In our surveys we recorded human presence, such as snares and farmland in addition to any feeding or nesting signs of Chimpanzees or Gorillas. We saw several Chimp nests of various ages, but usually old ones, but no Gorilla nests. In Bechati forest there were more snares than the next forest we surveyed, and seemingly less nests. We also found shells of bullets in the forest and even one snare that had captured and killed an unwitting Porcupine. Wherever possible the data we collected was also recorded on a hand held GPS, sometimes the forest was too thick to allow it and we couldn't get satellite signal. Whether I'll my new skill of GPS use again I don't know, but as people who know me will testify to I have an appalling sense of direction (I blame supermarkets, if I was a nomadic gatherer my latent memory would be fantastic, memorizing the locations of all my food sources, but no, all food comes from the same place and big blue and red letters mark its location), so if I buy myself a hand held GPS it may come in useful the next time I get lost in a festival camp site, although I very much hope I'll have the opportunity to use one in a more rewarding conservation orientated setting.
As frustrating as it was falling all over the place, getting bitten by ants and smelling like a tramps armpit, it was in pursuit of conservation, and it also gave the guys something to laugh at. Which they did. Perhaps a bit too much. Despite my lack of agility and inability to balance I really enjoyed the hiking part of camp life, as the weeks went by I gradually grew less of a fan of the food part of camp life. I could usually tolerate the tomatoey fishyness, but the beans we had for breakfast had tiny little shrimps in, with beady eyes staring up at me. I didn't love that, although I could tolerate it washed down with my daily mug of ovaltine. I also didn't love 'gary' (probably not spelt like the name, but I don't really know how else to spell it) which is yellow mushy stuff made from cassava. We had similar cassava stuff which was white and I could handle that, but the yellow stuff did not make me happy. We eventually learnt that you aren't supposed to chew it, which didn't really help me as its presence in my mouth with or without chewing made me wretch, your meant to roll it in a ball, dip in in sauce and swallow it whole. I dreaded gary days, after forcing myself to eat what I could I relished my 'Foster Clarkes Cola Squash' – heaven in a sachet.
Another unpleasant food-related incident involved a close friend of ours, Charles the crab. We stumbled upon Charles, a large red land crab, on the way back to camp and Jacob brought him back. When we got back from our shower in the stream we saw a suspiciously bubbling pot and no sign of Charles. We didn't see any crab in dinner thankfully, but later learned that, as I had predicted, Charles became a tasty snack for Jacob, RSG and Francis. We did find a few tasty (non-meaty) morsels in the forest though, we saw wild peppers, tried Monkey fruit and a few other fruits and saw a leaf called 'Aero' (again, going on the spelling being the same as for the bubbly chocolate bar, somehow I doubt its accurate), which is considered a delicacy that we got to try with cassava (fortunately the white one) on returning to the moderate civilisation of the guest house in Bechati.
Edwin, James, Sarah and Rebecca arrived in Bechati shortly after us and we traded war stories, I definitely felt that they had a rougher deal than us, with a six hour walk to get to camp and then seven hours trekking a day, we had a comparatively easy ride, but I'm pretty sure that was due to the lack of faith the guys had in us, which in view of our performance was probably reasonable.
That night we went for a night on the town, or at least one of the many huts that doubles as a pub. We ran into the guys that helped us with the bags and a very drunk Jacob, who had clearly spent his wages on booze as he had a bit of a barney with the head of the forestry committee (not a good move)! In his argument we heard him speak more (but it was mainly just 'shut up') than we had over the week we spent with him in the forest. The night got more eventful when both Naomi and Lindsey were effectively proposed to and had to give out fake emails to get rid of their persistent suitors. Another older gentleman had been giving Rebecca and Naomi a lot of attention since the previous week, we met him at the meeting with the Fon and he took a liking to the two of them. We christened him 'Banana man' as he brought them each bananas (and sometimes even stretched to a coconut!) almost every morning that we were in Bechati. Although he didn't take such a liking to me, he did ask me if I was from Saudi Arabia? Which is probably one of the strangest questions that I have been asked sincerely. Banana man also showed us his oranges. Which were at that time Greens, he said we could have some if we wanted though, but by that time our collection of fruit was pretty extensive after we'd given the kids paper and pens to draw with and a football they kept turning up with more and more bananas, which were a dream come true for breakfast after a week of shrimpy beans.
