American photographer Andrew Ling constantly looks for new ways to shoot common subjects, for new images. Having worked largely in the commercial sector – for Adidas, Adobe, Volvo, and others – as well as National Geographic, Andrew’s a conservationist at heart. With our partner Qatar Airways, we recently flew him to Rwanda for a seven-day safari – his first trip to Africa. There, staying first at Magashi, our lovely, lakeside camp in the rolling savannah of rehabilitated Akagera National Park, then at our beautiful Bisate Lodge overlooking misty volcanoes in Volcanoes National Park, Andrew was blown away. By the people, the wildlife, the landscape. And by what we do to preserve precious wildernesses…
We spoke to Andrew upon his return:
What stood out most for you on the trip?
One of the standouts was the tranquillity of the vast, wide-open spaces – tied into how well-protected they are. From the land, to the wildlife, to the people, everything is connected so seamlessly, in a well-balanced ecosystem. I was endlessly fascinated by the countless interactions, at every level of the ecosystem, and the ripple-effects. Something else that stood out to me was the culinary experiences. The food and service rivals some of my favorite restaurants in the world. At Bisate, I loved seeing their organic garden where fresh ingredients were gathered for meals.
Any touching or mind-blowing moments from the camps?
The staff at both Bisate and Magashi made me feel like family, before words were even exchanged. Throughout my stay, one of the things I enjoyed most was connecting with other guests and staff. We exchanged stories from around the world, we talked about things we loved, things we dreamed of doing. We shared challenges we faced, and challenges we had overcome. It was amazing to be able to connect on such a deep level with people I had just met.
What surprised you the most?
What surprised me the most was how much of an impact people would have on me, throughout the trip. A lot of the places I go are very remote, and sometimes there is little interaction with people. Just wild, vast landscapes. Whether it was with other guests or staff, I really enjoyed the conversations and experiences we shared.
Any new tips you learned photographing African wildlife and landscapes?
Photographing new wildlife and landscapes is one of my favourite ways to continue learning. Each day we went out on an excursion, I was eager to learn how the wildlife interacted with the environment, on every level. I was lucky enough to be joined by Gaël Vande Weghe, a local conservationist who was raised just outside of Akagera National Park, and literally 'grew up with lions’. I probably asked him a hundred questions a day about the wildlife and landscapes. Every time I get to be somewhere beautiful like this, I'm reminded that to take truly great photographs, I need to get to know the land/wildlife etc. on the deepest level. Not just visually, but scientifically, even emotionally. How does the wildlife behave, and why? How did the land get to be like this, and why?
One of my favorite experiences was spending time tracking wildlife with our guide Alphonse, who recently became one of the first Rwandans to achieve FGASA qualification. Amongst his peers, Alphonse is known as the 'leopard whisperer.' I soon found out why--as on our very first night, we saw the leopard pictured below. To see Gaël's and Alphonse's knowledge of the animals was inspiring--it made me want to get to know the wildlife on a deeper level.
Tell us about your gorilla-tracking experience at Volcanoes National Park.
It's challenging to put into words what seeing gorillas in the wild for the first time was like. To know that we share 98 percent of the same DNA as gorillas is mind-blowing. I saw one lying on its back relaxing, with its hands supporting its head, and I thought to myself, 'Hey, I do the same thing at home on my couch!' In another instance, I saw a mother cradling her baby. That was a special moment.
Was there a moment when you were too caught up in what was going on around you that you forgot to take a photo?
Yes! The moment I saw the mother gorilla cradling the baby. That was the same moment the whole essence of the trip really hit me. I almost forgot to take a photo.
What was it like seeing your first African lion in the wilderness?
Something I will never forget. I was at Magashi for four days, and although nothing is ever guaranteed with wildlife, four days at Magashi probably means that you’ll get to see lions in the wild. By my fourth day, I hadn’t seen any lions. On our way back from our final game drive, I was pretty bummed, but had made peace with not getting a great lion photograph; soon we had to head to the helicopter to fly to Bisate. Then, just like that, we got word there were four lions near the camp. When we arrived, it was one of those surreal moments. I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, I'm really here right now. I've been dreaming of this my whole life. This is it. I hope this is something everyone will get to see one day’.
Did you manage to see/experience any of Wilderness’ conservation initiatives?
The impact of Wilderness Safaris' conservation efforts, was present almost everywhere I looked. From uplifting local communities and staff, to keeping the land wild/protected, and everything in between. One of my favorite examples was visiting Gishwati, home to a future Wilderness Safari Camp. There, I was able to see early stages of how much work has to be put into building a camp sustainably. Overall, to see Wilderness Safaris pioneering sustainable conservation in Rwanda is a wonderful sight to see. One day, I hope we can see conservation at this level--everywhere.
Was Africa everything you expected?
Africa was everything I expected, and more. Admittedly, like many, I tended to think of lions, elephants, etc. when I heard the word 'safari’. I saw those, and they were wonderful – but what I didn't expect was the level of hospitality throughout Rwanda. I can't think of many other places I've visited where I felt so welcomed. I truly hope people enjoy my Rwandan photographs. If they've already been there, I hope these photographs bring back fond memories of the experience. If they haven't been yet, maybe these photographs will inspire them to see it for themselves. People can follow along on Instagram, at @WeAreWilderness and @AndrewLing, for more to come!
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