x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

On the road to Cameroon, Big Mama and the magnificent mountain

Around Africa: If there's anyone who can get you quickly into Cameroon, it's Big Mama.

The writer braves cold winds on the summit of Mt Cameroon, which rises 4,090 metres above sea level. Scott MacMillan for The National
The writer braves cold winds on the summit of Mt Cameroon, which rises 4,090 metres above sea level. Scott MacMillan for The National

'Here's the deal," Roger says, having just returned from the Cameroonian Embassy in Abuja. "There's a woman at the embassy named Big Mama, and it looks like she can help us." Staying in the capital was costing us a relative fortune, and we were keen to collect our visas as soon as possible and get the heck out of Nigeria.

"Big Mama?" It sounds promising.

"That's what everybody calls her. Seriously. You know how every office has a person who's not technically in charge, but actually runs the show? That's Big Mama. She says if we pay a so-called 'expedition fee' of 2,000 naira" - that's about US$13 (Dh47), nearly what each of the three of us was paying per night for a cramped double, with Luke sleeping on the floor - "we can get the visa within 24 hours. If we ask nicely and explain that we want to catch the Friday morning ferry from Calabar, I'm hoping we can get it the same day."

Roger has assumed the role of master planner, I of mango cutter. Yes, it turns out I'm good at one thing: removing the stone from a mango and slicing the flesh up with minimal mess. This is an important task, for delectable mangos are in abundance, on and off, depending on the local climate, ever since Ghana.

On Wednesday, we pick up our Angolan visas and proceed directly to the Cameroonian Embassy, where Big Mama presides over the comings and goings exactly as described. She collects our applications and says, "Take my number. Big Mama's number. You call me at 2pm, and I'll tell you if it's ready."

Big Mama delivers. It's a fitting introduction to Cameroon - easy-going and hassle free. Her express service allows us to board the next day's bus to Calabar, the port city in the south-east corner of Nigeria, arriving in time to bivouac at another overpriced hotel and rise before dawn for the ferry to Limbe, Cameroon.

It's funny that Cameroon doesn't feature more prominently on travellers' itineraries. True, it boasts few big-ticket sites, but it's affordable and easy to get around, with mountains, secluded beaches and even a touch of the Sahel in the arid north - "all of Africa in one country", as it touts itself. The motorways are in good shape and the streets cleaner than in many richer African countries. Briefly a German colony, Cameroon was divvied up by Britain and France after the First World War, resulting in today's mixed anglophone-francophone culture, an oddity for Africa. The language sometimes changes from one town to the next, but the laid-back vibe does not.

In Limbe, we immediately begin planning an assault on Mt Cameroon, the region's highest peak. We're rounding the corner now, turning south, for the mountains along the Nigeria-Cameroon border sit right in the armpit of West Africa. The land is lush, the skies hazy with tropical humidity. We've migrated out of mango season into avocado territory, where deep green "pears", as they're known locally, sell on the roadside for the equivalent of 10 cents each.

"How many should we buy?" Roger asks, handling a ripe avocado. It's like carrying rocks around, but at these prices, my instinctive answer is always the same: "All of them."

I pack two avocados to supplement our meals on the three-day hike up Mt Cameroon. Starting in a tropical rainforest, the summit trail rises 4,090 metres through woods, grasslands and, finally, as it rises above the clouds, bare scrub alternating with volcanic debris, for this is still an active volcano. We pass gaping craters from an eruption in 2000, crossing fields of lava that flowed down the mountainside not so long ago, the igneous rocks of frozen magma like blackened sponges.

It's a tough climb. Following the organiser's recommendation, we've hired two porters rather than three to save on costs, agreeing to purify spring water on the descent rather than hauling up the extra litres. We all feel a bit guilty - I, especially, about the extra avocados - when it becomes clear the porters are overloaded.

Biting wind pounds the summit, which we reach on day two. I remember why I resolved to climb more mountains this year. The last column mentioned what had irked me about my week in Nigeria: at every turn, it seemed the country was trying to be something it isn't, putting hefty price tags on poorly maintained three-star hotels, for instance, when a basic guest house would have done just fine.

My head isn't littered with any such thoughts at the summit, for there's an incorruptible purity about the experience of climbing a mountain. It's impossible to think the mountain itself puts on airs or tries too hard. The mountain just is. Sure, it hurts to walk for the next several days, but you can hardly blame Mt Cameroon for that.

Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com