5:00 in the morning came quickly but I was ready. I crawled out from under my mosquito net and pulled on my 12 year old Umbro shorts then layered up with some other clothes I knew would get destroyed. After pouring dirty water down the toilet to make it flush I met the others in the lobby of our “hotel” in Buea, Cameroon, Africa.
After some bread and bananas for breakfast we started walking with our head lamps. The chatty morning people led the pack while the others lagged behind dragging their feet and rubbing their eyes. Strolling down the street to the base of Mount Cameroon we saw the town slowly come alive. Children heading to school in their uniforms, packed buses that could not possibly have met safety regulations, and livestock being herded or fed shared the morning with us.
The air was cool but thick with humidity when we started at the base and clambered through the dense rainforest at the base of the mountain. Lush greenery and sweet smells overwhelmed our senses. By this point all 16 members of the group were alert and excited for the adventure that lay ahead. Laughter and jokes rang through the forest amidst the huffing and puffing of trekking a steady uphill. The porters, however, seemed to be having no issues. They passed by us in nothing but flip-flops carrying 12 L of water on their head. They must have learned this from their younger sisters whose main job of the day was fetching water and taking care of the siblings.
About mid-day we took a rest before tackling the section of the mountain fondly nicknamed, “The Wall”. This rocky climb is the most vertical ascent of the towering volcano. We Westerners changed our socks, drank water from our camelbacks, and replenished our energy with protein bars. The porters huddled together, also taking a rest. The occasional porter smoked a cigarette or ate a banana. These young men were lean and strong; made for climbing mountains. The climbers of our group, although fit, were carrying around an extra 20 lbs of bulky muscle; stylish in the western world but totally impractical for climbing uphill for two days. The tall, slim Cameroonians looked like they could walk for weeks.
The porters led the way up the steep Wall while we clambered behind mostly on all fours. The excessive panting and jagged rocks were worth it because when we reached our camp for the night we were met with a stunning view of rolling hills. The yellow grass shimmered in the warm afternoon sun. We rested, revelling in our accomplishment of the day, while the porters made dinner. I should have eaten more but I could not stomach the soggy noodles and greasy chickpeas that lay awaiting for us in the communal pot.
Bed time was approximately 7:00 when the sun set. We had our choice of snoozing in the hut infested with rats or testing our fate sleeping under the stars with the mountain lions. Using a moss covered rock as my pillow I opted to rest surrounded by the openness of the mountain and cuddled with my friends for warmth.
The next morning we woke at a gruelling 3:00 to try for the summit. In single file silence we paced upwards in the pitch black with only our headlamps and the experience of the porters guiding us. We lost half of our team who were too sore or tired to continue to the top. The patient porters took them down to the hut where we made camp the previous night. Just as I felt that I could not take one more step upwards the sun started rising. Rejuvenated by the energy of the rays and the stunning scenery that lay waiting for us at the top of Mount Cameroon, we continued on in high spirits. As the temperature got warmer we began peeling off our layers and giving them to our porters as a thank you. They were thrilled to receive the gifts and would wear them for many future treks.
The last stretch was easy. We clambered up the steep tip to take in the cloudy view and of course take our picture with the sign! 2200 m… we had made it. The sense of accomplishment was something I will never forget. The porters looked on at us kindly; understanding that the climb was much more challenging for us than it was for them.
During the descent one of the porters offered to take a few of us to see the volcanic crater. Standing on the ledge of one of the most active volcanoes in Africa makes one really appreciate life. Looking into the gray depth of this giant hole in the Earth I could only imagine what it would have been like to be a citizen living in Buea during the eruption in 2000. As if echoing my philosophical thoughts the porter pointed to a single purple flower growing from the charred lava rock nearby. “Good can always come from bad,” he said as he pointed to the solo blossom.
It was noon and we needed to finish our descent before sun down. We climbers thought that the way down would be easy but we could tell by the focus of the porters that we still had our work cut out for us. On the way down we would hear the porters murmur “Ashia,” to each other and anyone they passed. When we asked the mild mannered porters what Ashia meant they said, “Courage”. Courage is definitely needed for life on the mountain. Every year in Buea the Race of Hope is held on Mount Cameroon. Sarah Etonge won first place four years in a row on this 40 km run with a elevation difference of 2500 m. Sarah, a Cameroonian who lives at the bottom of the slope, has earned the nickname, “Queen of the Mountain”. She is a single mother who trains once a week in between taking care of her seven children.
Using switchbacks to make the descent easier and calling out to each other when loose lava rock came tumbling down ensured most of us to made it down the hill. One girl twisted her knee and had to be piggy-backed to the bottom by the strongest porter. Dirty, exhausted, and hungry we thanked our brave guides and stumbled back to our hotel to enjoy a shower (albeit with limited water) and a warm dinner. One can only wonder what the porters were heading home to. Maybe after the gruelling climb of the mountain they had to help their families with the livestock. Perhaps they would use their hard earned money to pay tuition for a younger sibling to attend school. Maybe they themselves were training for the Race of Hope with the ambition of winning the large cash prize and the coveted title of Champion. Or maybe they would just wait for the next group of climbers and then they would repair their best flip-flops, don the toque given to them by a previous tourist, and set out on the Mountain again.