Karl’s Chronicles. Article 26 Cameroon: Forty Ninety-Five High
Known as Mongomo Ndem – The Mountain of Thunder in Baweri, and Fako – Mountain in the Mokpe language. Mount Cameroon, rising to 4095m, is West Africa’s highest peak. It’s actually a volcano with the last eruption occurring in 2000. Though both significant lava flows of 1982 and 1999 have left their mark of an iron-grey hand crawling down the mountain, similar to a wavering glacial surface. Little grows on them aside from stunted tufts of yellow grass and down at 600m, thin single green ferns, -resembling feathers pierced into a grey Ascot hat. Despite its close location to the equator, Mount Cameroon just like Mount Kenya in the east receives periodic flurries of snow, ice-cold rain, and blasting winds. Creating an environment both chilling and hazardous, a climatic paradox in relation to the balmy atmosphere down at sea level. As Mount Cameroon ascends from the sea, it’s possible to climb the entire height rather than heading off from its lower foothills. Surprisingly, even during the dry season, (Nov-April), the mammoth bulk of the mountain is rarely clear. Generally engulfed in scarves of thick enamel-white cloud. While staying in Limbé on the west coast with Mount Cameroon positioned just to the north, it took three days before a brief clearing in the upper mist, unveiled some of its personality. Ironically, you could be forgiven for remaining ignorant that West Africa’s highest peak was on your doorstep. Residing aloof and fey as the giant sat there in her cloak of invisibility.
Since unfolding the large map of Africa back in 2011 for the first journey, I was already harbouring grand designs to hike to the summit. As Cameroon is blessed with diverse and dramatic landscapes to rival the visual splendour found anywhere along the thunderous Rift Valley, which has lacerated the earth’s surface from Jordan down to Mozambique. Aside from the Fouta Djalon in Guinea, The Dogon in Mali and Mount Bintumani in Sierra Leone, much of West Africa is surprisingly flat once you start heading east from Senegal. Cameroon feels like a back door into a Tolkien world, a helter-skelter of crater lakes, the Mandara & Adamawa mountain ranges, equatorial forests, ridges, hills, coastline and the great mass of the mountain.
A variety of routes criss-cross the upper echelons, ranging in length and difficulty. But whichever design you take, it’s still going to be arduous and demanding. At 4095m this is not a stroll, and unlike Europe or Cape Town, there’s no comfortable cable car gliding up its stricken face. Most ascents start from the hillside district and old German capital of Buéa. Nestled into the lower slopes like a penguin chick in its mother’s belly. Cool, mosquito-free and a kilometre above sea level, its appeasing location attracted the colonial Germans to establish their centre of command up here. The white German castle, constructed originally for Jesco von Puttkamer, first governor, sticks out of the forest like a pair of rabbits ears. Now its the presidential palace for long-serving President Paul Biya. Close to independence, the town’s population receded to under 3000, being viewed more like a colonial resort. However, its weakened status was soon revived as it blossomed into the English speaking -Anglophone capital of West Cameroon.
The most common route uses the Guinness track, an almost direct but relentlessly steep line to the summit. Since its foundation in 1973, The Race of Hope has been sending competing athletes to the summit and back for a chance of the eight and a half million franc prize money. The fastest time was achieved in 4 hours, 20 minutes. A British Pasteur championed victory three times, donating the money to charity. This year on Feb 16th, 650 athletes tackled 37 km of gruelling terrain which is recognized as one of the worlds toughest events. The Guinness route passes the quiet confines of a ‘low risk’ prison, whose inmates benefit from daytime freedom, then up into semi montane forest. Before it enters the official white arched entrance at 1650m, it cuts through cultivated plots of cassava, cabbages, beans, and peppers. Cultivation stops long before the park boundary as the forest swells out, but lacks the impenetrable density of the equatorial forests, -appearing more like a temperate woodland. Soon after hut1 the forest peters out at 2000m into the savannah. However, any romantic notions of lush open grasslands like the Serengeti are severed by a perpendicular ascent across jagged rock punctured with stunted clumps of grass. Out of the trees, but not out of the woods, in relation to shedding the taxing demand on one’s knees. In fact, the savannah is the most torturous phase, and to keep your mind positive; it’s suggestible not to look up. The way ahead, up, up, and up like a cruel ladder can soon feel demoralizing. Thankfully, the intensity of the sun remained obstructed by the happy intrusion of a broad ribbon of cloud. Guidebooks tend to stipulate that determination will get you up more than physical prowess. I disagree, you need moderate fitness as well as a stock of Sangfroid. Mind you; I opted out from hiring a porter and carried up 17kg of food and equipment. Now and then it’s beneficial to test your capabilities, establish a challenge and see it through. I was pleasantly surprised I could not only achieve it but with less expected grievances. (It isn’t something I would repeat in a hurry though!)
Hut II at 2800m marks the end of the first days climb. Since 2014 the accommodation has undergone an extreme makeover. Gone are the basic almost empty (rat-infested) huts in preference of a stunning eco-lodge, with private chalets and a restaurant & bar. Camping is permitted with access to a shared open-sided kitchen commanding breathtaking views down to the shimmering forests and the metallic glint of Buéa.
Day 2 was less in ascent but longer in duration. Reaching Mann Springs hut in the south, 10 hours later. The eruption peak from 2000, which rises to 3700m looms directly ahead, and for a while, I had tricked myself that this was the summit. Only at 3900m does the mountain offer a brief reprise as it levels out and finally from here, you can see the true peak of Mount Cameroon. A final stage, less steep but still requiring deep reserves to overcome the numb tiredness. At 4095, you’re on top of the world in accomplishment and on top of West Africa’s highest point.
