3.20.2014

5 Day Hike in the Heart of the Congo River Basin Rainforest

Kid on a Pirogue with a Dead Otter
I’m still here, I promise! Wow, where to begin!? Spencer and I have jumped between the furthest reaches and climatic variants of Cameroon. From the chilly, mountainous highlands of the Northwest, to the waterfall-spotted beaches of Kribi (where I had an unfortunate case of being the victim of theft but which nonetheless did nothing to spoil the beauty of the beach), to the humid rainforests of the East, and tomorrow, to the hot, dry deserts of the North – yippie! It’s been a crazy month but it has been amazing and will only continue to be filled with laughter, fun, and adventure.

Spencer and I just got back from our sojourn in Lomié, which thankfully got power back so smoothies were enjoyed on every possible occasion. We didn’t spend much time in Lomié itself - just long enough to eat chicken and fried plantains at Plaza (whose night club burned down while I was at IST – c’est domage!), to eat some of the best carp and grilled baton in country, and to enjoy home-cooked chili, black bean burgers, smoothies, and my secret popcorn recipe while chilling with my cats who have been far too neglected (Cameroonians apparently thought my cats could live off bread alone while I was at IST…I’m thankful they aren’t dead).

After Kribi, Spencer had the wonderful opportunity to experience the hell that is the road to Lomié. We went from Yaoundé to Abong Mbang no problem, but ended up spending 5 hours waiting for a bus to Lomié, which then took an additional 6 hours to get to Lomié due to getting stuck in the mud, general poor road conditions, and an endless caravan of logging trucks. On top of it all, the entire bus was filled with the rowdiest bunch of Easterners alive, who apparently were attempting to make it a party bus. When the bus got stuck in the mud, Spencer chipped in like a champ and helped push the bus out of the mud pit in which we were trapped. After the bus was pushed out, it zoomed off about 1.5 km and we were left to walk in the pitch darkness under the stars to wherever the bus sped off to. Spencer said he underestimated the horrid road conditions, but he stuck it out. He said that the roads won’t prevent him from visiting again, but they will make him feel like a “bad ass” every time he visits. I’m glad I have a post that gives everyone “bad ass” street cred.

Hiking - Day 1

After spending a day recovering in Lomié, Spencer and I packed yet again and headed off in a bush taxi for the village of Medjoh, about 45 km and 2 hours from Lomié, to begin our 5 day hike into the Dja Rainforest. On the way we had the pleasure of watching several Cameroonians buy live baby pangolins, whom they held by the tail and whacked on the ground repeatedly until they curled up in a ball. I cried into Spencer's shoulders as the Cameroonians laughed at my concern for animals. We were dumped street side in Medjoh without a clue where to go or who to meet. We walked down the street and were pointed in the direction of the end of town where we met Bossis, the man who would be our piroguier (canoe rower) for our trip. Bossis led us into his nice house and introduced us to our Baka pygmy guide, whose name was too long for me to remember. We sat and waited…then waited…and hey, we waited a few hours more while we watched our Baka guide pound down countless sachets of alcohol. It doesn’t need to be 5:00 anywhere for the Bakas to drink.
 
Bossis in the back, then Maturain, then Kopo (Oh, Kopo!) and Spencer

Finally at 1 pm, Maturain, our MINFOF Ecoguard, showed up ready to get us into the rainforest. Spencer and I gathered our things and began walking out of town behind Maturain, Bossis, our Baka guide, and Kopo, our Baka guide’s 12-year-old younger brother in tow carrying our carton of eggs. As we walked out of Medjoh, a village fou wielding not one, but two machetes and a knife chased us and our guides. He screamed about following us into the forest and killing us. He kept yelling about his intent to murder us as he slashed his machetes back and forth menacingly. After a few minutes of ignoring him and holding back laughs, the crazy village fou ran up and slammed his machete into the sack that Kopo was carrying on his back. Poor Kopo! After a minor scuffle, Spencer and I picked up our pace and continued to laugh at the craziness of the situation. The crazy man was finally shooed away and we continued with our trek. After about 30 minutes of walking roadside, we finally turned off into the nearby farms.

