“I don’t think I’ve ever been so remote in my life,” I thought to myself as I sat in the front seat of the pick-up truck carrying us to our start point.
It felt as if a cheer squad had strapped a snorkel mask to my face and fired me out of a human slingshot into the jungle; vines, branches, and the general green foliage of the rainforest pounded up against the windshield and rolled off as we pushed forward. After prying a prehistoric looking locust off of my nose I took a second to glance behind. There the two girls I was traveling with were perched fending off a barrage of whipping lianas and thorny branches.
“That sucks,” I thought, spreading out into the empty seat next to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as gentlemanly as the next putz. It was the chicks, however, who wanted to prove their toughness and adventurism. So they had climbed into the bed of the truck and sat back for what they had assumed would be a scenic ride into the jungle. Ha. If you’ve been following this blog at all you know where assuming has gotten me. More so, I never leave a cushioned seat un-sat on.
After about an hour and a half, we reached the point where we would begin our 18 km hike. Our team – a guide to get us from point A to point B, a porter to carry our pots and food, an eco-guard to keep us safe, and the three of us – gathered our backpacks and were off. Just like that. One second we were pushing into the great forest in what I would define as a plush land rover and the next moment the driver was kicking us out onto the street very much like I anticipate my parents will do to me come next January – GET OUT! Now let me delve a little deeper into this group we were with. The guide was friendly enough, especially towards the girls, so that brought out the protective little brother in me that my sister appreciated so much in high school. Our porter was loaded like a pack mule so I was sending him vibes of gratitude instead of judgment. We had the unique experience of having a female eco-guard. Over the course of the next few days she grew to be our favorite. That being said she was not one for first impressions – sort of a conniving diva, that one. Plus, I was skeptical of the rifle she was carrying. Held together with rubber bands and resembling something that helped us win our independence from the British, it was this contraption that was meant to keep us safe from angry gorillas, charging elephants, and dangerous poachers.
As if someone fired a gun, we were off. Just like a race. Literally, a race. Within 15 meters of the car we came upon a part of the trail where the ground was crawling with biting ants. Hence the running. No one wants ants in the pants. The first day’s hike, which was supposed to be our longest, wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated. The trail was pretty easy going, the jungle wasn’t super dense, and the animals didn’t attack. All of that combined with regular water breaks made for a solid first day. We even saw an elephant bathing itself in a stream and some water buffalo creepily watching from a distance. We got to our campsite by mid-afternoon and had plenty of time to set up our tent, start a fire, prepare food, and be in bed.
The last time I slept in a tent was…my early teen years? Regardless, it must have been a time when I was more compact and padded with baby fat. Here in the jungle there were three of us in our two person tent. Even though my sleeping style has been compared to that of a rotisserie chicken, I pulled the short straw for night one and had to sleep in the middle. My head grazing one side of the tent and my feet pushing out the other side, I tried to doze off with my arms folded across my chest. Needless to say, I slept like shit. The forest was surprisingly cold at night and I discovered just how boney my body really is. But hey, I didn’t make this trip to the rainforest to sleep, I came to have an adventure and see some cool stuff.
Our day two hike can be summed up in one word: mud. Surprisingly, we didn’t receive any rain during our stay in the jungle…but alas, sooo much mud. If it hadn’t been for our backpacks, our boots, and our attire, you might have thought that we were auditioning for the part of outdoorsy ballerina 1, 2, and 3. We were leaping and bounding around the mud as best as we could. It was hilarious. Our porter either took a short cut or was too embarrassed to be with us because I realized after a bit that I was the last person in our line. It felt like I was following a herd of elephants. After letting go the notion that I had to remain relatively clean, I put away my pink socks and strapped on my mountain boots. The boots held up fine…but I did blow out the crotch of my pants doing, if I may so myself, a ravishing spring across a jungle creek. The resulting breeze was a welcome refreshment.
After we got to camp, the girls decided to bathe in the river. Succumbing to their peer-pressure, they made the decision that I’d clean myself once they were finished. But the thing with threes is this: someone is always left out. They got to be together in case a crocodile attacked or a rogue river fish got a little too curious with its nibbles. Sure, watching your friend get dragged away by a huge reptile is no cake walk but at least someone would know what happened. Four days later: “Where’d Shane go?” “Oh, he’s still bathing”. No I’m not – I was a victim of natural selection and am hating on all of you from my cloud in Heaven. All of these thoughts were racing through my mind as I stood naked on the shore: a lanky, beached, luminescent ape. Being the rational soul I am, I covered up, popped back into camp, and convinced one of the girls to stay at a safe distance where I could hold a casual conversation and she could hear the impending wild thrashing of water and squeals. The tent smelled great that night.
