Cameroon. Years from now I'll look back on this experience. Never has anything been more astutely put here among the oceans of drivel that scores of well-meaning bloggers spew forth into the ether on a nano-secondly basis, although I agree that I may not be in a position to be comparing the relative hues of pots and kettles.
Recent adventuring is going to stand in the way of day 3 on Mount Cameroon, but given its all too Cameroonian flavour it would be rude to let it languish in the hot plate of my consciousness for a moment longer than is necessary. Like a Stilton souffle, it will not improve with standing.
With two weeks respite from the pitch black, calcium encrusted coal face upon whose unforgiving surface I wield my educational pick, it seemed silly not to explore deeper and darker corners of this diverse country, if only to scare myself silly and tick the box marked "reckless disregard for own well-being".
Dawns crack was duly cleft, as is its wont, and a southerly trajectory ensued in the kneecap grinding comfort of Touristique Express' flagship vehicle. N'Gaoundere arrived as it so often does, and with it the knowledge that there were no sleeping compartments to be had so we'd be joining the masses in the dubious comfort of second class.
'Seated 65; Standing 45" it proclaimed but I'm not sure who to. With the world and their wives all heading south, and seemingly with all their earthly belongings, any number of cats would have felt quite safe in the knowledge and anticipation of a swing-free journey.
My window seat had been annexed by a nursing mother and her child, which was fine; there was enough of a breeze to keep me sub-boiling. I'm not entirely sure what I'd done to deserve being hit with said child every time the train stopped, but perhaps she was just demonstrating her gratitude. Thank you, would have been enough. Incidentally, that's not a prepositional slip up. The child was not hitting me. The mother was hitting me with the child. So the child was hitting me but not of its own volition.
14 hours of 40 minutely clouts with a nursing infant, no leg room and the distinct impression that you were just a little bit closer to your opposite neighbour than decency and a lack of contraception would usually permit. Come to think about it, that might justify the attacks with the child; a paternity claim by way of a wielded baby. Intriguing.
It had been decided that the Dja Forest Reserve in the uncharted backwater of the Eastern province was where we'd try to go not least because of its inaccessibility and its promise of more jungle than any amount of stick shaking could aspire to. Monday saw us trawling the streets of Bastos in search of the fabled ECOFAC - keepers of the holy directions, porters, guides and other such accoutrements. In all too familiar style it turned out that they had closed down 3 years previously. Quick maths: 2008 - 3 = 2005. Guidebook updated: 2006. No comment.
Decided to try our luck at the offices of the WWF who kindly directed us in the direction of the WCS who in turn told us to go and see a man in a basement somewhere around the vicinity of the Ecole Normale. So we did. Spent 40 minutes with said man pondering the logistical details of actually getting to the Dja Forest reserve. Said man was only the world's foremost expert on the flora and fauna of the reserve; an accolade no doubt, but not one that is that hotly contested I imagine. I think he thought we were barking. He humoured us and kindly offered to call when a couple of his students returned fresh with news of the logistics of getting into, around and out of said reserve.
Buses, it turned out went twice a week on Thursdays and Saturdays and came back on Fridays and Sundays. The roads were terrible, ECOFAC disbanded and had we gone, given pressing work engagements, we would have had about 28 minutes to actually do any trekking. And so it was that a previously unconsidered plan B came to the fore and we thanked Dr S for his help and looked into heading West instead.
Tuesday's morn was nematode-threateningly early as there was a small amount of what many people would call "travelling" to be done. A bus to Douala was found and from there another bus to Kumba where we spent a night in the air-conditioned cool before another early start that was followed by 5 hours sitting out a rainstorm in a motorpark before being squeezed into a Toyota Corolla - we two and another 5 passengers and of course a driver.
The rain had left the road in a state that redefined the word quagmire and we spent most of the journey going sideways to the soundtrack of a massively revved engine struggling to find grip on bald tires in 18 inches of mud. Checkpoint after checkpoint halted our progress in what soon became something of a joke. Hastily erected wooden shacks manned by corpulent, olive-green-clad satraps with nothing better to do than try and extort bribes from anyone and everyone.
We eventually got to Mundemba and wend our way to the park offices to sequester a Martin with which to negotiate our way around the once well-maintained but now a little bedraggled paths. No sooner had we arrived than we found ourselves roll-matted up and dumped at the looming presence of a 120 metre long suspended bridge that was the entry into the park. A dusk yomp through a mile or so of ever darkening greenery found us at the first camp and the silence was everything but. Everything in the vicinity seemed to be either issuing warnings or trying to woo us as a cacophony of shrieks, squeaks, yelps, howls and cries serenaded us as we ate the first of many almost-but-not-quite-identical meals.
Day comes later in the verdant depths of jungle-ville, or at least it would were it not for the early-warning system that is the multifarious canopy dwellers. Anything that can make a noise sees it as its duty to forewarn those of us not able to fly and/or climb that the sun is indeed rising. From their vantage point at the toppest top and the highest high, they prepare us lowly bottom feeders for the arrival of the cloud softened rays of day.
Having never been to jungly places before I was blown away by the density of the place. The heaviness of the air, the sheer volume of noise but at the same time the utter tranquillity. Massive boulders that had escaped the ravages of ice ages but were scarred with the effects of millennia of non-stop dripping. Trees with huge sail like buttresses that slithered and wound their way over the forest floor. Vines knotted, twisted and contorted into a myriad of shapes, their scaffold long since dead but remembered in the spirals and curls of the vines continued vigour.
