22nd February 2005 to 20th March 2005
Borders crossings here in Africa are starting to take on a familiar shape. A group of very run down buildings and make shift barrier, if you are very lucky a sign proclaiming what country you are about to enter and always a long wait. The locals meanwhile come and go crossing back and forth between one country and another at will. The border to Cameroon at Ekang was just one of these. We left Nigeria and crossed a short rickety bridge and were in Cameroon. Immigration formalities over, we then had to wait for someone to fetch the customs official to stamp the carnet. It was quite late when we finally officially entered Cameroon so we had to find somewhere to sleep and fast. One of the areas many crater lakes, was quite close by so we decided to check it out. Lake Ejagham was a beautiful spot with hard standing for the vehicles above the forest lined lake, we were a bit concerned by the old colonial style building there, but on finding it deserted relaxed a little. It also helped that a local business man from a neighbouring village was there bathing with his sister and daughter and reassured us that it is a peaceful spot and no problem to camp. It is always a concern camping close to the border from a security point of view. As we were hot and sweaty Blanca and I decided to go for a dip in the lake and were surprised to find it very warm almost like a bath. Made a big change from the usual cold showers and provided a little relief from all the small biting flies that seem to inhabit these places. We had a very quiet night but were woken up at five by a group of nine guys who appeared to be just hanging around. Where these the robbers and bandits of our fears?
At seven I decided to see what was going on and was relived to find that they were just a group of trainee motor mechanics here to chill out before going to college.
We had seen some photos of the piste ahead from other travellers, lots of mud and very deep holes and so we were fearing the worst. The local authority must have seen the photos too and quickly repaired the piste which was freshly graded and smooth. Just have to watch for the Toyota Starlets fully loaded with extra passengers hanging on to the bonnet and boot for dear life that travel this route. Eventually the guys left crammed in to their Starlet and headed off to college. It was time for us to move too, so we headed for Mamfe and the promise of some local currency and to get some provisions. The piste was good and the surrounding country side fabulous, thick lush green rain forest and very mountainous. It’s a relief to see that some of real original Africa still remains, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess, in a country were slash and burn is the norm. Fantastic to look at and drive through but absolutely hopeless if you want to bush camp! When we at last found a spot, it was a small clearing right next to the road. Camping in full view is usually a no, no but we had no choice, it was the only clearing we’d seen all afternoon. Still we’d only seen a couple of cars all day, so hardly an abundance of bandits and robbers. Some passing palm oil farmers stopped for a chat and to see what we were doing. At six the following morning they returned smartly dressed and with a photographer. One of the guys brought along his father to meet us. The old man in his eighties brought along a tortoise shell seat and a two meter long cross bow or “bush gun” to show us. The “bush gun” he assured me was a very dangerous weapon and that he used it to kill squirrels. Then followed a demonstration, after a big struggle with a lot of stressing and straining the “gun” was primed and ready, he took aim and fired. The bamboo arrow flew about a meter before falling to the ground. Not quite the weapon of mass destruction that I had been expecting and I had to struggle to stifle a laugh. Everybody else was up now so the photos could begin. Blanca asked if some local women on their way to work in the bush could join us but was informed no because they were to dirty. We were presented with a pineapple as a gift before we parted company and went our separate ways.
Strange this travelling life we lead always full of surprises.
Bamenda had a cash point, a supermarket and a very large market, time to shop. We needed provisions, fruit, veg and some African sandals for us boys. With all our stocks replenished we headed for the Presbyterian mission and the promise of a shower. Who should we meet here but Heidi and Koen, they had been there for a few days and were busy chilling out. It was a nice place so we decided to stop and rest before heading for the “Ring Road,” a very hard and demanding 367km circular piste through some of the most beautiful and varied countryside that Cameroon has to offer. The Ring Road was too hard for Heidi and Koen so we left them behind chilling. First stop was Wum and another crater lake called funnily enough Lake Wum. The guide book says that it is no problem to camp at the lake as long as you seek permission from the local council. We parked up and went to see if it was ok. The Senior Divisional Officer could see no problem but would have to speak to the Chief of the Lake. We returned to the others by the lake to await his arrival. The chief arrived dressed in his ceremonial robes, took off his black and white golf shoes, rolled up his trousers and waded in to the lake. After a quick chat with the spirits of the lake he said that the spirits had no problem with us sleeping there, providing we made a donation. We felt that an appropriate amount was 2000cfr about £2 the usual price. This was not quite the amount that the spirits had in mind and the Chief left. His assistant later returned and said that the amount that they were thinking of was more in the region of 50,000cfr about €70, slightly more than our budget would allow so we agreed to finish our meal and move on. It was dark and would be very difficult to find somewhere to stay, fortunately the Senior Divisional Officer arrived to save the day and offered us a place to stay in his garden with a fantastic view of the lake and the use of a guest chalet with toilet, etc which we gratefully accepted. It was a great spot and we spent the evening talking to his brother Yves about Africa and its problems. It was particularly interesting to get an educated African view and gives one hope for the future of this great country.
