In early 2012 I was busy writing emails to projects, lodges and organisations across eastern and southern Africa ahead of a nine-month road trip. Having just spent the better part of 2011 in Kenya — mostly in the Mara Triangle, where I had conducted a research project for a degree in environmental management — it was time for the second part of my African adventure: the big trip.
I had planned to make this journey all along, but the previous year had cemented another idea I had been toying with for a while — to become a professional photographer — so my focus had changed slightly. This was no longer just about exploring new places, but about building up a portfolio, finding potential stories and making interesting connections.
And so it was that on 21 January 2012, I sent an email to a place called The Home of Edirisa, a guesthouse and organiser of canoe treks on Lake Bunyonyi in southwestern Uganda, offering my services as a photographer in exchange for food, lodgings and activities. I received a reply from Miha less than a day later:
If there is something we need, always, it is good photography. So we are all ears.
And the more you can cover for us, the happier we will be.
He then went on to introduce me to a new initiative, Gorilla Highlands – “branding and promotion of southwestern Uganda as a tourism destination” – and explained that the photographic needs of the two projects would overlap significantly. Over the next few months, we exchanged around 300 emails making, unmaking and remaking plans for the ten days I would end up spending with Miha and his team.
Those days ended up being busy, to say the least, and my main focus was the photography, so there wasn’t much time for conversations about the future of the Gorilla Highlands project. I spent time canoe trekking and hiking, visiting Bwindi, Echuya, Kabale and Kisoro, learning about the Bakiga and the Batwa.
Even so, the concept stayed with me. As my images ended up being featured prominently in the first Gorilla Highland products — a free Gorilla Highlands booklet, available in many guesthouses and restaurants, and an interactive ebook that Miha quipped should be called “Gorilla Highlands with Marcus Westberg”— as well as in a cover story for The Eye Uganda, we kept in touch.
After a year-long hiatus from Africa, 2014 saw me return to the Gorilla Highlands region, as I had now come to think of it, though I would first spend a month in Rwanda and DR Congo with Gorilla Doctors. Today, of course, those two countries are part of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative, but that still lay in the future back in 2014.
During the rest of that 2012 journey I must have worked with dozens of projects, some of which I still support when I get the chance, but there is no doubt that the Gorilla Highlands idea had struck me as the most ambitiously visionary, wanting to shift people’s thinking about tourism and development despite very little outside funding. So, I came back.
While I had been away, the Gorilla Highlands ebook had won the World Summit Award, a real milestone. I arrived at Lake Bunyonyi having just spent ten days tracking gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and hit the ground running. Our focus was filling image and experience gaps — we added Queen Elizabeth National Park to the Gorilla Highlands region, for example — as well as joining the first Gorilla Highlands collaborators-and-regional-multimedia-people trip (also known as Miha’s 40th birthday celebration), during which I got to meet Samo. By this time, collecting material for the third major Gorilla Highlands product — a video map of the region — was the main focus.
Back in 2012, Miha had tried and failed to get the Uganda Wildlife Authority onboard. By 2014, Bwindi had been covered, but we desperately wanted to include Mgahinga Gorilla National Park on the video map. After months of pushing, approval was finally given: after finishing a five-day hike just inside the park, hiking Mt Sabinyo and gorilla tracking were experienced, filmed and photographed.
By the time I came back in late 2015, something big was starting to happen. Following the World Summit Award and 2014 trek, we were now collaborating with UNWTO, UNDP and the Uganda Tourism Board and had an international media trip coming up. It once again included canoe trekking, homestays, gorillas and summiting volcanoes, but it involved some new aspects too, incorporating a coffee plantation tour and finishing with the inaugural Gorilla Highlands Silverchef competition and networking event in Kisoro.
Though this took place entirely in Uganda, the expansion of the Gorilla Highlands concept was already underway. A few short days after the other journalists had gone home, I travelled with Miha and a few other team members to Musanze, Rwanda, to begin photographing and filming for Rwanda’s inclusion in the Gorilla Highlands region. Over the coming years I would return again and again, covering more and more of Rwanda as well as going back to eastern Congo, hiking volcanoes, tracking gorillas and chimpanzees, exploring Akagera National Park and hanging out in funky Bukavu at the southern end of Lake Kivu.
Though always inclusive and people-focused, the Gorilla Highlands Initiative has, over time, become increasingly about having conversations and platforming a wide variety of voices. It has made it a pain to try to describe succinctly to outsiders, but exciting to be a part of.
There is no other project that I have spent anywhere near this much time on – in the field or on my laptop – and there is a reason for that. It has always been idealistic without being naïve, open and flexible without being unstructured. Not to mention that the region it represents happens to be one of the most magnificent and exciting on the entire continent. And that’s saying quite a lot.
Don’t miss our extensive interview with Marcus and head to his website for even more.