Daniel the guide at the park entrance

Daniel the guide at the park entrance

Pushing against the sharp winds hurrying in from the west, felt like a skirmish with the gods. As the steep path up, hammering on the knees, demanded one final act of courage and determination. I was struggling to overcome the three steps forward and one step back syndrome, where the peak seemed to remain forever in the distance. Conquering the summit was the lesser of the two challenges that day, for reaching the second camp necessitated a further eight hours, crossing a landscape as pockmarked as a battle-field. But the sheer delight of making it to the top of West Africa’s highest mountain overruled everything else. Gratifying the sweat and grumbling, which increased with elevation, until almost weighed down by fatigue and baggage, the high-point was literally beneath me. At 4095 metres high, with views across ancient craters and distant forest, one could see all the way out to sea. I felt as if I was riding on air like Zeus, who ruled the heavens and the earth from his throne cloud. An exhilarating relief came to the forefront that the most challenging part of the mountain was now over. After all, it was literally all downhill from now on.

Lower slopes of Mnt Cameroon

Lower slopes of Mnt Cameroon

Back in Limbé, the closest town to the mountain, word of corona-virus was slowly garnering attention. But it wasn’t until I reached the capital Yaoundé, a week later that its effects commanded much higher importance. For the first time on my journey, I noticed a shift in attitudes. People gradually began to adopt the face mask, hand-washing stations appeared at bus stations and markets, and billboards advertised the importance of personal hygiene. Within days, taking precautions from an increased rate of infections spreading across Europe, Cameroon closed down all border crossings and ports. The world was quickly moving towards a stand-still as lock-downs and quarantine became the latest government strategy to curb the rise. By necessity, the German consulate had organized an emergency flight to Belgium, working in unison with other consulates to help evacuate their people.

Looking down to the montane forest from hut

Looking down to the montane forest from hut

    I remember heading to the British consulate to enrol my details, in case the government back home was to perform a similar emergency. You couldn’t enter the grounds, but wrote down your details and slipped them under a glass screen at the security counter. The guards only spoke French, but I knew enough to convey that somebody would be in touch. The following evening the consulate called to confirm my details with advice to stay put in the capital. By midday Friday, an e-mail arrived from the German consulate detailing their Belgium flight, with possible space available to fly me out. By late evening, my passenger allocation stood confirmed, and I should be at the airport promptly for 08.30 the next morning. To say events had moved swiftly would be a gross understatement. It was all or nothing within 48 hours. There was no time to regret abandoning this journey; the very nature of the flight answered any uncertainties. Take the flight; it could be your only chance.

Myself at the m summit

Myself at the m summit

 The pandemic has felt like Mount Cameroon all over again, Tackling this monstrous hurdle in our path, Pushing up and over an unfamiliar landscape bound with restrictions and risks, weighed down with doubt and anxiety, until, eventually, we arrive the other side of the clouds with clarity and direction before us. Favoured with endurance and patience, love and resilience, these characteristic’s will help us conquer insurmountable odds.

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, a volcano which last erupted in 2000. 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 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 starting from its lower foothills. Surprisingly, even during the dry season, (Nov-April), the mammoth bulk of the mountain is often engulfed in scarves of thick 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, nature could forgive you for remaining ignorant that West Africa’s highest peak was on your doorstep. Residing aloof and fey, all wrapped up in her cloak of grey.

  

The twin volcanoes

The twin volcanoes

  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 anywhere found along the Rift Valley. Aside from the Fouta Djallon 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.

At 4095m this is not a stroll, and unlike Europe or Cape Town, there’s no comfortable cable car gliding up its weathered face. Most ascents start from the hillside district 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 it’s the presidential palace for long-serving President Paul Biya. Close to independence, the town’s population fell below three thousand, viewed more as a colonial resort. However, Buéa soon revived its status, blossoming into the English speaking, Anglophone capital of West Cameroon.

 

Crater lake at m elevation

Crater lake at m elevation

 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 runs a marathon to the summit and back. The fastest time was achieved in 4 hours, 20 minutes, and a British Pasteur won the event three times, donating the prize-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. Before it enters the official park 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 still lacks the impenetrable density of the equatorial forests. Soon after hut 1, the forest fades into the savannah, sweeping across a perpendicular ascent that’s hampered by jagged rock.

The savannah is the most difficult 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 can’t entirely agree; 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. I was pleasantly surprised I could not only achieve it but with less strain than expected. (It isn’t something I would repeat in a hurry though!)

  

A crater lake observation tower

A crater lake observation tower

  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, benefiting from breathtaking views across Buéa. 

     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 actual peak of Mount Cameroon. At 4095, you’re finally 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, the views are far and wide, pockmarked with saucer-shaped craters beneath lesser peaks. A wooden placard confirms the summit’s elevation, affording a moment of long-deserved celebration.

Canopy warmed by a night fire

Canopy warmed by a night fire

  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 lonely, the sharp undulations require careful navigation, and frequently the path fades away between short troughs and crests. On the other side, towering over a wavering carpet of mixed greens and yellows are the striking double volcanic craters known as 1999. Once down to 2400m, the savannah returns to the forest. 

   By day 3, bruised, dirty and wearily content the guide and myself descend to 600m, hauling up for the night at Drinking Gari Camp. An oval clearing in the woods with rickety benches strewn around the cold ashes of a past fire. Forest elephants were common around here, lured to the drinking hole of a large crater lake. I frequently observed their trails, prints and dung, but the animals themselves remained notoriously elusive. Wildlife is abundant on the mountain with antelope such as bushbuck and blue duiker, grass cutters, red tip and mangabey monkeys. 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. Always on the horizon lays the mottled oily blue of the Atlantic. While just in front 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.

Natural depression filled with bamboo palms and creepers

Natural depression filled with bamboo palms and creepers

Word of Warning:

Cameroon has closed all its land, sea and air borders in response to coronavirus and has only partly reopened to nationals, residents, diplomats and professionals.

  • All new arrivals in the country must obtain a negative coronavirus test result dated no older than three days before travelling.

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, and 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 making a decision, as I find on the ground information more up-to-date and reliable 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 displaying your wealth, remain vigilant, but not paranoid. 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’s regarded as safer than the green zone areas. 

 

Facts: www.mtcameroonnationalpark.org

Mount CEO can arrange guides and porters (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.

Mount CEO can hire out tents & sleeping bags. Advisable to take a raincoat, warm hat, sunscreen, torch, ankle support hiking boots, trekking socks, shorts, spare batteries & memory card for your camera. You can recharge appliances at both the lodges. You’ll need 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, camping is included in the overall fee. Each chalet comes with four beds and costs 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. 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. It is 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 your 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).