In January I had to head down to the capitol for my medical Mid-Service conference. This involved something of a scavenger-hunt of a checklist of people to meet with, cups to poop in, “best practices” presentations to give and watch, and a lot of walking back and forth between the Peace Corps offices and the hotel where Volunteers were staying since the transit house was being packed up to move to a new location. There was also a dental appointment in there that somehow involved my face getting much wetter than could possibly be necessary.
That’s long over, though, and I am happy to report that at the end of the week I was given a clean bill of health. Due to some scheduling changes, I also ended the week with another awkward week before my friend Kristin would be coming from the US, and I would need to meet up with her at the airport in Yaoundé. Traveling back to my post is expensive and takes multiple days in each direction, so what to do with that week? Go see a new region, of course!
My friend and former region mate, Grant, lives in Lomié, in the East Region, right next to Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. I had been planning to visit him at his original post next to the Faro Reserve in the North when his post was closed after that French family got kidnapped about a year ago. Now he’s working with a new national park, in a different biome, and much farther away from my town, but I’ve finally managed to pay him a visit! Another Volunteer, Shannon, and her boyfriend, Kevin, both of whom live and work in Cameroon’s North West Region, also came along.
The first sign we had that the East was truly a horse of a different color came when we arrived in Abong-Mbang, where we would have to change buses. Northerners tend to be more reserved and laid back (and also more culturally conservative). When in Yaoundé, those of us who live in the northern regions tend to complain about how rude Southerners are, getting in your face, and especially calling out at white people and harassing women (“Le blanc! La blanche! Ma cherie!”). People in Abong-Mbang, take it to a whole different level. We reached our new bus, paid, and claimed our seats, and then once the bus started to fill up, the first argument started. We were in a coaster bus, designed to seat 4 across, though usually forced to accommodate 5 adults across throughout Cameroon (children don’t count). This bus would be 6 to a row, or so the guy from the agency insisted. We yelled right back at him that there were already 5 in our row and there was simply no space. We eventually got our way (for the time being), and soon enough the agency guy who had been yelling at us was joking with Grant about how he was traveling with multiple women.
Our already packed bus did end up picking up another woman on the road who ended up in our row, but she seemed perfectly happy to sit in the lap of a Cameroonian man. The kicker though, was another man, who claimed he was a teacher and who had been drinking sachets of liquor from the time the bus had left. By half way through the dusty five hour ride, he was standing up in the moving bus, yelling at all the other passengers, giving a “lesson” in English, making fun of the Chinese, and occasionally taunting us white people. The Cameroonian passengers mostly just seemed entertained by his antics.
We eventually did make it to Lomié though, after a flat tire and being coated by a thick layer of red dust, around 9 at night (and this was dry season, so the road was in good shape). I bucket bathed twice before daring to touch the clean sheets of Grant’s guest bed.
The real point of our trip to the East, however, was the Dja Reserve itself. Grant has been working with the delegation for the Ministry of Forestry in Lomié to help set up an ecotourism program to for visitors to go into the reserve. We were to be the first group of the season, and as such were a bit of a test run for the program.
So on our first full day in Lomié, the four of us headed over to the local MINFOF delegation to discuss the arrangements for our trip – how long it would be, where we would go, and how much it would all cost. The prices actually only worked out to about $70 per person for a three day trip, and Grant would be going for free. I don’t know if there was a miscalculation involved, but all-in-all, definitely a good deal.
On the first day of our trip, we showed up at the MINFOF office around 8 a.m., as directed… and then actually set out around 10. L’heure africaine. We were hiking into the Dja from Lomié itself, so we followed our guide from MINFOF, through the middle of town, and then through farm land and several Baka encampments before actually entering the reserve a couple of hours later. The terrain changed a lot during this time: from the town, to obviously cultivated farmland, to parts of the forest that clearly had been cleared at some point and now sported thick underbrush, to the rainforest itself, with tall trees and dappled lighting that seldom reached to forest floor. By the time that we were actually in the forest, the temperatures weren’t actually too hot, thanks to the copious amounts of shade, but we were still sweating buckets from the exertion of the hike, even with a trail to follow. With the humidity of the rainforest, my clothes wouldn’t be dry again for the three days of the trip.
