Before leaving Nigeria, after receiving our Cameroonian visas at the extremely efficient Calabar consulate, there was one place we had heard of that we wanted to visit - the Drill Sanctuary. Drills are one of the most endangered primates in Africa, and neither James nor I had ever seen one (James had never heard about them at all). It was a seven hour drive, vaguely in the direction of the Cameroon border so we made the slight detour. The ranch is located up in the Afi mountains, in pristine rainforest. 95% of Nigeria's rainforest has disappeared and this national park and the monkey sanctuary is trying to hold on to what is left. The way to tell you're getting close to the sanctuary, as you are driving over dubious bridges and through small rivers, is you start noticing the high levels of banana traffic. The sanctuary has promised to buy all bananas or avocados grown by the surrounding villages, and this has encouraged a huge banana trade, with every truck or okada you pass holding great piles of fruit. When you get to the sanctuary, the staff, after many incidents where a lot of good bananas were lost, keep the fruit locked in a giant electrified cage.
We spent a day with one of the managers of the sanctuary, Innocent, who spent hours telling us about the different monkeys, their personalities and stories, whilst we watched them play and fight. They also have a large chimp population and there we met Bella. She was bought by a couple by the roadside in Nigeria when she was a baby, and grew up with the family. With the outbreak of Ebola, and the hysteria that went with it, the neighbors of this family threatened to shoot Bella if they didn’t get rid of her, and that is how she made her way to the sanctuary. She is a strange chimp. She refuses to sleep on anything other than a bed, she only wants humans to groom her and requires shampoo when she washes. As you can imagine the other chimps are not loving this, and she is now in the process of being trained how to be a chimp.
nThe American couple who set up this sanctuary now have over a thousand Drills, and have even released over two hundred back into the wild, up in the mountains away from human settlements. Unfortunately, the majority of the Drills returned due to too little food and water now available for them in the wild. It was a beautiful and extremely interesting place and we happily spent a few days there, watching the monkeys and walking through the rainforest, making our dinner illuminated by fire flies and falling asleep to the sounds of the monkeys and the forest. One of the nights, we were woken by the sound of a old musket blast, and discussed it the next day with Innocent. He explained hunting is still a big problem for them and this was most likely someone hunting porcupine.
From the sanctuary, we headed on to Cameroon. Immediately, you see the difference in population size compared with Nigeria, and you drive through huge areas of rainforest on the way into the towns. This portion of Cameroon is English speaking, and we drive into an adorable town, Mumfe, on Easter Sunday. We find a small hotel run by Madeleine and spend the afternoon being looked after. She is quite a women, running her own hotel as well as making and selling her own spices and oils through the women's cooperative, and we stock up on African spices before heading to Limbe the next day.
Limbe is a town on the sea, overlooked by Mount Cameroon and it is charming. We find a hotel (to camp in) behind the botanical gardens, overlooking the oil rigs out to sea and spend a few days visiting the fish markets and eating piles of fresh fish and shellfish, and relaxing on the black volcanic beach. After a few days, it’s time to address the real reason we are there – the mountain. Mount Cameroon is the 8th highest mountain in Africa, and the highest in West Africa. It stands about three times higher than Ben Nevis at 4,100 metres and is renowned for its gradient. There is a yearly Guinness race, where people race up and down the mountain, with the record currently being four hours and twenty nine minutes. This is not the time span that we are looking at achieving, and we book in for a two day hike to the summit and back, accompanied by a guide and two porters to carry our tent, sleeping bags and food.
The first day we walked for seven hours, starting walking through gardens and farms, and then up into the rainforest. There are several huts that you aim to make it to, and we made it through Hut 1, Intermediate Hut and eventually up to Hut 2, at 3000m, by four o’clock, and this is where we set up camp for the night. Mount Cameroon is a national park, sponsored by the WWF, and it certainly seemed very organized on the ground in the tourist office where the lovely Gwendoline had talked us through what we needed to bring. But as we went further up the mountain, the huts became increasingly dilapidated and dirty, with rubbish and graffiti all over the place. Hut 2 is in the process of being renovated so we set up our tent on a grassy verge and try to get to sleep, ready for the 4am start to get to the summit.
