Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Mountain of Death: no be small o!

As I crouched down to business over the pit latrine in Kwano, surrounded by a curious family of baboons a few feet away, I knew trekking in Gashaka Gumti was going to be an experience. Fortunately, given my somewhat exposed situation, I didn’t yet need be aware of one vital piece of advice to recall when in the presence of monkeys and primates: don’t ever smile (the sign of aggression). One baboon jumped down several branches until he was just a few feet away. He sat staring at me as I attempted to aim and fire. The others looked on with the casual indifference of animals without language. The philosophical question arose: should one feel self-conscious when defecating in front of a bunch of monkeys?

Straddling Taraba and Adamawa States, Gashaka Gumti National Park is the largest and most remote park in Nigeria. At over 6,000 square kilometres, it is a feast of wildlife: civets, lions, hogs, buffalos, bushbucks, duikers, baboons, mona monkeys, black-and-white colobus monkeys, the grey-cheeked mangabey, the tantalus monkey, the patas monkey and as well as some of the 500 species of birds, including a startlingly blue species of kingfisher as well as vultures all make Gashaka Gumti their home. Most significantly, the park has a population of around endangered 2,000 chimpanzees. University College London has a primate project at an abandoned village called Kwano deep inside the forest (run jointly with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation), run by Professor Volker Sommer.

Together with eight other adventurers (three Nigerians and five other oyinbos – Ellie, Kash, Olly, Luc and Diane), we had decided to climb Gangirwal (a.k.a Chappal Wadi, a.k.a the Mountain of Death), Nigeria’s tallest mountain. Gangirwal lies deep inside the park, on the border with Cameroon. Professor Sommer had helped with the arrangements, organising porters from the nearby Gashaka village, as well as two park rangers and a tracker to act as guides. The walking-camping segment of our trip was to last six and a half days.

The idea to be the first tourists to climb Gangirwal in a circular route came thanks to three near-parallel series of events. First of all, there was an argument I had had with an immigration official at Maidugiri airport two years ago. I didn’t realise until too late that foreign travellers flying from within Nigeria have to pass through immigration when landing at the airport in Borno State. I found myself behind a longish line of Lebanese businessmen and diasporic Nigerians without green kpali and a few other oyinbos. Finally, when it was my turn to sit down and show my passport to the portly female official, I was in a bad mood. I asked her what need there was for there to be an immigration process for domestic passengers. She replied that as Borno State has borders with other countries, it is necessary for a passport control. I pointed out that the same geographical circumstance applies to Lagos State and Calabar, yet there are no passport checking procedures for foreigners there. She responded curtly by saying that some people arrive in Maidugiri and quickly flee into Chad or Cameroon. At which point, I decided to retort, ‘well, the way I feel, I’d quite like to go to Cameroon right now. At least they have proper mountains over there.’ She stared at me, her face a mixture of irritation and curiosity. I carried on, ‘please, name me a big mountain in Nigeria.’ Her silent frown turned into a furrow.

This minor episode got me thinking on my return from my trip to the North. Was there a large mountain in Nigeria? If so, where? An hour or so Googling and I came upon Chappal Wadi, the Mountain of Death. Although not a huge mountain at only 2400 metres, its name and its remoteness held a certain allure. I had to climb it.

The second event was meeting Olly Owen, via a mutual friend Esohe. We met last June at an Italian cafĂ© in Clerkenwell. As I have found out since, Olly has a hyperactive mind and an overactive imagination. He had been living on the mainland in Lagos for a few years, working with the Centre for Democracy and Development amongst other things. I found myself listening to the live feed of his mind as I sipped my espresso. I can’t remember if I mentioned Gangirwal then and there (I don’t think I did), however we soon started to discuss it via email. We goaded each other into it, in the friendliest possible way.

Thirdly, there was Alex. Alex is a UK-based journalist mate (soon to move to Texas). We got to know each other a couple of years ago. He has written a few books on well-known UK musicians (including one tome on Pete Doherty), as well as a series of feature pieces in the quality UK press on death-row prisoners in the US. We toured Yorubaland together with another friend last summer. While travelling round the South-West, he told me he had been researching the story of an American evangelical pastor who believed Gashaka Gumti to be the site of Eden. I told him about Chappal Wadi. We agreed it would make an excellent idea to visit the park and climb the mountain one day.

