African adventures in Cameroon
The Baka pygmies of Cameroon still eke out a living from the land. Robert Nurden joins them in the rainforest
Sunday 26 March 2006
It was like walking through an impenetrable green mist. The narrow path wound this way and that, skirting round fronds and branches and vegetation of all shapes and shades. It was stiflingly hot even though the thick forest canopy was shading us from the direct rays of the sun.
Something screeched high up in the trees. My guide, Boukou, flapped his arms in imitation of a bird and named it in his own language, then in French, for my benefit. It was, I learned, an African grey parrot. Away in the distance we could hear chimps chattering. The sound rose to a deafening, angst-ridden crescendo of squawks and cries that put the forest on edge and sent a shiver down my spine. Eventually the cacophony shrunk to a muffled clucking.
Boukou's head was for ever turning this way and that, reading the signs of teeming life that crowded in on us. His easy, lolling walk had taken him down countless paths like this throughout the 40-odd years of his hunting and gathering existence. I was being taken on a trek through the equatorial rainforest of Cameroon. Boukou was a Baka pygmy, an elder in one of the few remaining clans that still manage - just - to eke out a sustainable living in a symbiotic relationship with the land.
Boukou tore a trailing vine from an overhanging branch and wound it round his middle. It was eru, the ubiquitous forest plant that tastes of spinach and forms a vital part of the Baka diet. He stopped to examine some tracks in the wet mud, prodding the earth with his bony fingers. "Duiker," he said, filing away the information, "one hour ago."
We walked on, threading our way through the undergrowth. The sound of women laughing rippled through the trees, the guffaws getting louder as we approached. They were from the next village. Some had babies wrapped in cloth tied to their sides; others swung machetes and scythes which, Boukou told me, they had been using in the nearby fields.
I had no idea the Baka were horticulturalists as well. I was under the impression the forest provided for their every need. The revelation - and others yet to come - stirred up a hornet's nest of conflicting relationships that scuppered any notion that these gentle people led an existence, at one with nature. A well-meaning aid agency had apparently sent in an expert to train the nearby clans to become farmers. The idea was they should cultivate cassava and peanuts, but the project was failing as the forest was already sending its trailers across the field, eager to reclaim the land.
Suddenly Boukou was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and saw his legs clamped around the vertical trunk he'd just climbed, his body hidden by branches. He was inspecting a bees' nest. "Honey not ready yet," he shouted down. "Next week."
The sun broke through as a clearing opened up before us. A huge tree trunk was lying flat on the floor, having taken mountains of greenery with it. A logging company had been there just days before, its bulldozers carving a mile-long piste into the virgin forest. For every tree extracted about 20 others will be felled and left to rot.
"We hate the loggers," said Boukou. "Some of my people lead these companies to the best trees and they get paid. How can they do this?" Probably because they're forced to by the Bantu, who do the cutting for the European and Malaysian companies which, in turn, get tax breaks from the Cameroon government. It is estimated that the country has lost 90 per cent of its frontier rainforest. My bucolic weekend with raw nature was turning sour. I should have known better: travel broadens the mind, but no one promises a party.
Eventually we got to the road and a small settlement. A lorry stacked high with six enormous teak logs was parked 100 yards up the track. We sauntered up to the driver, who was already revving up the engine preparing for the last leg of the journey to the coast. Boukou detained him, just long enough so we could see the bulging bags piled up behind his seat. Some fur and flesh poked through the bags and buzzing flies filled the cab. What we were witnessing was the rampant and illegal trade in bushmeat, a scourge wherever there is logging.
Nearby were a couple of pepper soup ladies, their Mother Hubbard dresses flowing from their ample hips. At their feet were cauldrons of meat stew: porcupine, chimpanzee, monkey, babbon and civet. Inside the shack workers were bolting down their lunch. The desecration takes two forms: as vital food for the thousands of loggers because there are no cereal crops available; and as a cynically commercial enterprise to provide luxury dishes for posh restaurants in Yaoundé and Europe.
