So here I am, nibbling (read: inhaling) my sardine and mustard sandwich and thinking to myself, “that was @#!&-ing crazy.” My good friend, Sarah, and I had just survived a three odd hour hike through some of the craziest terrain I had ever ventured through. Allow me to explain.
The two of us, in the bliss that is crossing off items from our Cameroon bucket-list, decided that we simply had to visit the well-known (“ ”) crater lakes of the country’s Southwest region. It’s normal to want to undertake these types of adventures one’s last three months of service and Sarah and I were more than willing to take a long weekend to see a part of the country neither of us had experienced. Work has wrapped up, our flights back to the states are already booked…it’s time to travel!
Our journey began in the town of Bafang, Sarah’s post, in the West region. We caught a bus moving southbound to the Littoral, the dejected region of my first 5 months of service, where we met our guide in a town called Melong. He was two hours late but didn’t seem overly pressed for time. Seeing our sporty physiques and game-faces, he ventured that our hike would take no more than two hours. I’ve used this blog as a platform to say this many times: assuming always makes somebody look like an ass. In this case I’m not sure who won the namesake.
After a particularly jarring and steep climb on this man’s motorcycle to a village with a view, we dismounted and began our trek on foot. Now, as I close my eyes and think about it it’s all a summery haze drowned in sweat and clouded in feelings of incompetence and fattiness. The trail was straight up the side of a mountain. Then straight down a mountain. Then across the mountain. It seemed like the only part of those hills we didn’t see was the centers. Upon reaching what Sarah and I decided would be our first of many rest stops (…after climbing a hundred meters in 15 minutes) our guide, with all the politeness of a nun in a steam room, told us that after further review, the hike would take us four hours. Yes, he judged us. He judged us hard.
And it’s not even like we weren’t trying. We were literally skating down boulder strewn mud paths and climbing across pit studded fields guarded by territorial cattle and rambunctious mares as fast as we could go. Which wasn’t very fast. But how could we be? It was our first time navigating such terrain. How were we supposed to know where to step and where not to step? I’m 84% positive that our guide’s great aunt was a mountain goat. And to make matters worse, as Sarah and I are huffing and puffing our way over a particularly challenging ridge, 5 women with babies on their backs and bags balanced on their heads speed past. You would have thought that they were competing in some kind of mother-child Iron Man competition at the pace they were clocking. Even later in the hike I am nearly certain that I saw a Fulani woman prancing from rock to rock down a 45° slant in flip flops and a conservative skirt. Meanwhile, I was left fending off gravity (and let’s be honest, death) with my ass planted firmly to the ground shuffling from rock to rock like a flipped over rock-climber.
When we finally reached a part of the hike the overlooked the two crater lakes and the surrounding landscape, I was reminded of two things: the moors from The Hounds of the Baskervilles and New Zealand. Now, I’ve never been to the United Kingdom or New Zealand but I’m fairly certain that I have the appropriate images in my head. The expanse in front of us was flat, apart from the elevated knolls that cupped the crater lakes, and dotted with herds of cattle, tin roofs playing with the afternoon sunlight in a way that made them shimmer. The canvas had been painted with deep greens and grays and blues and browns – heavy paint dripping both with realism and romanticism. Although absolutely breathtaking in its raw beauty it proved hard to shake the sense of secrecy and vagueness that loomed over the land like the white mist that pushed in from all sides through the sharp gray-green angles of the encompassing mountain tops.
I think initially that Sarah and I were planning to return the same route we had just traveled – the 3 hour ordeal that embarrassed Americans everywhere and left the two of us questioning the products of companies like Keen® and Marmot® – the next day. But there was no way in hell we were going to be able to pick our way across that landscape without a guide. Important: our guide was only leading us to the crater lakes. He was not planning on spending the night with us. I have a good sense of direction but I think had it come down to me leading us back, we would have followed some cow path right into the annals of the Darwin Awards. Lucky for us, from our elevated perch we could see both the crater lakes and a more clearly marked path that led onwards into the Southwest. We chose simplicity. But that doesn’t mean we were out of adventure’s woods just yet.
We bid farewell to our sassy and demeaning guide and began setting up camp. On the ridge of the larger of the two lakes you’ll find a quaint little gazebo. It’s just a little circular structure, with a concrete half wall, support beams, and a pointed tin roof. Sarah and I hoisted up our hammocks, changed out of our mud covered clothes, opened up our sack of food, and promptly began the feast that this post commences with. I don’t think it was even six thirty when, exhausted, we climbed into our sleeping bags doing our best to protect ourselves from the nippy chill that was setting in.
Did I mention that it was cold? Incredibly frigid. I was wearing jeans, socks, a flannel shirt, a knit sweater, a heavy pull-over, gloves, a beanie, and I ended up sleeping with a scarf pulled across my face. This is the highlands of Cameroon. You think I’m joking but I legitimately think that November in Pennsylvania has the potential to end me. As we rocked back-and-forth in our hammocks (side note: my hammock was actually dragging on the floor, either a result of poor knotsmanship or a result of too many sardine sandwiches…verdicts still out) a creepy fog crept in from all sides, descending on our little sanctuary. Do you see where this is going?
Did I mention that we had no real protection from the elements? Now you’re with me. By seven the heavens had opened and to speak frankly, someone was just straight-up showing off. We were “treated” to a crazy lightning storm (tin roof!) complete with heavy winds and sheets of rain. Later, Sarah and I would both recall the event as a religious experience. Praise be on somebody/something because somehow neither of us got wet. Amen.
The night was still a little strange. I woke up at three in the morning having just slept for eight hours and wondering why it was still dark. Feeling well rested, I reached for my phone to see what time it was. My hammock scraping against the ground must have startled Sarah. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Good moooooorning!” was my response. We went back to sleep and woke up with the sun.
Our next day of hiking was so much better than the first. Like I mentioned before, we were, albeit left to our own devices, on a more established path/road. After a quasi-easy two and a half hour trek we found ourselves in a village that had motorcycles ready to lead us back to our starting point. Sarah and I somehow managed to get referred to a driver in the 5 minutes we spent walking through this certain town and the guy proved to be an absolute pro. Not only did this trip prove to be my most intense hike to date, I also experienced my most insane motorcycle ride. I can’t even say that the roads we were travelling on were covered in mud. They were mud. Ranging from one foot to four feet. Literally. Two hours. Our driver was a champ, navigating the narrow outline of tire tracks carved out by cars and motos before us. Yes, the terrain was hellish, but I honestly never felt as though we were going to crash or even fall over. This guy knew what he was doing.
I will admit that there were times when we’d roll into some murky, mud colored puddle and I was convinced we were about to get sucked under only to be preserved, perfectly of course, for archaeologists of the 32nd century to find. But in those moments of doubt all I had to do was to look to my left or to my right to see the women skipping from mud mound to mud mound with smiling babies tied to their backs, sacks of my unobtainable dreams of mountain manhood effortlessly balanced on their heads.