The last few days, I have been a beach bum in Gabon. The Pongara National Park is near the capital Libreville. It has a fantastically long sandy beach next to the warm sea. I pitched my tent at the Sea Turtle Conservation center and disappeared from humanity.
Gabon is very different than Cameroon. The country has oil, and few people. Hence there are lots of French expats driving nice SUVs, and it is entirely unlike the chaos of Douala. They use the same money as Cameroon, but everything is at least twice as expensive. Actually the prices are comparable to San Francisco or Paris. There are glamorous French restaurants, and big supermarkets selling name brand items.
I am completely impressed with the taxi system in Libreville. It is far more efficient and simple than Uber, because there is always a car available. You simply tell the driver how much you want to pay and where you want to go, and that’s it. They pick up other passengers along the way. But this means there are no buses. It seems to work extremely well, but perhaps it excludes people who can’t afford to pay, although the prices for taxi are the only affordable thing in this country.
Instead of partaking in the lavish luxury, I became more spartan. The speedboat crowded with Gabonese women carried me too quickly to Point Denis, and from there I met the manager of the sea turtle center. I had the beach entirely to myself, with the occasional motorboat passing by once in a while. Elephant tracks are common, so I asked the manager to take me to find them. We woke up early and hiked for 16 kilometers back and forth. Plenty of elephant tracks but the forest elephants were elusive. We also saw panther tracks, and I did see monkeys and plenty of birds. Colorful bee-eaters were my favorite birds. The place is a mixture of forest, mangroves, savanna and beach. This turned out to be a wonderful spot to escape from civilization.
Gabon, the dog at the camp, became my companion, following me around everywhere. He slept next to my tent, and barked and howled at people who walked near the camp, but never at me. We ran back and forth along the beach at sunset: I had my own private dog for a few days. While waiting for the boat back to Libreville, he sat by my side, as if he knew he would never see me again. I would like to take Gabon home with me.
This is the rainy season in Cameroon. We are a group of professors, students and helpers in the jungle, in the mud. On one side of our nets, the forest will remain, but on the other side, the forest will be cut completely, to grow palm trees for palm oil. The nets catch colorful forest birds, and we are testing to see what diseases they have now. Then over time, with the loss of trees, we are monitoring how mosquitoes and malaria change. This is a 3-year project, and we are racing to get the data before the trees are all gone.
Getting to this forest is not easy. From the University of Buea, we drive 4 hours to the village of Manyemen. This place is like the Wild West, with a few bars, and trucks loaded with huge felled trees parked outside. Bushmeat is openly sold in the market. I have been here before, 3 times in two years, but I am still not fond of the place where we sleep. The rats in my cobwebby room gnawed into my backpack and ate my precious supply of nuts. The next morning, we begin our hike into the forest. This time we have to cross a river. Apparently not many Cameroonians learn to swim, so we carefully haul all the supplies back and forth across the flowing waste-deep waters. This is food, tents, supplies for catching mosquitoes and birds, and basically setting up a lab and mini-village of 17 people for 3 weeks in the jungle.
Then it starts raining. This is not drizzle, but monsoon tropical rain, and we are forced to create a camp and put up our tents in the downpour. Will it ever end? The first night we sleep in our flooded tents wondering how we will be able to endure this deluge. The rain doesn’t stop the next day, until the afternoon. We are now soaking wet and disheartened, but still begin to work. We can’t catch birds in the rain, and the mosquitoes don’t fly much either. So every non-rainy hour is precious.
Bathing in the river next to a massive waterfall is the best part of every day, and what I look forward to after a long day of work. When I was in this forest in January, we had no water. Now there is too much. Ideally this waterfall would remain hidden from people, but with the inevitable development of the region, it would be much more appreciated by visitors at an ecotourism lodge, or a yoga retreat center than the palm oil trees that will have this beautiful view.
We hear and catch glimpses of monkeys, and see the magnificent hornbills flying across the tree canopy. The termite mounds look like Chinese lanterns on the forest floor. Plenty of birds land in our nets. We measure them and take a drop of blood before releasing them. One day we catch an African goshawk as it is attempting to get an easy meal by preying on a dove in a net. Mostly we find Fire-crested Alethes, Olive sunbirds, and Yellow-whiskered greenbuls. This is excellent because we have been tracking the parasites of these birds for years already.