We were meant to leave at 8am sharp on the morning after our night out. We were up, but as predicted it did not happen. We left at around noon, the walk which Francis predicted would take around five hours took nearer to seven and it was up a very big hill and in very heavy rain. We were going up to the village at the top of the mountain (at about 1800m) to stay with Thomas who was the father of one of the staff members at ERuDeF. After the long hike in the most torrential rain we had yet to experience in Cameroon, Lindsey admitted to being close to death (death stage 3 I think it was by then), which was not helped when Alain (who was helping with the bags) told her 'not long now, just one more small hill'. An hour and a half and eleven fairly large hills later we were still walking. Alain had gone ahead, dropped off the bags and had already passed us on his way back down!
I don't think I've ever experienced such hospitality as we did at Thomas' house. We were given beans and mashed potato when we arrived, an hour later second dinner of more potatoes was served. Thomas had said to Francis that he 'didn't know how to cook without meat' on hearing that I was a vegetarian, but he did a good job! Lindsey and Naomi got their protein fix as well after being handed some spicy dried meat. They were told simply, 'bush meat' on asking what it was, so it could have been anything. Bush meat is just that. Meat from the bush, in the past endangered primates have been taken for the bush meat trade which has produced yet another threat to their existence, these days its much more likely to be squirrel or porcupine as hunters know how much trouble they'll be in if they get caught with any body part of an endangered primate.
The next morning the potato theme continued, but this time we had chips! It was a dream come true when the ketchup came out! I must admit that after we left Thomas' I never wanted to see another potato again in my life and was very happy to go back to good old rice.
The next day (after a lie in and our chip breakfast!), we went for a brief wander to the shop while we waited for Thomas to return from his farm at the bottom of the mountain, our wander wasn't overly successful as the shop was closed and we got stuck in mud in a fairly extreme way!
When Thomas did come back he took us to a waterfall which covers the mouth of a bat cave. Its a sacred place and so we needed Thomas, who was one of the village notables, to take us there and do a blessing which involved scattering salt on the floor. It was incredible though, big brown fruit bats everywhere just diving around this huge waterfall, it was exactly like those clichéd films where there's a secret cave behind a waterfall, only it wasn't very secret, the bats pouring out of the cave mouth in their thousands pretty much gave the location away.
After the bat cave and a really long game of Ludo I began to feel a bit dodgy, so did Naomi and we both had a fever that night, fortunately it had gone down by the morning, but I was freaking out anyway after finding out the antimalarials I had been told would be fine turned out to be useless in Cameroon according to various local sources. Not only were my antimalarials supposedly useless they'd also been giving me the weirdest dreams, including one when I was a rally driver but gave it up to go and save a beached Whale and another where I went deaf and had my ears syringed by Dr Who as portrayed by the actor David Tennant.
Naomi was still feeling ill the next day, but she decided she was okay to walk the three hours to the market, and it was three more hours of uphill to 2300m. This trip was the first time we experienced motorcycle taxis, Francis managed to get one to take Naomi half the way. Thomas said she should go first and and I should go last as: 'this one has power', referring to me and my apparently powerful legs, I'm not complaining, a compliments a compliment! The motorcycle taxi came back and took Lindsey and I together, which was an experience... These death rides were thankfully few and far between, on this occasion Lindsey and I only had a short way to go and only had to get off once because of thick mud. Naomi didn't fare so well and fell off the bike into the mud when it got too deep. The next time we took a motorcycle taxi was on the way back to the field office in Menji at the next field site. Naomi and I were sandwiched between the driver and one of the big rucksacks strapped to the back of the bike. Consequently, we were wedged in, which meant that we didn't go very far when the bike toppled over in more mud, it also meant that we were half under the bike and totally stuck. When we did eventually freed ourselves we walked down the the rest of the muddy part. It was amazing to watch the locals throw themselves on these rickety bikes, with huge amounts of bags on the bag and often a baby or two on their lap, I on the other hand held on for dear life and prayed to get back in one piece.
The market in Nkgole was pretty busy, by that time we were used to being stared at but we even got people pointing at us there. I had some yams for lunch, another new food, but one that tasted an awful lot like potato. We also tried Adam fruit (again, probably incorrect spelling) which was kind of like a bitter tomato which you suck the inside out of.
