04 November 2014

The Wild West (of Cameroon), Part 3: In the Hall of the Mountain King

When I reflect on Fongum, Edvard Grieg's classic seems like a fitting soundtrack (alas, the music I had stuck in my head at the time was a different soundtrack). I was heading somewhere I had never even heard of, and I was truly plunging into an unfamiliar realm. From Buea, we caught an overnight bus to the famous mountain city of Bamenda, and then we caught a bush taxi to the remote village of Wum. There, we booked a hotel room for the night and went to the town square for African barbeque (which was amazingly similar to Jamaican jerk from rural western Jamaica). While there, the young moto taxi drivers stared me over. I was not given the same warm welcome I had received so far in Cameroon. Their eyes were piercing, staring past me, and I overhead them mention comments to each other that all white men are the same; they are nothing but monsters who came to these same hills to enslave, murder, and plunder; and that I should be "cast in the gutter" before it was too late. Thankfully, the men with whom I ate did not feel this way, and beneath my carefree facade, I watched the young men casting me vengeful looks quite carefully.

That night, I laid completely exhausted in my bed. Weeks of being harassed for being white were beginning to wear on me, and I pushed the thoughts out of my head long enough to catch some sleep.

The next morning I met my final moto taxi driver for the trip: Pascal. A sharp young man, Pascal knew the roads of the region well, but he informed us that getting to Fongum was not easy. We loaded up and headed out. After my regular passport checks at the military roadblocks, I took in the scenery of this new region. High above the lowland forests I had scoured the rest of my time in Cameroon, the North-west was dominated by grasslands interspersed with forested hills. 

Northern Grassfields

The hills near Fongum Village, Cameroon. The farmer in the lower left guided us to Ndzim Falls (read further and I'll explain!).

This region, one of the most densely populated in Cameroon, is noticeably drier and cooler that the southern slopes. Farms dominated the landscape, and flocks of Red-cheeked Cordonbleu flushed from the road ahead of me. The drive chain flew off the motorcycle at one point, and I took the opportunity to watch the birds in this agrarian area. Yellow Bishop and Yellow-shouldered Widow distracted me from the fact that I was stranded on the side of the road with Moses, and after about an hour or so, the fixed moto taxis returned and we continued onward. We climbed high over the ridges of Wum and dropped down to a remote bush market for lunch where I ate fufu and bitter greens (the main staple in this part of the country). We continued up, and eventually we came to the crest of a large hill. Here, above the rest of the grassy hills lay the Fongum, the center of the Kingdom of Fongum. We parked in the courtyard of the palace and entered slowly. In the center of the room, the Fon (a.k.a. King) sat, and he welcomed us to talk to him. After he showed us the Fongum Forest Reserve across the valley, he agreed to let us stay and allowed us to explore the region. We hiked to the creek that first morning. I had a surprising encounter with a Black Bee-eater and enjoyed the numerous Klaas's Cuckoos singing around me. My guide, I learned halfway through the hike, was not only a carpenter and farmer, but also the Prince Validus of Fongum. As I sweated uncontrollably, he laughed and adjusted his thick black coat, saying that the heat no longer bothered him. Besides, it was cold during the night and in the rains. Upon returning to the palace, I returned my gear and talked to the Fon. He described to me that the village in which I sat was once the crown jewel of the region. It was there, in that very village, that the Germans first came to forge peace with the local populace. Having witnessed the destruction of the villages to the south that resisted their advance, the Fon at the time agreed to a treaty with the Germans and accepted their gift: a jug of what I presumed to be wine (I was shown the jug, center in the Fon's court and prized among his possessions). When the Germans left Cameroon, the British moved into the area, and that is when Fongums troubles started. What was once the seat of the region was slowly replaced by the more accessible Wum to the south, and Fongum Village waned. Though still the seat of the Kingdom, it's recognition had decreased, and the Fon was extremely happy that we had come to visit. That night, I was one of the Fon's guests of honor, and I ate a delicious dish made from a goat they had killed for the special occasion. The Fon watched us, as he was forbidden to eat in front of others, and the village council got to know us better. As we warmed up to each other, the villagers voiced how happy they were I was there, and I reciprocated the feeling. Of all the nights I have spent in Africa, this was, perhaps, the best night I have ever spent there.

The next morning, Validus and I hiked towards Ndzim Falls. Birding was brief and very fast paced as we were worried about the afternoon rains. At the edge of town, I was able to get some photographs of the more common local birds.

Apus affinis

Little Swift (Apus affinis) in Fongum Village. Note: African swifts can be tricky, so if anyone has any comments about this bird, they are welcome.

Ploceus cucullatus cucullatus

Village Weaver in Fongum Village, Cameroon. This is a male displaying his nest to nearby females.

Ploceus nigerrimus nigerrimus

Vieillot's Black Weaver, Fongum Village, Cameroon.

