*DAY 2* — BREATHING the LIGHTEST AIR of WESTERN AFRICA at 4090m — HIKING MT. CAMEROON
DAY 2→ 13th May 2016
Day 52 of ± 189
Sun not yet seeping into our consciousnesses, we slowly open closed eyes to greet a weak dark world and struggle to separate ourselves from the warm, cosy bubbles of our sleeping bags. Day 2’s early morning light gradually begins to arrive and creep consistently across the land, returning colour to the blank landscape, moving as water would, soaking into soft tissue paper. Warming sleepy bones in front of the morning fire, whilst eating dark pink jam smeared on bread, ripe bananas, and hot Lipton tea. Ready at 6:30am. Leave at 7:15am. The sun occasionally squeezes through thick, fluffy white clouds, bringing light to the pale blue sky and cool air, as we breathe heavily, battling to retrieve yesterday’s rhythm as we move to over 3000m altitude.
The latter is slowly starting to take effect, not negatively, but just on our speed and forward progress — a constant tug-of-war between brain and body, your brain knowing you can walk faster normally, but your body unable to keep up as the amount of available oxygen bubbles decrease, slowing your muscles’ respiration and making it feel as if your legs are carrying extra dead weight. The steadily increasing altitude forces you to walk more slowly and consistently, stopping you from rushing, no matter how quickly you want to get up that hill. For me, as someone who must do the hard parts as quickly as possible and get up the hills as fast as I can so that they are over and done with, this was a bit frustrating to get used to, when something beyond my control made me slow down, be more consistent and enjoy the ride.
Eventually we gained the last steps of elevation, after zizagging up and over uneven ground, shrinking shrubs, bushes and old volcanic moss and fern-covered rocks and stones, and moving around another scrawny, wonky tree, alone in the mountain wilderness, its roots searching for solidity between giant boulders.
Hut 3 continually seemed to never arrive, and kept disappearing over each new rise in the greater slope of Mt. Cameroon. Clouds began to descend, obscuring the surroundings in soft grey mists, blocking the light and lowering the temperature, a welcome relief on hot skin soaked in sweat. But as soon as the final hut before summit happily appeared, sheltered under thin white mist and between banks of dark volcanic rocks, we stopped and the sweat quickly dried cold and the layers were piled on again. Lunch was devoured early at around 10:30am — blue and purple fingers wrapped around salt-sprinkled ‘avo sarmies’ once again, bread and jam, bananas, biscuits and water. We sat still in physical tiredness, sheltered amongst aesthetically-pleasing graffitied walls at 3400m elevation, high above the stagnant humidity of the foreign world far below.
Reluctantly we head to the renewed cold outside, the wind blowing strong as the clouds roll deeper in. I want to move off fast, run, to warm up, but the altitude and waning bodily energies continue to restrict, and so the slow trudging persists. But, we are so close — less than 1000m left and the going ahead is gradient-forgiving. Even when the gently winding volcanic-black sand paths were level, we had to stop regularly to regain adequate oxygen, frustrating to do, the closer and closer to the summit we reach — a peak whose visibility continually slipped in and out of view due to descending swathes of cloud. The prevailing happiness within the physical exertion at this point is hard to explain. There is a strong feeling of freedom when continuing to move forward in the isolation of this quiet, clouded world, where not much grows and the way ahead holds secrets of new visuals at each new step up. It feels good to struggle. To push mental and physical boundaries to the next level of achievement and have relief from previous grounded weight.
Our surroundings are so entirely alien from the world below, devoid of the hot sun and vibrant green we’ve grown accustomed to. We round the second to last bend, 4090m at noon awaits mere metres up ahead — the highest peak in the West African world. The last layer in the upward scramble of Mt. Cameroon’s many layers — each new ebb and flow of its slopes revealing a different colour in each contour, blade of grass or texture of rock. Small, colourful piles of volcanic rocks litter the pathside as we reach the brow of the peak, each piece a different organic shade — slategrey black, clay red, beige-yellow cream, rusty iron red — with thin veins of black-blue lines threaded through. Crumbs of volcanic decay.