In the evening we had the fresh veg Francis had bought at the market for dinner, we tried a vegetable called 'Garden egg' and we also had avocado. We thought this was dinner anyway, but about an hour later out came second dinner of potatoes, plantains, beans and veg.
The next day I was not feeling good and I had to trek back down the mountain, feeling like I was going to puke every step, this time it was me that came a stage closer to death.
Back in Bechati we continued our kids club of football and drawing (even stretching to making paper planes when we ran out of pens). We went to visit the Fon to update him on our findings but he wasn't in and neither was Confidences' father, although his wives were in and we were supplied with more cassava and sauce (which was quite tasty but rather worryingly the texture of human saliva). The next day Ken and Edwin were back with the pick-up, we said goodbye to our entourage of kiddies and were on our way, three hours of bad road later we made it to Menji and experienced our first actual toilet and toilet paper in three weeks. We also went to an internet cafe and a bar which had Smirnoff Ice as well as beer. We also went to support Edwin in his football match, faithfully wearing the villa shirt that James had bequeathed him before he left the previous week, it was clearly lucky as Edwin's team won 4-2.
The next village was an hours driving then forty-five minutes walk from Menji, for the first night we stayed at the Fons' palace and had another, slightly less intimidating community meeting (although it clearly wasn't a total success as the beers were once again brought out), the others sampled bushmeat again, and found out what it actually was this time; Pangolin. I've never seen a living Pangolin so it disheartened me a little to see its scaly skin floating in tomato sauce, I stuck to my plain rice with mayonnaise, which was a pretty weird gastronomic experience in itself, but most definitely preferable to endemic wildlife that most closely resembles an Armadillo, acts like an Anteater but is actually more closely related to cats, dogs and bears.
The next day we left for the next site which took us four hours to get to. The first whole day back in the field was a moderate failure in that we didn't actually go anywhere. After arriving at the camp site it rained for a solid twenty hours. We were soaked, Linsdey had the lurgy (perhaps from the suspicious Pangolin...) and none of us (including the boys) had the motivation to leave the moderate dryness of the tent. So we monged and played gin rummy all day. I did feel guilty, like I was neglecting the Gorillas and also that I was missing out on all the forest based fun, although the next days trekking was pretty grim, Lindsey was still feeling poorly and in addition had what we thought was cellulitis in her arm which had swelled up to about twice its normal size, my knees were suffering too, they hadn't been right since going down the hill from Thomas' house, so we were back by around two, the guys from the village who came with us to the forest had even less faith than RSG and Jacob, and they seemed to enjoy inducing our suffering for their amusement even more. They were also less sympathetic towards our clumsiness and near death experiences, James, the 'new Jacob' told us that 'if we wanted to die, die in silence', which was a little creepy and I'm pretty sure it was the only words I heard him say. The third and final day was somewhat more successful, although the day got off to a bad start when Lindsey popped a blister only to realise that it was not in fact a blister but a cluster of insects which, as larvae had burrowed under her skin. Despite the initial setbacks we saw a lot of fresh Chimp nests and heard the Chimps vocalise from about a kilometre away, we also saw Chimpanzee feeding signs and signs of tree damage induced by forest Elephants!
We had to leave early on the day of our departure so we could get back to Menji by the evening, unfortunately our tent packing was delayed. I had packed my bag and was waiting under the shelter for the others so we could take the tent down, when I heard the normal insect alarm of 'OH MY GOD'. Lindsey told me there was a huge spider in the tent so, thinking she was exaggerating as people normally do with spiders I went to investigate and save the poor beastie from impending doom by squashing. To be honest I don't think any amount of squashing would have defeated this one. It had a huge furry body the size of a Russian Hamster and with the legs it was about the size of a cereal bowl. It could also move, not like most big Tarantula-ey type things which plod about nice and slowly and non-threateningly, nope this thing was speedy and darted into the tent when I went over to look at it. I had never seen Lindsey and Naomi move so quick. Even the boys had buggered off, so the task fell to me, spider removal officer. I did the normal cup trick, how it fitted in the cup I don't know but I got it out after it had launched itself at me a few times. A piece of paper wouldn't support its weight so I had to use a book to release it back into the jungle, not before Lindsey got photographic evidence though.
