Into Korup NP —
I knew this was my only opportunity to see inside Korup NP, I wanted to get an early start and make a full day of it, which included getting well inside the rainforest. Last night I decided with Adamu, an acoustic project worker from Fabe village and my guide on the day, that Chimp Camp, 10.7 kms into the park by foot, and a further kilometer-ish to the hidden acoustic sensor would me the goal; Round trip nearly 25kms, a good day of walking under any conditions.
Trekking conditions were the first thing I maybe didn’t truly appreciate. What Adamu agreed to was going to take 7-8 hours, assuming I would be stopping to photograph from time to time. I hadn’t been walking at that speed and distance in a while, especially not in 90+ degree humid tropical conditions. I had my cameras and gear, Adamu the 1.5 L of water each (not enough) and lunch.
After a basic Cameroonian two hour delay in leaving Mundemba we made it 30mins to the “ecoguard” post at the base of the Mana Bridge crossing the Ndira River and into the national park. The tiny rutted dirt road from Mundemba takes you through an endless PALMOL palm oil plantation right up to river’s edge. There, a half-dozen, rag-tag, half-dressed boys of twenty-something, indifferently decided to process my entry paperwork which included re-documenting, in a well-worn sepia colored notebook, all the data from receipt I had obtained in Mundemba when the official park officer was summons from his house to open the office an hour after it officially opens, including my 5,000cfa entry fee. Once my receipt was fully documented another ecoguard emerged, and in French only, asked for my passport for identification. It too was detail transferred into another similarly weathered notebook. As they scribbled I looked about for anything at this station that reflected national park officialdom — nada. Not a trace. Not a uniform, a gun, a poster, a do’s and don’t sign, not even a welcome. The palm trees of the PALMOL plantation we had driven through spread into the green infinity east and the three-story tower ascending to the Mana suspension bridge stood facing west.
Crossing the Bridge:
This was the one moment I knew about long before my Air France flight touched down in Douala. Search the internet for pictures of Cameroon they are both are both limited and non-descriptive — having been here a couple weeks and being the brunt of camera paranoia I understand why. Photography here isn’t a comfortable or enjoyable experience (more on that later.) In fact, before stepping from the vehicle at the ecogaurd post Adamu and Ivo but asked me not to bring out any cameras until we started crossing the bridge. But the bridge is the one feature you can find pictures of.
The long slooping suspension bridge is a dramatic entry to the national park—every park could benefit from one. Half way across the 200m sun bleached wooden planks I looked back—no ecoguards in sight—I swung the camerapack around and popped out the Lumix. Below the Ndira River was very dry, shallow falls fell in endless steps until reaching a broad pool in the river a few hundred meters down stream. I could only imagine how spectacular this view must be in the rainy season.
From the western tower I looked back to see Ivo waving, still no ecogaurds in sight, turning towards the rainforest a large green sign down on the ground announced KORUP NATIONAL PARK, ESTABLISHED IN OCTOBER 1985, SIZE – 126900 HA. I did the quick hectare conversion and realized Korup was just 35 hectares larger than Herakles Farms had originally tried to grab for a plantation a few miles away.
Immediately the scene was transforming, the deep green of the forest was as cool on the eyes as the temperature, a full 10F degrees cooler easily. The song of birds and giant flitting butterflies filled the air. I ever there was a 200 meter walk that could define the difference between an untouched tropical rainforest and an industrial agro-plantation it was this.
Twenty minutes in I was just delighted to finally be in a forest when Adamu pointed out broken snail shells, large but smaller than a fist. And elephant tracks. And a discarded flour sack. “An elephant attacked a bushmeat poacher going back to Nigeria here” he said, pointing at the dozens of broken snail shells. This is one of the main trails through the bark and serves as a bushmeat highway between Cameroon and Nigeria just a couple walking hours further west. And what about ecoguards you ask? No ecoguards in sight.
For the next hour we walked I pausing to record forest sounds and photograph Korup oddities, like the very phallic termite mounds that erupted unannounced from the forest floor. Like beautiful garden towers. Of the dozens of tropical termite mounds I have seen nothing quite compared.
Walking for two hours had left my shirt soaked, I was sweating from every pore in my body and wished I had twice as many. Despite the fact that I knew it was cooler inside the forest than outside, it was little consolation to my sweat glands. What was consolation was the non-stop singing we now had accompanying our every step. Korup has nearly 400 species of bird, it felt as though all of them in their turn were serenading our journey. Forest thrushes stood apart, clear descending whistles.