We walked through the various manioc farms for about 15 minutes and then took a break so that the Bakas could collect manioc because, as Maturain explained to us, there are four things the Baka love in this world: alcohol, smoking, the forest, and manioc. As we waited for Kopo to collect manioc, the older Baka guide sang songs at the top of his lungs as he smoked some mystery substance. After a few minutes, the guide started laughing so hard he fell over into the underbrush of the forest, in which he rolled around laughing for the next 10 minutes while playing dangerously with his hatchet.

When Kopo returned laden with manioc, the older Baka gathered himself, got up from the thicket (still covered in leaves and twigs) and continued leading us past the farms and into the forest all the while stumbling about drunkenly and singing at the top of his lungs. After an hour we finally passed the entrance point of the Dja Reserve, and one hour after that we arrived at the Dja river which we would take to our campsite.
 
Poor Crock...

On the way to the Dja river we passed a few poachers, one of whom carried a live crocodile that we got to touch. The poor thing was probably dinner a few hours later! We also passed many other Baka hunters and farmers who followed in our trail for some time, all the while giving more smoking substances to our Baka guide who couldn’t have been happier. We arrived at the Dja river and Bossis and Kopo set out to search for 2 pirogues we could take to our campsite. While Spencer and I waited, munched on peanuts, and lamented our lack of water, our Baka guide smoked and started joyously hacking at some trees with his hatchet.

Finally Kopo and Bossis arrived with two pirogues.  We piled our belongings in the pirogues which are made from hallowed out trees. The boats sank dangerously close to the water and appeared close to capsizing. When Spencer and I climbed in, the boat sank even further and I started to panic and think of how I might die in this boat. Spencer was able to convince me after several minutes that I would not be dying in a pirogue that day, and with that, we set off for our campsite. 

As the sun set, we rowed through the thick forest on the very slow Dja river, which ends up falling into Lake Victoria in the DRC. Exotic birds flew over us and made noises that sounded prehistoric. While there were no monkey sightings along the river as promised, it was no letdown for bird watching. 
 
Pirogue-ing

We arrived at our campsite, which had a small little hut for the guides to sleep in, and we set up our tent. Our dinner of fish, peanut sauce and rice was put on the fire and we waited as our stomachs growled and our mouths were parched. As we waited, Maturain rushed us into the forest and out of the clearing. He pointed up in the trees and whispered "monkeys!". Sadly, I was too busy tripping and stumbling over weeds to catch a glimpse, but Spencer saw them! After a few minutes we returned to camp and waited for our food. We gorged ourselves with all the food we could eat since it had been over 12 hours since we ate. We still had nothing to drink and had to command the guards to boil river water for us to drink in the morning. Spencer and I headed to bed to avoid the mosquitoes. As we laid there, I heard Spencer groan and mumble 'Oh no...' and rush out of the tent. For the next 10 minutes, Spencer puked up his guts as I tried to calm him down and get him freshly boiled river water to re-hydrate him. Needless to say, that experience ruined peanut sauce and rice for him for the next couple days, but thankfully he was better by morning! We headed back to the tent for night one of four sleepless nights on the very hard, cold, and rocky forest floor.

Boating - Day 2

Pirogue Naps
We woke up a bit later than anticipated on day 2 as a result of the night's puking incident. Maturain made us a very large omelet with fresh coffee before we headed back down to our pirogues. We boarded the canoes and rolled down the Dja river for the next two hours. The experience was insanely tranquil. We reminded ourselves that we are likely the only foreigners to have boated on this section of the Dja over the last half century, which is a pretty crazy thought! There were still no monkey sightings along the river (and thankfully no hungry crocodile sightings), but again there were many beautiful birds and lots of natural beauty. Spencer, still not feeling in tip-top shape, reclined throughout the whole ride as I did what I do best: take endless pictures.

