Monday, January 10, 2005

What goes up must come down

January 10 2005
Moraka Beach, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.25878° E 8.48594 ° Elevation 8 feet. Temp: 90° F

The expedition members are reunited once again on Moraka Beach, where we arrived nearly two weeks ago to begin our trek into the rainforests of Bioko island to take an account of the wildlife here. The big work boat contracted to oil company Amerada Hess is scheduled to come tomorrow to pick us up off shore to take us back to civilization. The makings of a serious fiesta are in the works here tonight among the 24 members of the expedition sponsored by Arcadia University and the National University of Equatorial Guinea. The two dozen or so porters, cooks and camp assistants will be paid tonight for their hard labor, and they are eager to celebrate, too.

We began the day at the Main Camp in the Gran Caldera de Luba, the ancient volcano crater that forms a secluded cocoon for some of Africa’s most endangered primates. Over the next few days, I’ll be writing several stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer about the expedition’s findings and examining the different ways that such a ecological treasure can be protected from hunters who are depleting the population of primates and turtles. That’s the focus of the expedition headed by Arcadia academics Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra.

Yesterday I described the movement of our group over the last couple of days as a phased withdrawal, to use a military metaphor. This morning it appeared more like a frenzied retreat. Bags were packed, tents were struck, cook pots were scrubbed and everything was shoved into the waterproof dry bags that the porters heave onto their backs – about 50 pounds each, I’d estimate. The expedition members put on their daypacks – I only carry about 20 pounds on the hikes – and forded the stream where we bathed and laundered. Then we scaled “the wall,” a 500-foot high extraordinarily steep ascent up the side of the volcano crater. It took about 30 minutes to make the climb, during which you burn up lots of energy, like a rocket escaping the Earth’s gravity.

Once out of the caldera, the world seemed a little less peaceful. It was every hiker for himself, heading hellbent for the sea, about nine miles away. The porters with their bags were like uncoupled freight cars. All you could do is step aside and wave at them as they scampered by. About four hours into the hike, we passed through Camp Peter, our waystation on the hike up last week. I gave the camp a harsh review on our ascent, but it looked a little more inviting this time because the sun was out and the camp was not inundated with standing water. But there was no time to stop and admire. We just dashed on.

When the trail hit the beach, we paused to remove our hiking boots and put on sandals for the sandy hike and the river crossings. When we arrived in camp, we were greeted warmly by the other expedition members and the porters, who had arrived well before us and already had their plates piled high with rice and beans.

Since our departure last week, the beach camp seems to have suffered some sort of infestation of tiny biting insect that has left quite a few people with unattractive, swollen limbs. They claim the creatures have confounded many preventative measures, including repellent, but many people seem to be strolling around here with lots of skin exposed, kind of a banquet for bloodthirsty insects. I suppose the bites are just one more souvenir of the expedition. Though most of us are bone weary and sweaty, there is a joyous sense of accomplishment running through the camp.

I took a dip in the surf and bathed in the small stream bearing cool water from the highlands and scrubbed a few clothes on a log. A 30-foot wooden cayuco – a canoe powered by an outboard motor – arrived as scheduled. It bore some of the women from Ureca, the village where most of the people employed by the expedition live, plus an undisclosed amount of refreshments.

Before the party begins, the group has to sort through our soiled and wet gear and prepare it for loading on the boat tomorrow. There is a tradition among expedition members to donate their surplus items to the villagers, where the clothing and camp goods will get a new life. We plan to load our goods on the cayuco tomorrow, which will ride across the surf at a point where the breakers are weak and transfer the goods to the work boat. We will be in the capital, Malabo, for the remainder of the week.

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