Early the following morning a small motorbike arrived with two police men and its owner, who demanded to see our papers and that we then accompany them to the police station to see the chief of police. The police chief had been informed that a group of tourists were camping by the lake and had dispatched these men to round us up. We explained to them what had happened the night before with the Chief of the lake along with the size of the “donation” required, that we were actually camping here at the SDO invitation and would not be going anywhere until we had breakfast. As we were certainly not moving they sent the bike back to relate the story to the chief of police. The bike eventually returned, the police men apologised and left. When we saw the SDO later on that morning we conveyed the tale of the morning’s events and he phoned the chief of police to explain the situation and ensure that the mater was well and truly closed. We left Lake Wum and headed back to the Ring Road, a few to many chiefs for one night.
After Wum the road began to deteriorate in a big way although it had been freshly graded in parts the new rains had already begun to take their toll. Some of the inclines were so steep that they had to be taken in low ratio with rocky bands hampering the mountain climbing and creating little shrieks from the Spaniard whenever Grommet rolled back. On one such hilly jungle edged section the Germans had a little incident, with the rear wheel of the Ifa slipping in to a deep gully on the apex of a particularly tight right hand bend. The only thing that saved them from even bigger trouble was the axel and in particular the diff-lock mechanism had snagged on a large rock. We in the meanwhile had travelled a further couple of kilometres and were waiting for them to catch up unaware of the drama behind us. Luckily I just heard Judith’s calls for help as Blanca said “drive on they will be here soon!” Turning Grommet around on a very tight piste we had our own little drama, I managed to back Grommet in to our own unseen gully bending the wheel carrier and snapping the top tube. We headed back along the piste collecting an exhausted Judith along the way, she had run after us trying to attract our attention. At the bend the sight that greeted us was not a pretty one the Ifa stuck with its chassis and springs twisted at a torturous angle. Ralph was already underneath trying to relive the strain on the axel with a jack. The impact of the rock had cracked the diff-lock casing and it was now losing oil. No time to lose, I cleared the foliage from the side of the road to access the ditch. It didn’t look good, the ditch was at least a meter deep and the wheel was clear of the bottom. With a combination of the High Lift jack and a hydraulic jack we slowly raised the eight tonne Ifa, placing more and more rocks under the wheel until with a combination of Grommet pulling and Ralph driving the Ifa was back with all four wheels on the piste. We moved a short distance up the piste to where the ground was level and there was just enough room to park and repair the damaged axel with araldite. Blanca and Judith meanwhile set up camp on the piste and began to prepare the dinner. So much for camping in a discrete location of the piste, you couldn’t get much closer than this! We were so close in fact that when some locals brought their cattle past I had to jump out of the way for fear of being gored! I half expected Blanca to leap from the tent red towel in hand shouting “Toro, Toro” in a tight gold outfit. By the morning the Ifa was fit to move and we set off for the crater Lake Nyos and the scene of a natural disaster when a cloud of poison gas erupted from the lake and drifted down the valley killing 3000 people as it went. Along the way we stopped at the spectacular Menchum Falls were the river Menchum crashes down a rocky Cliffside.
Following the lake we were back in the valley with Grommet high grass all around, giving way to pastureland and lots of small villages and of cause no where to camp. It was getting late and out of desperation we pulled on to a small clearing on a sharp bend beside the road on a very steep hill. Despite it being close to the road, we have camped closer, we deduced that vehicles going down the hill would have too much momentum to stop and those on their way up would want to preserve their momentum and would also not want to stop. This proved to be the case. We sat in peace tucking in to a huge salad with mashed potatoes and Blanca’s freshly made guacamole. As we ate we gazed across the valley at the hillside opposite as the bush fires burned late in to the night.
Before breakfast I had a little work to do on Grommet, the hard piste had caused the anti-roll bar to move and this was now touching the chassis on one side. The two local guys who we had met the night before as peanut farmers had now returned and were now of course, mechanics and in the African tradition very keen to get the hammers out! Soon the underside of Grommet was very busy indeed and with a lot of patience, I managed to remove and relocate the bar without my new “assistants” breaking anything. Then after a celebratory breakfast of Nigerian cornflakes, I broke a tooth. We set off now for Kumbo and a dentist. The road now took us through a small national park that resembled the Scottish Moreland’s rather than Africa apparently there are buffalo and baboon here but we couldn’t see any, and I would guess that there was probably very little wild life left as there was no charge to enter the park and the piste was in a terrible state.