"This is where our traditional life is going," said Boukou, as we returned to his village. His family greeted us, running across the compound waving clusters of dates they'd gathered. "My children's children will not be interested in the forest," he said. "This is the beginning of the end."
We ate antelope in honey with eru, washed down with palm oil. As I fell asleep in the guest room - a mud hut dotted with beds of deep, dried grass - the sounds of the forest slipped through the walls: whirring crickets, screaming hornbills and croaking frogs. Somehow it seemed right that the jungle was keeping me awake.
Major Travel (020-7393 1070; majortravel.co.uk) has return flights from Heathrow to Yaoundé via Paris from £677
1. Mount Cameroon
WHAT TO SEE: Climb the tallest mountain in West Africa which, at 4,095m, is comparable with the Alps. It is also the second wettest place on earth. The trek through its unique biodiversity of farmland, montane forest, savannah, lava flows and rock is arduous and takes two to three days. Start from Buea, where you can book your guide.
CONTACT: Cameroon Tourist Board
(00 237 233 219).
2. Yaoundé Market
WHAT TO SEE In most markets there will be carcasses of anything that moves, many of the animals threatened species. An average flight from West Africa to London has an estimated 550lb of bushmeat on board. The region yields up to five million tons a year.
CONTACT Open daily. Born Free Foundation campaigns against the practice (01403 240170; bornfree.org.uk).
WHAT TO SEE The golden sands stretch 50 miles south to the Equatorial Guinea border. Chill out on your own balcony beneath the palms while watching 24/7 beach football. Get up early and wait for the boats to land before haggling for the freshest of fish to cook in your apartment.
CONTACT Stay at the Auberge du Phare (00 237 346 11 06).
WHAT TO SEE Spend the day at Berudep apiary, a cooperative in the north-west that trains local farmers in beekeeping. Help build a hive with local tools and materials and learn about the nutritional and medicinal benefits of honey. Eat some honeycomb and buy beeswax candles.
CONTACT Berudep apiary (00 237 760 1407; berudep.org).
WHAT TO SEE Trek with a French-speaking Baka pygmy guide through the equatorial rainforest to see both the traditional arts of collecting honey and seeds and subsistence hunting and new skills in horticulture and animal husbandry. Have a meal with the guide's family in their village.
CONTACT Organise a trip into the Reserve du Dja through the Auberge du Raphia, Lomié.
6. Animal rescue
WHAT TO SEE Take time to see Cameroon's most important wildlife rescue centre. The orphans of animals slaughtered for bushmeat and unwanted pets are taken there to be looked after. You can see baboons, chimps, apes, monkeys, drill, civets, pottos, parrots and kites before they are returned to the wild.
CONTACT Limbé Wildlife Centre (00 237 99 82 503; limbewildlife.org).
WHAT TO SEE This is where the naturalist Gerald Durrell stayed in the 1950s, gathering material for his book "The Bafut Beagles". One of his real-life characters, Peter Shu, is alive and well, and opens up his huge collection of venomous and rare snakes to visitors.
CONTACT Savanna Botanical Gardens, Bafut (00 237 36 38 70).
WHAT TO SEE Head north-east to the Bouba Ndjida National Park, the best place to spot wildlife. Elephant, giraffe, hippo, buffalo, lion and leopard are common and if you're lucky the extremely rare black rhino and Derby eland will show up.
CONTACT Stay at the Transcam Hotel, Ngaoundéré, (00 237 225 13 32), where you can hire a car and book a guide.
WHAT TO SEE They say Cameroon, with its diverse landscape, is Africa in miniature, and that applies to birds too, with 900 species on offer, including the exotic-sounding mountain babbler, Bannerman's turaco and banded wattle-eye.
CONTACT Bristol-based Wild Wings (0117-9658 333; wildwings.co.uk) can arrange a tour.
10. Twin lakes
WHAT TO SEE Take a day trek to Man Lake (green water) and Woman Lake (blue), inside the massive caldera of the volcanic Manengouba Mountain deep in the rainforest. Start from Bangem, home to the hospitable Bakossi people.
CONTACT Stay at the local government guesthouse on the edge of Bangem.
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