Francis and Edwin had done most of the cooking up until that week, so back in Menji we decided to take our turn. Edwin and Francis had never experienced the joys of pizza, so we faced adversity full on a made pizza with no oven and no cheese other than 'La vache qui rit' (Laughing cow). Our makeshift oven was a pan with dirt in it and we used pan lids as baking trays, we even made the dough from scratch, and to be honest, it was pretty damn good pizza and even better cold the next day. Edwin and Francis liked it anyway, Edwin even declared that he was going to start a pizzeria in Buea when we gave him our recipe! Although next time I think I'll leave out the peppers (which although they looked like small bell peppers actually turned out to be very hot chilli's), although they tasted pretty good cutting them up made my hands burn for the next forty-eight hours.
We stopped off in Dschang on the way back to Buea and did the touristy thing, buying wooden things and tribal hats, etc. We even saw a couple of other tourists, Lindsey stood open mouthed pointing at the first white people other than ourselves we had seen in a month. Naomi and I hid around the corner in embarrassment. We also experienced a culinary treat in Dschang. A man with a sandwich cart on his head selling the greatest salad baguette I have ever experienced. We liked them so much we had three each, he did put this weird pink liquid (which looked like washing up liquid) in them, we decided it was best not to ask what it was as it might ruin the experience, but later found out it was vinegar. I think that will be the first and last time I ever see magenta vingear.
Back in Buea we were loving the luxury of a shower (even if it only trickled water) and a toilet that flushed. After doing a bit of a run down of our findings and some background reading we spent our final day in Limbe, where we visited the world renowned Limbe Wildlife Centre. The Gorillas were the first things we saw, but they had such an amazing range of Primates! Including Mona Monkeys (which moved around with a lot more energy than poor old Papi!), Putty-Nosed Monkeys, Drills, Mandrills and loads more! After the Wildlife Centre we went down to the sea front and took photos in the rain! And got harassed by a crazy man asking us if we knew Kung Fu. All in a day in Cameroon.
That evening we went clubbing Cameroon style, Naomi, Lindsey, Me, Ken, Barry, Edwin and Francis. In the club, power cuts are frequent because of the electricity surge, which at least gave be a brief break from the non-stop dancing. I am not a good dancer, and my style of dancing pretty much involves moving my weight from foot to foot, swaying my arms about and looking at the floor. I felt about as out of place as Germaine Greer at a Salt n' Peppa concert in that club, hippies really don't grind. However, despite my discomfort it was one of the best nights out I've experienced! I was slightly concerned as Ken was somewhat wasted and supposed to be driving me to the airport in about 4 hours time. There aren't obviously any drink driving rules in Cameroon and to be honest I think Ken is usually a bit tipsy when he drives anywhere. I needn't have worried though, because it was the fact that they were forty-five minutes late picking me up that caused the problems. I was all for leaving at three, but they said four would be fine. By the time everyone turned up I had an hour and twenty minutes until the boarding gates closed. Douala is an hour away when there's no traffic and no police stops. The traffic was not a problem, at least until Douala, but the police pulled us over twice, fortunately Ken sweet talked them into not searching the car and I made it with minutes to spare. I really thought I would miss my flight and started making a contingency plan of how I could get home with no money. I eventually found the place to pay my departure tax and said a quick goodbye to the gang who'd all come to wave me off. I was just going through immigration and sending Edwin a text optimistically saying goodbye to everyone when the real problems started. There was a small group of passport control officials gathered around looking at my passport, so I asked if there was a problem, only to hear the words that no-one wants to hear and I certainly didn't expect to 'your visa has expired'.
Cue major panic mode. Douala's french speaking and I don't think they understood me very well, but what had happened is the embassy had issued my visa for the wrong dates and my visa was not even valid when I entered the country, never mind when I was trying to leave. However no-one told me my visa was expired on entering, as if they had I could have easily gone to the embassy and got it renewed. Instead I was now being told that I would be unable leave the country and would have to get my visa renewed on Monday. Now I was really having a meltdown, I don't think I've had a panic attack since I was fourteen and my pet rabbit died, but now I was full on panicking. I had no money for another plane ticket, I doubted the insurance company would cover me for stupid screw ups which were partially my fault either. I didn't have any cash to bribe the officials with so I just sat on the floor and cried. This seemed to have a desirable effect, the passport control guys clearly were uncomfortable with the scene I was making and said I could leave. And so I learnt the hard way that, if you find yourself an illegal immigrant in Central Africa, a panic attack can only really help you. Saying that, in future, if I'm ever allowed back into Cameroon, I'm not going to apply for my visa through the post.