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A trip to Ekok

Deep in the Cameroonian forest, there is an enormous rock called Ekok.

<A Strange Symbol>

The first time that I became aware of the name Ekok was when I was examining a map of the southeastern region of Cameroon.

In the summer of 1999, I was staying in Ndongo, a village located on the banks of the Dja River that flows along the border between Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo, continuing anthropological research on the Baka pygmies. Upon entering the 1990s, due to the civil war that had broken out it became difficult to continue research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Thus, our research group set out to find a new field site in the tropical rainforests of Cameroon.

Up to this point, more than 10 faculty and graduate students in total have visited various parts of this region conducting research on pygmies and farming groups. Getting around requires a four wheel drive vehicle, and, as such, it require a lot of planning. Staring at a map and recalling the locations of each researcher, I would work out transportation routes, saying, for example, “I’ll send a car to A’s field site, then pick up B on the way home and take them to the capital city, Yaounde, and then….”

It was when I was making such plans that I saw strange symbol labeled with the place name Ekok Edanbawa, far to the south of where I used to hike and conduct surveys, deep in the forest where there were no roads. The symbol, which looked somewhat like a lighthouse, was not listed in the map’s explanatory notes and could not be found elsewhere on the map. “What in the world is this?” I asked as the exotic sounding Ekok and the symbol were indelibly etched in the back of my mind.

<The Forest Road>

After asking several people in the field, I learned that Ekok was some sort of enormous rock. No one from Ndongo village had ever been to the rock, but its existence was well known. From this as well as its strange representation on the map, I guessed that it was a kind of “famous place.”

Ekok is located deep in the forest, many miles beyond the last point accessible by motor vehicle. There is, however, a small footpath continuing on from that point. People living in the forest walk many days along this path to visit distant villages deep in the forest. I thought that I, too, would like to visit the many villages along this path and made plans to do so.

Many timber companies are active in this area. Every day, many tens of trucks laden with giant logs go back and forth along the well-maintained main thoroughfare. The daily lives of area residents are, naturally, greatly affected by the presence of this road. Material goods continue to pour into the area. Trucks come to buy cacao, a cash crop grown in the area. The demand for wild animal meat and dried fish to be sold to the timber companies continues to increase.

While these lifestyle changes are indeed interesting, I felt that what I really wanted to see was how forest dwellers in the area had lived since ancient times. Furthermore, given the push to establish a new national park in the area, understanding the impact that these forest residents have on the local wildlife is an important theme of our investigation.

During the fall 2001 fieldwork season, I visited Ms. Shiho Hattori, a graduate student conducting research on pygmies in Malea-Ancien village near Ekok. (Visit this website to read more about Hattori’s experiences in Malea.) The road had been extended to Malea, making it possible to get to the village by car. “Somewhere in the woods over there, there’s a rock with a spectacular view,” commented Ms. Hattori in her Kansai dialect. “You mean Ekok?” I answered without skipping a beat, also in my Kansai dialect.

So, after I had finished with my fieldwork and before returning for Yaounde, it was decided that I, Ms. Hattori, and two other graduate students who were in the area conducting different research (Hirokazu Yasuoka and Kagari Shikata) would visit Ekok.

<A Giant Rock?>

On the morning of December 9th, I packed up my field site in Ndongo village and set out for Malea. On the way, I picked up Ms. Shikata from Batiga village, who was scheduled to return to Japan. She was suffering from inflamed tonsils as a result of overwork prior to completing her fieldwork. She gave up on the plan to visit Ekok with us and decided to rest at Ms. Hattori’s residence in Malea.

Ms. Hattori’s Residence in Malea

We arrived in Malea at three in the afternoon and were welcomed by Ms. Hattori. (Mr. Yasuoko was in Zoulabot-Ancien village located further along the path). We learned about Ekok from Mr. Bala , Ms. Hattori’s informant who had agreed to come with us. “It’s huge,” “If you climb on top, you can see for miles,” “You can see airplanes flying below.” Taking the last comment with several grains of salt, the informant’s descriptions certainly filled us with anticipation.

