Forest elephant

Forest elephant

Contention in the pick-up mounts, as three of the ladies, heavily obese, force the insufferable driver into a human Tetris game. Rearranging between front and back seats to accommodate all six passengers, and more importantly, being able to close the doors, which is rather like pushing against a giant airbed. The other half suffer more, like gazelles caught amongst a herd of pachyderm.

After the port, the grey ribbon of the asphalt road turned abruptly into rust-brown of the piste. Its importance no longer on a scale that freight transportation required. The route weaved its way far south, twisting and bending to the contorted impressions of the landscape. Ignored from improvement with massive depressions, long ruts and degraded slopes. Though it’s the dry season now, the occasional storm can quickly make progression awkward. In places, the road is nothing more than a bowl of thick mud soup. When the rains really fall, even 4×4’s struggle with the implications and the price more than triples as a full day can be absorbed in navigating the perpetual torment.

Old jeep track leading deeper into the forest

Old jeep track leading deeper into the forest

Campo, the last outpost before the natural boundary of the River Ntem which separates Cameroon from Equatorial Guinea, retains the dust and humid mood of a frontier town—rippling out from the central station marked by a collection of tired and dented saloon cars and pick-up trucks. A motley jumble of kiosks, huts, stalls, and shops, all shoved together like a rickety fence to form a street. With makeshift bars and a pair of nightclubs bookending the town, only differentiated from the other wooden constructions by louder music and flashing lights. Laconic patrons sit sprawled around wonky tables in mismatched chairs, hypnotized by the phosphorous glow of their smartphones, suspended above warm beer on strips of linoleum flooring thrown over the tables as a wipe-down cloth. Even the pace of the ocean on the western edge of town is just as sleepy. Greeting the land with a soporific embrace than a heavy-handed wave.

The town is a springboard for the Campo Ma’an National Park. Seen as one of the worlds most crucial forest biodiversity sites, with elevation rising from sea level to eight hundred metres. Home to forest elephants, gorillas, drill, antelope, pangolin, numerous monkey’s, snakes, butterflies, and prolific birdlife. With hopes of becoming  Africa’s first cross-border Ramsar site in partnership with Rio Campo NP in Equatorial Guinea.

Mercy drinking water from Lione deau vine

Mercy drinking water from Lione deau vine

Charles, the English speaking guide from the Anglophone region had only recently located from another conservation site in the far west. I put forward my proposal of visiting an area of the forest more closer to hand and spending time hiking through the undergrowth which will quell my impatience to see inside, rather than speeding glimpses from the rear seat of a bush taxi. I’m under no illusion of seeing animal life; the density makes such discoveries a lottery win of beating the odds. For improved chances, one needs to time their arrival around dawn, where animals congregate around a large watering-hole before penetrating the perpetual gloom of the interior.

Before we can depart, Mercy the taciturn but commonsensical guard must be equipped with a gun in protection against an elephant face off. However, the old man who oversees such weaponry can’t be found. Instead, the gun is substituted for a machete, which only feels slightly more comforting than a pea shooter. The very idea of waving a knife in front of an aggressive three-tonne elephant seems as effective as using a tinfoil shield against a pouncing leopard. Charles notes that groups have spent days in the park without seeing an elephant. It’s much on luck and timing, and the sheer compactness of the forest makes tracking a slow, exhausting mission.

Old and dominant over the smaller trees

Old and dominant over the smaller trees

Initially, we follow a trail established by the bulldozing capabilities of a bull elephant. But the forest, like seawater, soon folds in on its wake. Miraculously, mosquitoes only come out at dusk even though it remains a dreary half-light, ideal for their movement. Mercy has the taxing responsibility of hacking a path forward. Slashing away at fond’s, creepers, sharp thorned stems, slender branches and ground creepers that are constantly tripping you up. When severed, the Lione d’eau, a broad walnut-brown vine emits pure drinking water. Charles raises a two-foot piece above his head and quenches his thirst on the cool water that pours out. The people who really know the secrets of the forest are the Baka, better known as Pygmies, which means ‘forest dwellers’. Hunting and living inside the forest with little need for outside interaction. They know the plants that can cure illness’s detrimental to the greater world—pertaining a delicate but trusted balance between man and nature where centuries of living have stayed immune to time.

The forest air is heavy and enervating, with the clamouring humidity enough to rival a ships engine room. One feels the combat like climbing a steep mountain or swimming against a current. It takes all your energy to make minimal progression. At this moment, doused in sweat, sticky and uncomfortable with no clue to orientation, I can understand the tantamount frustration those first explorers Livingstone, Stanley, De Brazza, Goldie and Peters felt when chartering new routes into Central Africa. Kilometre after kilometre of the same infinitesimal scenery, half knowing one’s direction but blind to the precise location. Expeditions shaved thin by the gnawing calamities of malaria, dysentery, exhaustion and madness. Hauling cumbersome inappropriate cargo and leaving the dead where they fell.

