Last two days in Cameroon

Please note: We made it home safely on 6/28, and are recapping our last two days of our journey.

Our guide took us to a botanical/floral export plantation, where they grow huge fields of Heleconia, Alpinia, and other tropical plant material for floral arrangements, mostly exported to Europe. An interesting plant crop was the breastberry, Solanum mammosum. It has a unique yellow fruit that would look striking in a floral arrangement.

Breastberry

Cut Heleconia

Off in the distance, beyond the Heleconia fields, were large rows of bananas. They use plastic bags to cover the fruit and keep pests away.

Heleconia fields

Changing gears, we prepared to see one of the most impressive waterfalls in Africa, Ekom Nkam Falls. This was the film location for Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan which came out in the 80s. It’s impossible to describe the grandeur of these falls, absolutely breathtaking. Since this is the “big rain” season in Cameroon, both sides of the waterfall were flowing; during the “little rain” season, only the right side flows. We hiked from the observation point down to a lower point where the water vapor rises up and covers the plants with a thick layer of mud and beads of water. We took note of some of the plant material growing in these wet areas, we look forward to identifying some of them.

Ekom Nkam falls

We drove through the littoral mountain range, closer to the Atlantic Ocean shoreline. Buea, a small college town situated at a higher elevation near Mount Cameroon, was difficult to drive through as mist settled in, creating a white curtain. We couldn’t even see the peak of the mountain, which is over 4,000km above sea level. In 1999, Mount Cameroon erupted, sending lava flowing through the nearby towns and into the ocean. As we drove, we saw evidence of this – large volcanic boulders, main roads destroyed, whole clearings where trees once stood. We made it to Limbé, a port town along the shore. The beaches here are black sands, made up of mostly volcanic rock. A lot of the rocks on the shore are embedded with a beautiful yellow gem, perhaps peridot.

On our last morning in Cameroon, we went to Limbé Botanical Garden, one of the most prominent botanic gardens in Africa. The garden was founded in 1892 as an agricultural research station for the Germans. They experimented growing many types of tropical crops to help determine how to agriculturally develop their colony. Later it came under British control and grew into a world class botanical garden.

Limbe BG

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We had made arrangements to meet with the curator, Litonga Ndive Elias. His guided tour was indispensable as we would have never received as much information as we did looking around on our own. He told us about some of the work they have done with Kew Gardens studying the Korup forest along the Nigerian border and even offered to mail us seeds of plants we were interested in. Walking through the medicinal plant collection was excellent, and we even picked up a book that discussed the medicinal plants at the garden. The garden has an issue with local people coming into the garden at night and removing bark from their tree collection for personal medicinal use. They don’t have a great system for deterring people from doing so, but had some efforts to protect the trunks on some of their trees.

Another newer but nice feature was the collection of valuable timber trees from Central Africa. While the trees there were only about 30 years old, you could see how they would be a benefit to the garden in years to come. They were planted as an allée along a main path. My favorite part of the tour was the kola nut collection, I had no idea how many different species were used and was excited to see mature trees of the nut I had tried only days before. A few other points of interest included their orchid house, which had many Darwin orchids blooming, as well as their beautiful African Borrassus palms among their palm collection. At the end of the tour, we asked our guide to hopefully ID some of the plant photos we had taken throughout our trip which were unknown to us. He was able to get about half of them from off the top of his head.

As a last stop before heading to the airport, we went into town and walked along the shore where fishermen were bringing in their catch to the waiting masses. We walked along one of the beaches through the big fish market. Here, large wooden boats pull up after being out in the sea for a week or a month, unloading their buckets of fish to sell right on the shore. People crowded around as bucket after bucket were carried in. We had a fish (freshly caught!) and chip lunch and loaded into the car for the drive to Douala.

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Limbe beach

One common site as we left Limbé was mile after mile of palm oil plantations. We saw trucks full of palm fruit clusters. This is certainly a significant crop in Cameroon, as we learned from all of the food we ate on the trip (almost everything is cooked with palm oil), as well as reading about its significance as an exported product.

Palm oil crops

Once arriving in Douala we drove around briefly looking at a few sites but it was rush hour and we opted to head right to the airport and headed home. What an amazing trip full of unique, immersive experiences! We look forward to sharing more with everyone and putting everything we learned into the next Tropical Forest exhibit.

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The Royal Family of Keleng

In the evening, we had arranged to stay with the royal family at Keleng palace. The king and his family oversee part of the surrounding Bamileke tribe. The language barrier was a bit difficult, but when we started to help prepare and cook dinner, it didn’t matter much. Ben and I cleaned and cut onions, helped cook potatoes in a pot over a fire, and helped prepare other dishes.

