A man at peace because his mission had been accomplished, I stretched my legs and listened to the faint voices in the night. A new year had begun only minutes ago. In the darkness below me our guests, partners and staff released 22 candles onto the placid waters of Uganda’s Lake Bunyonyi, held sparklers in to the air and passed around a bottle of a sparkling wine. We had managed to squeeze dozens of them into the three dugout canoes — Batwa really do not take much space — and successfully created yet another moment to remember.
I had no idea I was about to catch Covid-19; and even if I did I wouldn’t care much. As long as our airport-bound visitors were spared and could pass their PCR tests, everything was fine. On the last day of 2021 they had tracked mountain gorillas on the slopes of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in the northwestern corner of the Virunga Volcanoes, and for most of them that was the grand finale of their African journey.
In the canteen two terraces beneath me, one of our travellers was too tired to fully participate in the celebrations. His head covered with a blanket, he informed us that he was more than used to sleeping in a sitting position. Despite some gentle nudging he still didn’t want to proceed to the cottage we had prepared for him, so we set up an improvised bed next to him, just in case.
To my surprise this adaptable gentleman would later tell me that he wished to have more of my backpacker mentality. He meant general flexibility about living conditions and travel arrangements, and he hit the nail on the head. But he also perfectly summarised what I — and we as the Edirisa/Gorilla Highlands team — potentially need to leave behind.
Years of Unintended Consequences
Eleven other writers have nicely chronicled our two decades invested into changing the image of Eastern and Central Africa and developing responsible tourism, and now it’s my job to wrap the story up. There isn’t too much to add, in fact. The years of 2018-2019 were pretty much about spreading our distinctive concept in Rwanda and DR Congo, peaking with two excellent editions of the Gorilla Highlands Silverchef and Pocket Guide. We did that on a shoestring budget and often at our own cost, and when the time came to reap the benefits, the global pandemic hit in 2020 …
Our virtual efforts to overcome the crisis got us onto the pages of the Washington Post in 2021, but that did not result in enough paying members or donors. The software that powers our In-Sights video courses, groups and other online community elements needs to be paid for annually, and by the end of January we shall switch it off. These aspects of our service simply did not prove popular enough.
At the same time, we did create some buzz and over 200 stories that should convince future travellers to give our region a proper try. After all is said and done, promoting the bounties of the astonishing transboundary lands shared by Uganda, Rwanda and Congo has been the primary reason for the last decade of our existence.
Most significantly, if Gorilla Highlands Experts was a name for an online travel service a year ago, it now primarily means something else. It’s a remarkable roster of excellent people whose knowhow, camaraderie and volunteer ethos defined 2021, and culminated in SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA.
Podcasters Above All
In 2022 we will be placing a bet on SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA, a weekly podcast with a blog that may represent the best we have to give. The fact that it appropriates and modernises the slogan of an organisation born 21 years ago is both amusing and symbolic.
It could be interpreted as: let’s learn from our history, capitalise on what we are and zero down on where we can make the biggest difference.
Our Tuesday live sessions will be back on 25 January 2022, now at 7pm Rwandan time — these are the Zoom calls that feed the podcast, and they are open to anyone to ask anything. There will be no need to register anymore, but if you do you will receive a monthly newsletter.
So, this is where we stand 10 years after the Gorilla Highlands Initiative was born: we have an international group of Gorilla Highlands Experts who promote the Gorilla Highlands region with the SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA podcast.
Once the world gets fully used to living with Covid-19, our GH Silverchef cooking competition and networking event might return, together with the GH Pocket Guide booklet.
… But there is one more matter to consider. A biggie.
That Tour Company Thingy
We are often perceived as a tour operator, but that has always been a secondary part of our work. A money generator — when it worked.
Then again, organisation of trips could prove the best way to eventually repay Gorilla Highlands Experts for all their volunteering … And my proposal is that we look at these opportunities with fresh eyes.
By getting a renown local musician to co-host SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA we have added a new element to our set of primary tourism interests. Let’s list them alphabetically:
Have you noticed that there is no “adventure”, “trekking” or “canoeing” included, even though we have ample experience in these fields? The roots of the Gorilla Highlands Initiative have been interlinked with the development of walking routes, but our region and our team have grown significantly in the meantime.
From now on we shouldn’t be approaching potential travellers with an assumption that they crave adventure and love independent research. We could well act as a full-blown tour company for those in need of such services.
At the end of the day, it’s not adventure tourism but responsible tourism that we emphasise. It’s not your fitness but your heart that matters.
Speaking as a Recovering Backpacker
It’s been a piece of cake for me to prepare exciting trips for people with backpacks on their shoulders. I’ve always been one of them, so understanding their desires came naturally.
It’s been my guideline to always have scant possessions — something packable into two bags — and hike through this life collecting experiences and learnings instead.
It’s been my preference to feel free.
But things happen as life unfolds, from children to coronaviruses, and you meet great people who don’t comfortably fit into your life because it’s just too basic for them. (As I approach my 48th birthday I should probably add age as a factor, but the fact is that I feel shockingly young, fit and sharp. Is it the backpacker lifestyle?)
However, I feel my next contribution to the wellbeing of the Gorilla Highlands region should ideally exclude running a tour company. I have resisted making that my full-time work for two long decades. I’d prefer to share my experiences and learnings as a podcaster, lecturer, consultant, writer, … You get the picture.
This writeup is an invitation to my one true treasure, the global network of excellent humans, to activate themselves. I’ve been a driving force for 20 years, and I would certainly prefer not to be the one setting up a tour company.
Maybe there are others itching to fill in for me? Maybe you want to invest some of your money or time in the next great tourism business, and shape it right from the start? Maybe you feel we should leave it to others to do the tour part? … Maybe you see an elegant way out of our many names, brands and interests?
This is your moment to leave a mark.
Please leave your comments, send your emails and messages (or whatever works for you) before 1 February 2022.
Update, February 2022: For the final result of our thinking see here.