Visitors to Cameroon (and readers of our blog) probably know that it is hard to speak about Buea without talking about the huge mountain that towers 4,090 meters above it.  Mount Cameroon, the tallest mountain in West Africa, is actually a not-so-dormant volcano—it last erupted in 2000—and it is claimed that when the paramount chief of Buea dies, the mountain erupts. Luckily for us, the chief appeared to be in good health this weekend (at least as far as the mountain was concerned); we were able to summit without any volcanic interruption. 

We woke up with the sun on Friday morning, and set off for the old BICEC bank building to meet up with our team: Monica and Yvonne (two Dutch volunteer doctors who were to hike with us), Flobert (our local guide and a recent graduate of the University of Buea), and Stephen, Thompson, Henry, and Maurice (our porters and cook). After quick introductions, we started walking uphill. The first sights we saw were of banana trees and huckleberry bushes stretching up the base of the mountain (huckleberry leaves being used in njama njama, one of our favorite Cameroonian dishes). We passed by small prison barracks as well, apparently occupied by post-trial inmates who have already served some time at the rougher prison in town below. As we got higher and higher, the views of Buea got better and better, until the encroaching rainforest blocked our view of the town below. Surrounded by trees and bird calls, Clara was in her element; she taught us all about the epiphytes growing down from trees, spotted the crimson wings of a turaco through the canopy, and noticed a strangler fig slowly constricting a huge tree in the forest, just as happens in Costa Rica.

After a few hours of hiking, we passed the police checkpoint at Hut 1, and entered the official boundary of the Mount Cameroon National Park.  The trees started becoming sparser, and the mountain became a lot steeper. As we struggled uphill, we talked about the Race For Hope, an annual race to the summit of the mountain and back that will be held in two weeks, on February 16. The champion racers tend to run the race in a little over four hours, and (like most visitors to the mountain) we were planning on taking the whole day just to reach a hut 2/3 of the way to the summit. How, we wondered, could anyone possibly run up this? One of the champion runners here is Sarah Etanga, a woman known as “Queen of the Mountain.” Etanga was a mother of nine children who decided to try running the race, and has since won in the women’s division three consecutive times. (We’ve heard, incidentally, that she lives near us in Buea Town, and we’re eager to meet her—she sounds like one of the most amazing athletes in the world!) Around 2 pm, we arrived at Hut 2, dirty and tired from the relentless uphill of the previous few hours. Unfortunately, Hut 2 proved to be littered with trash and full of other hikers—a French duo ascending the mountain in two days, a group of 30 teenage American expats living in Yaounde and studying at the Rainforest School there, and a Cameroonian couple on a month-long spiritual retreat on the mountain. We staked out a plot of grass overlooking Buea, and put up our tent. As the sun fell over the mountain, and the stars started appearing in the night sky, we could faintly make out a snaking trail of taillights from cabs cruising up and down Molyko Road, thousands of feet below. 

On February 2—my 25 birthday—we woke up early once again to continue our hike. This was to be our longest day of hiking. Over ten hours, we would summit the mountain, and then hike down the back to the Man Springs campsite. We started hiking uphill through the early morning mist, and were immediately surrounded by strangely gnarled trees, warped by the harsh winds. The sun soon rose and burned away the fog, and we trekked up the last few volcanic-black ridges to the highest point in all of West Africa.

Heading down the back of Mount Cameroon proved to be nearly as challenging as climbing up. The hike downwards started with a steep gravelly expanse that was easier to slide down than hike down, and then continued with a four-hour walk across a scorched field of volcanic rock that the mountain had expelled thousands of years ago. Mount Cameroon was last active in 2000, and in 1986 before that, and it is possible to see long trails of lava from each eruption, snaking like black highways down the mountainside and towards the sea in Limbe. The 1986 eruption has even left several enormous craters of fine volcanic sand—we walked along their rims, and could smell the sulfurous gasses that escape from the craters to this day. Volcanic soil is amazingly fertile stuff, and gorgeous bushes and flowers rose directly out of the black volcanic sand, contrasting with the dull colors of the land and the burnt grasses surrounding them. We made our way down from the lava fields into the lush forests below, and stopped for the night at Man Spring, sunburned and exhausted but happy. Not a bad way to spend a 25th birthday!

On our final hike down, we passed again across a highway of lava and through blazing yellow grasslands, as we made our way back to the rainforest and Buea. The colors of the land shone out against the early-morning blue sky, and small peaks of Mount Cameroon—including this one, of “Little Mount Cameroon” in Limbe—were visible in the distance. 

Several more hours of hiking brought us back into the dense rainforest, and eventually some small plots of farmed land began to appear—a sign that we were reentering inhabited land (these Brobdingnagian leaves, by the way, belong to the biggest cocoyam plant I’ve ever seen). A little after noon, we walked into the Bokwoango neighborhood of Buea, shed our packs, and headed home to nurse our calves and quads back to use. As I walked later that day to the market to pick up some veggies for dinner, I remember noticing the mountain towering over Buea, just as it always does. I don’t think I’ll ever again look up at it the same way.