Mercy the guard with his machete

Mercy the guard with his machete

The present is a little less frantic, perhaps sedate as we lean over old elephant dung with Sherlock scrutiny. Charles points out the disturbed soil made by a pangolin and an old resting spot from the parks lone family of gorillas. Gorillas, as I had been informed years ago in Uganda, were generally lazy and spent several months residing in the same area. Mercy has gone full circle, spilling back onto the old logging track and only 50 metres downwind from the parked bikes. A long black-mamba strikes ahead of us. Had Charles and Mercy been any other people, the snake would have been violently executed. The fear of snakes goes far beyond the carnivorous predators that roam the grasslands or those laying silent in the shallows of murky pools and rivers. The conversation is cut short when presented with a line of very fresh elephant prints—made by a single bull elephant less than twenty minutes ago. The clatter and crepitations of two further elephants lay no more than ten metres away. But ten metres in an Equatorial forest is akin to either side of the English channel in hampered advancement. Such ideas of seeing them are folly, our scent and whispers have pushed them deeper into the forest. I doubt if either Charles or Mercy would encourage a sighting, knowing our encounter was by accident than the determined tracking of a bloodhound. Unlike their Savannah cousins who benefit from open-land in spotting incoming predators, forest elephants are more constrained, solitary and anxious.

Foot to foot for scale Fresh elephant print

Foot to foot for scale Fresh elephant print

An ink-black shape of a circling eagle stood in sharp contrast to the bleached blue of an afternoon sky. Noted through an oval partition in the canopy that heralded a framework of leaves, leprous stumped branches, creepers, and perforated bark. A pair of yellow and black striped butterflies flitted from one purple bell-shaped flower to another, and just below, a giant millipede was marching up a piece of deadwood. No matter how beautiful all this was, it had been no walk in the park.

Facts: The Cameroonian Government and WWF partnership operate the 2640 sq km Campo Ma’an National Park. The office for organizing visits to the park is a kilometre northeast of the town of Campo. Taking a left at the Auberge sign that stands on the right side of the road.

Mob: +237 67 55 81 165. Charles who is fluent in English and French.

Fees: Guide: 5000cfa per day.         Guard: 5000cfa per day.

Park Fees: 5000cfa per day.             Camera fee: 2000cfa.

Vines and creepers take hold of a host

Vines and creepers take hold of a host

The main entrance to the park lays forty kilometres away. You will need a 4×4 to get around properly. Using the old German road that runs to Ma’an in the east. You can hire motorbikes from the staff at WWF or ask the motorbike drivers in town as it’s mandatory to take a guard as well as a guide you will need to factor in two motorbikes. Prices vary from 10,000cfa upwards per bike depending on distance and duration. You can organize to be left at the campsite and picked up by the drivers later on. Ideal if you are staying multiple days though record the driver’s mobile phone number.

You can camp in the national park, which increases your chances of seeing wildlife. Animals come to drink at the main watering hole around dawn before disappearing into the forest. It’s therefore advisable to be already at the park by 6 am. In the rainy season (light March-June) (heavy July- October) the forty kilometres could take two hours or more to cover. The dry season (Nov – Feb) is the best time for access and undertaking transport to make it south from Kribi. For camping, you will need to be self-sufficient with a tent, stove, and food, though water can be collected from a nearby stream. Take mosquito repellent, good hiking boots and drink plenty of water. The high humidity increases dehydration.

Public transport from Kribi leaves the Transcam station opposite the main market. Transcam does not sell tickets for Campo but allows access to the pick-up trucks or saloon taxis that run the route. They park next to the mountain of grain sacks stored in transit. 3000Cfa one way and they only leave when full, usually with six passengers which can still take an hour. Keep your passport and yellow fever certificate close by for inspection at police checkpoints.

There are two simple places to stay in town, both marked by the word Auberge. The first is partially up the hill from the main Gare Routier on the opposite side. The second, up the hill and close to the turning for WWF office stands on the right. Rooms start at 3000cfa. S/c with fan at 5000cfa and s/c with a/c at 8000cfa. On the western edge of town, the WWF has an ecolodge which is managed by the villagers. Close to the sea and away from the noise. Rooms start at 15,000cfa per night.

Food options are limited. There are a couple of chop houses in the centre selling spaghetti, rice, omelettes and spaghetti omelettes (seen to be believed), beans with doughnuts (it actually works!) and grilled fish.

There are a few general stores to stock up on essentials if your camping but no banks with ATM’s. Kribi has four banks that accept cards. BICEC, Ecco, Societé General and Atlantic Bank. If your driving your own vehicle, stock up in Kribi at the proper garages rather than buying roadside petrol from glass bottles.