From here, Validus and I met an elderly farmer who was heading down into the valley to tend to his crops. He happily agreed to show us the way. Honestly, I had trouble keeping up with him; he was extremely sure footed. Having navigated the slick terrain his whole life, he was much more adept at maneuvering than I was. Along the way, Splendid Sunbirds and five different species of Cisticola made themselves known, and three species of Chrysococcyx cuckoo (African Emerald, Diderik and Klaas's) were all singing in the trees. It was a beautiful day, and before mid-day, we finally arrived at the base of the falls. After negotiating the rough terrain a bit and dealing with some surprisingly ferocious ants, we were at the base of Ndzim Falls.

Ndzim Falls

Ndzim Falls, North-west, Cameroon.

Validus and I basked in the mist of the falls for quite some time, talking about life and enjoying the cool air near the water. Validus commented that the island on which we stood in the middle of the turbid waters was a place at which he would not mind spending his whole day relaxing. I wholeheartedly agreed, but before too long, we were back off towards the village. As we neared its outskirts at the top of the hill, we were hit by a massive rainstorm, and the rains continued for quite some time. After switching into dry clothes, I visited the Fon, and numerous villagers came to talk to him. They furtively glanced at me as they spoke in hushed yet aggravated tones, and they left after the Fon replied to them solemnly. Once we were alone, the Fon turned to me and informed me that they were all there because of what I had done. By going to the waterfall, many of the villagers believed I was to blame for the torrential rains, and they were not happy that I had done so. I was confused until the Fon elucidated further: I was the first white man to ever visit the falls. According to him, in all of history, I am the only white man to ever venture into that part of Africa. Because of that, the villagers believed the rains came. I was thankful the Fon set the record straight, and at the same time, I mulled over the fact that I was being blamed for the storms.

The next morning, we bid our farewells to the villagers. The Fon summoned Validus, who was carrying a chicken. They handed me the chicken. The Fon told me to take it home to feed my family and to let the chicken serve as a reminder of the time I had spent in his Kingdom (the chicken was forced to stay in Buea unfortunately, as I could not bring it to the USA). They told me to come back soon, and after a few minutes, we were off. The whole ride out I stared upon the fields with a whole new perspective. I no longer felt that this land was foreign. Something in Fongum had made me feel like I could belong, and I wondered when I would ever be able to return. As the hills faded behind me, as I transferred from moto taxi to bush taxi to city taxi to overnight bus, I could not get the images of the village out of my head. I came to one conclusion: one day, I will return to the hills north of Wum and visit the Kingdom of Fongum once more.

My last few days in Cameroon were spent in Buea. For two days, I rested, recovered, and gathered my notes. Mount Cameroon hid inside its rainy shroud. Before I knew it, I was on my way to the airport. At the airport I was hassled for being a tourist even more, and, after all of the required government fees were paid, I had less than ten US dollars left in my pockets. I sat in the waiting room for a long time, soaking in the experiences and trying to make sense of it all. And then - in a flash - I was back in Kansas, back with my friends, and preparing for a new semester. But part of my heart is still in Africa, and I know that I'll be back before long.

Meeting the Fon of Fongum

From left to right: Me, the Fon of Fongum, the Queen of Fongum and Sainge Moses in front of the Fon's Palace in Fongum village.

27 October 2014

The Wild West (of Cameroon), Part 2: The Muddiest Road

I stared at the blurry image on Dr. Town Peterson's screen. Zooming in more made the image even more globular, and even less discernable. We joked around as stared at these low quality images, and began talking about what was hidden in the green: a mountain range. Specifically, a low-lying ridge known as the Rumpi Hills. Most famous for their anomalous Southern Hyliota record, the Rumpi Hills are a seldom explored region to the north of Mount Cameroon. My interest sufficiently piqued by Town, I agreed to visit this area myself.

Several months later, I walked out of the rain in Korup National Park. I went back to my hotel room, hung my clothes to "dry", and prepared for a visit to this mountain ecosystem. The next morning, we crammed into a bush taxi, and went to the crossroads of Ekombe. Here, Moses ventured off to negotiate our transport as I watched raw cacao being brought in from the plantations. I sighed as passers-by stared at me and speculated as to what I was doing sitting on the side of the road in this remote place. After negotiating transport, we returned to Kumba, ate lunch with Moses' family, and awaited the arrival of our moto taxis. After several hours of listening to a nearby Diderik Cuckoo and watching the Northern Grey-headed Sparrows search my backpack for food, our moto taxis arrived. We crammed on, and began the even longer trip towards Dikome-Balue. The first stretch of our trip was one of the hardest. Being as tall as I am, I was not designed to ride on a small motorcycle, let alone ride on one with two backpacks and two Cameroonians while carrying three dozen eggs. And before you ask: yes, some of the eggs broke, and yes, the broke on me. After renegotiating our cargo, I boarded my moto taxi belonging to a man my age named "Neutral". Neutral was a native of Dikome-Balue, and highly recommended as a moto-taxi driver. His moniker was derived from his habit of coasting down mountains with his motorcycle off to save fuel. I braced myself for the long road ahead. After being checked for my visa and passport at the bottom of the road, we began the long (and painful) journey of riding into the mountains. The roads, slick and bogged down with mud, were treacherous and hard to navigate. Luckily for me, Neutral was a master of navigating the terrain. Even in areas with mud up to a foot deep, he drove with ease, using his feet to balance us as necessary. The rains abated as we climbed, and for this we were eternally thankful. We stopped halfway along the way for a soda, and continued climbing. It was at this time that I realized how remote I really was. Everyone shouted hello to me, and everyone called me the exact same name: "White Man".

