In the Shadow of the Volcano
The stunning mountain and beach vistas of Douala, Cameroon.
Douala is big, brash and bold and creaks under the weight of its roughly 2 million residents. This capital of the former German colony of Kamerun is located some 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the west of modern Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. Yet it is Douala that remains the country’s economic livewire and teems constantly with the buzz of buying and selling.
The city is located on the banks of the Wouri River, which then flows into the Gulf of Guinea. When the Portuguese visited the area in 1472, they named the river Rio Dos Cameroes (“River of Prawns”) because of the abundance of crustaceans. From there, Cameroon derives its name.
Blessed with a 7-meter-deep seaport with extensive docks, an airport and a terminus for two railway lines, Douala is the very nerve center of trade for landlocked countries like Chad and the Central African Republic.
But for visitors looking to slow things down, less than an hour west of the fast-moving city are two locations well worth a visit: Mount Cameroon, in the town of Buea, and the seaside town of Limbe.
Towering above both towns at some 4,100 meters above sea level is Mount Cameroon — a picturesque volcano overlooking the sea. The steep incline of the mountain plays host to the Mount Cameroon Race of Hope, an annual race that brings together some 500 athletes (and 5,000 spectators) from around the world to cover the 38 kilometers from Buea to the top of the mountain and back.
The mountain is seen as a sanctuary for the gods by the local Bakweri people, who live on the surrounding slopes; the paramount chief of Buea usually climbs the mountain pre-race to pour libations and entreat the gods to protect the runners.
Climbing the mountain is as exacting as it is exciting, requiring special precautions, even for the casual visitor. Local tour guide John Ngange warns tourists to carry drinking water, lighters, knives, sleeping mats and warm clothes, because even in this equatorial country, temperatures can drop to freezing on the mountain.
Climbers start by trekking through the thick tropical growth at the base of the mountain before ascending the forested slopes, which eventually give way to volcanic boulders almost bare of vegetation. Since 1954, the active volcano has erupted seven times, often resulting in only tremors but at times flowing lava within a handful of kilometers of Buea. The most recent occurrence was in February, though the volcano erupts on average every 10 to 20 years.
In addition to volcanic activity, the mountain is home to iconic species of birds and animals, including duikers (a type of antelope), forest elephants, white-collared mangabey (a type of monkey) and chimpanzees. Tourists, whether primarily there to hike or not, can often be found standing still with binoculars in hand.
At the mountaintop, hikers get a full view of the surrounding lands, including Douala. In clear weather, the city looks like a plain of shiny stars set against the deep, blue sea. Also visible are the majestic Bomana Falls to the northwest, promising a natural cold-water bath as reward for the day’s excursion.
After leaving the summit, it’s only 16 kilometers to the seaside resort town of Limbe, where the frosty cold of Mount Cameroon is history. Temperatures here vary from 21 to 33 degrees Celsius (70 to 91 degrees Farenheit) but are tempered by the cool sea breeze.
Located on a beautiful bay against the backdrop of the towering mountain, Limbe’s uniqueness stems from its black, sandy beaches — their color coming from several centuries of volcanic activity.
In addition to water sports, visitors can explore the extensive mangrove forests at the mouth of the estuary by canoe. Or check out the Limbe Wildlife Centre, home to endangered species such as ellioti chimpanzees, western lowland gorillas, and various reptiles and birds.
Also nearby are the Limbe Botanic Gardens, which were created in the 1890s to acclimate economic and medicinal plants (quinine, coffee, cocoa, banana) to the country.
Seafood is the dish of choice in Limbe’s water-centered culture. Visitors craving it need only stop by city hall, where nearly a dozen women hovering over charcoal fires grill different fish straight from the fishermen’s nets, usually surrounded by a courtyard of hungry customers.
The improvised restaurant spills out onto the beach, creating a memorable mingling that lingers far past the meal — of tantalizing aromas, fresh sea air and the ever-present view of Mount Cameroon looming in the distance.