol posts, looting and killing rangers.  Armed groups occupied vast sections of the park, placing hundreds of mines on paths leading into the forest.  Then in July 1994, in the course of just a few days, nearly two million refugees poured across the border into Zaire fleeing the massacres in Rwanda.  Five refugee camps were constructed along the borders of the park and in the years that followed the management of Virunga was dominated by the urgent needs of 750,000 refugees.  Deforestation became rampant as up to 80,000 people a day began entering the park and cutting firewood.  Other problems brought on by the camps included cutting of bamboo, poaching, dumping waste, general disorder and anxiety, collapse of tourism revenue, and the shortage of natural resources for local communities.

By 1997, the Rwanda refugee crisis had destabilized Eastern Zaire, forcing an overthrow of the government in which the country was renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo and beginning the Second Congo War, otherwise known as the Great War of Africa.  Involving eight African nations and 25 armed groups, the Second Congo War was the deadliest conflict since World War II with more than 5.4 million people killed and millions more displaced from their homes.  During that time, armed groups occupied the forests inflicting systematic destruction while locals and rebels alike tore apart infrastructure in search of construction materials.  Wood-cutting and poaching were rampant creating disastrous consequences for wildlife as armed rebel groups controlled vast areas of the park.  The northern sector of the park was subject to continual incursions and attacks and many park employees had already been killed or wounded as they struggled to protect the park. By the end of 2008, it seemed as if Virunga would be all but destroyed.

Remarkably, Virunga National Park has survived thanks to the steadfast dedication of a remarkable staff made up locals and foreigners alike, in particular Park Director Emmanuel de Mérode and the 680 park rangers under his command.  Mérode, the son of Belgian royalty, grew up in Kenya before receiving his doctorate in biological anthropology at University College London where he wrote a thesis about food security and the illegal bush-meat trade in northeastern Congo.  He began working full-time at Virunga National Park in 2001, training rangers for the Zoological Society of London, before being appointed Director of Virunga National Park by the Congolese government on August 1, 2008.  Mérode possesses a unique understanding of conservation and cooperation from years of living and working in DRC that has allowed him to work with local communities, government officials, and rebel groups to maintain Virunga National Park even as forces all around the park threaten to tear it apart.  Undoubtedly, he would give much of the credit to those who deserve it most- the brave rangers who risk their lives each day to protect Africa’s oldest national park.

These are no ordinary park rangers.  In the last twenty years, over 150 rangers have been killed protecting Virunga National Park, with 11 killed in just the first 7 months of 2011 alone.  It is difficult to imagine a park where rangers risk their lives each day in order to defend against ambushes, poachers, illegal charcoal producers, and various armed militias.  Yet, despite the inherent dangers, a remarkable group of Congolese men have come together to form a well-trained and organized, military-style unit that secures and protects the park and its precious wildlife from the many elements that threaten Virunga National Park.

One such ranger, named John, would be leading our trip to visit Virunga’s famed mountain gorillas.  A second-generation ranger with over 15 years experience in the park, John has worked closely with the mountain gorillas and can identify them by name.  He explained that we would be visiting the Rugendo family, the same group of gorillas which had been attacked in 2007.  John shares a great affection for this family of gorillas and became visibly choked up when talking about them.  It would take about an hour and a half walking before we would reach the gorillas, he explained, and then we would have one hour to spend with them.  During that time, we were told to keep a distance of 15 feet (5 m) and wear a surgical mask to help prevent transmission of disease.  Eating, drinking and smoking is not allowed and flash photography is prohibited as well.

We left the beautiful setting at Bukima Camp with three rangers:  John, our guide; another who carried my bag and cleared the trail with his machete; and a rifle-toting ranger who brought up the rear.  A maximum of eight people are allowed on each trip, but it would be just Rachel and I, as we had seen no other travelers in the DRC.  At first, the trail was wide, climbing into the lush green forest where wild orchids bloomed all around us.  The sky was heavy with clouds and I feared rain might spoil our trip.  The humidity in the jungle had me sweating and rolling up my sleeves, but with each step we grew closer to the gorillas and I noticed less the moisture soaking my clothes.  We continued the gradual climb to a fork in the path and then John led us into the thick of the forest.  Hacking away the brush before us, he cleared the narrow trail while the forest seemed to swallow us more with each step.