Olly and I agreed that we really ought to ‘do’ Gashaka Gumti before the rains start in 2008. This meant before April. As it turned out, Alex couldn’t make it. However, thanks to the trip being organised under the umbrella of the Nigerian Field Society, we gathered nine people primed for adventure, including Bibi and Olly’s friends Ellie and Kash. Ellie works for an NGO in the Niger Delta, while Kash is doing a post-doc in biophysics at UCL in London (he knows his Higgs Bosons). Another friend and map-maker extraordinaire, Simon, had prepared a 3-D map of the mountain and brought along a GPS unit to plot our path.

We set off at 5.30 am from Abuja on Friday 21st March – Easter Friday. The trip to Serti, the nearest town to the park, took nearly 12 hours, travelling through Nasarawa State, then on via Benue State to Taraba. Driving east, we passed through bands of Christian and Muslim areas. Village women walked bare breasted, to Senator Ekaette’s hypothetical dismay. Twice, we drove past Easter parades: a man with a long wig bearing a cross, with all the villagers singing and dancing behind. Little did we know, the suffering of Christ was a clue to what lay ahead.

In Serti, we stayed overnight in chalets at the Tourist Camp. That evening, we dined at Prescotts, a new joint just outside town offering the ‘integrated services’ of cybercafe, meeting rooms and a restaurant. As the place closes daily at 6pm, we had to wake the cook up to make our food. We also brought along our own crate of Star. After wolfing down glutinous mounds of spagbol, we were charged a ‘special service’ amount for the grub (double the menu price for being foreign and for having to wake up the cook). Back at the Tourist Camp, we had to pay N6000 to keep the generator on all night. Serti is a hot, dry place at this time of the year, so no generator means no sleep for foreigners. We found out later that Serti town is itself is powered by one big generator, turned on by PHCN for just a few hours each evening. The town has an army base. In the evenings, the central strip is full of sex workers, servicing the base and visitors.

The following day, two pick-ups arrived to take us into the park (the entrance is just beyond the town). After an hour, we stopped by the Mayo Kam and trekked for two hours alongside the water. Thousands of years of erosion have shaped the rocks into startling formations of swirls and dimples, as if fast moving water had been frozen in an instant through some Vesuvian sleight of God’s hand. The water was crystalline clear. Beneath the surface, huge fish swam steadily against the current. Angling would be like shooting into a barrel here. Finally, we reached a large pool where hippos often bathe. There were no animals around, but the air buzzed with brightly coloured dragonflies. Then, we drove up on into the forest, up and down steep undulations of track, crossing small dried-up rivers along wooden planks. The vegetation grew closer the further in we drove. We forded two rivers which must be impassable when the rains arrive, eventually reaching the small village of Gashaka.

Gashaka was once the capital of German Kameroon, at the time when what are now Adamawa and Taraba States (formerly Gongola State) were also part of the German colony. During the First World War, the British fought a ferocious battle to wrest control of the region from the Germans – a little known historical fact. The village today has one shack of a shop and a solitary baobab tree. We drank luke warm bottles of malt, kept vaguely cool by floating in a clay bowl full of brackish water. A billy-goat reared up at me, then seemed to fall instantly in lust with Ellie, gaining an instant erection. As we left the village, the spurned goat started sucking rather forlornly on its penis. As we left the village, we picked up a few park rangers who had been sent to track down poachers.

Finally, three hours’ drive from the entrance to the park, we arrived at Kwano, an abandoned village which is now the base station for the Gashaka Primate Project. Professor Sommer welcomed us with soup, rice and beans and an introduction to our trek, breaking down each day’s walk. He also showed us the solar-array of PV panels that power the station, donated by Julius Berger. Later, after we had rested, he made a short presentation on the Primate Project, which has been running for over nine years in the park. Professor Sommer has the air of an old hippy, with long hair in a ponytail on top, shaven at the sides. He exudes a quizzical eccentricity. This leftfield view of life emerged into the open when he started talking about the ecstatic prospect of being eaten by an old lion that has lost its pride. “What a unique death. Instead of dying in an hospital with tubes sticking out of you, how wonderful it would be to die in a lion’s mouth!” We nicknamed him ‘Professor Death’ from then on. Still, he is clearly passionate about our closest genetic neighbours, and their endangered status (thanks to poaching and loss of habitat) in the park. He also spoke interestingly about their research into chimpanzee use of combining sounds into a syntax – the prototype of language.

That evening, after bathing in the nearby stream, we set up our tents next to the chalets of the station, and quickly fell asleep.