We stopped just outside the park at the little village of Kimbi. While the others went in search of provisions, I remained with the vehicles. One of the villagers arrived, then followed a very strange “Peter Sellers style” conversation. He said that “You are wanted by the Fon to which I replied that was impossible as nobody new that I was here. “No you have to have to talk to the Fon.” “No, I’m sorry but I don’t know anyone here!” “No you must talk to the Fon.” “No its to expensive for me to use the mobile phone here.” The man was so insistent that I talked to the Fon it only dawned on me that the Fon was in fact the local chief when he said that the Fon was sitting in the bar behind a tree. I followed the man and found the Fon , a young African guy in his 30’s wearing a track suit and trainers, with his body guard and adviser, not quite what I was expecting! We conversed via his body guard until he felt that he had “warmed up enough to be able to talk for himself!” I explained all about us and our trip, etc and eventually managed to escape, only to be pursued by his assistant once again who stated “Some times the Palace is dry!” My reply “So!” “Do you have any wine?” “No!” “Do you have any beer?” “No!” “Do you have any money with which the Palace may buy some beer?” “No!” We left stating next time……..
The piste to Kumbo passes through one of Cameroon’s largest tea plantations with hillsides carpeted in green before turning to asphalt and the descent to the town. It was here on a particularly rough section that I heard a loud bang from the rear of Grommet. He had broken a rear leaf spring, fortunately just the top leaf but it didn’t look good. At the Hospital/Dentist they let us camp for free, right next to their vehicle maintenance work shop. Ralph and I set to work, he had some thick steel flat bar which we cut in to four lengths and drilled, then with a combination of jacking and clamping we managed to realign the spring in true “bush repair fashion.” With a bit of luck this would get us to Yaounde and DHL’s office and the new springs that I had ordered from England.
The dentist was great in two hours my tooth was drilled and filled for €5 with a white filling, a very professional job despite the very Victorian looking equipment. We could now move on and should be in Yaounde in a few days plenty of time for the springs to arrive DHL “Express Delivery” and for us to check out the Sultans Palace with its excellent museum at Foumban on route.
We arrived in Yaounde and the Presbyterian Guest House on the Sunday afternoon, the bush repair had held up well, in fact very well indeed, but I had managed to break another tooth but on the other side of my mouth so no more Nigerian cornflakes!
The guest house is perfect, nice and quiet but also very central for all that we need. Monday we set to work on the visas, we had to arrange for three, Gabon, Congo and Congo (Zaire). Tuesday a quick visit to DHL to collect the springs then by Thursday we could be in Kribi and the beach. Unfortunately the springs had been delayed call again tomorrow at 10:30. Wednesday 10:30 still no springs, but they were in Douala Cameroon, definitely Thursday 10:30. Thursday 10:30 still no springs, could we drive to Douala and collect them. Not wishing to chance Grommet and the bush repair, no we couldn’t and I had paid a considerable amount to have them delivered to Yaounde, definitely Friday 10:30. I eventually took delivery of my springs on Monday, not bad 10 days for a 2 to 3 day express delivery service, I would hate to think how long a normal 5 day DHL service would take!
A quick taxi ride bakc to the guest house and four hours later Grommet had two new rear leaf springs and shock absorbers.
The only trouble is because DHL took so long we had run out of time on our visa and now had to make our way to the border and Gabon.
Still it wasn’t so bad in Yaounde, we got to use the internet and catch up with most of our e-mails, shop, Blanca had a couple of skirts made and a local welder called Pierre did a fantastic job on the wheel carrier and made some new brackets to replace the bent and broken ones from our Ikea storage boxes. Since we were in Yaounde so long our “African family” had been reunited for a while before Didi, Koen and Heidi left to explore more of Cameroon. We hope to all meet up again in Libreville, Gabon before heading for Congo and “The Heart of Darkness!”
Water on the bridge!
Crater Lake Ejagham
Space at last!
Mark and Yves
Oops!! Germans in trouble
Camping on the piste
Very steep climb
Pass the hammer
On the bend
Anyone for tea?
Broken spring repair
At the dentist
Wheel carrier repair
New wall brackets
Umm! Wood blocks
Springs, at last!
The ‘African Family’
Farewell from Yaounde