After almost an hour, we arrived at the gorilla’s nest and John told us they were just twenty minutes away.  Trails were almost non-existent now, but our guide continued to clear the way.  Step by step, our anticipation grew and I was not sure whether the humidity was to blame for my sweaty palms anymore.  I could feel my heart beating faster as my eyes scanned the forest searching for the animal we had traveled halfway around the world to see.  Then, I spotted it.  It was just a black spot in a sea of green, but it was the sign that our visit had begun.

The rangers passed out masks and I retrieved my camera, making sure that my pockets were stuffed with everything I needed, including extra batteries and memory cards.  Together we followed John closer to the gorillas, pushing through thick brush and bamboo until we found ourselves standing 15 feet from a 500-pound silverback gorilla.  There are moments in your life that you will always remember, but never be able to adequately explain- such is the feeling when you come face-to-face with one of the few remaining mountain gorillas left in the world.  At first, we could only stand and stare.  The huge, powerful animal was so close that we could smell his musty fur and giggle at his gas.  His chiseled chest bulged with muscles that could tear us apart, but the expression on his face showed only his indifference to us.  Our guide stepped within feet of the massive creature and removed a branch that blocked our view, showing no sign of fear as he told us this gorilla, named Bukima, was the largest silverback at Virunga National Park.  As our cameras fired away, the gentle giant just sat like a bored child suffering through his parent’s picture-taking.  A once-in-a-lifetime experience for us was just a familiar daily disruption for this highly-evolved animal.  Having been habituated to the presence of humans after many years and untold number of visits, Bukima and his family of mountain gorillas took little notice of us while they went about their daily routine.

Having grown tired of having his photo taken, Bukima rolled into a big hairy ball and covered his face, a sign for us to move on and let him rest.  We found ourselves an open space from which to observe and photograph a female mountain gorilla named Rubutu who was perched in a tree above us with her baby, Mastaki, on her back.  The little fuzzy ball of fur clung to her mother, snatching and eating the leaves around her.  Then, to our delight and amazement, Rubutu climbed down the tree and walked right past us, so close that we could have reached out and touched the adorable wooly baby on her back.  Of course, it is important not to make contact with the gorillas and to respect the required space, but often it is the curious gorillas who will come within just feet of their astonished admirers.

Looking back on my life and the experiences I have enjoyed, it is difficult to think of another hour in my life that was more precious than the one I spent with the Rugendo family of mountain gorillas.  The minutes ticked away in a timeless flash of memories so unforgettable and compelling that it seems like we must have spent hours with the gorillas.  But, in fact, it was only a collection of experiences so seemingly impossible that my mind can only comprehend it as a dream.  For how could I have actually sat just a few feet away from one of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas and listened to the crunch of bamboo as he feeds; or to have smelled the musty odor of a female gorilla and her baby as they passed right next to me; and to have felt the absolute fear and fascination that comes with meeting the stare of a 500-pound silverback gorilla that could tear a human apart, but instead offers a tender and curious gaze.  For that experience, I will be forever grateful to the remarkable people at Virunga National Park who have dedicated and risked their lives to protecting one of God’s most glorious creatures.

 

EPILOGUE

Just three days later, in the early hours of May 8, 2012, a rebel army of around 1,500 men under the command of Bosco Ntaganda crossed the park from the west and entered the Gorilla Sector, forcing our immediate evacuation.  Within a couple of days, Bukima had been evacuated and the Gorilla Sector we just visited was occupied by armed rebel forces.  For weeks, our friends at Virunga could only watch and listen as the war raged all around them, each day growing closer to the park headquarters at Rumangabo.  By late May, patrols were dispatched to the Gorilla Sector to check on the gorillas, but each time they were ambushed with heavy fire from rebel militias.  Faced with the worst fighting since 2008, park officials were eventually forced to evacuate all ranger families and staff to a camp outside of Goma.  By late July, the fighting was literally on the doorstep of park headquarters and Rumangabo was under rebel control.

Despite the violence and the chaos of battle, both government and rebel forces have been remarkably respectful of the parks’ staff and its installations.  An agreement was made in early August to allow a team of Virunga rangers to conduct a search for the gorillas and within days they had located four of the seven mountain gorilla families, including the Rugendo family.  Rangers described their first contact with the gorillas in the months:  “Members of the Kabirizi family circled them, he said, and most wanted to touch and smell them. One small juvenile shyly reached out its hand to touch Innocent’s boots, and another came up from behind to touch his back when he wasn’t looking.”

