Clellie Lynch: Making tracks in Cameroon



After passing through Ndop, we drive down the peninsula that juts out into Lake Bamendjinda. Many houses here have small gardens with banana trees, manioc and cocoyam plants and palm trees. Others are surrounded by large fields, where farmers are burning off weeds, getting rid of the overwhelming tangle of low shrubbery that grows so quickly in a tropical climate. The smoke from these fires and the dust from the Sahara harmattan makes the area look like it was filmed through gauze.

What does this slash and burn attract? Yellow-billed kites and cattle egrets! the scorched fields are filled with hunting birds snagging small varmints driven from their underground homes by the fire. In one field, I count 23 sitting kites!

The next day we head towards Nyasoso, the village at the base of Mt Kupe, one of the prime birding spots of Cameroon. Before tackling the 12-kilometer (7.5 miles) dirt road into Nyasoso (we were warned it might take an hour), we make a stop at Tschang, a college town with a lake filled with birds: great views of little grebe, giant kingfisher, African Jacana and yellow-billed ducks.

When we reach the turn off for Nyasoso, the road looks more like a driveway complete with overhanging trees with gaudy flowers. A little ways in we are confronted with enormous ruts that stretch every which way, the result of large trucks traversing the road during the torrential downpours of the rainy season.

Matty swivels the car this way and that aiming the wheels at the ridges and makes it over without scraping bottom. After another 2,000 feet or so around a turn, we are confronted with yet another set of ruts some seemingly three-feet deep. We all get out of the car. Matty studies the situation, gets back in and aims first to the left and then makes a quick right. The license plate gets slightly bent.

No one wants to ask how far we have come -- two miles with another five to go? In the meantime, the scant traffic on this road is motos, which are able to bop in and out of the ruts as if they were on a tough motocross track. At the next chewed-up area after an ugly sound from beneath the car, we all get out of the car again. Matty calculates the route, the needed twists and turns.

He figures out when to go slow and when to floor it. None of us gets back in. A beautiful gold and black butterfly the size of my hand floats up into the trees. No one is interested.

About halfway there, we are confronted with a yet another horrible stretch of road maybe two or three hundred-yards long, with lumpy hard striations that lie every which way. Perplexing. But along comes a moto and the men and woman help my brother over the worst. We could be watching a TV commercial for a new overland vehicle as we observe Matty skillfully negotiate the one set of hillocks, ditches and hidden rocks after another.

We arrive at Nyasoso (it took well over an hour to go the 12 kms.) and find Judith Ndando, our hostess at the Women's Cooperative where we will be staying, and discover they have had no electricity for two weeks. The women are cooperative, but the local electric company is not.

Eventually Hoffmann Ngole Ngole, who arranged the Mt. Kupe trip with my brother, returns from town. He explains that after dinner we should have a meeting with the chief and bring him a bottle of scotch. Uh-oh, no one mentioned this and there is no way to get a bottle now.

We have a delicious dinner and a little while later cross the dusty street to Chief Ekinde Albert Akume's house, a small wood-frame structure dimly lit with lanterns and candles. We are warmly greeted by the chief, his wife and the principal of the local school. The welcoming ceremony takes place. Toasts all around with the chief's pernod (since we did not supply the scotch).

The next morning, on porch railing at the cooperative, a pair of lesser striped swallows pose with nesting material. These beautiful birds with rusty heads and rumps, stripe-y breasts and long forked tails sit not four feet away. Hoffmann is teaching today, so Randolf Mbong, our guide, takes us birding. As we pass the school buildings we see Ethiopian swallows slicing through the air. We pass a brushy area finding an African thrush reminiscent of our wood thrush and a red-capped robin chat. Then the path heads upward through the rainforest.

Danny, Matty and I learn to recognize the calls of turacos and hornbills. We find both the green turaco and the violet turaco, piping hornbills and a western gray plantain-eater. These are largish birds. Finding and identifying smaller birds is much more difficult in the tapestry of leaves. If only we were able like some to listen and memorize from bird call tapes. Randolf helps us locate a naked-faced barbet, McKinnon's fiscal, and the black-and-white flycatcher.

We return to the cooperative to say our thanks and goodbyes and venture out of the area -- via the same rutted road. We drive down the highlands to the coast where it is hot and steamy, but still we find new and interesting birding spots. At the end of the trip we have ticked off 124 new species. Time to update our world life list!

I could write an essay a day about our adventures, but I'll say adieu to Afrique. Back in the Berkshires, spring is slowly seeping in. My wood frogs and peepers woke up yesterday, only to be shocked into silence by the snow cover this morning.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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