Each year the red earth thirsts for rain, and tribal kinds harness sacred spirits to summon the abundance of nature once more.

It’s the start of the rainy season in the southwest highlands of Cameroon – the time of year when opalescent thunderheads billow over the mountains, clouds of tiny insects called mote-motes swirl in the humid air and the banks of elephant grass that riot along the red-earth roadcuts seem to grow taller, greener and more vibrant by the day.

A few light, teasing showers have fallen in the past fortnight, freshening the landscape ahead of the thundery rains that are still gathering on the horizon, and a growing sense of expectancy lies over the patchwork of traditional tribal kingdoms that still hold sway up here on the plateau. Good rains bring prosperity, and for that the hopes of the villagers are directed to their local kings, known as ‘Fons’, who are said to possess magical powers of intercession. Cameroon’s national government in Yaoundé may have jurisdiction over the secular world, but when it comes to the forces of nature and, for that matter, grassroots politics, the local Fons are powers to be reckoned with.

In the Fondom of Bafut, perhaps the most venerable of these kingdoms, the approach of the wet season is also when scores of villagers head into the countryside, machetes in hand, to harvest elephant grass. This is used to add a fresh layer of thatch to the roof of the Achum, an imposing 15th-century temple said to be the oldest building in central Africa. Built of massive wooden beams carved with animals, it houses the sacred fetishes used by the Fon and the high priests to commune with the spirits of Bafut’s ancestors.

‘For the next two weeks everybody will be bringing in sheaves of grass to put on the roof,’ says Queen Constance, a smiley woman in a black and gold dress who is one of the Fon of Bafut’s six wives. ‘Hunters will be going into the hills to kill game for a big feast that comes at the end, when the job is finished and the whole community gathers in the palace courtyard to celebrate. It is a joyful time with food and dancing, plenty of palm wine, and everybody sharing everything.’

The annual grass-cutting ceremony in the Fondom of Bafut is not the only great old tribal gala in this gloriously diverse Central African nation, where more than 235 different ethnic groups flourish, animist beliefs run deep, and ties to the land, its bounty and the turn of its seasons remain strong.

Even the name Cameroon comes from the profusion of life at the country’s shores. When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Po sailed along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea near the end of the wet season in 1472, he was astonished by the huge quantities of prawns he saw swarming up the estuary of the Wouri River, near what would one day become the sprawling Cameroonian seaport of Douala. He named the place Rio dos Camarões, the River of Prawns, a moniker which time and the vernacular corrupted to Cameroon.

‘It must have been an amazing sight back then,’ my driver Joseph remarked a few days previously as he drove me across the causeway bridge over the Wouri. We were on the way out of the snarl of Douala’s traffic, with the 4,000-metre bulk of Mount Cameroon looming in the distance, its mass half obscured by smog and thundery haze.

‘Even today, after all these centuries of fishing, it’s still an incredible thing to see the prawns coming up the river,’ Joseph continues. ‘Everybody gathers around to scoop them up and celebrate the end of the rainy season. They come only in November, you see, and when we see them we know the rains are over for the year and the sun is going to come out and shine on us again.’

But the time of sunshine and spicy prawn gumbo is a long way off yet: the clouds are still gathering ahead of the rains to come. The best remedy for the heat is to drive out of town on the endlessly climbing highway, 1,800 metres up onto the lush green volcanic plateau, and follow the 228-mile Bamenda Ring Road. It runs through old colonial towns and tea plantations and past some of Cameroon’s most beautiful scenery – such as the evocative Ekom Falls, near Melong, where the 1984 film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan was filmed.

It is a magical land, where the Fons are said to possess the ability to transform their spirits into animals, sacred lakes and waterfalls have the power to make wishes come true and the old legends and traditions are passed down in the form of art and carvings.

‘Before we had a written language, this is the way we recorded our history,’ says wood carver Peter Banba, as he puts the finishing touches to an elaborate elephant mask at his workshop in the town of Kumbo. The mask is exquisitely sculpted from smooth-grained tropical hardwood, and is surprisingly lightweight for its size, making it comfortable to wear. ‘I’ve made this one with the trunk curving back on itself,’ he explains, holding it up by its looped trunk, ‘because I know the people who are going to be using it will be carrying it around quite a bit.This way, the bentback trunk can also double as a handle.’

An imaginative touch, but then again, here in Cameroon art and function have always existed happily side by side. All the elaborate masks and carvings that are strewn about Peter’s workshop – elephants, crocodiles, baboons and buffalo, the brightly plumed touraco bird, the elaborate funerary headpiece depicting a woman’s careworn face with four imps perched upon her head, and the rows of calabash gourds richly decorated with shells and feathers – have been made to be used, not merely collected as fine art by city folk and admired in glass cases.

‘Even the pieces that I do sell overseas, or to rich people in Yaoundé, often end up being borrowed first, blessed and used by local dancers before I ship them,’ he laughs.

It is a curious world up here, where the notion of sending a scorpion down into its hole to communicate with the souls of the dead rests comfortably beside that of using mobile phones to communicate with the living, and where the magic and highly revered personage of the Fon can also be the headmaster of the local high school.

‘I’m not the headmaster because I am the Fon,’ explains Fon Sintieh II, ruler of the ancient Fondom of Oku. ‘I am the headmaster because I was a qualified teacher before I inherited the title from my father and became the Fon.’

On this particular morning the students at his high school are all having a day out in the school’s gardens, planting and digging in the fertile, red volcanic soil ahead of the coming rains.

‘It is important for everyone to understand how to take care of the land,’ he says, with an easy smile. ‘It is the gift of the gods, and we in Oku have been given a particularly beautiful piece to look after.’