At last the trees one expects in an old forest appeared, three huge buttressed rainforest giants. Through the sweat I smiled, such a lovely sight. It’s the loss of these giants that hurts when I see endless logging trucks rumbling down the highway between Yaoundé and Douala. As I photographed the trees a great whooshing sound moved left to right through the canopy, huge hornbills. It felt like a real rainforest.
A couple kilometers from Chimp Camp we took a slight detour on a rocky ridge in the forest. In one of the few western national park moments in the entire trip a green park sign proudly announced BIG BOULDER. Yes, few are larger, and more obviously big.
Nearby I found some small green fruits that felt like emerald cannonballs. Insanely hard Adamu said he didn’t know the name but chimpanzees eat them. With several sharp blows from his machete he cracked the fruit. He said humans, “get sickness, but chimpanzees okay.” I had a hard time imagining a chimp chewing its way into that thing. Maybe they smashed them open? Adamu didn’t know.
Kilometer 10.7 – Chimp Camp
Arrival at Chimp Camp was both unceremonious and anti-climatic. Tired, sweaty, hungry we walked into a compound of concrete buildings in a clearing purposely absent of forest, and it felt it. Immediately it was hotter and flies descended us on, biting flies. Two small Cameroonians emerged from the building and greeted us, Adamu they knew, and after a polite ‘hello’ to me. they began rapid chatter with him. Little wonder, they were eager to interact with anyone, but each other. They are stationed here for the weather data (climate change I wondered?) although neither knew or could describe to me what the data was for. We dropped most of our gear and headed for the acoustic sensor immediately and then return for lunch.
At a handful of sites throughout Korup NP a team under Dr Joshua Linder, from James Mason University in the USA, has positioned acoustic sensors to record activity in the forest. One of the focuses of the acoustic research is to record gunshots as an assessment tool to surveying bushmeat hunting. The boxes with the recorders have solicited a reaction. One of the researchers told me they returned to a box destroyed, shot by hunters. The boxes are now hung high in the trees, and well off the paths to avoid detection. That was a recorder we went to find. After detouring from the worn path, Adamu zigzagged through the thick rainforest undergrowth, stopping twice and declaring this is more difficult without a GPS (yes, I guess it would be!) Eventually, amazingly, he found it. IT hung 25 ft high in the canopy. A classically unphotogenic piece of science. Science typically is.
Race for Mana Bridge
By the time we returned to Chimp Camp and wolfed down a tin of fish, chunk of bread and one mango, and a cup of water (I was down to one cup left for the return) it was 2:30pm and we had needed to be crossing the Mana Bridge by 5ish. Two and half hours was enough time, but we needed to move at something just shy of a jog.
We stopped three times on the way out, twice to photo things I had remembered missing on the way in, and once to drench my head in the stream at 5KM and cherish the last cup of water. Not bringing two bottle was really stupid! Adamu drank from the stream, I couldn’t risk it.
Blisters were starting to form on my left foot, I could feel them under my big toe and little toe. We still hadn’t reached the 2km sign—damn! You know you are tired when in your head you hear yourself talking endlessly about how you feel. I interrupted the blister rhetoric with a reminder that I may never see this forest again, drink it in now I told myself, forget the blisters. We blew right past the 2km sign. Then past the snail poacher’s elephant encounter. Adamu was on a mission. At last the forest opened and the west tower loomed in front of us. We both climbed slowly, Adamu was sweating and tired too, his foot falls heavy on the metal steps, a small consolation. I stopped for one last burst of photos.
Mid-span on the bridge the wind washed over me and felt like few things so kind. I slowed for a fraction to let it revive my spirit before dragging up to the eastern tower. Ivo was standing at the base with cold water bottles—‘you just earned your way into my personal heaven’, I shouted!
I haven’t been that tired and sweat dehydrated in, well,… nearly ever. Maybe I’m just getting old, I don’t know. I do know that 1.5 L of water was not enough, especially when you sweat at least four liters. The next night in Fabe village Adamu told me that he was amazed I was so strong for a white person, usually people stay overnight at the Chimp Camp he said. He has never been with a white person that went in and out in one day, and carried all his own pack. The blisters on my left foot squelched any bravado I might have had.
Coming out late did provide us with sightings of four monkey species—Mona, Red-tailed, Red Capped, and Putty Nose—as well as mongoose, squirrels, blue duiker and signs of bush pig, versus nothing on the way in. Apparently chimpanzees care further north in the park, solid two day walk—another trip.
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo