22 November 2015

Crater Lakes and Waterfalls

October 24-28

Our “fall” break was upon us and, after a week of protracted “Book-O-Ween” activities, Andrea, Blair and I were eager to explore a bit more of Cameroon. This led us to visit the borderlands of Littoral and Southwest Regions, where there are a number of crater lakes and waterfalls to see.

We started out with a minivan from Douala to Nkongsamba. It left fairly promptly, although being in the flip-down seat made my ride a little less comfortable. Having five passengers per row instead of the four that there are seats for probably kept us from jostling around too much.

Nkongsamba central market. Photo compliments of Blair.

Once in Nkongsamba we ordered sandwiches and Blair commited the faux pas of attempting to combine fish with avocado, causing one lady to walk away suppressing a laugh. The vendor demurred so we settled on chicken meatball and avocado combinations. From Nkongsamba we continued to Melong then back south to Melong II, where we negotiated for transport down to Chutes d'Ekom Nkam. We'd been advised by Joseph, a school security guard, to bring a bottle of something for the chief before heading to the waterfall. We found a much more formalized affair, so we paid our entry fees and did not get to meet the chief.

Mist from Chutes d'Ekom Nkam.

Ekom Falls served as the backdrop for scenes of the 1980s Greystoke Tarzan movie (other rainforest scenes were filmed in Korup National Park, near the southern border with Nigeria). Since we're still in the last throes of the rainy season, the waterfall was very impressive, and we were unable to swim in, or even safely approach, the pool of water below. Serge, the Falls-provided guide, noted that the waters feed the Wouri River in Douala.

The waterfall!

After a drink and snacks back in Melong, where Blair got us roasted corn and “plums” (the latter not to my liking), we made for Mbouroukou to spend the night. We stayed at a little villa outside the town, at the foot of Mt. Manengouba. Among the other guests were Spanish medical volunteers who were performing surgeries at a hospital in Bafoussam for a couple of weeks.

Approaching the falls.

The next morning we set off for Mt. Manengouba's crater lakes with our guide Alain. Alain was recommended to us by a Peace Corps volunteer who recently finished her service; she was posted in Mbouroukou. As we strode past small coffee and banana plantations on the lower elevations, Alain stated that Mbouroukou's citizens were virtually all of the Mbo ethnic group (there are some 250 in Cameroon, along with sundry indigenous languages). Alain and his family grow maize, beans, tomatoes, cassava and lettuce. Given the long rainy season in this region, Alain just has to plant his tomatoes and leave them to grow. By contrast, women in The Gambia drew water daily to support their vegetable gardens.

The start of our ascent of Mt. Manengouba.

Further up the hill, the farms gave way to smaller plots as well as cleared land for pasture. Alain explained that these higher elevations were settled by Peul/Fulani people about 100 years ago. As they are primarily pastoralists and thus did not need extensive farming space, the Fulanis' arrival did not cause any conflict with the original Mbo inhabitants (according to Alain). The village is called, appropriately enough, Monts. Besides raising cattle, horses and sheep and goats, the Fulani also grow a little bit of maize, lettuce and cabbage.

The peak of Mt. Manengouba.

After a long hike up narrow muddy paths (which we routinely saw women carry 100 lbs of goods down) we reached the top of the crater (Manengouba is an extinct volcano, part of a range stretching from Equatorial Guinea's Bioko Island up through Cameroon's southwest). The crater was largely treeless, a result of being clearcut for pasture for the Fulanis' livestock. The descent to Manengouba's twin crater lakes wasn't much easier for us as the grass grew thickly in uneven clumps so the crater floor was not flat at all. Five hours after departing we passed the “man” crater lake (which is sacred and so people are proscribed from using it, although I suppose it's a good source of groundwater) and reached the larger “woman” lake, which people can use for fishing and swimming. We enjoyed some lunch, a good rest, and a swim in the lake.

That's the woman crater lake in the distance.

The sacred man lake - no swimming!

Given our rather slow ascent, Blair reasoned that we would likely be clambering down in darkness had we returned the way we came. So we continued 7 kilometres down the dirt road to Bangem, the next town. The road was of course washed out, but you can walk on it (gingerly in our case) as well as ride motorbikes up and down. I later learned the road will be graded in the dry season – an annual tradition? About halfway across the crater we passed our second school of the excursion, with a sign that let us know we had entered the Southwest Region – it was an anglophone school.

School on the French side of Mt. Manengouba.