Cooking

Stirring potatoes

Mashing garlic

We noted their style of grinding garlic between a large flat stone and a smaller stone held in the hand, almost similar to a mortar and pestle but on a larger scale.

Mashing garlic II

We had food cooking in the outside kitchen over a fire, and more food cooking inside over a small gas range, and we had to run back and forth to stir and check on the dishes. It was really a treat to eat with the family after all of the cooking efforts. Dinner consisted of an avocado/onion/tomato salad to begin, potatoes stewed with meat, peanut sauce served over rice, carrots and green beans, and pineapple for dessert. We were so thankful to have such great hosts and for them to welcome us into their home to be a part of their daily routine.

The next morning, the family was preparing food for an upcoming celebration. Part of this preparation included slaughtering four chickens to be eaten, and Ben was handed a knife and asked by the king to help the children in the task. It’s common in their culture to raise animals for both sacrificial slaughtering and for food. The night before, we watched a video of a day-long celebration in which they slaughtered two goats, two pigs, and a chicken. It’s nice to know that the animals are being used to feed people at the celebration and none of it goes to waste.

The king took us around his compound and through his agricultural plots. He grows bananas, cassava, corn, avocadoes, yams, and herbs. We also noticed a small patch of stevia growing as well. We received a fond farewell from the king and his first wife, and off we went, continuing our journey west.

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Museums and Markets

In the morning we headed into the nearby town of Foumban and visited a cultural museum. It was also the home of the local king. The people in the region are known as the Bamun tribe and by all account of their artifacts was historically a very violent culture often going to war with neighboring tribes. Along with the masterful representation of bead work and wood carving were skulls fashioned into drinking cups and something that looked like a large rattle made with jaw bones , all “trophies” of victories on the battlefield. I really would have liked to photograph the artifacts but no photography was allowed inside.

Palace Museum

They had a known line of lineage dating back to the 1300s and one of the most famous kings had over 600 wives! He was also a great inventor, creating a machine to ground corn into flower and even creating a written language, something the Bamun had not had prior to him. He then went on to author many books. One of note was a two volume account of the Art of Love, with so many wives I’m sure he was an expert. While to a western eye this may seem strange, one thing Jordyn and I noticed that showed a great deal of forward thinking was his creation of retirement plans for his servants and army so if they worked well for him they would be cared for in their old age.

We then went on to a large market that had all different sections for textiles, produce, poultry, meats, and even pharmacy items. The textile section was interesting, our guide explained you could by some fabric then take it to a seamstress to have her make some “dresses” (clothes of any kind are called dresses). We chose not to participate in that activity because the antique pedal activated Singer sewing machines would have meant the day would have been spent waiting for its completion.

We then headed to the artisan quarter, with a main road lined with small shops. The first stop was at a metalsmith, and we were shown the small kiln in which the metal is worked.

Metalsmith

On to the woodcarvers, creating masks, reliefs, and small sculptures. It’s great to see original art being made right here, we definitely bought a few things for the display. We then stopped at a small monastery that grows and roasts its own coffee. Ben mentioned the coffee plants looked really well tended. They sell coffee beans that are pure Coffea arabica, and also a blend of arabica and robusta.

We continued to head west, leaving Koutaba and the Bamun region, and entering the Bamileke region, another strong tribe in this area. We made our way to Dschang, home to a large university and a young population. Here, we stopped at two ethnographic museums. The first was an actual compound of a king, and the main building was very large and dome-shaped with a thick grass roof. Large totemic poles lined the outside, with unique carvings on each.

King's Palace Museum

Totems

The second museum was much larger and had a more refined collection of artifacts, with interpretive signs in both English and French. It had a wide overview of the tribes in this region, and went back hundreds of years into the history of each, noting their architecture, traditions, and culture.

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Heading West

The next two days were spent driving back to Yaoundé, the capital, where we met up with our new driver/guide, Martial. We had a five hour drive from Yaoundé to Koutaba, heading to the west of the country. In the morning, as we were leaving, Martial called over a street vendor and had some tea that was made from the fever tree we learned about the day before. This herbal remedy is also widely used in cities for upset stomachs and other minor ailments. It was really great to see that the medicinal knowledge of the tribes is also used in more developed cities.

Medicinal tea

West Cameroon is known for its agriculture, and we passed field after field of crops, and noted even more crop rows on the surrounding hillsides.

Crop hills

We stopped along the road at a small market for lunch, and tried a new food that’s called a plum. It’s small, round, and purple, looking similar to the plum fruit we are familiar with in the U.S., but this tasted like an artichoke. It’s definitely savory, which I was not expecting.

