Cameroon: A rain-drenched wilderness

Mount Cameroon, at 4,095 metres, is so high that planes have to turn left and make a wide sweep around the summit before coming into land at Douala airport.

Mount Cameroon, at 4,095 metres, is so high that planes have to turn left and make a wide sweep around the summit before coming into land at Douala airport. As we dropped down to the Atlantic and the Cameroon coast, a pale yellow sun just had time to pick out the spooky shape of the summit before clouds and dusk raced in to cover its African modesty.

It was the only time in a week that Central Africa's highest peak peeped through the banks of billowing grey cloud that girdled it. Strange, because this was the dry season but here, in the second wettest place on Earth (Cherrapunji in India is the wettest) ­ the west of the mountain gets 10 metres of rain a year ­ dry means, well, wet. Basically, the Atlantic hits this massive wall of rock and just drops its load.

My base was the little resort of Limbé, a sort of Brighton for the middle-classes of Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital, and Douala, its second biggest city. This is tourism almost exclusively for the locals; only a handful of Westerners visit.

I checked into the King William Square Hotel (yes, this was once another red patch on the British Empire map). Loud hollering was coming from the lounge, where men huddled round a television. They were watching the Cup Final between Kumbo Strikers and Unisport de Bafang.

Kumbo had just scored. I threw my bags down and watched the end of the game. " Mauvais, terrible," said Emmanuel, sitting next to me. " Voulez-vous une bière?"

In colonial terms Limbé, known as Victoria until 1983, was an oddity. It was a Christian community, founded, owned and even administered by the London Baptist Missionary Society who in 1858 were on the run after being thrown off the nearby island of Bioko. It quickly became a refuge for freed slaves; its rulers, at various times, were immigrants from Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

It wasn't long before British and German traders turned up ­ but the Baptists still held political sway. At least they did until German missionaries grabbed power and annexed the little town for the Kaiser. Only at the end of the Second World War did it fall again into British hands before becoming independent in 1960.

One of the things the Germans did was to establish Limbé Botanic Garden, "the finest garden between Cape Town and Cairo", according to one botanist. They set it up as a kind of research station for plants with medicinal properties. To this day, the garden is the world centre for collecting the bark of the prunus africana tree, the best curative for prostate cancer.

The volcanic Mount Cameroon area was identified at a recent international environmental conference as one of 20 top conservation sites in the world. This wet and wonderful wilderness is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, with around 3,000 plant species. In Africa, only the Cape has more variety. Botanists have found 42 species that grow only on Mount Cameroon. For wildlife lovers, this is the ultimate undiscovered natural treasure.

In the garden the feeling of fecundity was so strong you could almost hear the palm trees growing. Some trees had trunks whose roots seemed to start above the ground. I'm sure a botanist could have explained why, but I preferred not to know. The River Limbé tumbled over stones overhung with lianas, cooling the air as it jockeyed down to the sea. Kingfishers shot like blue bullets from behind rocks and dragonflies flirted in the hot air.

The orchid house would have to wait. The humidity on the ground was intense. I was soaked through and needed a drink. In the Hot Spot restaurant I worked my way through jugs of the local mineral water. Beneath the balcony, the Atlantic lapped at the chocolate sands where boys shimmied and swerved, emulating the silky skills of the former Cameroon World Cup star, Roger Millar.

"Hello. I show you lava, black beaches, market. Come."

A man in his early twenties wearing a big smile and a Manchester United shirt held out his hand in the traditional Cameroonian greeting.

"How much?"

"In my car, 10,000CFA. No problem. My name is Guy."

"OK," I said. "Let's go," having agreed to a fare of around £10 ­ the Francophone African franc is worth just a French centime.

We climbed into his battered Toyota and sped out of town. The Tarmac became a dirt track. Red dust flew up behind us. Pedestrians flashed by ­ elegant women in red, gold and green wrappers and head-dresses, shoeless children in dirty red shorts hitting a can with a stick over and over again. Suddenly Guy screeched to a halt. An uneven, brown wall of rock barred our way.

A postcard-seller leapt off his camper stool and came scuttling over. "You want tour of lava, not dangerous. Very nice. Pictures." He held out a stack of soggy, curled-up postcards, their colour washed out, all showing exactly the same scene: last year's eruption of Mt Cameroon.