Today, Virunga National Park remains closed to tourists as conflict continues to rage in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Park rangers continue to come under attack from armed rebel militias and park officials are working round-the-clock to ensure the safety of park staff, the local community, and also the park’s wildlife.  It is an incredibly difficult time for Virunga National Park, but with our help, they can continue the remarkable work they have been doing for decades working to protect Africa’s oldest national park.  So please help us share the plight of Virunga in order to create greater awareness and to assist in much-needed fundraising that will protect both the park and the brave rangers working to save it.

To learn more about how you can help bring greater awareness to the plight of Virunga National Park and help protect its precious mountain gorillas, please visit Virunga’s website at http://gorillacd.org/how-you-can-help-gorillacd/

2012
05.04

At last, I have touched down on African soil.

As our plane broke free of the clouds and descended into Uganda, my eyes finally fell upon a land of which I have so long dreamed.  I could only stare out the window in awe of a world that was still so foreign to me.  Lush, rolling hills extended to the horizon in a vast sea of green dotted with small towns and snaking roads.  Then the vast expanse of Africa’s largest lake came into view as our plane dropped down over local fisherman and landed at Entebbe airport on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Situated almost directly on the Equator, the air was thick and humid as our taxi began the 25-mile journey to Uganda’s capital city of Kampala.  It would take over an hour to reach the hotel, but the drive would provide our first glimpse of life in this East African nation.  Our driver maneuvered his way down streets that seemed all too familiar.  There were the same roadside shacks selling assorted goods and bikes carrying massive loads; crowded motorbikes weaving through frantic traffic; women walking with their backs erect and bundles balanced on their heads; piles of local fruits and vegetables peddled on the roadside; and curious stares from a sea of dark, foreign faces.  I was reminded of first impressions upon arriving in Fiji, Honduras, and India – all of which share similarities of the developing world.

Kampala is the center of political and commercial activity in Uganda with modern buildings rising skyward and dilapidated ones being restored.  It is rather relaxed for an African capital, being safer and friendlier than most.  Even under the darkness of the early morning hours, there seemed little to fear as we searched for our bus at the crowded station.  Few people even seemed to notice the foreigners in their midst and we were surprised to see the locals so well dressed, as if they all had just come from church.  Indeed, as the bus began the 10-hour journey across Western Uganda, the conductor led the passengers in a rousing prayer that stretched almost ten minutes and had me squirming in my seat, wondering how long ago the missionaries had hijacked the Africa of my dreams.

I had expected more of a culture shock upon arriving in Africa, but as we traveled from one town to the next, the “Dark Continent” did not feel much different than many places I have visited.  Even more disheartening was that I did not feel welcome.  Though Ugandans are said to be among the friendliest in Africa, I walked the streets and in exchange for my smile I only received blank stares.  I felt as if I were an intruder in their land and during those first few days I was very depressed.  This was not the Africa that I had expected.

Thankfully, all that would change in a matter of six short miles.  We stepped from our taxi into the Ugandan Immigration Office where they stamped our passports and wished us a safe journey.  Then we followed the road to where the pavement ended and stepped into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s poorest country.  When our feet landed on the dusty dirt road littered with potholes, it was as if I had stepped from one world and into another .  Now, this was the Africa I had come to see.

We were directed into the immigration office where they asked us to sit while they verified our visas.  Our passports were taken to the chief officer to be scrutinized while we waited in a small roadside shack.  Through the window we watched as people walked to and fro, a scene of unending curiosity the likes of which I have never seen.  Three-wheeled carts loaded with goods were pushed up the road by groups of sweating teens while women, young and old, carried precious baby bundles on their backs.  Dashes of brilliant color passed by in both directions with the women wrapped in bright, colorful clothing.  Dark-skinned policeman chatted in French, alternating with local Swahili.  It was an endless parade through the open window as we waited almost an hour, wondering what was going on behind the boss’ closed door.