We start the assent in the dark, with head torches strapped on, and within minutes start to notice the effect of the altitude. Every step I take becomes a huge effort, and I’m breathing like I’ve been sprinting up the hill. The going's slow, and we’re both suffering. By 9am, we have made it to Hut 3, at 3850m, and after a pep talk from James and our guide, and more biscuits then I thought possible to consume in one sitting, we go for it. We reach the summit within the next hour and spend a few minutes being barraged by the winds, as we are lucky enough for the clouds to clear and we are rewarded with a spectacular view. However. the plan is to get down today, so we need to start going. It is such a relief, with every step our breathing gets easier and I feel like I could run down the mountain. This feeling does not last and after a few hours of going downhill, with different muscles being pushed to their limits, and many a tumble, we’re starting to flag. After hours of walking we arrive back at Intermediate Hut, and we are shown how incompetent we are as two girls, aged 8, hike up to Hut 2, skipping along and our porters run past us with their huge backpacks. We just continued to get slower and slower, and fall more and more. By the time we were on the home stretch, our legs were struggling to remember which direction they’re meant to bend, and our guide struggles to know how to manage the sobbing, limping mess in front of him. He offers to carry me. I don’t think he’ll ever offer that again after my sharp response, as James tries to explain I’m slightly too stubborn to allow such a thing. By seven, we have been hiking for 15 hours, and the guide says we still have an hour to go “at our pace.” We call down to Gwendoline and she arranges for a taxi to meet us at one of the highest farms, and despite it being a Saturday night, she comes to meet us. She asks why I didn’t call her and tell her to carry me, and I have never been so glad to see anyone. We all fall into the taxi, and this car, with broken suspension on terrible farm tracks, with four people in the back and three in the front, is the most comfortable ride of my life. Two days later, we are still broken. Mount Cameroon is a formidable opponent, and we are both extremely proud we managed it, although I wouldn’t say we did it in style… and neither would you if you saw my method of getting in and out of the tent over the last few days.
We drove on, when we were capable of clutch control, to Kribi, through Douala. Douala is known as the armpit, of Africa, and it certainly lived up to this name, although we did spend a lovely few hours in a Spar buying meats and cheeses. Cameroon has a reputation of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and we had up til now not seen any of this – except for a rather bizarre request for our toilet roll in exchange for letting us keep driving our right hand drive car (we kept the loo roll). Crossing the river in Douala, there are police pulling over every car and you can see the locals in fierce discussions with the gendamerie, before cash changes hand. Armed with the knowledge there is nothing wrong with our car, we clash horns with them and after showing them our fire extinguisger, driving licience, carnet and triangles, they ask us to show them our cal metallique… What? Sure we’re right that this is not a real requirement, we sit it out. They say the fine is 75000 CFA, around £90 and we tell them we have no money. They need to give us a ticket and we will go pay at the police station. We repeat this over and over and no ticket is produced. They say if we don’t have 75000 CFA why don’t we write down what we do have. Yeh right! I produce 2000 CFA in the wrong currency and say this is all we have - £3. After 40 minutes, they take the £3, which they can never use and let us go. As we drive through Douala we see countless shops selling triangles, fire extinguishes and cal metalliques. It seems the law has changed and it is now essential to have two of these contraptions– a metal choc for the car. We buy two quickly. How we got away with that I will never know.
We set up camp in Kribi, a beautiful seaside town, which seems to be entirely populated with curio sellers and start the planning. Next up is Gabon and the Congos, which we think will be the most challenging yet. Hopefully my legs will work by then.
Many thanks to Ding.com for their continuing support with communication, most of the thanks coming from my Mum.