Early the next day, we set off on what turned out to be an over ten-hour trek, ending up at the Gamgam river. Mamouda led the way, our tracker and guide. Along the way, both Olly and Jide stopped numerous times to examine the poo of various animals. I wondered at what point this fecal interest would wane. Just before reaching the river, Mamouda sighted some poachers upriver. The rangers and some of the porters gave chase, emerging a little later with a confiscated net (the poachers had escaped). That evening, we pitched our tents on a sandbank by the river. Olly went fishing, but the fish eluded him. We ate our first campsite meal of rice, macaroni and beans, prepared lovingly by Anthony, our ranger guide and cook. The night was a noisy one: the sounds of the forest were cacophonous, as were the deep reverberations of Simon’s snores.

The following day was much easier – we walked just over five hours to camp by another river – I think it was called the Bam. This river was faster flowing, with a three-metre waterfall nearby. Just before the waterfall, we found a trough of rock into which the river spewed at speed, making the perfect natural Jacuzzi. Life au naturel was on the whole good.

The following day was the second toughest day of the whole trip. We spent hour upon hour walking upwards, alongside the river. What Professor Death had described as a ‘few rocks to climb over’ turned out to be huge boulders that Atlas himself would not powder his fingers to carry. Still, there were wonderful compensations for our efforts. Every so often, we would pass through clouds of small butterflies, or spot huge winged vividly-coloured larger species fluttering about. At one point, we watched in silence as a couple of wild hogs munched on foliage on the other side of the river-bank. Imaginations over-extended themselves as we considered whether they were gay or not; this thought process developing into an idea for a children’s book about a lesbian wild hog couple: Lucy and Mildred live in the Forest or such like. At times, we would hear the half-fox half-dog bark of baboons as we encroached into their territory. We would also walk past the nests of chimpanzees. Fortunately, we didn’t see any green mambas, puff adders or Gabon vipers – three of the world’s most venomous snakes that live in the forest.

At times, walking by the river was impossible, so we would have to climb up steep banks at the side, joining the river yet higher up. Often, climbing these banks involved holding onto tree roots and pulling oneself up a 45%+ slope to higher ground – exhausting work even in the shade of the midday sun. Tempers were frayed by the time we arrived at camp at dusk. What Prof. Death had described as an 8 hour walk took 2 and half hours longer. We pitched our tents a little rancorously, and soon fell asleep.

We woke at 5.30 am the following day, excited and a little anxious that this day was the day of the ascent of Gangirwal. Some were worried that after leaving the river, our next source of water would be the place where we would camp, close to the summit. After a final hour walking up the riverbed, with bottles filled with fresh spring water, we left the river and started the climb. This began with a 20 minute steep bank to scramble up. Diane, Bibi, Ellie and I started out ahead of the others, immediately behind Mamouda. After a difficult ascent, the ground levelled off. The others were nowhere to be seen. Only after waiting for about ten-fifteen minutes did Jide, Olly, Kash and Luc appear. Given that our group already had the reputation as the slower group, I was a bit vexed that we had been left waiting for the faster group to arrive. I shouted something in this vein to Jide, who told me immediately to fuck off. Irked by his Saxon response, I told him to fuck off back. All of a sudden, we were telling each other to fuck off repeatedly and at an ever closer distance, and squaring up for blows. Thankfully, the others intervened and we were separated. However, from this moment on, Jide’s temper had been stirred, as we were to find out later on that day.

What followed was a seemingly endless trek upwards and upwards, with the odd vista of the mountain exposing itself between the leaves. After a few hours, Simon informed us that according to his GPS unit, we were only 1 kilometre from the summit. The problem was, directly ahead of us was a vertical cliff of rock. We therefore had to skirt around to the right. This detour involved several sections with no solid footholds, which could only be traversed by holding onto branches and roots. One mistake (a branch not secured to the ground) would involve falling many meters to almost certain broken bones. This was exhausting and slightly daunting work. We stopped to rest a little further on. At this point, Al-haji Barrister Jide walked over to the porters, who were resting nearby, only for sharp words in Hausa to ensue. An argument brewed up in a flash – it was not clear who had said what to whom. All of a sudden, everyone was involved, trying to calm Jide down, trying to placate the porters, trying to urge onward movement. A good many more fuck-offs between us sprang into the air. The reality was, we were all by now exhausted, and anxious to reach the top, but no one knew exactly how much longer it would actually take.