Finally, we were led into the chief officer’s room, a modest office decorated with pictures of the President of the DRC and counterfeit U.S. bills.  But there was nothing modest about the man behind the desk.  Tall, broad-shouldered and with the air of importance that comes from being the top man in charge, the chief officer barked into one of the three gold-plated cell phones in front of him while we sat uncomfortably, unsure what was happening.  He seemed oblivious to the two foreigners seated in front of him, not looking at us or even acknowledging our presence.  His irritation became even more heightened when he learned that we did not speak French and he would have to speak in English.  In a stern voice he questioned us about our plans, seemingly ignorant that there was a national park in the Congo which tourists might visit.  He seemed to ponder this new information for quite some time, mulling the decision over in his head.  At last, he pushed himself up from the desk, thrust out his hand to me, and said, “You are welcome in the Congo.”  With those words spoken, our passports were stamped and we entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The next three hours would be some of the most remarkable that I have ever experienced in all my travels.  From the relative comfort and safety of Uganda, we stepped from a smooth paved road onto a dirt track littered with potholes.  Packed into a small truck with a driver who spoke no English, we pushed through crowds that stared back at us as if we had just arrived from another planet.  Indeed, it seemed as if we were in a world far apart from our own.  All around us were signs of life stripped down to its most basic form.  There were almost no vehicles to be seen and even the motorcycles so prevalent in the developing world were missing.  Instead, they were replaced by rudimentary bicycles made of wood which were little more than a long plank atop two wooden wheels with a handlebar of sorts to allow for minimal steering.  Some were even equipped with homemade shocks to ease the pain of the terrible roads on which they traveled.  Yet, with no chains or pedals with which to propel the bikes, they more closely resembled an ancient and oversized scooter, capable of carrying loads pushed down the road or the occasional downhill thrill.

It was the almost complete lack of transportation which struck me the most.  Whether piles of wood, sugarcane or crates of Coca-Cola, everything was carried or pushed, most often by the women and children.  A seemingly endless line of bodies lined both sides of the road like a train of refugees moving towards an unknown destination.  With only their feet to carry them, the Congolese just walk, an act of such basic and primitive human behavior that it was long ago lost to our society and designated as a recreational activity.  The absurdity of my own life and those things I hold dear was quickly realized upon the sight of an elderly woman making slow, painful steps beneath a towering load and a teenage boy hobbling to his home, his weight supported on a homemade crutch while his broken leg dragged behind him.

Though the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the poorest country in the world, it was not the poverty that was so shocking.  Undoubtedly, the people are poor- very poor- but there was no overwhelming sense of desperation, as I have seen in many parts of the world.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  The faces that stared back at us where not filled with pity, but alive with strength and self-reliance.  Their gazes seemed hardened by a lifetime of hard work and toil, but they are a proud people who have long been left to fend for themselves.  They looked upon me not with jealousy or envy, but with blank and emotionless stares that seemed to pierce right through me.  I felt not unwelcome, but perhaps unnecessary, as if there was nothing I could contribute that they had not overcome or accomplished on their own already.

Suddenly, everything I cherish became utterly irrelevant in this new world.  I was just another “muzungu” (foreigner) with my fancy car and clothes, intruding in a world of simple people who have long been confined to a basic life void of luxuries nearly impossible to obtain.  Their homes were built of sticks and mud- the most basic I have ever seen.  Concrete blocks and tin roofs were almost nowhere to be seen, replaced by palm fronds and bamboo.  A single water pump stood in each village, usually surrounded by a crowd of women in colorful clothing clambering to fill their empty jugs, some of whom walked three miles or more to retrieve their water.  Children old enough to walk were strong enough to work, particularly the young girls who struggled to carry overflowing water jugs almost half their size, often while balancing a baby bundled on their back.  Groups of young boys, their faces dripping with sweat, labored behind huge loads of sugarcane pushing with all their might to reach the top of the hill.  And all too typically, the men were usually seen resting in the shade or standing together aimlessly in groups while the women and children toiled with daily chores.

It would take over two hours to reach Virunga National Park, mostly on account of the terrible roads.  Often, it seemed the locals were making better time on foot while our 4-wheel drive lurched over piercing rocks and cratered potholes which fought us every step of the way.  It was a bone-jarring ride through lush green forests and mountains behind which towering volcanoes rose.  A sea of green consumed us in every direction as our vehicle climbed higher and higher into Africa’s oldest national park.