The observation deck at our second camp site was incredible. Like the first it was more of a tree house, accessed through a narrow wooden staircase. But this one, slightly more creaky and aged, overlooked one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. A huge wetland – maybe six or seven football fields – just covered in sweeping grasses and occasionally punctuated by a small cluster of hardwoods where white and black wading birds would congregate. Various antelope and deer, water buffalo and warthog were milling about, taking advantage of the plentiful pasture. And the most charismatic animal we saw? Yes, another forest elephant. But also about five troops of gorillas – there were like fifteen plus apes. The closest was probably a little more than a swimming pool length away. The others were about an Olympic swimming pool length away. It was amazing. Watching them eat and play and sit. Seeing something I’ve only ever seen in zoos in their natural habitat was a powerful, powerful experience.
Change of pace. While it was nice to observe the animals and think about conservation while perched on an elevated observation deck, most of our time in the jungle was either spent walking or in camp. Walking with my pack brought me back to my days of competitive swimming when the monotony of the activity would send me into pensive trance. Appreciating the sounds and the monkeys and the trees were pleasant peripherals to my thoughts. Being so isolated so in nature promoted some needed reflection. Now in camp, it was a bit different. Because we were often in the tents, exhausted and trying to fall asleep soon after nightfall to escape nocturnal insects, our camp time centered on food preparation. Our female eco-guard was a huge godsend in this department. But I guess along those same lines, so were our porter and guide. They’d go out and get fresh river fish for us and she’d direct us to collect wild basil and peppers to spice the catch. We ate better than I could have ever anticipated. A lot of carbohydrates but hey, that’s Cameroon. There was something about eating two whole fish, caught an hour ago, cooked with wild greens that really enhanced the already magical experience. I truly felt like I was an explorer in colonial Africa.
Getting onto my actual birthday, the real reason why we did this trip (14% true). We knew we had a long hike ahead of us. If you recall, the first day was our longest hike at 18km. Well since our trip consisted of us walking into the jungle at a “straight” “line” instead of a circle, we were retracing our steps. So we ended up doing our longest hike twice. We were up early, had a hearty breakfast, and were out of camp by 7:30. By this point we were rainforest hiking pros. We made it to our pick-up point in less than 5 hours. Dropping my backpack by my side, sipping some Gatorade, and hunkering down onto a stump to eat some trail-mix was the best feeling in the world. Oh wait, it wasn’t.
An hour after chilling at this chosen point in the middle of the jungle, our guide was like, “Hey, why don’t we continue to walk.” “Okay”. We’d meet the car no matter what and besides, we were high on life and were pumped full of adrenaline. We pushed forward. For an hour. And then another hour. And then before we knew it, it was nearly four in the afternoon, the car was nowhere to be found, and we had to start thinking about next steps. There was no way we were going to be able to hike the 25 plus kilometers to the “main road” before night fall. We had to think about setting up camp. Which would mean clearing a place in the jungle, finding water, setting up everything, etc. And most importantly, it would mean that we would not get to the place we had planned on getting to – the tourist camp known as Njembé. The jewel of the WWF eco-tourist base in the park. Little bungalows set on the river directly across from the Congo. Beds with pillows. It just so happened this luxury aligned with my birthday but at this point in the hike, things were looking bleak. We had all given up hope, even the Cameroonians. Morale was low.
And then it happened. It started off as a distant hum. But as the sound grew closer it became clear that it was the car. Our car. It hadn’t forgotten us. You’d think that being five hours late the driver might offer a reason for his tardiness. Nothing. But who cares – the car came. I can literally think of two times in my life that I have been that unbelievably happy. Best feeling in the world. After our group hug we loaded up our packs onto the car and crawled in, smiles plastered across our faces and glows emanating from our cheeks.
We reached Njembé well after dark. Happy birthday to me – we had arranged for six beers to be transported with the car to permit us to celebrate our achievement (and my birth) properly. They were lovely complements to our dinner…preparations. Tipsy and very much content, we hunkered down with our plates full of spaghetti with sardines and tomato sauce to enjoy the evening landscape. The memory for which will forever and always give me chills. The quiet, yet noticeable river was to our left and above us, oh above us was the most glorious night sky I’ve ever seen. The night was so starry that it was as if someone had draped daytime Earth with a massive, black velvet cloth. I didn’t need to squint to see the Milky Way. It was right there, a watercolor of cosmic colors streaking from infinity to infinity in an arch above me. And my eyes, so determined to capture the entirety of the magnificent sky, would be temporarily distracted by a shooting star. And another. And another. I had a lot of wishes to make for my 24th year of life. But what really brought the scene together was the grass spanning out in front of us. It was simply covered with fireflies too amazed by the night sky that they were deemed flightless. Thus a perfect panoramic where the land mirrored the heavens with glowing flecks of yellow and gold. Stunningly beautiful.
It’s becoming apparent to me that this post has dragged on quite a bit. As always, my desire to ramble on in my writing shines through. But hey, I was blessed with safe travels, good company, pleasant weather, great luck, and lovely scenery and I wanted to tell you all about it. Before I go on and saunter on for another three paragraphs, please allow me to cut myself off. My trip to the rainforest can be summed up in one word: fantastic.