No less beautiful, but vastly different, is the countryside around the village of Rhumsiki, some 600 miles to the north. It’s an hour-long flight from Douala to the far north provincial capital Maroua, and from there a dusty, jolting, three-hour drive to the Mandara Mountains.

This is an otherworldly sort of place – a stony, mountainous landscape dotted with the plugs of ancient, weathered-away volcanoes, some of them towering hundreds of feet above the hilltops. The oven-like heat shimmering the plains around Maroua dissipates as you make the 900-metre elevation gain, and with the shift in climate and landform comes yet another change in cultures – this time to the Kapsiki ethnic group, with their conical, thatched-roof houses.

Local legend has it that Rhumsiki was settled by animist peoples from the northern deserts who fled the advance of Islam in the 18th century. They sought sanctuary in the rough country, where their mounted pursuers would find it hard to track them. And the Kapsiki people have been living here ever since, growing millet and maize in steeply terraced plots, herding livestock, practising their animist faith and weaving the Mandara Mountains’ eerie rock formations into the fabric of their beliefs.

‘Zivi is sacred,’ explains a villager from Rhumsiki named Koda Kodji, pointing to the most spectacular of the needle-like spires, marked on the tourist maps as Kapsiki, or Rhumsiki, Peak. ‘If a child is sick or a woman cannot have a baby we go there, climb as far as we can up its base and make offerings, maybe sacrifice a goat.’

At the moment, though, it is the fertility of the land that concerns them, and the hope for good rains in a few weeks’ time. For it is late in the dry season, when the dusty reddish soil is parched here in the north and the taste of it hangs in the air. ‘When the rains come, this will be green again,’ says Koda, waving a hand over the withered remains of last season’s maize crop.

For the time being, he and his family are preparing by installing fresh layers of thatch on their mud-walled home, a job, he explains, that according to tradition can only be done by family members themselves. ‘You cannot pay for someone to do this.’

The Kodji family are not the only ones tending their roofs at this time of year. Up and down the dusty road into Rhumsiki there are villagers carrying straw – in large bundles balanced on their heads, bigger ones draped across the back of scooters, and still more generous piles perched on the racks of rickety old bicycles. And off in the violet distance behind them, prodding them along in their efforts, are the faint outlines of silvery cumulus clouds boiling up in the haze.

As was the case everywhere else on the African continent, the 20th century was hard on Cameroon’s once-bountiful wildlife, with hunting, poaching and an expanding human population all taking their toll. And so, in 1968, the government established the Waza National Park in the country’s Extreme North Province, the long, slender neck of Cameroon, barely a few miles across, that stretches between the borders of Nigeria and Chad.

Before setting out for Waza, I stop off to consult Zamtue, Rhumsiki’s old crab sorcerer, to see if he can look into the future and tell me whether I am likely to spot any lions there – I’d heard that they were elusive and hard to come by even in the reserve. The only lions I’d seen thus far in my journey were painted beside the entrance to the temple compound in Bafut – reminders of the Fon’s mystical association with the king of beasts and his ability to assume their size and strength.

We sit in the shade beside Zamtue’s home and once I’ve asked my question he brings out an earthen jar containing a live crab, and then produces a large bowl in which he arranges a series of stubby pieces of wood – one representing me, another, my journey, and additional pieces for Africa, Cameroon and lions.

Very gently, he removes the crab from its pot, cups it in his hands and speaks to it in a secret language, then places it in the bowl with the sticks and covers it. After a few minutes, he lifts the cover and studies the way the crab has shifted the sticks. ‘Yes, you will see lions,’ he affirms. ‘And you will see more than one. They will be travelling in pairs.’

It is a five-hour drive over difficult roads from Rhumsiki to Waza, but the journey never lacks interest. You pass towns of acacia-shaded streets and busy markets, and in between there are big dieselbelching trucks hauling heavy freight into Chad, donkeys burdened with straw, and graceful women walking with sets of casserole dishes – the traditional gift to bring to a wedding – stacked upon their heads. Most adventurous of all are the tough, sinewy cyclists who’ve just made the run across the porous border with Nigeria, a scant two miles away, carrying up to 100 litres of smuggled kerosene on their rickety old French porteur bicycles. And everywhere you look there’s a sense of the passing seasons – mountains of just-harvested onions in one village, baskets of ripened mangoes in another, as the crops are gathered in ahead of the rain.

The breathless heat at Waza makes that of Douala and the coast seem like a sweet wish. This is the season the locals call ‘houlou’, the build-up to the wet, when the mercury can soar well above 50°C and winds kick up the ochre dust and give the afternoon sky a heavy, sooty texture.

The landscape in the reserve is parched, the acacia scrub withered and the soil dry, thirsty for the coming rains. Waterholes have shrunk to muddy pools. The park’s great herds of elephants have all decamped to greener pastures many miles away, leaving behind only their axle-breaking footprints in the cracked mud around the waterholes. Lions seem thin on the ground.

There are giraffes aplenty, herds of antelope too, and wild pigs, monkeys, jackals and brilliantly coloured birds. And then, with the boiling red African sun declining and time seemingly running out on the crab sorcerer’s prediction, a brace of tawny lions gazes out coolly from the shade of an acacia. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the pair of lions – symbol of kings – painted on the entrance to the temple complex at the Fondom of Bafut so many miles away.

In the evening, the skies pulse with lightning, but there is nothing yet to relieve the heat. It’s just another dry run for the storms that are coming, the seasonal rains that will test the new thatch and the old faiths of Cameroon, from the cool heights of the Fondom of Bafut to the eerie vistas around Rhumsiki. And then the skies will clear, the prawns will return to the river and the sun will smile once more.

Roff Smith is an author and regular contributor to Lonely Planet Magazine.

The article 'Before the storm in Cameroon' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.