Kribi, a small beach resort by the Atlantic Ocean close to Equatorial Guinea, is the last stop of my journey through the West African country of Cameroon.
The town is known for the spectacular Lobé Falls nearby, which tumble over black volcanic rocks into the ocean. Spray flies in the bright sunlight to create rainbow prisms. South Africa is the only other country on the continent where waterfalls spill directly into the sea. All around I see kilometers of untouched golden beach, with barely a person in sight. Upriver from the falls, Kola pygmies live in the dense rainforest among lowland gorilla and elephants, only 80 km away.
I am staying at Hotel Ilomba, a hotel opened in the early 1990s by Therese Osih, a Swiss woman who has lived here for 45 years, and her late Cameroonian husband. With just 20 rooms, the popular hotel is booked months ahead, usually by expatriates. Therese wears elegant West African dresses in vibrant patterns that she has a local tailor make from cloth bought in the market. The rooms are spacious and light, with white linen, and brightened by a few pieces of exquisite African art, mostly from Foumban and the surrounding region. My room is high on a hill and looks out on a thick tropical garden full of flowers, birds singing and big sea views.
Sitting on the restaurant terrace at night, looking out over the ocean, I see lights twinkling on the horizon. This is the controversial Chad-Cameroon pipeline, built in 2003 at a cost of $3.7 billion. “It’s the largest infrastructure project ever in Sub-Saharan Africa,” a man nearby tells me. “But, as usual, you don’t see any wealth generated from it in the neighboring area. It carries oil from Chad, which is landlocked, and 90 percent of it runs through once-pristine rainforest in Cameroon, ending in Kribi.”
Aside from this major blot, the beaches appear as they must have for years. Turtles wander up onto the sands, despite the fact local people like to eat them. “I have tried for years to protect them,” says Therese. “But the fishermen catch them and then tell tourists they will only release them for money. The turtle is freed, but the same fisherman just catches it again a few hours later.” She half laughs at how futile the situation is. Lying in the warm shallow clear sea, I savor the idyllic scene: a fisherman in his pirogue casting nets, and a tiny church spire which peeps out from the line of tropical forest.
Along the never-ending beach are a few simple restaurants. They consist of a few chairs and a table crudely made from bamboo, covered with a tablecloth on which is displayed some freshly cut frangipani flowers. I turn up at one that seems deserted but then the owner, Pierre, emerges from the forest. There is no menu but he asks what I want, then slips his pirogue into the water and goes off fishing. My supper will be ready for me later.
That evening, I return to find Pierre busy cooking a huge fish on a fire flickering behind a simple banana frond shelter. He serves it with fried plantain and fresh pineapple and it is one of the best meals I have ever tasted. His job done, Pierre retires to a hammock, swinging in the trees while I watch the sun go down over the gentle surf. It can take time to adjust to this country but it soon works its magic, willing you to return.
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