What we had encountered was the end of the lava flow that covered the road and stopped just yards from the sea. We skirted the end of it and carried on to Mile 11 beach and the Seme New Beach Resort. Here, in this luxury hideaway, were the first Western scenes I had encountered since arriving: well-fed people lolling on sunbeds, a pool with attentive waiters in immaculate white coats proffering gin and tonics. But these guests were black, the nouveau riche of Yaoundé on a winter's break. Guy sniffed. "Bloody French. More francs than sense," he said.

To be strictly honest, they were Francophone Cameroonians, who represent the majority in the country. Only here, in this little north-westerly corner were the people English-speaking, or rather pidgin English-speaking. Historically, the people of Limbé have presented a voice of resentful opposition to the ruling classes of Yaoundé, who tend to look upon this region as an unimportant colonial outpost.

"You have bushmeat with me? You meet the pepper soup ladies."

At Batoke we entered a wooden shack where three large women in Mother Hubbard dresses were bending over steaming pots. They shook my hands warmly and Jacqueline Ngassa, the leader of the cooks' union, asked me to look at "the kitchen". The cooking was done in another shack at the back of the yard. I looked into the dim interior where a boy was turning something with a long spindly tail over a smoky fire. "That's a mono monkey," she said. "You see this? This tag means this monkey is part of the hunter's quota and it's okay for me to buy it." Back in the restaurant I was offered a choice of porcupine, duike (antelope) or civet (cat-like carnivore), but I declined.

Animals such as chimpanzee, drill (West African baboon), forest elephant and bushbuck are under severe threat from hunters, and the tagging scheme ­ the first of its kind in Africa ­ is an attempt to stem the destruction. The pressure on the rainforest and its resources from the huge numbers of migrants working on the nearby oil palm and rubber estates of the Cameroon Development Corporation has grown alarmingly. Bush meat is cheap.

Jacqueline showed us her snail farm. An environmentalist working with the charity VSO had introduced the mollusc so that the local people had an alternative form of nutrition. I declined smoked snail too.

Later I bumped into Jill, the British volunteer, at the Atlantic Beach Hotel, where she caught me tucking into a plate of barbecued shrimps, fried plantain and eru, the spinach-like forest vine. She was with Phil, who was in the region training for next year's Guinness mountain marathon. This gruelling 37km event to the mountaintop, instituted by the brewery but now under the aegis of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, attracts 350 runners and 50,000 spectators on the last weekend in January. It is commonly acknowledged to be one of the world's toughest sporting events.

Being a tourist in Cameroon is not that tough, but it can be challenging. Real life ­ which usually means poverty ­ pours on to the streets, unfiltered. You're sucked into other people's hardships, and their joys.

Not so long ago Cameroon was dubbed the most corrupt country in the world. I don't know about that. But my trip was turning into a stark lesson about gritty ways of surviving, as remote from the Gambian beaches, the cosseted game parks of Tanzania or the wine estates of South Africa as it was possible to be.

I climbed with 15 others into a sweltering minibus and headed inland. It seemed right that my last afternoon should be spent with Thomas, a farmer eking out a living from the honey that his wild, angry bees produced on the hillsides above Limbé. We walked deep into the forest, where toucans and hornbills screeched our arrival. One by one he showed me the hives, giving me an affectionate character description of each swarm. And I came away with Christmas presents of honeycombs and beeswax candles.

The next day, as I flew home past Mount Cameroon, the clouds prevailed as ever. Somewhere down there in the gloom was the raw peak, the dripping rainforest and the straight-talking people of Limbé. For all the steepness of my week's learning curve, I had hardly begun to understand.

Getting There

There are no direct flights between the UK and Cameroon. The easiest connections are on Air France via Paris, from several UK airports. Air France connects at Paris Charles de Gaulle for Douala (one hour's drive from Limbé), and Yaoundé, (six hours' drive). Through a discount travel agent such as Brightways Travel (020-8621 8888), you can expect to pay around £675 return for travel until 21 June. Alternatively, fly with Swissair via Zurich to Yaoundé; through Bridge the World (020-7911 0900) for around £654.

Red Tape

British passport-holders need a visa to visit Cameroon, which costs £39.22 and is available from the Cameroon High Commission, 84 Holland Park, London W11 (020-7727 0771).

Accommodation

The King William Square Hotel costs from £14 a night. The Atlantic Beach Hotel costs from £16 a night.

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