Honestly, It’s Been an Insane Six Months!

Have you noticed us going quiet? Have you explained that away with a simple, “the pandemic is over and they must be very busy”? You were right. Or did you maybe think, “Probably there isn’t much new to report”? Well, you were correct again!

Elephants of the Kazinga channel; photo by Tomaž Malovrh

The last few months have seen Gorilla Highlands Ltd (our travel unit) run on all cylinders. The guiding light has been bringing the concepts of responsible tourism to more visitors to the Gorilla Highlands region.

New questions added to the Gorilla Highlands evaluation paper help us sharpen our responsible approach to travel (an idea from a mindblowing podcast.)

Staggering bureaucracy has at the same time slowed down the registration procedures of Gorilla Highlands Experts (our nonprofit wing). It will be up to Misigaro to describe what his team has been through (look for the box below) while I need to first update you on the tour side. As amply described in my June blog post, mid April 2022 was the real beginning of our newly-found travel focus. Where do we stand six months on?

Our cyclists and hikers meeting on the Congo Nile Trail; photo by Miha Logar

We have worked on over 20 trips in Uganda and Rwanda, a list dominated by the Congo Nile Trail. Positioning ourselves on the envied first search result page, we have managed to connect many travellers with experienced freelance guides to lead them on the spectacular shores of Lake Kivu. In this role as matchmakers we actually haven’t earned much — but we did provide a service that was missing before. With our information-packed web page and Zoom call consultancy we definitely managed to make the Congo Nile Trail more accessible.

Lisanne from the Netherlands and Natalicio from Brazil did the whole CNT, south to north, and then gave us really useful feedback and advice at the end of it; photo by Miha Logar

The hope was that a potential hiker would notice our own trekking routes in Uganda and decide to combine them into a superb transboundary package. When Stephen and Alex from America did exactly that earlier this month, it was our time to celebrate. The featured image atop this article shows us coming together in Kigali, reuniting them with some of the guides who took them through Rwanda, and introducing them to Vipul of Preet. (During their 15 days Stephen and Alex met almost everybody from our team, on both sides of the border.)

Checking on the Ugandan Gorilla Highlands team

The photo above shows us meeting the Ugandan crew in Kabale. One of the critical topics discussed: the situation with access to Echuya Forest. After spending many years developing Batwa Today with the ancient inhabitants of the forest — and making it a rather impressive showcase of responsible tourism — we are now faced with a sudden demand from the National Forest Authority: pay USD 30 for every person entering Echuya! Compared to what you can get in Uganda’s national parks for a similar dollar amount, the charge is outrageous.

Today’s visit to the Batwa of Echuya, with 14 Belgian travellers — a meeting about further steps followed; photo by Miha Logar

But you know what, that’s business as usual for us, trailblazers … We shall adapt to the situation in one way or another. As some of our decade-old activities face annoying obstacles of all kinds (have you heard of ebola in Uganda?), we are building new things all the time. Our approach of tailor-made itineraries that specify every cost involved with complete transparency and modularity, has been well-received. And six months on, it’s still fun to create new proposals for clients around the world!

Parts of some Gorilla Highlands tailor-made itineraries

Most beautifully, we seem to be attracting families. The Malovrhs from Slovenia (21 days of Rwanda and Uganda) and the Dubreuils from Ghana/Canada (11 days of Rwanda) were the first ones to test our multi-generational offers, and they loved them — especially the CNT (remember Congo Nile Trail?) element that we propose to anyone reaching out to us.

Dubreuil family visiting Virunga Valley Academy in Musanze; photo by Miha Logar

For example, the Dubreuil juniors, aged 7 and 9, came with their own bicycles and did sections of the CNT on two wheels. Our driver guide Olivier was totally impressed by their stamina and determination! A little fall? No problem, let’s go on!

Nile crocodile; photo by Tomaž Malovrh

Gorilla Highlands Experts activities? It’s a NO!

When you are young, you want things to move fast. But governmental bureaucracies are there to teach you a lesson or two … And and times our optimism and hope nearly crashed entirely!

After setting up a group of young people who were to represent Gorilla Highlands Experts (GHE) in Rwanda, after having a general assembly and building the team, we immediately proceeded with registration. It was June 2022 and we hoped to begin physical activities in September, with legal papers in the pocket.

Unfortunately, the process took an unexpectedly long time as we kept meeting roadblocks! For example, the Musanze district approval that should have been provided within two weeks took many more, and we almost had to beg to get it done. Not until September could we finally submit the complete documentation in Kigali, something that should have given us the right to work within three months. Then we faced a Photoshop fraud attempt — we were about to be scammed by a service provider recommended by an official at the Rwanda Government Board (RGB)! Luckily we figured it out and didn’t pay the registration fees to a digital thief … When we asked Musanze district officials if we could do anything while waiting for official approval, the answer was a resounding NO.

However, we have not given up and I have other great news to share with you! By December we should be allowed to operate, and we want to do it with a bang — with GHE Christmas Camp! This friendship gathering for Rwandans, Ugandans and the Congolese will celebrate the culture and diversity of the three countries. The main objective of the Camp will be to inspire a generation to pursue value-driven initiatives under the following topics:

creativity & home-grown solutions
entrepreneurship & self-reliance
leadership & social responsibility
nature & conservation
personal growth & cultural self-respect

This is all meant to kick off the pilot stage of Gorilla Highlands Youth Spaces — the new name for Hubs; we have realised there are too many “hubs” in Rwanda already and we like the idea of “spaces”.

Interested in these Youth Spaces? Do you think you will have three spare days during your Christmas break to enjoy the company of youngsters from across the Gorilla Highlands region? Stay tuned — more is about to be shared through our social media channels!

Officially establishing GHE is going to be a culmination of 20 years of international volunteering. 2022/23 is the anniversary period, and on 1 September we had a social event to mark it. It took place in Kranj, Slovenia, the hometown of our first volunteers, and it was open to anyone interested in the Gorilla Highlands region.

Dežman Resturant proved perfect for the occassion; photo by Tjaša Zajc

As over 50 people announced their arrival, we had to change the venue to the spacious, pleasant and welcoming Dežman Restaurant on the outskirts of Kranj. Nostalgia was overflowing for the veterans and future arrivals had some of their questions answered as the mounted screen kept playing video footage from the three adventurous weeks the Malovrh family spent in the heart of Africa. Misigaro, Owen and Stephanie Brancaforte also shortly appeared through a Zoom call, adding some global touch.

Israel “Ike” Rwankuba, the Ugandan of Kranj was with us too; photo by Tjaša Zajc

Last but not least, because the Gorilla Highlands team now runs Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi as our presence in Uganda, a couple of lines about it! Two big groups of volunteers from Greece/Cyprus have been the pinnacle of our efforts to bring the place back to life after the years lost to Covid. If you want more words and photos from Bunyonyi, don’t miss the engaging posts by our manager Levi on Edirisa’s Instagram and Facebook!

Greek volunteers with the Bufuka Primary School headmaster Zadok Tumuhimbise; photo by Miha Logar

… Has your life, on the other hand, been a tad emptier because of no social media updates on the Gorilla Highlands accounts? You will be happy to learn that with November we will be back in action on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube!

Mountain gorilla in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park; photo by Tomaž Malovrh

featured photo by Ali Qamer