At last we arrived at Bukima Patrol Post, a tented camp once used by gorilla researchers which now serves as a base for visiting Virunga’s famous mountain gorillas.  We followed the path through the forest until it opened up into a beautiful setting with expansive views of the surrounding area draped in tropical forest.  From our camp we could see five different volcanoes, including Nyiragongo which lit up the night sky with the eerie red glow of its smoldering lava lake.  Together we stood alone, looking out across the heart of the Albertine Rift with its rumbling volcanoes and dripping green forests.  For the first time in five days, we were able to sit, relax and savor our achievement, finally having arrived in the Africa of our dreams.

2012
04.20

One of the questions that I hear the most is, “What do you bring on a long trip?”  Indeed, one of the most daunting aspects of making an extended trip is deciding what to bring.  Traveling for months at a time through regions with different cultures, climates and customs requires that I plan very carefully when making decisions about what to carry.  Each item that I select must fit inside a pack that will become an extension of my body, carried on planes, buses, taxis, and trains, through adverse weather conditions and cities full of thieves.  I have to account for everything that I will need on a daily basis for several months at a time, both personally and professionally, and I have to carry it all on my back through parts of the world that do not enjoy the same level of comfort and convenience to which most of us are accustomed.  Each trip presents its own challenges and rewards, but over time I have managed to develop a system that allows me to travel with everything I need to survive and accomplish the goals of my trip.

Tourists and mid-range travelers can pack large roller suitcases with weeks worth of clothes, but packing light is the key to low cost, independent international travel (often referred to as backpacking).  On my first trip abroad, I carried the same full-sized backpack that I used for camping trips, as well as much of the same equipment.  I had enough camping gear to survive for days in the wood and more than a week’s worth of clothes.  It did not take long to realize my mistake as I lugged a pack the size of a young boy across several destinations in the South Pacific.  With each successive trip, my pack has grown smaller and my list has become shorter while my trips have only become more comfortable and easy.  In fact, I have never been happier than when traveling across Asia with a school-sized Jansport backpack and two days worth of clothes.

Now, my professional requirements are forcing me to carry more gear and it is becoming increasingly difficult to travel as light as I would like.  Sacrifices inevitably have to be made on both ends.  If I were simply backpacking across Africa, I could manage with a few changes of clothes, toiletries, a book and a journal.  But as a photographer in Africa, there is so much more that I wish I could bring- telephoto lens, external flash, battery grip, etc.  In either case, it becomes a matter of necessity- what do I really need?

Backpack

  • Backpack – A small portable backpack makes all the difference.  In most places I visit, I cannot hide the fact that I 318_760_xl-2am a foreigner, but I do not want to advertise myself as a tourist.  Nothing screams tourist more than having a towering backpack and a guidebook in hand.  With a small backpack, I can be more conspicuous and blend in more effectively.  But most importantly, a large backpack is an incredible inconvenience when traveling on local transportation.  Large backpacks will not fit in crowded local buses, trains, and rickshaws and only make traveling more difficult.  There is simply no substitute for a pack that can fit beneath the seat of a bus or be carried on a plane.

* Update:  The old backpack was getting a little beat up so I’ve since upgraded and begun using an Osprey Porter 46 which can contain all of my clothes and meet the requirements for carry-on bags, thus fitting in the overhead bins and saving me considerable time and hassle in airports.

Clothing

People are generally surprised how little clothing I bring on extended trips.  When packing for a weekend in San Francisco, I typically bring far more clothes than I would for a 3-month trip through Asia.  Sure, it is tempting to have lots of options, but clothes are bulky and the less I bring, the smaller I can keep my pack.  Rather than having lots to choose from, I try to choose each item wisely.  I know it sounds terrible wearing the same clothes day in and day out, but with the right choices, it is far easier than carrying a heavy bag I have to unpack everyday.  I simply develop a routine of washing (usually in the hotel sink) and drying my clothes which is convenient and easy if I bring the right items.

