I just arrived at the end of a whirlwind of meetings and conferences and adventures, trying to process the whole crazy mess and stay focused on the upcoming months. First was COS conference, a meeting to kind of decompress our service and prepare us for life after Peace Corps. As with most PC administrative functions, it was tedious and would have been vastly improved by more R&R time. Forced introspection activities are uncomfortable. Give us more time to hang out in unfamiliar luxury and talk about it with our friends, please. Nevertheless, it was nice to enjoy a week of hot showers and delicious meals and spring mattresses in the company of good friends. Highlights include…
1. A senior diplomat from the US embassy telling us that he was called up to “fill the giant void” of a female colleague who had been intended to make the presentation he was making. When our merry bunch of immature PC brats started chuckling, he laughed too and said, “I could have said that better… uh… don’t tell her I said that.”
2. Hot, pressurized showers. What an obscene luxury that is. People take these all day every day without thinking twice about it. Insanity.
3. Enchiladas whaaaaaaaat?
Then I had another quick little meeting and it was off to Buea to climb Mount Cameroon for… quite the opposite experience. At 7AM we left with our guide and four amazing porters to ascend 13,500 vertical feet to the summit. Hans, our guide, was a former bush meat hunter who transitioned to leading tours after the establishment of a national park stole his livelihood. Tireless and personable, Hans was the perfect companion for long treks through foreign wilderness. Our guides were Papilla, Foxy Brown, Isbay, and The Punisher. Papilla is an animal. He would leave two hours after us carrying 120 pounds and make it to camp two hours before us. He wants to run the mountain race but doesn’t have sponsorship money to train. Personally I think he’d kill it. That guy was literally running like half the time, with a full pack on his head. Foxy Brown was in charge of cooking, and his easy smile and gregarious personality made him a fun evening conversation partner. Isbay wants to be a “gangster”, so we bonded over the classic Snoop Dogg album “Doggy Style”. Then there was the Punisher. When we were asking nicknames, Oliver was up packing a bag fifteen feet away from us. When we called over and asked him his nickname, without skipping a beat he looked up and said, “They call me the Punisher”. It was awesome. He got it from his love of puppies, and rainbows.
The first half of the first day was an easy trek through a jungle of sorts. Massive, twisting trees populated the dense forest. Gorgeous, misty drifts wandered through the thick canopy overhead. At one point we even glimpsed a monkey peering at us from behind the leaves of a banana tree. The second half was a grueling climb up a sparse, rocky savannah. Suddenly things got a whole lot more difficult. The trail was steep and the terrain challenging. Still, it was immense and beautiful, and the thrill of the climb had me flush with excitement. I loved picking my way through the uneven terrain and showing the porters that not all tourists are worthless and dependent.
After eight and a half hours of hiking, we arrived at Hut 2, a ramshackle metal camp where we would spend the night. Nearby was an awesome little cave, carved out by lava just a few decades ago. Hans gave us a little tour before we sat down to a delicious dinner of white beans and plantains, prepared by Foxy Brown. I wanted to stay up and ask Hans about his life as a hunter, but a chill had crept into my skin and my usual appetite was muted. Something was wrong. I decided to hit the sack early to prepare for the daunting day ahead; a full twelve hours of hiking.
I woke up with my stomach twisting uncomfortably, and fever sweats soaking my sleeping bag. Oh boy. I raced outside for a little sunrise poop – the best kind. All kidding aside, the expanse of rocky savannah splayed out beneath Hut 2 was stunning, and made the squat a bizarrely transcendental experience. Mount Cameroon is tall, and the summit would be windy and cold, so it was not without trepidation that I began the morning hike with a fever still throbbing in my blood. I came to see the hike through to its completion, however, and wasn’t going to be stopped by some aches and chills.
It was about three hours to the summit. Three devastating hours. The temperature quickly plummeted into the fifties, and the wind picked up as obstructive vegetation dwindled away to lichens and mosses. The climb grew progressively steeper. The trail was sandy, and each slip in the fine volcanic dust sapped energy we couldn’t afford to waste. Maybe the hardest part was the oxygen. After about an hour of climbing we reached 3500m and the air began to thin out. Imagine going for a tough uphill hike and breathing through a straw. Every breath was painful, and the temperature continued to drop. Combined with the fever it was almost unbearable. By Hut 3 I was shivering and chattering my teeth if we stood still for even a minute, but moving onward and upward without adequate oxygen was equally unpleasant. One step at a time. One. Step. At a time.
Down below I thought it was such a shame that we weren’t spending more time at the summit, but once I reached it I couldn’t wait to be out of there. The boulder which peaks the tallest mountain in West Africa is brutally cold and blustery, with wind chill temperatures somewhere in the forties. Given my attire and persistent fever, I thought that maybe I was going to die at any second. We took our pictures and scampered down from the summit as quickly as possible, but the winds were relentless and the cold had soaked into my deepest tissues. It was another hour before I would feel warm again, and the climb down was almost more difficult than going up. Deep sand drifts made sturdy footing all but impossible, and the descent was just as steep as the way up. My thighs were already exhausted, and keeping them contracted in the downhill scramble was actually painful at times.
Finally, about an hour after the summit, the sun emerged from behind the clouds and the winds showed us some mercy. My thighs were burning, as was my forehead, but I was beginning to enjoy myself again. Two of us were well ahead of our third partner and the guide, so we lay down on the side of the trail and passed out for about a half an hour. We woke up feeling stiff but refreshed, and we entered the lava fields with renewed energy.