Plums at the market

We had been noticing a really attractive tree along the road, many loaded with round, pink fruits, which is the color of the plum when it has yet to ripen. It was good to make the connection, and this tree is definitely something to look into further. On the way, I (Ben) tried the Kola nut found in most cola sodas for the first time. It was extremely bitter; it did pack a punch of caffeine but I might stick to the more palatable version found in the states.

Kola nut

We drove to Bapit Crater Lake, finishing the journey by motorbike for the last two miles as the roads were not easily traversed in a car. The crater lake was formed during a massive eruption long ago. The explosion must have been massive and would have sent ash and debris far into the atmosphere similar to the Mount Saint Helens eruption. After the eruption the volcano fell in on itself, closing off its opening and trapping any rain that falls within the caldera. The water was a lovely blue color and it was mostly a cloudy day which is not the best to view the color of the water. A fun activity was yelling into the crater and then hearing your echo as it reverberated from one cliff to another.

Bapit Crater Lake

Bapit Crater Lake II

We also tried some wild guava, simply called bush guava, which grows around the volcano. It had a nice texture with a sour lemony flavor that was actually quite good.

Bush guava

We then headed to our hotel in Koutaba that would be our home for the next two nights. The hotel had a lovely garden all around it. A tall slender fish tail palm caught my eye. It had massive fruiting bodies that were near a meter in length. Most of the plants in the garden were not native to the region; we even noticed golden rod growing in one of the beds.

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The Baka Community

Today we woke up early to head to Salapoumbé. First we talked to the chief of the town to arrange for a visit with a Baka tribe camp, about an hour hike into the forest. We were told we had to wait for a while so we walked around the town for a bit. We visited the town’s school, made up of small classrooms, with both French and English writing on the chalkboards. Of course, it is summer and the children were not around. We also looked around the town’s small flower garden, which was the first town garden we have seen so far, it’s not common in these small rural places.

We hiked into the Baka camp at the pace of the Baka men leading the way, which was almost at a jog, even while carrying provisions like salt and rice on their heads. We hardly had time to look around, we just had to keep moving and keep our eye on the tiny footpath so as to not get lost. It is Baka custom to paint their bodies using white clay for special occasions and celebrations, and when we arrived, everyone was painted in their own pattern. They were celebrating our arrival, singing a welcoming song, and were very happy to be our hosts! After a few minutes, noting that everyone else was painted, we also wanted to be painted too. We politely asked, in hand gestures, if we could be painted, and the chief grabbed some wet clay and painted designs on our arms and faces.

Chief

Jordyn with Baka kids

I think after this, the Baka got more comfortable having us around, and they started playing music and singing and dancing. Of course we joined in, throwing aside any inhibitions and just dancing for the sake of dancing. They formed a dance circle, and one person danced in the center then tapped the next person to dance. I think they were amused by our style of dancing, and tapped us every other turn to see more. They have such a unique way of dancing, shaking their hips really fast to the beat. To add to their dancing style, they often grabbed handfuls of fern fronds and other leaves and stuck them in the back of their pants or dress, almost resembling peacock feathers. They also have something they wear on their waist which holds cans filled with some stones, making a shaker when dancing.

We were amazed by this small community living in the forest, relying entirely on what the forest can provide. Their homes are small, dome-shaped huts with a structure made out of sticks which they hang large Calathea leaves on like shingles.

Baka Children

We set up our tents, which oddly resembled the dome shape of the huts, and started making dinner over a fire. A storm looked like it was rolling in, so they performed their traditional way of keeping rain away. They filled a bottle with water, stuck a hot pepper in the bottle, and put it near a fire. Later, we learned that it poured in Salapoumbé, but only drizzled at the Baka camp.

In the morning, the chief took us on a hike to look at medicinal plants they regularly use. The bark of many trees seemed to make up the most medicines. One called fever tree was used exactly as its name implies. The ground bark is applied in the nose for up to a day. Another tree was used in food as a substitute for onion. When the bark was scraped it had a strong onion odor.

Medicinal walk

We also learned of some spear hunting techniques and how to make a snare trap on small game trails, all very important skills for those who need the forest to survive. Baka and other tribes in the jungle regions of Central Africa have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years; it was a treat to spend time learning the ways that have sustained them. Once our hike was done we threw on our packs and started up the path. Just as we heard a song of hello when we arrived, a song of goodbye was serenading us as we headed up the hill to town. The walk back was not as fast and we had time to look more closely at some of the plants and small forest farms of plantains, cassava, and maize along the route.

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