Tarzan’s bewitching jungle home
The legend of Tarzan is so entwined with West Africa that it’s hard to know where to begin. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, first published 100 years ago as Tarzan of the Apes, tells the story of John Clayton, a child born to a pair of shipwrecked aristocrats and raised by apes in the coastal jungles of equatorial Africa, eventually living out his days as the king of the jungle. Burroughs penned 27 Tarzan books, taking Clayton from boy to breast-beating ape man, and more than 90 screen versions have followed, making him one of the most familiar characters ever created. But central to this famous story is the bewitching African jungle.
While Burroughs never said exactly where Tarzan was set, Cameroon’s sandy beaches, imposing jungle and ape sanctuaries seem like a good bet – so much so that the West African country was chosen as the setting for the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.
Today, the country is filled with telling references to the Lord of the Apes legend. Here’s how find your own Tarzan adventure.
From the frenetic, pulsating Atlantic port city of Douala, Cameroon’s coast curves up past thickets of rubber trees and banana plantations to the laidback beach town of Limbe, 70km north. Here, a series of black, sandy beaches run toward the border with Nigeria, and it’s the kind of place where a marooned survivor like Tarzan’s co-star Jane could have washed up. Nowadays Limbe’s main strip is home to colourful wooden fishing boats and rows of corrugated iron barbeque shacks offering the very best of Cameroonian cuisine: you-buy-they-grill fish, served with hot sauce and barbequed corn.
On the lower flanks of Mt Cameroon – West Africa’s most volatile volcano – Limbe Wildlife Centre rehabilitates and protects Tarzan’s compatriots from both deforestation and West Africa’s lucrative and illegal bush-meat trade. One of Africa’s most celebrated centres for ape, chimpanzee and gorilla rescue and research, the centre has dozens of enclosures, allowing visitors to have chest-beating encounters with up to 16 different types of primates – including the world’s largest colony of drill monkeys, which are endangered and exceptionally rare. So many primates need help that the centre has outgrown its base, so plans are now afoot to open a second visitor centre in Mt Cameroon’s foothills; the outdoor monkey playground concept is based around a series of rainforest canopy platforms.
Cameroon’s interior of lush green rainforests is home to some of the world’s largest populations of silverback gorillas, chimps and apes. This is quintessential Tarzan territory – especially in the foothills of Mt Cameroon. The perfect conical peak, the 4,040m crater looms over the Gulf of Guinea and can be summited on a three-day trek. The Netherlands-based Zwinkels Tours runs a variety of tailor-made tours in the area, including bird watching safaris and strenuous volcano hikes.
Farther inland and 306km northeast, the cooler hill towns of Bamenda and Bafut are home to tribal monarchies dating back some 400 years. Descendants of the original lineage of kings still maintain law and order over the local townsfolk from mud and bamboo palaces. Should you time it right, you might meet the current reigning sovereign – the Fon, or king – on a tour of his residence, the Bafut Palace and Museum.
Zwinkels Tours operates the most welcoming guesthouses in the area, Zwinkels House and Trekkers Camp Belo. From there, it is possible to visit both Ndawara Highland Tea, the largest tea plantation in West Africa, and the Foumban Royal Palace, the residence of a neighbouring king whose dynasty was founded in 1394.
When production scouts wanted to find the perfect home for Christopher Lambert’s loincloth-wearing Tarzan in the 1984 Greystoke film, they chose Ekom-Nkam Falls, a waterfall in the jungles surrounding Nkongsamba. Dotted with the odd coffee plantation, the lush, green foothills are blanketed in beautiful mosses, lichens, creepers, vines and mahogany trees, some of which grow to 60m tall. In the midst of this is the thundering twin waterfall, a dual cascade that plummets down from a jaw-dropping 82m-high escarpment into a Utopian misted-ravine below. Talk about the ultimate Tarzan hideout.
Local teenagers, who were not even born when film crews rolled into town three decades ago, have learned how to earn a quick dollar from the odd tourist group that finds its way to the falls. Before you can say Tarzan, they race up the nearby trees and begin to imitate the king of the jungle’s famous call – while beating their chests and swinging back and forth from creeper to vine. It is the ultimate surreal, and storybook, finale for a Tarzan-themed journey in Cameroon.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the colour of the sand on Limbe’s beaches. This has been fixed.