When we set up camp on the first day, we had only actually been hiking about 4 hours total, but I know I was ready to call it a day. Hiking through rainforest is a bit more challenging than hiking a well-cleared path, and I was also feeling pretty dehydrated. I finished off the rest of the 2 ½ liters of water I had been carrying as soon as we stopped. Grant handed out pieces of the dark chocolate that he had brought, and that actually made me feel better almost instantly. Our guide and eco-guard cleared a campsite by machete a little ways off the trail and next to a stream, and then got a fire going and the food cooking as Grant, Shannon, Kevin, and I set up our two tents. We were all ravenous by the time we had our early dinner of rice with tomato sauce, sardines, and a few veggies mixed in. After dinner, we played cards while stream water boiled on the fire for us to drink.
Day two began with omelets, bread, and Nescafé, followed by breaking camp and putting our packs back on our backs. We hiked farther into the forest for about an hour, before hiding our bags a little ways off the path and continuing on a bit without them to weigh us down. Our goal at this point was to hopefully see some wild animals, since this was the day we would be the farthest into the rainforest and away from civilization. We tried to stay as silent as possible while making our way through the forest, and eventually, our guide told us to hold up. He could hear monkeys up in the trees ahead of us! We started inching slowly along the trail, trying to keep our noise to a minimum to avoid scaring them off, and staring up into the trees to try to catch a glimpse. Shannon and Grant ended up following our Baka guide off the trail a ways, while Kevin and I hung back with the eco-guard and eventually were able to see the monkeys from the trail. Sure enough, there were little orange animals leaping from tree to tree up in the canopy. Unfortunately, they were too far away and moving too quickly for pictures.
After our monkey sighting, we eventually managed to regroup, and then decided we were ready to hike back the couple of hours to where we had stashed our bags so that we could set up camp. That evening, our guide and eco-guard again cleared a campsite for us a little bit off the trail and near a stream for water.
This time, however, the location they chose was not far enough back from the trail to not be visible from it. Between that evening and the next morning when we broke camp, we actually ended up seeing 8 poachers in 4 groups of 1 to 3. Of course they weren’t volunteering the information of their status as poachers, but it is actually illegal to enter the Dja Reserve without paying for an entry permit and the services of a guide and eco-guard.
The eco-guards’ role as a part of the Cameroonian government is that of something between soldiers and park rangers who are charged with protecting Cameroon’s reserves. Those who go into the Faro Reserve in the North are usually armed with guns, since the Nigerian poachers they often come across mean serious business and violence between the two groups had been escalating by the time Grant was evacuated from his old post for other reasons. On our first day in the Dja we had actually asked our eco-guard why he was not carrying a gun, and he had replied (in French, of course), that his first weapon was his mouth.
So with each time that poachers came by our camp, the eco-guard talked to them in the local language while we mostly just sat by awkwardly conversing amongst ourselves. All the poachers were clearly Baka who were most likely hunting bush meat to sell and feed their families rather than killing elephants to sell ivory on the black market. The eco-guard obviously didn’t have the man-power by himself to arrest anyone, especially considering the possible risks that would end up posing to the rest of us, so it was mostly just an uncomfortable situation to see illegal activity blatantly taking place while he was unable to perform his job protecting the reserve. In the morning before we broke camp, one group of poachers even gave the eco-guard part of a carcass of a smaller antelope-like animal, presumably in an attempt to bribe him for his silence.
That final day in the Dja was mostly just hiking back the way we came to get back to Lomié. Of course we were all tired by this point, and the excitement of heading back to town had more to do with the prospect of being able to bathe, put on clean clothes, and eat a good meal of chicken and fried plantains rather than potential monkey sightings. On our way back, however, we also stopped to rest in one of the Baka encampments outside the reserve but still about an hour from town, and then found ourselves sitting and drinking palm wine with the Baka for about an hour while we passed around the last of the peanuts we’d brought with us.
We did eventually make it back to Lomié, a little later than we had originally anticipated, and all separately wrote out at least a page evaluating the experience and offering suggestions regarding things like what might make the program more appealing to other tourists (find a way to provide water that isn’t collected from a stream and boiled, provide a somewhat more substantial lunch, etc.) and possible programs to discourage poaching in the forest, both to protect threatened species and so that it is more likely that animals can be seen.
And that night I slept amazingly well.