The colours; variation on the themes of green, brown and yellow with shocks of colour – seeds and fruits of an almost violent red that screamed up from the forest floor, desperate to be noticed. Mushrooms in colours that I’d always thought were reserved for flowers; a fungophiles fantasy land if ever there was one.
Such a wealth of everything, and such density of coverage does, of course, make seeing anything just that little bit more challenging. We heard loads and saw evidence of even more and just being there was incredible. We heard monkeys of various types and saw a rotten log that had that morning been torn apart by a troop of breakfasting drills. We saw the holes where miniature crocodiles live and the same of giant rats, grateful in many ways for the adjectives being where they were and not the other way round. A pile of forest elephant poo which, believe me, is a great deal more exciting than simply the meaning conveyed by the words. We saw huge freshwater shrimps, squirrels and birds of various shapes and sizes but none of it compares to the sounds we heard or the just being there.
We washed and swam in the rivers that laced their way through the park, flying in the face of sensible advice, and were then eaten by a million biting things: the ubiquitous Morris and Maureen Squito and their legions of pandemic-wielding spawn; Huge black flies that sat on you in a manner that implied idle curiosity while quietly draining you of blood. Tiny black flies that during the afternoon simply buzzed around and sampled the copious amounts of sweat that poured from every pore but which returned at dusk to assist their heftier cousins in the siphoning of as much ARhD+ as their diminutive bodies could carry. Perhaps there's a little known cloning experiment going on in the insect world, hence their irrepressible craving for DNA.
And we were lulled to sleep by the flashes and rumbles of monster forest storms, on the back of another carb and sardine heavy meal washed down with an Irish coffee or three by way of celebration.
Day three saw an 8 mile march through the green; up hill, down dale, over babbling brook and under growth. Then suddenly ...
There we were. Not the roof of the world but a spiffing vantage point none the less. Trees and greenery as far as the eye could see; every one a different shade of green and every leaf a different shape. Having seen it from the inside, seeing it from the outside you were suddenly aware of just how massive the whole place is. Everything’s huge and the tallest trees just looked even bigger than they already were in our mind’s eye.
We stopped and lunched at possibly the finest picnic spot in this part of the world. Bread, sardines, cheese and water and, obviously, a terrine of venison and foie gras. What else! Then back to the surprisingly well-maintained comfort of Chimpanzee camp, a wash and more food.
The journey there was laden with anticipation and trepidation as to what exactly we would find and what exactly we'd be able to do: the journey back was an overly cliched reminder of why CMR is not high on the list of tourist destinations and further evidence of why it languishes in the human-parasite-rich backwaters in which it does.
Mundemba is the end of the line. Passing traffic doesn't exist because there's nothing on the other side. There are a couple of bush taxis a day and with the weather erring on the side of damp, their arrival was never guaranteed, so the offer of lift back to abitmorecivil-isation was leapt at. We didn't realise on saying yes that we'd be sharing our lift with a pair who epitomised all that's wrong with Cameroon but it was a gift horse whose dentistry was of little import.
The one benefit of travelling in private transport with such company is that checkpoints evaporate. With backsheesh distributed at every opportunity we could have been smuggling any number of small arms, narcotics, refugees, endangered wildlife and illegal immigrants as we weren't stopped once, save for buying plantains by the truck load.
Another night in Kumba and then it was back to Yaounde via the cesspool of humanity that is Bonaberi, Douala. Kumba to Douala was relatively painless; Douala to Yaounde was anything but.
There wasn't a uniformed organisation that didn't want to check our papers. At one point we were stopped by three different groups of people for exactly the same reasons in the space of 1km. In fact, for the first part of the journey I think we actually walked further than we drove. At every checkpoint we stopped, got off the bus, "presented" ourselves to an unkempt, be-jowled and invariably nameless uniform and walked across the nameless border that they were patrolling. I'm not sure that highlighting article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights would have any effect but then again, don't know if you don't try.
First it was the gendarmes, then it was the road security people, then the national security service followed by the airline pilots, girl guides and a militant faction of the Salvation Army. The Hare Krishna's, Jehovah's Witnesses and a team of milk monitors from a local primary school all thought they'd have a go too and held us until we'd pledged allegiance, accepted a copy of "Awake" and finished our milk respectively.
It became a joke after a while, one whose effect was only heightened by the fact that one of our would be interrogators and/or extorters was called Adolph.
And so it is I'm back in the Far North and term has just begun. I had estimated 6 weeks of work; found out yesterday that it's more like 3. The wind-down has truly begun and with it the anticipation of all that is to come.
Once again I find myself standing at a place where three months from now is shrouded in the densest fog imaginable. It's exciting because I know where I'm trying to get to, just can't see it yet. And much like the above adventure, not knowing exactly what "where" is going to look like is part of the thrill.
This week alwiello has read The Amber Spyglass for the fourth time and enjoyed it just as much as he did the other three times. He's also read South by Ernest Shackleton and is still shivering but was utterly blown away by the resilience and endurance of some men. We are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants.
Alwiello is going to stop referring to himself in the third person but not before he's apologised for such ridiculous verbosity - sort of.