Muanenguba government school on the anglophone side.

Once in Bangem the first course of action was to put our feet up and have a drink. As we were getting settled in, an American guy invited us to join him and, per Cameroonian norms when inviting others, promptly bought the first round. It emerged that he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon several years ago, and was back in the country to conduct Ph.D. research on the fish populations of various crater lakes. We learned from him that the fish in Manengouba's woman lake were actually introduced by PCVs in the 1970s for either subsistence or income generation. He reckoned that he'd take several hundred ziploc bags of preserved fish back to the U.S. While he's been able to visit many of the crater lakes in Southwest region, the fons (local kings or chiefs) in Northwest region were less accommodating so he's not studied as many of them.

The walk down to Bangem.

As dusk was approaching we decided to look into transport back to Mbouroukou and our hotel. Given the late hour, the moto drivers tried to take advantage and hike their rates so we were at an impasse. This was broken suddenly by a heavy downpour of rain which forced us to seek refuge under the nearest vendor's awning. Once the rain ended we decided it was too dark, and the roads too muddy, for us to leave. Alain was a good sport and agreed that we'd have to stay in Bangem. After procuring a couple of cheap rooms at the Prestige Inn we returned to the bar for meat brochettes, beers and grilled fish and batons (rubbery boiled cassava sticks). In addition to our Ph.D. candidate and a couple of Cameroonian friends of his, we were also joined by Bangem's current Peace Corps volunteer.

We had an enjoyable evening chatting about fish stocks, Douala (the researcher disliked its relative unfriendliness, while the current PCV thought there were fun places to check out), francophone vs. anglophone Cameroon (with anglophone CamCam being described as more laidback), The Gambia and the Peace Corps. The current PCV's tenure is quite different from ours was – he is able to stream American football games. By contrast, I had to text Yusupha Touray in Kombo (the more developed, coastal region of Gambia) for sporadic updates on the 2006 NBA Finals.

After a not particularly restful night at the Prestige Inn, we began to make our way back to Mbouroukou. After an hour or so on the dirt road we reached Melong, where we enjoyed egg and bean omelettes and sweet (on account of the condensed milk) tea and wandered around the market for a while as Alain greeted people.

Our Mbouroukou lodgings.

Back in Mbouroukou we went to visit another Alain, who is the proprietor of a small cheese-making outfit, Le Bon Fromage. Alain buys milk from the Fulani women who bring milk down to the village from Monts, then makes a cheese which is similar to the Tome style of French cheese (I was not familiar with this variety). Alain learned about cheese-making from a Cameroonian woman who had a yearlong internship with Land O Lakes, after meeting some Land O Lakes people in her village near Nigeria (where her family owned cattle).

Fromagerie Alain said that his business is small at present (there's not much of a local market for cheese) and he hasn't found anyone interested in apprenticing with him so it's hard for him to ramp up production. A few outside visitors have expressed an interest in getting involved, but nothing's come to fruition yet. Anyway, his cheese is tasty and he was kind enough to call and greet Blair recently, a couple of weeks after we returned to Douala.

Once we said our goodbyes to Alain the guide and got back to the hotel we cleaned up and relaxed, mainly at a (much smaller) waterfall on the grounds. The rest of the day was uneventful aside from switching rooms after our first boukarou/hut had a few leaks.

The next day we began with a taxi to Melong (and another stop for egg sandwiches) then caught a minibus to Mbanga. From here we could take the train through farms and plantations (the closest road to the west, from Loum, is impassable presently) to Kumba. As we bought our tickets (“deuxieme classe omnibus”) the ticket agent noted with a chuckle that there weren't assigned seats on the train. I laughed too as he wished us well, but the train pulled up a mere 20 minutes later and, after the engine switched ends, everyone scrambled aboard. It wasn't too hectic and Blair managed to secure seats for the three of us without difficulty. The slatted wooden benches were more comfortable than many of our recent modes of transportation, although the frequent stops near isolated villages along the way made for a slow and sweltering trip.

Our move back towards Southwest region and anglo Cameroon was made clear by the vendors' presentations, all conducted in pidgin English. First was a man extolling the health benefits of the ginger lozenges and medicinal soaps he was hawking. Next and at points throughout the journey was a lady selling snacks and tissues. After her came a woman who focused first on dental health, selling carrot and aloe vera toothpaste (separate varieties – not a melange) and toothbrushes. She then moved on to discussing the virtues of a menthol rubbing ointment and finally shea butter. After all this focus on physical health, it emerged that our spiritual side would not be neglected (to be fair, the lozenge/soap salesman did begin with a prayer for our safe arrival). An elderly gentleman began a sermon that I didn't follow on account of the heat, our early start and his rather thick pidgin (although he did throw in a not-uncommon remark about being covered in Jesus's blood).