Eventually, we managed to calm ourselves and carry on upwards. It kept looking as if the edge of the tree line and the open ground of the mountain-top were just ahead, but each turn around a group of trees proved us wrong. In the end, it took us over nine hours to break through out of the tree line. We sat and rested before completing the walk to the camp. This was time for Diane to have a cathartic thank you speech to all of us. Her feet were blistered all over. The ascent had been quite traumatic for her and had taken many litres of courage. Finally, thanks to her emotional words, the bad air that had passed between us on the ascent disappeared for good. However, by now, Simon was reaching complete exhaustion. We were sure that this was related to the fact that he was using the trip to finally give up smoking. His body was rebelling and shutting down at the same time.

That evening, we slept by a small stream in the shadow of the mountain-top. The sunset was majestic – a slow burning of the day’s azure into the purple tain of the night. The sky sprinkled itself with thousands of stars, like a desert night. At nearly 8000 feet up, we slept higher than anyone else in the country that night. The temperature dropped to Lake-District-in-October levels in the early morning. It would have been lovely to spend the whole of the next day on the mountain-top, but we didn’t have the time.

The following morning’s walk was an easy open descent into Cameroon, walking passed an impressive stack of rock where vultures circle. Olly poured a libation of fine single malt for the mad man of the mountain. Simon pondered whether this mythical human was a Muslim or not, and whether he would welcome the wee dram or take offence. We reached the Cameroonian village of Jauro Hamasale by late morning. The villagers prepared Tuo and vegetables for us. We also bought two chickens to eat that evening. Simon was doggone by the time we reached the village. We made arrangements for him to travel back to Serti via okada via a track through the mountains. Luckily, he had his passport with him, so crossing back into Nigeria would not be an issue.

Day six proved to be the toughest day of all. Our legs were ingrained with fatigue by now. Ellie’s knees had swollen. Bibi was walking through her time-of-the-month. We passed by the Nigerian village of Mayo Sabere in the morning – Malts all round at last again. Just before hitting the village, we passed by a homestead where a Fulani woman had collected four or five enormous mushrooms in a bowl. We bought three of them for two-hundred naira. It then took us 9 hours to reach the Mayo Gamgam where we had camped on the first night. I nearly fainted with heat exhaustion at this point. Even after having a bottle of water tipped on my head and munching through two bananas, I felt dizzy with tiredness and uncertain about whether I could continue. It took us three more hours of superhuman effort to reach Yakuba. Dusk was ending as we arrived. I have never felt so utterly utterly knackered in my life as that night. At least, our food included fresh mushrooms that evening. The final day, day 7 of the trek, was a short four-hour walk back to Kwano. Professor Death had a wry smile on his face as we arrived at the station.

That evening in Serti, we dined at Prescotts again. Our van from Abuja had not yet arrived, so we had to travel by okada to the ‘resort’. We met an oyinbo at the restaurant. He turned out to be a Texan oil worker, who’d decided to visit the far East of Nigeria at the end of his contract, instead of following his other idea of the Seychelles. He had a slightly lost air about him, reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis at the beginning of Paris, Texas. He said he would decide where he was sleeping after he had finished his meal. Again, we imagined all kinds of circumstances and back-stories for him. As we cracked open the Star, and I ate the world’s worst pizza, a sense of exhausted euphoria swelled between us. We had climbed the Mountain of Death.

Gashaka Gumti National Park really is a national treasure for Nigeria. Whether you want to exhaust yourself climbing the highest mountain in Nigeria as we did, or simply want to visit the base station of the Primate Project and go on an easy monkey/primate safari, you will experience a serene and tranquil side to Nigeria many will never even know about. It is something like the Eden of West Africa, untroubled by tourists, and a universe away from the bustle of Lagos and the cynicism of Abuja. You are guaranteed to have an experience of a lifetime if you go there.

Options for the tourist:

1. Easiest. Drive to Kwano (route: Abuja - Makurdi - Katsina Ala - Takum - Mararaba - Bali – Serti). 2-3 days monkey/chimp safari
2. Medium. Climb Gangirwal. Walk the same way up and down – via Mayo Sabere and Jauro Hamasale. The route is straightforward, with tracks and paths all the way up and down. 6 days total.
3. Difficult. Climb Gangirwal via the circular route. 6 1/2 days for the extremely fit, otherwise 8 1/2 days trekking for the averagely fit

If you’re interested in visiting Gashaka Gumti National Park, the Primate Project, or climbing Gangirwal, contact Professor Volker Sommer: [email protected]


Anonymous,  7:27 pm  

This is lovely. Be nice to read what will surely be more lyrical account,!0 years hence, when '1,000 Memories' has become '2,000 Memories'...

bisola,  9:01 pm  

LMAO @ the goat that fell in lust with ellie!!