However, we knew that we shouldn’t expect too much. That field season, Ms. Shikata had heard from villagers that there was “an enormous grass field in the middle of the woods.” But when she was taken to the spot, it was much smaller than she had been led to believe, to the point that it was a struggle to feign amazement for the villagers that had brought her there. “What if it’s just a rock?” she asked.

The only way we would find out was to go. We were most likely the first Japanese people to visit Ekok. We hadn’t heard of any Japanese researchers being in the area before, and it was too far out of the way for the average tourist to visit. (Although it seems it had been visited by many white people before.)

I had studied the route on the map intensively prior to setting out. The motorway ends at Malea. From that point on, there is a narrow footpath leading into the woods. After walking two and a half hours, we arrived at Zoulabot-Ancien village, where Mr. Yasuoka was conducting research. There was one spot along the way where we had to take a boat across a river. Approximately 5 km past Zoulabot village was Gato village. There are no permanent villages beyond that point, but the path continues on. According to the map, Ekok Edanbawa is located 15 km from Gato village as the crow flies.

If we were going to make a day trip to Ekok and back from Gato village, we would have to walk 30 km. Since the path was through the forest, the distance was certain to be longer than it looked on paper. While it would not have been impossible, considering Ms. Hattori’s strength, the wise choice would be to bring a tent and spend the night somewhere en route. That would mean that we would have to bring along several guide/porters as well as food. We asked Mr. Bala to select some porters and prepared food to bring.

From left to right, Kimura, Hattori, and Shikata in front of Hotel Meumi Palace in Yaounde.

<The March>

On December 10th, I awoke shortly after 5 am and, after getting ready, enjoyed a breakfast of baton de manioc (cassava flour kneaded in water, wrapped and steamed in a large marantase leaf, with the texture of uiro but without the sweetness), oil sardines, papaya, and boiled corn.


It ended up that Mr. Bala did not go with us, but his brother, Mr. Adrian, did. We were also accompanied by two youngsters―Samson, a Konabembe, and Nola, a Baka pygmy. Our expedition consisted of three Japanese (Kimura, Hattori, and Yasuoka) and three Cameroonians.


We left Malea village at 7:50. On the way out we bought baton de manioc for food. After crossing the Bek River, we arrive at 10:35 at Zoulabot village, where Mr. Yasuoka was waiting. Mr. Yasuoka was in the midst of printing out his manuscript on damage caused by Japanese macaque, which he had not been able to finish in Japan, saying that it was “perfect.” He waivered a little about whether he would join us, but in the end he did. After eating lunch, we left at 12:57.

At 14:13, we arrived in Gato village, the final permanent settlement on the path. A river otter was being cooked in the assembly house. For food on the trip, we bought meat of a Peter’s duiker, known locally as gendi. We wanted to leave quickly, but Adrian and the others were dillydallying and we couldn’t get going. I was getting frustrated.

We finally left the village at 16:15. We waded across Rebe River. We crossed a number of small rivers after that point, but in each case the areas alongside the rivers were like muddy rice paddies and our feet sank in up to our ankles. We had to march, struggling to pull our feet out of the mud at each step. At 17:22, we arrived at a camping area known as peti. There were a number of abandoned mongulus (dome-shaped houses) used by Baka pygmies, but no people in sight. The three Cameroonians decided to sleep in these mongulus, while each of the Japanese set up their own tents. Some time after 21:00, we had our guides haul some water and cook the meat and fufu (a porridge made from ground cassava). From the forest, we could hear the lonely cry of something, perhaps a tree hyrax.




From left to right, Nola, Samson, and Adrian

On December 11th, some time before 8 am, the chief of Gato village, whom we had asked to guide us, arrived. After a breakfast of meat and fufu, we departed the camp at 8:37.

At 9:39 we crossed a small river. Immediately after crossing the river we saw the remains of a hunting camp. Although there are no permanent settlements, numerous small-scale camps such as these are scattered throughout this area. After this point, we crossed a number of rivers until a little before noon. Just as before, it was a difficult slog through muddy fields. At 11:50, after passing through a dry stand of Bemba monoculture, Adrian announced that “the Ekok has already started.” We saw a large black form rising in front of us. It was a mountain. Ekok was indeed a large rock!

It was right before the entry point of the mountain that we realized that Mr. Yasuoka was not with us. I had thought he was behind me, but that was Samson and Nola. It was a careless mistake. We repeatedly called out “Yasuoka,” “Mr. Yasuoka!” (Ms. Hattori), but there was no response. Samson immediately started to make his way back along the path, all the while yelling “Yasoka!...Yasoka!” We couldn’t do anything but wait, so Ms. Hattori and I decided to sit down. At 12:22 Mr. Yasuoka finally came into view. It seems that as soon as he realized that he had lost us, he calmly stayed in the same place.


<Ekok Edanbawa>

We began to climb the slopes of Ekok. As we got closer, we realized that it was not so much a mountain as a dome-shaped rock. It appeared to be highly viscous lava that had solidified, and hardly any grass grew on its surface. It was a strange sight, like the surface of an alien planet. Its slope, which was steep at first, became increasingly gradual as we approached the top. We climbed quickly, taking care not to fall and possibly tumble off the rock.

When we reached the top, we could see that it was flat for quite a distance on the other side. We were completely above the canopy of the rainforest, so we must have been some 80 meters above the ground. Why was there such a rock in this place? Can it be explained geologically, and has anyone ever tried to study it?

While it was a little low to see airplanes flying below, it was indeed possible to see the vast Cameroonian forest spreading around it. I took a series of photos covering 360° with the goal of compiling them later into a single panorama. If transportation were more convenient, it would likely have become a famous tourist spot, and its nickname would perhaps have been, “Cameroon’s Ayers Rock.”

But for now, the view was for us alone, who had made the difficult trek.










<The Return Journey>

We left at 13:30, after a lunch of baton de manioc and oil sardines. We returned following the path by which we had arrived. We could wash our shoes, but soon thereafter, we would again have to slog our way through mud. Looking at my field notes and the times listed, I calculated when we would reach the next river, then the next, and so on. As we approached the peti where we had slept the night before, our paced dropped dramatically. Ms. Hattori’s footfalls were coming slower and slower.


At 16:55 we arrived at the peti. After sitting down to rest for a bit, Adrian leaned his head to one side and signaled for us to go. Ms. Hattori remained sitting, saying that that was “impossible.” In the end, we decided to stay there one more night. We made rice with oil sardines and tomatoes. It was delicious, but I must have been tired as I did not have much of an appetite. We chatted until just before 9 pm and then went to sleep.

On December 12th, I awoke at around 4:30 in the morning. We left camp at 7:31. Crossing back over Rebe River, we arrived in Gato village at 8:47. On the way, Ms. Hattori developed a shoe sore that seemed to really bother her, so I lent her my rubber thongs that I had with me. Adrian got his hand on some strong liquor in Gato village and began drinking. It was a boneheaded move since we still had to keep walking.


We arrived in Zoulabot village at 11:04. Mr. Yasuoka was going to join us later after tidying up his things. We crossed over the Bek River and arrived at 14:00 in Malea village, where Ms. Shikata was waiting for us. She served us rice balls and dry curry with a smile on her face.

<From Satellite Images>

Calculating the longitude and latitude based on the “strange symbol” on the map and looking on Google Earth, I was able to confirm the location of Ekok. Perhaps because it is a bald, vegetation-less rock, in the satellite images it appears red.

Its location is north 2 degrees, 44 minutes, 32 seconds east 14 degrees, 25 minutes, 13 seconds. Using the measure feature in Google Earth, I identified it to be approximately 370 meters wide (east to west) and 200 meters long (north to south).