Every day, we eat simple starchy food: spaghetti, or rice with tomato paste, or plantains with peanut stew. We know the rains will return, so everything is done in a rush. The clothes never dry, even when the sun finally comes out for a few hours. The mud covers our rubber boots: slosh slosh slosh. We all hate the water in our boots, so we try to dry them by placing them on sticks next to the cooking fire. The thunder and rains usually return around 4 pm.
We have converted one large tent into a laboratory to study the mosquitoes. A small generator provides electricity to a couple light bulbs that keep the students working into the evening, among the moths and other insects that are attracted to the light. There are so many insects, but actually not that many mosquitoes in this rainy season. My body is itchily covered with bites from black flies and biting midges. No one complains. Instead we do the best we can, and try to gather as much scientific data as possible, to make it worth it.
The USA and Europe used to be covered with forests teeming with biodiversity. I tell the story of the passenger pigeon to the students here, and how the most abundant bird on the planet was hunted to extinction in North America. The animals are scarce now in this Cameroonian rainforest, and the hardwood trees are being pulled out to make our furniture. The villages are filled with young children who will have a hard time finding jobs, and will most likely never see the once abundant rainforests of their homeland. The villagers see that the climate is changing and that the forests are disappearing before their eyes, and no one is happy about it. The economic forces are beyond their control.
The professors and I leave the students in the forest to continue the work, while we return to our computers in Buea. The mold on my backpack, and the stench of my clothes will probably never wash out. My trusty tent has never been this muddy. Still, remarkably, I look forward to working with these dedicated students in this forest, next year.
Flying in the Schengen area of the European Union is very different than air travel in the USA. You don’t need to show any ID. Of course there is a very thorough security check at the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, but if you are flying within the EU, no ID card or passports are required. This makes perfect sense to me. If you can drive among the countries without showing an ID, why not be able to fly? I think that the US could save a lot of time by eliminating the ID checks. But on the other hand, it is curious that between Copenhagen and Malmö, you have to show an ID or passport on the train. Basically the EU is in a state of flux right now, where changes are happening in response to rapid immigration. But for now, it is reminiscent of the ‘unafraid’ days when anyone could fly with anyone else’s ticket.
Flying over Sicily with Mt. Etna on the horizon was the most dramatic view on the flight to Malta. These are tiny dry islands with a perfect Mediterranean climate. The sea is warm, and the people are super friendly. Since I don’t drive cars that much anyway, it was no problem to drive on the left side. It is easy to get lost, but a friendly young Maltese couple showed the way to St. Julians. A nice hotel, and swimming pool add the necessary components for a mini-vacation in this cosmopolitan place before another few weeks of field work in Cameroon.
Every corner of Malta has history. Most fascinating to me are the ancient megalithic temples that pre-date the Egyptian pyramids. These are 5000-year-old “stonehenges” that are of course much older than Stonehenge. The corpulent female fertility figures found at the sites were displayed at the Archaeological museum in Valletta. Nobody knows what happened to the people of this ancient culture. Were they decimated by invaders? Or did they use up all their resources like on Easter Island and slowly die out?
These people are enthusiastically Catholic, with baroque churches in every village. I enjoy listening to their language, which sounds like a singsong mixture of Arabic and Italian. Are they truly descendants of the Phoenicians? The islands are desert-like, with few trees and little greenery. Northern European tourists arrive on the many cheap flights and shuttle themselves to the coastal hotels. The casinos are big money makers, but the sparkling sea and sunny skies are the big draw. Multicolored fishing boats populate the coastal bays, and the sandstone buildings hide the sleeping Maltese enjoying their Sunday siestas. The island of Gozo is where they go for holidays, with the cliffs, natural arches and blue waters reminiscent of California.
Valletta rises on the horizon over the salty Mediterranean Sea, again with churches, fortresses, Italian restaurants and the modern parliament building. There is no talk of leaving the EU, and although this is a commonwealth nation, with fondness for Queen Elizabeth, there is no talk about a “Maltexit”. Euros work here just fine.
I learned about the Maltese Cross, and the 8 points representing the 8 languages of the Knights of Malta. I don’t know when I will return, but the wonderful history, nice vegan Maltese platters, and genuinely friendly people made for a perfect break.