tracking gorillas by GPS

Excuse me Mr. Police Officer … Do you know where the village of M’Fou is?

Rutted and ruptured dirt roads. Tiny villages teeming with waving children.  Snakes of cables connecting gadgets keeping us on track… Sort of.

This Saturday we ventured off with some fellow volunteers – Mirjam and Hanno – to one of the few tourist attractions around Yaoundé – the gorilla sanctuary at M’Fou National Park.  Supposedly it was only an hour drive from our home.

We really had no idea where it was, but the guidebook told us it was near the village of M’Fou. We figured Hanno’s handy GPS and detailed global survey maps – which clearly identified M’Fou – would guide us unerringly to our destination.

Our roundabout GPS track

Failing that, we decided we could always just ask for directions.

What we didn’t count on was dated maps and disappeared roads.  While the GPS let us see where on Earth we were, it was helpful villagers who kept us on track to our destination.

After a few false starts and dead ends, we asked an immaculately pressed and beret-ed roadside gendarme (police officer) how we could get to M’Fou.

“Oh, you are very very far away!” he said.  “You need to go all the way back to Yaoundé and then take the highway going east, then south on a small road and then ask people.”


Instead we pulled out Hanno’s laptop and re-synced the GPS.  Finding the roads in question we set off.  After about 45 more minutes we arrived in M’Fou and found very welcoming locals eager to give us directions.

“Go straight ahead and turn right at the next intersection.  Then just follow the signs to the park,” we were told.

Great!  Off we went.

We saw the sign, made the turn, and merged onto a small but serviceable dirt road.  Gradually the road got smaller, the mud-thatch houses yielding ground to lush forests.  Blowing by intersections at 5 kilometres per hour, we frequently stopped, asked villagers where the park was, and backtracked to the indicated cutoff.

The road we took

The roads got smaller.  The ruts got bigger.  The jungle closed closer and closer on all sides.  Thanks to Hanno’s 1987 4×4 Toyota Landcruiser it was a beautiful drive.  Finally after 3 hours 45 minutes and 137 kilometres found the park!  So much for a short 45 minute – 40km – trip!

“We’re sorry sir, it is impossible to visit the park today.  The chief of the village has died,” a villager informed us.  “Come back tomorrow, but take the good road.  The road you took is horrible!”

The road we should have taken


We drove back on the good road and after 10 minutes passed the original gendarme who started our road-about voyage to M’Fou.  We waved frantically at him as we sped by, his shocked face showed his astonishment at our cross-country adventure.  A total of 45 minutes took us all the way home.

Sunday we hopped back into the Landcruiser, sped past the police post, and sauntered down forested paths to see fruit throwing gorillas and poo-flinging chimpanzees.  The sanctuary’s 400 primates – rescued from poachers and pet-seeking homeowners –hoot and howl as they race around hundreds of hectares of lush secondary forest.

The park provides not only a home for the relocated animals, but also work for the village located at the heart.  They work as guides and maintenance crews, and harvest naturally occurring produce – like cacao beans!  The community has a stake in the park’s continued protection.

Cacao pods

So, in the end tracking gorillas by GPS did not work as planned.  Following local directions didn’t quite work as planned either.  Nonetheless, we had a great time.

I’m glad we asked the gendarme where M’Fou was… While the drive to the National Park wasn’t as expected, it did lead to a great outing and – eventually – helped us track down the gorillas!

~ by Greg Spira on September 21, 2010.

3 Responses to “tracking gorillas by GPS”

  1. Talk about being in the bab-boonies!

  2. GORILLAS ? Here we are in the land of Black Tailed Deer, racoons, rabbits, the very occasional mink, and, of course the beloved Orcas. It’s hard to imagine GORILLAS ( love your close up shot)! Very exotic.

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