Lovely, lovely, lovely, jeremy! I wish i could but 9hrs trekking in one day?????

olu 10:35 pm  

Been awhile since I stopped by. I say this with all compliment J. - reading all of J.'s travels in naija, it is a wierd feeling when a foreign born has explored Naija so intimately, more than a son of the soil. Anyone feel me on this?

Okunrin meta

omidanbellafricaine 11:21 pm  

Oh Wow! I would not even pretend that I'm interested in outdoors. Big city and Bright lights

omidanbellafricaine 11:27 pm  

Oh Wow! I would not even pretend that I'm interested in outdoors. I'll take big city and bright lights any day. I admire your guts.

goy 9:52 am  

Olu, I feel you completely!

Mr Neate and company, well done. The only problem is that my wife now wants to do it the next time we visit Naija, and I'm not quite sure how to dissuade her...I don't do outdoors terribly well

Anonymous,  10:30 am  

My Word! Wow! Absolutely awesome! Fantastic! Gez, i'm astonished , and flabbergasted. I'm enthralled to know you had this wonderful experience in good old Nigeria. It's ironic the majority of Nigerians have no clue about such places in our own country (too busy worrying about what to eat, wear and making money)and are only made aware of such by foreigners like yourself.(Myself included). It gives me joy to know one can have such an experience in Nigeria. Hopefully one day when i'm back home i'll be able to do something similar. I'm truly inspired to say the least. Olu, i sure feel you on this one.

mucky trousers,  11:11 am  

@ Bisola...

Don't laugh - it was seriously traumatic! And, needless to say, my fellow trekkers didn't allow me to forget the encounter, christening me the "Madonna of the Animal Kingdom". Thanks guys.

tobs 6:42 pm  

J, still reading your blog. Wish I'd climbed the mountain with you. The kind of Nigerian adventure most people don't see.

Naapali 3:54 pm  

"A billy-goat reared up at me, then seemed to fall instantly in lust with Ellie, gaining an instant erection. As we left the village, the spurned goat started sucking rather forlornly on its penis."

- a horny narcissistic goat in the Nigerian outback. Who woulda thunk it?
Thanks for the details, I was exhausted just reading it and can only imagine how exhausted you all must have been.

anonymaus,  3:07 pm  

Nice account and a great sense of adventure and enthusiasm you have. When I was younger, it was put out that when we went to Nigeria, we'd go up north to Yankari. That idea was quashed with the cryptic code that "it's not safe" - (only several years later did I realise they were referring to random acts of violence against southerners). On reflection my Dad's family were probably over-reacting, we were just off the plane from England after all, totally unfamiliar with such concepts.

I never knew Nigeria had anything as wild and rugged as Gashaka until relatively recently. I read an account of hiking in Gembu (& Sirte) and found out about Cross River national park.

Thank you for your account.

tobenna 10:18 pm  

Nice post.
You shared the tale in a grand way.
My girl would never agree to go with me on this. Need to get some of me buddies.
Way to go, Jeremy

tobenna 10:18 pm  

Nice post.
You shared the tale in a grand way.
My girl would never agree to go with me on this. Need to get some of me buddies.
Way to go, Jeremy

Chanteuse,  9:34 pm  

Wonderful account of your trip. I read it with fascination while pretending to work at my desk. That climb up the mountain just sounds like it put a hurting on you all. I'm really surprised you guys didn't encounter any snakes. Thanks so much for painting such vivid pictures. Can't wait to move back home.

adamu,  12:18 pm  

the best way to understand and appreciate nature in its natural form is by engaging in wildlife expeditions and outdoor activities.l am a rnager and l recommend that people engage in this would be shocked to realize the healing power it has on the soul..........adamu

usman 1:27 am  

We have organised a Greentrek Nigeria Survival series one in the Gashaka Gumti park, the first to reach the top of the mountain of Death, among 50 participants will get a price of USD$ 66,666.00 AND A 4X4 Ford jeep. this May 2010 visit out website at

ripiye 10:43 pm  

Been to Gashaka - Gumti park. Its a fantastic place. I just wonder how the proposed Mambilla dam project will affect the park.

Accelerando 11:41 am  

hi there,i'm so hyped up about climbin d mountain,ur story is very humorous(climbers) and i commend u guys 4 being very daring.I mailed Professor Volker,but he didnt respond,any help,contact,anyhting!i mite die if i dont climb the mountain of death,hala back anybody.cheers-DBEE

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