  • Pants (2) – Lightweight, quick-drying travel pants are an essential item for me.  I prefer one pair of comfortable, non-convertible pants, usually made from an outdoor company with synthetic materials which can be washed and dried overnight.  These usually come with secure pockets which are useful for holding cash and other items.  Granted, it is often hot and shorts might be more comfortable, but you will rarely see locals wearing shorts in most parts of the world.  Also, pants are often required in religious and government buildings, especially in Asia where pants must be worn in almost all temples.  I also bring one pair of convertible pants which double as swimming shorts and can be used on mountain hikes and jungle walks.
  • Shorts (1) – Though I am wearing them less these days, it is undeniable that sometimes shorts are just more comfortable.  I usually bring one pair of comfortable and casual shorts that extend a little below the knees.  These are great when I am just hanging out at the hotel, kicking it beachside, or spending time in an area with more tourists where shorts are a more acceptable form of dress.  Women should be especially mindful of local customs and keep in mind that it’s a big no-no showing even a hint of leg, shoulder, or chest in many parts of the world.  Though shorts and tank tops may seem the best choice in 100 degree weather, it is probably best to avoid shorts and short skirts and bring a couple of skirts that extend below the knees.
  • Shirts (3) – Smart, casual short-sleeve (or polo) shirts made of synthetic materials are another essential item for me.  I usually bring 3-4 pairs of comfortable button-up shirts which are breathable and have collars to protect from sun and wind.  At least one should be a long-sleeve shirt which are, in fact, preferred over t-shirts by locals in most of the developing world.  Women should consider local customs and be sure to pack a couple of shirts which extend beyond their elbows, especially in Asia where women are often required to adequately cover their shoulders.
  • T-shirts (2) – I used to bring a bag of t-shirts, but those days are long gone.  Now, I bring 2 comfortable shirts which, similar to the shorts, are worn primarily at the beachside or popular tourist spots.  T-shirts are comfortable, but they are less professional and usually worn only by tourists.  I usually bring a couple for outdoor activities and prefer synthetic materials which can be easily washed and dried, unlike cotton.  Also, the truth about most of this clothing is that it can probably be purchased cheaper at my destination, especially in the case of t-shirts which are widely available in most countries for just a couple of dollars.  Women will probably want to bring several tanks tops which are lightweight and easy to pack, but be sure to consider local customs when wearing them in public.
  • Light jacket/Fleece – Whether on planes, trains, or buses, I am bound to encounter some cold temperatures along any trip.  Even in the hottest desert, it gets cool at night and a lightweight, synthetic jacket can make all the difference.  There a lot of great options from outdoor companies which can keep you warm and comfortable without being too heavy or bulky.
  • Rain jacket – It is great to have a lightweight rain jacket which can provide some protection from the wind and rain, as well as heat on an especially cold night.  This can provide a little comfort on rainy days, as well as protection for my equipment from the elements.  Since it is difficult to pack minimally with cold weather gear, I often find myself layering my clothing to achieve the greatest amount of heat- and my cheap rain jacket with its minimal breathability can be just the shell I need to overcome a chilly evening.
  • Shoes – A lightweight pair of water-resistant, breathable sneakers can usually be found taking up far too much space in my pack for the few days they are actually worn.  I usually prefer my sandals, but there are occasions on which I simply have to have better support and protection.
  • Sandals – Sandals are not always the most professional choice, but they are usually the most comfortable.  My Chaco sandals take up little space and receive almost constant use.  Also, the Vibram soles allow me to wear sandals when hiking and trekking instead of hot, cumbersome sneakers.
  • Socks (2) – I usually bring a couple of pairs of socks to wear with my shoes and perhaps a pair of wool socks if I anticipate cold and adverse weather conditions.
  • Underwear (4) – A few pairs of underwear usually suffice, as you tend to be washing and drying underwear on a daily basis, especially in hot climates.  Women will probably want to bring more, usually a week’s worth, and consider materials that will be hygienic, comfortable, and easy to wash and dry.
  • Hat – A comfortable hat is great protection from the sun.  I almost never wear sunglasses when traveling abroad so a hat can be crucial on those bright, sunny days.

