Sunday, March 24, 2013

Vicarious Tourism: Mount Nimba

Iron ore up close
The high point - both literally and figuratively - of the trip I went on with the ambassador to N'zerekore was the day we spent hiking Mount Nimba, the tallest peak in West Africa. Mount Nimba and the surrounding territory is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a nature reserve with tremendous biodiversity, home to numerous species unique to the area and groups of chimpanzees that use stone tools. The multitude of streams that start in the mountains provide invaluable water supplies for the nearby area and beyond; many of them eventually form the Niger River, West Africa's most important water source. The mountain is truly a treasure worth preserving.

However, all this biological abundance is rather inconveniently situated right on top of the world's richest deposit of iron ore - up to 90% pure iron. It's so soft you can dig it out of the mountain with your fingernails. Mining this stuff could do great things for the country's economy, which is sorely in need of a boost, but could also put all of that natural wealth at risk. Local populations have taken a toll on the area too through poaching for bushmeat and slash-and-burn agriculture, both disasters to an threatened ecosystem like Nimba.

It was a rare privilege to be in the mountains. As a strict nature reserve tourism is not allowed and access to the area is highly controlled. But being the Ambassador of the United States of America opens some doors, and I got to ride his coattails to a place few people get to see. And my god, was it ever worth seeing. The views from the top were spectacular, encompassing parts of Guinea, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. Neither the tool-using chimps nor the much-talked-about Nimba toad put in an appearance, but we did get to see a cave that's home to a protected colony of bats. Nature also taunted me with a bird whose call sounds exactly like the plunky chirp of the iPhone ringtone, making me constantly check my pocket for a phone that wasn't there. I'm such a city girl.

In short, visiting Mount Nimba was a wonderful and unique experience. Putting together a trip for an ambassador can be a pretty stressful task, but this day alone made it well worth all the trouble.

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