Elation remembered, everything else forgotten, we stepped onto the top and smiled in thrilled happiness, fuelled by one of the best adrenaline kicks in the world. The highest I’ve yet been still in contact with the ground — I couldn’t have felt more happy and satisfied as the intermittent rays of sun sneaked us temporary glimpses of the lands down below, before closing us in our light, spacey bubble — the weight of an overly oxygenated humid Earth distant, ground-remaining memories. You do literally feel ‘on top of the world’; on top of your world.
Entry by m-, *cough* uh hum, *Frazer on a arrival at the summit (who gifted our potential success with…chocolate.) →
“My life was saved by the delicious chocolate bar that Frazer, our fearless Leader gave us before we left..Thank goodness after the Lions attacked us I managed to distract them with my bar of Fruit and Nut and managed to make our escape into the Jungle where they could not follow.”
Thanks Frazie, the chocolate was worth it, but anyway, moving back to reality — a place where you can escape to and not be followed by lions…
Having now completed the Guinness Route up, we sadly left the short-lived ecstasy of the summit and made our way down the steep slopes of the Mansprings Route. A slithering slide of slate-grey volcanic scree that’s extremely fun to ‘jump-slide’ down with renewed energy after the previous slow gravity-defying lifting of tired thighs. Now gravity plays along, removing our heights of elevation at a disappointingly, yet exhilaratingly fast pace, as we run, jump and slip down the loose slope. The clouds, a patchy but steady grey, hovering and half-obscuring the sandy grass-coloured peaks of a wintery valley that fills our vision of the landscape below.
I’m reminded of well-known, familiar places. The misty, ragged, cold, bleak scenery of wild Cumbrian, Scottish or Welsh highlands. Yet, with a difference, an active volcanic difference. Mt. Cameroon’s old, aged and more current visual reminders of not long ago volcanic eruptions, spraying its slopes with a beautiful variance in stunning topography. Enriching the soil of its magnificent descent for many generations to come.
→ Mongo ma Ndemi (“Mountain of Greatness”)
Now the going is changing once again, from relatively flat pale-yellow sun-bleached grasses strewn haphazardly across crunchy volcanic soil, to a sea of dense flows of loose lava rocks, covered in little tufts of bleached grasses and green growth, short and stocky grey-haired trees — knarled and bare — and little thick-skinned plants, cactus-like. A plateau, moving us yet again into another place in space and time. An underwater world transferred to dry land — an ancient volcanic coral reef, filled with plants and rocks of previous potential underwater origin, however far removed from the impossibility of current sea level. It was a reminder, only. A privileged entry into a similar, but more accessible and breathable world.
Navigation through this continuous sea of slate-grey rock appears impossible, as no path seems clearly visible, but when close up and on the move, the way foward is, most of the time, obvious. Imprinting of thousands and thousands of footprints over the years, as early as 1840, has carved a flattened path over the uneven rocky terrain, subtly highlighting the way.
After a while, we leave the uneven, wobbling rocky ground behind and take a turn right into an intermission of soft wet, almost marshy grasslands. The clouds still hang low overhead, releasing steadily thickening drops of rain, misting up our eyelids and increasing our pace of step to reach that hopeful, brighter, other side. All a bit tired, but the going now consistently easier and not so physically taxing, we make quick progress. And before we know it, we have headed down-altitude even further and rounded a corner, arriving at that brighter side. Escaping the previous drugery of the soggy wet mist and consequent bleak landscape, we have just walked in front of the breathtaking view of the famous seven craters. Created during the eruptions of the years 1999/2000, we see that we have not escaped the grey skyline, but instead stumbled across the most epic illustrative aftermath of Earth’s strength. We stand high above this stunning curve of craters, increasing almost equally up in size, from the tips of our feet to the skyline down below. It visually stimulated to look like a section of the exposed ‘open mouth’ of the mountain — the uprooted dental decay of volcanic gumline.
