BY ROBERTINO PATILEA

Last year I had to think long and hard about whether to stick with my 10-year old Olympus and upgrade, or whether to move on to another system. And there were many things to consider in that decision: price, low-light performance, resolution, availability of lenses, future of the brand or availability of underwater accessories (I happen to dive too). Eventually I decided to go for weight.

I used a spreadsheet and determined that any other system’s weight would push my hold luggage on a dive trip above 23kg and demand a second suitcase, something I’m not keen on at all. And if there’s one trip where you will absolutely feel you have made the right decision in going for a light camera system, it’s trekking primates in Uganda. I experienced this first-hand in June 2021.

Gorillas

Uganda’s south-west, together with parts of Rwanda and DRC, host the endangered mountain gorilla. Some families are habituated, meaning that they have been exposed to the constant presence of humans and now tolerate them.

My backpack took the 300mm F4 PRO, 40-150mm F2.8 PRO, 12-40mm F2.8 PRO and two E-M1 Mark II bodies.  All in all 3.6kg of photographic gear after I removed the tripod clip on both tele lenses. Add spare batteries, 1l of water and a bit of food (in this order of priority) and I ended up with somewhere around 5kg on my back. The friend I went with on this trip has another system and this was the weight of just one body plus two lenses. Add all in and I wouldn’t have wanted his backpack to drop on my foot. He hired a local porter but I was taught that self-reliance is a virtue and absolutely loved the portability of my pack.

We went up and down, sometimes against very, very steep inclines and in humid, sticky air. The difficult part of a gorilla trip is getting there, otherwise once you reach them they feed on the ground, move a bit but not too quickly, spend some time in the undergrowth which may not allow for many good photos but also get into openings at times.

I thought that the 300mm lens would be overkill, as despite the mandated distance of 10m you must keep from the gorillas (7m before the pandemic), these are very large creatures.  Yet I’m glad I took it with me as the gorgeous close-up of a baby looking into the camera is taken with it. So is the female gorilla pensively picking at its teeth. The 40-150mm covered every other situation and gave me versatility when the gorillas were moving around.  All equipment was weatherproof and I had no worry that the humidity and dust of the dry season would affect it in any way.

Chimpanzees

Trekking chimps could not be more different from gorillas. They are a lot easier to reach but can spend a lot of time in the trees, feeding, resting and generally not caring one jot about your desire to take pictures. You must keep the camera trained on that chimp up there at all times because you never know when something will happen. And holding up 1.3kg (body + 40-150mm lens) for minutes on end is a lot easier than holding nearly 3kg of another system’s body and tele. My friend’s arms gave way rather quickly and I was the only one left to hope for that magic shot – which I did get; look at the young chimp merrily chewing on some leaves.

And yet the situation can change in seconds with the chimps, one distant pant-hoot and they all go berserk, get down from their trees and dash through the jungle.  At which point you run too, roots and vines trying to trip you, thorns tearing at your shirt but all you can think of is that magic shot and so try to keep up with creatures much better equipped to run through the jungle. Your light camera will ensure you always have it with you and don’t rely on anyone else catching up. Because within minutes the chimps can stop, forget all about the commotion and give you some great shots again – like the two chimps grooming and looking into each other’s eyes, the alpha male passing by or the chimp pant-hooting for the sake of it.

I found no use here for the 300mm lens as there is a lot of foliage and movement. One camera body with 40-150mm will serve you very well. There is not much light penetrating the thick jungle cover but even pushing ISO to 6400, noise on my Olympus stayed at tolerable levels. And if you have to choose, you may always want to go for a bit of noise over a blurred shot.

Safari

You are in Africa so must go on a couple of game drives too. Here, the weight of the system doesn’t really matter as you are in a comfortable 4×4 and all you need is the luck of running into the right animal at the right time. 

But special mention must go to the shots of a hooded vulture perfectly lit by the morning sun against a clear sky background, the hippo smiling with its eyes closed thinking of a giant grass basket, the nursing elephant cow and the best of the bunch; the jumping hippo. 

I’d never heard of one before and didn’t know that these cantankerous giants can do it, but after you see it doing it once you keep your camera trained on it until the arms hurt. And the second time it did it, I was there to catch it (yes, that shot could have been better framed but who’s counting it?  It’s a jumping hippo!).

Parting Words

There is a pandemic raging and Uganda is suffering. Tourists are no longer coming in and the loss of this important revenue source affects their capacity to maintain the conservation machine of the national parks. June-August is normally peak season and you would have to book many months in advance in any normal time. Yet in 2021 we booked in May, travelled in June, stayed in sparsely occupied hotels and had no difficulty getting permits to see the primates. I will take all the criticism thrown my way that I’ve travelled at these difficult times, yet my money and that of other visitors help towards meeting the cost of preserving these natural wonders for future generations.