As mentioned before, the frequent stops are a boon for small communities with limited transportation links, especially in the rainy season. As Kumba was not a big administrative centre during colonial times I was curious as to why the train winded its way there. Clearly resource extraction played a role and Raymond, our friend from Edea who met up with us in Kumba, said the main export was bananas (cocoa and coffee are also widely grown in this area).

We had eru (cassava fufu with a palm oil and leaves sauce) for lunch across from the train station then dropped off our bags at a gaudy hotel that has met an inexorable decline – the lightbulbs in the mouths of the golden lion statues standing sentry have not been replaced in a long time – and made for Barombi Mbo, a crater lake just outside town.

The route to Barombi Mbo.

We got off our transport outside the entrance then proceeded to trudge up to the lake. The road was largely impassable by vehicle, with the exception of a Hilux pickup truck that gradually spun through the mire. It carried crates of beer, which gave us hope that the small restaurant was not only open in the dry season. It turned out that the beer was fated for across the lake, with the driver collecting empties and sacks of cacao to take back down to Kumba. The roads to/from the village cannot be used at present so the lake (which is 2.5 kilometers long) serves as a transit and freight route in the meantime. We got a short pirogue ride on the lake then walked along a track near the shore, enjoying views of skinks and a wide variety of butterflies.

Lake Barombi Mbo, Kumba.
Cacao from across the river, along with empty drinks bottles.

Back in town we wandered around the market and ate Cheese Balls/puffs (imported from Nigeria) then went to a bar for, yes, beers and brochettes of grilled meat. They were out of Beaufort and Beaufort Light so Blair tried the Beaufort Tango, which was a light beer filled with citric acid (or the synthetic equivalent); none of us managed more than a sip.

Later on a man asked if we were from the U.S. It turned out he was an RPCV who served in Mali and is now working with the UN. He and his Cameroonian colleague are visiting Regional health centers (the American is barred from their Far North trek) to train them on data submission by SMS/text message. The national Ministry of Health will send monthly texts, each separately address pregnancy, MCH, malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc. The health workers submit the amount of patients they've seen, materials distributed, procedures carried out, etc. Pretty cool stuff, although some of the older health workers weren't as comfortable with the technology yet.

The lightbulb in this lion's mouth (standing sentry outside our Kumba hotel) hasn't been replaced for some time now. Photo credit: Blair.

The next day we walked around Kumba with Raymond. We wandered through the market, where a lot of Igbos (from Nigeria) worked, as well as contingents of Malians and Nigeriens.

The conduct of the minibus touts should have tipped me off that we were in for a contentious day. After walking past some pointless tussles for our services we hopped into the fullest minibus and set off an hour or so later.

Fairly early on in our journey, we stopped at a police checkpoint and had to walk a short distance and show our Karantes (cartes d'identite) then rejoin the minibus. One traveler took exception to her “professional card” receiving greater scrutiny (particularly as several others did not bother to get out of the van and yet weren't accosted further), and began berating a young police officer, calling him an imbecile among other choice words.

Once we were back in the vehicle a younger lady exclaimed that she disagreed with the first lady's combative approach. (Most of the other passengers appeared to be a combination of amused and apprehensive that we may be detained further.) There followed a lengthy discussion of the merits of police stops (with the angry lady exclaiming that Boko Haram was just an excuse for the security forces to harass ordinary Cameroonians) and the generally poor behavior of the police. Despite generally agreeing on this, the ladies still yelled back and forth for a while (I think mainly about the wisdom of calling the police idiots to their faces).

Our driver eventually fell under the sway of all this combative behaviour. Initially he was quite friendly and greeted multiple fellow drivers on the road and sundry other people as we stopped in various car parks to pick up new passengers. Over the course of the journey, though, he became increasingly terse and was soon yelling at people who asked for their change, and berating people who hopped out to relieve themselves while he collected passengers. But we reached our stop in Bonaberi then got across the bridge and through rush hour fairly quickly. We then spent the next couple of days relaxing after our enjoyable though mildly strenuous holiday.