Walking the narrow paths, up, down and around these huge craters minimized my size greatly, the last one we curved around particularly magnificent. A deep pit of a hole, mimicking exactly that of the hole left behind after a tooth’s extraction. Falling down one of these loose and crumbling inner slopes would take some time and was breathtakingly scary to imagine. Sitting at the edge of something so much bigger than myself, made me feel pure awe at nature’s capacities and happiness to confirm that things are so much greater than ourselves. The extensive picture is out of our small control and we have got to remember that the world does not revolve around our momentary and insignificant lives. The universe is so much bigger and more exciting than that. Realise that, and live as one with it, not against it.
Again we vacate the new heights and run and slide down the other side, thick and forgiving dark volcanic scree sliding down with us, submerging feet in halting, head-swivelling moments. The way ahead is flowing with still rivers of newer, deep, dark flows of hardened lava. Inky slate grey seas pushing anything in its way under and out as it moved downhill. Vibrant green plants and tall wet grasses grows from the nutrient-rich blank canvas, through which we wound our way, some grasses reaching head height and soaking our clothes skin-deep.
Another layer of landscape behind, a new one emerging — dark-stained green ‘European-esk’ hills roll forth and invite us to remember the upcoming green density ahead. An unwelcome thought, as the rain relentlessly, but gently continues misting our clouded vision. Gaps do appear as we struggle to navigate the last stretch down to the waiting green. Candy-floss clouds, obscure the hazy grey-green goings-on of down below, as we continue ahead, turning round one last time to say goodbye to the airy lightness of the mountain’s higher levels, the peak already gone out of sight.
It feels like a long time passes before the promised nearby rainforest reappears and we catch the first glimpse of ground-hugging vegetation. Only a welcome sight to tired muscles and soaked skin — the thoughts of rest, shelter and food pushing us faster through the thickening rain. The surrounding lush grasses are now wet and soggy, as we squelch along the muddy paths down, deeper and further, towards lower levels and tall dripping trees.
Tired feet carry us down into sight of our second night — another site of the building of ecolodges for visiting hikers. The guys already here, along with speedy, shortcutting Innocence, who greets us with his lovely big smile, huddle around a hot fire under a rickety shelter. We join in and start removing and drying soaking layers as the boys begin to brew fresh Cameroonian Mountain mint tea, leaves still dripping with tiny clear raindrops — the smell unique to the mountain and the taste making it some of the best, most welcome and warming mint tea I’ve ever had.
Our evening complete with stomachs warmed with deliciously fresh, red and spicy bowls of pasta, hungrily devoured under the sounds of steadily dripping water pattering on the corrugated plastic roof. Bare feet were released and breathed again as they felt the cold, wet and imprint-able wood-chipped earth, edges slowly warming in the heat of the fire. This site discovered by Mansprings smells fresh with cool humidity and richly-soaked soil, as darkness fully encloses us in and we walk, squelching our ways to bed, encircled in the fully saturated rainforest. Damp cloth and slow breathing releases warm condensation as mint tea wafts its way into tired, dreamless sleep.
→ Sorry that these have not been daily. Unlike most previous edits, I had no notes written on these 3 beautiful days — only deeply imprinted pictorial memories —and procrastinated writing up afterwards in weakness of it never being the ‘right moment’ to do justice to the stunning variance in visuals that we experienced.
Tomorrow → Day 53: 14th.May.2016 — BREATHING the LIGHTEST AIR of WESTERN AFRICA at 4090m — HIKING MT. CAMEROON (DAY 3)
*Check out Jørn and Lukas’ 3 videos created from the first couple of months of footage from the trip down below, before further footage was either lost or stolen:
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— Thank you for reading! —