Accessories

  •  Sleeping bag – This is one item that I debate every time, but I have never regretted bringing.  I carry a REI Travel Sack +55 warm weather sleeping bag which is lightweight, compact and unzips completely to form a flat rectangle.  This is especially useful for laying on top of dirty hotel beds or bus station floors when I need a blanket on which to sit or sleep.  It also provides added heat on those occasionally cool nights or chilly train rides.  It packs down to about the size of a football and continues to prove itself useful.
  • Towel – A lightweight, packable and fast-drying towel makes life much more enjoyable.  I usually just bring a thin cotton towel which takes up less space, but does not dry as quickly.  I spent $20 on a fancy REI towel this time around so I will see which I prefer in the end.
  • Flashlight/Headlamp – A flashlight is an essential item, especially in developing nations without dependable electricity.  I usually bring a hand-held flashlight for when I am photographing and a headlamp for using during transportation and in hotels.
  • Calculator – A calculator is useful for calculating foreign exchange rates and confirming numbers and prices when there is a language barrier.
  • Clock/Alarm – A clock with an alarm is useful for those early morning wake-ups.
  • Plug Adapter – An absolutely necessary item that is easy to forget.  All these fancy electric gadgets are rendered useless if I do not have an adapter for international electricity outlets.
  • MP3 Player – Great for long rides in trains and buses and a little taste of home every once in a while.
  • Batteries – Be sure to bring extra high quality batteries.
  • Laptop – This is another luxury item that adds weight and takes up space while providing valuable tools for my work and travel.  A laptop allows me to back up my photos and manage multiple external drives which is crucial when the risk is so great for loss or theft.  I have basic photo editing software installed which allows me to process images and update my website.  Also, with wireless internet becoming readily available around the world, I can now avoid paying by the minute and use the internet at my own convenience.
  • Book – Quality reading material is a must.  I usually carry one book at a time and exchange it at local book stores when I need a new one.  No eReaders for me yet- they seem convenient, but my MP3 player already draws too much attention in the developing world.
  • Journal – This used to be my most important item, but I have begun using my laptop for much of my writing now.  Nevertheless, a journal and a small notebook are still essential items for recording daily activities, moments, emotions, etc.
  • Guidebook – Though I still loathe the Lonely Planet Generation, I continue to be a subscribing member of it.  I usually prefer Lonely Planet’s layout and concise information, but I am happy to use any guidebook that provides some basic information, maps, and information about my destination.
  • Money Belt – Whether a wallet or money belt, there are some things that never leave me when I am traveling.  I never go anywhere without my passport and generally I refuse to leave it with anybody.  That passport will remain on my person at all times in a money belt along with my credit cash and credit cards.  Copies of my passport and credit cards and kept in a separate location in case of loss or theft.
  • Playing Cards/Games – There is a remarkable amount of ‘down time’ when you are traveling so be sure to bring enjoyable ways to kill time.

 

Toiletries/Medical Kit

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant, razor, shaving cream, lotion, lip balm, sunscreen,
  • Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Imodium, Neosporin, cold/flu, bandages, adhesive tape, scissors, tweezers, nail clippers
  • (Female Hygiene) Feminine products, tampons, wet wipes, birth control

 

Photography Equipment

  • Photo Backpack – For years I traveled with only a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot camera which produced fantastic results that found their ways into magazines and advertisements.  The camera was lightweight and compact, attracting little attention while being so little it could fit inside my pocket.  With that camera, I could carry a single backpack half the size of the one pictured below.  Now, I have to carry a second backpack, the Think Tank Streetwalker Pro, which contains only photographic equipment weighing around ten pounds.  It is a greater burden to manage, especially on days spent in transit, but it is still relatively small for a professional photographer.  Over the course of several months this pack will become almost permanently attached to me.  It contains my primary camera body, assortment of lenses, and an external hard drive with another hard drive located at my hotel in case of loss or theft.
  • Camera Body – When traveling in remote locations, it is preferable to bring two camera bodies.  I am currently using the Nikon D800 as my primary camera body with a Nikon D700 as my backup camera body.  It is not my preferred choice because the cameras use different batteries and other accessories forcing me to carried extra weight.  But until I get my hands on another D800, it is just important to have a second camera in case of damage or theft of my primary camera body.

* Update:  I’ve also begun carrying a Panasonic Lumix LX7 compact digital camera which produces excellent quality images and HDR video without the weight of a DSLR.

  • Tripod – It can be a huge pain to carry a tripod, but not nearly as painful as needing one and having left it behind.  I have a Really Right Stuff set-up for my landscape work, but when I am traveling, I just bring a cheaper and smaller Manfrotto tripod.  It is not as tall as I would like, but it can usually get the job done while still being small enough to fit on either pack.
  • Memory Cards – I carry an assortment of memory cards, usually 8 cards ranging from 16-32GB.
  • Battery Charger/Batteries (3) – I bring 3 batteries for my camera and make sure to charge them whenever I have access to electrical outlets.
  • Flash Remote Cord – For landscape and night photography.