The Final Test
For a few weeks climbing Mount Cameroon was the only thing I really wanted to do before leaving Africa. True there were other little trips and activities in Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Togo, but none excited me like the prospect of climbing West Africa’s highest mountain.
Another reason it was important is because the trek was a present from my granddad. Sadly I never got the chance to meet my granddad but my mum received compensation from British Coal for the sickness that he endured after a lifetime working as a driller down the pit. Mum decided to split the money between my sister and me, so not being a materialistic person I couldn’t think of a better way of spending my share than on an experience like this. Now I would just have to get to the top.
My first view of the mountain was from the Nigeria to Cameroon ferry. I must admit, it looked bloody big. Climbing it in two days looked unfeasible.
I arrived in Buea; a large town on the side of the mountain and the starting point for the trek. It turns out a guide is compulsory and a porter is compulsory. I didn't have enough cash to pay for three days so had to go for two. “You must be very fit?” asked the lady at the very helpful Mount Cameroon Ecotourism Organisation. “I am”, I lied. Well I was a few months ago when climbing mountains in East Africa but since then I had lost a lot of weight and spent a lot of time sitting on buses.
I set off with a guide and porter from 1100m at about 0830. Up past old German colonial buildings then past a prison where inmates tend little plots of lettuce and avocado orchards while fierce looking soldiers holding shotguns peer down at them through huge aviator sunglasses. You then pass through maize and banana plantations before entering the lush rainforest. I was soon sopping wet with a combination of fine drizzle and sweat. Samuel my guide was a great distraction though, telling me all about the endemic plants and picking out the bird songs.
We stopped for lunch at the imaginatively named Hut 1. It was 1030 and we had reached 1875m, good going. The going wasn't too difficult until we popped out of the rainforest onto what they call the savannah. The grass is long and thick, like a cow field, and soon became very steep. Before tackling the ascent we did a little dance to please the half-man half-rock mountain god (when he is angry the volcano erupts). This involved slapping your knees then throwing fern over your shoulder while chanting.
It was a long climb, up basalt steps, till we reached Hut 2, where we would spend the night. The hut sits at 2860m and we reached it at 1400. Too early in my book because soon I was pretty cold. I put on all the clothes I had brought and huddled around the little cooking fire.
Dinner was vegetables, spaghetti and about half a litre of oil. Then bed. I hardly slept. It rained hard, so was very loud on the tin roof. Mysterious people were coming and going throughout the night, it was cold so I zipped myself right in my sleeping bag, then it was hot so I had to take off clothes, I was lying directly on to wooden boards, and as usual at altitude, I had to get up several times for a tinkle. My guide wanted to leave at 4am. My alarm actually went off at four but I quickly turned it off because I was desperate to get some sleep. We ended up leaving in a panic at 0545. I knew we were fast enough to leave later and the batteries in my head torch were too low to see in the dark.
Fortunately the rain had stopped and we climbed quickly up into the cloud. The gradient got less and less, and the terrain became loose ash. We reached the summit at 0815 and took some quick pictures before our hands got numb. It was very windy on the top and quite an anticlimax because you couldn’t see a thing for the clouds.
At 4095m this still active volcano claims to be West Africa’s highest mountain even though it is clearly in Central Africa. The last eruption was in 2000 but when I was up there it was too foggy to see the vent.
The clouds lifted as we jogged down and looking back up you could see the smoking crater. Well that’s what Samuel told me, I reckon it was mist. The sun burnt off the cloud as we ran down to find some higher temperatures and the views were great. We soon reached Hut 2, had a quick stop, and then tackled the steep section. It turned my legs to jelly. By the time I reached the rainforest my limbs seemed to be acting independently of my body. I flopped and flailed all the way down and we reached town at midday.
I reckon given an early start, if you really wanted to push yourself, it could be done in a day. Actually every year they hold the “Race of Hope”. A gruelling marathon up and down the route I took. Winning time is a staggering four and a half hours. I have a long way to go.
I was happy to have not noticed the altitude in the slightest but for the next week my legs were so stiff that I struggled to get down the stairs. Even stepping off a kerb became an action I had to plan ahead for.
Overall I think it was a brilliant finale to five months in Africa. Thanks granddad.