After two hours of boating we pulled up to a fishing spot and walked a bit inland to find about 7 villagers using various fishing methods in the muddy ground. Some people were busy pumping water into little ponds to look for carp, others constructed dams with fish-catching baskets, and others caught fish by chopping them from above with a machete. We watched the process take place for a while and saw the life cycle of the carp that we so often love to eat. The fishermen gifted us about 20 fresh carp and we headed on our way to camp, not far down the river. We arrived at the camp, which was already occupied by all the fisherman, so we continued a bit further and ended up at another quaint little camp with another small fishing hut. We set up our tents, enjoyed lunch, and we reclined in my hammock and read until the hottest part of the day past. 
 
Fishing

At about 3 pm Maturain said we were going on a hike to look for a good monkey watching spot. I was prepared for a 30 minute hike, especially since we again had no water. Oh boy, no, I was quite wrong. We hiked for 1 hour on a trail-less path among extremely thorny branches, random holes in the ground covered by freshly fallen leaves, muddy pits and wide streams. After an hour of struggling, we finally arrived at our monkey watching spot. Our drunken Baka guide passed out among the trees and Spencer and I found comfortable spots among the tree trunks and waited...and waited...and waited for an hour. No monkeys. Maturain hissed at the Baka guide and asked him if he knew how to call monkeys. "Yes, of course", the Baka said. "Well call them!" Maturain exclaimed. "No," Baka guide said flatly. Looks like luck wasn't on our side. 
 
Camp Day 2 (We Had a Tent - The Guides Had the House)

After an hour of bad luck, I woke Spencer up from his nap among the leaves on the rainforest floor and we began our long hike back. Nearly back at camp, our Baka guide put his hand up in the air signaling us to halt. We waited and Maturain said he sensed a snake. No snakes in sight though, thank goodness! We continued not too far before the Baka guide halted us again, but this time pointing to the trees. Then I heard it, the sound of monkeys playing, fighting, and communicating. We waited with our heads craned upwards towards the tree tops. After what seemed like forever, I finally saw the monkeys, but this time, Spencer wasn't as lucky. Nonetheless, it was our second monkey sighting of our two days. We also had the fortune of finding a tree that produces fresh, clean, cold water when you cut its vines – so Spencer and I indulged given the fact it had been hours since our last sip of water.

When we arrived at camp my legs were scratched, bloodied, and my body was covered in bug bites. We ate our dinner of fresh carp in tomato sauce and retired to our tent for me to get my butt-whipped by Spencer in various card games before heading to bed. This was night two of four sleepless nights on the very hard, cold, and rocky forest floor.

I'm Not in Civilization Anymore - Day 3

Day 3 was rough...really rough. While the other days had been split nicely between hiking and lounging on a pirogue, day 3 was all hiking - and not just any hiking, this was hiking among the dense primary forest with no clear path and with endless thorny trees waiting to rip my arms and legs open. After breakfast I strapped on our 25 pound backpack and we headed along the same route we took the day before. After an hour we passed our 'monkey watching' spot from the previous night and we continued another hour further until we finally reached a stream. At this point, my legs were covered in blood, I had fallen into a tree with 3 inch thorns spaced 1 inch apart which pierced 4 large holes into my hand, and had twisted my ankle countless times. As I hobbled about with the backpack squishing me, we decided to set up camp alongside the small creek. We unpacked, set up camp, played some card games in the tent as we waited for the heat to subside, cleaned off our bloody bodies and boiled some river water to drink.


We didn't anticipate hiking further given that our bodies were near the point of collapsing and surrendering to death (or at least mine was, I'm not sure about Spencer) - but sure enough, Maturain peaked his head in our tent and asked "Ready to go hiking?!" I cursed him under my breath but didn't say no because I didn't want to give up the chance of seeing monkeys. We walked 1 hour into an even denser part of the rainforest. We got caught all up in mud puddles and ponds and we became bloodied and filthy again in no time flat. The Baka guide held his hand up at one point and made us listen - and there it was, the sound of chimps banging their chests. We sat and listened for some time, amazed at the sheer volume of the chest banging. We continued a bit further and sat among the trees. After another 30 minutes of no monkey sightings, we almost gave up hope, but then Bossis pointed to far trees that were moving. As we waited, sure enough, monkeys drew nearer. Two troops of monkeys in fact! They jumped from tree to tree and ate and played around with the other monkeys. Spencer and I watched with our heads bent high. We watched the monkeys for the next 30 minutes before they moved on and so did we. On the way back Maturain found me a beautiful large royal blue tail feather of the Bannerman's Turaco.

