Mount Cameroon: Winner of the dubious accolade that is The Bradt Guide to Cameroon's Most Ludicrously Described Natural Feature. Maga's "white sand beaches" come a close second but who could resist the ridiculous phrase "an occasionally active volcano." The average eight year old could expound for days on the redundancy of the adjective 'occasionally' ...
Mount Cameroon: how high is it, exactly? Depending on who you believe it is anything between 4,024 (±16) and 4,100 metres. It is anything between Africa's sixth, ninth and nth highest peak and possibly either the highest mountain in west Africa or just another quite high bit on a continent of some other quite high bits.
Mount Cameroon: Been there. Done that. Didn't get the t-shirt 'cos they didn't have any.
The first sighting of the C word had been from the wrong side of the large bank of cloud that, a couple of days later, we were ourselves wrapped in but just knowing it was there gave it a certain looming ominousnessfulness.
After a day spent languishing on beaches, recovering from flights and preserving energy for the assault on the beast, we hot-footed it north to Buea, provincial capital of the South West province, found the splendidly named and staggeringly proportioned Gwendoline (herself in the throws, as it were, of organising a traditional wrestling tournament; with a centre of gravity as low as hers, she'd have to be pretty short odds), met Samuel our guide for the next three days and then headed off to check-in to our accommodation.
Rumour has it they were expecting us. They weren't expecting the unexpected arrival of the owner's son from Germany but then such unexpected things are expected. Felt slightly guilty as we were put up in the owner's room which had a feeling not dissimilar to the wardrobe department in a small provincial theatre. Resisted the urge to dress up and, instead, laid waste to the luggage in an attempt to streamline. Three days of 'arduous' walking up an 'occasionally active' volcano whose nether regions are equatorial, midrift is tropical and summit is draped in cloud; and not only that but a few hundred metres above those parts where breathable air is readily available. "What do I need to pack?"
From sweatily sticky through mildly pleasant to the wrong side of 'a little fresh' and then naturally back through them all again. I won't bore you with the inventory but it wasn't very long and by the end of the 'walk' neither of us were particularly fragrant in the sense of smelling very nice. There are no doubt billions of buzzing things that thrive on the gastronomic delights of decomposing flesh and/or poo would've thought we were delicious, but not being one of them I can't really vouch for that.
You start climbing at about 1,080 metres. By 1,100 you look and feel like you’ve already scaled the north face of the Eiger as the blood rushes to your face and you make even the most ruddy of beetroots look positively pasty. You do soon however realise that there’s little to be gained from constant altitude checks and so you focus on the task in hand, uphill as it is. The top is a long way off, both physically and temporally and equally invisible in both dimensions.
Strangler figs and giant ferns, themselves small trees, swallow the last vestiges of sunlight, permitting the heat alone to penetrate and raise the humidity levels to just short of uncomfortable. Passing from one zone to another you notice the change in everything from temperature and light to the plants themselves until suddenly you burst through the tree line into open savannah and a partial view of what lies ahead.
Or at least you would have such a view were you not now wrapped in cloud. Having conquered the forestry part, we stopped to give the legs a rest before the serious uphill slog that was the final push of day 1. A traditional dance ensued that was done to appease the god of the mountain. In all my puffing, panting, ruddy-faced iridescent glory it would have been hard to spot the sigh of relief when it was explained that in days of yore (aka the middle of last week), albinos were the chosen sacrifice; nowadays it was usually just something white.
In the form of a sheep or goat.
We wiggled, as instructed, and threw bracken at the people behind us and then continued on our merry way. Up towards the magic tree, so called because it never appears to be getting any closer. Less magic, more bastard I’d say. Got there though, despite the near verticality of the climb and then it was all uphill to Hut 2, dinner and bed.
Knackered doesn’t go nearly far enough seeing as fitness had not been high on the agenda before starting this particular mini-adventure. Samuel whistled up a veritable feast of fish and rice that he had lugged up from base-camp and we patted ourselves heartily on the back at having been so shrewd in asking him to play chef for the three days of yomping. While the others chopped, peeled, diced, sliced, lit, blew, burnt, stewed, singed, boiled and scrubbed what was left of the day away, we kicked back and enjoyed being stationary and not having to think.
Hut 2 was about as palatial as anything with the prefix ‘hut’ is ever likely to be, but tired bodies were more than grateful for the shelter it provided. Half of our number was indeed so exhausted from the climb and the peculiar effects of everyone’s favourite anti-malarial, Larium, that they don’t even stir when a hungry mouse decided to indiscreetly raid a packet of biscuits and then, in being shoo-ed away, consider using the aforementioned half’s head as an escape chute into the warm and cosy confines of a sleeping bag. Didn’t so much as stir, despite any amount of thumping and bumping around on my part and numerous shinings of torches into faces.
