Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Arrival in the Gran Caldera de Luba

January 5, 2005
Main Camp, a/k/a Camp Hormiga, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.32972° E 8.47899° Elevation 1,713 feet. Temp: Not bad

After a wonderfully arduous hike, we’ve arrived at the Gran Caldera de Luba, the ancient volcano crater that is the quest of the Arcadia University expedition.

The caldera is surrounded by steep walls on three sides, the old walls of the volcano, and drains to the south through a narrow river that has broken through the outer circumference of the volcano. The camp is located at the narrow, southern end of the caldera above the river, which cascades over smooth, round boulders. I was told the caldera is a plateau, but little about this site seems flat. The camp is set on a hillside, most of the tents are pitched at a slight incline. It’s called Main Camp because this is where the two Arcadia University professors operate their expedition to save endangered species in the caldera. It’s known locally as Camp Hormiga, or Ant Camp, for the nasty fire ants that attacked the camp’s occupants a few years ago.

Another camp, North Camp, is about 7 kilometer hike to the other end of the caldera. It’s at a higher elevation and is a little more open and dry than this camp. The expedition sends census teams out from these camps to count animals, mostly focusing on primates.

We plan to stay in the caldera until Monday, when we are scheduled to descend again to Moraka Beach, where we made our D-Day beach landing a week ago today.

The hike from our previous camp was not especially far – less than five miles, according to the GPS. But it included several steep climbs and descents as we crossed the remains of the conical volcano and then plunged nearly 500 feet into the caldera itself on a trail that was as steep as 70 degrees.

We began the day at Camp Peter, a small camp in the woods at about 390 feet of elevation. The trail gradually became more steep as we ascended through the rain forest that covers most of the southern end of Bioko island. By the time the trail reached a 45 degree angle, my heart was going pretty much steady at 180 beats a minute – I could count the pounding in my ears. We were ascending a cone that was formed as a side vent to the volcano, so once we reached the peak, we descended immediately to a lower altitude. I hate that about trails.

One strange sight on the trail: An old rusting Pepsi sign that somebody attached to a tree years ago. Too bad, 'cause I woulda paid some serious money for a cold beverage at that time. Another commercial opportunity missed.

Then the trail continued up, up, up to about 2,275 feet to a point called Buena Vista that indeed gave us a lovely view of the caldera, its steep forested walls and the steep descent that awaited us. The African guides hired by the Arcadia project – the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program – built a little bench out of the poles they cut during the trail clearing. It was a nice little place to contemplate the view, the misty clouds coming in, alternately concealing and then revealing the landscape. We were drenched with sweat. I longed for one of those clouds to sweep over us ever so briefly and rinse us off, but for once the rain stayed away.

During the descent, the trail is cut crudely and with few switchbacks, but the local guides buried numerous poles along the way as handholds. The poles are a little frighting because they are like pungi sticks along the trail -- one false move and you would have one skewered journalist, which I suppose might satisfy the media critics out there. I can describe the ground on the descent very well because I did not spend much time letting my eyes stray from the next spot to place my foot. It took us about 25 minutes to descend, where we were greeted by a stream and several pools of cool water. It's a nice spot for the members of the expedition bathe and do their laundry.

Now that I’ve had a refreshing bath in the cool stream, the sun is setting, the camp is filled with laughter, the sky is clear and the woods are a symphony of insects and animals calling to each other. A sublime place.

But there is ominous news from the expedition members who have arrived before us. They have found fewer monkeys here than in the coastal areas below, and the monkeys they have encountered seem particularly skittish. There are numerous fresh shotgun shells near this camp, indicating the bushmeat hunters have been here recently. And that may confirm the concerns Arcadia biology Professor Gail W. Hearn that the absence of the Bioko’s forest guards – fired in May because their funding had expired – may have given a signal to the hunters that there was an open season on this protected wilderness.
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