The summit suffers badly from clouds and mists that sail in with surprising speed and frequency. When a partition opens in the curtain, the views are the private reward. Rolling far and wide, pockmarked with saucer-shaped craters beneath lesser peaks and draped in marble of warm yellows, greens, and teak brown. A wooden placard confirms your jubilation, taking central composition in every victor’s photo.
Descending feels like a gross betrayal to the loyal fortitude of your legs and for a long time, they lose a sense of themselves. A lower body mutiny as they buckle and liquefy to the senselessness of abrupt change. At 3600m on the southern descent, the slopes meet a broad cleft that encompasses the 1982 lava flow. Eerily beautiful and desolate, the sharp undulations require careful navigation, and frequently the path fades away between the sharp troughs and crests. On the other side, towering over a wavering carpet of mixed greens and yellows are the striking double volcanic craters simply known as 1999. Once down to 2400m, the savannah returns to forest and nature reclaims her fertility from the lonely and barren peak—a lunar surface whereby lack of soil and thinness of air acts a graveyard to germination.
By day 3, bruised, dirty and wearily content we drop down to 600m, hauling up for the night at Drinking Gari Camp. An empty oval clearing in the woods with rickety branch benches strewn around the cold ashes of a past bonfire. One enjoyed the morning’s splendour of looking down on the forest crater lake, popular with forest elephants. Their trails, prints and dung regularly observed, but the animals themselves remain notoriously elusive, -always out of sight. Wildlife is abundant on the mountain with antelope such as bushbuck and blue duiker, grass cutters, red tip and mangbey monkey’s. Notable birds include the small bishop, mount robin chat, mount Cameroon green bull, toraqu and olive & green pigeons. By the fourth and shortest day, the trail soon leaves the park and rejoins human existence once again. The backpack may be lighter, but it hardly scores notability as we slow-foot through gardens of melons, oranges, bananas, plantain, chillies, cassava, beans, bamboo and yams. Confronted by a military drill of coconut palms and the mottled oily blue of the Atlantic. Shielded in between is Bakingili, the coastal village that marks the end or the beginning depending on your viewpoint. This hasn’t been a Race of Hope but a Walk of Exclamation, affording the grand prize of an ice-cold beer.
Word of Warning:
It would be irresponsible of me to promote the mountain without making an apparent reference to the current instability of the area. Since 2017 there has been a growing confrontation between the Anglophone regions which covers north-west, west and south-west regions of Cameroon against the government. Separatists have been pushing for independence from the rest of Cameroon. Launching strikes and protests as well as a shutdown. On Mondays, Buéa becomes a ghost town where people stay inside. The current FCO (Foreign Commonwealth Office) www.fco.gov.org report on Cameroon advises ‘against all travel’ in the region and ‘all but essential travel to Limbé. However, from my point of view, I communicated with many locals, the police and Mount CEO before deciding as I find on the ground information much more up-to-date and truthful rather than statistics and facts. I experienced no problems in Buéa or on the mountain itself, but that doesn’t mean to say there aren’t any. Take the usual precautions of not advertising your wealth, remain vigilant and keep valuables out of sight. No insurance company in the UK will cover you if you go against FCO advice. In the end, it comes down to personal risk assessment. Locals advised against travel further north into the Anglophone region which parallels with the FCO. At present Buéa has such a strong military and police presence it is seen as safer than the green zone regions.
Guides and porters can be arranged through Mount CEO (Mount Cameroon Inter-communal Ecotourism Board).
Daniel proved to be a knowledgable and trustworthy guide who works directly for Mount CEO. Mob: +237 67 17 31 864
The office (yellow building with black door) stands one building down from the Fako-Ship Plaza which every taxi driver knows. Located at the upper end of Buéa. A shared taxi from Mile 17, the main station costs 300cfa.
Fees: Guide: 5000cfa per day. Porters: 9000cfa per day
Park entry: 5000cfa per day
An additional fee, calculated by the number of climbers, is paid between the park, the council, and the government. For one person, it was 127,000cfa which includes the park fees.
Tents & sleeping bags can be hired from Mount CEO. Advisable to take a raincoat, warm hat, sunscreen, torch, sturdy ankle supportive hiking boots, trekking socks, shorts, spare batteries & memory card for your camera. You can recharge appliances at both the lodges. Trekking food such as peanuts, chocolate, boiled sweets, dried fruit. At least 5 1/2 litres of water per day which you can refill at the both Fako and Mann Springs.
Accommodation: On the mountain, the fee for camping is included in the overall fee. Each chalet comes with four beds and its 20,00cfa for a bed per night. Food is available if you haven’t brought your own. Beer: 3000cfa.
Buéa: The Mandy Hotel has cool simple s/c rooms for 5000cfa. A five-minute walk from the Mount CEO office. Though the showers are sporadic meaning, you usually end up with a bucket of water. There is a downstairs bar, but despite the advertisement of a restaurant they don’t sell food.
Paramount Hotel: mob +237 23 33 22 074 Up the hill on Molyko Rd.
Rooms come with TV and range between 7000-11,000cfa per night for a single to a triple. Pleasantly located in a quiet residential area.
For food for the trek you can stock up at the towns central market, and there are also several grocery stores and a bakery nearby. A shared taxi from Mount CEO will cost 100cfa. Both the guides and porters are familiar with what provisions are necessary. Don’t forget matches or a lighter!
If you’re staying in Limbé before heading onto Buéa and are considering the same route where you will finish at Bakingili, it is worth storing your luggage at your hotel. Bakingili is much closer to Limbé—saving you the unnecessary journey of returning to Buéa though will need to cover the costs of transport for your guide and porters (roughly 3000cfa per person in a shared taxi).