The lava fields were like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life, a vast expanse of mountain desert thick with clusters of amorphous volcanic rock. It was as unearthly as it was captivating, although it didn’t do us many favors on tired legs. Mount Cameroon is tall, but what its true size is in its spread. Here we were on this seemingly perpetual plain, trekking for hours at an almost unchanging elevation some 3000m above sea level. Lesser mountains and hills thrust out of the lava field, challenging us to explore the boundless unknown wilderness beyond. Hans informed us that when you look at Mount Cameroon from below, the peak you think you see is really just this plain. The actual summit is another 1500m up, invisible because it’s set back so far on the plateau.
After picking our way through countless brittle rock formations left by an eruption in 1982, we entered a much more forgiving savannah, and another three hours finally brought us to the three craters. Protruding defiantly from the endless black ash which surrounds them, these craters were even more surreal and unbelievable than the lava fields. It was like nothing I knew could exist on this planet. You’re walking through miles of scorched blackness along the rims of three active, smoldering craters, tumbling pits of rock descending into ancient and unknown depths. I was speechless.
Not long after the craters the ash transformed into a beautiful forested savannah drenched in the warm honey of a setting sun. The hills were lush, breathtaking, painted gold and green and red and spotted with sloping rock formations. Unfortunately I was on the verge of physical collapse. I thought of my legs as worn pistons, rusty and unlubricated, agonizing over every movement. Breakfast and lunch were mere vapors in my stomach, and the fever burned up my few spare calories with ruthless efficiency. I’d been hiking for more than eleven hours, and I honestly questioned whether or not my legs could carry me to our destination at Man Springs. Every step was a prodigious effort, and I wasn’t sure how many more of them I had left.
Finally we heard the voices of our tireless porters, laughing and joking around a small cook fire. I staggered into camp and fell to the ground in a heap. I was covered in sweat and filth, and my body had reached its absolute limit. A short nap rejuvenated me slightly, and I was able to rejoin my friends and porters by the fire for a delicious meal of pasta and vegetables and fish. We swapped stories and laughed until 9PM, then retired to our tents for the final trek early the next day.
By morning my fever had finally broken, but that didn’t make the previous two days’ efforts any less exhausting. We awoke stiff and sore as ever, but a cup of hot tea from Foxy Brown loosened our muscles and lent us renewed confidence for the day ahead. It was a beautiful hike. Undulating slopes were patched with verdant green and golden wheat, and creased with frozen black lava flows from the 2000 eruption. Our guide, Hans, had been leading a tour at the time of the eruption and made an emergency 2AM evacuation through the very fields we were walking through, missing the forked lava rivers which creased the landscape by mere hours. While this environment was less exotic than the lava fields above, it was by far my favorite. Those hills possessed some compelling, primitive natural beauty which had my mouth hanging open at every turn. To our right was the Atlantic ocean, amazing at 1500m above sea level, urging us onward towards the bottom of the mountain.
Two hours later we reached the jungle again, signifying what we thought was the beginning of the end. Although the jungle was picturesque, we were tired and ready to be back in civilization. The mountain, however, wasn’t finished with us. That last trek through the jungle was an interminable voyage through demanding terrain. At first it was exciting. I would stand at the top of a rutted cascade and pick the best line through the complicated series of roots and rocks before bounding down with reckless enthusiasm. It reminded me of my favorite part of skiing; choosing a path, pointing ‘em downhill and sending it, but the toll on my body was enormous. Soon I was quite literally rationing the energy in my legs. Every obstacle was strategically circumvented to minimize strain on my body and spare me from collapse for just a few more minutes… but the minutes never stopped coming. The porters jogged past us easily, and a light rain began to peck at our skin and hair. I no longer felt invincible. The mountain was close to winning.
Finally, we saw Foxy Brown’s warm smile beaming from a bench near the bottom of the mountain. He lead us to the base in a small little town called Bokwango, and we sat down to exchange some final stories and snap pictures. These people hadn’t just been our porters, they’d been our friends and companions, and it was a tough goodbye. That being said, all of us were moments away from collapse, so we made quick work of it. Before we knew it our bags were tucked into the trunk of a taxi and we were headed back to Buea with the biggest physical challenge of our lives behind us.
I was fortunate to be treated to another spot of R&R after the hike, as well. My next stop was the 2014 National Girl’s Forum in Limbe, which was held at the luxurious Fini Hotel… well, luxurious by Cameroon standards. I would have taken a human life for a hot shower after three filthy days on the mountain, but my hotel room shower was a sad trickle of cold water. Fortunately I managed to track down a friend whose hot water was working just fine. I rather tactlessly invaded her room, planted myself in her bathroom, slumped against the wall like a question mark and softly moaned while pouring hot water over myself for like thirty minutes. It was pathetic. I have no regrets.
The rest of the Forum was a great time, as well. There were pools, a beautiful beach, and of course, the treat of seeing all these village girls experience wealth and the mighty ocean for the first time. We had a blast coaxing them into the turbulent waters, playing in the waves, splashing and laughing and joking. Many of these girls have lived their lives in the kitchen, under the thumbs of men and rarely allowed to enjoy themselves. This opportunity to help them come out of their narrow little worlds, to experience the unimaginable, to bask in the freedoms we take for granted, has been one of my greatest pleasures in Cameroon two years in a row.