Moto-taxis

Our caravan working the Dikome-Balue road. Photo by Sainge Nsanyi Moses; used with permission.

Wet Season Road

The road could be a little muddy at times. Photo by Sainge Nsanyi Moses; used with permission.

Despite the overall friendliness of most of the inhabitants, we were promptly flagged down by a military police convoy. The leader came over, giving me a stern look, and demanded to see my passport and visa. I provided him with my documentation as he questioned my motives and what I was doing in such a remote place. After some talking, he became distracted by our guides on the motorcycle behind us, and (thankfully) let us go without much more harassment. Arriving in the town, I immediately noticed a large group of men sitting at the spot where we were dropped off. I correctly inferred that these men were the city council, and situated myself among them. After some talking, the man I was sitting next to revealed that he was actually the chief of Dikome-Balue, and that the reason for the gathering was that they had been called and informed that some people - one of them white - were coming to visit. As this is not a common occurrence, they had to be sure of our intentions in the region. Moses informed them of our research and our backgrounds, and we received their permission to explore the region, and they arranged guides for us in the morning.

The next morning was incredible.

Mt. Rata

The Dikome-Balue Hotel with Mt. Rata in the background. We climbed that mountain later.

Besides the incredible views of the highest mountain in the Rumpi Hills (Mount Rata), the parking lot of the hotel possessed a very surprising bird: a pair of Cameroon Pipits! After hiking into town (and enjoying the local birdlife) we met our guides and started the long hike up Mount Rata. To say the hike was steep was an understatement. The vertical slope was easily 300% in some areas, and I was slipping the entire way up (and down). My body ached as we climbed through a steep burn area, but reaching the top was worth it. The saddles at the mountain's peak possessed incredible birds such as Western Tinkerbird, Mountain Sooty Boubou and White-bellied Crested-Flycatcher, and a brief window in the clouds gave us an interesting view of Dikome-Balue village.

Dikome-Balue Village

Dikome-Balue village as seen from Mount Rata, South-west, Cameroon.

We continued up the peak, along a thin knife-edge until we final reached the mountain's peak. Although the visibility was not very good, it was still quite an accomplishment. A pillar from the original German explorers to the region was still in place on the mountains peak, and a pair of Grey Apalis kept us company as we recovered from the climb.

Mt. Rata Summit

Tired but successful, our group stand around the German pillar at Mount Rata's summit. (I'm on the far left; Sainge Moses is center and our bird guide Joseph is second from the right).

From here, we began the equally long (and possibly more treacherous) hike down, and reached the bottom as the rains once again began to poor.

The next day, we went to the village early, and Joseph and I got a ride about 8 kilometers down the road to walk back towards town and see what birds we could find. As we walked along the road through Dikome-Balue pass, we bisected lush montane forest and listened and watched the incredible diversity around us. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day, and the birdlife reflected that.

Dikome-Balue Pass

Dikome-Balue Pass, South-west, Cameroon.

Almost immediately after starting our day, we came across a massive colony of Vieillot's Black Weaver on the edge of town. Continuing on, we had a singing Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo up the slope from us, and a nice comparison of it towards nearby African Emerald Cuckoo and Black Cuckoo. A Crowned Hawk-Eagle circled over the road briefly, Scaled Francolin called from their hidden spots and Yellow-breasted Boubous called from the treetops. A lone Crossley's Ground-Thrush sang in the distance, and a family of Banded Prinias frolicked in the roadside brush. Walking along the road allowed us to flush Mountain Wagtails ahead of us, and an army ant swarm serendipitous possessed a Woodhouse's Antpecker. In all, we had 54 species before retreating back towards the lower elevations of Kumba in the afternoon.

From Kumba, we returned wearily to Buea, and prepared for our last field site to visit: the northern locality of Fongum.

24 October 2014

Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative: Support Wanted!

Last fall, my colleagues Jared Wolfe and Luke Powell met me in Germany. We gathered our gear, headed towards our terminal and watched the Carrion Crows flying past. We were on our way to Equatorial Guinea, and had no idea what to expect.

Equatorial Guinea has one of the least studied avifaunas on the planet. Though work has been done Bioko, the mainland is woefully undersampled, and offers exciting research opportunities. We traveled across the island, saw giant sea turtles, and even traveled through a forest where Gorillas still roam.

And now, we are headed back, and we need your help. In order to better document the effects of development on the region's birdlife, we are surveying the remote southeastern reaches of Rio Muni. We are then going to attempt to reach some of the more isolated insular regions in the country to better document the country's rare endemic species.

Please take a moment to watch our video on our Kickstarter Site, and help us protect this unique region.

Thanks! Jacob, on behalf of the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative