Mike MacEacheran | 100 Years of Tarzan, Cameroon, B Spirit (Brussels Airlines)
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100 Years of Tarzan, Cameroon, B Spirit (Brussels Airlines)

“Ka, ka, ka, ka*.” There is a monkey on my back. Not in the idiomatic sense, but literally, as I grapple with a baby chimpanzee called Lolo, its four fingers and thumb firmly clenched to my wrist. The strength takes me by surprise. “Does she bite?” I ask Killi Matute, the handler and keeper who has carefully led me into the enclosure. She may not pose any serious threat, he replies, but the three-year-old has mischief on her mind. Before I leave the sanctuary I find that my shoelaces have been untied and there is a squashed banana on the back of my trousers.

This year is the centenary of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, first published as a book in 1914, and I have come to West Africa to live out a boy’s own Tarzan adventure. Since publication, the story of the jungle homo sapiens has been turned into dozens of children’s books, pulp spin-offs, Hollywood movies (who can forget Johnny Weissmuller or Christopher Lambert in a loincloth in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes), a Disney cartoon and less memorable adaptations – including an erotic version starring former pin-up Bo Derek. The novel tells the story of John Clayton, born in the western coastal jungles of equatorial Africa, and, while Burroughs never outlines exactly where Tarzan learns to become the king of the jungle, Cameroon is its most likely setting.

For a number of reasons, it is the ultimate West African experience. The port city of Douala is a pulsating, unpredictable hotbed, home to sailors and safari-goers, touts and tricksters. The coast curves past thickets of rubber trees and banana plantations to the laidback beach town of Limbe, where silverbacks and chimps fool around in the rainforest canopies below Mount Cameroon, West Africa’s most volatile volcano. North, the road cuts its way through dense jungle foliage to the cooler hills of Bamenda and Bafut, home to ancient tribal monarchies and mud-hut palaces, where the kings and queens maintain law and order to this day. As I find out, they can still be bought off for a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of hooch and a couple of chickens.

It’s the jungle and apes that have brought me here, though, and at Limbe Wildlife Centre, set up to rehabilitate and protect Tarzan’s closest allies from deforestation and the lucrative bush-meat trade, its possible to have a nose-to-nose encounter with up to 16 different primates – including the world’s largest colony of drill monkeys.

“They call it the Dodo, but we are bringing them back from the brink,” says project manager Ainare Idoiaga. “We have 98 – but back in 1997 the species was listed as extinct.” Should you want to help out, it’s possible to sponsor a drill monkey or go one better and adopt a gorilla for 50,000 CFA ($100).

My next stop is at Ekom Falls in the jungles surrounding Nkongsamba. These are lush, green foothills blanketed in mosses, lichens, and mahogany trees, some of which grow to 60m. This is where Hollywood camped out when it wanted to find the perfect habitat for Christopher Lambert’s Tarzan: the falls cascade from a gorgeous 82m-high escarpment, into a utopian misted-ravine below.

As if it couldn’t get any more cinematic, Joseph Epoh, a local who was just a boy when the Tarzan circus rolled into his village, suddenly approaches me. He races up a nearby tree wearing dark-green rubber boots and begins to ape the king of the jungle’s famous call, all the while beating his chest and swinging back and forth from creeper to vine. Seriously, there could be no better place for a Tarzan-wannabe. It may be a surreal end to my journey, but if you can’t beat them, join them: “Ahhhh Ah Ah Ah Ahhhhhaaaaa!”

Photography: Daniel Di Paolo