When you spend enough time out in the wild, the only thing you can expect is the unexpected. Here are the stories of three of my wildest encounters.
1. Meeting the Gorillas of Rwanda
Take a moment and imagine you are in Central Africa’s Virunga Mountains, trekking through the lush rainforest. It is so beautiful you are seeing shades of green you didn’t know existed, and you walk through bamboo so thick you must crouch in order to pass. After climbing to about 8500ft, the landscape changes, and a thick forest of African redwoods and lush tropical plants takes over. The smells of dirt, moist jungle air, flowers, and animals you can't quite recognize are novel and exciting.
I can vividly recall all of this on our first trek to photograph the mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Despite the pouring rain and the red welts covering our hands due to countless run-ins with stinging nettles, the excitement kept any negativity at bay.
After several hours of trekking that felt like walking through quicksand, we rounded the corner and came face to face with an animal that bears a resemblance to us as humans - only not at all. This encounter was beautiful and surreal, magic and distant...yet, somehow, familiar.
Finally, we are among the Gorilla beringei beringei - the mountain gorilla.
Specifically, we were among the Sousa family. They are one of the largest habituated families of gorillas clocking in at nearly 20 members, and it was as if we had opened a door to another world, eerily similar to our own. I instinctively grabbed my camera and began photographing them down the path from where I stood.
Out of nowhere, a deep cry echoed through the jungle jolting me back into reality. In an extraordinary display of dominance, the silverback of the group took off at full tilt in the direction of another large male. Plants crashed around him as he ran and the others quickly followed as part of their duty as members of the Sousa family. The chest beating and calls of the gorillas echoed up into the jungle reverberating around the mountains.
In a rush to get to the source of the commotion, one of the 500-pound male gorillas got so close to me that I could feel the movement of air in his wake. The rest followed, some even brushing my arms and camera as I stood to the side of the narrow path to let them pass.
It wasn’t until they disappeared into the mist that I finally exhaled, grounding myself back in reality.
2. The Delicate Craft of Photographing Hippos
In popular culture, hippos get characterized as fun-loving, happy-go-lucky creatures. Yet in reality, they are fiercely territorial as well as immensely shy, always with their eyes on you and watching your every move as if daring you to get closer.
To photograph them safely, you need to remain far enough away so they cannot charge as the males can weigh up to 4,000 lbs.; that’s the size of a pickup truck! For me, this represented quite the challenge as the image I wanted to capture involved being close enough to the hippo that the resulting photograph felt intimate.
I knew I wanted to be at eye level with the hippo in order to make it feel as if the image was honoring his presence and to create a shot that felt engaging. However, hippos only reappear above the surface every so often and only for a few seconds, so I had to anticipate where they might pop up and get ready. I’m no stranger to the delicate balance of safety and creating the shot I have in mind when in the field, and creating this image was no exception.
In the Naboisho Conservancy outside of the Maasai Mara, there was a spot to photograph the hippos that was about as close to perfect as possible. This location was near our camp, against a minimal backdrop of deep green foliage, and on a steep embankment on the edge of a dark stream. Each morning and evening as we passed this location, I’d get my camera out and try to focus while using the door of our Land Cruiser so as not to break the line of the car.
Finally, on our last day there, all of the forces aligned. The weather had temporarily ceased which meant the stillness on the water was velvety smooth and the cloud cover dramatically enhanced the surrounding plants to create a layered, patterned backdrop. I can still recall the intensity of the eye contact I made with this animal as he locked his gaze on me, deciding if I was a friend or foe.
Moments after clicking the shutter- and without any warning- the hippo began to move in my direction as if his weight and the water between us were no obstacle. I jumped back into our vehicle, ever grateful for our guide, Paul, who is always three steps ahead, as he safely piloted our vehicle away. The hippo promptly disappeared back into the dark water of his home, only a trail of bubbles as any indication he was there seconds ago.
During this moment, our meager footprint as humans in places like this came into stark perspective; I was in his territory no matter the distance I stayed away.
3. A Front Row Seat to Sable Island
Sable Island is a microcosm of pure nature. Home to wild horses and nothing else, these animals remain undisturbed. You can watch the mechanics of life play out here in their most honest and real ways.
There’s also something else that never ceases to amaze me about Sable Island no matter how many times I return, which is that you are almost guaranteed to see no other humans and there’s a peacefulness that’s elusive - nearly impossible - in the modern world. The calm is such a physical part of the island’s makeup that it’s almost like an element there, just like the wind and water.
Yet, there is one thing that can break this silence and peace and that’s the electricity of two stallions fighting for dominance. While they generally prefer to keep their families separated for obvious reasons, the few freshwater ponds on the island can quickly turn into a destination for territorial confrontations.
Then, suddenly, the horses emerged over the crest of the dune not far from where I stood and raced past me. I watched this dance of life play out as the pair sparred and chased one another through the ponds and over the dunes and back again. It was the kind of rare photograph that encapsulates the raw, wild, beauty of Sable Island and the horses that call this place home.