The night was spent again eating fish in peanut sauce (much to Spencer's displeasure). During dinner we all heard Kopo accidentally fall into the steam, this coming not long after he tripped and broke half our carton of eggs. The series of incidents did nothing to help Kopo's reputation of being clumsy. The rest of the evening was spent getting beaten once again by Spencer at various card games until we (or at least I) spent the third sleepless night on the only slightly more padded rainforest floor.

Are We There Yet? - Day 4

My ankle barely had time to heal before we had to turn from our new campsite and return to day 1's campsite. We hiked back through the impossibly far stretch of forest we did the day before only to get further scratched, bloodied, and bruised. Bossis explained that we wouldn't be camping at our favorite campsite (camp 2) because the water was getting lower on the river and if we waited another day, the river would be impassable due to debris; therefore, we needed to boat back to camp 1 that night. We got in the pirogues and relaxed as they took us the two hours back to campsite 1. Along the way the river was definitely harder to pass, not only because we were going upstream, but also because bamboo branches became lodged across the river due to the falling river level. While we spotted no monkeys, we did spot an adorable (but dead) otter in a pirogue manned by a small little boy.

We arrived back at campsite 1, made dinner, relaxed in the hammock once more, and got the worst night sleep yet given our tents position on a rock-filled slope during a heavy thunderstorm.
 
Kopo and Maturain

Le Retour – Day 5

And so it came to a close. We woke up to a breakfast of a mushroom sauté from freshly picked mushrooms that the Baka guide had foraged the day before (they were non-poisonous and non-hallucinogenic, might I add). While on day 1 we took a pirogue for 30 minutes from a trail near Medjoh to the campsite, on day 5 we instead walked what we had canoed five days previously. For an hour we again stumbled our way through pretty dense primary forest until our Baka guide halted us again and pointed us to the trees for what would be our last monkey sighting. There they were, small little monkeys jumping from tree to tree! While I got no pictures of them, you’ll have to believe me, they were pretty cute.

We continued walking, thinking that we weren’t too far from Medjoh – but wrong we were! It would be another 2.5 hours of hiking before we reached the road to Medjoh. When we arrived, Spencer and I let out a sigh of relief – sunlight! No biting horseflies!  We said our goodbyes to our guides, had one more laugh at the expense of Kopo and his clumsiness, and hitchhiked our way back to Lomié. While we lucked out finding a car in which we each had our own seat, the driver was adamant about not opening the windows. On a 100 degree day, that car came near boiling point and the driver was going at a pace of about 15 km per hour, making the trip back to Lomié take about 3.5 hours. When Spencer and I arrived in Lomié, we collapsed out of the car drenched not only in buckets of sweat but also 5 days of forest dirt and grime. We headed back to my place, showered, and felt like humans again. We went over to Plaza so Spencer could enjoy chicken. While I ordered fish on account of there only being one plate of chicken left, I ended up with more than I bargained for – not with your regular old fish like bass or carp – but with what was either crocodile or barracuda. We joked about the last curve ball Lomié was throwing at us.

Overall the camping and hiking trip was amazing. While we were a bit disappointed not to have seen gorillas and elephants like we were promised, we nonetheless saw many monkeys and had the opportunity to go around 25 km into the rainforest and boat up the Dja – all of which are experiences that few people will have the opportunity to do. Not only did I get to do all that, but I got to experience it all with Spencer – the only person I could’ve imagined doing such a trip with. Now that the rainforest is under our belt, we are off to the North for nothing short of a polar opposite experience when compared to Lomié. 

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