Day 2 feels like it’s never going to end. You wake up while the sparrows are still wondering whether it really is that time already, and tentatively scratch their sparrowy balls in what is natures equivalent of warming the coil, pre-ignition. A hunk of something purporting to be bread and a plastic mug of coffee did their best to gird still sleeping loins as another day of slogging beckoned.
The still far off promise of the summit provided the motivation that coffee and bread could not and we were soon off; up through what looked, to all intents and purposes, like the Highlands. The fact that it was New Years Eve and we were x,000 metres up in little more than a t-shirt gave the game away slightly but still.
The first part of day 2 is almost vertical, and progress was far from fast. Having got into a rhythm which I guarded as if my life depended on it, I probably slowed things up but hey; they’re my knees and I know what they’re capable of so … nah! We crept ever higher, passing a couple of our erstwhile hut and guest house mates who had decided to do the trip in 2 days as opposed to the usual 3 and were, therefore, already taking a much more gravity oriented path, passing old lava flows and what looked like big flowery artichokes.
Up, up, up with the town of Buea and the rest of Cameroon, concealed behind the ubiquitous blanket of cloud above whose wispy countenance we now walked. Hut three came and went as did the guys who had been given the dubious honour of carrying our reduced luggage, food and water for the journey. The summit was almost visible and so we two, and Samuel the guide, would be continuing on, alone. The porters were to take the low road and were, contrary to that which I had been lead to believe by those doyens of Jock-rock, Runrig, destined to get to the next pit-stop before us.
Steaming craters, fields of pyroclastic material and the Queen of the Mountain* herself adorned our now more gradual ascent to Mount Cameroon’s highest but we’re not sure how highest point.
[*45 years of age; built mostly of Twiglets; has won the biennial jaunt that is running up the mountain, 5 times … and she’s got seven children. Dagenham East doesn’t come close.]
And so there we were. Standing on the roof of Cameroon and possibly west Africa. Three Tangfastics had survived the perils of the journey and were, in the absence of anything more bubbly, consumed, one each, with relish. Not literally obviously; to sully the synthetic tangyness of a red Tangfastic crocodile - and possibly the best tasting red Tangfastic crocodile that ever was – with relish would have condemned me to one of the more pestilential pits of hell, to tend the infernal celery fields for time eternal. And quite right too.
Another lyrical contradiction ensued as Yazz and her Plastic Population had to concede defeat as the only way from where we were standing was definitely down. And what a down it was. The first part was across loose ash and walking just wasn’t an option. A rolling run, relaxed in the knowledge that a tumble wouldn’t result in any breakages, was the quickest, easiest and most enjoyable submission to gravity’s overbearing urges. But, alas, was too soon over and was, in retrospect, scant compensation for the tortuous hours of walking that loomed.
The brocoli fields that were old lava flows seemed to go on forever. And ever. And ever. The thrill of walking on what was once molten rock - the thought of which is something that never fails to amaze me ... Melted. Rock. It doesn't really make sense but it has to ... - as I was saying, the thrill, it soon wears off as you and your sturdiest boots wear out. There's not a lot to look at, except more once-molten* rock.
*A brief, bright red aside: in trying to establish a suitable synonym for 'once-molten' I have to admit to a great deal of disappointment. For 'molten' we have "aqueous, au jus, damp, deliquescent, dissolvable, dissolved, dulcet, flowing, fluent, fluidic, fusible, ichorous, juicy, liquefied, liquescent, liquiform, luscious, mellifluent, mellifluous, mellow, meltable, melted, melting, moist, molten, moving, pulpy, running, runny, sappy, serous, smooth, soft, solvent, splashing, succulent, thawed, thin, uncongealed, viscous, watery, wet".
Antonyms on offer: gaseous, solid. I mean, honestly. Come on people. Petition your ombudsman for a new antonym that can rival 'mellifluous'. Suggestions willingly received; should one tickle my fancy sufficiently I will erase this eye-wrenching redness and replace it with a more sombre, bolder and credited synonym.
Even if there was somewhere to look, you're so busy staring at your own feet so as to not fall headlong onto skin lacerating and bone snaperating rocks that it would be impossible. For all I know there could have been herds of pygmy elephants on horseback performing intricate fertility rites to a twangy rhythm being belted out by a scantily-clad, bouzouki-playing quintet. Just another day on Larium in many ways.
Negotiated it we did and were soon spat out into an altogether more grassy arena, destination craters.
If your buttocks have not yet gone numb, mine have and so I'll draw a line under this for now
there. See? And will give your brains and bums a break. There'll be more to follow as we haven't got off the mountain yet. And just in case you're keeping track: this is day 5 of 16!